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Opinions of Thursday, 23 June 2016

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene

Public fathers and secret mothers

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Last Sunday I was startled by the sight of a massive billboard along the street in Accra. I had been slowly and very reluctantly getting used to photos of the dead on billboards announcing some aspect of the funeral. This time around, the image of a smiling man filled the billboard, but this was not a funeral. The script in the corner of the billboard said simply that this was the BEST DAD EVER.

There was no name, not of the gentleman whose photo was staring at us, not of the person or persons whose DAD he was. Well, I don’t think there was a name that I saw as I drove by.

Last Sunday was Father’s Day and I have to admit that a low “Wow” came out of my mouth as the full impact of this billboard hit me. It is one of the sad facts of life in our country that fathers do not feature very much in many people’s lives.

We are the very lucky minority whose fathers play prominent, meaningful roles in our everyday lives and in our upbringing. I know too many people whose fathers were largely absent from their lives when they were growing up. My young friends tell me things are changing somewhat and the father species are now more visible and more engaged in the lives of their children.

As I came face to face with this billboard, I said to myself here was proof, if ever some were needed, that Ghanaian fathers were not only visible these days, their efforts were being appreciated by their children.

I wondered if I should set about trying to find out the identity of the man on the billboard and his child/children who had taken such a dramatic step to advertise their father.

It occurred to me I knew a number of fathers who would easily challenge for that title of BEST DAD EVER; and then I thought I can’t really complain when someone has chosen to put up theirs and those I know hadn’t done so.

As I drove away I thought to myself the accolade of the BEST DAD EVER would have to stay with the man on the billboard. I turned a corner and was suddenly confronted with roadblocks, uniformed policemen and armed soldiers.

The puzzle

It took me a while to realise I was near the Tesano home of the late father of the President of the Republic and this was where, according to the media, the President’s mother had been living and had died a few days earlier and been buried in her hometown in Busunu.

Now that was some puzzle.

When the news broke that the President’s mother had died, I couldn’t find a single person who knew that his mother had been alive up to then. I couldn’t find any reference to a mother made by the President in his eight years as Vice-President and President.

I am not expecting that he would have put up billboards to tell us about his mother or wish her a happy birthday or a happy Mother’s Day on billboards. I am not expecting that there would be press releases telling us about visits to his mother or photos of mother and child.

But I would certainly expect that if the President’s mother was alive, he would make some reference to his mother in one way or the other in the past eight years. The Great Communicator did not consider it important to tell us he comes from a mixed religious background, with a Moslem mother and he himself a Christian?

Those in the eye of the public always have to make the painful decision about which parts of their lives to keep private. The child of a Minister or President or Chief Executive for example can hardly get into a childish prank without the silliness getting into the headlines. Many tabloid newspapers would be out of business if they did not have paparazzi following the children or family members of the rich and famous in the hope of catching them in some moment of indiscretion.

Public/private life

One can understand that a President might not want to subject an elderly parent to public scrutiny and limelight, but it is mighty strange not to acknowledge her presence in any of the many speeches, talks, remarks, conversations, lectures, tweets, Facebook wall presentations and all the other medium through which President John Dramani Mahama has sought to communicate his ideas and plans to us the citizens.

There has been a suggestion that the lady might have been unwell and maybe bedridden; but that would hardly explain the total blackout that the President had placed on the existence of his mother. My uneasiness and curiousity sent me to check from the book, “MY FIRST COUP D’ETAT”, the President’s autobiography that was published in 2012. It turns out the mother of the President disappeared from sight rather early in that narrative of the man who would become President.

I have tried to tell myself that the President must have had a father who was so overpowering; he became the dominant figure to the extent of obliterating the mother.

That scenario sounded most unlikely and I have, therefore, resorted to the position that it is nobody’s business really what relations were/are between the President and his parents.

In that case, why did he bother to tell us his mother had died? If it was not necessary to tell us on becoming our President that your mother was alive, why tell us when she dies?

If no reference was ever made to Hajia Habiba Nnaba, the biological mother of the President, while she was alive, why would her death be announced ? I fear that this reinforces the perennial Ghanaian position that we prefer dead bodies to the living ones.

The billboard with the smiling BEST DAD EVER, that set me on these thoughts had obviously challenged the assertion that we only like dead bodies and funerals. I doubt there can be a bigger billboard to announce the death of that man one day and when that inevitable event occurs, it would indeed be a celebration of life.

I am quite sure I have seen a description of the President as a good family man. Would the definition of family not include a mother? I have to believe that there was some very good reason why President Mahama kept the existence of his mother under wraps. I have to believe he would be missing her now that she is gone. In that case, I would extend my deep condolences, even if belated.

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