MY DAYS AT DRUM (1)
By CAMERON DUODU
For years, African journalists have been criticising to the people of the African continent, the attempts made by African leaders to unite to fight for the political and economic objectives that have been identified as essential for Africa’s socio-economic growth.
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and its successor, the African Union (AU) are not exactly strangers to the pens of African journalists.
But ironically, African journalists themselves have not shown, by concrete example, that they can organise themselves into a strong body whose views would, perforce, be taken into account not only by African leaders but also, by the Governments and media of other continents.
How often have Africans not complained of the negative manner that developments on their continent are portrayed by the world media? But have African journalists, as a body, massively added their collective voice to the complaints aired by the African people and their Governments? The answer is No!
Some sporadic efforts have, of course, been made to create influential journalists’ organisations – especially in francophone Africa. But either through a lack of funds, apathy on the part of journalists, or governmental interference – or a combination of all three factors – there is hardly a “one-stop” mechanism through which the concerns of African journalists can be made to the African people and, in the final analysis, to the world.
I myself have been an international African journalist for most of my life, but the number of times fellow African journalists have got in touch with me to join an organisation or support a cause is negligible.
One person who clearly saw the need for a continental African journalistic body and promoted the idea, although he could not get too far with it, was the late Henry Ofori, my predecessor as editor of the Ghana edition of the Pan-African magazine, Drum. I have very warm feelings towards Ofori, for it was he who opened the door for me to be associated with Drum Magazine, an association that was in turns, challenging, dangerous and at times, even life-threatening — but never dull.
Ofori was also editor, at one time or another, of the two state-owned newspapers in Ghana, the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times.
As Secretary of the Ghana Press Club, Ofori initiated moves that enabled the Club to join the International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ) based in Prague. His hope was to use his seat on the IOJ to persuade his fellow African members to form an African Journalists Union of some sort.
Although Henry Ofori’s efforts at uniting African journalists did not yield the results he hoped for, he became so well known in Africa that when he passed away in Ghana on 4 September 2013, at the age of 89, he received an obituary, 1,000 words in length, from the leading newspaper in South Africa, the Johannesburg Sunday Times. Ironically, Ghanaian newspapers, on the other hand, gave scant attention to his passing, though this writer did give him a very good send-off in the Ghanaian Times.
Who was this Henry Ofori? He was a unique character in Ghanaian and African journalism. His forte was his sense of humour, which he exhibited through articles so funny that they were received with warmth in both his native Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. Ofori was exposed to a huge African market through his connection with Drum magazine, which, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, was publishing separate editions in South Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.
The articles for each edition of Drum were compiled locally, but many articles were shared by all editions. Usually, the most important common commodity in all editions was the beautiful cover girl, photographed in full colour. But Henry Ofori’s humorous pieces, written under his pen-name, Carl Mutt, were also often printed in other editions. This helped to give the lie to the erroneous notion that Africans from different parts of the continent are indifferent to what made the people of other areas of Africa laugh or smile.
Henry Ofori’s writing life began in an exceptional manner. He was teaching at the Government Secondary Technical School at Takoradi (then one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Ghana) when the newly-established Daily Graphic, set up by the Mirror Group in London, made him an offer to leave teaching and become an in-house columnist. The Mirror Group published two newspapers in Accra – apart from the Daily Graphic it also published the weekend Sunday Mirror. Henry Ofori made his mark with distinctive columns in both papers.
Ofori became a star columnist on the Daily Graphic almost as soon as he joined it. The paper’s parent in England, the Daily Mirror, then had the largest daily circulation in the Western world, a circulation it had achieved by becoming one of the most readable publications ever sold on the streets. It was devoted to “human interest” stories, but it was also a strong supporters of the British Labour Party, which was then a serious left-wing party anxious to change the lives of the British people by providing them with free education, a free National Health Service and good working conditions, mostly through huge nationalised industries and public utility companies.
The Daily Mirror also employed very erudite and well-promoted columnists, such as Cassandra, as well as gifted sports writers like Peter Wilson (who travelled around the world, no expense spared, to bring boxing and other major sporting events to readers in the UK and beyond.)
Ofori’s column was promoted and his Carl Mutt pieces, in particular, soon became the talk of the town. Both the Graphic and the Mirror gave him his head sent sending him on extraordinary and sometimes, weird assignments, which he executed with side-splitting hilarity. He was indeed the first person I know of who introduced humorous pieces into “serious” newspapers in Ghana, and since Ghanaians (as is well known) like to laugh a lot, it is not difficult to imagine what an impact he made on the readers of the two papers.
I myself was first alerted to Carl Mutt’s funny story-telling and his mischievous sense of humour, by one of Ofori’s former students at the Government Secondary Technical School, Takoradi. This chap and I had been exchanging letters in which we tried to outdo each other with the number of florid expressions and hyperbolic descriptions of events that we, in our youthful exuberance, sought to display!
Significantly, in my case, I had to invent my stories myself, for nothing much was happening in a sleepy little town like mine, Asiakwa, whereas in Takoradi, almost every exeat the guy obtained to go into town brought him “adventures” that he was only too willing to relate to me in letters. I have no doubt that these exchanges with my pen-friend were the genesis of the fiction that I wrote later, and which gave birth to my novel, The Gab Boys.
I lapped up my friend’s Takoradi stories, which led me to imagine what occurred, on a daily basis, in a notorious, international port city. I related them, in my mind, to some of the stories of Joseph Conrad. My friend’s stories were always full of what befell “American sailors”, in their constant battle of wits with Ghanaian “pilot boys” (or pimps) who, whilst feigning to help the sailors to find “entertainment” in town, did not scruple to pick their pockets or otherwise dupe them. They would, for instance, collect money from the sailors that did not arrive in the purses of the girls procured for them. So the sailors would be obliged to play double for the same amount of carnal pleasure!
