Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Picture of Sensations - The Been Tos

Prempeh College 1978
A close friend sent me this picture.  It all came flooding back.

Our lived pasts, a rich past, which like precious mementos are stowed away until as such time they are needed: for reflection, a laugh, to recall faces.

In this sea of faces, I'm there, albeit faceless. 

This is Ghana in the 70s, a house photo for the school that would serve as my home, surrogate parents and foster carers: Prempeh College.

They were I remember at first some of the loneliest times, which would grow into some of the most fruitful. For unlike most of the 'green horns' - the term given to first years or sophomores - I was a "Been To".

Been Tos were children defined by their peripatetic nature. They would have been born elsewhere, mainly the UK and US, but at some point following a ritual of African parenting have been hauled to their parents motherland.

I say their parents, because before that journey, there was little sense that we were from Africa or specifically Ghanaian. The law under which we were born - English Law in my case - gave us the sovereignty of being British.

We spoke with English accents, had a British sense of humour and favoured fish and chips over fufu.

And then one day, one day, you found yourself on a 747, days before drugged with every conceivable tropical medicine, heading off to real home.

Your parents regaled. Now son, this is where you're from. But as you touched into Ghana, wrapped by that clenching humid hot weather, you wondered if you were from here, why did this all feel so alien.

At Prempeh College in the hinterland of Ghana, you were made to feel something of a Ghanaian - but more an immigrant of sorts classified as a "been to".

If you failed to understand any of Ghana's customs, you could either be excused for your naivety as a 'been to" or punished for your supposedly uppity behaviour, scowled at for being a "been to".

And I wasn't alone we were a tribe, a community, who shared our stories for comfort talking comics and cornflakes.  We were a class. In the above picture there are at least a dozen boys who had "been to" London or the US. Thousands of parents did this, depositing you in any number of Ghana's ex colonial schools.

Prempeh was set up by an Eton scholar and clergyman, as part of the brief of the church to spread the word of God. The Brit's God.  Sometimes we laughed, I may not have been able to make Eton, but I made the African one.

The Been Tos and the ritual of forced approved repatriation happens less now I'm told. It was confined to first generation Africans (Ghanaians) who had made Britain their home in the 1950s. They pined to go back apalled by the lack of respect their charges gave them, by the upbringing Britain facilitated, and in particular by the Brit school's that could not instill that sense of militaristic discipline.

Britain had yoked off this apparent constraint with the 1960s free love era, which for African parents in England signalled the downfall of humanity. "What do you mean my son can now defy me?"

Whatever we are or have become is shaped in great measure by our environment and lived pasts. It was in Ghana I developed a love for photography and writing. The thousands of photographs I would take live somewhere in a girlfriend's wardrobe - if they still exists. Her name as I recall was Diana Grunitaki  Tay from St Monica's school.

Kodak Camera 1970s
I left Ghana in the 1980s,  and as a sign that I would return to continue being a "been to" left everything including my early writings and pictures taken on my Kodak Instamatic. I did not return as planned,  though I have visited several times, but not as often as I would like.

Which is why this picture is so precious. Deleuze referred to an experience of sensations, with no apparent logic of cognisance or semiotic. Its immanence is its display of force, rhythm and duration, and for me of memories deep down.

As I write this, I'm listening to Radio 4 Today programme - a debate on what caused the riots in the UK. Remarkably, "Been Toism" has a voice in this debate, for our parents knew something of parenting in the 70s that whether we liked or not involved a loose programme designed to help our upbringing.

Thanks for the memories, with a plethora of social costs and gains.