Ama in Ghana

Nancy Graham Holm

© Copyright 2020 by Nancy Graham Holm

Photo  is property of the author.

Ama and Professor Nielsen.  Photo  is property of the author.


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.

My four-year-old Danish daughter clutches her favorite book and calls me to read it to her while she falls asleep.  We do this every night, even though American vowels and consonants still color my accent in the Danish language. Repetition, it so happens, has made a difference by softening the offending sounds and instilling forgiveness in this child’s heart. She knows the text by heart and gently corrects me when I make mistakes.

The book 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 ten-year-old girl that cooks and takes care of her siblings. It’s not a real book in the ordinary sense but a ten-year-old public information document from the Danish government to educate Danes about their former African colony on the Gold Coast. Inger's mother had found it in a pile of old documents on sale at the local library. 

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, my father-in-law, 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 but we already have 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, my father-in-law is in Accra and talking to Danish foreign aid workers. In a casual conversation, he mentions his granddaughter and her attachment to this farm girl, who'd been 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 the city, 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 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 Accra'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 6'4" 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 with her book. Ama blushed. She had never imagined that a little European girl would care about her. In Ghana's accented English, she slowly told Grandpa her story. The book had completely changed her life. The Danish Foreign Ministry sent her money from its sales, enough to pay tuition fees for one year at an elite school. Eventually, she got a full scholarship and finished the four years with a diploma.

At first, it was difficult, Ama says. 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 in the English language won her a scholarship to Accra's technical college 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 had surprised herself, Ama says. She never knew she had aptitude for such things. 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 and then thinking that the unbelievable had now become real, he took out his cellular phone and dialed Denmark. "Guess who I have here, Inger?” he asked in Danish. "I found her! I did! Are you ready to talk to her?"  He handed the phone to the young African woman.

"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! Grandpa! Ama! In Africa!” And she burst into tears. Grandpa was touched. The young woman's gentleness with his granddaughter impressed him, and he wanted to show his appreciation. How about a wedding present? "What do you need? he asked. “What would make a difference in your life?”

Ama became quiet, and Grandpa wasn't sure she'd even heard the question. Then she spoke tentatively as if in every word was a hidden risk. "I'd like … to 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, a thunderous noise rushed over them. Textile looms were everywhere, large and small, 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 both the bobbin and its needle, 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. When she was finished, she did another one. And then one more. Neither of them said a word. How much did such a machine cost in Ghana? At least 340 Cedi. 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. Was it always cold in Denmark? What did Grandpa like about 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.

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

And now it's fifteen years later.

Inger has finished school and is planning to take a year off 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 Ghanaian Rainbow, Ama's most famous brand; that it's been getting attention 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 teaching at the university and from his work as a consultant to the Foreign Ministry. He likes to gather us together on Sunday evenings and reminisce, sharing his ideas about the so-called Third World . He leads us in discussions about political geography. Always the professor, he asks us to consider how the earth's natural resources are distributed randomly throughout the world. We talk about white privilege. How it is also completely random, never earned. We talk about racism and human potential.

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

Ama? An African designer? I think I know her!” she boasts. “If so, we’ve been friends since I was four years old.”

She calls the TV station and leaves her name and phone number. The Ghanaian designer returns her call.

Inger? Are you the Inger whose grandfather bought me my first sewing machine?”

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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