Indeed, any of the following titles - Class Struggle (Nkrumah), Birth Pains of Black Nationhood (Padmore), In Place of Fear (Bevin), Too True to be Good (Shaw) or Observations on the Present State of the Nation (Burke) - could be fitting sub-titles for Mr Asante’s new book Voice from Afar: A Ghanaian Experience.
Among other urges, the author shared the Osagyefo’s sentiments for Africa’s economic and political freedom, and belief in the African. Said Mr Asante: “I never tire of recalling the faith Kwame Nkrumah had in Ghanaian doctors to build a medical school even though they had no previous experience of teaching in a medical school”. “You can do it, you know”, Nkrumah assured Dr Charlie Easmon.
Mr Asante knew the Osagyefo at close range. He served as the principal secretary of the African Affairs Secretariat from 1960 - 1966 at the Flagstaff House. A chapter, “Of ‘Hosannas’ and ‘Crucify Him’ ” , contain Mr Asante’s insights to Nkrumah about both the peace mission to Hanoi, and President Lyndon Johnson’s promise about “cessation of bombings”.
Voice from Afar is a 192-page anthology of 52 selected articles published between 1994 and 2002. Sporting a classy cover design by Amarkine Amartefio, the book captures Mr Asante’s sense of duty: that of putting an interpretative handle on Ghana’s fate and fortune for his fellow countrymen, and women. The core is quite evocative of the quintets’ eras, and the prevailing woes.
Vice is needed if virtue is to stand a chance (so observed Machiavelli in 1513). To Mr Asante’s credit, his weekly columns contain faithful attempts to make the state safe. But in spite of its bold frankness, the book may find it hard to make men virtuous. [Remember, saints and saucy prophets tried to. Recall Isaiah’s frustration: “Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?” Also, in Geneva (to taste a Shaw comedy) a Judge character was to declare to everybody: “I give you up as hopeless. Man is a failure as a political animal. The creative forces which produce him must produce something better”].
Yet the pockets of optimism deep in Mr Asante’s psyche are strong motivators. Besides, his conscience - elevated to a pedigree status via the esteemed influences - deserved release and use, lest they withered with ingratitude. The eighty years of blessed living and heroic exposure has given the man enviable weight. (His taste of the fine life includes music, hockey, and the occasional European leisure drive from Bern to Vienna).
As the American, Henry David Thoreau, put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live”. Mr Asante served as Ghana’s ambassador to Switzerland and Belgium, and high commissioner in London. He was secretary for trade and tourism in 1982, and for education and culture in 1988; and was involved in many OAU, Ecowas, Unctad, and Unido deliberations. In addition to receiving the Grand Medal (Order of the Volta), he was honoured by the University of Ghana with a doctorate in 1999.
Mr Asante’s moral resilience and literary gestures for the times cut through insular or ethnic interests. He speaks for one nation. “Here I stand,” he seemed to say: “I cannot do otherwise”. The shrewd comparisons, contrasts, and advice – sourced from vast and earned coffers - are most appropriate for the season. Like the ingenious great grand-daddy to “a young population”, when trifles flared up into anxieties, he elected a healthy restraint like a peacock, “we should not envy them”; but if push came to shove, he spawned reprisals like a hawk, “Tit for tat (for those) who show us no respect”.
This double-edged uniqueness separated Mr Asante from youngish observers who obscured their very efforts by the habitual slumps into hasty closures. This is the author’s strength, and his book’s vigour.
The topics in the book are wieldy, but timely: the IMF/World Bank, the civil service, land sales, chieftaincy disputes, Ghana’s dwindling forests, population, energy, education, etc. And the themes - taken for granted as staples for suitable tradition - are cruel and dead difficult, yet uncompromising: illiteracy, filth, environmental destruction, self-disrespect, intellectual laziness, poverty! His revelations about disposition (the maladies that feed inaction, and the confidence that impels action) are rare to the less endowed. He offers impressive illustrative details. Consider these “K. B. Asanteisms”:
On work ethic: “Civil servants have learnt to do nothing unless directed because ‘if you do nothing, you do nothing wrong and you survive’ ”. On the IMF/World Bank: “The major economies ‘sin a little when it is in their interest to do so … We should not only listen to our benefactors but also observe what they do … our future lies (in) manufactures and not in more commodities’ ”.