The relationship between sailors and “pilot boys” was, in reality, a game peppered with drunkenness, “wee-smoking” (use of marijuana or “weed”) and sometimes – knife-throwing. Occasionally, even pistols came into play: the ‘’pilots’’ could be paid off with cigarettes, especially “Lucky Strike”, a brand which was not available locally and was in great demand at bars and night clubs (it was intimated to me). “Nevertheless, the “pilots” occasionally feel jealous of the sailors, especially if the sailors’ money helps to attract young ladies who have spurned the attentions of the pilots! At such times, neither dollars nor even American jeans might placate a ‘’pilot” and knives would come into play. That, of course, might make an American sailor bring out a pistol hidden in his socks! Hmm – Takoradi life can be tough oh! Tough paa! (Really really tough)!” my friend related to me in his correspondence.
My ears filled with such stories, which bore a strange resemblance to the story-lines of films we watched and the comics we read, I had to be extra inventive myself to stay in the game. We evolved into a mutual admiration society, and one day, out of the blue, this pen-friend wrote to ask: “Have you been reading the columns by Henry Ofori in the Daily Graphic and the Sunday Mirror?” He added that it was written by a former physics teacher of his school. “We used to laugh at him – because he had what we thought was a ‘round head’, and wore very thick-lensed glasses. But his antics in the classroom were priceless. For instance, if he caught a big oaf sleeping in class, he would demonstrate to him, how an electrical motor or dynamo worked! He would ask the oaf to come and hold one part of the apparatus, and then crank it to produce a powerful electric charge, which would produce such an unexpected shock that the guy would jump two thousand feet into the air! We would all burst out laughing. The victim would never sleep in class again after that!”
On my friend’s recommendation, I began to read Ofori’s output, such as “A Nobody’s Diary”. This and the Carl Mutt pieces got me hooked to Ofori’s inimitable writing. I soon became an addict, especially after he spectacularly took the mickey out of the upper-class, newly-opened Ambassador Hotel, in Accra, where one ordered drinks to be sent to one’s room by merely picking up the telephone and speaking some words into it, and yet, as a Ghanaian, could not get anything satisfactory to eat in the “Arden Hall” restaurant, unless a waiter was kind enough to tell one what consommé soup — or something similar — was.
“If you make the mistake of thinking that because you see the word ‘consommé’, it is soup to be ‘consumed’ on its own, like Ghanaian goat or grass-cutter soup, you would die of hunger!” I remember him saying; or words to that effect. “In fact”, he explained, consommé soup is like what we call nkwankrawa in Twi – soup in which there is neither meat nor fish!”
Ofori also had great fun, as a man born to the rural delights of Akim Oda (in Ghana’s Eastern Region) trying out such dishes as ‘Steak Tartar’ and “Cuisse de grenuile” (frogs’ legs.) I laughed and laughed! Frogs’ legs on the menu of a hotel in Ghana? Henry Ofori entitled the column “The Man In Room 404.” And I still remember it, although it was published in, I think, 1957!
Another great Henry Ofori story was as follows below. (Now, let us admit: if you and I read that a part of the bodywork of an aeroplane on its way to land in Accra, had fallen into a forest at Dodowa, about 30 miles from Accra, would we make a song and dance of it? Of course not. We would read that a search party had been sent to the forest to try and find the body-part of the plane to see whether it was still usable, and then forget all about the story, wouldn’t we?)
But not to Henry Ofori. He used the incident to pen an immortal story under the title, “Who knows what is in Dodowa Forest?”
That headline freed my own imagination to speculate about Dodowa! Although Dodowa had been the seat of the extremely influential Joint Provincial Council of Chiefs (JPC) – the stomping ground of British Governors of the Gold Coast who went there to lay down the policy the British Government wanted the Gold Coast chiefs to pursue in carrying out their part of the bargain implicit in the fraudulent historical activity known as “Indirect Rule” – its name had never been a familiar reference point in popular, as against politically-conscious, speech-making.
But when Henry Ofori satirized that search for an aeroplane body-part in Dodowa Forest, all at once, people began to quote the phrase, “You don’t know what is in Dodowa Forest” when they sought to describe a situation in which something was being under-estimated because it was an “unknown quantity”!
So, ask a friend, “But why is that beautiful damsel she going out with that man with spindly legs and who has no money to boot?” and he might answer, “Hey Charlie, you don’t know what is in Dodowa Forest oh!” Or “Are you sure Team A stands a chance against a famous club like Team B?” Answer: “My friend, you don’t know what is in Dodowa Forest!”
Thus, Dodowa, hitherto only known as the scene of ancient battles between the peoples of some of the very chiefs who sat in the JPC in a bizarre quest for co-existence with each other and with the British colonizers (a veritable subject matter for satire in itself, that!) and a town that had nevertheless escaped savaging by social commentators; Dodowa, home to rituals associated with feminine puberty rites (the ‘Dipo’ Festival that titillated your male adolescents as well as old lechers well past their ability to indulge in their vice!); Dodowa which had somehow escaped literary notice so far, became a household word overnight amongst the Ghanaian intelligentsia, when Henry Ofori decided to immortalize its name. (He later capitalised on the popularity of the Dodowa Forest story by including Dodowa in the title of a collection of stories he published entitled Tales From Dodowa Forest (Waterville Press, Accra) which can presumably be found on Internet sites that deal in out-of-print books, such as the very reliable Abe Books (www.abebooks.com) Which I know to be very reliable. Another is Alibiris [www.alibris.com] although I haven’t personally used its services.)
As I have said earlier, I began reading Henry Ofori’s stories when I was still in elementary school. His writings, as well as those of Moses Danquah, Bankole Timothy and a few others, made for such compelling reading that I actually bought a subscription to the paper with my schoolboy’s pocket money! Two pennies a day for a whole month – I tell you it could have bought me a lot of delicious suya! (grilled meat).
The sacrifice became a daily one, and was particularly difficult to make because the UAC shop at Kyebi, which acted as the Graphic distributor when I was attending the Kyebi Government Middle School, was close to the market, from where the mouth-watering aroma of freshly-grilled kebab done on the charcoal fire of an excellent suya chef, rose each morning, as I passed by the market on the way to pick up my copy of the Daily Graphic. Years later, when I basked in the glory of being perhaps the youngest-ever editor of the Daily Graphic, I used to muse about my school days and acknowledge sardonically that the sacrifice I had endured – in preferring to pay for a subscription to the paper rather than use the money to enjoy the sweet taste of suya – had paid off incredibly well.
