When Mary Aboah moved from Tema, Ghana, to the United States in 1999, she wanted to live in a community that reminded her of home.
Aboah settled in Columbia, which like Tema was a planned community created in the 1960s, a move she said "changed her life."
Little did Aboah know that, more than 10 years later, future Tema residents would have opportunities for similar life-changing experiences with Columbia via a sister-city relationship between her native home and her new home.
"When you go to Tema, it reminds of you Columbia," Aboah said. "Every community has their schools, their parks. ... It's a very family-oriented area."
Aboah was one of more than 400 residents who attended a Ghana Fest celebration Sunday, Nov. 17, hosted by the Columbia Association that formally introduced Tema to the community.
Tema is Columbia's third sister city; Cergy-Pontoise, France and Tres Cantos, Spain being the others. All are planned communities. Through the sister cities program, CA facilitates annual student and adult exchange programs.
"I guess it was a coming out party of sorts," said Valerie Montague, chairperson of CA's Tema Sister City Committee, about the event held at Slayton House in Wilde Lake.
"What we wanted to do is let people know we have this relationship and we are interested in developing exchanges. ... People seemed to walk away enthusiastic and motivated and feeling like we were honoring something special."
The event featured authentic African food, dance, art and drumming as well as remarks from the evening's keynote speaker, former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Kenneth Brown.
"My desire was to show the best of Ghana," said Jim Lancaster, chairperson of the event committee who lived in Ghana for five years when his wife, Harriet, worked for the Peace Corps.
"I think, to me, Ghana is a country that, like most of Africa, hits all your senses: sight, smell, taste, touch. ... It has traditions and culture that are very different. I wanted people to experience what made me fall in love with the place."
Lancaster said the event was a "good start" to exposing Tema, and that the turnout exceeded his expectations.
Three years in the making
According to Montague and Harriet Lancaster, Sunday's event was a celebration years in the making.
Lancaster said the idea of adding a third sister city began in 2010, and it was clear Africa was the first choice.
"Africa made sense to a lot of us because a number of (Columbia) zip codes have a high concentration of Ghanaians and Nigerians," she said. "It began to seem very reasonable for us."
After researching possible locations, Tema clearly presented the best choice.
According to Harriet Lancaster, Ghana is one of the more stable African countries and is known to have "some of the most hospitable people in Africa."
On a site visit in July of 2012, Montague and Harriet Lancaster and Tema officials signed a "friendship agreement" between the two cities, marking the official beginning of the relationship.
Tema Sister City committee member and former CA President Padraic Kennedy, who also lived in Ghana while working for the Peace Corps., said Tema was an ideal selection.
Kennedy, who oversaw the establishment of the first sister city in France in the 1980's, said the program has been a boon for Columbia.
"I think the whole sister city program has been terrific for Columbia," he said. "For the students that have been involved and the people involved, it has enriched their lives."