Ghana: Be Here For A While! Thanks COVID-19
By Demetrius Robinson
I have been traveling to Ghana for a few years, first as a tourist, then as an investor. Today, I am fully immersed in the culture within the enclosures of its beautiful borders due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As an African, I am willing to stay indefinitely, but as an American I am unable to return to the United States to my family and friends. This duality was also partly a result of Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo announcing the closure of Ghana's borders and the Kotoka International Airport effective midnight on Sunday March 22, 2020. This announcement came six days prior to my scheduled return to the United States.
As I corresponded with family and friends regarding the serious probability that I may be extending my stay in Ghana, my friend Helen forwarded an article entitled, “I’m a Black American stuck in Ghana during the coronavirus pandemic.” At first glance, I thought the author’s experience may mirror my own here in Ghana. However, after reading the article, I thought, “I am not ‘stuck’, I am safe.” Although I believed the article was a bit sensational, it inspired me to share my experience as an African American rather than being critical of the experience of a “Black American.”
My trip to Ghana began on Sunday, March 15, 2020, when I approached the check-in desk. It almost ended there as well. With passport in hand, the officer asked if I was a Ghanaian citizen or possessed a Ghana residence permit. I responded with a rhetorical “no”, since she just examined my “United States” passport. She then immediately looked at a neighboring check-in officer, with a look most Black folk can easily understand, leading me to believe that I was not getting on the plane.
The officer suggested, “If I were you, I would not get on the plane.” Another officer continued by stating, “I would discourage you from boarding the plane, because you may be quarantined at the airport in Ghana for 14 days.” I was then given a one-page travel advisory, dated the same day, from the Ghanaian Ministry of Information, which read that airlines were instructed not to allow non-Ghanaian citizens who have been in a country that has “recorded at least 200 cases of COVID-19” for 14 days or more to board any planes bound for Ghana. However, the last sentence at the bottom of the travel advisory read that the travel ban would “take effect at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, 2020”, gave me a small window to enter the country before the travel ban.
There were no assurances that I would not be quarantined at the airport once I arrived in Ghana. So, moving with courage, confidence and divine covering, I requested a physical copy of the travel advisory to hold as documented proof, checked my bags and boarded my flight.
As I buckled myself into my seat, I struggled to recall what Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in a French airport for 18 years, did to survive. His experience was published as a book, The Terminal Man and the inspiration for the 2004 Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. Although, I don’t need to publish a book or make a film about being stuck in an airport, I just needed to make it pass the arriving gate in Accra.
My plane hit the tarmac in Accra to a beautiful 90-degree day, which no longer made my favorite hoodie a travel necessity. But rushing with my carry-on and backpack, was about to give way to an additional concern. On my way to customs, I noticed an airport worker standing at the bottom of the escalator wearing a surgical mask pressing a wet cloth against the handrail with one hand and holding a bottle of liquid sanitizer in the other hand continuously disinfecting the handrail as passengers exited the terminal. After completing the customs/immigration card and a medical screening form, I notice that beads of sweat were dropping from my forehead. I thought, the last thing I needed was to raise my temperature or appear to have a fever as I approached the airport medical screening personnel wearing masks and welding infrared forehead thermometers. I quickly placed my bags on the floor, wiped my entire head as I lifted my hoodie off and over my head. I made it through the medical checkpoint and customs with “no sweat”.
After I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way to the baggage claim, I sent messages to my family and friends to inform them that I made it into Ghana. As I looked over the baggage conveyor for my bags, I noticed large families with elderly members shuffling toward the exit with airport hand trollies overloaded with luggage. It appeared that Ghanaians were bringing their elderly loved ones home due to early reports that COVID-19 was targeting older individuals. Just beyond the airport entrance, I was warmly greeted by Karlene Thompson, my good friend and Manager of the Tchambassi Retreat, where I currently reside and will later highlight.
Between the scenic hour-long ride from the airport to the retreat, we stopped for supplies and provisions. The first place we stopped was the Accra Mall to buy a SIM card and airtime credits at a multinational mobile telecommunications company. We were met at the store entrance by a security guard wearing gloves and a surgical mask, taking the temperatures of customers and administrating hand sanitizer to each customer entering the store. The mobile store’s medical screening procedures were just as thorough as the airport, but without the questionnaire.
