Ghana village chief leads, even from afar
WA, USA --It was a sunny Friday, the last day of multicultural week at Edmonds-Woodway High School. Sporting jeans and sweat shirts, students settled into auditorium seats.
As they awaited the speaker, one of their own took the stage, 18-year-old senior Lillian Afful.
With pride in her voice, she introduced "the development chief of Abreshia, Ghana, and my father, Nana Kofi Afful."
Theater seats stopped squeaking and doors quit slamming. In an instant, the man at the lectern seized the group's attention by his mere presence.
Powerfully built, he wore a golden crown, no shirt, and a flowing kente cloth hand-woven in a black-and-gold design. In an hour's time, he opened the teens' eyes to rarely taught history, a different culture, and the life he leads in two worlds.
Afful, 62, lives in Edmonds with his wife, Glorya, and children Lillian and her 14-year-old brother, Oben. Born and raised in the West African country, he earned a master's degree in aeronautics in London before coming to the United States.
He runs an aircraft structures and engineering company and does business internationally. In 1995, he was in Ghana on business and for a visit.
"I was minding my own business," he told the students on April 8, explaining how he became a village chief. "This is not something you campaign for, they just come and grab you.
"My village wanted me to be development chief," he said. Pressed into service, Afful said he had "no option" because of his heritage. There, chiefdom is passed along through the mother's lineage. He was put under guard lest he run away and dodge the responsibility.
"I had left my family for what was supposed to be one month, but I was gone four months," Afful said.
He showed pictures of the ceremony in Abreshia, his village of about 5,000. There were prayers, an animal sacrifice and a procession to meet the people.
"Here, I'm wondering what I am getting myself into," he said of one photograph, his face stern and wary under the newly acquired crown.
A decade later, he has seen what cooperation and his business contacts have been able to achieve for Abreshia.
"It was never my intention to leave my business here," he said. "The welfare of the whole region was entrusted to me. The schools were inadequate, they had no library, the clinic was a one-man show that didn't have aspirin."
Since then, "we have managed to get electricity," he said. Through a Seattle teacher, he has acquired books for the village. "We're trying to get some computers," Afful said.
He was in Ghana a year ago for nearly a full year. Lillian Afful, who may attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., visited relatives there before she started high school, and wants to return to Ghana someday.
Afful traced the history of a place where wealth was once there for the taking. Ghana used to be the Gold Coast. Afful remembers playing soccer on the beach as a child and seeing glints of gold in the sand after it rained.
It was where the Portuguese began interacting with Africans in the 1400s, Afful said. They were followed by the Spanish, the Dutch and the British. First, newcomers took the gold.
By the 1600s, a Dutch fort on the coast at what is now the capital city of Accra became the center of slave trade to America. "That castle is now a tourist attraction for African-Americans," Afful said.
Ghana's central government still benefits from trade, but little wealth reaches the smaller villages, he said. As Afful said he told people of Abreshia in his native Fanti language when he first spoke as chief, "I will help with my contacts, my strengths and my resources."
Poverty, Afful said, "is relative." While people there may complain about not having TV, the country is the most peaceful in Africa right now and is not devastated by AIDS, as some African nations are, he said.
Students had questions. No, the crown he wears for presentations here isn't real gold, but the crown back in Ghana is the real thing. One kid asked whether Afful ever worried about "getting attacked by tigers."
"The only place I've ever seen a tiger is the London Zoo," he replied.
He is development chief for life, with the title Nana Kofi Afful the First.
"I commute back and forth - a month here, three months there, a year here, a year there."
That's quite a commute.
Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or [email protected]