June 2, 2023, on my way home from work, I switched the car radio to the BBC’s Fm station in Accra, to listen to the last edition of the Focus on Africa program for the day. I had missed out on the first two and did not want the last one to escape my attention.
I however did not anticipate that the very program was part of the bulletin. Esau Williams, the presenter, said it was the last time the show was being aired LIVE. Mr. Williams said Focus on Africa was going to be a podcast. One could almost hear the sadness in his voice. I was sad. I was very sad. It was almost like a relative of mine had just moved on to eternity.
For anyone enamored by the BBC, programs under the African Service were gold; from the mainstream news bulletins to magazine shows like Postmark Africa, (the radio encyclopedia giving answers to the many questions listeners sent in) Fast Track, Story Story, Voices from the market and African Performance.
Listeners had a strong affinity to the BBC and would always send in letters to programs that were solicited for them. My first affair with the BBC started in 1989, thanks to a neighbor’s SANYO radio.
I didn’t know what the show was called. I think the presenter on the show as I was to later learn was Hilton Fyle. I still want to believe it was him. Maybe not? In later years and with knowledge about world affairs, I came across Mr. Fyle and heard his voice on some of the old BBC recordings that I have in my library. A Sierra Leonean, he left the BBC and settled back home. He was however arrested and detained for claims he attempted to overthrow the government. But he denied the charges. He wrote a book and sought asylum in the United States of America.
My neighbor would often sit in the open at a compound house and with his “akpasa” a two-part chair that is interlocked at the bottom, would flip the dial until it landed on the BBC. You often heard the shhhh sound and you know the man was looking for the BBC signal. I used to wonder why he would put himself through that torture, when he had Radio Ghana at his disposal.
I honestly thought he had too much time on his hand. It was only when I grew up and became romantically involved with the BBC that I appreciated the joy of getting the programs on shortwave.
In 1990 Italy hosted the World Cup. Though it was telecast on GTV at the time, it was through the BBC that we got detailed information about the off the pitch issues, especially when Cameroon beat Argentina in the opening game.
However, my active involvement as a listener with the BBC African Service started in 1995. Joyfm had come onto the scene and the partnership with the BBC meant listeners like me who struggled to get hold of programs on shortwave were now going to enjoy their programs on FM.
From Network Africa to Focus on Africa, Fast Track and others, the BBC became the prism through which I could see the world. Focus on Africa at 3pm was never to be missed. Then Network Africa at dawn was my wakeup beat. It was a very innovative dawn riser that got me hooked. I loved the proverbs and the musical interludes. Apart from the show itself, the Africa department produced a quarterly magazine that I also invested a little of my earnings into.
I got to read about the presenters and correspondents from the continent. The magazines are part of the reminders of my love affair with the BBC African Service, and the general BBC portfolio which also offered me enormous opportunities and helped shape my career, including traveling opportunities.
When the BBC recently celebrated 60 years of broadcasting to the African audience, it was unimaginably amazing listening to some of the audio files from as far back as 1970s. For those of us who started engaging with the service, presenters and correspondents like Robin Whyte, Rick Wells, Max Bankole Jarret, Joseph Warungu, Bola Mosuro, Hassan Harouni, Will Ross, Anna Borzello, Kwabena Mensah, Sola Odunfa, Alfred Taban etc. One of the beautiful stories about Focus was the ability to turn ordinary mechanics into celebrated reporters, who told the stories without inserting their own ego into it.
Our own Kwaku Sakyi Addo was the leading light that gave some of us an insight into what professionalism is about in the field of journalism. A consummate professional, he was well respected within the BBC space and his reporting style was out of this world. I still remember his article about Jerry Rawlings’s last days in office ‘The Greying of the Revolution’ It is a great piece and one should look it up online and read it and many others.
We also had one Kwabena? Sarpong who announced the death of the late Asantehene Otumfuo Opoku Ware. During the second edition of the Focus on Africa program, he said a source at Manhyia had told him the Asantehene had passed. He was accused of violating a taboo and felt threatened. He had to runaway and seek shelter in Accra.
Another reporter I remember with fond memories was Kamaldeen Mohammed. He reported from the tiny Island of Comoros and would always say ABSOLUTELY. The man his death was announced on the Network Africa program, I screamed ABSOLUTELY.
But the death that really hit me and other listeners was that of Chris Bickerton. For many years Chris was the presenter of all three editions of Focus on Africa. He knew Africa like the palm of his hands, he has lived and worked on the continent so no surprise there. He took ill and took leave from the show.
He once sent a letter to the focus team, telling his listeners he was making progress with his health and enjoying his then new baby. Weeks later, the news came that he had passed. The tributes that poured in from the continent and beyond showed how much he was loved and adored by listeners of the show. I once used his voice on the show as my ringtone.
Focus on Africa may no longer be with us, but through it, I gained friends and knowledge.