On civic issues: “it is time for serious politics and not political promises that ‘would be bedtime infatuation or a lie’ ”. On self-knowledge [the reviewer’s favourite]: “ If you compose your own obituary at 20, you have time to make sense of your life. Think about it”. On discipline: “we Ghanaians do not seem to like the discipline of working within rules, within a well-defined system. A minister or politician would rather like to engage, promote and sack officers as he pleases”.
On scruples: “Fufu was put in the middle of sacks of rubber. Years later beer bottles were broken by some foreign companies to cripple Accra Brewery”. On sharing: “Today we tend to hide the food and wipe our mouth when a visitor approaches while we are eating, because we do not have enough”.
The man in the author points to a lust for life: “Men know that women come in all sizes, shapes… The Ghanaian gentleman generally likes some flesh to cuddle”. (Please: Which man - tender or vile - will not stoop to the pillowy bosom?). But often the inner self stands aghast at ugly obstacles that block progress and create horror: “We live in a world which does not look into the heart (but prefers) riotous living or yielding to desires and the base instincts … some old habits must die to make life better”.
These vignettes add to Mr Asante’s journalistic essence. The rhetorical playfulness and satiric intent merge, brilliantly, into therapy: they reveal one’s own pathos. The skill is akin to the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and better that how he says it ought not be wrong. He has held the field, and raised the ante for professional journalism by supplying fertile mines for mature study. Embodying the answers to a forward-looking society, his concerns and methods require quality continuity, and resolve. Such outlooks bridge distances between hope and fulfillment: “What is important is to have a purpose in life”, he counsels.
As expected, his opinions crop up with ease - by way of the imperial “we” supported by the imperative “must” or “should”. His arguments stir user-friendly challenges for valuation and re-evaluation of the status quo. Quality experiences help. The choice reminiscences - and occasional swipes at the bold, old world – sway readers to the diplomatic and political theatres where he played parts.
Mr Asante’s ear for the entertaining story, and eye for the telltale detail score points. A number of readers welcome the no-nonsense, born-again kind of kinship with him. The downrightness and eagerness to solve problems have increased both his popularity and the clamour for his memoirs: “Some maintain that it is a duty I owe to posterity and the present generation”, he says: “I also hope that a second volume will follow shortly”.
The carry-over from the first will do: For one thing, the persona in the narrative techniques (in the mediation between periods and people - or events and conduct - which are active devices in memoirs) radiates in his columns. The value-added familiarity, ideals, and ardent analysis are testimonies. With the assurance of one who knows his own mind, with no apologies, he stands a tall silhouette against the zone of Ghanaian journalism. The influences have served him well.
In oratory, he echoes peculiar elements in Nkrumah, and the commitment of the historic Bevin (whom he met about 1951 in England when Bevin became minister of labour, and had already introduced the innovative National Health Service in Britain). At an Achimota school function at the State House (Accra, five years or so ago) where the former teachers and administrators were present, one could sense Mr Asante’s very bones (“fossils”, he termed them) rattle with zeal as he toasted his alma mater and its movers and shakers.
That small place in time revived a most perennial, national memory: the Osagyefo’s momentous (Ghana is free forever!) independence address in 1957. A similar feeling emerged recently with another speech by Mr Asante at the Teachers Hall for the Foundation for Educational Research and Development (FERD) in the company of the distinguished educator, Mrs Comfort Engmann - founder of North Ridge Lyceum. My view of our subject is quite partial to those moments and passions.
Voice from Afar stands to gain from minor changes: the few misplaced commas in punctuation, and the all-upper cases in the table of contents and chapter headings. Also, an index, when introduced, should offer ready references to the array of people, places, and events cited.
In the meantime, we await volume two with maximum respect. Class sets of the book will be lively as teaching texts in the social sciences at the secondary and tertiary levels. [The book is obtainable at Methodist Book Depot, Accra. It justified its cedis worth for journalists, politicians, professors, chiefs, students, and plain folks].
(Mr Haffar conducts staff development and teacher in-service workshops for continuous education and professional growth. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).