Reminiscent Joy and Blues
When I arrived in Germany (Bremen) in August 1986 after a two-year teaching job in Jamahariya, Libya, little did I know that the three months I had planned to stay would stretch to seventeen years and more, indeed to an indefinite period of time.
I was born forty-five years ago in a traditional compound house in Gbedema to the daughter of an ex-policeman from Kanjarga and the son of a chief – Gbedem-Nab Ayarik Akanyemi. My maternal grandfather died before I was born. My paternal grandfather lived a bit longer and I got to know him before he died. That was when I was about ten or eleven. He was a loving old man and it was always nice to be with him even though he was very old and could no longer walk or see well. He must have been over ninety when he died.
When I became aware of my being - “I think, so I am” - I was living with my maternal grandmother in Kanjarga, a few kilometres away from Gbedema. She was a mangaziah (a female community political leader of the then popular ruling Convention People’s Party led by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah). Even though she wasn’t Bulsa (she came originally from Bole, a small Gonja speaking town in the Northern Region), she spoke perfect Buli.
The early sixties were years of fervent political activity and some of the important social highlights of a year included colourful political gatherings on market days in the dry season. These resembled the fiok festival in a way, but were smaller and held at village level.
My grandmother often took me to such gatherings. They were the occasions on which I would wear the new shorts and shirt or pair of shoes that had been tucked away and waiting for just such an occasion to be taken out and used.
I liked the gatherings. Comfortable on the lap of my grandmother, sister or an adult female relative, I would observe the lively and bubbling scenes that crossed my view; dances, singing groups, women dressed in colourful bisa-da-kasa (up and down) attires with the emblem of the CPP and Nkrumah’s portrait printed on them. There was usually a lot of food on such occasions and with a pence you could buy enough maasa, koosa or pobla. The gatherings would end after dark and I usually realised this only the next day after waking up to find myself at home and in a new day.
Less colourful than the social and political gatherings were a number of aspects of daily village life. The life of the shepherd boys for instance fascinated me a great deal, but I was not usually allowed to go with them to graze the cattle and sheep. Apparently I was still too young to be able to look after the animals. But I was curious and always wanted to take part in grazing the animals. One day I cried so much that the adults gave in and I went out with the shepherds. I must have been about four or five years old then.
We were four boys and two girls. We made for a valley through which a river flowed, some distance away from the crop fields. It was a new experience for me, but not for the others. The head shepherd, a boy, planned the timetable in such a way that while one shepherd watched over the grazing animals the rest of us went hunting birds (using catapults and slings or cudgels) or swimming. I couldn’t swim and it was the first time that I had ever been neck-deep in a river, so I only just splashed around. The head shepherd tried to teach me to swim but the result was not very encouraging. By the time the lesson was over I had unwillingly gulped down a considerable amount of the mud-coloured water. We ended the swimming session and there was a change of personal in the duty plan, all directed by the head shepherd boy. Then we sat under a tree on the river bank and played while the new duty sentry executed his task alone.
We were making drawings in the sand when after some minutes I felt something moving in the sand under me. I didn’t take time to find out what it was really, but simply shifted a few inches to one side and continued with my drawings. I felt the movement a second time and again and again, but I was enjoying the drawing games so much that I was reluctant to interrupt the fun. I just shifted a few inches to one side, as I had done earlier. The movement continued and I finally decided to get up and find out what it was.
When I got on my feet and saw the wiggling movement in the sand, I nearly fainted out of fear. It was a snake! The head shepherd boy reacted with amazing speed. Snatching his cudgel in both hands he brought it down on the head of the snake. It wiggled vigorously for a few minutes and came to lie still in the sand, blood oozing out of its smashed head. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but the whole experience was worth a place in my memory. I never again asked to be allowed to go out with the shepherds. My curiosity had been satisfied, and the adults also had their peace. Biik a daa yaali doari fi che a te wa, (lit: if a child wants a cudgel, cut it for it), they must have thought.
