Out of Africa
By Jeff Berg
The new director of New Mexico State University's Black Studies Program, Festus Addo-Yobo, took a most circuitous route in order to finally end up in the deserts of New Mexico.
A native of Ghana, West Africa, Addo-Yobo left his homeland while in his 20s for a three-year stay in Italy. He then left Italy to come to the United States in the 1980s, living, working and studying at various times in Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky and finally in Duluth and the Twin Cities in Minnesota. One can barely imagine two places that would be so far apart culturally, climatologically and in other ways than Ghana and Minnesota.
With degrees in political science and philosophy, Addo-Yobo has been using his education and experience to work in areas of student leadership, "back East."
But, like many new residents of this area, the weather played a factor in his recent move from the gray and snowy northern United States. "I decided to come to the sun," Addo-Yobo says with a warm smile. "And so far, I like it."
He started his new job at NMSU on Nov. 7, leaving a position as the
director of African-American Student Services at Metropolitan State University
in St. Paul, Minn., to get warm again in New Mexico.
Originally it was not Addo-Yobo's idea to work in the field of education at all, however. "My main purpose in leaving Ghana was to play soccer," he says. "My family was involved in the politics of West Africa, so I became the black sheep of the family."
Present-day Ghana rests between the Ivory Coast and Togo, on the west central coast of Africa. In 1957, it became the first country to gain its independence in sub-Saharan colonial Africa, when it was carved from pieces of the former Gold Coast, which was a British colony, and the trust territory of Togoland. From that time on, Ghanaians have had military, socialist, capitalist and dictatorial governments. Political unrest and a series of coups lasted until 1992, and now the country is a constitutional democracy, and one of the most stable and productive nations on the continent.
Its major exports include gold, cocoa, bauxite and timber, with nearly 70 percent of the trade going to Mexico. Diamonds and manganese are also important commodities, with only South Africa producing more diamonds than Ghana.
"Ghana is a somewhat carefree and vibrant society now," Addo-Yobo says. "We have taken refugees from Liberia and other places, and there is no pure race since the British, French and Portuguese have been present. The economy was pretty stable, but 20 years of military rule destroyed that. Things are getting better now."
The small nation is also being watched by the outside world, since it may have as much as 100 billion barrels of oil reserves.
In the past, Ghana also became a haven for some Black Panther Party exiles, who were hounded by United States law enforcement for many years. While attending school in his homeland, Addo-Yobo got to know one of them, Stokely Carmichael, who was his high school government teacher.
Carmichael, a former member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the more militant Black Panther party, had moved to Africa where he lived off and on for many years. He passed away in 1998.
Another African-American of note whom Addo-Yobo became acquainted with was Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He was a noted African-American scholar, researcher and author, who spent most of his adult life chronicling the history of the black race. He too, passed away in 1998.
One of the reasons that Addo-Yobo was able to
move forward with his education while in Ghana was because his mother
worked as a cook for various heads of state. "When I decided to go to school, they helped
me in my education," he explains, speaking of the political leaders
After winding up in education rather than on the soccer field in the US, Addo-Yobo's career led him to a number of different schools here, including the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., and Western Kentucky University. At each of these stops, he says, he has sought to foster closer relationships between African-Americans and white America.
The stereotype that might accompany the thought of a black man in Kentucky does not hold true for Addo-Yobo's experience, he adds. "It was a place that I felt that the people were much more progressive. They were aware of the history of negativity, and are trying to change that. Anywhere you go, each place has to find out what 'diversity' means to people. It can be a loaded word that means many things to many people. And I felt that I belonged in that environment. It was actually a place where I had a sense of comfort.
"And now, I am learning New Mexico cultures," he says. "Anywhere you are, you need to learn to be very patient and learn the history and cultural values. It's a long journey, not a one-day thing."
Addo-Yobo wants to learn all he can about New
Mexico and its peoples, and how they view and relate to black culture
and society. As an example he asks, "The legacy of the Buffalo
Soldiers—how is that reflected in Native American history? How are
His post at NMSU, besides administering the professional, educational and cultural growth of the school's black students, will also allow Addo-Yobo the chance to work on any changes in the area of diversity that NMSU may need.
