The 400 Year Legacy of the Slave Trade: Reuniting affected Communities at the HACSA Summit 2019.
Ama Ata Aidoo is quoted as saying that “Humans, not places, make memories.”
So, what do we do with a 400-year-old memory of men and women who landed on the shores of America as slaves? Memories of Pain, struggles, despair and lost family ties.
Yet 400 years on, we continue to seek answers to basic questions in the hope of linking people to their roots and creating shared values and opportunities for all.
In an interview with Ambassador Johanna Odonkor Svanikier (Founder and President of The Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa) (HACSA), we set out to understand the significance of celebrating such a dark part of our history. What legacies are there to celebrate and how she and the team at HACSA are focused on building a thriving community for networking and economic empowerment.
She also throws more lights on the 2019 Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa (HACSA) Summit and how governments, private sector, NGOs and individual can leverage on the socio-economic potential of Heritage and Culture as a country differentiator and a means of building value for citizens.
400 YEARS ON: Commemorating the Legacy of the Slave Trade
TVM: Being the Founder and President of The Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa, can you throw some light on this whole concept of slavery and “The Year of Return”?
Amb. Svanikier: The commemoration which is happening is in a very specific context. Exactly 400 years ago, there was a boat which arrived in the United States of America (USA) with what is perceived as the first enslaved people landing in the USA in Jamestown, Virginia. I believe the landing of the first enslaved people is symbolic. There were people enslaved long before that and we don’t want to erase their memory. In 2018, the US Congress passed legislation to mark these 400 years and that has lent impetus to commemorate this period. The Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa celebrates the achievements of the African diaspora, people all over the continent and out of the continent; people beyond the shores of Africa who have excelled. We had our maiden conference in 2017. We are using this opportunity once again to bring the Diaspora and people who love Africa from all over the world; whether it’s Africa, the USA, the Caribbean, Europe or even Asia, all together in Ghana to unite, form networks and bonds amongst ourselves. The biggest problem is, once people were taken away and enslaved, they lost their roots, they lost their identity, and they lost the connection with one another. HACSA believes that that connection is something very powerful and if we reconnect with one another, we can enrich one another’s lives, not just one group; not just the African Americans or the Caribbean people will be enriched, we too will be enriched. On the other hand, they coming is not just doing us a favor, they’ll be doing themselves a favor as well because when they link with us, they’ll find a deeper meaning to their identity.
TVM: Three things come to mind from your narration – Celebration, Unity, and Networking. Are these three key things individuals coming should be expecting?
Amb. Svanikier: Yes, absolutely. We want to celebrate the fact that we are reunited and can help one another grow from strength to strength. Also, we’ll have a solemn commemoration because a lot of people were killed, a lot of people were tortured, a lot of people had their lives destroyed and families separated; whole communities were also separated. Thus, there’ll be some reflection and solemn commemoration at the HACSASummit 2019.
TVM: The theme for the celebration is quite profound. “400 years on Legacy. Communities. Innovation.” Let’s talk about the insights within the theme and why you have chosen to focus on Legacy, Communities, and Innovation.
Amb. Svanikier: The three are sub-themes: Legacy, Communities, and Innovation. The Legacy refers to what I was narrating earlier. The legacy of the slave trade is a very bitter one; it destroyed whole communities. The legacy of the slave trade still exists till today and the latest rendition is that African-American males are being incarcerated and killed in the US at an alarming rate. That’s a legacy of the slave trade which lives with us till today and which in my humble opinion has not been addressed properly. There are also some positive legacies such as innovation that were borne out of the hardship people suffered which include Jazz and Reggae music. Also, as a result of exclusion from many parts of the economy, people of African descent refined their skills and ability in sports and entertainment and now, they rule the world in these fields. This shows that if they are allowed to be in other areas as well, they will excel.
Next is Communities. This is trying to bring people together. I feel very strongly that there was no truth and reconciliation process after the slave trade and so the legacies are still very heavy on the communities that were affected. There hasn’t been the level of healing that needs to take place. So, bringing communities together whether Danish, Dutch, French, British with the African communities that were affected and those who were unfortunately shipped to what was then known as the new world, will bring about a fruitful conversation.
TVM: And possible closure?
Amb. Svanikier: I don’t think we can achieve closure in one session but we can open the debate because I feel the debate is not even opened and I think it is a long term process which needs to start now.
TVM: I heard you talk about innovation in music and entertainment. From a tech perspective, have you considered that?
