'Apartheid was regrettable, but Africans were not ready for democracy'.

Author:Armah, Ayi Kwei

In this, third instalment of the serialisation of Ayi Kwei Armah's memoir, The Eloquence of the Scribes, he tells of his university days in America and how, because of differences of opinion, he had to discontinue receiving largesse from a British multi-millionaire who had business interests in South Africa and who was funding his studies. The Briton thought apartheid was regrettable, but that the Africans in South Africa were not ready for democracy. "In his opinion, the best option would be to give the vote, in gradual stages, to a small number of Africans selected on the basis of education and responsible behaviour. I asked why Europeans were not subjected to the same standards, and was immediately aware that I had fouled a congenial atmosphere," Ayi Kwei Armah recalls.


By my upper sixth form year at Achimota, it was clear that depending on how well I did at the exams ahead, I might choose between university studies in Ghana, Britain or America. The standard route for ambitious students from the British colonies led to Britain. However, small numbers of adventurous students had been going to America for decades, and the arrival on the West African scene of such popular politicians as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah made large numbers of young Africans sharply aware of America as a desirable destination.



I had begun, sporadically, to read some American literature. My impression, admittedly vague and undocumented at the time, was that American literature was somehow wider, more open than the English literature my secondary education had immersed me in. If it came to a choice between Britain and the USA, I would choose the latter.

The greater attraction of America was not the result of any single factor. My curiosity was certainly heightened by the knowledge that there was a large society of Africans, at the time called Negroes, living there. I had met a few visiting African-Americans, and, of course, seen several at the movies.

I remember once going to lunch with an African-American professor passing through Accra, Saint-Clair Drake, and listening as he recounted an encounter with an African in the Congo who, on learning that he was from America, told him in great excitement: "I'm so glad to meet you. I've never met a Negro before!"

In 1959, after the crucial Cambridge higher school examinations, like other final year students before the secondary school year was brought into line with the university year, I had a nine-month wait ahead, between the end of the secondary school year (December) and the beginning of the next university academic year (September).

My teachers recommended me for a vacation job at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, and after successful job tests, a classmate, Robert Asare, and I went to work. I started as a news writer (I loved the work), but one day, when one regular reader fell suddenly ill, I got drafted as a news reader.

The nine-month period I spent in Accra working for Radio Ghana was a time of intense growth. Some of the most interesting people in Ghana worked at the broadcasting corporation. Two of the youngest, Cameron Duodu [now of New African fame] and Peter Myers, became my friends.

Cameron, not long out of his teens, had already written a novel, and gone to a writers' conference in Russia. Another friend, Francis Brown, a Nigerian accountant who had lived most of his life in Ghana, let me stay in his apartment rent free, and gave me big-brotherly advice on the adult world ahead.

It was at this time that my geography teacher at Achimota, Mr Willmer, together with his American wife Joan Carin, introduced me to Mr Murphy, the director of the American cultural centre in Accra.

Other introductions followed, culminating in an interview with a visitor from the Carnegie Corporation, New York. Alan Pifer was an alumnus of Groton and Harvard, and his colleagues had mandated him to look for a suitable African candidate for a one-year scholarship tenable at Groton.

Shortly after the interview, a group of a dozen American high school students touring Africa as a reward for commendable academic achievement arrived in Accra, and I was asked to accompany them to places of interest in our newly independent country. Achimota was rather good at preparing students for such assignments. Every other year, for instance, students from a sister school in Nigeria, King's College, Lagos, came to stay with us for a couple of weeks. We students were given the task of organising their feeding, care and entertainment.

The Cambridge higher school certificate results came, and they were good. My interview with Mr Pifer of the Carnegie Corporation had gone well, and some time in the summer of 1959 I got a letter of admission to Groton School. The typewriting on that letter was the crispest I had ever seen. There was a scholarship available for one African and one Asian student that year. I was offered a year at Groton on the understanding that if I passed the requisite examinations, I could get admitted to Harvard as a second-year student. The plan worked out very well.

The pace of events accelerated remarkably from the day I flew to New...

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