Ama in Ghana

Nancy Graham Holm

© Copyright 2020 by Nancy Graham Holm

Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash

Ama in Ghana is a true story. The names, however, have been changed to protect the privacy of the three main characters.

It’s Inger’s bedtime.

The book’s title is Ama in Ghana. It’s a story about the daily life of an African girl in a small village, a modest little book, published by the Danish Foreign Ministry. The pictures fascinate Inger, black and white photographs of a teenage girl that cooks and takes care of her siblings. It’s not a real book in the ordinary sense but a five-year-old public information document from the Danish government to educate Danes about their former African colony on the Gold Coast. Inger's mother found the book among discarded items that the local library was selling.

Inger is too young, of course, to know about The Danish East India Company, too young to know about nineteenth century colonization and its bitter legacy. She doesn’t know that her grandfather, a political science professor, works as a consultant for the Danish Foreign Ministry, but when she overhears him talking about an upcoming trip to Ghana, she climbs on his lap and begs him to find Ama. Inger’s mother and I are deeply moved by this request, and we prepare a story to tell her on his return. “Ghana is a big country,” we’ll say. “Grandpa is sorry he couldn’t find Ama.”

But as it happened, we had no reason to be skeptical.

Two weeks later, Grandpa is in Accra and talking to Danish foreign aid workers. In a casual conversation, he mentions his granddaughter and her attachment to this village girl, who was once featured in a public information booklet.

"Ama? Yeah ... I might know her!" someone says. "If so, I've even been to her village. But I don't think she lives there anymore. I heard she's here now, in Accra, a student at the technical college."

Grandpa calls home that night and gives us the news. He says that Ama is now twenty and a student studying textile design. Inger is asleep, so we lower our voices when we ask if meeting her is at all possible.

"It is. It’s very possible! Someone is arranging it." 

And so it happened. The aid worker knew someone who knew someone in Ama's village who was sure he knew her boyfriend. Eventually, someone made contact with Grandpa and sent him to Ghana’s technical college to wait at a specific place.  

Grandpa studied each of the young women who walked by, wondering what Ama would look like today. He thought of his granddaughter in Denmark and how she would feel when he reported that he actually found her. Students filed past him, wondering about the tall white man with worried eyes … him … over there!  Why does he look so apprehensive? To hide his anxiety, Grandpa sat down on a bench and started counting the bricks in the footpath. Time passed. He counted them again. Finally, a young woman walked up to him and held out her hand.

"Professor Nielsen, yes? I'm Ama."

Grandpa could barely speak. This university teacher - well known for his animated and energetic style of lecturing - was shy and self-conscious as if he were meeting a celebrity. He shook her hand. “My granddaughter," he murmured. "She loves you!" And then he showed her a photograph of Inger holding her book.

Ama blushed. How could she be popular among little European girls? In Ghana's accented English, she carefully told Grandpa her story. Ama in Ghana had completely changed her life. The Danish Foreign Ministry sent her money from its sales, enough to pay the tuition fee for one year at an elite school. Eventually, she got a full scholarship and finished the four years with a diploma.

At first, she almost gave up. The school assignments were demanding, and she felt guilty about ignoring her family chores. Her proud parents wanted her to succeed, so they asked less of her time and more from her younger siblings. Gradually, she relaxed and developed into a conscientious student. On graduating, her exceptionally high marks won her a scholarship to Ghana’s technical college in Accra, where she chose to study textile design.

She learned to dye fabric, design patterns, and sew abstract pieces of cloth into dresses, skirts, and blouses. She was developing a reputation for her use of color: bright, intense shades that she said were a reflection of Ghanaian country life. She had surprised herself, Ama said. She never knew she had aptitude for textile design. Modest but self-assured, she felt confident that someday she would have a studio of her own and send money to her parents. And then she showed Grandpa her sketchbook. For her graduation assignment, she was designing a wedding gown, a dress she would wear at her own marriage ceremony, just as soon as she graduated.

Grandpa listened. He suddenly realized that the highly unlikely had actually happened.
He took out his cellular phone and dialed Denmark. "Guess what?” he asked in Inger in Danish. "I found her! I did! She's standing right here."

"Hi, Inger. This is Ama. In Ghana. How are you?"  

On hearing her name in the same sentence as "Ama" and "Ghana," it was Inger's turn to be overwhelmed. She handed the phone back to her mother. "It's them! In Africa!” And she burst into tears.

Grandpa was impressed. The young African woman's gentleness with his granddaughter touched him, and he began to think about a wedding present that he knew Inger would want to give her. "What do you need? he asked. “What would make your dreams come true?” Ama went silent. Grandpa wasn't sure she had even heard the question, and then she spoke tentatively as if in every word, a hidden risk. "Can I … show you something? Will you come with me to our textile workshop?"

She led Grandpa across campus to a large building. On opening the door, thunderous noise rolled over them. Textile looms, everywhere; large and small, running at full speed, attached to computers. Ama led Grandpa down an aisle until she stopped in front of a workbench with a stack of patterns and unfinished garments. In the center was a Singer sewing machine. She sat down.

After threading the needle and bobbin, Ama positioned the foot pedal under her skirt and pressed downward until the sputtering machine started to stitch. Grandpa watched while she assembled a blouse. “How much did a sewing machine cost in Ghana?” he wanted to know. At least 340 Cedi, someone informed him. He did a quick calculation and realized that this was the equivalent of $60.

They left the building and went to the canteen, where they talked over cups of tea while Grandpa answered Ama’s questions. Was it always cold in Denmark? Did Grandpa like Ghana? When was Inger’s birthday? And then it was time to say goodbye. When they parted company, Ama walked away with an envelope containing three American twenty-dollar bills and a message from Inger, congratulating her on her marriage.

When Grandpa returned to Denmark, he showed us a photograph his driver had taken. He framed it and put in Inger’s bedroom.

(photo to come)

And now it is fifteen years later.

Inger has finished school and is planning to take a gap year before she starts university. She wants to go to Ghana and visit Ama, but first she needs to find her. Unfamiliar with haute couture fashion, none of us are aware that in the intervening years, Ama has made her mark in the fashion world. We are oblivious to her brand, Ghanaian Rainbow. We are unaware of the attention it’s been getting from Hollywood film celebrities who walk on red carpets at gala events. Were we inclined to read Variety or Vogue Magazine, we'd know about Ama's fame.

But we aren't, and so we don't.

Grandpa, whom Inger calls morfar in Danish, is retired from university teaching and his work as a consultant to the Foreign Ministry, but because he misses his old life, he likes to gather us together on Sunday evenings and reminisce. He teaches us and shares his ideas about world politics and the so-called Third World .

He leads us in discussions about political geography and the United Nations Development Program. He asks us to consider how the earth's natural resources are distributed randomly throughout the world. We talk about white privilege and how it, too, is bestowed indiscriminately through random birth, never earned. We talk about racism and human potential.

And then, during Copenhagen’s famous Fashion Week, Ama comes to Denmark. She arrives with an entourage of seamstresses and models to show her line of apparel. A journalist interviews her on television, and someone who sees the program mentions it to Inger.

Ama? From Ghana? I know her!” she boasts. “We’ve been friends since I was four years old.” She calls the TV station and leaves her name and phone number. Then she waits for the Ghanaian designer to return her call. “Inger? Are you, by any chance, the same Inger who bought me my first sewing machine?”

The photograph was, just as I say in the story, taken by "Professor Nielsen’s" driver. I have full permission to use it.
I am a retired television journalist from San Francisco, California. I  immigrated to Denmark in 1991 to accept employment at the national media school where they wanted to establish a unit in long format story-telling. I established a documentary program In 1991 and accepted a tenured position in 1995. I continued to work as a journalism educator until my official retirement in 2007.

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