Amb. Svanikier: For innovation, we are really excited because if you look at the three themes, technically, they represent yesterday, today and tomorrow. Yesterday is the legacy, today are the communities and tomorrow is the innovation and technological innovation is what can move Africa to the next level. We really focus on women and girls because we feel those are the two elements for moving Africa from the socio-economic difficultieswe’re experiencing now to the next level, to prosperity, and a higher quality of life for its people. If we educate women and youth and teach them technology, I think the sky is the limit for us. The Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa, HACSA, has a “Girls Can Code” project which is in collaboration with UNESCO and other partners. There will be such technology Displays and Workshops at the Summit. In a way, especially in Ghana, empowering women I feel is part of our culture and our heritage. I think in Ghana, we haven’t done badly with projecting women as leaders and most recently, the former headmistress of Wesley Girls High School was honored as one of the Women of the Year because she has done such a good job with leadership and imbibing leadership into women’s psyche. We have done a very good job there and we need to bring the tech into the picture and when we combine the two, we will find that we will move very quickly. We will have an innovation exposition and we will try to bring young startups and also people who are doing new things with local products like Ghanaian chocolate makers. They are turning the cocoa beans into beautiful chocolates and that’s innovative as well. I have spoken in the past about coconuts and the fact that it’s completely underused in our economy. There are so many potential uses of coconut into flour, the oil now is very much in demand and coconut is basically a super food. We have it in abundance in this country but we’re not adding enough value. So, the innovation bit is a huge area of opportunity. It’s difficult to know where to start and stop but we need to focus on it to take us to the next level.
TVM: In recent times, there’s been some concern about the relationship between what you might call African-Americans and Africans and the question is, is it unhealthy? How do we ensure that this relationship is made better?
They bring young Africans and young African-Americans together and discuss what the issues are between the two groups and try to make them understand each other from each other’s perspective. The other is the Venture Smith Family story. We are looking for sponsorship and support to bring the family of Venture Smith to Ghana. Venture Smith was an enslaved person who was kidnapped in Cameroon. He was the son of a Prince and was brought to Anomabo, Ghana.
He was shipped to the USA, landed in Rhode Island and later ended up enslaved in Connecticut. He was so enterprising and a highly intelligent person and as such was able to negotiate and buy his freedom. He was lucky his master loaned him out to somebody and that person allowed him to earn his own income and to buy out his freedom, the freedom of his children, his wife and also build a business, a farm and a homestead– his farms and homestead still exist today. He wrote his autobiography. Venture Smith’s descendants still live in the USA. We exhibited his story at the last conference and this time we are trying to bring the family to the HACSA Summit.
TVM: That is a very strong story.
Amb. Svanikier: Yes, it’s a very strong story. We’re hoping this will come to pass if we are able to raise the funds to do it.
TVM: In the Year of Return, what should those coming to Ghana be looking out for?
Amb. Svanikier: The HACSA Summit answers that question perfectly. This is the Year of Return and we’re creating an experience for people. We’ve negotiated discounts with the hotels and have a partner Airline- Brussels Airlines. So, we are asking delegates to book their flights and hotels online and come to Ghana for an experience of a lifetime.
When they arrive; on the first day, there’ll be TEDTalks Osu. It is a platform and a forum to talk about important issues and this time we hope to have people giving their take on the 400 years. Then there’ll also be a welcome reception where people will be meeting with members of the Diaspora from all over the world. That is an opportunity to form long-lasting networks. In 2017, some people who came alone are coming this time with their friends and families to experience it. They’re bringing their families along because of the incredible experience they had the last time. As such, we’re looking to form deeper relationships with people from all over the world. Anyone coming to Africa for the first time maybe has heard that Africa is rising and therefore, there are increasing opportunities for investing in Africa. This is why there’ll be an Innovation Trade and Investment Exposition so that one can get to meet people who are doing very well here; running start-ups, small businesses, SMEs and need a capital injection to take their businesses to the next level. There’s an opportunity there as well for somebody who is interested in investing in Africa. We hope to have three days of debate at the conference; thus, people will be educated as well. There are going to be academic presentations, discussion panels with practitioners and keynote speakers. Hence, there’s an opportunity to understand some of these issues mentioned earlier at a much deeper level; but it is not all work and no play so there’ll be a Gala evening which will have a fashion show of three Ghanaian fashion designers. There will be a music concert with African entertainers, and we’ll have African food, music, and dancing. Some people may never have tasted African food before, so that could be an opportunity. Then also, there’ll be tours. There’ll be tours to the different regions of the country. People can pick and choose which tours they want to go on and the tours give the opportunity to let your hair down in a more informal setting and enjoy the beauty of the country and have cultural experiences. Some tours will include going to the Royal Palace in Akwamu and visiting the museum which has been set up there, which links the history of the Osu Christiansburg Castle with the people of Akwamu. People will have the opportunity to go to Elmina and Cape Coast castle and above all do the Accra tours. Accra is rich in history. HACSA will offer rich tours of Jamestown and Osu and there’s so much to see that there is not enough time to see it all in one day.
