“That was the last time I ever saw them,” Sedem Akposoe says. She pauses, fixing a fold in her light blue blouse. Her gold chain necklace shifts as she exhales. “Several cousins and aunts came on a little, little truck, and I had my tiny suitcase put in the back, and that was it.” The sophomore smiles, her dark eyes stoic. She’s slightly slumped, seated in her chair in the seminar room such that one can imagine her, nine years ago, on a truck waving goodbye to her mother and father. But her mother is seated beside her, comforting her. Her American mother, who adopted Sedem when she was seven.
In early December 1998, Suzanne Stone traveled to a remote village in Tanygbe, Ghana, West Africa. “The trip was to document tribal life,” the Bay Area native explains. “It was a rare opportunity to have access to a tribal village, because you can’t just walk in there.” She readjusts her silver bangs. “I wasn’t there to adopt anybody!”
Her ice-blue eyes sparkle as she looks at her daughter, who is finishing a turkey sandwich.
“Sedem was the one who really made herself known and set herself apart the first time we met. But she was too young to speak English, so it was more of a non-verbal connection. She was very fascinated by me, checking everything out.” Akposoe, who was four and a half when the pair met, remembers nothing of the encounter. “One day Sedem, who was an assertive, curious four-year-old, pushed her way through the group of children surrounding me,” says Stone. “I cuddled her in my arms, and Sedem snuggled close and wouldn’t leave until dinner.”
It soon became a daily encounter during the month Stone spent in Tanygbe. She interviewed many villagers, and responding to the conditions she found in the village, Stone left after setting up an organization to work with a non-profit in America to transfer medical and dental supplies to the villages.
Eight months later, Stone returned. “And that’s when Sedem’s father came to me and asked me to adopt her, and that was a surprise!” Akposoe giggles with her mother. “It was really sweet; he went to get her, and she came running over and jumped in my lap, and that was it! There was no going back.” Stone deliberates for a moment, then continues. “I realized I could do [the adoption], and I just decided ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Akposoe’s birth mother, Charity, needed to weigh in on the decision. After much deliberation (using a translator as Charity speaks no English), it was settled that Stone would adopt Akposoe. Stone explains: “I was concerned her mother wouldn’t be okay with it. I’m sure it was heart-wrenching for her, but she wanted what was best. She wanted her to have the opportunities that just aren’t offered to young men or women in her tribal village.”
Few people from Taygbe leave the village of a thousand people and journey to the cities. Some get a college education, but it is “way outside the norm,” Stone says. “Most people grow up, live and die in the same village. Everybody in the villages would like their children to come to America, or come to America themselves. When I was there, people always asked me if I could find a way to get them here.” Her daughter nods and adds,“An African city is better than a village, but still not anywhere you want to be. The US is viewed in Ghana and most other African countries as the savior of countries. It’s the dream….”
She laughs, fingering the necklace from her adopted grandmother. “I can’t even tell you how much people in Africa want to come to America. It’s where people can survive, where people can go to school….It’s like heaven on earth. I want to adopt at least one child from my village when I’m older, to give them the same opportunity I got.” Thinking back, she says, “I went through a time of rejection; I felt bad that I had left my mother and that I was just abandoning her. She wanted me to have a good education, but if it had been her choice, she wouldn’t have let me go. Because I’m her daughter.” But Charity put her daughter first and agreed to the adoption.
“I wanted to take her on the plane [on my flight home]!” Stone explains. It wasn’t that simple. “There were lots of delays, and things don’t work the same way [without a phone or internet]. I just wanted it to happen! I had the home study done and all the paperwork filled out and sent to them right away. I’m a very ‘let’s get it done’ sort of person.” But Ghanaian officials expected bribes, something Stone wasn’t prepared for. So instead of waiting for things to happen, she took the initiative.
“When it was settled that I was going away, all the kids around my age were really jealous,” notes Akposoe. “I enjoyed that. My mom used to send stuff from America, and I never wanted to share. It made me feel so good to be the only person in that situation. It was a guilty pleasure.”
Stone remarks, “Remember, I sent you this one book….” She trails off, making eye contact with her daughter.
“The worm thing?” Akposoe asks, confusion in her face.
“No…Oh, the Richard Scarry book—it had really all about everything!” Stone had anticipated the confusion an African village girl might feel about a first world country. “I figured that she’d go from seeing nothing to seeing everything. Airport, supermarket, bathroom, camera.” Besides books, Akposoe received clothes and other toys from her mother-to-be.
