ADIEU, K B MENSAH!
By CAMERON DUODU
The Ghanaian Times 27 January 2015
THE cryptic message that I received on New Year’s Eve was hard to believe.
It just asked: “Have you heard that our friend and BBC colleague, K B Mensah, has passed away? So sad!”
“What? K B Mensah dead? Impossible!” I said to myself.
K B Mensah, I regret to tell you, was the son of one of our more admired politicians, Mr J H Mensah, Dr K Busia’s Finance Minister (1969-72) and President J A Kufuor unusually-denominated “Senior Minister” during the latter’s administration.
I called a mutual friend to try and confirm the news. He didn’t answer his phone – it was New Year’s Eve, remember!
I emailed a friend in Accra. He said he hadn’t heard of it. That’s one of the risks one takes in situations like that – being the bearer of bad news. Eventually, the news was confirmed. KB had died in hospital in Accra. The cause of death, as baffling as you like, was said by the autopsy to be pneumonia!
Now, KB was not a close friend of mine. Nevertheless, every time I’d seen him, or spoken to him on the phone, the warmth between us was as if we were bosom friends. I’d last seen him – cheerful and oozing good humour – in Accra during President Barak Obama’s visit to Ghana in 2009. We’d exchanged pleasantries and had agreed to meet later. But life in Accra being what it is, that was the last time I saw him.
KB’s bubbling voice will, however, remain in my ears for many years to come – and in the ears of the millions of Africans who depend on the BBC for news about Africa. For KB was, in the 1980s-90s, one of the announcers whose voices brought Africans, both at home and in the Diaspora, news and analyses of what was going on in Africa. If you heard: “BBC World Service. It’s 1709 Greenwich Mean Time. This is Kwabena Mensah with Focus on Africa,” it would be KB using the next 25 minutes to try and make you feel that wherever you happened to be, some-one was keeping you in the loop about the continent.
Now, do not be fooled: the Focus On Africa of those days was not for weak stomachs. Africa was full of murderous dictators and thievish ones at that. They controlled the media at home. But they could not touch the BBC. And the BBC knew how to get the news. And once it got the news, it put the facts to the dictators and their minions, to confirm or deny them.
The programme’s star was its editor, Robin White, whose gravelly voice appeared as if it had been created purposely for hectoring. Without asking for anyone’s permission, Robin White assumed the position of “Headmaster” in what George Orwell might have called Africa’s “Political House of Cards”.
But in sharp contrast to Robin’s interviewing would be KB’s introduction of the item: calm, insouciant, suave – bearing the marks of pronunciation “received” at Dulwich College, in London, and Oxford University. I personally felt that KB must have been pained by some of the items he had to introduce in Focus On Africa. Its long-term principal announcer of the time, Chris Bickerton, who was British, once volunteered to me, in the Bush House canteen, that he had “just pissed on the continent — again!” I did not think he was being funny. To KB, therefore, constantly being made to “piss” on his own continent may have been soul-destroying at times.
It was the ”Mama” of the BBC African Service, Dorothy Grenfell-Williams, who, in excited tones, first told me of the Beeb’s acquisition of KB Mensah and his inimitable voice. I’d gone to Bush House to do an interview and Dorothy, one of the most personable and knowledgeable radio Producers I’ve ever come across, told me, “We’ve just signed up a young man from your country. He’s called K B Mensah. He’s the cleverest African we have ever employed. You may know that we have something here called “The Sub-Editors’ Test”. Well, almost everyone we send to take it flunks it. We interview them, they appear good to us, but when we send them to the BBC Newsroom to take the test, more often than not, they fail it. But not KB – he just sailed through it with flying colours”!
In fact, KB’s voice alone was such an asset that even if he hadn’t had an excellent brain to go with it, he would have become a star at the Beeb. After watching him flourish on Focus on Africa, the Beeb paid him the supreme compliment of making him one of the presenters of its flagship news programme on the World Service, Newshour. Here again, he displayed unflappable professionalism and must have won thousands of listeners for the BBC. He was clever to use his full Ghanaian name, “Kwabena Mensah”, for had he styled himself merely as “K B Mensah”, there would have been some BBC listeners around the world who would have been fooled into thinking that he was some Englishman man called KaybeeMensa! (Actually, being called “Mensa” would probably not have been much of a misnomer, given the number of “eggs” that seemed to have been laid inside that small head of his!)
KB Mensah was born in Accra on 30 September 1958 and died on 31 December 2014. His father was Mr Joseph Henry Mensah, a noted economist, who was working for the United Nations in New York at the time Kwabena was born. “J H” moved back to Ghana in 1961, where he became one of the authors of President Kwame Nkrumah’s Seven-year Development Plan, at the National Planning Commission.
Kwabena’s mother was the late Elizabeth Mensah, a teacher and grand-daughter of Asafoatse Nettey of the Ga State. KB was her second child, having been preceded by an elder brother PK Mensah (who was born in 1955). A second brother,, Kwabena Amoah-Awuah Mensah, was born in 1961. They have one sister, Nana Yaa Mensah, who, like KB, is a high-flier in journalism, and is currently working in London.
KB attended the then University Demonstration School, Legon (now University Primary); the UN School in New York (when his father, “J H” was working at the UN; then Skippers Hill Manor (at Mayfield, East Sussex, in England); followed by Dulwich College, London (where P G Wodehouse, the acclaimed writer who created “Jeeves”, was educated); and Oxford University (where KB took a Bachelor’s degree in “PPE” — Politics, Philosophy & Economics).
After graduating from Oxford, KB moved to Ghana and worked with friends on a fish farming venture and another farming project with his father. He next moved back to London in the Rawlings years, where he helped to compile a register of victims of the Rawlings’ regime. This was followed by his stint at the BBC in the 1980s and 90s, presenting Focus on Africa. He later worked at Human Rights Watch. His later years were spent working mainly for the magazine, Africa Report.
KB is survived by his partner, Angela Carson, with whom he has a daughter, Nana Esi, who was born in 2006.
You can obtain an inkling of who and what KB was by reading this quotation from a tribute sent to KB’s brother, PK, by Mandy Ruben, who worked with KB:
When I think of KB I recall his voice. I hear KB’s voice so clearly.
The way, as he said hello, he ended with a warm chuckle. Then I see KB peering through his glasses, searching. And that was what brought us close together – having someone else to research – and develop ideas for television programmes – with.
“KB transformed my life: as I adapted to being at home with a young daughter, between 1992 and 2000, he galvanized me to write. When KB went back to Accra in 2001, we promised to pursue our TV projects…He was intriguingly well informed and an insightful interpreter of events, with strong personal opinions that he was able to balance with a professional objectivity. More than that, KB cared about the people whose stories he reported. He seemed made for radio and reporting, his compelling voice, cogent analysis, his intelligence. …
“I remember listening to him on the BBC World Service Focus on Africa with my family in Kenya. My dad used to tell me he’d been listening to my friend! Again, it was his unmistakable voice. Whether during filming for C4 in Ghana, when KB also happened to be in Accra, or when collaborating in London, he was unhesitatingly supportive and generous, both with his time and sharing his contacts. After all the words we wrote together, now I am struggling to find the words to write about losing KB.”