Monday, June 29, 2020

In closed humidity, amid summerish heat of 32 degrees, and a cornucopia of distant sounds, the sun finally turns its golden yellow and begins to surrender for the day. In its diminishing glow hidden in a cul de sac, a convoy waits. 

We have arrived early and are obliged to patiently stay motionless for an hour or so on the outskirts of a village, Asokore, near Ghana’s hinterland city, Kumasi. We wait because it is forbidden to come forth in daylight with one of the village’s returning sons — a respected man from a lineage of popular figures in the days, some of whom were chiefs. 

We wait some more, before the sun disappears over the horizon and the convoy and lead car purr their engines and slowly make their way snaking on the potholed roads. We are here. Onlookers crane their necks and whisper. Written from the perspective of a British journalist, this ritual seems endearing, if perhaps amusingly bewildering. 

What might anyone, with a lack of knowledge of customs and the culture, transported to this spot, have made off all of this?  This is a funeral about to begin its run of three days. The returning son is my father, born in Asokore, who became a police officer, and then sought a new destiny with my mother in the UK. 

Several years later, he has returned home. Sankofa , a well known Twi maxim means “go back and retrieve”. It is almost a fitting prose for what we are to experience. Everything about my father’s home coming had been a system of processes — several business ends in the UK ensuring his safe passage. 

But it is also a metaphor, alongside others, for sonorous journalism. Let me explain. Now in Ghana, rituals that have lasted many years — some extruded to accompany Ghanaian’s penchant for lavish funerals, have now taken hold. It’s said of Ghanaians that it’s at funerals where you’ll find your future husband or wife. 

Three days affords you some time within the solemnity of the occasion. This is so far removed from the clashing of cymbals and gyration of hips to some genre of music in a night club in London, Croydon — where you rendezvous to find your future soul mate. During the three days my family and I will perform many rituals and sermons. I have to brush up on my Twi — the language of the Akans — which is rich in metaphor. Death is described as literally turning your head to face the wall. 

I remember saying this and drawing nods of appreciation. “He’s done well” said one elder afterwards. And then this which has forever stuck with me. On the final day fifteen clothed elders gathered in a room. It is time, a relative tells me, to take gifts to thank them for their time, for their support, and for the appreciation of one of their own through his children. 

For brief moments I lose my guard as a family member, and become a storyteller, a journalist. How might this feature be relayed so it’s less a curio from someone not knowing local customs? I have flashbacks to being in Soweto with white journalists friends who’s parachuted into South Africa’s election from the UK and saw men toying with clubs. 

They looked fearsome, but you’ve nothing to be afraid off. I think back to SUS law arrests in the 80s/90s in which police accosting a black man, would interpret his actions as “shifty”, were he failed to look an officer in the eyes, whilst shifting his weight, head titled.

Were white police officers aware that there were generations of men whose idea of respect was not to “eye ball” their fathers, officials or elders? “Don’t be eye-balling me son” was not an uncommon refrain in some households I knew. Or that further back in time these fathers’ fathers did similar. Under their publishing company X-Press Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope would release a book Yardie that the met police implored its officer should read. Fiction and non fiction merged to unveil a culture unknown to Police. 

This was the 1990s. Standing in front of the Ghanaian elders, they asked the seminal question. How much did all this cost, the flight, the laying on of food, the gifts to other members and Dad’s resting bed, a patterned gasket. There was murmuring and darted expressions when we told them. Translated into English, with the customery ooms and aams, the eldest of the elders spoke. 

He thanked us for doing one of their own right and thanked some more, and then told us, you in the West are crazy. You’re crazy to spend all this money on the dead, when the living are suffering. Look what we do he said drawing attention to his faith. We wrap our loved ones in a shoal and then commit them to the ground the very next day or after. 

Instead he continued, you’ve given rise to a business — a thriving one for those who are pass on. There’s a passage in Around the world in a trillion dollars a day, where senior financiers from South East Asia assail the Americans who attempt to sell a new package of debt swaps. No more packages, they say. 

In modern parlance, the world has discovered and developed and intricate set of business ends that bamboozle, bind people even as they take their last journey. “We need in this kingdom only priests and school teachers, and no merchandise, unless its wine and flour for the Mas”, said King Alfonso I in a letter to the King of Lisbon in 1526. Alfonso, elaborately portrayed in Hochschild’s King Leopold Ghosts is lamenting the business of human slave trade taking place at alarming rate in his Kongo (spelt Kongo). 

He is tired of merchants. Hochschild tells us what makes stories of the Kongo gripping is that for history, journalism first draft of accounts, whites exploiting the land are not the only authors. Their white narrative sees the native Kongolese as savages, but for once there is a historical account of that era from a black man, learned and understanding of customs. 