TVM: There are those who believe that Africa’s position globally still makes it look like it is within a subtle slavery, or it is within some sort of control and so that’s where the pessimists come in. What’s your take on this? Are we there or not?
Amb. Svanikier: I wouldn’t deny that. I’ll just say we need to start from somewhere and it is incremental. We are doing our bit to move Africa to the next level and I think Africa has started rising but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to build on that and we’ll get to where we want to be. One thing I would say is, we have to be very clear on where we want to be as well. We don’t need to measure ourselves by other people’s standards. We need to look within to define what success means specifically for us. What does success mean for us? I am appalled at the fact that we have now adopted plastic for everything and especially for drinks and water. Our whole country and beaches and seas are littered with plastic. For me that’s not development – to drink coke out of a plastic bottle. When I was a child, we had glass bottles in crates. If we wanted to drink coke, we would take our crate and exchange it for another crate. We were more developed in my opinion and superior in my opinion to a community which is using plastics and throwing them away. We have gone backwards and we need to understand what success means. It doesn’t mean just following blindly somebody else’s model. It means looking at your environment and making sure you are developing in a sustainable way.
TVM: Talking about development, there’s a big question on the table all the time about the culture of maintenance. Why is that so?
Amb. Svanikier: I think human beings are like that. When you give them the right incentives, they behave in the right ways. When we talk about the culture of maintenance, what I would say is, there are issues. I think we’ve come a long way. There was a time when I would be terrified to go to a public restroom. That has changed now. A lot of places now have suitable facilities. We have come a long way from a decade or two ago but so much more needs to be done in this area especially at tourist sites. Although, we have a long way to go I think the solution is in partnership. One thing that I don’t think is working well at the moment is the partnership between government, NGOs, and the business community or the private sector. For example, running a tourist site should be treated as a business. If it is not run on a business model, it is not going to succeed. Many tourist sites are under the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board and there’s no NGO or private sector participation. But, if you bring the three elements together (government, NGO and private sector), you’ll find that everything is going to work so much better. I think this module can be extended to other areas where things are not working well because we can’t expect the government to do everything. That is HACSA’s point of reference. HACSA was established because we realized, in the heritage and cultural space there is a vacuum, and there is a gap. We need to leverage our heritage and culture for socio-economic growth and the benefit of the Continent. We complain we don’t have sufficient foreign exchange but other countries are making billions out of tourism and yet our tourist infrastructure is not in place. We need to invest in tourism and we’ll get the payback. There are certain areas like the roads, restroom facilities mentioned earlier, the actual maintenance of some of the sites that are the responsibilities of government but there are other things like the tours, ticketing, that either a private or NGO can manage. It is a kind of well-oiled engine and an engine has parts and one part doesn’t function well on its own. So, we need government, the non-for-profit organization and the private sector to get working nicely together and we’ll see the difference it will make to all the things we’re trying to do.
TVM: Gradually, the young African is losing interest in his/ her culture and adopting foreign cultures as a result of cultural penetration through music, movies, fashion, and other social media. What’s your view on that? Is this part of the way to build closure or to have a good relationship between us and them?
Amb. Svanikier: No. I think it is about content. We have the social media space, we have the traditional media space. What are we producing? What content are we producing? Everyone is putting their content in the space and then people decide what they want to watch. Consequently, if you produce something that is worth watching, people will follow through. One thing you find is, the entertainment industry; music, films etc. also bring huge socio-economic benefit to a country. We need to build content that is rich enough to get the followership and not we following them. Unfortunately, we turn our noses down when our children want to make music, films and work in the creative arts and yet we’re rushing there to consume what other people are producing. For example, in Ghana, we’re obsessed with the English Premier League when the best footballers come from Ghana – everybody knows that – and yet we haven’t made any effort to create something which can capture the world’s attention. Everywhere you go, people know Ghana for soccer and yet what money are we deriving out of it? As a nation, we should have a football museum. We should be making our soccer stars heroes in the world and yet we are busy following other countries when we have the best. We have the ability for others to be following us and not we following other people.
TVM: In a previous interview you acknowledged some other countries’ symbolic cultures, for example France that is noted for wine that has transformed their economy by making it a revenue stream. What can we leverage as a culture to generate such revenue streams?
