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An Alternative Image for Africa

Ghanaian ambassador addresses West Potomac students in effort to raise continent’s profile.

Fritz K. Poku’s business card describes him as Ghana’s “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.” In the past, he said, despite their fancy titles diplomats like himself were essentially “honorary spies.” But there has been “a shift in paradigm of what diplomacy is about.” Although intelligence gathering is still an important duty – Poku listed America’s immigration problems, Bush’s popularity problems and the status of AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunities Act, as three issues he is currently reporting on to his superiors – “the focus is now more on promotion of trade and investment … economic diplomacy.”

The economic focus of the new diplomacy requires working with U.S. politicians to create favorable trading policies, particularly for the export crop of cocoa, but it also means effectively marketing Ghana as a good investment. This is what brought Poku to West Potomac High School on May 24. His appearance was part of an initiative by the Africa Diplomatic Corps, an umbrella group for African embassies, to celebrate Africa Day. May 25 marks the date in 1963 that the Organization of African Unity, the precursor to today’s African Union, was formed. “We hope that through such outreach programs we’ll be able to excite the interest of students … with a view to encouraging them to invest in Africa,” explained Poku.

Within Africa, Africa Day is celebrated as an opportunity to reflect on the growing democracy and cooperation on the continent and the increasing influence and legitimacy of the AU. Outside Africa, however, the day is being used as an opportunity to spread a more positive image of Africa, and to stress the diversity of the 54 countries on the continent. Poku deplored the “tendency to put [African nations] in one basket as if Africa was one country.”

Poku cited the continent’s progress in “building states into viable, functioning democracies and stable economies. We want to put to rest the image of Africa being a basket-case which is always looking for aid, grants and so on.” He also had a goal that transcended politics and economics. “It is only by learning, understanding and appreciated the culture of other people that you can really relate to them and also facilitate peaceful coexistence. I do not believe in the so-called clash of civilizations, but that we all complement one another,” he said.

POKU’S presentation in West Potomac’s auditorium began with an acapella performance by the Black Cultural Alliance Gospel Choir. The audience’s raucous enthusiasm spilled into a deafening standing ovation, the first of many, for the ambassador. Poku began by posing “a few provocative questions” to the students. The questions, which hinged around people’s inability to choose the circumstances of their birth, subtly addressed the identity barriers that often allow people to read about death in Africa without the personal sense of dismay that is often engendered by less remote tragedies.

“How many of you have heard of Africa?” Poku finally asked. “Oh yes,” he said with a chuckle. “I can see a few hands. That is already a good sign … What sort of picture does Africa evoke in your mind? I am inclined to think from what you see in your television … that you have a negative picture of Africa, depicting poverty, civil strife, armed conflicts, military coups d’états, disease, HIV and - I ran out of them,” he added with a chuckle. “These dark spots should not define Africa,” he went on to say.

He stressed Africa’s efforts to unify as a continent and listed troubled areas - Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo - where the A.U. had intervened. He also cited the African Peer Review Mechanism, a voluntary opportunity for countries to submit every facet of their governance to the review of their peers. He said Ghana was among the first countries to submit to this review.

Poku went on to tout the accomplishments of his own country. In 1957, Ghana was the first African country to achieve independence after colonial rule. “Ghana can be described as a success story in nation building in Africa and the world,” said Poku. He described it as a secular state with peacefully coexisting with ethnic groups and “a stable and functioning democracy” with both a president and parliament, “a mixed bag of the U.S. and British systems of governance.” The presidency has a two-term limit.

Poku said Ghana’s staple exports are gold, cocoa, manganese and boxite. He said his country had one of the best performing stock exchanges in any emerging market and that it gets excellent credit ratings. He also described Ghana’s assets as a tourism destination.

After his speech, students had the opportunity to question Poku. One asked about human trafficking, another about Ghana’s advances since independence. Poku responded to the latter question by pointing out that Asian countries like South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia originally lagged behind Ghana in per capita income but now have far surpassed it. He said this was because Ghana made economic sacrifices to aid freedom fighters in other African countries. He said many of them, like Nelson Mandela, traveled on Ghanaian passports. But he added that Ghana’s own leaders had led it astray with a succession of military coups d’états and the like. “We went into the doldrums as it were,” he said. “We now realize the only way for a viable society is the democratic path.”

POKU’S speech was followed by cheers and sustained applause. Teachers Hassan Mims and Black Cultural Alliance sponsor Sandra Bobo, who had requested that Poku visit because her parents are from Ghana, distributed a bag of Africa Day tee-shirts by awarding them to students who correctly answered quiz questions. Students enthusiastically shouted answers from all sides of the auditorium.

“Name an issue the continent of Africa is facing,” Mims called out. He pointed out one student who had called out an answer. “Unfortunately ‘poverty,’ you’re correct,” Mims said.

Principal Rima Vesilind expressed her appreciation for the event. “Its not every day that we have an ambassador from a major country visit West Potomac,” she said.

“It’s an honor to know that somebody appreciates what we’re doing and can come here and actually relate with us,” said junior Traci Jennings, who is a member of the Black Cultural Alliance. “There is only a thin line between Africa and African-Americans.”

“I didn’t know Ghana was so progressive,” said student Neij Mehta.

“All we hear about is poverty, AIDS, about how we should help them out,” added Nicholas Wasilewski, “We should hear about the advances they’ve made.”

West Potomac has a large population of Ghanaian students. Amazing Grace Danson arrived from Ghana only ten months ago, after her mother married an American. Danson helped Bobo prepare for Poku’s visit. “I think he made a very positive impact on the views of Americans on the Africans and Ghanaians,” she said. “Now they see the type of person he is, I think to some degree their minds have changed. [But] to get the full change I think they have to go to Africa. Just learning in the abstract won’t really do all that’s necessary.” She said American culture keeps people indoors too much, whereas Ghanaians mingle in the streets. “People are so kind,” she said. “If you go there you’ll be treated like a king.” All around her other Ghanaians nodded their heads and voiced their agreement, some with pride, others wistfully.