Lemongrass, Pink Sky

The guy shows us a room facing a parking lot. How about some ocean?

 LOCATION Harlem
PRICE $91,000 in 1988
SQUARE FEET 1,460 [three-bedroom condo in 1987 complex]
OCCUPANT Patricia Leonard [retired British Airways executive; public educator, the African Burial Ground Project; founder, Sankofa House]

How did you come to build a chalet in Ghana? I started working at British Airways in 1978. At that time, it was very white. Blacks were just coming up. In 1979, my dear friend said, "Milton and I are going to the [company] picnic." They were the only black people there, and she wins the ticket to South Africa. Everyone was very embarrassed. Apartheid was in full swing. They said, "We'll get you tickets to somewhere else." She said, "No, I'm going to go." She took me.

What about Ghana? Do lots of people have chalets? Many African Americans came when the nation became independent in 1957. I'd been going to Ghana since '90. But in '94, One Africa put on a production at the dungeon in Cape Coast—Thru the Door of No Return, a re-enactment of the slave trade. The dungeons are where much of the transatlantic slave trade took place. At the end, they gave out candles. It was dark and dank. All these spirits are running around. People started to cry.

Patricia Leonard in Harlem
photo: Jay Muhlin
Patricia Leonard in Harlem

The divine part comes in two years later. I'm with a friend of mine. We're staying at a little hotel. This guy shows us a big room facing a parking lot. I say, "Don't you have one facing the ocean?" He takes us to a smaller room.

And at that very moment, the two people who produced Thru the Door were walking on the beach. My friend said, "This guy looks like he's from Harlem." We talked. She said, "We live right over there. I just got some fish. Why don't you come over for dinner?" It was the best! They started talking about this community forming. I said, "Count me in." My friend said, "Suppose it's a scheme?"

Who is your friend? A guy I used to date. He's in New Rochelle now. [Patricia has had two husbands, three sons, and three grandchildren, and she grew up in Harlem and Queens.] Her friend was not from Harlem but the Bronx, a fireman out on disability. She was an administrator from Harlem. They believe, as I believe, that we've been chosen to go back to this ancestral town. They have six chalets they rent out.

I just built mine in December across the road. I'm also building an educational center and spiritual retreat, Sankofa House.

[We look at photographs.] Here's my crew of workers, all local guys. Yes, they're nice-looking. Was it affordable? Well, it wasn't $200 but I couldn't have afforded it here. See, it's in the round. I modeled it after One Africa's chalets. I love the feeling of space that you get from roundness. One of the things I wanted was the unbroken circle of life. Here are the guys taking a break.

What are they eating? Okra stew. Look, red-tile roofing. The concrete is painted red terra-cotta. I'm going back now for a month. I'll get a refrigerator. I've just stayed in it one night. Around the house, that's lemongrass—so you can make lemongrass tea. This is the beach area across from my property. There's the dungeon.

There's this magnificent pink sky, blue sea, but yet you see the dungeon. You're always remembering. That's the idea. I want to remember. This is another African American couple, from Philadelphia. They have a fabulous restaurant, waterfront property—there's so much of it in Ghana. The Ghanaians are not as greedy as we are. It's like the Native American concept—the land belongs to God. Of course, now that we're coming down and buying it . . . [We look around her apartment, with green and gold fabric from the Ewe tribe and red, blue, green, from the Ashanti.] These are watchmen's chairs. [They have tilted backs, carved wood]. If you have someone watching your property—the stars, the sky, whatever—they can watch in a comfortable position. This is the Sankofa, the symbol. The head is turned back. You have to return to fetch it so you can move forward.

You can't just dance into the future? No, you have to connect yourself.

 
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