In 1999, I had the rare but extraordinary opportunity to visit Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana in West Africa.
The Honorable Wellington E. Webb, then Mayor of Denver and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, led a delegation of U.S. mayors on a mission to West Africa. In Senegal the delegation engaged Senegalese mayors in a discussion about municipal management while sharing ideas about how to solve problems that all mayors face in the U.S. and Africa. In Ghana, the delegation attended the Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan’s 5th African-African American Summit in Accra where Webb led dialogues on African policy and joined 10 African heads of state in the first ever presidential plenary of its kind.
During our stay, we were treated like royalty but also met many of the locals. As an item on our bucket list, I recently revisited the Motherland with my very good friend Marlina who lives in Savannah, Georgia. This is my story of our weeklong venture with some of the natives.
Our journey began with an unexpected send off from Washington D.C. Special thanks to our travel agent who booked us on the first inaugural nonstop flight to Accra, Ghana with South African Airlines. Before boarding, we were entertained by Ghanaians with dancing and drumming as other travelers joined in on the celebration. Even though the fanfare ended with the flight, when we stepped on African soil, we embraced the aroma of the continent and entered our own zealous welcoming.
My African Sons
When I first met them 16 years ago, they were somewhere between 17 and 20 years of age – Richard, Frances, Joseph, and Tony – searching, speculating and studying. I saw two of them on my recent trip but I saw all of them in the eyes and lives of others. Joseph, Richard and my two newfound sons Paschal and Michael escorted me and my friend Marlina, through the streets of Cape Coast, Elmina, Kumasi and Accra over a seven-day trek. We shared food, walked the beach, shopped the markets, toured, went sightseeing and visited the townships.
Joseph, who lives in the states was home visiting and working on Beacon of Hope for African Child – a newly formed NGO (Non-Government Organization) of which I serve on the board. Richard, who has a background in fishing, blessed me with a five-year old granddaughter named Blessing, aka Bee. Paschal is a businessman and Michael is an economics teacher. I was unable to see Tony because he was travelling or Frances, who now lives in France.
For first-timer travelers to certain parts of Africa, the images of poverty from town to town can catch you by surprise and be somewhat overwhelming. It is a way of life – simple and uncomplicated to a degree. The extent of police brutality was stopping and stalling drivers on the road to make a little money if you didn’t have a driver’s license. Fresh fish was bountiful and African wares were endless. Chickens and goats running around could be a pet one day and your meal the next day. Smiles from African children were astonishing. This is the simple way of life.
After 15 years, the Coconut Grove where we stayed in Elmina was much the same. Although there was only one beach vendor, more horses in the stable and probably more crocs in the crocodile pond, it still was like I remembered – beautiful and serene. From the registration desk to the groundskeeper, the staff was meticulous and pleasant. The food which was delectable – fresh and natural and free of pesticides – was always served by a very proficient wait staff.
While taking our first stroll on the beach, we encountered some very young Tonys and Richards who warmly embraced us with smiles and funny gestures as we photographed them approaching us. They were eight to 11 years old and shared their names and ages as we took pictures together.
Memorable Moment: Understanding and revisiting my feelings while watching first timer to Africa Marlina absorb the simple way of life.
Embarking on our first real journey, bright red fabric blowing in the wind caught our eye which compelled us to stop and turn around soon after Paschal had starting driving. We discovered and visited with batik cloth makers. A mother, with twin daughters and two workers were preparing the wet cloth to sell to the market. Unfortunately, we were not able see them on Friday for a demonstration but the beautiful flowing cloth was like a scene out of the movie The Color Purple.
Anyone who visits West Africa must visit the slave castles. There are three in Ghana and we visited two of them. Elmina Castle, the oldest and largest slave castle, was erected by Portuguese in 1482 in Elmina, Ghana. First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic slave trade. Visiting the castles is very difficult and is a reminder of the anguish of our ancestors and the injustice against humanity. You will see peep holes, shackles, and dungeons that held hundreds of men and women where they lived, slept, ate, urinated and defecated. If you listen hard enough, you can hear; if you breathe hard enough, you can smell; if you look hard enough, you can see – sometimes through tears – antiquity.
