Rovaughna Richardson left her McCrorey Heights home more than 20 years ago to embark on her first-ever experience doing short-term missionary work in Jamaica.
Through her church, Friendship Missionary Baptist, she completed several more, then saved enough money for a six-month mission to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, in 2012.
Bitten by a bug to serve abroad, she then set out to make missionary work her career.
A child/family therapist and social worker by trade, Richardson was endorsed by American Baptist International Ministries in 2016. That year she also began a long-term missionary journey in Ghana, working with young women who are victims of trokosi — a form of modern-day slavery.
During a short-term visit back to the United States, she spoke with QCity Metro about her work as a “global servant,” the horrors of trokosi, and the challenges of being a Black American in a field where Black missionaries are are rare.
Q. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get started in missionary work?
Rovaughna Richardson: So becoming a missionary was not something that came overnight. I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in ‘97 and became a member of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in ‘99. I really believe that is when the seeds that were already inside me just began to get watered. I had three different opportunities to do short-term missions at St. Ann’s Bay and St. Mary’s Parish (Jamaica) through Friendship. And then after that, I was feeling like, okay, I’m really enjoying this. I’m really enjoying, you know, giving back and having my hands close to young people; this is definitely what I want to do.
Friendship has for a long time done short-term missions that are similar to vacation bible school. However, I am their first in 133 years, long-term missionary. I was told by Rev. Dr. Clifford A. Jones Sr. and a couple of members of the church that they remember over 30 years ago when the pastor said he was really hoping and looking forward to the time that the church actually had a full-time missionary who served overseas. And so with that, I feel privileged and honored and was quite surprised that it was me.
Q. What was it that you experienced doing missionary work that really spoke to you and inspired you to take on the role full time?
RR: It wasn’t something like I heard a voice from on high — “Rovaughna, you are to become a missionary” — it was something that evolved as I was there. I was volunteering and I was doing counseling and I was doing social work for a Christian-based organization and felt like…I couldn’t think of a better thing that I would want to do which would be to serve my God, do my tradecraft, which I enjoy, and travel, which I absolutely love. So it was like the trifecta. In 2013, when I went to American Baptists retreat, by the encouragement of Friendship, I was like, oh my goodness; you can actually do social work missions as a career? I felt completely overwhelmed when I learned that I can take my tradecraft as a social worker and do it as a full-time profession.
I then became endorsed by the American Baptist International Ministries in 2013. In 2015, I began fundraising. I’m 100 percent fundraised by my family, friends and various churches across the country. And then I left for Ghana in October 2016 to do social work missions with a specialized population on the ground there, which I’m continuing to do today.
Q. You’re now back stateside. How long between your stays in Ghana and returning to the U.S.?
RR: So for me, I try not to come stateside due to culture shock. When I’m in Ghana, I like to stay in Ghana. In 2017, I came back once for a presentation I had to do and for a conference, and I was here only a short time, but when I went back it just felt off. I felt imbalanced. And then in 2019, I had to come home for a medical clearance. I felt overwhelmed. I could not go into Walmart. I was lost in Charlotte. I couldn’t really get from the Reedy Creek area to uptown. I couldn’t really navigate. Everything just looked different, and the cars seemed overwhelming. In Ghana you don’t have that. So, for me, I actually don’t go in and out. I like staying, and it helps me be more connected with the people. So this time I’ll be here for five months, work-related. I’m finishing out the current contract that I have with the organization that I’m with, and then I’ll be returning in January under my own non-profit.
Q. Returning under your own nonprofit organization; what will that look like?
RR: That’s a good question. You know, in this process, the fortunate thing is that I’ve had my share of fundraising, and I’ve been able to do fundraisers for five years. So what that will look like when I return will be continuing to focus on the population that I’m currently working with, which is a pretty specialized population — girls who are victims of ritual servitude. It’s a practice called trokosi. Ghana outlawed it in ‘98, but it is still quite prevalent in Togo, Benin and Ghana.
Q. Can you explain what exactly trokosi is?
RR: If a family member does something wrong, or if there is a lot of debt in the family, or the shrine priest feels like there is a curse on the family or the Gods are offended, then the way to resolve it is to turn over a virgin girl to the shrine. I’ve been a counselor for quite some time, and I’m going to tell you, I’ve heard stories and seen things that I actually was taken aback by. These girls have survived so many atrocities. Forced pregnancies, molested, raped, impregnated by the time they are 12 or 13 years-old. It’s a traditional practice. However, it’s gone awry. I think some of the intentions of the practice is really to honor the girls and to honor the Gods, but it has turned into nothing less than modern-day slavery. The girls are not allowed to speak, eat, sleep, or even dress. Many of them are not allowed clothes. They are wrapped in a sheet, and they serve whatever the need is of that shrine…and the needs of the men that may be there.
Unfortunately, if a girl dies or runs away, the family is obligated to replace her with another girl. It just keeps going. In the five years that I’ve been there, I’ve counseled probably between 80 and 100 girls that are from the shrine, and some of them were turned over as young as nine months-old. Some are born into the shrine and not allowed to see their families. The American Baptist Ministry will and has negotiated with the shrine priest to have some of the girls released.
