By KIRSTIE KWARTENG
For as long as I can remember, I have loved learning about history. It was one of my favorite subjects in school and to this day I love reading and learning about history on any topic. What I hadn’t expected was that this love for history would lead me home and unearth a passion in me to document Ghana history and my family’s stories. A passion that eventually manifested itself as The Nana Project.
Stories of Ghana, Stateside
I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in Northern Virginia; an area that has had a large Ghanaian population since Ghanaians began immigrating there en masse during the 1970s and 1980s. Ghanaians that moved to this area created a replica of Ghana for themselves and their children as much as they could. My parents became founding members of one of the first Ghanaian churches in the area, Church of the Living God. There weren’t many African grocery stores at the time so some church goers would sell Ghanaian food products in the parking lot after church ended. I remember going to Auntie Helen’s house to get my hair braided and visiting Auntie Vida so she could make jollof for my family and I to take home. Growing up in this diaspora community is the reason I identify as a Ghanaian and why I take pride in my cultural heritage.
While our parents, aunties, and uncles did their best to teach the younger generation about our cultural identity, stories on how Ghana and our community became what they were was a part of our heritage that wasn’t frequently addressed. The history taught in most U.S. schools is very Eurocentric so while there, I didn’t learn much about Ghana (or any other African country). Aside from Kwame Nkrumah and 6th March, I don’t remember learning much about Ghana’s history from the Ghanaian community. As I grew older, I realized how much wider the gap between what I knew of Ghana’s history and the collective knowledge in oral histories, books and historical documents was. To remedy this, I drew on resources close at hand; I asked relatives what they remembered about Ghana’s history. “In those days…” is how many of the stories would start.
Regardless of where you are located or where you were born, if you are a Ghanaian then Ghana’s history is your history. Full Stop.
“In those days not many people had televisions so we would walk for a long time to watch Bonanza” or “In those days Nkrumah had student informants at KNUST so we had to watch what we said.” I heard an array of memories including marching in the very first Independence Day parade in Accra in 1957 and greeting Muhammad Ali during his first visit to Ghana in 1964. The stories that surprised me the most concerned political unrest and police brutality towards university students during protests against the government in the 1970s, commonly called “Aluta Continua.” One uncle recounted being assaulted by police and the death of one student during the protests. Ghana prides itself on being a peaceful nation. I was shocked to hear of a time when it was not.
My path to Documenting Ghana History
While I enjoyed hearing the stories my relatives shared, I didn’t truly understand the importance of learning history from our elders until my maternal grandmother passed away. Auntie Hannah, as she was affectionately called, traveled to America from Ghana at 76 years to help my parents raise my sister and I. When I was 12, she suffered a stroke and our family in the U.S. and in Ghana decided it would be best for her to return to Ghana where the family could take care her. I traveled with my mother and my sister to bring her to Ghana. It was my first time visiting Ghana and I was so excited to meet relatives I had only spoken to on the phone. I had a fun time visiting Aburi Gardens where I laughed as I watched my Uncle George attempt to climb a tree. I also remember visiting the Arts Centre and feeling overwhelmed by the merchants calling me to visit their stands. I had a great time and I knew that I would return to see my family again. What I didn’t know then was that it would be last time I would see my grandmother alive.
I was afraid of failing, but the desire I had to preserve our history superseded that fear. I knew it was important work. It still is.
She passed away 7 years later in 2007 at age 96. News of her death left me completely devastated. I traveled with my parents to my mother’s hometown, Akyem Chia, in the Eastern Region for the funeral. It was my first time being in my mother’s hometown and I met many relatives for the first time. My mother told me stories from her time growing up in Chia, like being chased to school by my grandmother because she refused to go and watching her grandmother take care of pregnant women as the midwife for the town. Being there surrounded by my entire family, I wondered about my family’s history, my grandmother and her life, and about Ghana’s history, especially since 2007 marked Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence. While I mourned her loss, her funeral made me mourn the history and stories she took with her after 96 years of life.
The Birth of The Nana Project
After returning from Ghana, I felt the need to take concrete steps towards learning and preserving Ghana’s history, but did not begin immediately. It took me seven years to actually start The Nana Project, and another year and a half to officially launch it. The wait wasn’t intentional but I am glad it happened. If I had started The Nana Project with the mindset I had as a third year university student in 2007 I doubt it would have been successful. The growth that I experienced in the years in between have helped The Nana Project because I begun to see it as more than an archiving project. In archiving our history from our perspectives, we are decolonizing our history. We are using our most valuable historical resource, our elders, as the method of learning instead of using information created by colonizers. Many of the storytellers we have interviewed are well-versed in books on Ghanaian history written by Ghanaians and they are more than happy to share that knowledge with us as well. We also see our work as a way to unify Ghana and the diaspora. Regardless of where you are located or where you were born, if you are a Ghanaian then Ghana’s history is your history. Full Stop. It is a bond that we share across borders and generations. We want to use our platform as a way to unify Ghanaians across the world by encouraging them to actively remember our shared history by engaging in conversations with their elders.
In archiving our history from our perspectives, we are decolonizing our history. We are using our most valuable historical resource, our elders, as the method of learning instead of using information created by colonizers.
Looking back, I see that creating The Nana Project was a natural progression for me. The process of creating, launching, and running The Nana Project has been challenging but very rewarding. It was very frustrating initially. I often told my family and close friends that I was the wrong person to do this because I knew nothing about cinematography, running a website or video editing. I was afraid of failing, but the desire I had to preserve our history superseded that fear. I knew it was important work. It still is. Thankfully, I was able to find two other young Ghanaians who understood my vision and had the skills needed to bring The Nana Project to life. Through this process, I’ve learned more about our elders and the personal struggles many of them faced during Ghana’s most difficult times. I’ve gained a greater understanding of how the personal and political are deeply interconnected. The elders we interview are happy and often surprised that a Ghanaian born and bred in the U.S. would care enough about Ghana’s history to make an active effort to preserve it. To be honest, I am often surprised at their surprise. It’s my history too.
Kirstie Kwarteng is founder and executive director of The Nana Project, a digital archive dedicated to preserving and sharing firsthand accounts of Ghana’s history. Connect with her on Twitter.
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