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A charismatic glimpse of the 'New Africa'

Friday, September 25, 1998

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The president of Ghana stepped from the plane at the Allegheny County Airport yesterday and was embraced by scores of fellow Ghanaians waving their country's crimson, green and yellow flag imprinted with a black star.

  Almost home/Ghana's President Jerry John Rawlings pays tribute to his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman, for her work with women's issues in their home country while visiting the African Heritage Room at the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland yesterday. Throughout his day-long visit in Pittsburgh, Rawlings projected a mix of the new, emerging African and a folksy, back-slapping politician. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

In his dark-blue suit and brown tie, Jerry John Rawlings, 51, cut the figure of a stiff Western businessman.


Before he descended the stairs to the waiting red carpet, the West African leader stopped and danced. On the ground, he received a welcome from Luke Hingson of the Brother's Brother Foundation, a Pittsburgh charity that has supplied medical, literacy and education tools to Ghana for three years. Then Rawlings joked with Charlie, the Star-Kist tuna mascot.

There may be other charismatic African leaders. But none is quite like Rawlings, the former aviator who has governed Ghana since a military coup in 1981. He has easily won two free elections since 1993.

A curious mix of the new, emerging African and a folksy, back-slapping politician, there is one reason he is hailed so heartily.

He stands as a symbol of the renaissance Ghana and other West African nations hope to build with the United States. Throughout his day-long visit in Pittsburgh, the president would portray both the African and the big-league politician/businessman who's out to deliver the goods to his home country.

Standing around the airport, it was easy to see the African. He effortlessly connected with members of the Ghanaian Association of Pittsburgh, proud men in colorful embroidered agbadas and smiling women in long, flowing boubous. It was the same with the West Virginia University African drum and dance ensemble, which beat out its "music for the chief" on large fontomfrom drums.

"This is a significant moment," said Joseph Adjaye, president of the Ghanaian group and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It symbolizes the connection that Pittsburgh has had a long time with Ghana through education exchanges and commercial activities."

In fact, Rawlings' visit was sponsored by H.J. Heinz, whose tuna cannery employs 1,500 people in Tema, Ghana. The company's Star-Kist division has operated in Ghana for nearly 30 years.

When Rawlings and his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman, walked into the Duquesne Club for lunch with Pittsburgh business elite, they overwhelmed it. Heads erect, they had the bearing of royalty.

As politician/businessman, Rawlings talked with a polished authority about the challenges of restoring his nation to world-class dignity.

He said positive change was occurring in Ghana, where the banking system is being restructured, the stock market is the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa, and relationships are building with OPEC and the World Bank.

But Ghana would like more partnerships with the U.S., Rawlings said.

"We appreciate the involvement of companies like Heinz and Coca-Cola, but we need a greater flow of investments."

Congress is at work on a bill that would infuse $650 million into developing trade opportunities with West Africa.

Ghana hopes to attract companies to build joint agricultural ventures and exporting and importing enterprises to reach the 250 million people in the West African markets.

"Ghana is the gateway to West Africa," Rawlings said. "The time to position yourself is now. I hope you'll see the signals and take advantage."

After lunch, the politician visited "home," the University of Pittsburgh's African Heritage Classroom. Gone was the tie and jacket; he sported an earthy green African daishiki.

"Since we're in Africa," he said, referring to the Ashanti-designed insignias that line the wall of the classroom, the mock thatched roofs and the engravings of the sankofa bird, "let us do as we would there."

The president then switched into his native language, Ewe -- African chiefs never speak directly to the people but always through a linguist or interpreter -- and spoke passionately about how merging technology with the humanism and culture of Africa would be a boost to his country.

Before Rawlings retired for the evening to a private reception with the Ghanaian Association of Pittsburgh, he spoke before a group of 700 people at the 20th Century Club at Pitt.

With the flair of a gospel choir director, rhythmically chopping the air with his fingers to make a point, Rawlings won over the crowd with his humor and his appreciation of African womanhood.

In America, he quoted the saying that behind every successful man is a good woman. His daughter, he recalled, helped him to see that behind every successful man is an exhausted woman.

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