Fatefully, it was also Henry Ofori, whose writing had been responsible for my taking my first subscription to a newspaper, who became the man who opened the door for me to take the job that was to be the greatest challenge in my life and my most enjoyable period as a journalist – editor of Drum! It happened this way: while I was working at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a News Editor in the News Division in the late 1950s, I was also moonlighting (as it were) by writing short stories and plays for the Programmes Section of the Corporation. The setup was so civilised that if you wrote for the Programmes Section in your own time, they paid you the normal artist’s fees that would have been paid to you if you had been an “outside” contributor.
Now, as the first of my nine siblings to obtain a job, I was paying the school fees of two secondary school students and so money pressures were always a problem for me. Writing fiction for the GBC was therefore a great motivation for me to be productive and in addition to radio plays and short stories, I also regularly contributed poetry to the station. It had a fantastic creative writing programme called The Singing Net devoted to short stories and poems, and another programme called Ghana Theatre, devoted to radio plays. I schooled myself to become adept at writing in all three genres.
My first short story for the GBC was called Tough Guy In Town, and was inspired by the stories I had heard about Takoradi life from my pen-friend at the Government Technical Secondary School there. A few days after the story had been broadcast, I was sitting at the news desk of Radio Ghana working on the news of the day when I received a call from the reception downstairs.
“Mr Cameron Duodu?”
Oh, Mr Duodu, I have Mr Henry Ofori, editor of Drum magazine, here. He wants to come and see you!”
I was dumbstruck! Henry Ofori, my hero, wanted to come and see me? What on earth for? I had never met him before! Nor had I even spoken to him on the phone! Obviously he’d done his research about me and knew the shift I was on! But why hadn’t he phoned me? Radio news had tight deadlines and I was busy. Oh, never mind. If Henry [Carl Mutt] Ofori wanted to see me, there could be no escape!
All this rushed through my mind as I asked the lady to send Henry up to the newsroom.
Henry came up. He was not alone. He was accompanied by a photographer!
He told me he was writing a piece on Ghanaian writers and wanted to interview me as part of the feature.
I found a quiet place in the newsroom for us to sit down and he began plying me with questions: why were there so few creative writers in Ghana? What were the difficulties I had experienced when I had tried to move from hard news into fiction? And so on.
I was so shy talking to a man who long loomed large in my mind, and indeed, was so overwhelmed by the whole unlikely idea of being interviewed by the great Henry Ofori, that I couldn’t say half of what was actually in my mind, lest he thought I was ”big-headed’. I was modesty itself, and above all, anxious that he should not take me for someone he could satirise — you know, a young chap who had written only one or two things but was so full of himself he was criticising the entire Ghanaian writing scene! I was ultra-modest in what I said, namely, that the exigencies of earning a living through full-time work, had deprived many would-be writers of the time and concentrated work needed to create good works of fiction. “I mean, look at me — here I am, working full-time on local and world news, when what I would really like to do is to sit at home, writing, writing and writing stories, and plays, and poems.” I said. I didn’t mention my greatest ambition — to write a novel — in case he took it badly.
After scribbling down what I said, for a while, Henry expressed his satisfaction, thanked me, and left.
By the next month, i had forgotten all about the interview, but then someone in the office showed me a copy of Drum, with my photograph in it! The article over the picture was entitled “Where are Ghana’s writers?”, and included interviews with a few other writers, all much older than me. Henry Ofori had quoted me correctly, and that pleased me a lot, although the photograph of me wasn’t so flattering, as Christian Gbagbo had snapped me at a time when I was seriously thinking about what I was saying, and so seemed to be frowning.
But no matter — it was proved to me soon that Drum indeed had a very wide readership, for a putative girl-friend of mine at one of our best secondary schools, Achimota, wrote to tell me that she had been “showing off” to her friends with the article and my photo! She implied that they were jealous because she had a relationship with a writer well-known enough to be featured in Drum. I was as pleased as punch and I loved Henry Ofori even more.
I discovered later that the reason Henry Ofori had noticed me was that he had been contributing fiction to the GBC himself, and had had a play entitled The Literary Society, broadcast. I deduced that since we were both writing for the same medium, he had listened to some of my output and had decided that I had the knack for writing fiction, and so was worthy of being interviewed for his article. I never forgot this early recognition he had accorded to me. Years later, when my novel, The Gab Boys was published, I went personally to his home and gave him a hardback copy, inscribed, “To Henry Carl Mutt — The Original Funny Man of Ghana.”
But to continue: the interview on writing was not the end of Henry’s interest in me. Without telling me, he recommended me to the owner of Drum, a South African multi-millionaire called Jim Bailey, to be employed as a feature writer for Drum. Therefore, when Jim Bailey came to Ghana on one of the regular visits he used to make to the countries where Drum was published, he asked to see me.
I thought Henry Ofori would be present at the interview, but he wasn’t! Apparently, Jim Bailey wanted to take my measure, all by himself.
I found Bailey to be a man who dressed very simply — in khaki shorts, even in the evening — and who was unbelievably relaxed about everything. He was full of good-humour and was extremely erudite to boot. He made extremely good jokes about — for instance — how African-Americans who had never set foot in Africa thought they knew something about the continent, just because they were black like the people of Africa. He was particularly scathing about attempts he claimed had been made by the black publishers of Ebony in America to encroach on Drum’s readership territory — but, unlike Drum, without actually discovering and employing any writers from Africa!
I found Bailey extremely wary and absolutely non-committal in what he said about me and Drum, and when I left him, I felt that he had just wanted to have a good conversation with me. I was pleased that I had made him explode with his unbelievably loud laughter once or twice at something I had said, and that he, in his turn, had made me laugh a great deal. But that was that. He had made no offers, and anyway, I gave him no impression of wishing to leave the GBC. I surmised later that my indifferent attitude to Drum had counted well for me with Bailey, who must have been bored stiff with requests from African journalists that he met, to be employed at such a popular magazine as Drum.
