He's Their Man | Our Town | Chicago Reader

He's Their Man 

A pillar of the Ghanaian community gets a little help from his friends.

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By David Harrell

At 11:30 on a Saturday night families, couples, and young singles filter into the gymnasium of a south-side YWCA. Some speak in English, others in various African languages. Some are wearing Western suits or dresses or jeans, but most are wearing traditional African garb--intricately patterned long dresses, kente-cloth hats, and sandals. Many women also wear elaborate braids, head scarves, and wooden bead necklaces. Upon entering the room, they file past tribal chiefs, queens, and elders, shaking hands with each before taking their seats.

Among Chicago's 5,000 Ghanaians, fund-raising parties such as this are part of a strong tradition of mutual aid--and a perhaps equally strong tradition of having a good time. Sometimes the turnout is good, says Berko Owusu, who publishes the local newspaper African Spectrum, but sometimes nobody shows up.

Tonight's guest of honor is the "mayor" of the Ghanaian community, Boafo Papafio. He had a cancerous prostate gland removed last summer, and the benefit's been organized to help him pay his medical bills. He hasn't arrived yet. In fact, he's three and a half hours late. But then most of the guests are late.

Fifty-seven years ago Papafio, one of five sons and six daughters, was born in Amanokrom, Ghana, a tiny village 30 miles east of Accra, the capital. His father grew corn, cassava, and plantains; his mother sold some of the food at the local market. Their sturdy brick house, built by Papafio's grandfather, sheltered an extended family--as many as 30 people spent the night, along with several sheep and goats.

The children wore uniforms to grammar school, and the schoolmaster would sometimes patrol the village after school to make sure they were studying. One day he caught Papafio and some friends playing soccer. They were told to come to school the next day without bathing or even changing clothes. "They put us in front of the whole school," says Papafio, "then they gave us six lashes each with a cane."

On Saturdays he and his siblings would get up at six, then spend two hours walking to the farm, where they'd work with machetes and hoes until four. "Most people in Africa do this most of their lives," he says, "unless they are raised in the city." On Sundays he worshiped with his family at the local Presbyterian church.

Government-funded high schools didn't exist, and Papafio, like many other children, couldn't afford private schooling. So at 15, he set out for Accra. He spent several years there, working as a mail carrier, as a clerk in a government warehouse, and then as a file clerk in a government office. He also managed to see plenty of movies, many of them made in America and some starring black actors such as Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Fascinated, he began visiting the American embassy library to read about the U.S.

One day he decided to write to three companies listed in the American-business edition of Who's Who, asking them to hire him and sponsor his immigration to the U.S. To his surprise, Argus Camera, in Elk Grove Village, replied, and after a few more letters agreed to hire him on the condition that he pay his own way to America. He says he didn't have the money, so for the first time in his life he played the lottery. He won just enough to buy a plane ticket. On July 1, 1965, the 23-year-old Papafio boarded a flight to New York City.

When he arrived at the headquarters of Argus Camera he was ushered in to meet the company president and personnel director, who said they'd train him to repair cameras and pay him about $3.50 an hour, double the minimum wage. They also advanced him $35 and helped him find temporary lodging at a YMCA.

Two months later he moved into a rooming house on South Wabash. "There were some Nigerians there and some Jamaicans," Papafio says. "It became a center. When someone came from Ghana they'd meet some American--'Oh, I know some Africans. They live at 1308 S. Wabash.' And they would stay with us until they got on their feet."

Papafio recalls that whites at the time were more naively curious about him than racist. When they heard his accent they'd usually ask whether he was Jamaican. When he told them he was African they'd ask, "Have you ever seen an elephant? Or killed a tiger?" He laughs. "I never saw an elephant or a tiger before I came here."

Black Americans, he says, were "glad to see a person all the way from Africa. They had so much respect for each one of us. You had Africans that would come here in the wintertime with their African clothes. So you had some of these black Americans go and sit at the airport with winter coats so they can help them out."

Papafio took two years of night classes at Dunbar High, then enrolled in Olive-Harvey College, where he studied speech and communications. He and other Ghanaians also formed the Ghana Student Union.

Eventually the camera factory relocated to Michigan, and Papafio found evening work operating machines at a paper factory in Mount Prospect. His plans were interrupted when his girlfriend, a white Northwestern University student, became pregnant. They married and had a son, but soon divorced. In 1973 he married his current wife, a Muslim from Nigeria named Germinatu Ali.

Papafio earned his degree in 1975, but with two children to support he couldn't afford to stay in school any longer. He worked as a candy and gum salesman for Warner-Lambert and drove cabs. Then he started driving a delivery truck for Sonic Air, the parts-shipping division of UPS, a job he still holds. "I've worked every day of my life," he says proudly. "When you come from a poor family, when nothing is handed to you on a platter, you have one goal--to better your life. You come here, you see all these jobs lying around in factories and everywhere else. You were making $10 a month, and you come here and you see a job opening for $10 an hour. Believe me, you're going to jump on that."

Papafio was only one of many Ghanaians to immigrate to the U.S. Of those who came to Chicago, many settled on the north side, often in Uptown and Rogers Park. Papafio often helped them out when they arrived, showing them around the city, finding them lodging, and inviting them to social gatherings. "When somebody came from Africa people would say, 'Oh, there's Papafio, and he knows how to apply for a residential permit.' I came here not knowing anybody at all. I came here penniless. I know it's very difficult. We have traveled so many miles from home, and once we are here we have no families. So we have to come together. If we can't help each other we are completely lost."

