|Originally known as a weaver, "Ananse is a character that can be anybody," said Paajoe Amissah-Aidoo of Ghana, West Africa. In the African folklore tradition, when a story is being told about someone's particular life, the name Ananse is used. In one way it protects one's anonymity, his or her selfless pride, or else keeps an ego from growing too large, especially if the story is of some great feat. In another way it serves as a reminder that we are all equal; Ananse, a single name to represent us all, an equal life for each and everyone.
Through word of mouth and by practice, from generation to generation, such beliefs, legends and customs become traditions that everyone may learn from. February is Black History Month. A tradition that began in 1926, at the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance. Then called Negro History Week, it was launched to "neutralize the apparent ignorance and deliberate distortion of black history,"
from Ghana Review, Vol. 1. No. 6. African American scholar, Harvard trained Ph.D., Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson led the struggle and search for truth, organizing meetings, exhibitions, lectures and symposia to give a more objective and scholarly balance in American and World history. This weeklong observance would expand to encompass the entire month of February in the 1960s and continues to do so today. It was intended that this month would be the climax of a year-round scientific study of the African experience, not merely a month's study.
One needn't go far to enjoy the richness of the African contribution to our society. Now a resident of Fort Bragg, Paajoe and his wife Rebecca own Ananse Village, a business, "dedicated to supporting small scale production by talented craftspeople." The store, located on North Highway One in Fort Bragg, south of the city center and the Noyo bridge, sells African arts and crafts, and a portion of their profits helps provide medical care and educational opportunities to the communities they work with. It is a vision, says Rebecca.
"Ananse Village was inspired after Paajoe and I and our family traveled to Ghana in 2000. We met with numerous wonderful people; remarkably talented craftspeople that were living in fairly compromised conditions, some of which could have been helped with an infusion of money. School fees to be paid, medical expenses, a pair of shoes, a school notebook, tools, vitamins, a soccer ball, other situations which would seem trivial to us but made a huge difference to the people in Ghana. Because of my experiences in the retail sector and Paajoe's connections in West Africa, we figured that helping out by importing these products would make a difference in many people's lives (both in Fort Bragg and in West Africa).
"One thing that has stuck with me from our initial trip was how amazing the women in the market place were. They would rise at 4:00 a.m., feed the family and then leave
for a day of selling in the hot sun, only to return and finish the day with the family. Increment is a very important concept. Everyone works and contributes, even if it is a small amount. I witnessed numerous women helping to support the family by selling oranges, one at a time day in day out, for about four cents apiece. At the end of the day, whatever profits they made fed their family. All of this activity is done with love and a joy for living, never a sense of hopelessness or despair for the situation they may be in. Family units are extremely strong and include a broad number of relatives often living together, working together and playing together."
Paajoe gives his view of the family unit in Ghana. "It is tradition for every household to take good care of the children. There's competition about who's going to be the best farmer, best fisherman; the expectation is to be the best that you can be. They don't want shame in the household. You live on your own if you have too much shame, which is why everyone likes to chip in, 'cause, [as an example], it'll be the uncle who's going to brag about it, 'yeah, I helped nephew...' he is acknowledged for what he is able to do for his nephew. It becomes a huge family affair, schooling, [and] if someone is sick, they all show up [to help]."
He continues, "In my case, on father's side, there is royalty there. My father's kids are uncle's responsibility and vice versa, uncle's kids are fathers. Uncle is stricter, more tough than my own father."
Rebecca elaborates on Paajoe's modest family description, "His uncle is chief and Paajoe is next in line. It's gonna be a big deal. What will happen? I'm a little overwhelmed." The pages of that chapter are yet to be turned.
It is a changing time now, Paajoe says. "Most West African cities are modern. There are more investors in the country with free trade, the government is more stable and not afraid of investor's money. They're investing boldly and hope to get their money's worth. There's some opportunity to get work. School is very important there.
He describes, "Kids, you get up in the morning there and see hundreds of school children with backpacks. Whoever makes backpacks has a lot of money," he jokes. "And, they are all in uniforms." It would be too costly to have new clothes every year for school; a uniform is better in that way. Besides, as Paajoe notes, clothes may be changed three times daily to "show off."
Family life in the "yard" is also changing, gradually, notes Paajoe. With more economic stability, people are showing more of their independence and not relying so much on the favors and gifts of extended family. Some become prosperous and take so fondly to being an individual that the direction of their front door is moved away from what used to face into the yard and the rest of the family's front doors. "Now they move the front door of house; in modern times they need privacy. It doesn't stay like it was forever."
In a few cases where no family exists, where the relatives have died off, those few suffer, a lot, and then are on the street and an embarrassment to government or become thieves, Paajoe says. That's when organizations that do charity take hold of them, he adds.
"What we do is a hands-off approach," Rebecca says. "The idea is to have an impact on the quality of life, but not impact the economic hierarchy. In creating a situation, for example, in America, say someone works at McDonald's and makes enough to drive a Mercedes Benz, that'd change the social color; it can get strange. We are not looking to do that. We look at spreading the influence around."
Through Ananse Village, Rebecca and Paajoe are able to work with a number of groups in Ghana, where they keep a second home, a home office. Their assistance helps develop what is more commonly, in the United States, called cottage industry. Production is set up to benefit the locals and the local economy, not for export as corporations have been
known to do when setting up "sweat shops," Rebecca notes. "It's a value-added product; where production increases and so do the skills; we are merely creating one more 'local' market there. The group of baskets aren't being made for us, there being made for the people down the road." In that sense, supply is being made to meet demand, not to exceed it.
