The Ghanaian Times 18.11.2014
AN EVENING AT BALLIOL COLLEGE, OXFORD, WITH LORD BOATENG OF “AKYEM AND WEMBLEY”
By CAMERON DUODU
I had my first taste of the engaging wit of Lord [Paul] Boateng of “Akyem and Wembley” in a manner that made it look as if a very bomb had been lobbed at me!
Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo, candidate of the NPP for the 2012 election, had just given a very illuminating address at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, on the “Arab Spring”. As a former Foreign Minister of Ghana, his talk contained loads of insight, and the audience loved it.
The free-flowing discussion that followed it was stimulating and I was stirred enough to get up and say: “ Perhaps it is the fault of members of my profession (we Journalists like to use too much ‘short-hand’) but hasn’t too much been made of the “Arab Spring” and its possible effect on Africa? As if it was something unique that will be coming to Black Africa too, for the first time. Yet, if you look at some of the events that have occurred there – the struggle against General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, for instance; or the way in which the people of the Ivory Coast took to the streets and threw out General Robert Guei when he tried to steal the election there in 2001; how General Mobutu Seseseko was eventually given short shrift in the Congo; and – how the organisation in which your good self played a leading role, the Movement for Peace and Justice in Ghana, fearlessly thwarted General Kutu Acheampong’s ambition to continue to rule Ghana through his “Union Government” of soldiers and civilians – I mean, it does look as if the Black African Resistance preceded, and could, in fact, be considered as the “Mother” of the “Arab Spring?”
Nana Akufo Addo conceded the point with the utmost grace. “ I don’t think I should answer that!” he said simply.
It was an extremely impressive display of sang-froid by a politician, for I know that few of them have enough self-confidence to allow, with such insouciance, the notion that there might be an alternative point of view to their own!
I was still reflecting on Nana Addo’s urbane performance as we rose to leave the IISS hall when I was hailed by a loud voice aimed unceremoniously in my direction: “That was put on behalf of Black Africa in a most masterly manner” the voice said. I would have blushed — if I could!
I recognised the owner of the voice. It was Lord Boateng “of Akyem and Wembley,” formerly known as Paul Boateng – the first black man to sit in the Cabinet as a Minister in the United Kingdom. (He achieved that “first” when he was appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2002. He held the post till 2005. )
Subsequently, Mr Boateng was appointed to one of the jewels in the crown of British diplomatic postings – High Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Government to South Africa (2005-2009). First elected to Parliament in 1987, Paul Boateng had also served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury (2001-2002) and before that, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State of the Department for Education and Employment). His career in the House of Commons had followed a glittering performance in local government.
A lawyer by profession (Bristol University was his alma mater) he was often derided, during his tenure in local government,y by the right-wing media, which regarded him as a member of the hated “loony left”. They tried to destroy his career with relentless lampooning, but his Akyem roots had ensured that he was made of sterner stuff and he survived all their strictures to get elected as Labour Member of Parliament for Brent South.
The constituency is a working class and ethnic minority stronghold and on the night of his election in 1987 (that is, seven years before Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa) Paul Boateng voiced the aspirations of most of his constituents when he predicted – with a total disregard for what might have seemed to some to be an irrelevance – “Today, Brent; tomorrow, South Africa!”
Sometimes, history does reward the brave, doesn’t it? For exactly 18 years later, there was Paul Boateng, sitting in the first class cabin of British Airways, on his way to Pretoria to serve as Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner in the land once poisoned by one of the most filthy political systems the world has ever seen – apartheid. On his return from South Africa in 2009, Paul Boateng was created a Life Peer. And guess what name he chose for himself as he commenced his sojourn in one of the most time-honoured legislative bodies in the world: “Lord Boateng of Akyem and Wembley.”
The “Akyem” in the title was a tribute to his late father, the Honourable Kwaku Boateng, MP, who served as Minister of the Interior as well as of Higher Education, in the Government of Dr Kwame Nkrumah. Mr Kwaku Boateng hailed from Akyem Abuakwa and his son, who was brought up in Ghana (his secondary school was Accra Academy) did not forget his ancestry in his hour of glory. It was an extremely courageous thing for Mr Boateng to choose such a title, for the British find it difficult to pronounce even “Boateng” (which some still mispronounce as “boating”, despite his having been in politics there for so long!) Adding Akyem (which they would no doubt pronounce as Ah-kyerm!) could have seemed a foolhardy thing to do: a double mispronunciation of the name of a single individual? But Paul Yaw Boateng is not the sort of man to be deterred by trifles like mispronunciations. He nonchalantly took that “cumbersome” nomenclature to the ”House of Ermine” and Lord Boateng of Akyem and Wembley he became. The title, of course, evokes a particular resonance in the bosoms of all Akyemkwaas – like yours truly!
In London these days, Lord Boateng has discarded the chauffeur-driven mode of transport to which he became accustomed as he went about his business in South Africa in, one imagines, a Rolls Royce or Bentley. He often uses public transport. Thus it was that as I was waiting for a bus one day at Trafalgar Square in London, I spotted him waiting for a bus. I went over to greet him, and as is usual in London, I was about to leave him to mind my own business when, quick as a flash, he said: “Are you going to be around in November? I am giving the Thomas Hodgkin Lecture at Balliol, College, Oxford, this year and it would be nice if you could come.”
Now, Balliol College, Oxford, is of great repute as as the progenitor of brilliant minds – even amongst such prestigious Colleges as those at Oxford. I accepted at once.
So, on Monday, 10th November 2014, I found myself at Lecture Room 23 of Balliol College. I was greeted by two gentlemen whose countries of origin bear eloquent testimony to the cosmopolitan nature of Oxford University: Prof Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Lecturer in Comparative Politics (African Politics) at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford and Professor Abdul Raufu Mustapha , Associate Professor of African Politics and Kirk-Greene Fellow in African Studies, who teaches Development Studies at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford. Prof Soares is from Portugal, while Prof Mustapha is from Nigeria.
