Building Bridges between Central New York and Ghana

Our two presenters have been jointly and individually working to build bridges of respect, understanding and reciprocity between central New York and communities in Ghana.

Mardea Warner who works in Community Support Services, part of Outreach Services at Transitional Living Services (TLS) of Onondaga County, Inc. She also works with Peaceful Resolutions for Living, Inc. and leads a teen group at the Brady Faith Center. Ms. Warner has facilitated interactive workshops and trainings on diversity for TLS, PEACE Inc., the Rape Crisis Center, Loretto, and the Association for Community Living. In addition, she is involved with a number of local organizations including the Syracuse Community Choir, the Syracuse Peace Council, the Pan-African Village at the NY State Fair, Open Figure Drawing Inc., and Beyond Boundaries. In 2002 Ms. Warner was inducted into the YWCA Academy of Diversity Achievers for her work with Beyond Boundaries, which includes leading five awareness project journeys to Ghana. Beyond Boundaries was presented with the 2006 Unsung Heroes Award by the Syracuse University Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration Committee.

Christiana Kaiser grew up in Syracuse and attended Syracuse University and the University of Ghana at Legon where she studied international relations and African history. Christiana has traveled to Ghana several times over the past 12 years. She interned at the Centre for Sustainable Development Initiatives, an NGO based in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana. In 2003 she established Bluetree Studios to provide central New Yorkers access to the exquisite work of Ghanaian artists.

We began by breaking into groups of two or three to discuss our impressions and knowledge of Africa and Ghana. After our sharing and centering time, Mardea brought us back together and explained that when she thinks of Africa, she thinks “home” as she was born and raised in Liberia, West Africa and is hoping to go back for her first return visit in 28 years next January.

Mardea called attention to a Peter’s projection map posted in the back of the room, which clarifies the size of Africa relative to Europe and North America. Africa is 25 percent larger than all of North America and three times larger than Europe. However, most Americans know very little about Africa’s 54 countries, their histories and diverse cultures. On a map of Africa she pointed out how many countries there are, each with multiple languages. She said that a trip equivalent to our going to Pennsylvania would require three or four languages and a passport. Christiana shared a story about a short trip to the Bolgatanga market with a friend who spoke 5 or more different languages (including English, Kassem, Guruni, Twi and Hausa) to greet friends and talk with vendors. Ghana is located on the west coast of Africa. It has been independent since 1957 and its flag is equal red, yellow, and green horizontal stripes with a black star in the center. The red represents the blood that has been shed for Ghana’s Independence, yellow for the gold and wealth of the country, and green for the richness and fertility of the land. The star symbolizes African freedom and African people.

In 1993 Mardea joined Aggie Lane, co-founder of Beyond Boundaries, to help coordinate a group of visitors (not tourists) on an awareness trip to Ghana. This was the first of many trips planned to build relationships between Central New Yorkers and Ghanaians. Beyond Boundaries worked with a Ghanaian organization called the Voluntary Work Camps Association of Ghana (VOLU), which provides opportunities for individuals to participate in local projects. Beyond Boundaries arranged to attend a work camp in a Methodist church compound where volunteers from a variety of nations were helping to lay footings for foundations for a school. They were digging, pouring concrete, and transporting handmade bricks. The success of that trip in 1994 has led to over 20 cultural awareness trips including 5 to Ghana. Mardea showed many slides of Beyond Boundaries members visiting schools and historical sites and meeting with students and grassroots organizers.

In 1997 Mardea led an advance team trip to Ghana looking for ways to make lasting Beyond Boundaries connections with specific individual communities. She was put in contact with CENSUDI, which was established in 1994. It is an NGO based in the Upper East region of Ghana, which aims to promote and strengthen practical strategies that actively mobilize women to participate in decision-making and leadership positions. CENSUDI was founded by three sisters whose father enthusiastically supported and encouraged them in their education. Margaret Mary, Beatrice, and Franciska Issaka have begun to change long-held ideas of women’s place and women’s roles. All three women, now past 50, are powerhouses in defining and supporting women’s rights through a variety of programs including their Education Improvement Programme (EIP) which focuses on girl-child education. The EIP frequently involves negotiation with families and schools to ensure that girls have the resources they need for their schooling and that their household and farming chores do not interfere with their studies. Since Beyond Boundaries does not impose its ideas on CENSUDI but asks, “what can we do to help you achieve your goals?” the Syracusans discussed how they could help facilitate, fund, and work on goals that the Ghanaians had identified.