Q. How do you come in contact with these girls to counsel them?
RR: I’ve been counseling girls that have either escaped or been rescued through our partner, Ghana Baptist Convention. Now when I return in January, my desire is to do more advocacy on the rights of these girls, because it’s a lot of shame that they carry, even when they come out of the shrine. They’re placed in a vocational school for three years and get a skill set, and once they leave, they often don’t go back to their hometown because of shame. Or they don’t want to make it public that they were a trokosi, and so my desire is to do more advocacy so that if they’re not ready to tell their story, then they shouldn’t be asked to tell their story by anyone. And if they do, a professional counselor should be present. I’m also looking at, since this was outlawed in ‘98, what can social workers do to take this law on the books and make it more alive? Because, if it’s outlawed, why am I still counseling girls? Why are girls still being rescued? Why is the U.S. embassy coming to speak with me, because there is no one else doing this work as a counselor and they’re having a hard time getting correct numbers because people don’t want to talk about it?
Q. How has trokosi impacted these girls as they try to rebuild their lives? What are some of the issues that may linger?
RR: Particularly for girls that are former trokosi, it’s trust and abandonment issues. Some of the girls I have worked with since 2016, I’m still connected with them now. They’re still involved in life skills classes and support groups. One girl just now shared her story not only with me but two other adults in an open meeting. It’s a lot for them to gain trust. A lot of them feel like you’re a flash in the pan and are going to abandon them. Most of the girls I’ve counseled had no idea why they would be turned over to the shrine. None. Some of them thought they were going to visit an uncle. Some of them thought they were going to visit another family member. They were never told what occurred in the family that they had to be given up. It’s a wrongdoing that somebody else did, that you’re paying for. How do you trust people? I didn’t do anything, but here I am being beaten or starved or not allowed to go to school.
I feel very protective of these young ladies, because they have gone through so much and they have such resiliency. At the same time, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing all we can to protect them. It’s my desire to open doors or help to create business opportunities for them, and be available when they need to talk. The guest bedroom in my apartment has turned into this girl staying the night, that girl staying the night. Over the years, I like to believe that they know that Ms. Rovaughana has their back.
Q. What does success look like in terms of the work that you do?
RR: Particularly here within the past year, the light has really begun to shine. For example, “Heaven” was born into the shrine. Not only was she born into the shrine, but she ran away from the shrine when she was actually supposed to be working in the field. After she ran away, she kept a low profile in the village and was even hidden by a family when she learned about the Baptist Vocational Training Center. She was there for three years and learned the tradecraft of catering and now since graduating, she is a recipient of a full scholarship to become a computer coder and programmer through an organization in Ghana. So she received six weeks training. Then from there, I was able to connect her with the Institute of ICT Professionals of Ghana. I was able to tell them not just about Heaven’s success story, but about seven other girls that had graduated from the vocational programming school. They applied and all eight of them got a full scholarship for coding and programming.
It doesn’t get any better, you know, to have eight girls and three or four of them were former Trokosi going from modern day slavery to now being trained as a coder. And, to think just some years ago, you were running for your life. It’s those kind of stories that make it worth it. I think that’s really what providing missions is about — helping someone not only learn they’re not a slave, they’re more than a farmhand, fisherman help or being used as a sex slave, that they are actually someone special. They’re actually a child of God, and that they deserve to really reach their full potential — their God-given potential.
Q. What’s been the biggest obstacle or challenge you faced doing this work?
RR: Faith has been a challenge, which may be kind of odd. But being there by myself with my dog and not knowing anyone, that faith really gets challenged. I am in a foreign country, and I am sweating all the time. Then the practice of trokosi is through the Ewe people. The Ewe people are known for their spiritual gifts. Stateside we will call it voodoo and juju. And so I’m pretty sure that I had some spiritual power coming up against me because of the work I was doing. I’m living in the village with Ewe people. No, I’ve never felt anything ,you know, directly to me, other than love. Yet, I know that there were some energies that didn’t like the fact that I was telling these girls, look, you should have a voice, you should be empowered. You know, you are a special gift, and you can do what you want to do.
I even had some health challenges, which is one of the reasons why I came back in 2019. I had to be medically cleared after going through exploratory surgery there for parasites in my bladder, but it was a year before discovering what it was. I kept being sick, and all my friends were like, you hike, you run, you swim, you’re the healthiest person I know, but I just kept getting sick. I think that was an energy coming up against me. One of my biggest challenges was spiritual attacks. Fortunately, I had plenty of people praying for me, and I absolutely believe that’s why I’m still standing.
Q. As a Black American missionary, are there misunderstandings and misconceptions about who you are and the work you do?
RR: There’s misconceptions on both sides, meaning Ghanians as well as Americans. I’m the same person that I was stateside before accepting the call. I do my best to walk in the steps of integrity and in light. I think with the Ghanian people, since Ghana was colonized by the British, there is the thought that if you are a missionary, one, you’re supposed to be white. Two, they were taught that white was better, unfortunately, through that colonization. And three, that if you’re white, you’re closer to God and that you have money.
Here you come, a single, African American female diasporan, and they don’t really know what to do with you. There’s all these different things that are mixed in that are a constant education with the Ghanian people. Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean that I have to take a back seat to somebody else because they’re European. That experience and being on the ground really ends up enlightening, not just the girls I’m with, but the community as well.