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Opinions of Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

Kofi Akpabli and Northern Ghana’s Single Story

By Manasseh Azure Awuni

The embarrassment Mr. Vincent Senam Kuagbenu faced that day could only be imagined and not endured. The uncompromising, hardworking and innovative Executive Director of the National Service Scheme was billed to speak at the national conference of the Tertiary Education Institutions Network (TEIN) of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) in Winneba last year. It was an important meeting of the youth wing of the NDC, which attracted big shots of the party, including the Vice President of the republic, John Dramani Mahama.
When it was Mr. Kuagbenu’s turn to deliver his address, the worst that could ever happen to someone in the midst of such an august audience happened to him. He was booed and hooted at. According to the November 29, 2010, edition of the Daily Graphic, attempts by some party officials to restrain the students worsened the situation.
“Calls by the TEIN leadership for restraint went unheeded and even when the Deputy Minister of Local Government and Rural Development , Mr. Elvis Afriyie Ankrah, stepped in to call for order, the students’ anger at Mr. Kuagbenu rather boiled up. And for nearly half an hour, the NDC’s TEIN continually yelled at Mr. Kuagbenu who eventually left the podium and dejectedly walked out of the meeting grounds.”
What was Mr. Kuagbenu’s crime?
He had posted party members to do their national service in rural areas. Interventions by party stalwarts would not make him reconsider his decision and give card-bearing TEIN members “better” postings.
In enlightened and development-minded countries, persons such as Mr. Kuagbenu are national assets who will be maintained even when there is a change of government. The NSS boss has, among other equally impressive and innovative achievements, established National Service Farms where proceeds are sold at moderate prices to senior high schools.
But Mr. Kuagbenu’s fate did not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the status quo when it comes to national service, and the dire consequence of treating “protocol list” with contempt.
School leavers consider postings to rural areas to do their national service as the worst punishment ever. Some have christened the scheme “National Suffering Scheme.” And among the no-go areas, for which Mr. Vincent Kuagbenu has become an enemy, is northern Ghana. To most people, northern Ghana is a forbidden territory. The doctor-patient ratio in northern Ghana is appalling while the refusal of teachers to accept postings to that part of the country makes rank nonsense of various interventions in the educational sector in that part of the country. It is generally seen as a punishment to be posted to northern Ghana, and some civil servants prefer demotion to postings to the north.
Mr. Kofi Akpabli, the multiple award-winning freelance journalist, felt the same way when he was posted to northern Ghana for national service many years ago.
“As someone born and bred in Accra, it was very bad news. For a moment, I thought I would not go but my father encouraged me to go,” he says.
Mr. Akpabli had just received a degree in basic education from the University of Cape Coast and was posted to the Ghana Tourists Board in the border town of Paga. Despite his initial misgivings about his postings, he would not take eternity to like the much demonized part of the country.
“I immediately fell in love with the place, its vast space, the warmth of the people and their culture. Northern Ghana is a place where there is a reason for everything,” he says.
Kofi Akpabli did not go to the north as a journalist. He however attributes his success in journalism and writing to the north.
“Even if I had the talent for writing, it is the north that triggered it,” he admits. “I saw the beauty of the savanna, its people and culture and felt the urge to write about it. I started writing what I saw, and here I am today calling myself a journalist,” he bursts into laughter.
Anyone who follows Kofi Akpabli’s writings will agree that he is one of the finest writers in Ghana today. Irrespective of the subject, Kofi Akpabli has a way of keeping his readers spell-bound until the last word of the article. His enormous talent has been recognised internationally.
In 2010, Kofi Akpabli was the only Ghanaian journalist nominated for the prestigious CNN/Multichoice African Journalists Award, which he won the Arts and Culture category. After picking his award in Kampala, Uganda, he paid tribute to the beauty of Northern Ghana, even though his winning article was on “Serious business of soup in Ghana.”
Recently, Kofi Akpabli defended his title as Africa’s foremost Arts and Culture Journalist. He was again the only Ghanaian journalist to have won an award. His fellow Ghanaian journalist, Portia Solomon of TV3 was also nominated but she could not win.
Kofi Akpabli is also the defending champion of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) best journalist for the Arts, Culture and Entertainment category and has many other journalism awards to his credit.
“I owe my success to the North,” he says.
Before Kofi Akpabli recently flew to South Africa to pick his award, he launched a book to celebrate the beauty of the three regions of the north. The book, which is titled A Sense of Savanna: Tales of a Friendly Walk Through Northern Ghana, has received very favourable reviews.
