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The go-to American in Ghana

August 29, 2007 12:35 am

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Pamela Bridgewater, left, takes oath as ambassador to the Republic of Benin at the State Department in 2000. Her mother, Mary Bridgewater, holds a family Bible for the ceremony. "She works hard," the mother says of her daughter. lo0829ghana1.jpg

A diplomat for nearly 27 years, Fredericksburg native Pamela Bridgewater is now U.S. ambassador to Ghana. lo0829ghana2.jpg

Ambassador Bridgewater hosts a Fourth of July party at the U.S. embassy in Accra. The event drew 700 people.

BY FRANK DELANO

ACCRA, Ghana--"Everybody comes to my house! Everybody!" said U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater amid a crowd of 700 at her Fourth of July picnic.

Photographers--and there were many--had just snapped pictures of Bridgewater with U.S. civil-rights leaders Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The Rev. Jackson and Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, were in town for a summit meeting of 52 heads of African states.

Bridgewater, a Fredericksburg native, joked with Jerry John "J.J." Rawlings, Ghana's former two-term president. She warmly greeted chiefs wearing royal robes of bright, hand-woven kente cloth.

Bridgewater, in a red dress with white polka dots, brushed cheeks with all of them.

Some of Bridgewater's old friends, including four from Fredericksburg, rubbed elbows with diplomats from other embassies, Ghanaian government officials, military officers and U.S. embassy personnel.

The Fredericksburg folk--the Rev. Lawrence A. Davies and his wife Janice, Felicia Cook and Laura Montgomery of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site)--were in town for a gathering of the Baptist World Alliance at a swank hotel.

"A Capitol Fourth" was the party's theme. For the occasion, embassy employees had created reminders of the National Mall inside the high stone walls surrounding Bridgewater's house.

Murals of the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol and a faux Washington Monument stood among the tropical trees, shrubs and flowers.

A busload of sailors in dress whites from a visiting U.S. Navy frigate cruised the beer kegs. Like everyone else, they eventually sat down for dinner on red, white and blue plastic chairs under a dozen tents decorated with flags of all the states in the U.S.

The menu was All-American: hot dogs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, potato chips, potato salad, baked beans and brownies served up in wicker baskets lined with red-checked napkins.

The baskets had been made by disabled Ghanaian children. Dessert was sliced from a four-foot-long sheet cake iced like an American flag.

A color guard of U.S. Marines marched in with flags. A choir of young Ghanaians sang "God Bless Our Homeland Ghana." The Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville, Tenn., sang "Oh, Say Can You See?"

Bridgewater exchanged toasts with Ghana's Foreign Minister Nana Akufo-Addo, his pinstriped suit Savile Row classy. Addo would resign his post the next day to start his campaign to be Ghana's next president in 2008.

"July Fourth is one of the great dates on the calendar of human progress," Addo said. "The principals of the Declaration of Independence have shaped immeasurably the life of our own country."

Five-thousand miles from Fredericksburg, fireworks exploded high over the palm trees in the muggy West African night.

"It's a great time to be the United States ambassador to Ghana," said Bridgewater, Walker-Grant High School Class of '64.

Homes 5,000 Miles Apart

Pamela Ethel Bridgewater was born 60 years ago in the house on Amelia Street where her 82-year-old mother Mary Bridgewater has lived nearly all her life.

Besides the deep mother-daughter devotion, the homes in Fredericksburg and Ghana have something else in common.

Both display many photographs of the diplomat daughter with notables such as Nelson Mandela, George and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Doug Wilder, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Despite her distaste for flying, Mary Bridgewater has visited her daughter at all of her postings in her long career of foreign service: Belgium, Jamaica, Bahamas, South Africa and two trips to both Benin and Ghana.

"I feel Pamela is deserving of everything that's come her way. I'm glad that she could be of service to America and Africa. She works hard," Mary Bridgewater said.

The ambassador's mansion 5,000 miles away is built and furnished for the business of diplomacy. Its long dining-room table easily seats 20 or more distinguished guests.