Another aspect of life in my childhood that remains imprinted on my mind is the schooling of my two elder sisters, Lamisi and Lariba. I would watch them in the morning as they got ready to go to school. Unlike the shepherd boys and girls, they wore school uniforms and exuded modernity. I always longed to be allowed to go with them to school, much in the same way as my curiosity had driven me to go out with the shepherds. I was in some way an inconvenience because my sisters had to look after me most of the time. I would also dress up when I was able to wake up early enough and cry my small lungs sore to be allowed to go with them. Whenever I was allowed to, and these occasions were few, I would spend some time at the back of the classroom and when I got bored I went out to play under one of the big baobab trees that stood in front of the school building. On two or three occasions I wasn’t able to wait till the lunch break and insisted to be taken home. I guess it was the reason for my sisters’ reluctance for me to go to school with them. Nevertheless, through this form of casual school attendance I was able to learn numbers from 1 – 20 and the alphabet before my formal enrolment at the age of six.
And when I did start school, it was not long before I was sent to Gbedema to continue there. Teachers at the time were identical in some aspects irrespective of their schools or villages. They were always neatly dressed in black shorts and white shirts (stiff-ironed with starch), from the left breast pockets of which the cocks of two ball pens, one red the other blue, were always visible. The headteacher stood out from the rest of the staff through his white and white uniform. They looked really smart in their uniforms, and wore black leather shoes or sandals and wrist watches. A karichi without a wrist watch is no karichi. He was a personality with a difference and in addition to his teaching duties functioned as the village community scribe – reading and writing letters for the illiterates. There were only a few female teachers at the time, and I can’t remember ever having been taught by a female teacher at primary or middle school.
The next years saw me in a number of different places in different families and with different people, from Gbedema to Sandema, back to Gbedema, then to Siniensa, back to Gbedema, to Sandema again and finally Bolgatanga, where I did one year of middle schooling (form two) before entering Notre Dame Seminary Secondary School at the age of fourteen. Given the many interruptions that took place in my formative years I count myself lucky today to have been able to develop normally and make it to secondary school and university. With each station of my childhood being different from the other, it meant I always had to adapt to the new situation and accept it whether it suited me or not. And this isn’t easy for a growing child.
Notre Dame Seminary Secondary School was a new experience with a difference. It brought some amount of stability into my life. Before then I had never lived in one place and with the same people for more than two consecutive years. I was in Notre Dame for five years at a stretch.
We were 150 boys mostly Bulsa, Kassena, Nankani, Frafra, Talensi and Kusasi between the ages of 14 and 19. Only Catholics gain admission to Notre Dame. We were a privileged lot and “a chosen few” and lived, learned and prayed together as one family. Most of our teachers were white catholic fathers and brothers. Brother Ryain, we nicknamed him Old Bro, came from Newcastle and was nearly seventy. He was a serious looking man, and hardly ever smiled or laughed.
He always gave his lessons seated at his desk in front of the class. He didn’t use the blackboard very often, and if he did it was just to scribble a word or make an illustration, by turning to do so without getting up from his seat. I remember one interesting lesson in which we were learning verbs. Old Bro had taken time to explain to us that a verb is a doing word, gave some examples of verbs and even demonstrated some actions like read, write, eat, drink, walk... After that it was our turn to name some more examples, and where necessary, make the meaning clearer by demonstrating the action. After three correct answers and an encouraging “well done” from Old Bro, the next boy gave the word goat as an example of a verb. Old Bro jerked in his chair, made a grimace and looking at the boy over the silver frame of his reading glasses (which always seemed to hang precariously from the tip of his nose) he said, “Well, get up and goat for us to understand what you mean.” The rest of us couldn’t hold back our laughter and within seconds most of us were clutching our bellies hilariously in our chairs. We were mean and made fun of our mate for some days – repeating the joke in different variations. We would ask him to table or tree or ball, sheep or cow, for instance.
The assistant headmaster was a white father from Quebec, Father Avila LaFrance. He was a chain smoker and always breathed heavily. He had his favourite students – mostly small boys - and he showed his affection for them by pulling their cheeks. I wasn’t one of these and so he never pulled my cheeks, fortunately. He was our Latin teacher.