Amb. Svanikier: First of all, I think we need to be strategic about it. I think those countries who have created that aura around themselves have been strategic about it. We need to decide what we have and what we want it to symbolize. Some things are low hanging fruitsso like I said, the Black-Stars are known globally; they are adored globally and we can make much more out of that. If you consider chocolate for example, we are not known for it. It’s the likes of Switzerland, Belgium and France that are recognized but we are producing the cocoa. As far as I’m concerned, why aren’t we producing the chocolate? Well, we have started and hopefully we can grow that space. We can even leapfrog and have a cocoa museum in Ghana or a theme park where people come and know that this is the country where cocoa is grown. Everyone loves chocolate, let’s make something out of that. For Gold, why don’t we have a gold museum? You can go on and on and on with so many things where we have a comparative advantage. Other people are using what we produce to great effect. Go to Dubai, they have a Souk especially for Gold. Do they have gold in the desert, I don’t know but I doubt it? So, there is a problem. We allow people to take our heritage, make something out of it, be known for it and we are busy looking elsewhere.
TVM: I hear you say there’s a very strong socio-economic value within heritage and culture but we are not taking advantage of it.
Amb. Svanikier: That’s exactly what I’m saying.
TVM: Many people may want to know more about your personality just beyond your name. Kindly tell us about yourself and your growing up?
Amb. Svanikier: I’m just a Ghana girl. I’m born in Ghana; I attended University Primary School. When I look back, I feel so privileged because currently, I see schools rising like skyscrapers with no compounds for the children to play. In our time, we had a huge compound to run around and play and just feel like children. I am very grateful for my upbringing and my childhood.
TVM: What is your fondest childhood memory?
Amb. Svanikier: I grew up actually in Tesano and most of the fun moments were with friends. We used to pass through the barbed wire and hedges to our friends’ houses as in those days we didn’t have walls. We played till evening and came home. We played on the streets. But Ghana has changed a lot since then.
TVM: You are a barrister by profession and were called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1990 and to the Ghana Bar in 1991. Where did your passion for cultural interests’ spring from?
Amb. Svanikier: I spoke about how we have our norms as a people. Let’s face it, we try and encourage our children to do certain things and not other things. I don’t think Ghanaian children have enough space to explore career choices. We need to expose them to a variety of things and then let them explore what they want to do. The space has opened up a little bit but, in my time, we were expected to be lawyers, doctors or engineers and to quote a goodfriend, “You had to make up your mind by the time you were 5 years old!” To tell the truth, my weakness in school was Mathematics and therefore I decided to do law because I knew that in law, you wouldn’t come across any Mathematics except calculating your bill. However, I think I’m a more creative person and also very visual so I felt I needed more to stimulate me and even to stimulate my intellect. People are really surprised because they see law as something very intellectual but in the end, I moved away from law to broaden my intellect and my horizons.
TVM: You authored a book entitled “Women’s’ Rights and the Law in Ghana.” What is the state of women’s rights in Ghana today?
Amb. Svanikier: We haven’t moved that far. In the public space, I think there’s room for improvement. Legally, things like maternity leave and now paternity leave are of essence in their implementation not just on paper. As a board member of Fidelity Bank, I try to make the bank more aware of women’s issues. We’ve set up a Women’s Forum and we’re advocating for lactating rooms, crèches, men to have leave to help their wives when their wives give birth, longer maternity leave for women to avoid worrying about leaving a new born baby at home. These practical measures can really move the women’s agenda because when women are supported in their child bearing function, they become more productive.
TVM: In 2017, women were celebrated for their tremendous contributions to their societies under the theme “Women in the Changing World of Work”. Some argue that some women are more productive in leadership positions than their male counterparts and that’s why the saying goes thus: “…, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation”. Why hasn’t a woman been president in Ghana until now?
Amb. Svanikier: To be very honest, after studying law, I studied politics and researched for a PhD in “The Evolution of Democracy” using Ghana as my case study and I think therein lies the problem. Ghana is actually quite advanced politically and therefore countries which have more established political traditions, I found that, it’s harder for women to emerge whereas countries which are just beginning to develop democratic traditions like Liberia and some other countries in Africa are more likely to have women leaders. It is easier there because there’s not so much political elite activity in the political space, unlike our political traditions that are more rooted. They go back even a century or more and so it is harder for them to evolve and take women on board at this stage but I think it will happen. We just need the right moment and the right configuration. I think it will happen eventually.
