A 'Mom' from Philadelphia becomes a queen mother of Ghana

December 19, 1993|By Marc Kaufman | Marc Kaufman,Knight-Ridder News Service

Queen mother Nana Ama Akofo Broni looked out at the crowd of people who had come to Temple University in Philadelphia to wish her farewell -- more than 150 smiling friends and colleagues, most in colorful African clothes -- and there were tears in her eyes.

For most of her life, she had been known as Josephine "Mom" Johnson -- a bighearted woman who had run a North Philadelphia beauty salon, had worked as a practical nurse, and had thrown herself into community crusades ranging from closing bars to working with street gangs.

Always interested in her African roots, she had come to see many problems in the African-American community as flowing from its distance from, and ignorance of, mother Africa. Connecting her Philadelphia community with Africa became her passion.

And last year, 72-year-old "Mom" Johnson became Nana Akofo -- an honorary member of the royalty of the village of Akyem Hemang Abuakwa in the Eastern District of Ghana. Only two other American women have received similar honors.

It all happened through serendipity -- through some Ghanaians she met and her own connections to the pan-African studies program at Temple. The Ghanaians -- of royal heritage themselves -- liked her and thought her community work and dedication to spreading the word about Africa should be honored.

And so she was officially installed as a queen mother one year ago in a moving ceremony at Temple witnessed by 400 people. Late last month, she was headed for Ghana to be formally received by her village.

"Homeward bound" is how she and her friends described the trip, and it was a moment of enormous joy and great solemnity and pride.

There was a dance performed in the Yoruba tradition in the queen mother's honor, a libation was offered, and a call to the ancestors was made. Then it was time for Mrs. Johnson -- dressed in a gown and headdress of African kente cloth -- to speak.

"I promise you," she began slowly, "that I will not be just a figurehead queen. I am going to Africa so I can expand my knowledge of my duties, to learn how to carry them out correctly."

Then, sternly, she began a lecture. "It is time for African Americans to start healing, and that begins with the black family," she said. "Our old values served us well, and we have to get them back."

"We have to stop trying to out-dress each other and have more jewelry," she said. "We have to spend, think and save black. We have to stop going to Atlantic City, going to the islands, and start going back to Africa."

"If more of our young people thought of themselves as sons and daughters of Africa, then they couldn't be doing some of the robbing and shooting they are doing, because Africans are not like that."

She stopped for a moment and collected herself, because she was getting emotional.

"I'm so pleased and excited to be returning to my original home," she said softly. "I've waited for a long time."

For more than a decade, Philadelphia has been known as a center of Afrocentric thinking -- of the view that African Americans need to connect educationally, behaviorally, even spiritually with their African roots.

The African American Studies Program at Temple has, under the leadership of Molefi Asante, championed this idea, and brought it increasingly into the intellectual mainstream. Especially in education, the Afrocentric approach has become popular -- if sometimes controversial -- locally and across the country.

Mrs. Johnson is a fan of Asante and the Temple program, but said that she and many others had begun exploring their African pasts long before. The ties between the Philadelphia area and Ghana in particular have long been strong, she said, with Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, graduating from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pa.

JTC "I remember being interested in Africa since I was 6," she said. "I would go to the library at 17th and Montgomery and ask for anything they had on Africa. There wasn't much back then."

Mrs. Johnson's interest carried through the years, and in 1979 she was a co-founder of the Pan-African Studies Community Education Program at Temple.

It was an effort to bridge the large and often angry distance between Temple and the surrounding black community. The program offered a variety of courses with a distinctly black, or African, perspective. Over 14 years, she was a student there and later a counselor.

In 1991 Mrs. Johnson got to know Adwoa and Kwabena Asare, Ghanaians who work at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, where they present programs on African culture.

Adwoa Asare said that each time they met, Mrs. Johnson seemed to be excited by Africa and especially interested in the culture and traditions of Ghana. "I thought about this," Mrs. Asare recalls, "and I said to her, 'Maybe your ancestors were from Ghana.' That's how it started."

As the Asares thought more about Mrs. Johnson's great interest in Africa, they concluded it would be an appropriate honor to sponsor her as an honorary queen mother of their village in Ghana.

"So many Americans think of Africa from 'Tarzan' movies and don't know about our real customs and great traditions," said Kwabena Asare. "Especially in Ghana, the system of royalty in the villages and towns is very strong and very helpful. . . . To have a real Ghanaian ceremony in Philadelphia to make Mrs. Johnson a queen mother, this would show people what our real traditions are like."

Becoming a queen mother, Mrs. Johnson said, transformed her life. Her search for African roots had given her a sense of meaning, but the queen mother honor gave her a strong sense of purpose.

Several days before leaving for a one-month trip to Ghana, she talked of how people she hardly knew now called for all kinds of advice.

"Having a queen mother to confide in gives them something rich from their culture," she said. "My people are really, really hungry to know who they are and where they come from."

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