In my case, the arrangement I had with the GBC suited me very well. I was well up on the ladder in the newsroom. But in addition, I was making my name throughout the country with my output of fiction. And getting paid extra for that! Also, even though I was not exactly the blue-eyed boy of my immediate boss, the Head of News, a Scot called Ian Wilson, or his Ghanaian deputy, Eric Adjorlolo, both of whom regarded me as something of a non-conformist (if not rebel!) the Director-General, another Scot called James Millar (who had been personally present at the interview which had resulted in my being recruited to the GBC) had indicated that he thought very highly of me. He had not waited for me to be written to before he let it out, after the interview, that he was going to send me to the newsroom because “that is where we are weakest”. He sort of made me realise that he would be keeping an eye on my progress through his organisation, even though I was to start in the News Division.
In the mean time, I heard over the grapevine that although he was a millionaire several times over, Jim Bailey was a “stingy” guy. I think it was the ubiquitous Christian Gbagbo who told me that if you went out with Bailey, you might end up paying for all the beer, because he would pretend that he only had “travellers’ cheques” (which the bars of Accra had no way of accepting as payment!) This proved to be partly true, for eventually, Bailey did make me an offer to join Drum, but he seemed to have done his research very well, for it was only marginally better than the salary I would be earning at my next promotion at the GBC. Indeed, as soon as I told Mr James Millar at GBC of the offer, he made strenuous efforts to get the Ghana Civil Service Commission to promote me right away — out of turn — to the next grade ahead of me. Millar called me to his office and then out a call through to the Secretary of the Civil Service Commission, Mr Archie Winful, to “beg” him to allow me to be promoted out of turn! He made me very much aware of the special effort he was making to get the Civil Service Commission to break its own rules and promote me: it was the second time I was being promoted in a single year, and that was quite unheard of in the civil service. In other words, Millar expected me to reciprocate his goodwill in full.
I was bowled over by Millar. For, to tell you the truth, when I took into consideration, the security of tenure implicit in a senior appointment into the Ghana civil service, and the fact that the offer Drum had made to me was not exactly over-generous, I wasn’t really inclined to jump ship and take up the appointment offered by Bailey. But Millar didn’t know this.
Apparently, Henry Ofori, who was a close colleague in the Press Club of my deputy boss, Eric Adjorlolo, had got to know got to know of what had happened between me and the GBC, for when nest I saw him, he told me, in no uncertain terms: “When I approached you to join Drum, I didn’t know that you were going to use the offer as a means of obtaining promotion. I did it because I thought you were a good writer.”
It was withering! What could I say to that? Did Henry have the time or understanding to hear my explanation, which would be that, after the enormous efforts James Millar had made to retain my services, it would have been churlish to ‘snub’ him and still leave? I admire Henry, but if he thought I was a ‘mercenary’ who had spurned an offer to demonstrate my talent as a writer at Drum, in order to become a ‘big gun’ at the GBC, he was welcome to his opinion. But it still hurt.
However, fate was acting in a manner that proved that it was on my side. For a few months after Henry had chided me, circumstances decided that I should go to Drum, and in circumstances which neither Henry Ofori nor I could ever have foreseen!
I was still smarting, of course, from Henry’s expression of disappointment over my failure to join him at Drum, when I heard on the grapevine that the paper had been banned by the Government of Dr Kwame Nkrumah! I almost fell off my chair on hearing that. Can you imagine what an ass I would have felt like, if it had been banned after I had left my lucrative and secure civil service job to join it? And after I had spurned the inimitable efforts of James Millar to retain my services at the GBC?
There had been no public announcement of the ban on Drum, of course, and so no explanation whatsoever of why it had been banned was forthcoming from any quarter. So much did the Government take the Ghanaian public for granted at the time that it didn’t deem it necessary to explain itself, but left the public to speculate on why the paper had been suppressed. What was undeniable was that Drum was no more to be seen on the streets at the beginning of each month, being vigorously hawked by competitive, commission-happy young boys, who dashed dangerously around cars and lorries with copies, yelling: “AFRICAN DRUM! … AFRICAN DRUM!”. These unemployed youngsters must thus have wondered where their next meal was coming from, when Drum just disappeared like that, without a thought about their plight from their “socialist” government.
To some of us, it was hard to believe that the Government of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, which preached on the mast-head of its newspapers, the Evening News, that the “welfare of the people is the supreme law”, had so peremptorily deprived Ghanaians of a paper that was one of the few media organs in the country that was a pleasure to read. The daily newspapers of the time – the [now] state-owned Daily Graphic, the Sunday Mirror, the Ghanaian Times and The Evening News – had all, effectively, become extremely solemn and dull. In fact, they were mere adjuncts to the propaganda machinery of the ruling Convention People’s Party. Having dropped anything that resembled human interest or stimulating discussion — apart from the party line — they could each be “read” in barely three minutes flat! For the “news” that they published, as a glance at the headlines would show, was usually news that had been broadcast repeatedly the day before by the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. Their features treated exciting issues that were as challenging as “It is better to walk on the pavement than be knocked down by a moving vehicle”! Those who despair of the lack of adequate coverage of news in Ghana by the state-owned media even today would do well to realise that in structural terms, very little has changed on the journalistic front since those days. Set a bad precedent, and it will stay for a long time with people. What was the precedent that was set at the time? It was that journalists employed by the state began to see themselves, practically, as servants of the state, not of the society. And how could “civil servants” in journalistic garb be expected to be opinion leaders who examined issues dispassionately, in the round, and leaned on the Government of the day — irreverently if necessary — to do the “right” thing, if this or that well-argued reason demonstrated that it had embarked on a wrong measure?
The Ghana edition of Drum of the time was in fact, shamelessly half-apolitical, although it was not too afraid to stray into political issues now and then. Its primary purpose was, above al, to provide fun, above all. Everybody was to be laughed at, if they deserved to be laughed at. And – let it be clear – that was the paper’s unusual character, long before I joined it.
Drum had long-established features which the reader could trust to be funny or weird. As I have explained, it had editions in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Central Africa and East Africa, from which it could filch articles that gave its content a Pan-African hue and taste. Very good articles from each edition were sometimes syndicated around the whole continent. When I joined, I had many such continental scoops (of which more later).