Father Guérin was a Frenchman who always wore an African smock. He wore his cassock only for mass and other church services. He used to take regular walks round the school in the evening, sending up smoke from a pipe held between the teeth, hands crossed behind at the waist. He taught French, Latin and Religion.
Bro Leo was a tall stooping giant from Montreal. He taught Geography, English and Religion. He always walked slowly and softly, as if taking care not to hurt the ground below his feet. He also spoke in the same soft way. In his white robes I always associated him mentally with one of the original disciples of Jesus Christ or some biblical figure.
There were other priests. Father Charboneau (Canada), Father Phelan (USA), Brother Robert (Canada), Father Apuri (headmaster and only African on the staff when I entered form one) and later some volunteers from Britain and Scotland, Mr and Mrs Kelly, Mr Auburn, Mr Hughes and Mr. Cassidy. Mr Kelly liked to play paddy tennis with us. Cassidy, Auburn and Hughes preferred football, even though Mr Hughes would have made a better spectator than player. His feet had difficulty finding the ball or kicking it.
I still look back with pleasure to my student days at Notre Dame. The teaching and learning conditions were very good. And we were well-fed. We also had plenty of leisure and sporting activities to keep us fit. A walk through the school garden with the dam in the middle always brought to my mind scenes from the stories about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It had a lot of fruit trees, mostly mango, guava and pawpaw. The ripe fruits were often served at meals.
From Notre Dame I entered sixth form at Tamasco. The two years there were not very eventful. Those of us who came from other schools to do the A Levels there were contemptuously referred to as Russians – more like visitors or guests on transition. Due to the fact that we weren’t really accepted by the original Tamascans no real integration took place. The two years passed very quickly. It was a stop-over. Nevertheless, I think often of some schoolmates there, especially Nkobisanga (lit. father’s children, used in Buli to refer to fellow Bulsa): Anbegwon Atuire, Baba Azinab, Sylvester Ankobilla, Thomas Issah, George Akanligpare, Kwesi Achanlang and Waksman (hey Waks!) – greetings to you all wherever you are. Waksman’s real name has just escaped my mind. What a shame! Well, the name Waksman was quite popular in Tamasco. You heard the name first before getting to know the bearer of it. Waksman was noted for his special kind of English. He had a predilection for high sounding English, an English of big words or words that are not common in everyday usage.
His English was above the English of the secondary school student. And he never used the popular pidgin English that is fashionable among Ghanaian students. It was always a fun to hear him in arguments with other students. He enjoyed the occasions and audience. Some of his fans would “spur” him on with loud “Hey Waks, hey Waks!”, and he never failed them.
I got introduced to African Literature for the first time at Tamasco. A whole world had opened up to me – Chinua Achebe, N’gugi Wa’Thiongo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Sembene Ousmane, and many more. This aspect of Literature was not well represented in Notre Dame, unfortunately.
My next destination was Cape Coast University. It was the first time that I was going to live in the South of Ghana for long. Till then I had been to Accra only twice, in 1976 for the first time and again in 1978, and each visit had not exceeded a month. I was quite delighted at the prospect of the new situation in my life. In a country where many young people from the north travel to the cities in the south in search of jobs and better living conditions, I was privileged to live in a city where I neither paid rent nor provided my own food.
We who enjoyed this privilege owe our education and place in life today to the Ghanaian taxpayer. How can we pay back sufficiently? Maybe some of you have some good and practicable ideas here. I would appreciate them.
My first year at Cape Coast University started late, in January 1979 instead of October 1978, due to the closing down of the three universities by the then military regime of Acheampong/ Akuffo as a result of student dissent and mass demonstrations in Cape Coast, Kumasi and Accra.
In May/June 1979 the general dissatisfaction with the regime took the form of a military revolt led by a then unknown young Flight-Lieutenant in the army – Jerry John Rawlings. The students threw their weight behind the young, charismatic and eloquent soldier. JJ had no programme well-defined enough to govern Ghana at the time. Besides, general elections had been held earlier and a newly-elected president, Dr. Hilla Limann, was waiting to take over the reins of power and government. Nevertheless, JJ’s outrage at corruption, poverty and social putridity won him the sympathy of the majority of Ghanaians and he quickly became a popular force and voice in Ghanaian political life. It wasn’t therefore surprising that he ousted the new government (which did little to fight corruption and rot) and ruled Ghana for twenty years. He may have his shortcomings as a person and a political figure, but credit must be given him for having paved the way for political peace and stability and some amount of democracy. I personally think Rawlings has done a good job, in spite of everything. Who knows if the fate of countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone or Ivory Coast would have spared our country. All may not be rosy for Ghanaians, but the peace and stability that prevail can be used to fight poverty and stimulate economic development.
