Wilfred Gray’s thirst for bonds with motherland Africa
By Lou Sifa
It was a near-crash, and nearly the end of a dream when the Airbus-300 plane carrying Wilfred Gray from his first trip to Africa in 1994 attempted a landing at Dulles Airport but, after the rear set of wheels barely touched the tarmac, had to go right back in the air, shaking and vibrating, causing passengers to panic and expect the worst. Gray, his right eye swollen and in excruciating pains due to conjunctivitis that he had contracted in Africa, did not seem to panic. In fact, he got up and fastened the seatbelt of a little girl sitting near-by, and comforted another passenger who was shaking out of fear. But the 61-year-old businessman, president of his own printing and paper company, told himself: “God, you didn’t show me all of which you just showed me in Africa to take my life. I know you didn’t. You just couldn’t.” Gray said he then heard a voice whisper to him: “My son, just be at ease.”
At ease, Gray has always been with Africa, despite the frightful incident and a trip that brought him home in bad shape, with an upset stomach, a bruise on the head and an inflamed right eye. His thirst to bond with the motherland has never stopped growing.
He plans to attend the African-African American Summit this year for the first time, but this will be his second trip to Ghana, a country he first visited in May 1994 during his very first trip to Africa which also took him to Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire (formerly Ivory Coast). His second trip was only to Liberia.
One question, one thousand answers
“What did you accomplish during your first two trips to Africa?” I asked Gray. He repeated the question, and after a pause, invited me to follow him (at his extremely fast pace) to the conference room of his printing shop and showed me several collages of pictures that he had shot during those trips. The bright, colorful photographs, displayed on backgrounds shaped like the map of Africa, showed various historical landmarks, street scenes, children, traditional chiefs, marketplaces, high-rises, country-side scenes and a thousand other faces of Africa which, Gray said, speak for themselves. “I saw first-hand what it was like in Africa, to get my own interpretation and my own feeling for it. What I accomplished was to get a feeling for the people. I was awed by just being there.” Unlike many others who, after one trip, claim an encyclopedic knowledge of Africa (some make the claim without even taking the trip), Gray felt that “the first time an African American goes to Africa, you are going to see certain things, you feel certain things, but I don’t I think the impact of Africa really hits you until you take your second or your third trip.” And to maximize his chances of understanding what he constantly refers to as “the motherland,” Gray invited along a friend, Ambassador Frances Dennis, a veteran diplomat from Liberia.
Establishing the base for bonding with Africa
Though a businessman who makes no secret of his intention of doing business in Africa, Gray said his first trip was meant primarily to establish the base for bonding with the motherland. The Island of Gorée, a former slave depot near Dakar, the capital of Senegal, helped meet that need. During the five days he spent in Dakar, Gray visited Gorée three days. Says Gray: “To see the slave quarters, I mean my life has been changed ever since. Going there and to see what you see, and listening to curator Joseph Ndiaye speak about African Americans and why they excel at the things they excel at – because it was the strongest of the lot that survived that small passage and you have to be strong to survive. So, the offspring of those that survived that small passage were the cream of the crop.”
In Ghana, the second stop of the first trip, Gray met with the Ashanti chief of Kumasi. That, he said emphatically, was the “highlight of the entire fabulous trip:” To meet with the chief and to realize that back in 1903 they fought the British seven major battles, I said to the chief ‘I understand why the British fought so hard to take your country, and I understand why you fought so hard to keep your country. Africa is so beautiful, Ghana is so beautiful, so I understand well why they wanted to take your country.’ And I said to the chief: ‘and you fought them like crazy; I am so proud the way you fought, because they had guns and all you had was some spears.’ I said it just warms my heart to know that I am talking to the chief of the Ashanti nation that fought the British so well, and I feel so blessed and honored.” The following five days in Cote d’Ivoire helped expand Gray’s first exposure to the motherland. That was the first trip.
The urge to help in Africa
Gray’s second trip to Africa in 1998, with Liberia as the only stop, opened his eyes to a new reality: the economic problems that clearly affected most of the countries, although they were particularly acute in Liberia, a country emerging out of seven years of civil war. Gray said he was shocked by the heavy dependency of African economies on the outside world, the high percentage of imported goods, and the visibly high unemployment rate, among other things. “As an African American,” Gray says, “I feel compelled to put my energies and all my being toward helping my brothers and sisters in Africa, to help break those chains of bondage that they still suffer from.”
Gray, who started his own printing and paper company – Gray Paper Products – 18 years ago, totals 23 years in the business. He is now branching out to deal in other commodities such as rice, flour, sugar, and many other commodities that he feels he can export to Africa at prices better than the ones currently paid by African businessmen. At the same time, Gray wants to help Africans export some of their commodities to the United States, for the sake of “balance of trade.”
Now, Gray plans to travel back to Africa for the third time to attend the Fifth African-African American Summit, leaving his business in the able hands of his daughter Kathleen who runs the company in his absence, and his other employees: Linda Blackmon (his most senior employee), Shirley Cooper, Kim Moses and Joe Swann. At “this glorious family reunion” (as he calls the Summit), Gray hopes “to acquire a deeper knowledge of Africa and to come back home a richer person mentally, spiritually and physically because,” he says, “I know there is a rich heritage there.”
In essence, Gray feels that he has a mission. Reflecting back on the near-crash of the plane bringing him back to the United States in 1994, he said: “I feel that God has a purpose in life for me. My work was not done. He showed me some of Africa, and the motherland said: ‘son, you’ve been gone a long time; so you come back; you have a bruise on your hair, a poke in your eye and an upset stomach. So, if you can handle that, I’ll treat you better the next time.”