Love of country

In late 2001 we were giddy with our first child. The fallen towers and clingy new parent syndrome had pretty much bivouacked us into our condo. The last thing we wanted to do was bring a stranger into the home to be a nanny.

We interviewed a couple of ladies, all eastern European as I recall. Nice enough, all capable of tending a baby, none capable of making us feel good about it. Then we were referred to Margaret Kumi, a classy, soft-spoken mother of many. She was from Ghana.

During the interview Margaret good-naturedly answered my silly list of questions. I remember asking what the first thing she would do if our baby got hurt. She didn’t really understand what I was asking, probably because it was a trick question, and the right answer was so damn obvious. I wanted her to say “I’d call you,” but of course the answer was (and is): make sure the kid’s alright. Later, after we easily hired her, I reflected on how much more that question said about me than her.

Margaret was our full-time nanny for almost five years. We welcomed her into our family and, surprisingly, she did the same for us. We came to know her children, her adopted children, her husband, and visiting relatives from Ghana. We were introduced to baby naming parties, the glutinous food known as fufu, and the sonorous language called Twi.

Her connections with Ghana were strong; most of her family still lived there and she returned twice while she was in our employ. When I was working in Egypt I thought often of making a side-trip to Ghana — a longer flight than cross-country US, but a side-trip in my mind. It never quite worked, mostly because it required a layover in some sketchy Nigerian refueling depot on the FAA might-not-wanna-go-there list.

When I was accepted into the IBM Corporate Service Corps the program manager asked me where I wanted to go and I immediately said Ghana. Margaret and her family were ecstatic. It was a unique moment. You might think this closed some sort of circle, a postmodern Roots with a twist. But it sure didn’t feel like that. It felt like a start — and the wheels I could surely see turning in Margaret’s head confirmed as much.

A few weeks later off the high of the acceptance, during one of our Sunday evening Twi lessons, Margaret and her husband told me that they wanted my help. They had been thinking for a while of returning to Ghana. The country was doing well relative to West Africa and even absolutely for sub-Saharan Africa. Margaret wanted to open a daycare center in Kumasi. She said they had been trying to figure out a way to get back to Ghana while I was there so I could, in her words, help her figure out how to do start a business there. My emotions at this time were a somewhat perfect balance of eagerness and bewilderment.

I am an African know-nothing. I’ve read a few thousands pages on the continent and its history, peoples, and business outlook since I was accepted into the program, but let’s be clear here: I don’t know the first thing about starting a business in the relatively comfortable nest of the USA let alone Ghana. But how could I say no? Margaret is a product of Ghana and her care for my kids derived from that.

There’s another thing though. This isn’t payback. My desire to help Margaret isn’t what many characterize as Western guilt about Africa. I have no colonialist baggage; I feel no latent pangs over the slave trade (though you might ask me again after I visit the Middle Passage embarkation points). It’s more personal than that. Margaret came to America for a better life, remitted part of her earnings to her family in Kumasi as best she could, and then, because of mature governance and a world eager to help, she’s now afforded an opportunity to return home. It’s rare and, though our lives will be the lesser if it happens, so very right.

Margaret told me last week that she’s secured a plane ticket and will be there when I am. I couldn’t be happier.

It’s an interesting thing to reflect on this July 4 weekend. I’m proud of my country — and my company — for putting me in a position to help.