However, the strength of the syndication system lay in the exotic nature of the subject matter. Many were weird, and also good samples of the stories that made papers like the Daily Mirror of London sell so well; stories steeped in what journalists call “human interest”, which allowed readers to obtain first-hand information about how life is lived elsewhere in the world and demonstrated that we are all human, irrespective of where we happened to live.
For instance, each edition of Drum published a Dolly column, which freely borrowed unusual social “problems” from the other editions published elsewhere on the African continent. Ostensibly written by a world-wise woman called Dolly, but in practice, with “inputs” by both the male and female staff, this very famous column dished out “advice” to people afflicted with extraordinary challenges, most especially in their love life. It answered questions like this one from Ghana: “Dear Dolly, I love my husband dearly. But he likes to drink akpeteshie, (locally distilled gin so potent in nature that it flames up when a match is applied to it! In Nigeria, it is known as ogogoro!). And he also smokes cigarettes. The combination of scents produced by these two substances gives him extremely bad breath. Yet it is when he is drunk that he becomes romantic and wants to make love to me. I have been tolerating it for a long time, but now, I am thinking of leaving him, because I know he will never change. But if I leave him, I shall have to find another place to live and my salary will not allow me to pay for my own room. Dolly, I am desperate! What can I do?”
Another problem, actually sent to us when I was editor, but not published because my puritanical attitude of the time regarded it as too risqué, asked: (the language had been polished, please note!): “ Dear Dolly, my male organ is short and thin, whereas my wife’s organ is deep and wide. I strongly feel that she does not get full satisfaction when we make love, especially as I also tend to finish too early. But she is too polite to complain. Nevertheless, I fear she may stray elsewhere to get her thrills if I am not careful. I love her very much, especially since she shows so much patience with me. Dear Dolly, what steps can I take to prevent her becoming unfaithful to me?”
We gave this problem some thought but in the end took the coward’s way out and refused it publication on the grounds that it was too lewd. Someone even suggested that it might be a hoax and that it might have been sent by someone who wanted to traps us into falling foul of the Obscene Publications Act that was in existence at the time! I have often wondered what we would have said if we had attempted to advise the guy – penis extensions? [These were not generally known in those days!] Cunnilingus? [Very un-African, it would have seemed!?] Fingering? [Some women regard that as a cop-out, and thus hate it!] Oh, well!
Now, issues like that, discussed in Drum, turned everyone into an instant expert. It would be discussed in homes, work places, clubs and even classrooms for weeks on end. Was the advice given by Dolly for such a problem quite appropriate? If not, what she should she have advised? No-one therefore wanted to miss Drum, and risk not finding out what Dolly had advised, if it could be helped.
Then there were the funny pieces written by Henry Ofori under his pen-name of Carl Mutt. Occasionally, there would be a similar funny story by Case Motsitsi of South Africa. Their esoteric choice of subjects alone made their columns a must-read, and then there was their style: flowing; explicit; challenging one to be so dead in the skull as not to laugh.
The articles which were pinched from other parts of Africa – countries which Ghanaians only read about in geography books, or heard about on the radio, but did not have the slightest idea about how life was lived in them — were also immensely popular. Nelson Ottah, from Nigeria, for instance, penned an article in which a soothsayer of a Mallam (Islamic priest) forecast Ottah would be blessed with “Plenty, plenty cow! Plenty plenty wife!”, without the slightest interest in where Ottah would keep the cows, or what he really wanted to cope with more than one wife! Ottah actually did have one wife called Alice, and she was more than he bargained for! Two Alices? He would have run into the sea at Bar Beach, Lagos, and drowned himself, I am sure.
Or there would be a piece from South Africa about Jake Tuli, a famous boxer of the time. And maybe a story from Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] in which Joshua Nkomo and George Nyandoro are interviewed from the racist detention centre called Gorongoza. (As an aside, I can now reveal that Joshua Nkomo, who was a huge man, was supplied with a bottle of whisky a day by the racist jailers, in an effort to turn him into a useless drunk. They failed, and he came out of detention to become deputy-leader of ZANU-PF, and eventually Robert Mugabe’s Vice-President. I can also reveal that Mugabe, for his part, suffered a major heartbreak while in detention: when his baby son died, the jailers would not allow him to go home and bury the child. It hurt him deeply, and when he came out of detention, he was behaved with utmost tenderness towards his wife Sally, whom he’d married in Ghana before entering the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence. Sally herself had a kidney problem, and she died not too long after Mugabe became leader of Zimbabwe.)
Drum also told the people of other African countries what was going on in Nyasaland [Malawi] and Northern Rhodesia [now Zambia]: (it published photos of the tiny house where Kenneth Kaunda lived with his large family, before he was put in detention by the racist authorities. And there were stories from a Kenya that was still waiting for Jomo Kenyatta to be out of jail and lionised instead of being demonised as the leader of the dreaded “Mau Mau” freedom fighters.
But perhaps best of all, Drum exposed its continent-wide readership to what was regarded as feminine beauty in other parts of Africa. It always carried, without fail, the colour picture of a beautiful girl on its cover. Some were stunning; others were not. But, again, this offered a subject for major debate throughout Africa: was it really true that Somali girls were the most beautiful on the continent? Wasn’t that South African cover-girl wearing a short grass skirt and with an almost-visible bosom more beautiful than any Somali girl who had ever appeared on the cover? And so on and so forth.
Yet this entertaining magazine had been banned by a Government led by Dr Kwame Nkrumah that professed to be a “people’s government”? Did the people’s government not know that the people enjoyed reading the paper? Of course, there were those in the Nkrumah Government who did not want the people to “enjoy” anything. To them, enjoyment was a “superficial” aspect of life. Industrialisation, and other abstract words usually ending in “-tion” or “-ment”, were what a socialist government like Nkrumah’s needed to instil into its people, according to some of the so-called socialists (though their own private lives indicated completely different beliefs as being held by some of them!