The Executive Director of the Ghana Tourists Board, Mr. Julius Debrah has described the book as one of the most useful materials on Northern Ghana for both local and foreign tourists.
“Today’s tourists are not just interested in attractions,” he notes. “They find fulfillment in interacting with the setting as a whole. This reflects a new movement in the industry known as ‘responsible tourism.’ A Sense of Savanna is a kind of book that fosters this new trend.”
A former diplomat and columnist of the Daily Graphic, Mr. KB Asante, says the book and Kofi Akpabli’s achievements should serve as an inspiration to the youth.
“Kofi Akpabli writes delightfully, and in A Sense of Savanna, he laces his stories with keen observation, humour and learning,” Mr. KB Asante writes. “What makes me take pride in his work is that it is a legacy by all standards. Yet, all would have been missed had he regarded his posting to the North as punishment. If this real life story is not inspiring to our youth, I don’t know what it is.”
Written in the first person narrative, A Sense of Savanna is a collection of articles about the three regions of the North. Kofi Akpabli’s intimacy with the north is intriguing and one finds a good dose of cultural and historical events intricately woven with a beautiful and humorous language.
West Way to Wechiau, the first article in the book gives enormous insight into the hippopotamus sanctuary in the Upper West Region. Kofi skillfully blends his ride to see the sacred beasts with the history of the place, revealing all one needs to know about hippos. He also gives a lot of insight into the lives of the people. Here, he explains why the French feared the Lobi people and succinctly tells the reader the economic conditions of the people.
“Poverty in these parts is a very familiar reality. In the absence of any local industry, the youth here are limited to what their ancestors have always done, catch fish and till the land. The more ambitious among them engage in the ‘energy sector’; that is burning fuel wood for charcoal.” The energy sector, indeed!
Kofi also takes readers to A market Day in Navrongo, where a stranger does not need to ask about the signs of a market day: “A young man pulls a herd of goats. He is followed by an old man with a fowl tucked under his armpit. Next is a boy, riding a donkey cart, who goes on to overtake a woman carrying a pan of shea butter…”
The mention of Bawku brings one thing to the minds of many Ghanaians – conflict. Bawku the Beautiful in A Sense of Savanna, however, challenges this stereotype about one of the most beautiful places in Ghana.
Some titles that make up the book include Christmas in Hamile, A Savanna Valentine, Bolgatanga to Kumasi by GPRTU, and Sirigu the Success Story among others.
Those who have neither the intention to travel to the North nor the interest in its cultures will still find A Sense of Savanna useful for its literary merit. For instance, this is how the writer describes the economic strength of Bawku:
“In terms of real wealth, the area should have the highest per capita in Ghana. Even if you subtract the human resources and just take the number of cargo trucks, add it to the number of cattle and multiply it by the fact that the largest Mecca goers nationwide come from Bawku, you would probably know where I have been.”
Tourists who buy A Sense of Savanna may not see some of the things Kofi Akpabli describes in his book even if they outlive eternity in such communities. The reason isn’t that such things don’t exist. It is because Kofi Akpabli is gifted with an extraordinary eye for detail, the rare possession of ancient story tellers. That can possibly explain why he has won international awards with no other stories than stories on ordinary soup and our much demonized local booze – akpeteshie.
There is, however, one important reality which Kofi Akpabli’s life and work portray. It is the reality we often choose to ignore. This reality is that Northern Ghana has more to it than the often negative media reportage we receive about the area. The North is treated the same way the Western media treat Africa. Unfortunately, however, people of northern extraction have done very little to correct this misconception as noted by Mr. David Odoi, a senior Lecturer at the Language Centre of the University of Ghana, when he reviewed the book at its Accra launch.
Kofi Akpabli has countered what the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, calls “the dangers of the single story.” According to the literary witch, who fits perfectly in the shoes of aging Chinua Achebe, “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person,” she told TED audience in Oxford in 2009.
“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar… When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Indeed, there are conflicts in some parts of Northern Ghana. But there are also inspiring stories such as Madam Melanie Kasise’s pottery project in Sirigu, which attracted a sitting UN Secretary-General to the village.

Reading Kofi Akpabli’s book makes us regain that paradise in Northern Ghana.
Credit: Manasseh Azure Awuni/www.maxighana.com, Email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com The writer is a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana. To read more of his writings visit www.maxighana.com