TVM: You have served in various leadership capacities both locally and globally, how will you describe your leadership style?
Amb. Svanikier: I’m a very detailed person. I would admit that as a fault. I’m a perfectionist and therefore when I undertake any task, I expect those I’m working with to work with me as a team. I try to ensure quality at every stage and at every level and that can be quite annoying. But in the end, when people work with me, they are very proud of what they’ve achieved because I hold them to the very standards I hold myself and I hold myself to very high standards and I feel like that is what is needed in our environment. I ‘chill’ where I need to be more chilled and push harder where there is a need. But in Ghana, we are too chilled so we need to be kind of pushed a little to heat us up.
TVM: How would you describe your management philosophy?
Amb. Svanikier: My overall philosophy is that you are only as good as your team. And so get yourself a good team and you will shine with them. We need to work as teams. We need different elements in a team and we need to work and come together to achieve our aspirations. In everything I do, I try to create a team. Also, the team must have young people because it is through the young people that we as a nation can grow. Young people need experience, they need mentorship, and they need exposure. It is not only by traveling abroad that you can get this exposure; you can get it in Ghana too. And by being innovative and enterprising, we can give the young people exposure right here in Ghana.
TVM: Did you or do you have any mentor(s) that influenced your thinking in life, business, etc.?
Amb. Svanikier: Both parents were good role models and mentors. My father expected a lot from us academically. Actually, both parents did, and my mother socially. She had high standards for us socially so I think the two things combined – the academic and the social – made me what I am today.
TVM: What do you do in your leisure time? Where would you like to be during your leisure time?
Amb. Svanikier: I would like to be in the Mediterranean or Caribbean drinking fresh coconut, walking on the beach, enjoying breeze and sun. I don’t like too much sun or too much heat and neither do I like it too cold as well. I want a nice combination of warmth and breeze and that you can get in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
TVM: What kinds of books do you read? Is there any particular book(s) that have significantly shaped or influenced your life?
Amb. Svanikier: I do have books which have really impacted me and given me an ‘aha’ moment. One of them is “The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts”. It is written by an African-American (mixed white and black) woman who was adopted by a white family and thought that she had been separated from her black heritage only to find out that her mother was actually white. That’s a very interesting book and I met that lady in Ghana a while ago. She came to Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer and I think her experience in Ghana also influenced the book. Another favorite book is James Barnor’s book which I brought to Ghana. It has his pictures which depict Africans in the 50s and 60s on their own terms. Ghana actually is a leader in that because we achieved independence early. Kwame Nkrumah was so focused on creating our own narratives and stories and as such, we had our own film institute and photographers working on our own stories earlier than other African countries. So, the pictures of photographers like James Barnor tell the story of Africans in Africa by Africans; it’s a beautiful book.
TVM: What is your favorite meal?
Amb. Svanikier: Waakye. I make the best Waakye.
TVM: What genre of music do you listen to?
Amb. Svanikier: I love all kinds of music; Classical, Jazz but Afrobeats is my go-to. To raise my spirit, I love dancing to Afrobeats.
TVM: If you had the opportunity to right a wrong. What would it be?
Amb. Svanikier: To be very honest, in my youth I was repressed and when you’re repressed you don’t speak up and when you don’t speak up things go wrong. That is what I’m trying to rectify even now. Now, I don’t protect myself so much because, in the end, shyness is actually protecting yourself. I’m more open and if I see something, or know something is wrong, I try to say it and face the consequences.
TVM: Due to your wealth of experience in life and business, do you intend to document your life in a book (autobiography/biography) to benefit the younger generations’ especially young women and girls?
Amb. Svanikier: At this stage, I don’t have time to write an autobiography, maybe sometime in the future. If I do write, maybe it’s unlikely to be an autobiography. It would probably be about lessons learned in life which I can transmit especially to women. I feel I have something to say to young women to make their lives easier and help them go through life in an easier way than I did.
TVM: What advice would you give to the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture on preserving and maintaining Ghana’s culture and heritage?
Amb. Svanikier: I suggest the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture should partner with the private sector and NGOs to get their work done because they can’t do it alone; they shouldn’t be doing it alone.Sites like the Nkrumah Mausoleum; there should be some private sector involvement, there should be some NGO involvement in maintaining the Mausoleum so that it can be a much better experience than what it is today; I think there’s huge potential.
TVM: What advice would you give to young women and girls?
Amb. Svanikier: To girls and young women, they should be more vocal, speak their mind, shouldn’t worry so much about what people think about them and how people react towards them. They should try to get strength from within and whatever people say, they can take on board but not let it define them.