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13.03.2002 General News

10,000 Ghanaians call Central Mass. home

By Mark Melady Telegram & Gazette Staff
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WORCESTER-- Most late afternoons the friends of Maxwell Agyemfra drop into his Sweet Farms Mini Market in Main South, where watches and upscale flip-flops compete with potato chips for customer attention, and the conversation eventually turns to the nation of Ghana.

“We have to look in on Maxwell,” said George Asiamah, who knew Mr. Agyemfra when they were growing up in the eastern region of Ghana. “Sometimes we help him out.”

Stephen Safo-Sampah laughed. “Most of the time we just watch him,” he said.

The men, who came to Worcester in the mid-1970s, are among the first wave of immigrants from Ghana to arrive here, forming a community that has grown to about 10,000 in Central Massachusetts and upward of 3,000 in greater Worcester. This region contains one of the greatest concentrations of Ghanaians in the country.

“It's still growing,” Mr. Agyemfra said. “New people are coming all the time. It's so big now that I am meeting countrymen for the first time. Every day I see new faces.”

The first arrivals, now in their 50s, have the easy-going camaraderie of longtime friends. They left the West African country as men in their early 20s, escaping a repressive military dictatorship.

It amazes them that they have spent more years in America than in Ghana. Their children, in high school or college or on their own, have grown up as Americans, with all the attendant rights, privileges and occasional attitudes.

“Children in Ghana are raised much more strict,” Mr. Agyemfra said.

The three men counted eight churches in the area that have predominantly Ghanaian congregations, including Presbyterian, Methodist, Assembly of God and several Pentecostal congregations.

Ghanaians own businesses, have medical practices, teach in the city's public schools, sell mortgages, work for computer companies, have their own music show on WCUW-FM -- a sure sign that an ethnic group has hit the city's radar screen -- and have provided Worcester's only active player in the National Football League, Jerry Azumah, a Chicago Bears defensive back. Mr. Azumah starred as a running back at St. Peter-Marian High School in Worcester.

Mr. Asiamah came to Worcester from Minnesota in 1987, going to work for Digital and now for Compaq Computer Corp. He said he watches Bears games on television especially to see Mr. Azumah. His first sports passion, however, remains soccer, which he played professionally in Ghana.

Three local Ghanaian organizations, Ga Adandgbe Club of Worcester, Kwahuman Association of Central Massachusetts and Mfantseman Association of Worcester, sponsored a dance last weekend to celebrate Ghana's 45th anniversary of its independence from Great Britain on March 7, 1957.

Ghanaians are scattered around the city, though clusters of families live in the Lincoln Village and Washington Heights apartment complexes and in Main South and Webster Square.

David O. Broni, an independent mortgage broker who came to Worcester in 1988, estimated that 10 percent of the Ghanaians in Worcester own their own homes. “Worcester has been a magnet for us,” Mr. Broni said. “There are jobs, and housing costs are reasonable.”

“It's peaceful here, a good place to raise a family,” said Mr. Agyemfra. “The schools were good and the people were very nice.” He initially arrived in New York City from Ghana. “New York is a very, very rough place,” he said. Mr. Agyemfra came to Worcester in 1974 and has owned the Sweet Farms Mini Mart since 1987.

Worcester has attracted Ghanaians also for the same reasons the city has drawn other immigrant groups since the 19th century, because the new arrivals had family, friends, or fellow-villagers already here.

Ghanaians have been established in the city since the late 1960s with the arrival of Sam Mireku, Archie Allotey and the Rev. James Clottey.

“People go where they are comfortable,” said Benjamin Adwegewa-Badu, an artist and seventh-grade art teacher at Worcester East Middle School. When he came to Worcester in 1995 with his wife and infant, the family first lived with his brother-in-law.

“Relatives help you with a place to live, to find a job, to get around,” Mr. Adwegewa-Badu said.

Despite having a graduate degree in art from Ghana, he spent his first year and a half tending the Fryolater machine at a McDonald's restaurant and working the overnight shift on the loading dock at a Wal-Mart store. Later, he got on the substitute teaching rolls and eventually landed a full-time job at East Middle School.

“Those other jobs were a good experience -- you can really learn a lot about America working at Wal-Mart,” Mr. Adwegewa-Badu said, “but I am glad to be doing what I trained to do and what I love -- art.”

Ghana has had four republics since Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah led the drive for independence in 1957, the first sub-Saharan country to break with its colonial ruler -- in Ghana's case, Great Britain.

Since 1966, when Mr. Nkrumah's term as the country's first president ended, Ghana has had alternating civilian and military rule.

“Ghana's had all kinds of political adventures since 1957,” said Mr. Broni, who like the other Ghanaians interviewed keeps in close touch with family and friends in Ghana for updates on the country.

“There have been military takeovers, juntas, coup d'etats, former leaders establishing their own church, but we now have an elected president and the means in place for regular succession.”

Though Ghana has a parliamentary system, it also has a president, elected every four years in November.

“We don't need anymore lifetime politicians,” Mr. Broni said.

Despite its political upheavals, Mr. Broni points out that Ghana is one of only four African nations without a civil war since the end of the colonial era. The country's press is robust, he said, varied and more than willing to test its recently granted independence.

“We have radio stations and many newspapers that are willing to criticize the administration,” Mr. Broni, 46, said.

Prominent in the middle of the glass-top counter at the Sweet Farms Mini Mart is a magazine with Ghana President John Agyekum Kufuor on the cover. The men at the store expressed a measure of confidence in the president, though the challenges facing him are profound in a nation with an average annual income of about $400.

In the major cities, globalization has brought some development. Aetna Health Insurance has a claims processing office that employs 400 Ghanaians in the capital city of Accra.

“The economy is good,” said Mr. Safo-Sampah, who works for Intel Corp. in Hudson. “People seem willing to spend while inflation remains stable.”

The Ghanaians who have landed in Worcester over the last three decades represent most of the languages and tribes of the country's population.

“There is an undercurrent of tribalism left in Ghana,” Mr. Broni said, “but it is still very much a coherent country.”

Whatever divide they may have had in Ghana has not transplanted to Worcester, Mr. Broni said, noting that “there are no divisions here.” But differences of opinion and personality clashes have hampered efforts to organize a community wide association of Ghanaians, most recently in the mid-1990s, Mr. Broni said. “It was not tribal or anything like that,” he said. “It was an American problem of people having too little time and being stressed.”

If there is one thing Ghanaians here miss besides the tropical weather, it's the extended family typical in Ghana and the more casual social life.

“Here it is work-home-work-home,” said Mr. Adwegewa-Badu.

“We find it harder to support each other,” Mr. Broni said, “and in America everyone needs support because there are so many pitfalls -- drugs, violence, people who don't care what happens to their next-door neighbor.”

Ghanaian political involvement here has yet to extend much beyond voting.

“That will change with time,” said Mr. Broni, who was a volunteer in the early 1990s with the now defunct anti-drug group Worcester Fights Back. “We will with time become a more politically activist people.”

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