Cross Cultural Collaborative promotes Ghanian exchange
There’s a tiny slice of Africa on a quiet tree-lined street in Brookline, Mass.
Inside Ellie Schimelman’s home, kente cloths decorate the furniture, adinkra stamps lay about on various sized wooden tables and masks leer at visitors from high up on the walls. It is a warm cave of ethnic art bursting with color.
It’s evident from the sheer volume of it all that the collection of art from Ghana took many years and lots of loving care to gather. Schimelman is not an art collector, but she is an art lover who has taken her love of art and her love for Ghana and figured out a way to marry the two.
To accomplish this, she founded the Cross Cultural Collaborative. According to its mission statement, the Collaborative is an educational nonprofit that invites people to Ghana to promote cultural exchange and education through the arts. Long ago on a visit to Ghana, Schimelman — a potter and teacher by trade — fell so in love with the people and the culture of Ghana that she decided to make it her life’s work to share the wonder and the beauty of it with as many people as possible.
“Over there, there is always music playing and people talking,” said Schimelman. “If you’re on a bus and two people are arguing, the whole bus is in on it. They are giving advice and asking what you’re going to do.”
In addition to founding the Collaborative, Schimelman built the Aba House in Nungua, a small fishing village in the suburbs of Accra, Ghana’s capital. The Aba House is a cultural center that is always teeming with activity from visitors, workshops and classes. The Aba House also has eight guest rooms for the people Schimelman brings to Nungua who teach, work with and learn from the local artisans and children. The house is also Schimelman’s second home.
Every year, she returns to Ghana with visiting artists and volunteers. They learn how to make paper out of sugar cane leaves and other local plants that are used in diaries and books at the Aba House. They learn how to do tye and dye, batik, asafo, kente and adinkra.
Working closely together through art, Schimelman hopes that both parties will learn something from one another and bond. At the center of the decades old organization is the need for cross cultural connections and understanding.
“Ghanaians don’t speak the same language,”said Schimelman. We [Westerners and Ghanaians] both speak English but there have been times when after conversing with someone in Ghana I’ve said, ‘Wait what are we talking about?’ ” Words can sometimes get lost in translation. Different phrases, slang and other words can have completely different meanings to people of various ethnic groups. Schimelman says she understands this and makes sure that art lives at the center of the work she does with the Collaborative. It is the universal connector between Westerners and Ghanaians.
Schimelman has done a great deal of work in Ghana. Slowly and meticulously she has built the Aba House and continues to diversify the programming offered. She is careful with how she spends money and her tight grip on funds has earned her a reputation of being miserly among Ghanaians.
“They have a word for me. They call me ‘chisley’ because I don’t just give out a lot of money,” said Schimelman.
Over the years, the neighboring Ghanaians have come to trust and respect her even though they think her approach to accomplishing things is different.
“The Ghanaians think I’m spontaneous. I’m not spontaneous, I’m just too old to sit around and wait for things,” Schimelman said.
Along with her work with the Collaborative, she is a co-founding member of the Cambridge Artists Cooperative. She gave up her pottery business and teaching to create a space in Ghana for artists, and funnels most of her energy and money into the Aba House. But, she can’t do it alone. Good Ghanaian friends and contacts help keep the organization afloat. From tour guides to volunteers, Schimelman has a small cadre of supporters who believe in the organization’s purpose.
“I have a house manager [at the Aba House] who’s astute. Ghanaians pay attention to what you’re doing and if they approve, they’ll help you,” said Schimelman.
Still, Schimelman wants more. The Collaborative needs help to make the program more dynamic. She and her colleague Dan Goodman, director of outreach and partnerships development, are hoping to get more students involved through co-ops with universities and create partnerships with local businesses and non-profits with similar ideologies. Working professionals that decide to travel to Ghana usually stay about two weeks, but students can do a whole summer or semester if they choose.
Though the decision to keep going back to Ghana was a difficult one to make, Schimelman claims she is right where she wants to be.
“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a hustler. I hustle to get people to Ghana and teach them about it,” she said. “But, the best thing about [what I do] is that I get to interact with Ghanaians. I don’t just walk around saying, I want to help people. I get to actually be part of the lives of great people.”