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Salisbury woman finds joy in helping people of Ghana

By Mark Wineka

Salisbury Post

The memories of her missionary work three decades earlier flooded back to Janie Speaks as she bumped along the back country of Ghana, on the way from Accra to Afrancho.

The six-hour bus trip afforded her plenty of time to remember those eight years, from 1972 to 1980.

She and her husband, Bishop Ruben L. Speaks, drove through a less modernized West Africa in those days. During the rainy season, when water came through the floor of the car, they sometimes had to stop and get out just to find where the road was.

In the dry season, water was so scarce that she and her husband were limited to a pail of water each for bathing or freshening up. She recalled the day a man brought only one pail to their home.

“Water finished,” he said, and Speaks had to share her husband’s bath water.

The Episcopal residence in Accra had no running water or electricity then. She and her husband slept under nets at night and read and worked by the light of oil lamps.

When they traveled to AME Zion conferences in Liberia and Nigeria, they flew on small, 12-passenger planes, which they boarded on wooden ladders. The flights took courage.

Speaks thought of all of these things as the bus ground toward Afrancho. She shared some of her memories with her AME Zion Church friend, Alice Royal, who had made the trip with her from North Carolina.

About 2,000 people were gathered, waiting in Afrancho. Two bands were playing, and someone handed Speaks a bouquet of flowers as she stepped off the bus. Much of the celebration was about her.

People from distant communities had assembled to welcome Speaks and other church dignitaries with her for the rededication of the hospital named for Speaks when she was missionary supervisor in West Africa.

The Janie A. Speaks AME Zion Hospital Multi-Purpose Medical Block had been enlarged from the tiny clinic started there years ago. Speaks had been on hand for the original dedication of land, given by a chief.

Now the hospital had a full-time doctor and nurse provided by the government. It still served as the only medical facility for a wide area. The long building had a section for children and facilities for examinations, testing and treatment.

“It’s nice for Africa,” says Speaks, now back home in Salisbury. “It’s commodious.”

A lengthy outdoors dedication service followed the party’s arrival from Accra, and Speaks gave some impromptu remarks.

She says the feeling of gratitude to the West African people flooded over her that day and will stay with her forever. She met with old missionary friends and many people who remembered and respected her late husband.

Also on hand was the man, who as a young adult, had served as the couple’s’ interpreter during their travels. Ruben Speaks had helped him go to college and eventually earn his Ph.D.

Janie Speaks, now 84, spent eight days overall in Ghana before returning to Salisbury. Her friend, Royal, spent about a month with her in Salisbury before leaving for her home in California.

Speaks and Royal gave a travelogue presentation about their trip one night at Soldiers Memorial Church. And Speaks recently put on her brightly patterned, kente cloth dress and met with a Post reporter to talk about her first visit back to Ghana since leaving in 1980.

Other Ghana highlights included attending a Sunday service at the church in Accra named for her husband — the Bishop Ruben L. Speaks AME Zion Church.

During the service, Speaks was asked to walk up and pull a cord, unveiling a new portrait of her husband.

She also visited the Dr. James K. Aggrey Memorial AME Zion Secondary School, whose enrollment has increased to more than 300 young women. Speaks was impressed by the quality of the faculty, each of whom holds a graduate degree.

Speaks toured the school in Winneba with Headmistress Helena Ampiaw.

“Aggrey, of course, is a home boy, and they love him dearly,” Speaks says.

A native of Gold Coast, now Ghana, Aggrey played a significant role both in the history of Salisbury’s Livingstone College and the post-colonial development of Ghana.

He came to Livingstone College in 1898 and later earned his master’s and doctor of divinity degrees from Hood Theological Seminary. He eventually served as a professor, registrar and financial secretary for Livingstone and developed a strong connection to the black community in nearby Landis.

But he would later return to his native Gold Coast to influence many future leaders of Ghana and become known as “Aggrey of Africa.”

The Aggrey School presented Speaks with a portrait of her and her late husband, taken from a photograph of them from their previous mission work.

In Ghana, Speaks and Royal stayed at the Episcopal residence, which now has running water and electricity, unlike the old days. Ruben Speaks’ name is on the cornerstone of the residence and on several other buildings throughout Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

Ruben Speaks, who died in 2001, became the 76th bishop of the AME Zion church. When he was elected bishop at the General Conference of the AME Zion Church in Mobile, Ala., in 1972, the church assigned him to West Africa and the countries of Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

It was the first time a bishop had been given the three countries, and he established annual conferences in each.

A Salisbury native and Livingstone College graduate, Speaks met her husband at the Hood seminary in Salisbury.

She eventually earned her master’s degree in education from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Before her West Africa experience, she had been a teacher, associate director of a YWCA in Chester, Pa., and administrator for a large Head Start program in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has written numerous articles for AME Zion Church publications.

Ruben and Janie Speaks had two daughters.

Speaks came back to Salisbury with many mementos of her most recent trip to Ghana, but she especially liked the note she received on a small scrap of paper from the 6-year-old son of the pastor at her husband’s church.

It said, “I love you because you are here back to Ghana. Bye bye. Good luck.”

Speaks keeps it tucked inside the pages of her Bible.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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