Photo Courtesy of HACSA
In Twi, the language of the Akan people in Ghana, the word ‘Sankofa’ literally means ‘go back and get it.’ It is expressed by an Adinkra symbol, icons used in the Ashanti culture to convey traditional wisdom. The Adinkra symbol for ‘Sankofa’ is a bird, feet facing forward and head reaching backward, often to pick up an egg. Adinkra symbols decorate everything from fabric to architecture. The Sankofa symbol also forms part of the logo of the ‘Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa’ (HACSA), an organization founded to “create awareness about the importance of heritage and culture for global economic development, progress and security.” It’s a very fitting logo.
HACSA was founded in 2016 by Ambassador Johanna Odonkor Svanikier. Pride in Ghanaian culture was a part of her upbringing, but it was not until she became Ghana’s Ambassador to France, Portugal, and UNESCO that she fully understood the extent to which culture could also be a major force for economic development. “We in Africa neglect its potential for increasing GDP, creating jobs and improving standards of living. The French rake in billions from food, beverages, cosmetics, and fashion. At UNESCO, cultural diversity and its importance for peace, security and economic development were celebrated.” Ambassador Svanikier’s ambition has been to work to strengthen socio-economic development in Africa. In France, she realized the best way that she could go about it.
She put her ideas into practice by founding HACSA which highlights African excellence and promotes and celebrates African heritage and culture and its important role in development. In 2017, she organized the African Diaspora Homecoming Conference to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence and to demonstrate the rich historical connections between Ghana and the African Diaspora. Now in 2019, ‘The Year of Return’, Ambassador Svanikier expects the HACSA Summit to be even more vibrant. Sankofa is a powerful symbol in the context of the 400th anniversary of the first ships of enslaved African people landing in North America. “The symbol teaches you that you can only move forward if you examine the past, learn from it and take action. The meaning is quite deep because it counsels us as humans that we may make mistakes, but all is not lost. Through learning from our mistakes, we can go back and recover what was lost. In our case you could say we’re recovering the value of unity amongst our scattered diaspora,” she reflected.
HACSA understands that a relatively small country like Ghana does not have adequate resources to maintain the almost 30 historic slave forts and castles situated on its coast. HACSA takes on the role of advocate for the protection and preservation of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as the many “slave routes” that reach from the interior of the country out to the coast. The organization views this work as a joint national and international responsibility that ne collaboration between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. For Ambassador Svanikier, preserving this history is necessary to “bring awareness to the importance of learning from this history in order to move forward and develop healthy and prosperous societies.” Sankofa.
HACSA also celebrates living culture and African cultural icons from all eras. Their events include artistic and archeological exhibitions, cultural fairs, music concerts, film screenings and book launches. Recently the organization brought renowned Nigerian opera-singer, Omo Bello, to perform in a first of its kind opera and chorale concert in Accra accompanied by the Winneba Youth Choir from Ghana. They also organized an exhibit of the works of James Barnor, an iconic and innovative Ghanaian Photographer in 2017. Barnor, who turned 90 in June, will be returning to speak at the HACSA summit this year.
HACSA does not just speak about a prosperous future for all Africans across the continent and around the world. They invest in it. In collaboration with UNESCO, they helped to fund a “Girls Can Code” program to ensure that young girls have the skills to compete in a modern African economy. This year’s summit also boasts an impressive array of female speakers including the First Lady of Ghana, H.E. Rebecca Akufo-Addo who champions the “Girls Can Code” program in addition to the Vice-President of Liberia, Jewel Taylor; Lisa Opoku, the first African woman partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs and Lisa Mensah, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Agriculture.
The Summit aims to be more than a 3-day conference. Ambassador Svanikier is working to create “the Davos or Aspen of Africa with the goal of changing the prevailing narrative on Africa, reuniting the African Diaspora and putting them to work for the benefit of their communities and the continent as a whole.” She hopes that the Summit will become a key event in deploying heritage and culture for development; an event that people will surely look back to for inspiration as they move forward.
The 2019 HACSA Summit runs from August 7th-9th at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, Ghana. There are supplementary events happening from the 5th to the 11th. For more information, or to attend, visit www.thehacsa.org.