A high canopy attached to one side of the house could cover a gas station if it were not used to shelter ambassadorial receptions from the sun and rains of Africa.

Inside, clusters of sofas and easy chairs in the living room invite cozy conversations. Glass bowls full of autographed baseballs sit on the tables.

Reminders of home are everywhere, such as the paintings by Fredericksburg artists Johnny Johnson and Kathleen Walsh that hang on the walls.

By her stereo, there's a Ray Charles CD featuring her late father Joe Bridgewater on trumpet. Beside it is another CD of childhood friend Gaye Todd Adegbalola and her group "Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women."

As large as the house is, she said she's running out of space to hang all her awards, testimonials, honorary degrees and other tributes.

"I hang them anywhere I can find another spot," she said.

She's been a diplomat for nearly 27 years. Her three-year posting in Ghana will end next year. She said she doesn't know what her next assignment will be. When it's done, she will be nearing the end of her globe-trotting career.

She rents out a house she owns in Fredericksburg's Westwood subdivision. As for retirement, she said, "Maybe I'll find a house by the sea and write a book. I'll just go where the wind leads me."

Big Building, Big Job

In Ghana, Bridgewater is the current CEO of a long, large and apparently successful diplomatic enterprise headquartered in a huge, $112 million embassy that opened in May.

"It brings together the many U.S. Embassy sections and agencies from their eight, disparate, former locations to this new state-of-the-art facility to more efficiently pursue their work in Ghana and the West African sub-region," Bridgewater said.

Signs warning "No Photography Allowed" hang on the steel fence enclosing several acres. It's just as well. The new U.S. embassy in Accra is about as photogenic as a prison. "It's a bunker," said an embassy employee.

The new complex, however, symbolizes the importance the United States attaches to its friendly relations with Ghana, one of sub-Saharan Africa's most promising democracies.

This year, Ghana celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation. It has been a rocky road of military coups, economic crises, unsolved problems and unfulfilled potential.

But the former British colony has somehow managed to hang together while many other African countries have faltered. The black star of Ghana's flag shines bright in America's eyes.

The country's economy is growing, poverty is declining, school enrollments are increasing and HIV/AIDS seems under control.

But "daunting challenges remain," says the U.S. Agency for International Development. One challenge unmentioned by U.S. AID is Ghana's rapidly growing population of 22 million. At the present rate, that number will double in 23 years.

Bridgewater's staff supervises the fate of more than $60 million a year in U.S. aid. The assistance is spread over dozens of projects that range from distributing 600,000 textbooks, to overseeing a $16 million, anti-malaria program, to helping plan a natural-gas pipeline to Ghana from Nigeria.

Last year, Ghana signed a compact with the United States that could result in $547 million in agricultural assistance over five years if the African country keeps its end of the deal by strengthening its democratic institutions and improving its infrastructure.

Then there's the routine embassy business. Among other things, the work includes processing the large Ghanaian demand for U.S. visas, helping out American citizens in trouble far from home, advising businessmen about one country or the other, receiving unending delegations, attending endless receptions and working out the details of conferences, official visits, cultural exchanges, even Fourth of July picnics.

Much of the paperwork for these things ends up on Bridgewater's desk. "I lose track of all the different delegations. I stopped giving out business cards years ago," she said.

Everybody wants some of her time. How does she find any for herself?

free time hard to find

"My free time? Did I say that?" she said the Saturday night after the picnic.

She might have had some at home if it had not been for the reporter asking questions in her living room with the embassy's press officer listening in.

She wore a New York Mets jersey with "Bridgewater" on the back. It was a gift she received in February from Mets General Manager Omar Minaya and Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield.

With Bridgewater's encouragement and the help of the African Development Foundation, they had led some other major-leaguers on a mission to introduce the unfathomable wonders of baseball to Ghana's soccer-loving youth.

They gave Mets jersey No. 1 to the president of Ghana, No. 2 to the vice president and No. 3 to Bridgewater.

