Volume 20, Number 33 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Dec. 28, 2007 - Jan. 3, 2008

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Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Chatham Towers doorman Steven Yaboah, 62, greeted Howard Huie and other tenants at his recent farewell party. He is “retiring” Saturday and will be moving back to Ghana to become chief of the Agona tribe in Yabi.

Chatham doorman to become African tribal chief

By C.W. Thompson

Steven Yaboah walked into the lobby of 170 Park Row in Chinatown, the building he’s tended as doorman for the last 27 years. But rather than take his place behind the lobby desk, Yaboah, dressed in a green and gold decorative kanta cloth from head to foot, strode through the lobby and sat on a ceremonial chair made for this one occasion.

Yaboah, 62, was retiring. But rather than shifting into a life of leisure and relaxation, he was to assume the position of a chief of the Agona clan in Ghana in West Africa.

“There’s so many things to do there,” he said. “It will be busier for me than my life here. It’s not really retirement.”

As Yaboah sat on the chair meant to emulate a chief’s throne, he graciously accepted gifts, envelopes and well wishes from Chatham Towers residents at the party two weeks ago. Eddie Kuffour, a doorman in the building who has lived in New York for 19 years and is also from Ghana, blew a whistle rhythmically, attempting to emulate a drum.

“I blow this whistle like a king is coming,” he said. “That’s what they do in Ghana.”

Yaboah has been appointed a chief by his brother, Hana Afram, who is the head of the 3,000-strong Agona that reside mostly in Ghana. He’ll assume his chieftaincy in the village of Yabi, a rapidly developing suburb outside of the city of Kumasi. His main focus will be on improving waste management conditions in Yabi.

“My main concern is sanitation,” he said. “When I went there, it was rough. The garbage was heaped in the streets. The public toilets didn’t work.”

Yaboah, who will not draw a salary, plans to increase revenue from Yabi’s quarry to finance these improvements. He’ll also look for money from individual donors through drives at Christmas, Easter, and other occasions, and perhaps through fundraising through his U.S. contacts. Steven does not expect much financial help from the Ghanese government.

“You have to mobilize the people in order to improve the area,” he said. “You can’t rely on the government.”

He draws inspiration from his brother, Nana Afran, who put $20,000 into Yabi’s sanitation system in 2002 with money earned in the U.S. as an admitting clerk at a hospital. But it was a small investment in a larger problem. Money is also needed for a health center and to improve the schools in the area. The health center would create a permanent place for medical testing for polio and AIDS.

As well as chief, Yaboah will act as the head of a de facto village government in resolving disputes. He’ll deal with social, economic and political issues, but will also act as community mediator.

“I’ll have to settle issues in my own area,” he said. “In Yabi, issues related to family and the people go to the chief. So many disputes are internal. For example, adultery. It is not a case for the courts, so the one who is offended will come and see the chief. I will be the peacemaker. But now with the economy improving, the chieftaincy will be more complicated. I’ll have to write things down.”

Many residents had only recently found out that Yaboah would be embarking on his second career of sorts in his home nation of Ghana. Yaboah will assist his village, a suburb outside of Kumasi, with schools, health centers and sanitation issues.

“The thing is, you know a person, but you don’t really know them,” said Agnes Sieranski, a 20-year resident of the building. “He told me recently, I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is I’m going to be a chief. The bad news is that I’m retiring.”

The party celebrated Yaboah’s service to the two Chatham buildings at 170 and 180 Park Row. He had held the doorman job since first arriving in 1980 from Ghana. The party also celebrated Christmas, but the focus was undoubtedly on Yaboah. His last workday will be Dec. 29, and he will depart for Ghana around Easter.

“I’m going to miss all this,” he said. “I’m going to miss all the people here. It’s going to be so different.

“But they need me. My American experiences will help. I’ll be able to teach the children on all subjects.”

Yaboah has lived in Brooklyn near Prospect Park for 28 years since he arrived from Ghana. He has held his doorman job since that time, but also worked as a substitute teacher from 1995-1997 in Brooklyn.

“He’s just a very fine fellow,” said Toby Turkel, president of the co-op board and a 30-year resident of 170 Park Row. “We didn’t know he was a chief. He’s a very modest man.”

She spoke of why he’s moving back to Ghana.

“He had been asked before to be a chief,” she said, “but now he realized there was no one else who could assume this duty.  He feels the responsibility to step up at this time, since the village needs a strong leader.”

During the party, Turkel addressed Yaboah with a brief public speech.

“We always knew he was a great man before he was a chief,” she said. “Best of luck to you.”

His brother also came to the party. When he arrived, Steven gave up the ceremonial chair to him.

“He’s one of the nicest people,” Sam Gade, a college math professor and a 29-year resident of the building, said of Steven. “It’s really going to be a major loss for us. He told me about a month ago he was going to be a chief, and I was very impressed.”

Other residents praised their doorman.

“He’s really made it feel like home,” said Nancy Kong, a six-year resident and a current board member. “It says something that he’s been here this long.”

“He’s the nicest guy,” said Joan Gregg, a resident since 1981 and a retired city college professor. “He always asks about my daughter and grandson. Plus, he looks like a chief.”

Yaboah has three children. Two daughters, Bridget and Freda, live in the U.S., and a son is in England. In so-called retirement, he will live in Ghana as a chief and will travel to see his children and extended family. Both of his daughters were at the party and his wife was on vacation and could not come.

“When he retires, he has a lot more work to do,” said Freda.

But Yaboah was prepared for the challenges ahead.

“It’s gonna be tough work,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

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