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Opinions of Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Komla Dumor – one man’s death and the grief of a nation

He was not the captain of our beloved Black Stars, who, through his individual effort on the pitch, scored the vital winner that sent us into the final match of the World Cup as the first ever African country to do so. He was not a Ghanaian émigré in Silicon Valley who created a powerful computer program that changed the world and made him Africa’s first tech multibillionaire at a tender age. He was “just” an ordinary news reader on BBC World Service television, one of many they have. Yet Komla Dumor’s death put a whole nation into shock and deep mourning. Tons of words have been written about him and the condolences came from all over the continent and beyond. The grief was of a type we had never seen in our country before.

Komla Dumor was the first global television personality to come out of Ghana. BBC World Service television made him a very popular person. Many of us didn’t know him before he started reading the news on the World Service. Like the Africans who have worked with the BBC before him, he started with the African Service on radio. Unless you listened to that, you did not know him. If you are a Ghanaian who left the country some 15 years ago, you didn’t know him at all. Until his death, there were a few Ghanaians based abroad who didn’t know who he was. If you didn’t watch BBC World Service news regularly, you didn’t know him. His fame was linked with the BBC, the only worldwide television network he ever worked for. Many got to know him “personally” because, unlike just a radio voice, television made it possible for you to connect a voice with the face.

Ghanaians, like many citizens of other Commonwealth countries, have a special relationship with the BBC World Service. This dates back to the colonial days. Broadcasting first came to the Gold Coast in 1935 and was basically a station that relayed programmes from the BBC World Service. Even when the first broadcasting house was built in Accra in 1940 and started broadcasting in the local languages, the major World Service news was still transmitted through radio in the Gold Coast. When the Gold Coast Broadcasting System became the Ghana Broadcasting System on independence, it was modelled on BBC public service system. It still carried some BBC news. So Ghanaians have known the BBC very well. The station identification “London Calling” and the Chimes of Big Ben became well known to many Gold Coasters and, later, Ghanaians. Even better known was the Lilliburelo tune (said to date back to the 17th century) generally regarded as the World Service signature tune, followed by the pip pip pip … piiiiip, after which you adjusted your watch (the on time marker should be at the beginning of the last long pip). The BBC time, to us, was always correct. It also came as GMT – the time that takes its name from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, which happens to be on the same zero longitude as Tema and which allows Ghanaians to always have the same time on which the World Service operates, no matter the time of year. 6 hours on the World Service is always 6 am in Ghana. My father, having woken up early in the morning, would be ready for the 6 o’clock news from the BBC. The big Philips radio would already have had the correct button pressed and the dial at the right place. It was easy to tune because the dial showed the stations of the major cities of the world – Moscow, Accra, Lagos, Monrovia and, the various BBC stations.

Sometime after independence, the direct transmission of the BBC news on Radio Ghana stopped. All the news you heard on GBC were locally generated and read by local newsreaders. But this did not stop Ghanaians’ attachment to BBC. There were some BBC programmes you never missed. One was the classical music request programme – “The Pleasure’s Yours” presented by Gordon Clyde. Others were Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and John Tidmarsh presenting Outlook. Then there was the African Service with programmes geared to Africa, some of them in African languages. The early morning show, Network Africa, was especially popular with the youth. I still remember it from my secondary school days in the 60s and 70s. Hilton Fyle, the Sierra Leonean who hosted the programme, was very popular. We wondered how an African spoke English with such impeccable accent.

We subscribed to the programmes’ magazine, London Calling, which was sent to us free. There, you saw all the programmes, the times and the best frequencies available at the different times of the day. Shortwave reception was not always an easy thing. The music programmes were particularly popular with us. The all-time favourite was the weekly music chart show: Top Twenteeeee. “A Jolly Good Show”, presented by Dave Lee Travis (DLT was recently acquitted of sexual harassment charges) gave away a T-Shirt to any member of its worldwide audience whose request was played on the programme. It was a treasured item that you proudly wore in secondary school with your chest jutting out so your mates could see the BBC symbol on it. “The Sandi Jones Request Show” chose one listener as the pen pal of the week. Yours truly was one such pen pal in the early 80s. You were sent a postcard well ahead of your choice so you could listen to your name on BBC and await letters from friends around the world. This was our social network. There was also Voice of America with the Liberian lady, Yvonne Barclay, hosting the African music request programme. But it was BBC that was the thing for us.

And the times went by. Things changed. BBC branched into worldwide television. FM broadcasting came to Ghana. BBC now has an FM station in Accra (and other African capitals) and you don’t have to struggle with your shortwave dial to get the best BBC reception. You can listen to BBC on your computer or your smartphone any time anywhere in the world. And, importantly, BBC is no longer the only station of its kind you can listen to. But the Ghanaian fascination with the BBC has endured.