She talked about her youth and the many role models she had in Fredericksburg who "made us kids proud and gave us an opportunity to grow, who gave us confidence and a sense of giving back."

Most important were her mother; her grandfather B.H. Hester, who pastored Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) for 40 years; and her grandmother Blanche Hester, who called her Bridgewater "my angel."

Bridgewater said the Baptist Training Union was an important part of her younger days, as were teachers such as William Wright, Gladys Todd, Marguerite Young, Janie Pratt, Johnny Johnson, and Margaret Whylie. Nell Clark taught her piano.

From Fredericksburg, Bridgewater went on to Virginia State University, graduate school, a few years of college teaching and then the U.S. Foreign Service.

She returns home a few times a year to check on her mother and see old friends.

"Fredericksburg, that's where they really jump on me," she laughed. "Schools, churches, clubs, somehow they all know when I'm home. Everybody wants me to give a talk, but even if I'm tired I make an effort to go out." she said.

In May, she mixed time with her mother among consultations at the State Department in Washington, delivering a commencement address at Virginia State, and receiving an honorary degree from Morgan State University.

She also saw her mom in June when she flew to New York City to receive an award from the African Development Foundation.

For a few days in Manhattan, she said she was just Pamela Bridgewater, private citizen. Nobody knew who she was. No one asked her to make a speech. No delegations came calling.

She bought two new pairs of Nikes for her daily runs. She said she was "very, very disciplined" when she shopped on Fifth Avenue.

With no cinemas in Ghana, she couldn't wait to go to the movies. She saw two: "La Vie en Rose" and "Once."

She loved the former, a film about Edith Piaf, but paid no attention to the subtitles. She understands and speaks French with ease.

She knew of a little restaurant near Grand Central Station. It serves real blueberry pancakes like her grandmother used to make back home. She ate there twice.

She called her Mets' friends. They invited her to the team's interleague game at Yankee Stadium.

"I don't consider myself any kind of celebrity," she said.

But the ushers knew she was coming. She said she liked it when they said, "Good evening, ambassador. Nice to see you, ambassador."

She found herself in a box seat on the first-base line next to film director Spike Lee. She grabbed her cell phone and made a call to Fredericksburg.

"Mama," she said, "you're not going to believe who I'm sitting next to."

Frank Delano: 804/333-3834
Email: fpdelano@gmail.com


Reporter Frank Delano visited Prince's Town, Fredericksburg's new sister city, during a July trip to Ghana, where he served in the Peace Corps 40 years ago.

SUNDAY: Sister cities Prince's Town and Fredericksburg are worlds apart. MONDAY: Sister-city relationship shines a beacon of hope into Prince's Town. Tale of two soccer balls illustrates town's need, and obsession. YESTERDAY: Spotsylvania man leads effort to protect villagers from malaria.

TOMORROW: What is the future of the sister-city relationship? FRIDAY: Forty years later, reporter's return to Ghana is bittersweet. In LIFE SATURDAY: Remembering Prince's Town's Golden Age, and a photo-essay on a traditional burial. In TOWN & COUNTY For previous stories in this series, see fredericksburg.com.

ON THE NET >> For video and more photos, or to order photo reprints, see fredericksburg.com.

1947: Born April 14, Fredericksburg

1964: Salutatorian, Walker-Grant High School

1968: B.A. in political science, Virginia State University

1970: Master's in political science, University of Cincinnati

1970-76: Doctoral candidate in international studies, American University

1976-80: Instructor, Morgan State and Bowie State universities in Maryland, and Voorhees College, S.C.

1980-90: Vice consul, Brussels, Belgium and labor attache/politcal officer, Kingston, Jamaica

1990-93: Political officer, Pretoria, South Africa

1993-96: Consul general, Durban, South Africa

1996-99: Deputy chief of mission, Nassau, Bahamas

1999-2000: Member, president of State Department's Senior Seminar

2000-02: Ambassador to Benin

2002-04: Deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and special coordinator for peace in Liberia

2004-05: Diplomat-in-residence, Howard University

2005-present: Ambassador to Ghana




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