It had been almost six years.
I could still remember the first time I stepped off the Charlotte III steamer and onto the shores of my new home.
I remember the harsh, cold chill that stung my face and the sigh of relief I heaved, appreciating God for bringing me across the ocean to the land of dreams and opportunities.
A lot had gone into making this trip successful. I had given up so much in the months leading to my journey here. I had saved every penny from my low-paying secretarial job in the Gold Coast to purchase my one-way ticket on the Charlotte III. I also had to deal with my mother’s heartbreak and the disapproval of my friends when I announced my departure. The news took all of them by surprise. A woman unwed at 21 was a huge disappointment to my family and now I wanted to travel to the land across the ocean alone. Now that was preposterous and completely unheard of.
A solitary tear streaked across my cheek as I remembered the despair that seemed somehow tattooed on my mother’s face in the few weeks leading to my departure. My mother wasn’t a woman of many words but ever so often I caught her sighing and once in a while she muttered a few sparse words of advice regarding my trip but she never cried. Not to my face.
Regardless of how she felt, my mother still helped me pack and prepare. Through it all, I could feel her heart break… her only daughter had just chosen to leave her for a land where she knew no one. I was all she had after my father passed away a few years ago and she was all I had… and now she was losing me too.
This made me question my choice. I doubted myself, my strength to survive alone. I had numerous restless nights both contemplating the craziness of my actions and filled with fear with what lay before me. But every morning after that, I woke up more convinced I had made the right decision. Soon, the nights became more bearable and my stance became more resolute. YES! I WAS LEAVING TO AMERICA!
The fear didn’t hit me again till I stood on the deck of the Charlotte III as it prepared to set sail from Takoradi Harbour. My mother was in the crowd, fervently straining to wish me farewell. Her short hands were lost in the sea of people who had gathered at the docks, but still she fought to make sure I saw her. It was then I saw the tears she had tried so hard not to shed. They were streaming down her face. My mother was BROKEN. That was when I lost all self-control and crumpled on the deck in tears. My vision was still blurred with the tears streaming down my face as the Charlotte III blew its final horns signalling our departure. What am I doing??? What am I really doing?? A wave of panic and fear rushed over me and I began to hyperventilate. My palms were sweaty and my mind was racing with so many unanswerable questions.
I turned towards the crowd to try to catch a glimpse of my mother again, and it was then I noticed she was raising a small placard, which read “BE STRONG COMFORT. I’LL BE HERE WAITING FOR YOU”. A certain calm came over me after reading that. Somehow I just knew I will be fine. That we will be fine. With that, I blew her a kiss and turned to face the vast sea that lay before me. The sea that hid the vast secrets of America from me. Yes! It was that sea I was about to conquer.
And conquer it I did. I had never imagined that finding the American dream would have been so difficult for me. I thought that once I got to the US, everything would figure itself out, but was I wrong. With nothing but $50 to my name, I walked off the deck of the Charlotte III on a harsh winter’s night in 1956 right into homelessness and struggle. Every day was a fight to stay alive. So I did anything and everything. I washed dishes at sloppy diners. Cleaned seedy hotels. And with every tough situation, I was forced to grow, learn and adapt. I became smarter, stronger, independent.. free. The type of freedom, I would have never gotten back home.
Everything I did was to make some money to survive and for my family back in the Gold Coast, sorry Ghana I mean. You see, barely a year after I left, my country gained its independence and was renamed Ghana. I couldn’t help but swell up with pride when I watched from the public televisions in one of those seedy hotels, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah up on the podium that day in March of 1957 surrounded by his right hand men, proclaim to the expectant teeming masses of the newly minted nation;
Ghana!!! Our Beloved Country is FREE, FOREVER!!
There was so much excitement that day in Ghana. Everyone cheered, danced and even I could feel the excitement hundreds of miles away. We were free!! I believe that year was generally a great year to be Ghanaian because it was right after Independence that I landed a job with Marlon’s Papers, a black-owned local newspaper in the Bronx. Even though Marlon’s Papers was a small operation, it was increasingly popular among African immigrants and other Blacks in the Bronx because it not only focused on local news but also the wave of independence that was coursing through the African continent at that time.
I had been with Marlon’s Papers for about 4 years when one day, Mr. James Marlon (my boss) received an invitation to attend a reception in New York for the entourage of a celebrated African leader who were in the country working on a business deal – Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. All the news sources were abuzz about the visit and the hydroelectric project with Kaiser Aluminium.
Finally, he is living up to his promises. I thought proudly remembering how throughout his early days in government he had promised to begin an industrial revolution in the country, that could only really take place with good and reliable energy. Even US President Ike Eisenhower had appreciated the need for such a revolution and assured Nkrumah of US support and now he was back to claim it. I smiled to myself… smart man.
I knew I had to find a way to be part of the reception. I had only known Jim for just a few years but he was almost like family to me but I was still nervous. This was a huge favour to ask of my boss. Right when, I was about to ask the question plaguing my mind, Mr. Marlon turned to look at me and said, “Connie, you’re Ghanaian so I know you would be very interested in this reception, mind tagging along with me?” It took all the self-control I could muster not to burst into a quick dance and yell YES! Instead i opted for a more reserved but equally excited “YES!! Mr. Marlon Sir, I would like that very much sir.”
Even though the reception was a week away, this excitement radiated from me until I was seated in the conference room, surrounded by some of New York’s prominent black owners and scholars waiting for Osagyefo‘s arrival. Every few seconds, my eyes would dart to the doors, worried that the moment I took my eyes off it, I will miss his great entrance.