In 1994-95 Christiana had attended the University of Ghana at Legon where she studied African history. She showed us a photo of the university near the capital, Accra, and photos of Independence Arch, a monument to Ghanaian and Pan African independence and Kwame Nkrumah Circle, named for the Pan African leader and Ghana’s first president.

Christiana had wanted to study African history to address the lack, and investigate the distortions, of African history she recognized in her high school and college curriculum. She said that in Ghana she constantly found connections and common history between the U.S. and Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and welcomed fellow Pan Africanist and American scholar W.E.B. DuBois when he moved to Accra and became a Ghanaian citizen. Ghanaian students were very familiar with American leaders and social activists; Christiana showed a photo of a young man wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt.

One of the most influential connections between Ghana and the United States is found in the forts along Ghana’s coast. Several slides showed the fort at El Mina, named by the Portuguese for the abundance of gold in the area and later called the “Gold Coast” by the British. Colonialism was so crude that the imperial powers went down the coast renaming regions for what they could get there – “Ivory Coast,” Gold Coast,” “Slave Coast”, etc. The fort was built in 1482 as a storage building for fruit, ivory, gold, and other exports. Eventually it became one of the ominous centers of the European and American slave trade. The fort and dungeons at Elmina witnessed the imprisonment and enslavement of a large share of the many millions of people who endured this painful chapter in our shared American and African history.

The dungeons where men, women and children were held for months at a time were somber. The women’s dungeon was located in view of the “governors” quarters. Rape, torture and terrorizing of the people imprisoned there was routine. In the forts at Elmina and Cape Coast there are “doors of no return,” the last exits to the slave ships and the middle passage. In the approximately 350 miles of Ghana’s coastline there have been, over the years, more than 60 such forts. Some are referred to as “castles” and have been painted white. Many people complain that the ugly history they embody is literally being white-washed as the painted walls look picturesque and pretty from a distance and the label of “castle” obscures the horrors they contain. The view from the fort today is of life and commerce – a stunning contrast with the past brutality. Christiana read a plaque from one of the forts that read “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace and those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity.”

Christiana said that her experience of the dungeons at El Mina and Cape Coast deeply influenced her understanding of her connection to Ghana as an American and particularly as a European American. She said that while the history of slavery is widely viewed as solely African or African-American history it is also American and European history. The people who committed the crime of enslaving people in West Africa looked like, and came from the same places as, her ancestors and their criminal actions enriched Europe and America.

She came to see her responsibility to be – to be an ally and partner to people and organizations combating social and economic injustice in Ghana and the US. But, as a student, with no real skills or resources of the type needed to contribute to change in Ghana she returned to Syracuse study international relations at SU.

In 1997 Christiana learned about Beyond Boundaries through a local flyer and became involved. Beyond Boundaries gave Christiana a new opportunity to be involved in an ongoing organizational relationship between Central New Yorkers and Ghanaians. In 1999 she was a co-leader of Beyond Boundaries’ awareness project in Ghana. The group met with CENSUDI and made a contribution of $400 to their Education Improvement Programme. This assisted with the cost of putting a new roof on a neighborhood school and provided scholarships to cover class supplies, uniforms and school fees for 25 students. During this trip Christiana became acquainted with the Issaka sisters and made plans to return to work with CENSUDI .

Also at that time she learned about the Single Mothers Association, whose objective is to impart skills to members to ensure that their standard of living is improved, as well as empower them to cater for the educational needs of their children. These women are single for the same reasons that exist in the west – divorce, widowhood, teen pregnancy, etc. A number of the CENSUDI EIP scholarship recipients were daughters of women in this association.

