No more heroes anymore?

Some modern peddlers of dreams say one is still young – or at worst, middle aged – at 60. That may be challengeable, but for a country, 60 (now 61 in Ghana’s case) is definitely young. Yet the confidence and idealism of youth, which were so evident in the first few years of Ghana’s independence under Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s leadership, are far less visible in Ghana now. Rather, cynicism and self-centredness are the order of the day.  How have we got here, and more importantly, how can we re-direct ourselves towards a better destination?

As to how we got here, I believe many Ghanaians still carry the scars of military rule and its accomplice, the absence of the rule of law. These brought profound psychological uncertainty which quenched innovation and risk-taking and fed the devastating “short-termism” that is still so prevalent in Ghana today. Why invest or sacrifice for the long term, when your tomorrow is literally dependent on an unpredictable – and heavily armed – other’s whim?

Of course, today’s young Ghanaians have grown up under more favourable circumstances of peace, and to a significant degree the rule of law. Yet the danger is that even if the proximate cause of our culture of risk avoidance and “short-termism” no longer applies, that culture keeps reproducing itself, transmitted from elders to youth.

My own epiphany on this matter came whilst listening to President Nana Akufo Addo’s address for Ghana’s 60th anniversary celebration. Delivered with his usual gravitas, a significant proportion of his speech was devoted to honouring various historic figures (back to 1897!) for their contributions to Ghana’s independence.   Whilst of interest to those of us who find history fascinating, I would rather that more of the speech had been directly addressed to young Ghanaians who are, after all, the only ones that may be around in another 60 years time. I would have liked to hear more acknowledgement of the shortcomings of development efforts to date, and a clearer commitment to support the efforts of young Ghanaians to do better over the next 60 years.

But then, I started to wonder what impact it would have had, if the President had followed my speech writing prescriptions?  Probably very little, I realised. I find most young Ghanaians have long since written off calls to self-sacrifice for the sake of our country from an older generation that they see as metaphorically or literally ensconced in their hundred thousand dollar V8s, and briefly rolling down their windows to lecture them on such matters. Or perhaps worse, these lectures will be copied by young Ghanaians as skilled window dressing that can cloak their own search for personal benefit at the country’s expense.

So, what might work better? Speaking to many young Ghanaians I am impressed by the idealism I find, though sometimes this takes a little digging to reveal! It is simply not true that the younger generation is driven only by a desire for money and personal gain.

With this thought in mind, I discussed these issues with my friend Akosua Adomako Ampofo (who was until recently Director of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana). She had come at these issues from a different angle, as one of the leaders of “Gandhi Must Fall”, seeking the removal of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi from the University of Ghana Legon campus. The rationale was that Gandhi, at least at some points in his life, expressed racism against black people. Hence despite his undoubtedly huge achievement in fighting colonialism in India, it is wrong that his should be the one and only full statue of an individual on our premier university campus. Rather, the main focus of statuary on Legon campus should surely be on celebrating Ghanaian heroes, to inspire Ghanaian students and communicate Ghana’s own heritage to international visitors. However, despite the protests, the statue of Gandhi on Legon campus remains stubbornly in place, and it is still the sole full statue of an individual on the campus.

Looking forward, Akosua and I have decided to develop ways to facilitate young Ghanaians’ own peer-to-peer conversations on the key issues of national identity and positive values; and of identifying heroes who help them strengthen their commitment to that identity and those values

We are therefore developing a project, Ghana Heroes, and are currently confirming its elements using specially commissioned focus groups and discussions with young Ghanaians, to ensure it reflects their priorities. One key strand will be social media debates about young people’s own heroes (particularly people who are not already well known), and the values they take from these heroes; online competitions to identify a shortlist of short video presentations about their hero by their young Ghanaian “champion”; and a TV broadcast of the final selection process for a winning hero and champion each year, with a suitable TV network partner. We recognise there are existing initiatives which have some similar objectives, and we are keen to work in partnership so as to maximise impact. If you might be interested in partnering with Ghana Heroes, please email with brief details.

More generally, many of us can tell personal stories of Ghanaian heroes that have inspired us and helped build our own positive values and sense of national identity. Such stories can be one of the most powerful ways of changing ourselves and others for the better, individually and collectively.  In this spirit, over the next few weeks I will use this column to set out some key events in the life of Professor William Abraham, a pioneer of world class African academic excellence, who worked with Dr Kwame Nkrumah to further Ghana’s development in the early years after independence. (Full disclosure: William is also my father!).

 Of course, Ghana’s situation is very different today from the 1960s. However, in the crucial matter of the mindset we need to maximise our own development and that of Ghana and indeed Africa, Professor Abraham’s story has much insight to offer.


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