How a York PhD student became an African chief

Early last Oct. 29, Kwasi Kafele awoke to the sound of drumming and women singing outside his compound in an ancient village in eastern Ghana. Wake up, wake up, the queen mothers of Manya Krobo seemed to chant, we are here to rub you with special oils and dress you in white calico, for today you will be made a chief. It had rained all night, but at dawn out came the sun. Some believed it was a sign.    

And so, a 50-year-old York environmental studies doctoral student became the first non-African-born man to join the Manya Krobo Traditional Council of Chiefs. In a ceremony that took hours and involved hundreds, the Krobo people presented Kafele with an ancestral stool – the equivalent of a crown – and made him manoyam matse, chief of youth development.

     Right: PhD student Kwasi Kafele at York

Kafele was “shocked and surprised” when he learned months earlier that the paramount queen mother of Manya Krobo recommended to the king, Nene Sakite II, that Kafele continue the work of ancestor Nene Detse, a fearless protector and talented organizer who had occupied the stool 150 years before. “The more I understood, the more humbled and honoured I felt and the more anxious I was to clarify my responsibilities.” This would be no sinecure. “I am father to the young people in Manya Krobo,” says the Toronto-based chief, whose day job is director of health equity at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH). “They look to me for leadership and guidance. I have to be very mindful of how my decisions will impact their lives.” 

Being chief of youth development is “a fantastic opportunity to make a difference” in the lives of 100,000 young people in a region plagued by HIV/AIDS, poor education and high unemployment, says Kafele. To his new assignment, he brings 30 years of experience working and volunteering as a researcher, trainer, conflict mediator, youth advocate, teacher and community worker with Toronto’s African-Canadian and other equity-seeking communities. And though he is not an elected representative in the Ghanaian government, he has enormous influence as a chief in the traditional royal hierarchy, which works in tandem with the local politicians.

Left: Nene Kwesi Detse 1 seated on the ancestral stool

“It is going to change my life,” says Kafele of his chieftaincy. For one thing, the father of a 24-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter (who now considers herself a princess) can’t be a chief without a wife. The king expects him to marry. For another, there is a code of behaviour he is expected to follow, especially in Africa. For instance, he must never eat, drink, go barefoot or purchase anything in public. He must be dignified at all times and never publicly display extremes of emotion. Above all, he must advance the well-being of Krobo, be ready to defend Krobo, and must be humble, serene, honest, calm, courageous and fearless.

As chief, Kafele will visit Ghana at least four times a year. While there, he mustn’t go anywhere without his personal retinue and his stool, but especially not without his okeayme, or executive assistant, Nartey Kpabite, with whom he already communicates daily by e-mail, phone and text message. Because Kafele has plans.

He has already met with a number of young people in Manya Krobo to identify their concerns. When he returns in February, he will tour the entire traditional area to talk to more young people and hold a meeting with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide youth services. In July, he will host a conference of NGOs, government personnel and young people to set priorities and create a three-year strategic plan for improving opportunities for young people.

Here in Toronto, he has established an elders circle and planning committee to raise funds, provide advice and build relationships with Manya Krobo. They have already found partners and received pledges to donate computers to schools.

Kafele grew up in an impoverished, working-class quarter of Kingston, Jamaica. The oldest of three children, he immigrated to Canada with his family when he was 19 for “a better life and more opportunities.” His parents “believed in education as a way out” and so did Kafele. He won scholarships so he could attend high school and enrolled at the University of Toronto as soon as he arrived in Canada.

At U of T, Kafele enrolled in political science and economics, keen to understand such issues as third-world development, the role of multinational corporations in developing countries, neo-colonialism and community activism. A child when Jamaica gained its independence from Britain, the political ferment, the anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and trade unionism of the ‘60s and ‘70s “really helped to shape my consciousness” around issues of power, privilege and wealth. “I think that imprinted me with a clear sense of purpose at an early age to dedicate my life to fighting oppression.”

Above: Last Oct. 29, York PhD student Kwasi Kafele is escorted under an umbrella during the ceremony to name him Nene Kwesi Detse 1 and make him manoyam matse, chief of youth development, in Ghana’s Manya Krobo Traditional Area

As a young man, Kafele became involved in Toronto’s African-Canadian community. Always curious about his African roots, he set out to see Ethiopia and over the years set foot in 19 African countries.

Within a couple of years of graduating from U of T, Kafele became director of the Jamaican Canadian Association, the largest African-Canadian organization in Canada. He went on to work as a senior policy analyst with Ontario’s Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs, then as manager of the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat. Eleven years ago he joined CAMH as director for corporate diversity and co-founded the Greater Toronto Area’s Health Equity Council.

Kafele has been visiting Africa for 20 years, spending vacations volunteering wherever he went. Since 1995 he’s been drawn to Ghana, a focal point of the British slave trade. Seven years ago, he founded Yensomu (Twi for “let us hold it and build it together”) Youth & Community Development, a non-profit agency that supports children and youth development in West Africa and among African-Canadian youth in Toronto. Over the years, Yensomu has shipped computers, dried food, clothing, books, toys, school and medical supplies, coordinated a sponsorship program to support children orphaned or impacted by HIV/AIDS, and drilled a borehole to bring clean water to a small village. No wonder the queen mothers of Manya Krobo fixed on Kafele as a potential chief.

The Toronto Star’s Royson James sang Kafele’s praises in his Nov. 24 column. Every two years, Kafele gives tours of Ghana, ancestral homeland of many American and Caribbean Africans, that include visits to slave dungeons on the coast. James joined Kafele in 2007, the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade, for just such an emotionally wrenching tour and was impressed with Kafele’s authority, serenity, style and substance. “He has all the makings of the African chief that he now is,” wrote James.

Recently, Kafele went back to school. In 2005, he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies from York and then started doctoral studies. While he continues working full time at CAMH, he is teaching an undergraduate course in environmental activism and working on his thesis – the psychosocial and emotional impact of violence, racism, poverty and social exclusion on young African-Canadian males. “There are almost no therapeutic support services for young men in the black community to help them grieve,” says Kafele, who hopes one day to teach at a university. “There are very few infrastructure supports, peer supports or adult supports.”

He’s talking about Canada but could be talking about Ghana. On both sides of the Atlantic, on two different continents, he’s about to make a big difference in the lives of young people.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer