One night in 1968, James F. Ball, 75, of Brookings, had a vivid dream.
Pastor James Ball – dressed in chiefs robe – returned to Medoma, Ghana, in 2010 to repaint a church he was responsible for building in 1969. Photo courtesy of James Ball
Upon awakening, he knew God wanted him to go to Africa.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself with little money but big hopes sailing aboard a freighter to Ghana along with his wife Patricia and their three little children.
“Diana was 3, James was 5 and Cheryl was 6 1/2. Our youngest, Becky, was born in Ghana,” Ball said.
He said he’d been a pastor of a church in Pennsylvania leading an ordinary life until God called him to be a missionary.
“People told us before we left that Africa is called the white man’s grave, and that it would take three years off our lives for every year we were there,” Ball said.
In 1968, the average Ghanian’s lifespan was 43, he said.
Ball taught Bible classes for two years in a village called Bekwai, in the central Ashanti region of Ghana where a majority of the people are Christians. The northern part of the country is Muslim, he said, but so far, the two religions seem to be getting along.
Despite the rampant diseases, the poisonous snakes, and the deadly parasites infesting the water, no one in the family fell seriously ill, he said.
“The Lord took care of us. The climate was mostly hot and humid, except when the Harmattan wind blew off the Sahara – then it got really cold. The rainy season came in summer and fall,” he said.
The people of Ghana were friendly and charming, and the two years the Balls spent in that country were mostly pleasant and uneventful, Ball said.
But the next two years, in Sierra Leone, were not.
He said Americans know the country mostly for the violence associated with its “blood diamonds” and its brutal wars. Besides the bloodshed, Sierra Leone has more than its share of deadly diseases, parasites and venomous snakes, he said.
“Diana almost died of malaria when she was 5. Cheryl got boils from fly larva burrowing under her skin. Jim almost drowned in the river. Becky, at age 2 and just toddling, came down the front steps when there was a big cobra in the front yard. We had green mambas living in the trees in our backyard.”
The green mamba’s bite is often fatal.
“After I’d been teaching at the school in Sierra Leone for awhile, I realized the students only had one meal a day. Our dog was eating better than them. So, I’d catch fish from the river to give them some protein. The water was full of schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease carried by snails. It can kill you,” Ball said. “And one day when I was fishing, a big cobra came swimming across the surface straight at me.”
He said it made him sad to see the beautiful children in Sierra Leone because he knew so many would die.
“You knew a third of them would never have a chance to grow up,” he said.
“In Sierra Leone, you’re always living in the shadow of death.”
In 1972, the Balls returned to the U.S. They came to Brookings in 1991 where Ball pastored the Seventh-day Adventist Church until 1999. He helped build the new Adventist church on Park Avenue next to Good Samaritan Society-Curry Village.
One of the Balls’ biggest lifetime thrills came last September when they returned to Africa for the first time in nearly 40 years.
They’d raised $1,000 to pay for painting a church they’d built in the Ghanian village of Medoma, and wanted to deliver the money personally, to make sure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
“We didn’t think we’d done anything great when we were there, we hadn’t been there that long and didn’t expect anyone to remember us after all that time,” Ball said.
“But people kept coming up to us and giving us big hugs. They remembered us even though they’d just been young children. They kept coming out of the woodwork to welcome us.”
The Ghanians were so delighted to see the Balls, they made James Ball a chief, and gave him the noble name of Kwame James Oduro II. They wrapped him in a brightly-colored royal chief’s robe worth more than a thousand dollars. They gave him a chief’s stool and pillow to sit on, and a pair of chief’s sandals.
Stunned by the unexpected honor, the Balls asked what they’d done to deserve it.
“They told us they knew we’d always loved them,” Ball said.