Fargo, N.D. --
A two-week mission to Ghana resulted in enduring personal and professional connections for a Happy Hooligan. Senior Airman Derek Johansen, of Devils Lake, N.D., recently returned from the African country, where he worked with more than 30 other North Dakota Air National Guardsmen in the Civil Engineer Squadron to renovate buildings in Accra, Ghana's capital, and Takoradi.
Johansen works as an electrician with the Guard, although he helped with a variety of projects while in Ghana, "whether that be helping build trusses or hammering away on concrete," he said.
In the course of his job, he met electricians in the Ghana Armed Forces, and has since established Facebook connections to stay in touch. The first connection Johansen made, however, was with Senam Doe-Dade, the son of a Ghanaian soldier.
"Senam, who goes by the name Joe, is a 16-year-old student whose father is in the military. He and some of his friends were playing basketball one day, and I just had to join in the fun," Johansen said. "We got to talking about everything from the differences in our home countries to the similarities."
North Dakota paired with Ghana in 2004 as part of the Department of Defense-sponsored State Partnership Program, which aligns states with partner countries to encourage the development of economic, political and military ties. While at first glance there may appear to be few similarities between North Dakota and anywhere in Africa, the military in each area face similar challenges, including frequent flooding and deployment on peacekeeping missions.
When Johansen asked Doe-Dade about Facebook, he had replied, "Yes, it is big in Ghana."
Johansen later connected with Samuel Arizie, an electrician with the Ghana Army with whom he wired ceiling fans, and Richard Amakwah, Arizie's friend from basic military training.
"I set both of them up with Facebook to stay in touch with me after I departed," Johansen said.
When the Civil Engineer Squadron moved north to the project in Takoradi, Johansen connected with another Ghanaian electrician, Makafui Kofi Sosu.
"He helped me inventory the electrical supplies, and from there we hit it off quite well," Johansen said.
Before leaving Takoradi, Johansen connected with Lt. Jacob Nanjo, of the Ghana Army, at a commander's dinner. They connected almost immediately.
"He tagged along with us when we went off base and had a good time," Johansen said. "We both loved music, and I eventually got some local Ghanaian music from him before I left the country. Jacob is a really great guy and the one I will miss the most."
Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general, noticed the friendships and Facebook connections being formed when he visited the squadron in Ghana.
"I think this is a great example of what the State Partnership Program is doing on so many levels," he said. "In terms of the global operating environment, we're learning from each other and building on each other's strengths to become a stronger, more adaptable force in our own countries. On a smaller but no less important scale, our Guardsmen are learning and refining their skills while also making lasting connections that will enhance their military and civilian experiences. This is truly a win-win situation for the North Dakota National Guard and our members."
Johansen, who has been in the Guard for four years, knows that for certain.
"I hope to stay in contact with all of the Ghanaians via Facebook, and I would love to make it back to visit someday," he said. "We joke around that we will send Facebook invites for each other's weddings in the future."