When the unexpected changes everything

BIANCA Collier held the dead baby girl tight as she took a taxi to look for a morgue. The little body in her arms was getting colder and harder by the minute. She had been told the taxi driver would charge an exorbitant fare if he knew the child was dead, so she cradled it, trying to pretend it was sleeping.

Four hospitals in a row told her their morgue was full. One doctor said the little girl would not have died had she been given the right medication to treat the HIV raging inside her body. After hours of driving Bianca finally found a morgue to lay the child to rest. 

Bianca was 23 and volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana, west Africa.

This was one of the many unforgettable experiences that would shake up her priorities and steer her life in a new direction.

The young woman originally from Bendigo had travelled to Ghana from London, where she had a corporate job in human resource management.

It was her first time in a developing country and she was looking after sick babies – something she had never done before.

She formed a special bond with one baby in particular. At nine months of age, Abigail’s parents had died and her extended family were unable to look after her. 

With no mother, she had not been breastfed and her family had no money for baby formula so Abigail was malnourished and her immune system was poor.

Bianca’s volunteer role was only for three months and she fully intended to return to corporate London.

But her time in Ghana changed everything.

“I was really wanting to fight that cliché of going to Africa and changing my life and I said before I left Ghana, this is going to be a chapter of my life, I’m not going to do that cliché thing,” Bianca said.

“But then I’ve done that cliché thing, haven’t I?”

The “thing” Bianca refers to is her sudden rejection of the corporate career to devote her life towards improving the lives of some of the world’s most disadvantaged children.

“There was no other alternative, it didn’t feel like a choice. It just felt like, now this has come into my life and has shaped me and there’s no denying it and so there’s no turning my back on it. It really didn’t feel like a choice at all.”

Bianca returned to Australia and began re-structuring her career. She studied development at RMIT University and started building up experience working with children at the Starlight Foundation in Melbourne.

The new career took a serious step forward when Bianca got a job with Medicins Sans Frontieres in Sudan. 

She worked in a war zone assisting with the transfer of patients between government and rebel-controlled areas. It was difficult moving patients on the existing route so the organisation tested a different road.

“The head of Dafur from Medicins Sans Frontieres tested this road to see if it was safe for the transfer of patients and she actually got stopped, threatened to death and raped on the side of the road,” Bianca said.

Bianca and other workers were brought out of the area as the conflict escalated.

Bianca returned to Australia, this time to the Northern Territory where she worked with indigenous children. She then worked briefly in Melbourne before finally returning to Ghana.

It had been four years since she was last in Ghana, but Abigail was still there. The organisation was no longer an orphanage but had re-directed its efforts into placing children with relatives or foster carers.

Reviving the bond she had with Abigail, now 4, Bianca decided she would adopt her.

“I was pretty naive. I was being told that I was naive when I was making the decision.”

Aged 28 and single, parenthood was a sharp learning curve.

“I didn’t think about the difficulties of being a single mother.

“It’s definitely much harder than I thought. Certainly having an older child, you’re not able to shape those early experiences.

 “I did realise why it takes two people to make a child. Having somebody else who is as invested in the child to work with, I can definitely see the benefits of it.”

Now 34, Bianca said having a partner was not something she pined for but could see why it was practical.

“I’m not going to find a Bendigo boy, which is what Mum and Dad would love. When you’re involved with this work, you see there’s a whole other world that exists.”

After Bianca completed documentation to adopt Abigail in Ghana, she returned to Australia for 10 months to arrange documentation to bring her home.

“It was quite a lot of work. You know, immigration to Australia is not easy.”

Bianca needed letters of support from friends and family to prove her relationship to Abigail.

It took nearly a year, but at the end of 2009, Abigail joined Bianca in Australia. Having family was a welcome development in Abigail’s life and she embraced Bianca’s parents, siblings and their families. Australia is now a strong part of her identity.

After four years in Australia, Bianca returned to Ghana with Abigail to take up the role of chief executive of O Africa, the organisation she had first worked for nearly a decade earlier.

Mother and daughter have been on holiday recently, visiting Bianca’s parents, Chris and Peter Collier, in Junortoun.

Mr and Mrs Collier have had their fair share of anxiety about their daughter as her career has taken her well away from the life they know. 

While her physical safety is better in Ghana than Sudan, the threat of sickness has been a cause of great anxiety.

Bianca has had malaria 12 times.

In 2008, shortly before Bianca adopted Abigail, she was contracting malaria almost monthly.

Mr and Mrs Collier decided it was time to go and see their daughter in Ghana.

On that trip Bianca told her parents of her intention to adopt Abigail. Mrs Collier said she told her it wouldn’t be easy. But there was no stopping her and Abigail is now a vital member of the family.

“Everyone has embraced Abigail. The cousins miss her terribly,” Mrs Collier said. She said their trip to Ghana was “very eye-opening”. 

“We’ve learned a lot from Bianca. We’ve learned to be non-judgmental of the struggles that people in other countries have."

Bianca knows her choices have been difficult for her parents to understand but said they had been “open-minded”.

“It’s her life, it’s what she wants,” Mrs Collier said.

“We’re extremely proud of her and we think she’s amazing.”

Back home in Australia for a few weeks, Bianca said her friends had noticed she’d aged since taking the CEO role in Ghana. “I reckon I’ve gotten a thousand more grey hairs this trip,” Bianca said.

An average day at the office could be anything from the monotony of accounting to prosecuting a man for raping a child, to personally taking an HIV-positive boy to hospital.

What keeps her going?

“You see enough positivity, you see the impact the organisation is making on the lives of kids, so that gets you through the tough work.”

O Africa provides financial and educational support to disadvantaged families and children. It has an 18+ program to help young adults reach independence through support in education and business. 

O Africa also works with the Ghanaian government to combat child trafficking and corruption within orphanages. It has also started a primary school and medical clinic.   

To learn about O Africa or to donate, go to www.oafrica.org.

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