I made a number of good friends at Cape Coast: Steve Syme (now PHD), Ishak Alhassan, Abdallah Ziblim, Ali Nasamu (Madman), Alan Quarshie, Kwesi Ahiakpor (Gaspi), Ntei Abudu (Akwes), Abdulai Wemah, Jimo Yekini, Nartey, T. Jones, Stitches, Mike Ackun, “Get-Stoned” Steven Otabil (also now PHD) and many more. Sofo Ali, a childhood friend also studied there at the time.
During my third year I spent three months in Togo (French exchange programme). I had stayed outside Ghana for the first time.
I feel honoured to have had prominent personalities like Ama Ata Aidoo, Kofi Awoonor, or Atta Britchum among others as lecturers at Cape Coast University.
They made us hungry for knowledge and studying was real fun. We read wide and broad - Aristotles, Plato, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ralph Ellis, James Baldwin, Voltaire, Hugo, Achebe, Sembene Ousmane, N’gugi Wa’Thiongo, to mention a few names.
I graduated from the University of Cape Coast in 1982 and went on to do a two-year national service at Presbyterian Secondary School in Legon, Accra. Life as a national serviceman was hard.
I was in the prime of my life and standing at the threshold of an unknown future. The first years of Rawlings’ second coming had brought economic hardship to the country. Investors and foreign financial institutions decided to play the wait and see game. The markets lacked many essential commodities and food production fell drastically. Fuel also became very scarce and made transportation difficult and expensive.
My salary was enough to feed me for about only two weeks, and which meant a square meal a day. I can’t tell how I always managed till the end of the month, but I still remember the rumbling sounds in my stomach when there was nothing in it to digest.
I didn’t like the headmaster of Presec at the time. He wasn’t doing a good job but liked to give the impression that he was a good and competent headmaster. Some of the bungalows had been built of wood and there were still prefabricated wooden walls and frames available for construction. There was no construction going on due to lack of money, which could be understood. What outraged me was that the wooden walls and frames had been left outside at the mercy of rain, termites and sun. When I raised the issue at a staff meeting once the headmaster simply brushed it aside and feebly defended his incompetence with the typical bureaucratic excuse that it was an administrative matter, in other words I was to shut up and not put my nose into issues that lay outside my jurisdiction. A few days later there was an order that national servicemen could no longer buy food from the school dining hall. The reason given was that the times were hard and the little that was there was to be used in feeding only students. And we were not more than six national servicemen in all. Six stomachs were big enough to eat up the amount of food that was meant for a whole school. The message from “above” was clear. Do not criticize if you don’t want to starve.
Another incident worth mentioning took place in my second year of service – 1983. I taught English Language and Literature at Presec. There was a shortage of textbooks (mostly books on Shakespeare). It occurred to me to ask the British Council in Accra for assistance. This I did and received a donation of more than 100 copies of various Shakespeare plays. The only thing the British Council couldn’t do was to transport the books to Presec for me.
I thought that wasn’t a problem since the school had its own bus. I informed the headmaster and asked to have the bus on a day it was free. We agreed on the Friday of the week that was to come.
Friday came but there was no bus. I thought I was dreaming. I approached the headmaster and he assured me the bus would be made available to me as soon as it returned from rounds of various “administrative errands”. Noon came but there was no bus. At 3 p.m. there was still no sign of it, and the British Council closes at 4 p.m., which meant, I still had some time to get there and pick the books if the bus came within the next quarter of an hour. At 4 p.m. I was still waiting.