Well, socialist condemnation of “frivolity” was how the ban on Drum was rationalised to those who asked and would listen to the answers. The real reason, however– as elicited by our socially mobile and intrepid photographer, Christian Gbagbo, from a beautiful former Drum cover-girl who was now the mistress of a wealthy and famous Cabinet Minister (a position she had acceded to, it was presumed, after her colour photograph had appeared on the cover of Drum and had been appreciated by the Minister!) – was that Henry Ofori, having run a fairly flattering biography of Prime Minister Nkrumah ahead of the referendum that was to be held in 1960, through which Dr Nkrumah wanted to transform himself into a President, had then, in the interests of journalistic “balance”, also run a biography of Nkrumah’s sole opponent, the “Doyen of Gold Coast politics”, Dr J B Danquah. According to Christian Gbagbo, the former cover-girl confided to him that her lover and some of his colleagues had complained, in a discussion she had overheard, that Henry Ofori had made Kwame Nkrumah come across as a “primitive Nzima boy” in his sketch, whereas he had made Dr Danquah, on the other hand, come through as a posh man with “a good parentage” (Danquah’s father had been a teacher!) who had, naturally, gone on to become a great scholar – the first African to earn a Ph. D at the University of London, in fact, with many esteemed publications to his name, including The Akan Doctrine of God.!
Was it really such pettiness that had robbed Ghana of Drum? I don’t know for sure. What I do know is this: the photographer Christian Gbagbo convinced the former cover-girl that Henry Ofori was not “anti-government” at all. He told her of the many stories he and Henry Ofori had done together about Ghana’s development projects under the Nkrumah regime. But (he added) even if Ofori was anti-government (and Gbagbo repeated — he was not!) the owner of Drum, Jim Bailey, was not. Bailey was a rich millionaire who was only interested in good stories, especially those that made him laugh (as the former cover-girl herself, having often been taken to the Lido night club in Accra by Bailey, knew very well.) Didn’t she remember how Jim Bailey could laugh so loudly that the whole night club would turn to look at his table? What did a man like that care about Ghana’s internal political squabbles? He just wanted a good time. And now, he, Gbagbo was out of a job for nothing. And… and (Gbagbo insinuated subtly) look at all the potential cover girls who would never get a chance to exhibit their beauty be on the cover of Drum throughout Africa….!
The former cover-girl was convinced by Christian and she, in turn, had a row with her boyfriend about Drum. She eventually persuaded the Minister that the ban was a ridiculous mistake that would only make the government a laughing-stock. As people increasingly suffered withdrawal symptoms from the banning of Drum, they would make Government supporters like her look stupid or sycophantic. Was that fair to Government supporters?
The boy-friend took her seriously, and conveyed to his Cabinet colleagues, the idea that he had “a good line” to Drum through his “contacts” and that it would be safe to unban the magazine. Since everyone recognised him as one of the biggest organisers of the CPP, they listened to him.
Thus it was that in late 1960, the ban on Drum was quietly lifted. Meanwhile, unknown to me, poor Henry Ofori, frightened out of his wits, had betaken himself to the University of Colorado, in Denver, USA, to take a “course in journalism.” This was a ruse, of course, for who could teach Henry Ofori anything about journalism? All he wanted to do was to put some “fresh air” between himself and the CPP Government, which could detain him for five years without trial renewable by another five, if it chose to — under the obnoxious Preventive Detention Act. This law was the single weapon with which Dr Kwame Nkrumah destroyed the democratic system of government under which Ghana had entered independence, for it made everyone a slave to the state. You didn’t need to have actually done anything concrete to warrant your detention: if it was perceived that you were “ant-government;” if someone powerful had a grudge against you; the state could simply take you in for a period of five years without trial. If the state had reasons that appeared to it “sufficient” to warrant your being removed from society, off you went to jail! In enacting such a stupid piece of legislation, Dr Kwame Nkrumah signalled that it was impossible for any Opposition Party to get him to cease exercising power peacefully, and inevitably, he was overthrown by the Ghana army, which, of course, turned out not only to have its own agenda, but also, having demonstrated how easily governments could be changed by force of arms, ushered Ghana into a series of coups d’etat that have destabilised many of our institutions right up to this day, including the state-owned media.
As for me, I was enjoying my promotion at the GBC and was completely oblivious of the vicissitudes in Drum’s affairs (and those of Henry Ofori). My promotion as an Editor (with a beautiful, white sports car as my prize) mean that if I had only one more promotion, I would be entitled to a Government bungalow. I couldn’t have had it any better.
But then, I got word that Jim Bailey was back in town and wanted to see me. Oh, what a bore, I thought. I had once rejected Bailey’s allegedly “lucrative” offer (which to me had been quite stingy), to Henry Ofori’s annoyance. So what more could Bailey want of me? How could I go back to work with Ofori, when he had left me in no doubt that he looked upon me with a measure of contempt?
However, it occurred to me that probably, Bailey had taken a liking for me, for he was some sort of a kindred spirit to me — full of laughter and without a care in the world. Also, this could be an interesting meeting, because, unlike the first, it had not been Henry Ofori who had passed me the word that Bailey wanted to see me. Had I really made such an impression on Bailey that he wanted to see me behind the back of of his own Editor? No – maybe Henry was not in town.
Subconsciously intrigued though I was, I suspected nothing of what Bailey was about to unleash on me. Before the evening was out, Bailey had told me that he wanted me to reconsider my decision not to join Drum. We didn’t discuss terms, but the next day, he sent Christian Gbagbo to me with an offer that was too attractive to ignore. As I have said before, everyone accepted that although Bailey was very rich, he was also stingy with money. Yet he had made me an offer like that – almost double my GBC salary, plus a housing allowance and a car allowance? Of course, he added a rider: he told Christian to make it clear to me that if things didn’t work out as he expected, Drum and I would “have to part company”.
I was stunned, but in the exuberance of youth, I could only think of how flattering the offer was. What a challenge! Jim Bailey thought there was a possibility that I wouldn’t be good enough and that I would have to “part company” with his organisation? I would show him what I was made of. I think, in fact, that Bailey had divined that a challenge was what I needed. So he had thrown me one. And I couldn’t resist it.
I immediately gave GBC my notice! There was a bit of a tussle between the Drum management and the GBC over my car advance, which Drum had agreed to refund in full to the GBC. Despite the undertaking, every time I raised the issue with Bailey’s people in Accra, I was given the impression that a decision was still awaited from Bailey, who was, of course, in Johannesburg. Or n London. I was getting quite hot under the collar because of the dilly-dallying. I later discovered that this was not unusual — it was standard Drum behaviour – by delaying to make a payment, the management somehow hoped it would go away! Eventually, however, they paid the GBC and I became free to leave.