"I am looking at New Mexico State and trying to see how they want to be progressive—bringing much needed pluralism and quality to this area," he says, adding, "It seems to lack something."
His face registers surprise when he says that NMSU has only 500 African-American students. "Do we (as a culture) really feel comfortable on this campus? What does the Native American community think about blacks? Do Hispanics see images of strong black males? When they see that their history is not being taught, will they (black students) question that?
"I want to look at things we can do with other programs and find out if it is an issue after all these years," Addo-Yobo says, referring to the campus' relatively small black population.
He also wonders why there are no intramural programs for the students to partake in, and will probably work in the future to correct that situation.
"I would also like to see a link between NMSU and Ghanaian technical schools and between black studies or other programs," he says. "That's how borders are broken. Soon, Africa will not need to depend on Europe, and they (Europeans) are just now realizing the partnerships between China and Africa."
Addo-Yobo says that he wants to help make this area a place that wants to be progressive, and hopes he can be "part and parcel" of the teamwork that would help achieve that. There is lots of potential in Las Cruces and El Paso, he feels.
"Racism is a cancer that eats at us slowly," Addo-Yobo goes on. "Race is used as a weapon, but if you are patient enough, you can find ways to bring people together and to understand them philosophically. The universe always throws us something to make us learn something.
"Any time you live in a place with divisions between people, you care less about finding out about the other people. You can become a shadow—a stranger to yourself. But the more people can interact—in whatever ways—that is good, even if it is a black going to a rock-and-roll bar or a white going to a soul food restaurant. We learn the pros and cons of other cultures, but sometimes we tend to dwell on the differences between the cultures. People are different and the 'journey' is easier for you if you understand diversity."
As an example of that, Addo-Yobo points out that the Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria are somewhat like the Irish—outgoing and extroverted. "But the Zulu people can be more like the Germanic races. They are warlike, introverted and conservative."
It does close the gap in a unique way to think of the parallels of two races and cultures that are separated by thousands of miles of geography.
Addo-Yobo has also noticed similarities in regional cultures during his travels, he remarks with a laugh. He has observed that people who live in "hill areas," no matter if they live in Kentucky, Jamaica, Virginia or West Africa, "like to hunt, drink, and are more promiscuous" than their flatland neighbors.
The differences between rich and poor can also be brought down to a slightly more manageable size, too. The people on the Westside of Chicago (historically noted as the poor side of the city) like to party, he says, the same as people in Manhattan, where New York City's wealthy tend to gravitate.
Someday, Addo-Yobo feels, we will all be able to say, "Wow, we are the same!"
Tackling the misinformation that people have about
other cultures is a way that Addo-Yobo feels will help bring people
closer together. So the main mission of his Black Studies Program "will
be to create scholars and to become leaders. Education is not going
to a classroom every day. It is learning from the people around you—doing
things with other people."
In spite of some possible concerns about diversity in the United States, Festus Addo-Yobo has no doubts that things have improved here for people of African heritage over the years. "There is no excuse for any African-American who doesn't go to school," he says, "and there is no way that an African-American student should not know how to read or write.
"Africans are educated in America now, and ex-Black Panthers are now state department officials! The people that were kicked out of America are now helping. African society is not as rigid as people think, and we are now looking at how they (Africans) can work with people hoping for the future."
Addo-Yobo, who is single, describes himself as a friendly person, but one who appreciates his privacy. His interest in soccer is matched by his love of music, and he enjoys playing percussion instruments such as the drums and congas. He also hopes to be able to coach high-school students in soccer, and to someday form an intercity league that would include teams that have mentors from different government agencies and businesses. He also has passions for gardening and reading, and continues to practice his tennis.
A man of many ambitions and boundless energy, he quietly mentions the one other thing he wants to do while he puts all of these plans and programs in motion. "I want to enjoy the people and the sun of Las Cruces," Addo-Yobo says. "The sun brings out the best in people."
Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.