Similar to the mobile store, but without the infrared forehead thermometers, each store we visited had wash stations and additional staff posted to ensure everyone entering had clean hands. Even some small road-side shops limited entry by customers and required handwashing before business was conducted. For extra protection, mobile street vendors were selling hand sanitizer, surgical masks, paper products, along with a host of other items to drivers stopped at major intersections in the city. You could literally buy fresh food and produce, household products and exchange currency without leaving our vehicle or travel route. It is quite painless to practice social distancing, and with an exchange rate of 5.6 Ghana Cedis (₵) to one U.S. Dollar ($), it is relatively easy to get more Banku for your buck.
Arriving at Tchambassi Retreat seemed to be the perfect location to self-quarantine for 14 days. Tchambassi, goddess and mother of the ocean, is also the name given to the owner and operator of the oceanfront retreat, Winnifred Godfrey, after she was initiated as a Vodun Priestess. Mama Tchambassi an entrepreneur of multiple businesses, a native of Jamaica and citizen of the United States, along with her husband Donal Godfrey, a veteran of the US military, author, and State Department Foreign Service Officer, originally built the spacious nine-bedroom home for their eight children to visit and eventually reside. The four-acre estate includes four chalets, a temple, a large gazebo, a boy’s quarters and dozens of fruit trees.
Although the main house could comfortably accommodate 18 to 20 persons, there were only six persons occupying the dwelling, perfect for practicing social distancing, but that was not the practice here. I was immediately accepted as family as I witnessed Mama Tchambassi supervising the daily operation of the house, which included the preparation of outstanding Jamaican and Ghanaian meals by her and her daughter Karlene, a former pharmaceutical Quality Assurance Specialist and full-time mother. Mama Fasi, a native of Cleveland and an Ifá Priestess, also assisted in the kitchen. However, her most notable talent of 50 years, as an African percussionist and instructor was exhibited as she led drumming class almost every night. Her star pupils were Karlene’s two home-schooled and very bright boys, Xaiver 10 and Xander six who are remarkable drummers. Disappointingly, due to his essential status in Nigeria, Donal remained at his post in Lagos, forcing him to practice job-related distancing. Happily, I not only felt like family, I was an African American living like a Jamaican in Ghana, soon to be “extended” family.
The U.S. Embassy in Ghana temporarily suspended routine services, while continuing to provide emergency services for American citizens, one day prior to the government of Ghana announcing its border closures. My situation was not yet an emergency, but I did place a call to the U.S. Embassy in Ghana to alert them of my presence in Ghana. Regrettably, I was received by a voicemail directing me to the U.S. State Department website to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (S.T.E.P.) to receive COVID-19 updates.
The purpose of my call was to request official documentation that could verify my presence in Ghana and explain the travel restrictions preventing me from returning to the United States. The verification was needed to forward to my employer to document my absence from work as a COVID-19-related absence, in the hopes that I would at least have a job upon my return. So, I registered with S.T.E.P., emailed my request for documentation and eagerly waited for a response from an official at U.S. Embassy in Ghana.
There was no response to my specific request, but I began to receive U.S. State Department health alerts via email that informed Americans “to avoid large gatherings and keep a low profile”, beware of “financial scams” and reported Ghanaian government announcements of extending restrictions on travel, public gatherings and border closures. The only thing this American was concerned about was avoiding the potential financial restrictions placed upon him by not receiving pay from his employer.
Plan “A” was reaching out to my supervisor and human resource department to provide multiple sources of verification to show proof of my unique situation. Plan “B” was to prepare for the realization of earning an income in Ghana during my extension. Karlene was able to assist me with the potential of Plan “B” by guiding me through the process of obtaining a Non-Citizen Identity Card and registering for a tax identification number. Plan “C” was initiated by a S.T.E.P. health alert informing all U.S. citizens in Ghana that the State Department had chartered a repatriation flight to the United States for those affected by the closure of Ghana’s international airport.
Thankfully, Plan “A” materialized with the approval of my documentation, which meant that for now, I would have a job and was going to continue to receive my pay. Plan “B” still needed to be worked out just in case my approval was withdrawn. As for Plan “C”, that was not a possibility due to all of the seats on the final flight being reserved with no anticipation “that there [would] be additional charter flights.” Besides, after reviewing the online Emergency Repatriation Flight Request Form, it was required that all passengers, before boarding the flight, sign a promissory note agreeing to “reimburse the U.S. Government for the full cost of the flight, which may exceed $2000.”
