Ghana reaches out to Chicago HeightsBy Lolly Bowean
Tribune staff reporter
February 22, 2006
As Ghanaian district leader Emmanuel Ntow Bediako looked over the crowd of African-Americans in a Chicago Heights church to launch a sister city agreement, many of the faces resembled those he sees in his country an ocean away, he said.
Bediako and four other officials were making their first visit to the United States and the Chicago region. The trip came only weeks after leaders in his country launched an aggressive campaign to reach out to descendants of slaves, pushing them to claim Ghana as their native land and to return there.
It's not the first time Ghana has encouraged blacks to return as tourists, students, investors and residents. This time, the movement is more economic than political, with leaders seeking support for a continent where American dollars can go a long way.
"It is our aim to connect with our brothers and sisters here," said Bediako last week as he toured schools, a hospital, government offices and churches. "We share so much. Our culture, our stories, our faces are alike. We want to link up. When I look at you, I can see you are from Africa."
Bediako is the equivalent of a mayor in the Asuogyaman district in the eastern region of Ghana, viewed as one of the few West African countries having a stable economy and government. But it is still poor by Western standards--many people live on less than a dollar a day.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it became a destination for blacks fleeing American racism and those who felt disenfranchised by the U.S. government. In 1957, Ghana won its independence from Britain, and the first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, promoted the idea of a political refuge.
Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois called the country home while there was a fierce struggle for civil rights in America.
`We want them to come home'
Today, leaders such as Bediako believe educated or financially stable blacks could help Ghana grow.
"Africa might be a great continent if all the able-bodied, intelligent, hard-working, talented African-Americans weren't exported," he said. "We want them to come home and build their native country. This is not their place. They are here by an accident of history."
In December, the head of Ghana's tourism department launched The Joseph Project aimed at descendents of slaves. The country plans to create a monument celebrating the lives of prominent African-Americans such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King Jr.
They also are creating a special visa to allow those in the African diaspora free entry into the country, wrote Minister of Tourism J.O. Obetsebi-Lamptey in his description of the project.
Building relationships with African-Americans makes sense, and so does visiting a suburban city where blacks longing for a connection could be easily convinced that their money and skills could take them further abroad, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an assistant political science professor at the University of Chicago.
"The interests on the part of western African nations to invigorate an interest amongst African-Americans is strategic," she said. "For me, it's a little false. It's trying to recapture something. Although it may be true in a historical sense that these are your people, they really are not."
After all, slaves came from several countries on the western coast of Africa, Harris-Lacewell said, and although many blacks still feel alienated in America, they learn a different lesson when they travel abroad.
"So many black Americans who went to Ghana in the '60s developed an appreciation for their culture and history and gained a consciousness," she said. "But they still didn't feel it was their own country. Ultimately people find themselves very [much] more American than they thought they were."
The delegation's visit to Chicago Heights came in response to an invitation from Ald. Kevin Perkins, who wanted to establish a sister city relationship in an African country.
Chicago Heights had such connections with cities in Italy, Mexico and Poland, but there was no link for its black residents, he said. Because Ghana is an English-speaking country with a link to slavery, Perkins felt it was an appropriate selection. Chicago also has a sister-city relationship in Ghana.
Last year, Perkins traveled to the Asuogyaman district and while in Ghana viewed the castles where slaves were traded and sold. He was amazed by the experience.
"A man there looked at my facial features and said, `Surely you come from Ghana'" Perkins said, beaming with pride. "I'm getting to understand myself better."
A poignant journey
The trip became especially emotional when Perkins saw a man who resembled his father, he said. Perkins felt like he was at home, among family.
"I'm not a historian, but I don't think I would need qualifications to know my roots are in Africa," he said. "If Ghana is the place where I want to begin looking for ancestral ties, I'm well on my way."
At the church ceremony, Chicago Heights officials presented the Ghanaian delegation with dinner and an hour of gospel music. There was a hint of African flavor because of the music, Bediako said.
"I almost wept," he said. "We know how to sing to console ourselves. We know how to sing when we are happy. We know how to sing to encourage each other.
"The people of Ghana are proud of you and we love you," he said, drawing a standing ovation.
Because it was the first time many in the audience were ever extended an invitation to Africa, those who were asked about it didn't know if they would respond to Bediako's plea.
To Eric Miller, it appeared to be a sincere appeal.
"I am touched," he said. "It sounded like they are trying to ask for our help, and there's nothing wrong with that."
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune