Pierre Osei-Owusu of Durham speaks English with an American accent. His parents back home in Ghana, Africa, have told him so.
“They know I’m American,” Osei-Owusu said. “You stay here 20 years … they see you more as an American.”
This past summer, Osei-Owusu, who works as transit administrator for GoDurham, the city’s public transit arm, made his annual trip to Ghana to present workshops in urban public transportation management.
“When you go back home, they will be able to tell that you are (no longer) from there,” Osei-Owusu said, inside his office at the GoDurham headquarters. “If there is one measure … it’s always going to be speech.”
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English is not foreign to Ghana. It is the official language of the country, even though many Ghanaians continue to speak an indigenous language at home. Osei-Owusu said one way American English stands out to Ghanaian ears is the way in which the pronunciation of the letter “t” is often swallowed in words such as, “Atlanta”.
“That is one big give-away,” Osei-Owusu said. “In Ghana, it’s ‘At-lanta’ – the ‘t’ is very well stressed.”
Osei-Owusu, now a U.S. citizen, first came to America in 1985 for a master’s degree in transportation planning at the University of Georgia.
“I fell in love with the society, the system, the opportunity,” he said. “The culture eases you into it.”
While finishing his master’s at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Osei-Owusu obtained an apprenticeship with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. He then went on to work as a manager for the Greenville Transit Authority in South Carolina before joining GoDurham in 1997.
“I was never prepared fully,” Osei-Owusu said. “Nobody gets that structure. You learn half of it through practice.”
Osei-Owusu has made it his responsibility to put his words into practice each day at GoDurham, in the form of student apprenticeships. Since 2000, he has helped more than 15 college graduates with an interest in urban planning transition to the professional world.
Armando Sullivan, 23, of Durham, who apprenticed with Osei-Owusu in 2015, began his graduate studies at Harvard this past August.
“He introduced me to everyone he could,” Sullivan said. “Basically, I was learning to do what he does.”
Sullivan’s first assignment was to ride each of GoDurham’s 20 bus routes, because Osei-Owusu wanted him to see the people that he would be serving during his apprenticeship.
By the end of his 10-month assignment at GoDurham, Sullivan had written a $150,000 grant proposal to expand service for GoDurham ACCESS, which provides tailored transit service to disabled residents. The grant was approved.
“I learned all about grant management and procurement from the apprenticeship,” Sullivan said.
Cha’ssem Anderson, 38, of Durham was one of Osei-Owusu’s first apprentices. He’s now the director of transportation at NCCU, his alma mater.
“He didn’t feel like a boss – he did a really good job of being a teacher,” Anderson said. “He never tried to bend my views on something.”
Anderson said his first assignment for Osei-Owusu was to record latitude and longitude coordinates for every bus stop in Durham. The data was collected for the transit system’s first uplink to GPS. The project took him about a month, and gave him a ground’s eye view of Durham’s transit system.
“What better way for me to learn the routes and the neighborhood?” Anderson said.
Osei-Owusu’s latest apprentice is Brian Inyang, 28, from Nigeria, who earned his master’s degree in public administration at NCCU.
“I wanted to leave my country to explore,” Inyang said.
Four months into his apprenticeship with Osei-Owusu, Inyang has managed contractor bids as well as an agreement with NCCU’s transportation department to share GoDurham’s vehicle maintenance facilities. Inyang said public transportation in Nigeria – buses and taxis – is widespread, but not well-organized.
“The management is very ineffective,” Inyang said.
Inyang said he first learned about the apprenticeship when he was taking a course in urban planning at NCCU that was being taught by Owusu.
“This is a way to give back to American society,” Osei-Owusu said. “There should be someone who can give you the scoop.”
Last May, the city of Durham recognized Osei-Owusu with an award for bringing diversity into the city. The award hangs on his office wall, next to photographs of him from years past in the company of movers and shakers in Ghana. Osei-Owusu’s diplomas stand alone on a wall that faces his desk.
“Those who are here don’t know what they have,” Osei-Owusu said. “When the plane lands at JFK, you can smell the freedom.”
Osei-Owusu believes that using transit projects to spur a city’s economic growth is as much about timing as it is about demand. He said that apartment housing is already being constructed along the proposed light rail route from Durham to Chapel Hill.
“Nothing stays the same,” Osei-Owusu said. “The question is, what do you do? Do you wait until Durham is the size of Charlotte or Atlanta to grow the (transit) system? You have to decide whether it is the right time or not.”
Osei-Owusu drives the 2 miles from the GoDurham offices to downtown for a 10 a.m. meeting at City Hall. Public radio plays on his FM stereo, whose clock displays the time as 9:55. As Osei-Owusu approaches an intersection, a man wearing a yellow hardhat and orange safety vest signals for him to stop. He waits as the construction crew maneuvers out of the street.
“Commuters, either in cars or on buses, are all fighting for a common goal of arriving at their respective destinations on time, safely and reliably,” Osei-Owusu said. “Whoever can deliver that trip faster … is always going to have the edge.”
With less than three minutes to spare before his meeting, Osei-Owusu finds parking in an unmarked loading lane and swipes his I.D. to enter City Hall.
“The bottom line is time,” he said.