The price of the flight did not concern me as must as the loss of lives due to COVID-19 in the U.S. compared to Ghana. To date (4/18/2020), there are 737,686 confirmed cases and 38,732 confirmed deaths in the U.S compare to 834 confirmed cases and 9 confirmed deaths in Ghana. It is obvious by the numbers and the measures being taken by the Ghanaian government that I was not concerned about my safety. What really concerns me was that my friends and family back home, particularly my three children Shaquille 26, of New Jersey and Jibril 15 and Safa 13 who resides in Maryland, are stuck in the U.S. with the world’s most confirmed cases of deaths due to the COVID-19 virus.
In a speech addressing the nation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, mentioned that the “Government’s policy…will be largely driven by science [and] guided by the data, with [a] focus on the 3-Ts, i.e. tracing, testing and treatment.”
The Ghanaian Ministry of Health “traced” me by contacting Karlene, whose number and address I entered onto the immigrant card before leaving the airport in Ghana. I brought the calls to her attention after receiving a call from a brother from New York City, who I met at that the airport, calling and informing me that the Ministry of Health was asking consent to test those who recently entered the country for the COVID-19 virus. Karlene mentioned that she received two separate calls from the same unknown number. After the second call she noticed a text from the same number which read, “I called you. Please call me back”, with no name nor purpose for the text/call. Reluctantly, I called the number back and arranged to meet an outreach team that was willing to meet me at an agreed location near Tchambassi Retreat. I declined their initial request to come to the retreat to avoid subjecting my hosts to unnecessary testing.
While I do not trust government officials, I felt the need to document my test results and assist the Ghanaian officials in clearing the rolls of the persons who entered Ghana prior to the travel ban and border closure, with the expectation of playing my part in ending the movement restrictions in the Metropolitan areas and other areas within the borders of Ghana. More importantly, I felt the need to protect myself from any evasive testing procedures, such as the taking of blood or tissue samples. So, I called the number back and questioned the official about the testing process prior to meeting with the outreach team. After receiving satisfactory responses to my questions, I felt more at ease and made my way to the arranged location.
The outreach team arrived several minutes after I settled in under a shelter. The outreach team pulled up in two separate vehicles. In the first truck, there were two immigration officers and three military personnel armed with rifles in the rear. In the second truck, an inconspicuous driver delivered a research scientist and a health worker who were exiting the vehicle wearing masks and gloves, carrying a cooler, a clipboard and a closed box of supplies. They asked if it was permissible to test me on site. I agreed, they began unpacking their supplies and then asked personal and medical screening questions.
In response to my flood of questions, the research scientist, whose title appeared on his nametag, demonstrated injecting a saline solution into his nose and collecting a sample of the solution in a specimen container. After, closely inspecting the supplies to be used on me and asking more questions, I completed the testing procedure. Shortly afterwards, one of the immigration officers walked up behind me and requested to see my residency permit or passport. I confidently showed him my passport and visa as I watched the soldiers, watching me from their vehicle. The officer acknowledged the authenticity of my credentials with a satisfied nod paired a cold stare. I then flashed a smile of relief that I was not being taking away by armed soldiers and thanked the medical staff for their professionalism.
At no time, did I feel threatened by the presence of the Ghanaian officials or sense hostility. Even with armed soldiers at attention, the weight of intimidation I would have felt in the U.S. under similar circumstances was not there. Something else I did not experience was the third “T”, treatment, that President Akufo-Addo spoke of in his speech, due to the fact that following a week and a half of waiting, my COVID-19 testing yielded negative results.
During a weekly video conference, that I scheduled with my children while in Ghana, I shared my test results, along with the wonderful memories we created throughout the year, while gauging their moods through discussions of current events and asking probing questions. They immediately put me at ease with their genuine smiles, hardy laughter and thoughtful responses. In return, I mentioned to them that what is going on in the U.S. now is the reason I am in Ghana, building a home for them to come to when the home they have known all their lives is no longer a healthy or safe place. With tears in my eyes and an encouraging smile on my face, I ended our session by telling them, “I love you and will be here in Ghana for a while.”