“History is always the light that some culture throws on events” (The Mind of Africa, W E Abraham)
Following on from my last column about the importance of re-discovering and valuing Ghanaian heroes, I am devoting my next few columns to one of my own heroes, my father William Abraham. He chose to return to Ghana in the early 1960s, leaving glittering academic opportunity abroad, in order to work with Dr Kwame Nkrumah on the thinking behind pan-Africanism and more generally to promote Ghana’s development.
William’s early years in Nigeria
In the early 1940s, a small boy ran helter-skelter through long grass, striving to keep up with the shadows of occasional planes passing overhead. He never did manage to keep up, but he kept trying.
That boy, William Abraham, was the son of Samuel Abraham, a Ghanaian United Africa Company manager, who had been moved by UAC from Ghana to work in Nigeria. William spent some years in Lagos and then moved to the small town of Burutu, where he got to know Ibo stories and culture.
Return to Cape Coast
In 1945, when he was 11 the family returned to its ancestral home, Cape Coast, where William was able to immerse himself in his own Fante culture. Perhaps these early experiences of travel within Africa sowed seeds for his later pan-Africanism. It is sad that today we remain far from recreating the relative ease of exchange 70 years ago between African countries that were in the British empire
William won a scholarship to Adisadel School, where he excelled academically. One incident that marked his time there was the student strike of March 1948 in protest at the colonial administration’s imprisonment of Kwame Nkrumah and the rest of the “Big 6”, and the shooting of Sergeant Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe, and Private Lamptey by colonial forces during a peaceful demonstration. These Ghanaians were rightly recognised as heroes then, and we need to do more to continue to communicate the values that made them so. William joined the strike and was fortunate not to be expelled from school.
Following Adisadel, William went on to the University College of Ghana (later the University of Ghana), originally to study mathematics, but soon switching to philosophy. One white lecturer expressed the view that no African was capable of obtaining a first class degree, in particular in philosophy. Another white lecturer bet against him, relying on William to prove his colleague wrong, which (fortunately for his backer’s pocket!) he did. After graduating, William was offered a place for post graduate study at Oxford University, supported by a scholarship from the Ghana government. In 1959 he successfully completed his post graduate studies and applied for an advertised post as a lecturer back in Ghana. However, he was only offered a more junior assistant lecturer post. He queried this because he had obtained the same qualifications as whites appointed at the lecturer level. However, he could not secure equal treatment even though the staff managing the appointment process were Ghanaians. William therefore decided to stay on in the UK for a time. The self-defeating Ghanaian tendency to value white people more highly than Ghanaians of equal capability remains evident today.
All Souls College Oxford
William now sought the advice of one of his lecturers, who happened to be a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford. His lecturer suggested attempting the All Souls Prize Fellowship exam.
A Prize Fellowship at All Souls is seen by many as the pinnacle of academic achievement at Oxford. It is obtained by competing in an examination that has been described as the hardest in the world. In some years, no one is given a Prize Fellowship; in others one, two, or very exceptionally three are.
Some existing Fellows were hostile to the prospect of a black Fellow at All Souls. However, the combination of William’s excellent performance in the exam, and principled threats of resignation from All Souls by some existing Fellows if he were to be denied a place simply because he was black, proved sufficient to overcome the resistance of opponents. William duly became the first (and to date, only) black Prize Fellow of All Souls.
In today’s more globalised world, Ghanaians have even greater need to strive to achieve world class standards. The best route remains unchanged: with self-confidence and hard work, to draw both on our own history and culture, and global best practice.
Next week’s column will cover William’s contribution to the early years of Ghana’s development after independence, working with Dr Kwame Nkrumah.
More information about William Abraham can be found at www.themindofafrica.com
The author, Henry Abraham, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org