The centuries ahead, greater emphasis placed on commerce and business becomes a measure of a nation’s status, its place in the world, as opposed to greater recognition of its priests, school teachers and medical personnel; architects, artisans and artists. Centuries ahead too, the Western world would invent a story form called journalism through which events are comparatively largely recorded through the eyes of those visiting, unaccustomed to customs and rituals. 

They interpret events as curios. They can’t be mindful of the gravitas of events if they lack in its experience. Yet the world is told through their eyes. If learning is about being liberated, then vast swathes of knowledge are entombed through ignorance or otherwise complicity. Alfonso’s letter was met by Belgium’s king with a rebuke. 

The king’s emissaries, he said, tell him Kongo is a vast place and there are many potential slaves, such that the trade will not run dry. One Kongo king’s version against another, the King of Belgium. One version of events against another. One who understands his culture against a King, Leopold who never once set foot in Kongo, but raped its riches and people, brutally. Of all the definitions and frameworks put together to sow together a divine model of journalism — few ever cite how culture is integral. 

That at the heart of our exchanges is in an attempt to make sense of cultures; super, supra, boardroom and community et al. Storytelling of a kind called journalism represses the super, between people, profoundly, whilst cinema saw stories through the eyes of the beholder who knew their apples, and could offer nuanced interpretation. Cinema! Reportage‘s stories are more muted. 

Why? Because, perhaps to those who offer its craft at the highest pedagogical level, from circa 1700s there was no other culture, but the one worthy of note. Rebooted in the 1980s by a Prime Minister it became there’s no such thing as society. It’s as if you’d asked a fish the temperature of its water. 

How would the fish know? It’s only occupied one realm. In the 1700s onwards, culture was one, mono, undifferentiated. There were other people from different places e.g. Gold Coast, but their numbers were insignificant, though not unimportant to contest there existed varying cultures, and as such an expressiveness in contemporary storytelling. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story appears in Hamilton the musical. 

Victors tell the stories, journalism is about power, and the power to shape narrative. Hamilton is pure juju for reworking the agents of American’s founding fathers performed by a significant black cast. Andrew Marr’s My Trade a well written book on a short history of British Journalism underscores this mono narrative. It doesn’t purport to be a history of journalism, for it reflects events of white Anglo-Saxon heritage. EH Gombrich, one of the highest authorities on Art, behind the knowledge expanding Story of Art did not see why he should features black or women artists, believing they were not important. 

You can’t begin to understand how the world shaped by television and opinions hewn by news, reduces customs and culture to generalisations. It’s obvious through not only the lack of diversity in programmes, but of different people, from different cultures, being on the tables that decide what we eat. Culture matters. It matter a lot. Yet comparatively few intellectuals acknowledge its profound impact in storytelling alongside objectivity, impartiality etc. 

Prof Michael Schudson speaks of journalism as the following: Journalism practice is a cultural construct, dependent on societal changes and literary traditions. To story tell requires understanding those cultures. My father’s burial, as much as how Covid-19 is blighting black communities are stratas of culture — that require exegesis in play. 

The sun is appearing on the 4th day ending our ritual. In the future across the world we see the prospect of a new dawn. I carry forward my father’s legacy and new knowledge for new ideas and co-creations as cultures meet. Journalism Storytelling Ghana Culture BlackLivesMatter

Saturday, January 25, 2020

In the week of UK-Africa investment, Dr David Dunkley Gyimah, voted one of Ghana’s most influential people in the UK, reflects on his visit to Ghana to find it boxing clever and taking on heavyweights

He’s tipped to be Ghana’s next sporting boxing megastar, and embodies the characteristics with which Ghana is being described via boxing metaphors. Sporting allegories befit some countries more than others. Ghana is one of them. Not the worn tropes, “punching above its weight” more “shaping up” and “boxing clever” on the international scene.
The country’s pedigree in the sport is legendary. At the nondescript venue The Gym in the capital boxing legends, such as former World featherweight champ Azuma Nelson trained here. On the wall is a photo of another World Champ for whom I was his cinema journalism filmmaker during his epic fight with Mike Tyson for the undisputed world championship. I would accompany Lennox Lewis to the UK Ghana High Commission en route to Ghana.

Ghana’s economy is catching world attention. Growth saw movement from 5.6% the previous year to 6.7% GDP, just shy of its forecast, but making it one of the fastest growing economies, alongside Rwanda, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire. How the turn around? Oil revenue, and the further discovery of off-shore fields, pumping out their liquid resource is one, just outside the capital there’s evidence of another, which will play well into the dynamics of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Fields of Dream

On the outskirts of Accra, I meet CEO Francis Osei of ISEO’s Agricultural consultancy. In just two years, deploying tech, world expertise and home talent, he’s created one of the largest Maize farms in Ghana, the size of 6000 football pitches. It’s a template that has attracted interest outside of Ghana and he’s preparing to scale up.

CEO Francis Osei has created a 440 hectare farm, the size of 6000 football pitches in 2 years.