Prof Mustapha introduced Lord Boateng to the audience of about 30 persons and Lord Boateng began to speak about the late Thomas Hodgkin, first Director of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana and a great son of Balliol College. (You can read more about Thomas Hodgkin here:
Lord Boateng emphasised that Thomas Hodgkin was, throughout his life, driven to learn about life – in all sorts of places – and impart his first-hand knowledge to others. He was extremely sympathetic towards colonised peoples, and resigned his position as an official in Palestine when he realised that the British Government was about to sell the Palestinian people down the river. He was a member of the advisory council that made recommendations to the British colonial government for the establishment of the University of Ghana. It was through his instrumentality that the Workers Educational Association of the UK helped the University of Ghana to establish the Department of Extra-Mural Studies (under David Kimble) as a full-fledged Department of the University.
Lord Boateng read from the diaries of Hodgkin and some of his books to illustrate how pain-staking Hodgkin was in carrying out original research on the relationship between North Africa and Africa South of the Sahara. Hodgkin was a socialist to his very bone marrow: he travelled everywhere by the cheapest means available: on camel-back, and on trotro lorries, because by that means, he could talk to the ordinary people. In every African country he visited, he made sure that he exchanged ideas with the people who were doers – politicians, trade unionists, market women.
Lord Boateng read a quote from Hodgkin’s writings in which Hodgkin emphasised that the great Islamic scholar and west African politician, Othman Dan Fodio, enjoined rulers and potentates to ensure that they educated their wives and daughters – something that goes contrary to what some the modern Islamic zealots, such as Boko Haram, preach and practise.
I too paid tribute to the significance of the work of Thomas Hodgkin. I told the gathering that it was through the People’s Educational Association (PEA) Ghana’s version of the Workers Educational Association, that the Extra-Mural Studies Department sent me and my fellow teachers at Asiakwa a box of books every month and that I developed my reading habit from that. Classes organised by the PEA, conducted by University graduates the Extra-Mural Studies had identified from the nearby Abuakwa State College, transformed me into someone acutely interested pursuing higher learning. “I am the recipient of the benefits of adult education, as brought to Ghana by Thomas Hodgkin and others!” I declared, to enthusiastic applause.
I also told a funny story about the Hodgkins. Thomas’s wife, Dorothy, was in Ghana in 1964 when it was announced that she had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. I quickly secured an interview with Mrs Hodgkin for the magazine I was then editing, Drum. The interview was conducted by my wife-to-be, Beryl Karikari, (the paper’s Women’s Editor) and after touching briefly on crystallography – which had won Dorothy the Nobel Prize – gave details of how one of the brainiest women in the world also tried to be a good wife and devoted mother.
“It was the first time photographs of a Nobel Prize winner had appeared alongside the normal fare of a ”girlie” magazine like Drum!” I intoned with ironic hauteur. That was greeted with laughter by those who knew what Drum.
But Lord Boateng quick wit gave him the last word: “Except for Nelson Mandela!” he pointed out. He was absolutely right. Nelson Mandela had often appeared in the South African edition of Drum – as a would-be boxer, a lawyer defending partheid’s victims, or facing charges himself as an accused person facing a possible death sentence for treason. Obviously, Lord Boateng hadn’t spent his time in South Africa masticating – boerewors or biltung! (South African delicacies) but in burying himself in the country’s history and sociology.
ENDPIECE: There was only one other Ghanaian at Lord Boateng’s Thomas Hodgkin lecture.
It was a post-graduate student in architecture, who was following her studies at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Technology with a stint at Oxford. Her name is Kuukuwa Manful, and on talking to her, I realised that she was interested in subjects other than architecture. So I asked her to send me a short report on the talk, to balance my own. She agreed to do it, but I thought she would use the heavy work schedule at Oxford to welsh on the assignment. Happily, I was wrong! Here is what she wrote:
“Listening to the lecture by Baron Boateng of Akyem and Wembley about the life and work of Thomas Hodgkin, and afterwards hearing comments by Phyllis Ferguson, an Africanist whose work has been valuable to me in my academic path, as well as the esteemed Ghanaian journalist Cameron Duodu, reinforced my feelings of gratitude to Thomas Hodgkin and other historians like him. Some of the few remaining records of architectural and social history that remain available in Ghana to a young architect, such as myself, owe their continued existence to Thomas Hodgkin and the people that he inspired and worked with.
Phyllis Ferguson recounted the story of how Thomas managed to convince IBM to donate a mainframe to the University of Ghana for the storage of rare African historical texts. This collection, which is of immeasurable value, still exists today and affords young Ghanaian historians a vivid glimpse into the past, as they struggle to define their identities and place in the continent.
Hearing how Cameron Duodu benefited from Thomas’ adult education initiative was a powerful example of how people like Thomas managed to help in reversing social inequalities and exposing important, albeit hidden talents, to the world. As the first Director of the Institute of African Studies, Legon, he was responsible for the training of an entire generation of Africanists in the continent, and more than 50 years later, Ms Akosua Adomako Ampofo, who runs the Institute, is an inspiration to me.
If I have access to histories and texts about the early lives and architecture of the people that lived in Ghana before me, it is because of the Thomas Hodgkins of this world, who did not come to Africa to loot and destroy, but to record and salvage – where possible – thus making great chunks of knowledge available to the world.”
Thanks very much, Kuukuwa. I hope your stay at Oxford enables you to be inspired enough to absorb the work ethic of – especially – Dorothy Hodgkin! The future is open to you, to crown with intellectual achievement, just as she did. Good luck to you!