The 2000 and 2002 Beyond Boundaries awareness projects were again led by Mardea and the group continued to meet with EIP scholarship recipients and other students at various schools. They discussed the value of their education, asked about the students’ goals and illustrated some of the possibilities that their education could lead to. A nephew of the Issaka sisters accompanied Beyond Boundaries on these trips and could point to his early days in the community and how that led to his graduate studies at the University of Ghana. Mardea said that some of the early scholarship recipients are now in teachers’ colleges or earning various certificates. On each trip the Ghanaian students have been excited to see photos of themselves and older students taken on earlier visits published in the Beyond Boundaries newsletter.

Throughout her presentation Mardea showed slides of welcoming gatherings of singing and dancing hosted by various grassroots organizations – the Ghanaian women in brilliantly printed dresses and head scarves. On one trip a Syracusan who is a dancer, joined in and was joyously received.

Mardea is an artist and was amazed to see that her work reflected the same graphic designs of some of the stucco houses in northern Ghana. Women are the primary creators of this decorative work.

A series of slides showed young people making fufu, a combination of cassava (a starchy root vegetable similar to potatoes) and plantain (similar to banana but not eaten raw). The two ingredients are pounded together in a cooperative effort between pounder and turner. Christiana said that it has the consistency of stiff bread dough and is eaten with two fingers like poi. Mardea added that in Liberia the word fufu is used to describe a dish made from only cassava. It also has the consistency of bread dough but is more translucent.

Christiana showed slides of Kente cloth weaving looms. These portable looms were used by Ashanti men in southern Ghana to create strips of tightly woven cloth with symbolic geometric patterns. These strips were woven together to create large pieces of cloth and were originally restricted to royalty. Traditionally women did not use these looms. Some legends maintain that if a woman sits on a kente loom she could become barren. More practically, these were traveling looms and women were at home caring for the family. Other cloth was woven by women on larger looms. In 1999, Syracusan Sarah Saulson contributed some weaving equipment to a weaver for her studio in Bolgatanga. Christiana showed a slide of her showing the cloth she had woven with this equipment.

In 2003 Christiana returned to Ghana to do an internship with CENSUDI. She wanted a better understanding of the transformations that Ghanaians desire and are working for. At CENSUDI she worked within the Education Improvement Program. While there, she assisted the facilitation of a girls club for EIP beneficiaries to connect with and support each other despite their attending different schools in the area. 

At the same time she was developing a relationship with local artists. The women of the Single Mothers Association were her first contacts. A photo was shown of a map of the community that the SMA maintains with markers for the people in the organization and their skills, such as making of baskets, shea butter, and soap. They maintain a straw bank – women take bundles of straw for making baskets and repay the bank after they have made and sold the basket, thus bypassing the obstacles created by the need for capital for raw materials.

Other artist contacts occurred quite spontaneously. She met artist Samuel Ade-Am through a conversation about a Black history T-shirt he was wearing. He graduated from Ghanatta Art College in Accra and works at his own graphic arts business. She has been buying his acrylic paintings, making prints of them and returning the bulk of profits to him after they sell. When Christiana returned home she founded Bluetree Studios, named for a spreading tree on the University of Ghana campus where Christiana was a student. She makes purchases directly from Ghanaian artists – women, and some men, who set their own fairer prices for their artwork. The largest selection is basketry – Bolga baskets, hats, and fans in multi-colors and complex patterns. She also sells batik wall hangings, shea butter products, and jewelry. The jewelry is made of beads created in the southern part of Ghana from finely crushed, colored bottle glass that is fired in kilns and then painted. Jewelry designers in Bolgatanga carefully select then purchase the beads and create necklaces and bracelets. Christiana’s inventory and the history and philosophy of Bluetree Studios can be seen at

Mardea told us about Karamu, a community feast of African cuisine, music and dancing, and marketplace to benefit Beyond Boundaries.