One of my favorite dialogues in the film “Undefeated” takes place between Coach Bill Courtney and one of his players about what it means to be a Turkey Person. To summarize, a Turkey Person is someone who shows up once a year, typically at Thanksgiving, to deliver turkeys to those living in the poor neighborhoods and isn’t seen again until the following year when it’s turkey time again. The Turkey Person doesn’t stick around and doesn’t ask too many questions about what exactly those living in these neighborhoods might truly need- other than a once-a-year turkey. Ralph and Twyla Williams are the antithesis of the Turkey Person.
After having called Memphis home for the past 25 years, Ralph and Twyla left on October 4 to build a new home in Tanzania. Their decision came as a direct result of asking the Monduli District commissioner a question several years ago while on a three week trip to the East African country: “What are your two greatest needs?” His response was that he needed to provide clean water to every household and eradicate the high ratio of illiterate adults. These two problems, he shared with Ralph and Twyla, impacted every other area of daily life and progress. Their district was being overlooked for new factory development because the adults could learn only through word-of-mouth. Entire families were suffering because they did not have adequate clean water with which to cook food, take care of sanitary needs or, most importantly, drink. The couple, now in their fortieth year of marriage, immediately decided that they wanted to be a part of having these needs met.
A second trip to Monduli soon followed and this time lasted for three months. Ralph’s heart was pulling him towards a literacy program because he grew up watching his father teach young, illiterate men how to read. It was his way of giving back: “He was literate in Greek, but functionally literate in English, even in college. Mum was reading textbooks aloud to him (until) the college librarian offered to teach him (how) to read.” But this wasn’t about Ralph and though his heart was going in one direction, when they pressed the village leaders it was the need for clean water that took priority. He and Twyla delayed their plans for the literacy program and instead began focusing on the creation of a rain water collection system for the village residents. “Can you build one for the school?” Ralph was asked. “Sure,” he replied although he didn’t know how to, yet.
Ralph retired from FedEx in 2014. He shares that he “fit well” into the company’s multicultural setting and being employed there turned out to be one of the greatest opportunities for him. Considered a Third Culture Kid, someone who has grown up in a culture different from his parents’ and identifies with this other culture more than any other, Ralph’s adulthood has borrowed much from his childhood growing up as a White Canadian on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada. He doesn’t use a clock or a calendar and has to remind himself to look people in the eye, something that he was taught not to do growing up Cree. He says he “got comfortable not being comfortable” and being employed at FedEx, in that multicultural setting, was one of his biggest blessings. On December 15, 2014, he was thrown a big retirement party. The next day he and Twyla loaded up their truck en route to Texas A&M University, to learn about making rain water collection systems. They spent their Christmas that year taking an intensive course through ARCSA (American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association), acquiring knowledge that would equip them to help the residents of Monduli with what they needed most.
And so, on October 4 Ralph and Twyla boarded a plane for Tanzania, where they will live for the next eighteen months. They will teach those with whom they live how to build the rain water collection systems through careful construction and precise calculations. They will spend the next eighteen months learning Swahili and Maasai. “We don’t expect to try to teach people to read (instructions) in their own language when we can’t speak their language,” Ralph explains. Twyla agrees and adds, “We don’t want to create something that someone else has to maintain. We would really like to create something that belongs to the Tanzanians. If when we leave there are 50 Tanzanians who are doing something on their own they weren’t doing before, that’s a success.” I told you they weren’t Turkey People.
We will be keeping up with Ralph and Twyla while they share their hearts and knowledge with the people of Monduli and will give you updates as efforts to provide clean water for ALL of the residents moves forward. You can also follow this incredible undertaking at www.ralphwwilliams.com.
Learn more about their trip in this "The Best Times" interview that appeared on the Memphis PBS affiliate, WKNO.