Creating worthy projects is a difficult enterprise to organize alone. Time, travel, weather, and other barriers inhibit one's progress, which is why Rebecca and Paajoe have joined with already established organizations and independent artists and families that they meet. Very often these organizations are steered by an individual who may have worked in a program such as the Peace Corps, and thus, they have already made the necessary contacts to help further the progress of another project, this time of their own design.
Rebecca shares, "My personal favorite is a NGO (Non Governmental Agency) called The Poverty Reduction Center, which provides training, workspace and materials
to single mothers to learn the art of batik (cloth painting) and produce batik cloth for sale in the local market place. The trainees are schooled first on technique and then once trained they are allowed to use the facilities to produce wares for sale at one of the largest open markets in West Africa. Once they have saved enough to move out of the program they set up shop on their own and a new trainee can enter the program. We have commissioned and purchased cloth from them in the past and this trip we intend to help set up a sewing school. Then we will commission the cloth as well as items, which are simple to sew (potholders, aprons and hot pads). Proceeds from our purchases will allow more trainees into the program and expand the skills of the current ones. These skills are ones, which will benefit them in the local economy (in Ghana) and will have a lasting impact on the quality of life they will enjoy. This feels good to me, and, as a by-product we will bring back these great things and folks here can be part of the cycle too by purchasing these items from Ananse Village. (Which will in turn sponsor more projects in Africa.)
"We also work with individual artists and craftspeople, commissioning their work and helping with medical expenses, paying a child's school fees, etc.
"This is how we share our profits with the communities we work with. In the future, we hope to be able to expand generosity and establish a scholarship fund (education is a luxury for some in the more poverty stricken areas, especially girls) as well as work with an orphanage in the town we live in (mostly orphans of AIDS victims) to provide infrastructure, buildings, beds, medical supplies and personal care items.
"Because we are working with these people on a daily basis there is no 'professional' monitoring other than our own heart and conscience," Rebecca says.
She adds, "The biggest outside influence we want to have is to have them make something specific for us. We've never done this before; we've only dealt with products that they normally make. This is the first time, this year; we will design something and have them made by them. It will give them more money and we'll see how it goes. If it's too strange, a potholder, since they don't use them, we won't persist.
"We also try and spread it [the projects] out to different craftspeople so not one person benefits, so everyone is happy. Everything is so delicate." The people are keenly aware of what is going on around them; they know their neighbor's business, she notes.
For Rebecca the work they are doing feels like something she is compelled to do, "especially at this point in history [with the threat of war]. It seems like a responsibility that can't be ignored," she describes.
"I came to the coast in 1977 after graduating from high school in the Central Valley, on my way to Australia. Never made it to Australia. My family had a house in which we spent summers during my childhood. Fort Bragg was a quiet fishing town then."
For Paajoe, who grew up in Ghana, the experience is enhancing his passion for his home country. As he sees the impact of their work, his interest in the process grows; "he keeps blossoming," Rebecca adds.
Paajoe moved to the United States in the seventies, touring with artist Hugh Masekela, known for "Grazing in the Grass," and also a trumpet player, in what was then the "first African band in the United States," Rebecca shares. Paajoe is a bass guitarist among other musical talents he holds. Later, he toured as a bass guitarist for eleven years while living in the Bay Area, eventually moving to the coast eight years ago. It was a synchronistic pairing, Rebecca says of their relationship. One of those "right place at the right time" situations, she adds. They have one almost-five-year-old daughter together, Yaa-Amponsah, with a fifteen-year old daughter from Rebecca's former relationship. Paajoe has two other daughters who live with their mom in the Bay Area.
Rebecca opened Tangents in 1985 in Mendocino while finishing degrees in Art and Invertebrate Zoology. She moved to Fort Bragg six years later and never intended to own/ operate a store. "It was just a very organic process (A Tangent in my life)." She has no formal training in business/store management, and has learned through experience and good luck, she says.
"The business community has changed through the years; it's not as supportive as it once was. Challenges? I prefer to think of them as 'learning opportunities' with the major lesson in life being to remain as in touch with humanity as possible. The future looks bright with continued growth on all fronts personal and business."
"It [the business] is satisfying for right now," Rebecca says. An observation of their lifestyle in Africa, she adds, "They live in the moment. There's no point in worrying over success, because there is no guarantee that you're going to get to fulfill it. Therefore, their interactions with people right now are so full and so joyful. Everything goes so quickly there on some levels and so slow on others. You could get sick and die the next day, why worry about next week now?"
Rebecca continues, "Everything we do is so small compared to the whole situation. Yet, it's important to keep doing it so consumers are aware they can make a difference. Support businesses that support fair trade. It's important for people to do this. The more they do, the more we can do.
"It's like that saying, 'Give a hand up not a hand out,' be part of creating a long-term situation versus a quick fix. You can give a fish to a man and he'll eat for the day, or you can teach him how to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life."
Rebecca adds, "We are not soliciting funds from the community to support these projects. Of course if anyone is interested in helping we welcome their participation. In the meantime, people can feel good about shopping at our store." Rebecca notes that they had thought about asking for funds, but, she says, "It's a complicated thing... The money that we take in goes directly to the people we know need it, not the money into their hands but in goods and services. You have to have things set up tightly to be comfortable about soliciting funds over there." Ananse Village may soon collaborate with local service groups such as Rotary, who have similar tangible projects in mind such as that of completing installation of a well in a village or building a school in a village. "It has to be concrete," Rebecca says, adding half jokingly, "literally."
Small Business of the Mendocino Coast