Many U.S. Navy Sailors have come to Ghana for the first time to support Exercise Obangame Express 2015, but for some it was also an opportunity to return to their birth place.
Lt. Eric Kwaku Boateng, one of two Ghanaian-born U.S. Navy officers taking part in this year’s exercise. Born in Ghana’s Ashanti region and raised in Accra, Boateng moved to the U.S. to pursue his higher education, he stayed after college and is now Georgia’s Department of Human Resources chief information security officer as well as a U.S. Navy reservist.
Boateng’s Navy Reserve leadership deployed him to participate in Obangame Express because, as a Ghanaian, his familiarity with the region would be useful. He has been involved since the planning stages that took place in Germany and Italy and has returned to Ghana to head up certain aspects of the exercise.
Boateng worked as the exercise lead in a Maritime Operations Center (MOC) and assisted in the installation of transponders on ships, and ensured fuel was delivered to participating vessels and aircraft. As an exercise participant, he has been able to help train members of Ghana’s military as well as those of neighboring Gulf of Guinea nations participating in the exercise.
“I feel great coming out here in a different capacity and still able to give back, assisting our African partners and friends, and playing a key role to make this exercise and future exercises a success,” Boateng said. “They have been very receptive and professional and understand why we are here, and the mutual benefits it presents to all players.”
Being a Ghanaian-American coming back home has also led to some interesting situations for Boateng. One in particular he mentioned was conversation that two Ghanaian officers were having in front of him in their local dialect, openly debating if he was from Ghana, because of his name and appearance. After a few minutes of letting them debate, Boateng added his thoughts to their conversation in Twi, the local dialect. He told them he was a Ghanaian-American and a U.S. naval officer.
“My name and uniform throws people off and I kind of enjoy it sometimes, with the look on people’s faces, especially when I begin speaking the local dialects,” said Boateng.
While this is Boateng’s first African exercise, Lt. Max Annani has been engaging in Ghana and West Africa since Africa Partnership Station’s (APS) inception in 2007.
“I’ve built a lot of close bonds and relationships over the years,” Annani said of working with APS. “I’ve become something like a bridge between the two cultures.”
Annani was born in Tema, but moved to the U.S. to be with his father when he was 16. He recounts those teenage years living in Chicago with his family, including America-born sisters, to be the most formative. Growing up in America didn’t mean he ever stopped sounding like a Ghanaian, for which he had a good reason.
“The reason I made a conscious decision not to change my accent is because, to me, my accent is part of my identity. The day I lose my accent is the day I lose a piece of me. I don’t ever want to lose it, besides I love my accent.”
It was during this time of growing up in a home with co-existing Chicago and Ghana accents, he made the decision to join the U.S. military. Gen. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at his high school in Chicago. Being in the ROTC, he had a front row seat to see Powell speak.
“The presence he had was very infectious,” said Annani. “Right after his presentation, I was sold. I could identify with Gen. Powell, he was the son of an immigrant who made it all the way to a four star. So it was easy for me to connect.”
Having a father who also served in the Ghana military and an uncle that was Togo’s first commander of the Navy didn’t hurt his decision either.
His latest return to Africa has been for Exercise Obangame Express, where he works as the exercise’s logistics coordinator and liaises between the U.S. and Ghana navies. Obangame is the largest of it’s kind, bringing together 23 nations, including all of the Gulf of Guinea countries, which he believes is important for handling the region’s issues, such as piracy and illicit maritime activity.
“No one lives in isolation anymore, we both inhabit this planet and breath the same air,” he said. “Today it’s your headache; tomorrow it’s going to become my headache. So why not team up and work out our problems and differences now?”
His involvement with APS and the Navy Reserve has been very fulfilling and resulted in one of the best compliments he’s ever had. Sao Tome and Principe’s Minister of National Defense paid it to him while he was on island in 2010, handling the logistics for an APS ship visit.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Son of Africa, welcome home.’ The feeling was great and I felt proud. It was the proudest sentence anyone has ever uttered to me in Africa, he said.”
Obangame Express is an annual U.S. Africa Command-sponsored multinational exercise is designed to increase maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea. This year it was hosted by Ghana.