Yet the new immigrants clung to old tribal identities--the Ashanti had their social group, the Fanti had theirs, the Ewe had theirs. To complicate things, they had different religions--62 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, 15 percent are Muslim, and the rest practice indigenous religions. Papafio and others tried to form an umbrella group in 1975 for the Ghanaian community, but he says nobody showed up for the first meeting because of religious tensions.

A second attempt in 1984 succeeded. The Ghana National Council, which united the 12 tribal associations (Papafio represents the Okuapem), now coordinates social activities; organizes the annual Ghanafest, held each summer since 1986 in Washington Park; and raises funds for various projects. Last summer the council raised $9,000 to bring the Ghanaian women's soccer team to Chicago for the World Cup match against Sweden after the Ghana government said it couldn't afford to sponsor them.

People increasingly turned to Papafio to emcee Ghanaian social events--weddings, "outdoorings" or christening parties, birthday parties, fund-raisers for the needy, funeral celebrations, and the Ghanafest, which has been his gig every year except last year, when he was recovering from his cancer treatments. "He's almost like the PR officer for the Ghanaian community," says Clement Timpo, the Ghana National Council's secretary-general. "He is always trying to pull us together."

Papafio, the social-welfare officer for the Ghana National Council, is now probably the best-known Ghanaian in Chicago. "Everybody knows him in the community," says Owusu. And Papafio knows them well enough to scold them. At a gathering after the funeral of a Ghanaian woman who'd committed suicide, he lamented that the Ghana National Council hadn't been willing to help organize or publicize her funeral. The woman, a single mother of three, had no other family here. "They said she had lived in the city for so many years, but she never came out to support anybody. But that's no reason not to support her." When he took the microphone he said, "Some people are saying Mary does not deserve this funeral. Sometimes the truth may hurt, but we have to face it. You can't say the county should bury her. She's one of us. We're all from one country." The crowd was silent. "We are all Ghanaians. We love each other. We must express that. Please, let's come together."

Around midnight applause breaks out in the YWCA gym as Papafio and his family enter. After dozens of handshakes and embraces they take their place at the front table, underneath the basketball backboard.

A Christian minister exhorts members of the crowd to give generously, then leads a prayer, partly in Twi, Ghana's most widely spoken language, and partly in English, its official language. The crowd noise declines but never dies. A Muslim cleric chants a prayer in Arabic. An elder pours wine on the floor to honor everyone's ancestors. And then the cleric leads everyone in chanting "Ghana oseiii-yei," a traditional rallying cry that means "Ghana, rise up!"

At 1 AM people are still streaming into the gym as if it were six in the evening. The buffet table is still open, and women are still serving joloff rice, spicy red rice topped with beef and lamb stew; wache, rice and beans; kenkey, steamed, sour corn-dough patties; beef kabobs; fried fish; fried chicken; fruit salad; wine, beer, and hard liquor. The music stops while a doctor lectures about the dangers of high blood pressure, diabetes, and prostate cancer, but few people seem to be listening. Then the DJ duo goes back to playing African highlife music, and the dance floor fills with young and old men and women--mostly women.

Appeals for donations are made periodically over the next few hours, in English and in Twi. By the time the party breaks up at 4:15, close to 1,000 people have stopped by, according to the man who organized the event. And several thousand dollars have been collected, enough to cover Papafio's remaining medical bills.

Papafio and his wife, a nurse's assistant, live in a three-bedroom house filled with African sculpture on a quiet tree-lined street in Calumet City. On a shelf in a corner of the living room are community-service awards that they've received from the Ghana National Council and the tribal associations, along with a photo of Papafio with Mayor Daley. His oldest son is now a social worker, his second son sells restaurant equipment in Minneapolis, and his daughter is studying international business at Southern Illinois University.

Papafio says he's been blessed in this country. He points out that Ghana is rich in natural resources, but its weak manufacturing base and socialist policies have crippled its economy. "Even nowadays, those who graduate from college are washing dishes somewhere, or they go into government service to work pushing files and stuff like that. I saw that I would never better my life there."

Nevertheless, he says, "Ghana is still my home. Hopefully, if I stay alive till I retire, I'd like to move back there." Asked why, he explains, "Because it was my home and that's where I was raised. My mother's still alive--she's 80--and I've got other brothers and sisters there. With whatever I receive from retirement I'll be able to help them too. Things are not that easy over there--things are tough. And I don't want my family to put me in a nursing home someday. If I'm in Africa I won't have to do anything--the family will do things for me. Here, maybe your daughter lives in Washington and you live in a nursing home. And over there, I wouldn't have to deal with this severe weather any longer in the winter. I wasn't born with this stuff, you know."

Papafio's father died of prostate cancer in 1992, at the age of 88. "Back home," he says, "the only thing we knew about this disease was an older person, all of a sudden his urinary tract is blocked and he goes in the hospital. And maybe within a month, or two or three months, he's gone."

When his cancer was diagnosed last spring, Papafio's first instinct was to not tell anyone. Then his daughter found a stack of brochures about prostate cancer in his bedroom and demanded to know who had cancer. He told her it was someone he knew. "You liar!" she told him. Papafio says, "When I was walking around in the house and she would see me, she would just run up into her bedroom and lock the door and start crying."

He had his prostate gland removed in July. "According to my doctor, something else will kill me, but it won't be prostate cancer." His wife's insurance covered some of the bills, but he still owed $8,000.

Now he wants to help reduce the incidence of prostate cancer in his community. "That's why I took it upon myself to get some of these doctors and nurses to come [to the fund-raiser] and discuss this thing with these people." He chuckles. "But they come down there, and they start drinking, and they won't pay any attention. I'm going to have to work and find some other medium where we can get through to these people."

Without drinks, maybe?

"Yes," he says, laughing. "Without drinks."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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