A few minutes after 4 p.m. the bus finally arrived, carrying the male German shepherd dog of the school matron in it. It was too late to pick up the books. I went bananas. The matron was closest to the headmaster after the school accountant. Her male shepherd dog used to be taken away regularly (in the school bus, of course) to mate with female shepherd dogs elsewhere. The puppies were sold at high prices, and fetched the matron an extra source of income to fill her greedy coffers – a very administrative matter indeed.
I don’t know how I would have continued at Presec if I hadn’t left Ghana. Changing schools wouldn’t have solved the problem. There was rot everywhere. I had tried to fight it by trying to be duty-conscious and devoted to my job – a modest contribution, that was laughed at in the face and I was made to feel like a beaten dog.
But he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day (Bob Marley). I ran away, hoping to live and fight another day. The Libyan government came to recruit teachers for teaching posts in Libya in October 1984. I applied and was immediately taken under contract.
A few weeks earlier, I made the acquaintance of the teachers and pupils of the German Travelling School of Scholen, Reisende Werkschule Scholen, in Accra where they had arrived to continue to Sandema to work on development projects. The Ghanaian co-ordinator of the project, Mr James Agalic (the current Bulsa District Chief Executive), had asked me to help the Germans with regularising their papers in Accra and clearing items at Tema harbour.
I was to pick them up at the Labadi Beach the next day. When I got there I saw this obroni (Akan for Whiteman) sitting under one of the summer huts. He was big in stature and had long blond hair. Pago was his name, and one of the four teachers accompanying the 12 pupils. Our conversations the next days touched on many subjects; (Reggae) music, politics, international affairs, life in Ghana and Germany. They were very interesting conversations and I asked a lot of questions and answered many questions.
The group continued to Sandema to join those who had gone ahead of them, and a few weeks later I also left Ghana for Libya. Pago and I remained in regular contact in the two years that I lived and worked as teacher in Libya.
For the first time in my life I was earning enough money (in dollars) and could provide three square meals a day as well as buy myself different kinds of clothes and shoes. Libyans are very nice and hospitable people. The negative picture of Muammer Gaddafi painted by the USA – as that of the bad boy who supports and exports terror - is unfortunately very one-sided and biased. Libyans may have been involved in the one or other bombings (Lockerbie for example) but there is a positive side to the bad boy. Gaddafi has built first class roads, schools, hospitals, stadia, supermarkets and put sufficient infrastructure in place in his country for a viable economy. When I was there every village had its own big school (primary to secondary level), a small post office, well equipped health centre, supermarket, sports stadium and good roads linking it to the next highway. Electricity and water were almost free, and medical treatment didn’t cost a cent.
We didn’t pay rent for the houses in which we lived, and were treated without discrimination.
Despite all these positive things I still didn’t have the feeling that I could live and work in the Islamic Socialist Republic longer than two years. Social life was reduced to invitations to dinner in families, playing indoor games and football or table-tennis. There were no cinema and theatre houses, no discothèques, pubs or other social places. Besides, there were virtually no opportunities for furthering my education there. The pay was good, but only because I had never really earned that much before. To be able to save enough money to go and study in Britain or the USA for example (and I wanted to further my education) it would have taken me not less than five years of work there.
And I wasn’t prepared to wait that long. I had to decide, either to remain in Libya for at least that long or leave immediately and return to Ghana where I had many possibilities of furthering my education. I was in my late twenties and thought if I had to further my education, the time was opportune for that. I decided to leave Libya and return to Ghana and attempt a new start. At least I would not starve like I did during my national service. I could boast of about three thousand dollars in my bank account.
I made plans. I would visit Germany for three months and return to Ghana direct from there. In Ghana I would go back to University and start a Master's degree or a post-graduate course in my field – Education and Teaching.
On a warm day in 1986 towards the end of July, Francis Apanka (he had also been teaching in Libya, in Benghazi about 600 kilometres away from Tripoli, where I was) and I boarded an Air Libya plane and flew out of Libya, first to Rome and then to Paris. Francis’s final European destination was Britain and mine Germany. We spent a few days in Paris before parting, he to London and I to Bremen (where my friend and would-be host, Pago, lived). Francis and I had planned to meet in three months either in Bremen or London and fly back to Ghana together.
(To be continued)