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hello, old friend REUNION IS BITTERSWEET Peace Corps stint forges lasting bond

August 31, 2007 12:36 am

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Frank Delano served in the Peace Corps in 1967-69, volunteering in Ghana. lfghana3.jpg

Gilbert 'Bobbo' Ahiagble has done much with his life. He owns land and a cloth-weaving institute in Ghana. lfghana1.jpg

Gilbert 'Bobbo' Ahiagble inspects kente, the colorful traditional cloth used in formalwear in his native Ghana. He now teaches others to perform the hand weaving that has been practiced by his family for generations. lffrank2.jpg

Free Lance-Star staff writer Frank Delano reunites with his old friend Ahiagble this summer in Ghana. lfghana6.jpg

Today, Ahiagble employs 16 weavers at his American Village Weaving Institute. He sews kente pieces they hand-weave. lfghana4.jpg

Don't avoid Ghana because of fears of a language barrier--proper English is a staple there.

BY FRANK DELANO

DENU, Ghana--"Frank Delano! Kojo! Forty years! It's a miracle!" my old friend yelled over and over in my ear as we embraced in July.

The jubilant welcome came from Gilbert "Bobbo" Ahiagble (ah-hee-AHG-blay).

Seeing Bobbo again came at the bittersweet end of my three-week assignment to Ghana's beautiful and historic coast, from Prince's Town near Ivory Coast to Denu near Togo.

It was my first trip back to Denu, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1967 to '69. I soon learned that 40 years have brought many changes to Ghana, Bobbo and me.

I was 22 when I arrived at St. Paul's Secondary School. Bobbo was a year older. He was in his last year at the boarding school for boys.

In one respect, he was different from a lot of his classmates. Many of them had dreams of going on to American or European universities and becoming doctors, scientists or engineers.

Bobbo's plan for his life was simpler. He wanted to be a kente (KEN-te) weaver as his family had been for generations.

Kente is the beautiful, traditional cloth of Ghana. It is woven by hand in long, narrow strips on small looms built of sticks set in the ground. The weavers then cut the strips and sew them together.

The cloth is Ghana's time-honored formalwear for ceremonial occasions. Women wear two pieces, a wrap-around skirt and a top. Men wear a large cloth draped over one shoulder like a regal Roman toga.

By any measure, Bobbo's career has turned out successfully. He has traveled often to America, Canada and Europe to demonstrate his craft and sell his colorful cloth. He has even been the subject of a book written by an American friend.

Because of his travels, he knows the United States better than most Ghanaians.

"Everybody in Ghana thinks America is a great place. They can't imagine all the hassles about living in America. You tell people in Ghana that there are homeless people in America and they think you are telling lies," he said.

We figured we had last met in 1980. He was between weaving gigs in the United States and stayed a few weeks at my house in the Northern Neck. He set up a loom under a maple tree in the backyard and wove kente every day.

While he was there, I taught him to drive. My method was the same way I had learned:

First on a riding lawn mower, which he crashed into a tree. Then on a John Deere tractor. Then in a car in the pasture. Finally in the car on the highway.

In July, at his home near our old school, we laughed about those odd driving lessons. But they seemed to work. He now drives--quite well, I'm glad to say--a Toyota sedan that had 392,836 kilometers on its odometer.

fashioning a future

Most of Bobbo's 1-acre, walled compound is the campus of his American Village Weaving Institute. It can house, feed and teach weaving to as many as 12 students at a time, many of them from America.

The compound is also where he keeps his Massey Ferguson tractor and other farm machinery. Such equipment is rare in Ghana. He owns about 100 acres and farms about half of it himself. "I love it so much on my farm," he said.

He also owns two or three other houses that he rents out.

He weaves little himself these days. Instead, he employs 16 other weavers to make kente to his specifications. He sews it together on a 45-year-old treadle sewing machine in his house.

Another wall separates the campus compound from his house. It has beds and mattresses, but he prefers to sleep on a mat on the floor beside the sewing machine.

Once a week, his driver takes him 100 miles to Ghana's capital, Accra, where Bobbo sells women's and men's clothes, tablecloths, wall hangings, place mats, runners and other pieces.

"I know everybody at all the embassies," he said.

Bobbo makes friends quickly and easily. Everyone who meets him is soon smiling and in good buying spirits. His affable nature, it seems to me, is a main ingredient of his success.

During my visit, I was surprised to hear him credit me for helping launch his career. He said that I was the first person to suggest making trousers from the bright striped fabric with its woven emblems.

Those were the days of hippie fashion.

"That was what made me known to the whole world," he said. "After I made the trousers for you, I made many more. I went all around the country selling them to Peace Corps."

In the process, he filled his address book with contacts that would later serve him well on his trips to the United States.

back to school

Bobbo took me to our old school. There were many new buildings among the scruffy old ones. I saw the bungalow where I lived with other volunteers. Trees that were newly planted then are large and shady now.

Forty years ago, the headmaster was Father Apietu (ah-PEE-eh-tu), a Catholic priest who wore a long, white cassock.

He's dead now. His bust stands on a pedestal in front of the building where I once taught. I suggested painting the pedestal white like his cassock. Bobbo laughed. Only old boys like us would get the joke.

Forty years ago, the school was surrounded by farms and baobob trees. It was on a dirt road with only a few houses nearby. Now, the road is paved and lined with houses and shops. More are under construction.

Bobbo led the headmaster, a dozen teachers and me to a bar on the other side of the school's athletic field. Bobbo bought cold beer for everyone. Forty years ago, the thought of a bar with cold beer next door to the school would have been a hallucination.

