Brunswick, Ga. – When Luisa Lopes returned to the College of Coastal Georgia late last month to begin fall classes, many of her teammates on the Mariners women's tennis team and others around campus greeted her with one of the following familiar questions.
How was your summer? Or, what did you do this summer?
Well, her response probably wasn't what they really expected to hear.
Lopes didn't have what you might consider a normal summer for the average college student. She didn't take summer classes. She didn't go home to hang with friends, sleep late or work a summer job to earn some extra spending money.
She did go home to Brazil, but she also traveled with her parents to Portugal and Morocco and spent 21 days in Equatorial Guinea in Middle Africa where her father is currently working as a human resources director for Brazilian civil construction company A.R.G. which specializes in building roads, ports and other heavy construction in Brazil and other countries.
The simplistic and primitive way of life she encountered in the local African villages made it an eye-opening experience.
"It was my first time and I didn't know what to expect," Lopes said. "My my told me a couple of things and said I would be shocked, but I didn't realize it was like it was. It made me realize how good I really have it."
Her father has been in Africa for almost three years. Her mother joined him there after the first year and has been there almost two years now. The company Lopes' father works for is building highways in the African country, but while it is there to improve the infrastructure, it also is interested in the well-being of the local people.
That's where Lopes' mom enters the picture. A former educator, she is heavily involved in social work and spends most of her time visiting the tribal villages and doing what she can to help improve the quality of life for the people there.
"One of the things she does is teaches them how to cook," Lopes explained. "They have a lot of corn there, and don't really know what to do with it. She shows them how to make cakes, candy and other foods with the corn."
Lopes tagged along with her mother most of her time there. One day, while a dentist came with them to check up on the village children, she spent time teaching the kids about personal hygiene.
"I showed them how to brush their teeth and things like that," Lopes said.
But mostly, though, she spent time playing with the kids and keeping them entertained while her mom tended to other matters with the adults.
She visited with kids from ages 2 to 16. It was hard for her to communicate with them as they speak Spanish, but since Lopes knows how to speak Portuguese in addition to English, she was able to somewhat verbally communicate with the children because some of the words in the Portuguese and Spanish languages are similar. She could understand some of what they were saying and they could make out part of what she said to them.
Mainly, though, the children just enjoyed her company and the affection she showed toward them. They especially liked the candy she gave them, too.
"They just want your attention," Lopes said. "They just want to be around you all the time. And, they want everything you have – your earrings, your braclets, your necklaces. The girls also loved my nail polish and my long hair."
Lopes had to be careful about what she gave away, but she did donate some of her clothes before she left.
Her father's company also teaches the people how to grow their own food and store it properly so that it will be safe to eat. The company also raises rabbits and gives them to each of the villages to cook as meat to eat.
Lopes didn't partake, but even she thought it beat the alternative.
"They eat whatever they have, monkeys, snakes, rats," she said.
Her father's company also supplies jobs to the locals helping build the highways, and with the money the workers earn, many of them spend it on goods at a market which is always set up on payday.
Lopes said she would like to return before her father's services are done in Africa – which could be sometime next year. She said the experience made her want to help others more in the future.
"I would like to do more social work," she said. "I would like to go back to Africa or even other countries. I could even do things back home in Brazil. There are things I can do there as well."