As luck would have it, we ran into some Americans while having dinner at One Africa. Bert and her husband, who is a former art teacher with relatives in Denver, retired about 20 years ago in Ghana and are living and loving Ghana life. He seemed more like a history buff as he talked about the history of the N- word, Christopher Columbus and Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
Memorable Moment: Meeting a group of female business owners with a true entrepreneurial spirit.
Rising early to go to Kumasi, the Kente cloth capitol, we were amazed at watching the local fisherman throw nets. It was hardly daybreak as boats were at sea, barely visible, while several men were pulling in the net and two swimmers were fighting the waves back to shore. Still not sure of the process but simply watching it was incredible.
The trip to Kumasi was about four hours both ways. And on the way and back, we experienced the extent of the police brutality about 10 times as they would periodically stop cars and glance inside for criminals and then beckon the driver to go. With no comparison to the viciousness of some police in America, I would welcome this abuse for my American sons any day.
We travelled to the Bonwire Kente Weaving Village, located 18 km off the Kumasi Mampong Road. It is a settlement with hundreds of Kente weavers.
Kente, now Ghana’s national cloth is one indigenous handicraft that has won world-wide recognition. There are many types of Kente each with its own symbolism and name; and is used for different purposes and at different functions. It is used not only for its beauty but also for its representational imperative.
Kente is hand-woven on a horizontal treadle loom and strips measuring about 4 inches wide are sewn together into larger pieces of cloths. Cloths come in various colors, sizes and designs and are worn during very important social and religious occasions. In a cultural context, Kente is more important than just a cloth and it is a visual representation of history but also a form of written language through weaving.
I would never encourage anyone to make this trip in a day but I must say it was worth it.
Memorable Moment: Watching Paschal as he diplomatically dealt with the police officers all day.
The last few days were thought-provoking and educational but we could not overlook the deprivation and distress that was in the communities and we felt the need to provide some community service in a small way. Joseph had previously brought crutches from the states in an effort to help some of the people in Elmina. As part of the Beacon of Hope’s mission, a gift of crutches was presented to about 15 disabled men and women, several who were in wheel chairs. They were extremely grateful. Board member, Benedict, spoke on behalf of the organization and translated their gratefulness in English. Paschal politely gave a monetary donation as well.
The morning was bright for many but the afternoon was even brighter as we visited the Detlof Preparatory School housed in several adobe style open brick buildings. We were treated to song and dance from five and six year old boys and girls dressed in purple uniforms. We visited the school again on Monday and presented the students, head master and the proprietor with gifts of books, shoes and toys.
After a short visit to meet family members, we headed to the Cape Coast Slave Castle. Words from the museum display described the legacy of the European trading powers and how contacts with Europe have left an indelible mark on Ghana. Today, the history of the slave trade remains a shadow of this contact that will never be forgotten, and shall never be dismissed. But many positive cultural, social, and political manifestations remain that have been incorporated into the very fabric of Ghana. In addition to new agricultural crops and animals, there was the concern for formal education, literacy and Christian religion as well as a political and judicial system. European missionaries set up a number of schools in the Central region that included the Wesley Girls primary school in 1844 and others.
Once again we visited sacred and irreplaceable space that one can only imagine and once again we walked through another Door Of No Return – only to return.
Memorable Moment: Seeing the joy and faces of gratitude for used crutches, new toys, books and flip flops.
The next day was one of reflections, gratitude and blessings. Of all the thousands of people who crossed our paths, there were two that were full of life and love; one older and the other a young child that left deep-rooted marks on our hearts and minds. We experienced a day in the life of Christy and Blessing.
We first saw Christy walking along the beach with a very large empty metal container balanced on her head. She had a strong and prophetic stride – one that was symbolic of the native women in Ghana. They appear as always on a mission. We asked to take her picture at which time she seemed flattered as we also offered her a Cedi (currency in Ghana) for the opportunity. We saw her later as she was returning to whence she came. Her metal container was full which provided an even more beautiful photo opportunity. After getting to know her, we discovered what she was going to do with the old dried-up coconut tree leaves. We were intrigued and waited with anticipation to watch her develop her craft by creating a large floor mat which could also be used as a room divider. Later, as we walked the community, we saw how they were used as covering for the outside of several homes.
The day was also shared with Blessing – my newly found granddaughter who sadly lost her mother during childbirth. She has alluring eyes, a captivating smile and amazing intelligence. From a country of exotic animals, it was surprising to see her fear of horses when they galloped along the beach. But like most little girls, she enjoyed putting stickers on her body, coloring and painting, putting together a Doc McStuffins puzzle, wearing my sunglasses and sharing my lipstick.
Memorable Moment: Although everyone calls women “mummy,” hearing Blessing call me Mummy was extra special.
Winding down our trip, last minute shopping was imperative. Mark, our personal vendor, had provided us with a lot of our take home memorabilia but heading back to the Elmina Castle provided an opportunity to revisit some of the vendors and take photos of the fishermen headed out to sea. It was close enough to walk so we savored the chance to see the sights and people, up close and personal. While walking, several young children would shout out “Bronyi” when they saw us. After a while, Joseph explained to us that they were calling us “white people” and we should respond by saying, “No, I’m Bibinyi,” which means Black. How ironic, only in Africa, could we be considered white.
As we walked back to the hotel, guided by Richard who took us through the scenic route showing us the real ‘hood,’ we passed the drumming and dance class building. Although our mind was saying “yes” we’d go back later, our body said “no – go to the bar and have a closing trip drink.”
Memorable Moment: Seeing the smile on the gardener’s face that was tending the yard as Marlina gives him a candy bar.
Did I say all the shopping was done? Oops…we still had to check out the Art Market in Accra before heading to Kotoka International Airport to go home. As expected, the vendors can be brutal but with reason. Many may have some of the same inventory and it is plentiful. But if you have the time and the patience, you will surely find that one of a kind gift that you are looking for at a great price. The most fun part was the bargaining which we left up to our overly protective sons.
Ending out the day was filled with sightseeing and touring. We visited the Kwame Kkrumah Memorial Park and saw the Flagstaff House – the presidents “white house” in Ghana.
I don’t know if they thought we were homesick for American food but we were taken to KFC for dinner while our young men went to eat traditional Banku, a Ghanaian dish which is cooked by a proportionate mixture of fermented corn and cassava dough in hot water into a smooth, whitish consistent paste. It is served with soup, stew or a pepper sauce with fish.
Before boarding the plane for home, we spent our last moments at the airport with Joseph, Richard, Paschal and Michael before heading back to the U.S.A.
Memorable Moment: Watching the smile on Marlina’s face as Joseph and Paschal tied her shoes so she would not trip and fall when we headed to the Art Market.
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean with Ghana behind us, I thought about what has changed since my first visit in 1999 and I felt in my heart “not much,” at least not on the level from where and what I was seeing. Several areas of the city’s infrastructure are still deplorable. A lot of the common folk need assistance with basic needs. Health issues seem to run rampant and the schools are in desperate need of supplies.
It made me realize there are the haves and the have nots and I am so proud and applaud my sons Joseph and Paschal for developing Beacon of Hope for the African Child with a goal and mission to assist and educate the have nots.
To all African Americans, you owe it to yourself to visit the Motherland – at least once in your lifetime.
About BOHFAC: Beacon of Hope for African Child is a newly developed NGO based in Ghana. The mission is to promote and provide opportunities for social and economic development in the areas of education, health, water and skilled acquisition. Programs will include educational tours to Ghana and the U.S. and community service projects for the betterment of Ghana residents.
Editor’s note: If you have an interest in helping the people of Ghana or more information about the Beacon of Hope for African Child, contact Bee Harris at 303-292-6446 or email Publisher@urbanspectrum.net.