I looked at the teachers and wondered if I was ever as young as most of them. I told a few stories about some long-ago high jinks at the school. The young teachers laughed heartily. The headmaster barely smiled.

He said the enrollment of the school was now about 1,000. In my day, it wasn't half of that. He invited me to return next year for the school's 50th anniversary and to give the school an endowment.

I thanked him for his invitations, but told him I was not sure I would be able to do either one.

an estimable fellow

Later, Bobbo and I drove into the town of Denu. The only things I recognized from long ago were the post office and the sea.

In the late 1960s, the streets of Denu and the shelves of its few shops were mostly empty. Now there are many more shops, with shelves filled with goods all the way to the ceilings.

The town today is crowded with taxis, cars and people.

Vehicles now drive on the right. They drove on the left when I lived there.

Houses have replaced the coconut groves by the sea where I once photographed fishermen. I was happy, however, to see the big fishing canoes still on the beach, gleaming with fresh paint and gaudier than ever.

Bobbo has 11 sons and six daughters by four wives. Several of his children and one of his brothers work for him. "It's a big family, but a very happy family," he said.

I was astounded and proud to learn that my name is part of it. Bobbo's nephew in Accra, a 30-year-old welder, is named Frank Delano Ahiagble in my honor. I've never met him, but with a name like that he must be an estimable fellow.

Early on the morning of my last day in Ghana, Bobbo drove me to a nearby village. Along the way, he picked up a couple of his friends.

We all ended up at a bar about 7 a.m. Bobbo and his friends ordered big bottles of beer. It was probably impolite under the circumstances, but I drank a Coke.

After this breakfast, Bobbo led me through the town where his youngest children, 14-month-old twins, live with their mother. Bobbo wanted me to take his picture with the babies.

Their mother handed them to Bobbo without a word or a smile. Bobbo smiled only at the children.

"I have so many problems with my marriages, I should have remained a bachelor," he said. I told him that I have occasionally thought the same thing myself.

A final farewell

Compared with his whoops of welcome the day before, our goodbye later that day was short on words.

He said he hoped to travel again to America, but he wasn't sure when. I told him I looked forward to seeing him in the States.

I didn't want or even need to say that I'd probably never return to Ghana. He knew.

The car was packed. The driver was ready to leave for the three-hour drive to the airport in Accra.

Bobbo and I hugged goodbye.

"Mijo," he said, for "see you later."

Something was going on in my throat.

"Mijo" was all I could reply.

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


Reporter Frank Delano revisits Ghana, where he served in the Peace Corps 40 years ago, and reports on Prince's Town, Fredericksburg's new sister city.

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. TUESDAY: Spotsylvania man leads effort to protect villagers from malaria. WEDNESDAY: Profile of Fredericksburg's Pamela Bridgewater, ambassador to Ghana. YESTERDAY: What is the future of the sister-city relationship?

TOMORROW: Remembering Prince's Town's Golden Age, and a photo essay on a traditional burial. in TOWN & COUNTY. To read previous stories, go to fredericksburg.com
ON THE NET >> For video and more photos, or to order photo reprints, see fredericksburg.com.

GETTING THERE

Get inoculations and malaria pills. Apply for a $50 tourist visa from the Ghana Embassy in Washington. Fly 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Accra (ah-KRA), the capital of Ghana. Don't worry about the language. English is spoken everywhere in Ghana.

IN ACCRA Enjoy the confusion and energy of this city of 2 million. See capitalism at its crowded best at the Makola Market. Negotiate prices of everything. Savor keliweli, plantain grilled with spices by sidewalk vendors. See the new $112 million U.S. Embassy, but no photos are allowed. Take taxis everywhere.

IN PRINCE'S TOWN From Accra, drive west 164 miles along Ghana's gorgeous and historic coast. Turn left at the sign for Prince's Town, "the most beautiful sea shore in West Africa." Continue 11 miles on a mostly unpaved road. Four-wheel drive recommended. Stop at the beach in the center of town. Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg is at the top of the hill.

WHERE TO STAY Bare-bones rooms with cots are available in the fort for about $2.50 a night. The fort's caretaker can arrange meals, as well as other accommodations at private beach houses nearby. A new guest lodge in town may open soon.

EATING AND DRINKING Pineapples, mangoes, bananas, plantain, oranges, papaya, cassava, chicken, goat, fish, oysters, cockles and lobster are available most days in Prince's Town. Everything is fresh and local. Drink only boiled or bottled water, sodas, beer or coconut milk.

THINGS TO DO Learn about the fort's long, fascinating and terrible history. Ignore the bats when you enter the dungeon. Thousands of people were imprisoned there on their journeys of no return into slavery. Ask about local heroes John Conny, Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-59) and Kwame Nkrumah (KWA-mi, in-KRU-ma) (1909-72).

Walk the endless beaches. Surf or swim if you dare. Take canoe rides on the Nyila (na-YEEL-a) River and the Ehunli (eh-HOON-lee) Lagoon.

Look for monkeys and crocodiles.

Hike two miles to the fishing village of Akatekyi (aka-TESH-ee). See giant dugout canoes beside houses on the beach.

Buy fresh or smoked fish or loaves of delicious bread baked in big clay ovens.

Make people happy by learning to say hello, goodbye and thank you in Nzema (EN-zah-ma).

TABOOS Eating with your left hand. Fishing on Tuesdays. Going into the lagoon on Thursdays. Entering the sacred grove beside the lagoon at any time. Harming or killing crocodiles.

BEST CONVERSATION STARTER "Do you think the U.S. will beat Ghana the next time?"

RECOMMENDED READING "Ghana: The Bradt Travel Guide" by Philip Briggs.




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