So, come December 1960, and I make my way to the Drum office in the Cinema Palace building in Accra. No welcoming committee! In fact, the place seemed eerily empty. I sat at a desk and waited. Then Alun Morris, a Welshman with a red beard, walked in and shook my hand affably. He was the “Editorial Adviser”. We chatted uneasily about this and that and then, he disappeared into his office. I sat there and stared at the ceiling.
Stupidly, I had not made any enquiries about my role but had assumed that everything at Drum would be the same as before the ban; i.e. that Henry Ofori would still be my editor, and me, a feature writer, just like Moses Danquah or Sam Arthur or any of the other big names who had been working under Henry. I had become excited, in fact, on imagining that my fiction-writing would be my main contribution to the paper. Full of self-confidence, I was obsessing over how to enchant Jim Bailey by making my mark on the paper through evolving a distinctive writing style that would make me stand out amongst “the other star writers.”
However, unknown to me, Jim Bailey, with his wicked sense of humour, had played a fast one on me. Christian Gbagbo later intimated to me that Bailey had carried out a “night of the long knives” – a massive and absolutely ruthless purge of the entire editorial department! Probably, this had been done to reassure the Government that a new broom had been applied to the Drum editorial office and that it had nothing to worry about. But whatever the motivation, all the writing staff – including the affable South African, Arthur Maimane – had left! And Henry Ofori was kicking his heels about in the University of Hawaii (I think it was) at the time I reported for work!
This was scary. The Ghanaian staff leaving – that I could understand. But the South African too? Bailey’s fellow-citizen?
Yup – I was on my own! With a British “Editorial Adviser,” of course, but Alun Morris had arrived in the country not too long ago and I wondered whether he would be writing much about its affairs. I swear – if I could have cut and run, I would have done so without a moment’s hesitation. But you don’t walk back into the Ghanaian civil service after you’ve spurned generous advances it had made to you, including two promotions in a single year! There was nothing for it but to become Editor of Drum.
It says much for Henry Ofori’s talent that his was a very difficult act to follow. Any time I suggested a story at our editorial conference, Christian Gbagbo, who, of course, was a Methuselah at Drum, would quietly say, “Oh, we did it with Henry in this (x) or that (y) issue.” So I had to dig deep into the past issues of the paper, in order not to repeat stories that had been done before. If I could not avoid the subject matter, I had to find a completely new angle to it. The good thing was that in reading the archive, I learnt a lot from Henry Ofori and the other writers before me. But I must admit that I relished the sheer challenge of trying to beat them all! I had youth on my side and I approached the job with more than a plateful of beans! Fortunately, the circulation figures showed that I succeeded, for in under two years, I had overtaken the circulation that Drum’s popularity had accorded it before it was banned. Before I left in 1965, the circulation had reached new, dizzying heights.
When it was safe for him to do so, Henry came back from America. He must have done some serious negotiating with the Government, for he went to work as a Public Relations Officer for one of the Ministries. He had retained his interest in the Ghana Press Club, which he had founded with other journalists like Carl Reindorf, a former colleague of his from the Daily Graphic and Eric Adjorlolo, one of my former bosses at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. Henry, as Secretary of the Club, oversaw the Club’s growth and its eventual move, from a small bungalow opposite the Ridge Hospital in Accra, to a first-class colonial bungalow that had been the property of the Daily Graphic before the Government acquired the paper. (That building now houses the Ghana Institute of Journalism.) At the time it belonged to the Press Club, it had a huge garden, with shade trees and some exquisite roses.
Henry was instrumental in running the Club so well that it became, at one stage, one of the most exciting places to go to in Accra. Run by an experienced cook-steward called Robson, under the supervision of Henry, there was always chilled beer to be had, plus freshly-grilled beef kebabs. When I was elected the Club’s Entertainment Secretary, I became the organiser of of our Friday Evening “Soirees”, at which a live band always played. Thus, the Press Club became one of the hottest entertainment spots in Accra. When we had visitors from the French-speaking neighbouring countries, I made sure I brought a band I had discovered by accident, that specialised in Congolese music and music from French-speaking Africa. Thus, we began to become a Pan-African centre, and this enabled us to attract Governmental bigwigs to the Club. Dr Nkrumah’s Minister of Defence, Mr Kofi Baako, was almost a permanent fixture there. It was he who brought us a band called The Avengers, made up of young soldiers. They played really well and we enjoyed their performances greatly.
Other important habitués of the Press Club were my friend, Kojo Addison, director of the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute at Winneba [with whom I had worked at the GB, when Dr Nkrumah installed him in the newsroom as the official censor (although only denominated as “the News and Current Affairs Executive). Without Addison’s signature, no news item could be broadcast!]; Cecil Forde, Administrative Secretary of the CPP and Yaw Eduful, Press Secretary to Dr Kwame Nkrumah. Also present without fail each lunch-time and evening were the “Party Press” boys, made up of the irrepressible T D Baffoe, editor of the Ghanaian Times; (a very gregarious and vivacious fellow whose somewhat buffoonish manner nevertheless hid quite a vicious and authoritarian streak in his personality); the affable but eccentric Eric Heymann, editor of The Evening News (who was almost always ruminating over some copy or other that he’d brought along to the Club, whilst quaffing his beer); and the ever-smiling but very crafty Kofi Batsa, editor of The Spark (an extremely ideological paper, which was financed by the Bureau of African Affairs). It was Kofi Batsa who brought along with him, some Nigerian exiles from Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group Party in Western Nigeria (who had escaped from being imprisoned for treasonable felony, alongside their leader, Chief Awolowo. They included the erudite Sam Ikoku, the Action Group Secretary [who contributed long articles to The Spark under the pseudonym, Julius Sagoe] and Olu Adebanjo, an influential member of the Action Group executive).