There’s a knock on effect for job creation, manufacturing and services adding to Ghana’s domestic GDP. Government policies reported by DW have also acted as fuel for growth. But as in boxing parlance a round is not the match.
Ghana’s heavyweight status has materialised over a lengthy period. Trade and current account deficits, mounting external dept and poor growth has often been the mood music. Twenty eight years ago, I reported for the BBC on US Secretary Ron Brown’s foreign direct investment (FDI) visit to South Africa, to stimulate its economy. The rub? Multinationals were drawn to the country’s favourable market policies but the impact on local jobs and the GDP were comparably minimal.
Ghana’s flank exposes similar patterns and requires forethought. Several more multinationals attracted by trading conditions are due to set up shop in 2020. Al Jazeera report
Nissan, Suzuki, and Volkswagen will open plants in the country in 2020, transforming the region into a hub for the African car industry.
Part of the pull is Ghana’s spend against its revenues coming under check and efforts to clamp down on commercial corruption. A friend, who’s a senior executives at a high performing multinational, has hit on an ingenious scheme for transparency and due diligence and its making and impact. We’ll report on this in the future.

My late father was part of the wave of Ghanaians who left the country soon after independence, swelling and popularising, like so many others, the label of “diaspora” — which the present government last year designated the year of homecoming for the many dispersed. It attracted, and continues to draw attention. At Elmina castle, where last year US House speaker Nancy Pelosi and 13 Congress members visited, photographers approach us and we share a conversation.
They request we pose and moments later will appear with the prints for a fee. I thank them and also suggest politely they’re missing a vital component of storytelling. Rather than capturing events for as representation, they might do so for the drama as documentary photojournalism. It’s the story and emotions that country’s lack when telling their grand vision.
In the city, the Overseas Development Institute is training young people in documentary photography, as well as an assortment of skills. It’s encouraging to see. Youth and employment are rousing themes in Ghana, with the president acknowledging there’s work to be done, particularly in educating the next generation, training them and helping them find jobs.
Perhaps one of the biggest stories which should have global recognition is caught in what could be termed “Start-up stasis”. Ghana’s government has made education free for students to secondary school. That’s a big deal and politically requires traction. Unesco’s 2010 stats says eight out of every ten 15–24 year-olds is literate. For the over 65 years-olds that drops to three out of every ten. That’s a huge story to champion and sell which which should impact skills.
Parallels with South Korea come to mind when in the 1950s the average income for South Korea and Ghana respectively was $490 and $491 respectively, by 1990 South Korea was $4,832 to Ghana’s $481 — a ten fold magnitude jump. South Korean boosted learning and savvy businesses.
Akushika and Earl, former presenters of the Breakfast Show. Akushika is today editor of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation
Media is one of Ghana’s success stories in its matured democracy. The air waves reflect a liberalism and free speech, unlike many other African states. I’ve arrived at a time when there are ongoing talks between the media and government over press freedoms and the protection of journalists. In the offices of Joy FM Ghana’s leading independent stations I’m introduced to Israel Laryea — one of the country’s most prominent newsmen courtesy of one of my former Masters students.
It’s clear from when we start talking we share mutual interests in, amongst others, an old friend I’ve not seen in 21 years, the former BBC Ghana correspondent Kwaku A Sakyi-Addo who now heads up Ghana’s media regulatory body — the equivalent of the UK’s Ofcom.

One of my first project in Ghana was in 1997 working with the then Turner executive Edward Boateng, whom is now the Ambassador to China. Together we launched Ghana’s national television’s Breakfast Show taking them on their first outside broadcast to South Africa where in the early 90s I was an Associate Producer for ABC News.
The digital entrepreneur and start-up culture too in Ghana is shaping up. Tech Nova writes that four Ghanaian start-ups lead the way for the Africa Prize for innovation. AfriTech announced several digital entrepreneurial schemes for accelerator funds. The challenge however to accelerate these program depends on a strategic theme favouring a different philosophy to nominal tech start-ups and that is the Chinese model of leveraging innovation and business supported by local government, rather than the organic growth witnessed in Silicon Valley.
I’m leaving Accra. The Arts centre is a microcosm of Ghana’s future. Craftsmen and women accost us for sales, driving hard bargains. They’re determined, persistent, and have a vision of what they want, but to expand it requires joined up and local government thinking. Unquestionably solutions are complex, but as my seller poses in his shop no. 163, I’m reminded. A country’s brand and character is shaped by the people. Can Ghana keep its up it momentum and how transformative does the various sectors set different goals. It’s up to you them to Keep jabbing.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah was voted one of the top 40 influential Ghanaians in the UK’s Ghana Abroad. He attended Prempeh College in his teens. A former broadcaster, he’s an academic specialising in Tech, AI and Entreprneurs and runs the Emerging Media at Cardiff University. He’s worked or consulted in Lebanon, Tunisia, China, Russia, Egypt, India, South Africa, America etc. More on him here