When Kofi Appenteng got to the United Kingdom, he did not envisage eventually moving to the United States of America to lead African communities there to re-connect with the diaspora while improving lives in different ways. Decades after, he’s risen to become the first Blackman to make partner in a top law firm in New York, and now sits on different boards where he’s effecting the changes he wants to see happen.
Having encountered resistance in the UK in the quest to re-connect Africans in the diaspora with their roots, he moved to the US where he joined an organization that both tells the African story and recognizes exemplary Africans in all disciplines. In light of the upcoming Gala being organized by his outfit, Africa-American Institute (AAI) to award Africans who are making a difference in the world, Face2Face Africa caught up with Appenteng and engaged him on his life’s work, the Africa-America Institute (AAI) and the 38th annual AAI Gala. The following is a transcript of his interview with Face2face Africa.
As an African who schooled in England how was the experience like connecting to your roots?
I started my time in the UK when I was 5 in the boarding school and I would say initially it was tough; a lot to adjust to and the weather, the people; I could tell people thought I was from a very primitive place and all of that, but as I got to know people in school at a personal level it was okay, but every time I met people outside the school environment there was that stigma and curiosity and this was in the 90’s. It all got to point where I didn’t see a future for myself remaining in England so I decided to apply to a University in the US where I felt there were more possibilities and a lot more people like me.
Would you say moving to the US helped you connect to your roots better because you met more people who shared in your vision?
Yes, I would. I have always felt an affinity to [people of African descent from a very early age and when I got to be 14 or 15 and started reading the people who seemed more advanced in their thinking about black people showing off to the world were African Americans and that was a huge attraction to me and many of the most important academics and those I looked up to were in the US. I didn’t think it was going to be easy, but at least there were possibilities.
Would you say the stigma is still bad now?
I would say it’s bad, but its better. We are not where we need to be, but it’s certainly been easier for me because of the stronghold and the people who came before me, and I know it would be easier for generations after me.
As an African who has lived his whole life in the US, where would you place the possibility of African success, home or abroad?
I think that we all need to see ourselves as part of a global community and we shouldn’t commit ourselves to where we were born or we are. I have always tried to stay very connected with Ghana and broadly with Africa as much as I can. I don’t think of this as a binary choice I think it’s important for us to be globally aged
When did you join the AAI and did you join as an alumnus?
I first learned about the Africa-American Institute around 1999 around the time someone I knew from my university that is Wesleyan University had just been there a year earlier and she was looking to have some people on the board who had some experience of the alumni, but who were present in the US and could be engaged and that was how I was introduced to AAI. I was then asked to join the board by the President and the director. Eventually in the early 2000’s I became board chairman and then in 2016 they asked me to assume executive responsibilities and now I’ve been doing that for the last 6 years.
For someone who has not heard of AAI, what is AAI?
Okay, so I think it’s important to share how it was founded. It was founded by a group of people, but the real leadership and vision is attributed mostly to three people and in looking at our history the purpose was really to show how connected Africa was with the world. In those days; AAI was founded in 1953 so next we will be celebrating our 70th anniversary the whole purpose was to create an opportunity for Africans to connect with African Americans and for us all to learn about how Africa had been at the very center of humanity as civilization started in Africa, but all of these were not being taught in the classroom
In connecting the diaspora to African roots, what are some of the things AAI has done?
Right so what we have been doing to we have been engaging with African Americans and connecting them with our stories and providing them opportunities to engage with each other. We have ‘The road to Ghana’ series where persons who travelled with us got to spend a week in Ghana to experience Ghana, most of those people for the first time we have been working also on our school services program; it seeks to help young people in school learn about Africa in ancient times before they learn about European domination. The way most of us are schools are structured, Africa is not really present in history until it is discovered and then we learn about slave trade and colonization as well as economic struggle and we at AAI think that is a much skewed way of learning about Africa so we are trying to change that.
Let’s talk about the gala; it’s been going on for 38 years, what were the reasons behind honoring Africans?
It’s like almost 40 years ago now. So the leadership of the organization realized that during the UN General Assembly, all the information about Africa and its worldwide diaspora was extremely negative when people talk about Africa its always about the problems and when they talk to Africa and Africans they never seem to realize just how much good work was going on so they genesis of the gala was that around that time when much of the world was focused on New York we would have a celebration of genuine achievement we think is not being shared globally so we always try to have this as a celebration of good things that are happening. So the gala is intentionally held when the UN General Assembly is going on.
What’s the criterion for selecting honorees?
We always recognize at least one, sometimes two alumni of our organization just to show the world what they have been doing. We also look for what is happening in African countries and find which countries have some achievements we can show off just so we are not talking about challenges only. We also find African Americans who have achieved something and we think it’s worthy of being celebrated.
Finally, what should people expect at this year’s gala?
Most of us haven’t been able to meet in person to celebrate together for the past two years so while we are taking precautions, this would be our first in person celebration since covid-19. Our awardees this year have wonderful stories and we can learn about their stories. We will also look at African businesses, those who have been successful and have successfully introduced the world to Africa and the African diaspora; it’s really changed the narrative on how we see ourselves and how people see us.
In two years, the 40th gala would be celebrated. What would the AAI and the Award scheme have accomplished under your leadership by then?
So assuming that I have two years; I serve at the pleasure of the board so assuming I have more years I would want us to have really had an impact in terms of how young people come to understand Africa and its role in the world. That’s how we can show results from our programme.
His plate may be full now, but like every board he sits on and every organization he heads, Kofi Appenteng in his leadership is not relenting in ensuring that, Africans both home and abroad and the African diaspora stay connected and the beautiful stories on the continent and outside it are recognized and supported by the AAI.