Ama in Ghana
Nancy Graham Holm
Copyright 2020 by Nancy Graham Holm
Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash
in Ghana is a true story. The names, however, have been changed to
protect the privacy of the three main characters.
book’s title is Ama
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.
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
as it happened, we had no reason to be skeptical.
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.
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."
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.
is. It’s very possible! Someone is arranging it."
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.
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
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.
Nielsen, yes? I'm Ama."
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.
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.
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.
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.
listened. He suddenly realized that the highly unlikely had actually
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."
Inger. This is Ama. In
Ghana. How are you?"
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
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?"
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
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.
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
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)
now it is fifteen years later.
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
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
we'd know about
we aren't, and so we don't.
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 .
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
how it, too, is
bestowed indiscriminately through random birth, never earned. We
talk about racism and human potential.
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.
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?”
photograph was, just as I say in the story, taken by "Professor
Nielsen’s" driver. I have full permission to use it.
am a retired television journalist from San Francisco, California.
immigrated to Denmark in 1991 to accept employment
the national media school where they wanted to establish a unit in
long format story-telling. I established a documentary program
1991 and accepted a tenured position in 1995. I continued to work as
a journalism educator until my official retirement in 2007.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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