Fontomfrom drums… the popular drums of the Ashanti people reverberated through out the chamber, two young ladies clad in beautiful kente, beads and gold accessories entered dancing to the rhythm of the drums. With poise and skill, these ladies danced adowa with each step and gracefully moved to the rhythm of the fontomfrom with our president in tow. Dr. Nkrumah had shed his typical business suit and even his political suit for a more regal traditional attire, a beautiful kente cloth on a white jumper.
People roared and cheered as Osagyefo and his entourage came in. Dr. Nkrumah waved and shook hands of the people closest to him. His face lit up with childlike glee as he also followed the fontomfrom beats with some adowa moves of his own as if accepting the beautiful welcome the ladies were bestowing on him.
Finally, the man of the hour reached the podium and turned to face the audience before him. Suddenly a hush fell upon the room…then someone shouted “kom yɛ” (meaning silence is good)
With a smile, Nkrumah responded “Thank you! Thank you! and Greetings to you all from Ghana and from Africa as a whole!”
The crowd replied with a mix of Akwaabas and Welcomes!
Then he continued,
It is great being back in the land that greatly inspired my desire to fight for freedom in Africa. Just a few months back I had the great pleasure of meeting your president, John F. Kennedy and I must say, you’re all extremely blessed to have such a great and forward thinking man for president.
As most of you already know, I am here to finalise the energy deal for Ghana and though this trip has been filled with tough decisions and compromises, I am still optimistic that this dam will fuel the much needed industrial revolution in Ghana and in Africa as a whole.
Africans must work hand in hand for the entire continent to develop. Rather than foster hatred and bitterness against your fellow countryman, it is in our hands to join our strength, taking sustenance from our diversity, honouring our rich and varied traditions and culture whilst also acting together for the protection and benefit of all of us.
This principle is important because then we understand that we do not face East or West, but rather we must face forward. Forward-thinking. Progress. That should be our goal whether it means receiving benefits from both sides. We must move beyond being puppets and take advantage of our unique position to carve out our own African story.”
His words permeated every fibre of my mind
YES! OSAGYEFO! YES!
He continued in a lower and more contemplative tone,
People say I have changed. That I no longer believe in democracy. That I have become paranoid and this has made me a bit autocratic. Maybe they are right. Maybe I can’t afford to leave our precious fight for progress and revolution in the adulterated and neo-colonialist hands of some of my officials.
I do not believe in democracy, not when such would mean the loss of our freedom. If democracy is really about allowing colonial hands to rope us back into mental and economic slavery, then democracy can go kill itself. If my nature of governance is unappealing to your superpowers or to your ever-so complicated world politics, then forget your world politics.
Why can’t I just be free? Why can’t my people be free? Allow us to be free. No matter what some of you might think, it is far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anyone else. We should be allowed to make our own mistakes.
Only then can we grow as a people, as a continent. Africa is one continent, one people, one nation.
I looked at the faces around me. Some were nodding in agreement, others were quiet. I wasn’t surprised since many people were staunch supporters of democracy but Nkrumah’s words though painful held an essence of truth that even some of the greatest supporters of ‘democracy’ couldn’t deny.
With a deep sigh, he looked around and as if willing us to understand his words,
Africans are really on our own. We must fight for our own progress because our colonial masters do not want that for us. We cannot always use their solutions and often biased advice to understand our issues.
It is clear we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African Unity. Why? Well, because then such a solution becomes ours. We own it and that pride of ownership will cause us to safeguard it and make it dynamic and more relevant to our livelihoods. We can’t succeed without being one. We must unite now! or perish!!!
I am sure, some of you are saying, but I am not African. I do not even know where my ancestors came from but let this be known to you today.
I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me. So as long as you feel that call to African unity and the spirit of the African struggle, I invite you to join us as we take back our continent and make it the new Africa!
With that Dr. Nkrumah, turned to head out of the conference room. As he walked, people swarmed to him, struggling to pass through his security just in order to get some sort of interaction with him. His entourage evidently annoyed, fought through the crowd to provide a clear passage for Osagyefo out.
I was completely awestruck as I watched him, the man who I had held so much admiration for over the past couple of years. I also pushed my way through the crowd. I had to meet him. I just had to. I needed to. I just had to know he was real. That my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
I was a few inches away from him when he turned my direction as if sensing my gaze and my need to connect with him. I froze as his eyes connected with him, suddenly struck with an unsual shyness. He smiled and took my hand in his palm, asking “And who may you be my dear?” … I replied shakenly “Comfort, I mean Connie, from Marlon’s Papers… and also Ghanaian, sir.”
“Comfort…” he said warmly, “so are you awake now? “. Baffled at the question, I stared blankly at him. Well yea, I wasn’t sleepwalking now was I… but with a quizzing brow and hint of sarcasm I replied “Yes, I guess I am.”
He laughed softly and tightened his grip on my hand while he added
Good!! Now don’t you ever fall asleep again.
We will not sleep again. Today, from now on… You & I! Yes You, Connie. We are part of a new Africa!…
There is a NEW AFRICAN IN THE WORLD!
With a wink, he let go of my hand and walked right out of the conference hall into the lobby leaving me staring at his back and repeating the statement he made… never to forget it, not even in the years that followed.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY OSAGYEFO!!!!!! GHANA FOREVER THANKS YOU!!!