We fraternised; we argued; we sometimes quarrelled — at the Press Club! We hosted (as I have reported before) Malcolm X and the then unknown Maya Angelou. The Ghana Press Club was alive and kicking, just as a real Press Club should be. And much of the credit goes to its Secretary, Henry Ofori, who had seen Press Clubs in operation abroad, and whose personality was such that he could make everyone laugh with an anecdote or two, mostly drawn from his own travels. I have remarked before and I repeat my opinion that the open nature of the discourse at the Press Club helped a great deal to relieve political pressure among journalists and thus prevented the possible detention of many journalists, who would otherwise have gone to prison for being ant-socialist. For it was a distinct possibility that if one merely came under suspicion of being ‘subversive’, one would go to jail, when all one ever did was to exercise one’s right to question the issues and policies of the government of the day. I think it is much more difficult to recommend the detention of a fellow-journalist,if you have been drinking beer with him on many afternoons, and despite differing politically, you have been sharing experiences about women and other matters with him that made all of you laugh and wonder how similar people’s lives could be, irrespective of their political differences.
I am also certain that it was the cosmopolitan atmosphere in the Club that encouraged Henry Ofori to become steeped in the movement towards forming a Pan-African Union of Journalists. As Secretary of the Ghana Press Club, he had travelled widely – to Eastern Europe, Austria and other places, where he had made contact with many journalists from other African countries. And in the USA, he had seen many very zippy press clubs in action. [I myself once stayed at the San Francisco Press Club during a tour of the USA, and I enjoyed it greatly].
Henry tried to bring African journalists together in an Africa-wide body, and eventually, the idea was accepted and promoted by the Ghana Government. An office for the Pan-African Union of Journalists was opened in Accra, but it was Kofi Batsa, who had strong links with the Director of the Bureau of African Affairs, A K Barden, who became its secretary-general. I don’t know whether Henry had been interested in the job and had been overlooked. That would not be strange, given his past tussle with the Government when he was editor of Drum. But congenial as he was, as he was, I never saw him exhibit any resentment towards Kofi Batsa.
In my view, Henry Ofori was the original champion of the move to unite the journalists of Africa. He didn’t want to create such a body for political purposes, but mainly for social reasons — just as the Ghana Press Club had succeeded greatly in becoming a force for social cohesion in Ghana. There is still no strong Pan-African body of Journalists – which goes to explain why, in places like Burkina Faso, the Gambia and Ethiopia, journalists can still be picked up by the authorities at will and treated very badly indeed or even killed.
I cannot end this memoir of Henry Ofori without trying to bring him vividly back to life – through a true anecdote which he narrated to my hearing:
One day, when Henry was passing through Paris on his way back to Ghana from a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he had to go and present himself at a ‘Transit’ desk to connect to his onward flight.
He showed his ticket and was told with sign language by the French officials (who claimed to “pas parler anglais”) that his plane would not now be leaving on schedule but on the next day. Engine trouble, they intimated. And then, they ignored him completely and began to gossip animatedly in French. Now, if you have never seen a French snob, then you have never seen a snob!
“So what about my hotel accommodation and food for the night?” Henry asked with a rising voice.
The transit officials stared back blankly at him.
“HOTEL! …HOTEL!” Henry repeated.
The Transit people spread out their hands, indicating that they could do nothing about any ”hotel”! Unless Henry was ready to pay for one. “Vous avez donc d’argent pour l’hotel, monsieur?” they queried. (Do you have money to pay for a hotel, then, Mister?)
Now, in those days, if you travelled to Eastern Europe (in particular) you could only leave the country with any foreign exchange, if you had declared it upon your arrival. Henry had not been told to declare anything, and so was dispossessed, at his airport of exit, of the few dollars that he had on him. Or something. The upshot of his situation was that he didn’t have enough money to pay for a hotel for the night in expensive Paris. In any case, his past experience was that if you were in transit and the flight on which you were supposed top be travelling was delayed, the airline paid for your hotel and board.
So, unusually, Henry, out of frustration, lost his rag when the Paris officials continually pretended not to know what he was talking about when he explained many times to them that he had travelled often, and that the practice was that when a scheduled flight on an Airline was cancelled, the Airline was responsible for accommodating and feeding any passengers who had an “OK” reservation on that flight.
As we all sometimes do when we instinctively explode whilst expressing our deepest feelings, Henry resorted to his mother tongue, Twi:
“Na nkwaseafuor ben koraa ni? Monnte Brofo na moabetena airport, meka a mo se “pas parler anglais! Pas parler anglais!” Na mennye no den? “Pas parler anglais” na moobetena Transit Desk ha aye den? Ennwan! Mponkye!”
[But what sort of fools am I facing here? You don’t speak English and you are sitting here at the airport manning a Transit Desk? What do you want me to do? When I speak, you say, “pas parler anglais!… pas parler anglais!” So, what business do you have manning a Transit Desk if you don’t speak English? Sheep! Goats!”)
Now, as it happened, some Ghanaian diplomats in Paris had just seen off a visitor and were passing through the transit lounge back to their cars when they heard someone yelling in Twi at the top of his voice. They rushed to the direction of the noise and found Henry standing there, surrounded by his luggage, fuming, and completely at the end of his tether. They quickly calmed him down and took him home and looked after him. They then brought him to the airport the next day to catch his flight safely back home.
I am sure they never regretted their kindness, for Henry would have made them laugh throughout the time he was with them.
Henry Ofori was aged 89 when he died on 4 September 2013. What a loss to Ghanaian and African journalism. What a loss to the world. Had he lived in America, I am sure he would have been lionised like Art Buchwald, or James Thurber. But, as is usual in Ghana, you can’t even find copies of the two or three books he managed to publish before he died. No-one, but no-one, is interested in the product of his amazing talent.
Yet he was absolutely world class. On his death, only the Ghanaian Chronicle published a piece that could pass for a full obituary on him (with the exception of the present writer, who published a piece on him in the Ghanaian Times.)
But genius cannot go unrecognised: as I intimated earlier, South Africa’s leading newspaper, the Johannesburg Sunday Times, devoted over 1,000 words to an obituary of Henry Ofori, though very few of its readers would have known who he was, since his days at Drum ended as early as 1960. No greater tribute could have been paid to his Pan-African spirit.