An African doctor buys a former Tennessee slave plantation and turns it into a cultural sanctuary with the goal of revolutionizing health care in African countries.
We can all say that we’ve seen some amazing ironies in life, but few have experienced one like Dr. Arikana Chihombori, a Zimbabwe (Africa)-born physician and frequent Florida visitor and landowner who lives in the heart of Tennessee.
She and her husband, Dr. Nii Saban Quao, are both highly touted physicians. After completing her undergraduate education at Fisk University, she matriculated at Meharry Medical College and earned degrees in general chemistry, a master’s degree in organic chemistry and a Doctor of Medicine degree.
Dr. Quao, a native of Ghana, is a graduate of Yale University, where he earned three degrees: an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and biophysics, then a master’s degree in public health and a Doctor of Medicine degree. He also has a law degree from Vanderbilt University.
They are now the owners of Africa House, an expansive, plantation-style mansion where dignitaries, beauty queens, ambassadors and other luminaries have stayed as their special guests. It is also the couple’s occasional weekend home.
But it’s how Chihombori acquired the sprawling home – and what is taking place there now – that presents one of the greatest ironies ever known.
Almost didn’t happen
Africa House might not have been if it hadn’t been for a casual business associate, a young man who insisted that the locally well-known doctor check out a foreclosure auction for a house that he said would go for cheap.
Chihombori was not in the market for another house. She already owns properties in Tennessee, Florida, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and is a shareholder in a major resort property in the Orlando area.
But the young man, who actually came to one of her four medical clinics to get some papers signed, insisted that she go to the auction and bid on the large house. She still didn’t take it too seriously.
Going to look
“I had no intentions of going there to buy. I was just going to look at a big house,” she explained.
She left home late that morning and figured the auction might even be over when she got there. But to her surprise, it wasn’t. Not only was it not over, she later learned that the auctioneer held up the auction because they were told, “the African Queen was coming.”
She was astonished. As fate would have it, she outbid everyone at the foreclosure auction, wrote a check to buy the place and by that afternoon, to her own initial dismay, she was owner of a sprawling plantation.
She estimates she got the house, an adjacent barn, and 30 acres of land for a third of what it was worth. She had to tell her husband what she’d done.
Quao, her spouse – who is himself a longtime collector of African antiquities – just shook his head when he got the news. He’s used to her buying real estate “on a whim.”
Nowhere to go
But it was what was to come that blew her and everybody away.
The couple that had owned the home was once extremely prosperous.
They had just lost their beloved mansion and were forced to sell what remained of their family’s legacy, and they were not prepared either psychologically or physically to leave when their property was sold to a wealthy African woman.
They had nowhere to go. Chihombori could force them to move out of the house immediately, or she could give them a grace period and allow them to stay a while longer.
She didn’t force them out. But it was then that she learned the rather startling news.
Not just any house
She had purchased Chapman Clearing, parts of which had been in the same family since the year 1799.
“Chapman Clearing” was a name given to it by the locals because the landowner was known to tell everyone to “clear the land!”)
The Chapman family history is the history of America. The family patriarch was an officer in America’s Revolutionary War. In 1799, he bought 200 acres of land in Gallatin, Tenn., then moved there from Virginia with his family. The Chapman family was to buy, sell, and pass parcels of land down to subsequent generations for the next 200 years.
Chapman men fought in the Revolutionary War, the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Enslaved Africans and their descendants worked the land for decades, including a few that decided to stay on the property after the South lost the Civil War.
The sprawling property Chihombori now owned had once been a part of 300 acres that belonged to the former owner’s great-grandfather – who had been a slave owner.
The place now known as Africa House had once been the part of a massive slave plantation.
“He just felt it was an insult losing his home, then losing it to a Black woman, but in the end, he was glad he did because we let him stay there. He said that if a White person had bought it, they would have wanted him out by 5 p.m. that very day. He said that ironically, it took two Africans to help him out! We changed his entire mindset about Black people,” said Chihombori.
She and her husband eventually allowed them to stay in the home for three months free of charge, and it didn’t matter to her that he had initially been upset that a Black family bought his mansion.
She said he even grew fond of her entire family and looked forward to their visits there during his extended stay. It didn’t matter that the history of the property included a time during which it was a slave plantation.
“The man completely changed the way he sees Black people, and that’s what it’s all about. “Their preconceived notions of Black people are wrong,” she remarked.
But she’s quick to point out that allowing him to stay there for free was just part of her upbringing in Africa.
‘The African way’
“To us, it didn’t matter that he was White. We did that based on our African upbringing. That’s an African way. I’m not sure that’s an American way.
Everything we do, we draw back from our African values,” she said of herself and her husband.
Today, Africa House – a former slave plantation – has been turned into an oasis of African culture in Tennessee, and the hub of thought, strategic thinking, and activity where great work is taking place on behalf of Africa.
As a medical doctor, Chihombori is chairwoman of the African Union African Diaspora Health Initiative (AU-ADHI). (The African Union is a confederation of 54 African states.)
In this capacity, she is charged with mobilizing health-care workers throughout the African Diaspora – that is, people of African descent living outside of Africa – to assist in addressing the health-care crisis in Africa.
At Africa House, Chihombori and her husband brainstorm, strategize and collect information that is then used to make African countries healthier.
The main building of the former slave plantation is now a meeting place for people initiating sweeping positive changes in the very place where enslaved Africans slaves were forced from – their own homeland.
“And an African is in charge! What an irony!” said Kwame Bonsu, a native of Ghana, and a childhood friend of Chihombori’s husband. “It’s a great irony and God is a great God!
Along with others who are also concerned about the plight of Africa, the group meets at Africa House once or twice a week to determine how to bring people of African descent together, and how to mobilize to make Africa a healthier nation.
And everyone seems to agree that there is a spirit of togetherness that permeates the place when the groups are in Africa House working toward a common goal of making the African Motherland a better place for its people.
”The house has a spirit of ujamaa,” (the spirit of working together), she said in a telephone interview. “It also promotes the spirit of ubuntu (working together toward a common goal),” she said.
“It’s a very nice place,” said Chihombori. “I did the decorations myself. It’s huge and people can’t believe Black people own it. It empowers people,” she said of the house, which hosts parties, weddings, and other functions.
“There was a need for such a place.”
“It’s like the White House in Tennessee. It’s a beautiful mansion. It really represents Africa,” said Bonsu.
Focus on the work
But it’s more important to “Dr. C,” as she is known locally, that the focus not be on the house itself. Her focus is on the work that originates from Africa House, particularly in the area of health care.
Chihombori is passionate about bringing people from all walks of life together with a common goal of helping Africa. “I’m so passionate because it’s like taking care of your mother,” she said.
She is focusing her efforts on what the African Union calls “the Sixth Region’ of Africa.
There are five regions in the continent – North, South, East, West and Central. The Sixth Region is comprised of people of African descent or origin who live outside of the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality.
It includes people of African descent who live in the Caribbean, North America, Central America, South America, or anywhere outside of the African continent, who are willing to contribute to the development of Africa and the building of the African Union.
Stop the denial
Chihombori fervently wants to get the message out that we are all one people who should share a common concern about Africa. She wants African-Americans to stop denying that they are African.
“Black Americans ARE Africans. The Jews never deny their Jewishness. As long as we continue to be divided, we will remain enslaved. The mind must be liberated. We are all children of the same mother – Mother Africa,” she stressed in one of several phone conversations.
No health infrastructure
As head of the AU-ADHI, she has galvanized health-care professionals who are just as committed to addressing Africa’s dire health situation.
According to the AU-ADHI website, there is growing shortage of health care in Africa that’s due to the migration of health-care professionals and the lack of training facilities.
In certain parts of Africa, there’s only one primary care doctor for every 100,000 people. Some African countries do not even have a specialist.
And without a specialist or primary care doctors, African people are dying from undiagnosed problems like hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria that could be prevented or cured.
The AU-ADHI contributes its own money to go to Africa to help out. In six months, the group made remarkable change in Malawi, an African country with dire health-care needs. The group recently went back to Malawi to meet a container full of $500,000 worth of medical supplies to help the people there. The AU-ADHI raised the funds for the supplies.
Because of their effective efforts in Malawi, they also were asked by the president of Sierra Leone to help people there. The group plans to do a needs assessment in Sierra Leone to determine how best to approach the help it plans to give.
Health-care pros needed
But the group’s greatest need right now is for doctors and other medical professionals to commit to going to Africa with the group to lend their expertise. They have a dire need for OB-GYN’s, pediatricians, and surgeons.
They are asking if professionals could commit to one month in Africa, but they’ll accept two weeks of support if necessary. The professionals are asked to pay their own way to Africa. But once there, accommodations, food and transportation are provided free of charge. The professionals work a four-day work week.
“Malawi has called us to assist and free Mother Africa of the disease and help improve the quality of health care,” said Dr. Andrew Hazley, an American-born general surgeon who is an AU-ADHI member. “It’s amazing the work we’ve been able to do in such a short time.”
Chihombori says some individuals may be able to give a longer commitment to help the continent. “If an OB-GYN can spend a year in Malawi, that would be ideal,” she said.
Anyone can help
But she’s quick to state that any time commitment is welcomed because any help is needed. They also need help from other professionals and individuals outside of the medical profession. She stresses that anyone who is concerned about Africa and wants to help should contact the AU-ADHI.
It’s the cohesiveness of the Sixth Region that Chihombori strives for when they’re strategizing at Africa House. Everyone who knows her knows that she’s all about bringing people together. And according to Hazley, the atmosphere at Africa House is conducive to bringing people together in an electrifying atmosphere.
“Oh gosh, the Africa House…it has a lot of energy. It’s where we brainstorm and collect data. It produces an atmosphere to all of our thoughts about Africa that are positive,” said Hazley.
It is apparent that some of the greatest help for Mother Africa emanates from Africa House, and that makes Chihombori proud.
“That’s what it’s all about. We’re solving the problems of humanity,” she said.