“I thought it was cool getting all this stuff sent to me,” said Akposoe. “I mean, who wouldn’t want stuff from America?” When a package arrives from the USA, anybody who gets their hands on it will open it–the disposable cameras her mother-to-be sent were difficult to get back. “I was just like, ‘Let’s do it!’ I’m pretty sure I kept asking, ‘When’s it going to happen?’” More than two years passed. Then, a friend helping in the process finally sent the remaining papers and offered to bring Akposoe. It was time for a village celebration.
“I was kind of a sensation in the whole local Ghanian community,” Akposoe admits.
“Sedem was always special in that village,” Stone explains. “[Charity] is the ‘queen’ of sorts, and if you see pictures of [Sedem] as a little child, there will be all the other children in their raggedy school uniforms, and there will be Sedem in a perfect uniform, pressed with rickrack all around it and leather shoes.” She laughs. “This poor child; I ironed her t-shirts as well.” Akposoe, who still dresses in a dignified manner, chimes in, “It’s why we got along so well.” Both women have elegant sartorial taste and hair neatly styled in shoulder length cuts. Akposoe once had issues with people judging her appearance, saying, “People have a preconception about what African-Americans look like and what they do and how they behave. People have come up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re smarter than I thought you’d be,’ because of them thinking African-Americans are dumb.” She quickly explains she has no problem with African-Americans, saying, “We’re just two completely different cultures. [Ours] didn’t go through slavery. We haven’t been in the United States for two hundred years. Just don’t judge a book by its cover.” Stone agrees about the importance of identity. She would never have changed her daughter’s name, even if Sedem had demanded it.
“It was one of the cutest things,” Stone explains. “She said, ‘My name is Sedem, and my parents gave me that name, and I will never change it!’ and I said “I won’t either!” Her name is Success Sedem Akposoe. “Sedem means ‘Destiny has shined upon me.’”
The now independent girl came to America accompanied only by an uncle and his family. Stone says, “When Sedem’s uncle and his family came, they only stayed for a week, and they all went back.” She turns to her daughter, and continues, “When they’d left, she wasn’t the least bit worried about being with me, even though we hadn’t seen each other in years.”
“I think it also has to do with how I was raised. The Ghanian way,” Akposoe responds matter-of-factly.
“That’s a good point,” notes Stone, “because in Ghana you can, if you’re not happy with your parents, go live with someone else.” Because everyone in the village shares a common ancestry, children in disagreement with their parents don’t think twice about moving in with other people. There is no jealousy or anger involved—raising children is a community responsibility. Akposoe adds, “Everybody is so connected that it’s like one big, humongo family.” Stone explains another implication of the social law: “If we were here sitting, eating lunch, and a little child came in and sat on my lap, I’d feed him lunch. If he wanted what Sedem was eating, he’d sit on her lap, eat, and then he’d go.”
Privacy is so scarce, Sedem says, that as a child people were always in her home and chatting with her parents, staying for hours. Her mother laughs, and explains how unusual a moment alone is. “They don’t have even a word for alone, because nobody would ever want to be alone.” She laughs, realizing how contrasting it is of the western culture. “I needed to be alone, because I was overwhelmed.” Her daughter giggles at the seriousness of her tone. Stone continues, “I was totally overwhelmed by everybody coming up and touching me all the time and staring at me. I had to say there was an American custom where, in the afternoon, you go in your hut for an hour.”
“You lied!” Akposoe huffs in disbelief.
“I did.” Stone admits. “So I’d have to say that, otherwise I’d never be alone. They’d come looking for me!” She carries on in a lighter tone: “Everybody I met there was super welcoming. I was totally relaxed; all I was hyper-vigilant about was what I ate and water and being careful not to trip over stuff.
Akposoe nods, and explains how growing up in Ghana gave her a wider world view. “I’m not quick to judge; in Ghana people don’t judge. They wait to see what you’re like…” She trails off, trying to appropriately describe her home. “There’s no exclusivity. You learn to like everyone.”
Initially, Stone worried about Akposoe feeling lonely, with only her mother in a house of several stories and rooms, including one bedroom just for Akposoe. So to ease the transition, Stone made a surprise for her daughter.
When she came, the first thing she saw in her bedroom—I had pictures of her parents by her bed. She still has this in her room–I made a collage of all her relatives, so every day she could see her family. She looks so much like her mother. It’s the Ghanaian way, having more than one parent.”
Stone grins. “I like the Ghanaian way. If I could, I’d get visas for [Sedem’s family] to come over here, but I can’t. But that’s her family. I’m part of her family, but they’re her family too.”
Sedem blushes. “I still love my mom in Ghana, but here it’s like having a best friend and a sister and a mother all rolled into one.”
Article “Girl from Ghana: Sedem Akposoe’s Tale of Two Families” by Jason Ritchey published in INK Volume 8, Issue 7 on May 17, 2012.
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