Accra, Ghana—Recently, a delegation of African-American journalists was invited to tour Ghana by the Consulate General of Israel in New York City. Ostensibly, their mission was to explore various development projects between Israel and Ghana, but it was also an opportunity for some of the journalists to discover their ancestral roots.
Interwoven in the visits to a number of sites where Israeli-Ghanaian cooperation is of enormous productivity, the journalists had an emotional introduction to the slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Mark Tetteh, a tour guide at the Castle, led them through the dungeons, where the captives were held until loaded on the slave ships. “They were often shackled in these fetid, cramped quarters, as they were in the holds of the ships,” Tetteh explained.
Near the end of his lecture, the journalists were led to the “Door of No Return,” and unlike the millions of captives, they were allowed to step back through that door where the African past and the African-American presence converged.
That convergence continued when the journalists, still feeling the terror embedded in the walls, left the castle and arrived in Winneba, located approximately half way between Cape Coast and Accra, the nation’s capital. At Winneba, they met with the staff of volunteers from Israel, led by Ori Schnitzer. The volunteers were involved in teaching the children—a dozen or so—the rudiments of language. “For four days a week we work with about 40 some students on various subjects,” Schnitzer said. The volunteers, on average, serve three months in Project Ten, as the program is called.
From the school house, the journalists walked a few yards to where a patch of land is under development as a garden, where sprouts of various vegetables are emerging. “I have only been here two months,” said Michael, one of five currently active volunteers at the site. “But as you can see, we are at the early stages of development.” He was joined by a young local Ghanaian who was excited about learning the intricacies of farming. “We have much to do, but I am glad to have this opportunity to help my community,” he said. The seeds have been planted, and in a few weeks they will have a fresh harvest of basil, peppers and tomatoes.
On the following morning of their four-day itinerary, the journalists—Stephanie McNeal and Bobbi Booker, both out of Philadelphia; Brandon Gates and Chad Ubiwa, of New York City; and Maudlyne Ihejirika of Chicago; and this reporter—were flown to Kumasi, a 35-minute flight from Accra. Much like the children at Winneba, the young kindergarten students at one of the projects sponsored by MASHAV, a Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, were full of energy and desire to learn. Victoria Erskine, the school’s principal, led the journalists to each classroom where students were actively engaged in learning their body parts, both in Asante and English, the history of light and washing dolls with lessons in cleanliness and child care.
“They are chanting a nursery rhyme I learned as a child,” said Nicholas Asante, our overall tour guide. For a moment he chanted along with them.
During the stop at Suntreso Hospital, Drs. Nana Adu Akumia, a dermatologist and the hospital’s medical superintendent, and Ashura Bakari, a general practitioner, discussed the success they have had lowering infant mortality. “We have brought it down to 22 [per 1000 live births],” said Bakari. That is from a rate that in recent years hovered around 40 deaths per 1000 infants. Later, when asked the age range for a child considered an infant, Akumia said 1 year, although in some countries the range is between 3 and 5 years of age. Whatever the number, Ghana, at least in the Suntreso district, is demonstrating methods of reducing infant mortality.
At the end of a long and twisting road is the Darko Farms, a thriving industry and the largest poultry company in Ghana. At the farms, established in 1967 by Kwabena Darko, they have the capacity to produce approximately 5 million day-old chicks and tons of animal feed in a year. There is also a sizable production of eggs, feathers and other related poultry products. “We process more than 2,000 chickens a day,” said Samuel Darko, the son of the founder and the company’s managing director. Despite its successes, the company still faces a number of challenges. “Mainly in the mounting interest rate and foreign exchange,” Darko said, “and you need money to operate.”
Once back in Accra, the group was driven to the University of Ghana at Legon, where 53 years ago Malcolm X lectured. When he was there, the land on which the new medical center sits was nothing more than a vast swath of trees and underbrush.
“No, Malcolm would not recognize what has been done here over the last three years,’ said Professor Aaron Lante Lawson, the interim CEO of the complex, dressed in a dashiki emblazoned with the University of Leicester of Scotland, which he attended. “We are set to open it in three months, and it will be one of the largest such facilities in Africa.”
A tour of the complex, which includes a medical simulation building and state of the art technology, is breathtaking. “I guess if I had to get sick, this is the place I would want to go,” quipped one of the journalist. When completed the hospital’s architectural splendor will match the Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel, where the journalists were staying.
In the extensive fishing district of Chokor is the Brothers and Sisters in Christ Serving school, locally known as BASICS, under the leadership of Patricia Wilkins. The facility has been adopted by the Israeli Embassy and the young charges there were eager to show exactly how they have benefited from that dedication. In several presentations, including an ensemble of flute players, the students displayed the impact of the school on their cultural and educational progress. “These are just a few of the products the sewing class has created,” Wilkins said, pointing to a table overflowing with student-made pillow cases, table cloths and T-shirts.
“We are very proud of what you are accomplishing here,” Ambassador Ami Mehl told Wilkins and the students, clutching his bag of gifts.
That evening, the journalists participated in a Holocaust event at the British Council. Among the keynote speakers and panelists was Ambassador Mehl of the Embassy of Israel to Ghana and Liberia. Some of his remarks the journalists had heard while visiting the home he shares with his wife, Yael, whose article in one of the dailies elaborated on the Holocaust event, particularly the courageous action of Jan Karski. Karski risked his life by slipping into Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto to witness the atrocities against Jews.
Several of the journalists joined Asante the guide and Shimon Mercer-Wood, representative and consul for media at the Consulate General of Israel in New York City and the key coordinator of the tour, for an appearance on a local television show. Mercer-Wood put the trip into context, cited the confluence of Israel, Ghana and the visiting African-American journalists. That triumvirate was also given historical ballast when one of the journalist pointed out the early years of the Israel-Ghana connection. Bobbie Booker told the show’s moderator that this was her first time in Africa but added, “It won’t be my last.”
As the tour wound down, there was still a coterie of church leaders to meet as well as opportunities for the journalists to have some down time to explore the city and make some purchases. One chose to take a walk through Efua Sutherland Park, where a train that no longer chugs around the park used to pass a Ferris wheel that is now rusting away. He also took some time to browse the George Padmore Library, which could use a few newer books. Maybe the country’s new leader will set aside funds to restore the park and bolster the library.
Fortunately, conditions are much better at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, named for the beloved scholar who was brought to Ghana by Kwame Nkrumah, the nation’s first president. And Du Bois’ home, which he shared with his wife, Shirley, is well kept right down to the room where his cherished office remains ready for him to continue work on the unfinished “Encyclopedia Africana.” As the journalists knew so well, Du Bois died on the eve of the historic March on Washington in 1963. He was 95.
Du Bois’s legacy, the entrepreneurial spirit and success of the Darko Farms, the magnificent new hospital on the campus of the University of Ghana and the flourishing relations this African nation has with Israel are at the core of an ensemble of cherished memories the journalists discussed as they embarked for home. “But don’t forget the children,” Booker said. That’s impossible because it was their joy and exuberance, their eager rush to their lessons, their quest for knowledge that was uplifting and promising both for the visitors and for Ghana’s future.