ACCRA, Ghana - Numerous U.S. Soldiers from several active, Guard and Reserve units are here in Accra, Ghana, for a 10-day medical exercise called MEDFLAG 11 that began yesterday, July 11. For some U.S. Soldiers, it is their first or even second visit to this country. But for Sgt. Mark L. Kwansah, he’s come home.
A visual information equipment operator-maintainer for U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) out of Vicenza, Italy, Kwansah was born and raised here in Accra. After moving to the United States in October 2006 with his wife and daughter, he became a U.S. citizen and a Soldier in 2008.
“I was looking for greener pastures,” said Kwansah, whose immediate and extended family supported his decision to immigrate. “They all love it. Everyone wanted me to go.”
Although he now considers Glendale, Md., as home, Kwansah currently lives with his wife and three children in Vicenza, Italy, and by his own admission is “seeing the world.”
He’s been with USARAF since August 2010 and generally works with the information technology (IT) department setting up video teleconference and sound systems for conferences, as well as repairing broken equipment. Kwansah has had the opportunity twice now to work with the legal department during tax season, helping servicemembers and their families with their taxes. This year, Kwansah served as noncommissioned officer in charge of the team from February to June.
Since moving to the States, Kwansah has returned three times to Ghana, once on his own, and twice for a U.S. military exercise.
“I’m a very good link, because I know Ghana,” said Kwansah. “The Ghanaian Army sees the link.”
Earlier this year, Kwansah worked as the NCOIC of the initial planning conference for MEDFLAG 11. In this role, he was responsible for coordinating transportation and drivers, accountability of equipment and personnel, and helping organize sites for the exercise.
“He started helping us first in Italy,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tim Miller, an Aurora, Ill., native. “It didn’t just start here. Ever since he hit the ground he’s been running around. He’s been a definite asset to have here.”
Miller, the battalion senior supply sergeant for the Illinois National Guard’s 405th Brigade Support Battalion and currently the field-ordering officer for MEDFLAG 11, has utilized Kwansah’s knowledge of culture on several occasions. Specifically, Kwansah has helped Miller purchase and barter for goods that are needed for the exercise from local Ghanaian shops.
“He’s very good to get along with,” said Miller. “Very easy to get along with.”
Sponsored by USARAF and arranged by the U.S. Embassy, the bilateral MEDFLAG 11 strengthens the relationship and interoperability between the U.S. and Ghana military forces through 10 days of collaborative training and sharing of medical expertise, as well as joint humanitarian civilian assistance in local communities.
“I communicated with [Ghanaians] in the local language,” said Kwansah. “They are able to communicate more easily with me.”
Although English is the official language in Ghana, there are various dialects spoken throughout the country. Kwansah speaks four of them: Twi/Ashante, Ga, Akuapen, and Fante "the language of his own family, who are from the Central Region.
During MEDFLAG 11, Kwansah’s official title is operations sergeant, but leaders in the exercise look to him as a cultural expert as well as interpreter.
“I understand the things we [the U.S. participants] are doing here, and the Ghana way of doing things,” said Kwansah.
For example, one of the exercise operators was having difficulty organizing transportation with hotel clerks. Kwansah was able to step in, explain to the staff what was needed and ultimately get the job done.
He hasn’t always had an easy time communicating though.
When he first arrived in the U.S., he got a job at The Home Depot working in the kitchen department customer service.
“I had such a thick accent, no one could understand what I was saying,” Kwansah recalled.
One day Kwansah was explaining a new kitchen design for a customer on the telephone, when the man interrupted him.
“Hey, I don’t understand what you’re saying!” the customer said. “Can you get someone who speaks English?”
Kwansah recounted other humorous experiences from his first year in the U.S. He lived in Glendale, Md., but took the bus and train to work about 25 miles away in Silver Springs, Md. Someone had given him a leather jacket, and Kwansah thought it seemed very warm, so he wore only the leather jacket as outerwear instead of his usual coat. He waited at the bus stop for 30 minutes that day.
“That was one of the saddest days of my life,” said Kwansah, laughing. “I was so cold!”
As someone with an intimate knowledge of Ghana, Kwansah believes MEDFLAG 11 will be effective.
“I think it’s a perfect idea,” he said. “The world looks up to the United States; that’s a fact.” Through this exercise, the U.S. will better understand Ghana and vice versa.
“In times of crisis or war, there’s already some kind of working relationship and partnership,” he continued. “That is very important.”
With his IT and tax skills, diligence, personable character, and knowledge of Ghana and its people, Kwansah is sure to continue to be an asset to the U.S. Army.