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Destination: Ghana : A Heritage Reclaimed : Travelers discover cherished rituals, a warm : reception and a panoply of color in West Africa

October 23, 1994|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Johnson is a copy editor in the Life & Style section. and

ACCRA, Ghana — My mother was first. We had just left a dark room to sit on a row of stools in the center of a town called Akutukope in the village of Adutor, which is in the south-eastern part of Ghana. We had received wisdom from elders, been wrapped in fine handwoven cloth and adorned in strands of beads culled from the earth. And now, amid the noise of celebration, the head of the village, a woman, was guiding my mother before a man with a short black sword. My mother looked back at me and widened her eyes in an expression that was partly fear, but mostly anticipation.

The man raised the sword above her head and the crowd quieted. Then he began speaking in his language, Ewe, in a tone I recognized as one of pronouncement. The crowd cheered and, suddenly, I understood: My mother was being embraced by the people. And she was being renamed. Bea Johnson was now Queen Mother Ametoryor.

We hadn't set out for the West African country of Ghana looking to be reclaimed. It started with our typical premise: Mom, my sister and I looking for a place to go together. Since 1990, we have visited the African continent twice, each time returning weeks later laden with gifts, better informed and filled with the desire to see more.

We choose countries to visit on little more than emotion and shreds of history. This year we wanted to see Ghana--the home of kente cloth, colonized Africa's first independent president Kwame Nkrumah and a family friend. My sister, always good with games of chance, then won two round-trip tickets to Italy in a raffle, so she bowed out. So it was Mom and me, on the lookout for a group tour that promised education, adventure and shopping.

What we found was a tour filled with two dozen other American mothers and daughters traveling to West Africa to fulfill a sacred ritual, the rites of passage of a girl into womanhood. The trip was among those being handled by Alken Tours of Brooklyn, an agency in New York that had arranged other African trips we'd taken.

The sponsor was African Womanhood Is Mine, a Brooklyn-based organization founded in 1991 by elementary schoolteacher Barbara Brown Gathers. It strives to teach 11- to 13-year-old girls about responsibility to themselves, their families and their communities. This year, the program culminated in the ceremony in Ghana, and since there would be a rite for adult women, too, we signed up enthusiastically for the 10-day tour that included three nights in neighboring Cote D'Ivoire.

We arrived in Accra, Ghana's bustling capital at 7 on a July evening this year. By the time we gathered by poolside tables at the Novotel Hotel for dinner, drums were sounding a welcome. In Africa, the drum has a voice--in its beats are tales of life, death, anger and war. The Novisi Cultural Group of Ghanian young people danced for us, leaping, shimmying and all the while smiling at our enjoyment and their own. Soon, the dancers came to our tables, taking our hands and encouraging us to join them. So, between bites of curried meats or groundnut stews, we did.

The next day we toured Accra with our Ghanian guides, Stephen and Patience (Pat), and our bus driver, Kwame, who all spoke English, one of the vestiges of British colonization.

With nearly 1 million people, Accra is a humming metropolis, its streets crowded with vendors, students in uniforms, beggars, housewives going to market and taxis. In fact, in Accra there were more taxis than I have ever seen anywhere. And through it all weave graceful women, balancing seemingly impossible loads on their heads, often with a baby bound to their backs. They move with languid ease, and I was spellbound by each example of sang-froid.

The wave of color in Ghanian fabrics heightens the vibrancy of the street scene. Between the ntama --the smooth cotton of which most everyday clothes are made--and the adinkra --a stamped, hand-stitched fabric--the city looks like an animated patchwork quilt. I longed to be off our tour bus, walking among that color, moving at its pace.

(Later, when my mother and I finally did stride along Accra's streets, we had no trouble keeping up with the pace. But with no tall buildings as landmarks, we were lost after one wrong turn. A policeman smiled at our dilemma, hailed a taxi and negotiated a fare for us in a typical gesture of Ghanian hospitality.)

Our tour began at the National Museum, where artifacts chronicling the history of Ghana and all of Africa are on display. Although it is a modest building, among the treasures inside are extraordinary examples of kente, which means "handwoven," the now-popular fabric indigenous to Ghana. Examples are displayed with the names, meanings and regions of particular patterns. One black-and-white pattern (originally all kente was black and white) was named Nyawoho, meaning "You have become rich," because only a man worth a certain price in gold could wear that pattern--and even then he needed the king's approval.

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