Enter Komla Dumor. Some people say he got the job because he was good and not because he was an African. I am not sure his being an African had nothing to do with it. The corporation, in the past few decades, has made an effort to reflect its global nature. It may have been looking for an African and was lucky to get one of the best, if not the best. It was important that Komla was an African African, not a person born of African parents living in the UK who didn’t grow up in Africa. And the fact that Komla did his best to “mimic” a British accent cannot be quite dismissed.

The BBC that Komla Dumor worked for is not the BBC of the 60s or 70s. I am not sure they would have put him on the World Service news, much less World Service television, if it had been the 70s. It was a time that you only heard newsreaders with a “perfect” Queen’s accent. Even regional British accents were not allowed. The BBC claims it has never made that a policy but who will believe that? Today, there are many different voices on the Service. Unfortunately, this has become one of the reasons some of us have stopped listening to the World Service. From the habit of several years, one became used to hearing a certain kind of British accent on BBC. I know that a corporation which proclaims itself as a global news generating outfit with a global audience should also reflect the world’s different English accents. But habits die hard and some of us have had a difficult time accepting the babble of voices that is now the World Service. After a lifetime of listening to the World Service news read by the likes of Peter Lewis, Pamela Creighton, Brian Empringham, Meryl O’Keefe or Michael Ashbee, we cannot now endure Alan Kasujja or Bola Mosuro murdering the Queen’s Speech. So we have simply stopped listening to the World Service. As far as his accent was concerned, Komla Dumor was, perhaps, the best of the “foreign” newsreaders on the Service but he did not speak like Prince Charles and failed to represent to me the BBC that I grew up with. I know it was not his fault but I couldn’t help myself. I stopped listening to him, too, after the initial excitement.

There is a second, and more serious, reason why the love affair with the World Service came to an end for some of us. The corporation cannot lay claim to that impartiality it has boasted of for so long. It may be the world’s largest broadcast organisation but it is just like any other broadcaster and a very mainstream one. You can hardly hear the BBC’s journalists expressing controversial and radical views. So when people said Komla Dumor asked probing questions, I wondered a bit about that. If he really asked probing questions, he would not be working for the BBC. He would be with an alternative non-mainstream media. That would not have made him popular.

Howard Jacobson may have poked so much fun at the BBC in his 2010 Booker winning humorous novel: The Finkler Question, having a character who once worked there describe the corporation as a “rat hole of a place” that made addicts of those who listened to it and reduced them to a state of “inane dependence”, but no African journalist is ever going to pass by an opportunity to work there.

In the past two years, our country has seen the deaths of three prominent citizens. Each was mourned nationally but in slightly different ways. President Mills and Prof. Awoonor were political figures. Awoonor was, in addition, one of our better known literary figures. The fact of Mills being a political figure (and one who won a close election) meant there were many people who didn’t like him. But, as is typical of Ghanaians, people threw away their political differences and genuinely mourned him. Death speaks a different language and Ghanaians understand that. The grief over Awoonor was slightly different. It was tainted by his political association with Rawlings. Some of the hatred some people feel for Rawlings was transferred to him and a few opponents saw his death as a just retribution. But the rest of Africa knew him only as the literary man from Ghana and mourned him accordingly. Both Mills and Awoonor were relatively old with Awoonor dying at 78, an age at which any man’s death will not be too shocking. Komla Dumor’s death was in a different category. He was a more popular kind of hero to all. He was young and you will search hard but will find nothing about him that will make you dislike him. And this was reflected in the outpouring of grief.

For each of these three, the manner of death also shaped the kind of grief that the nation expressed. Even though Mills may not have died if the medical attention around him had been of a different kind, Ghanaians knew he was a very sick man. Awoonor was old enough to die (to put it callously) but to be caught in a cross fire in someone else’s fight far away from your home country is not the way many Ghanaians would want a person to die. But Komla Dumor died suddenly at the very prime of his life.

It is the tragedy of his dying at such a young age when his career curve was still going up that shocked all of us. We don’t expect anybody to die at 41. We expected Komla to live on, get even better at his craft, become a senior correspondent and head some division of the BBC – all to the glory of Ghana. But death, as usual, was reading from a different script. And we didn’t like that at all.

There was also a generational difference expressed. Some younger commentators have pointed out that it is we the old ones who are attached to BBC from habit and tradition. But Komla’s death was mourned more by the younger generation than by the old. It is the young who knew him from JoyFm and he was more of a role model to the youth, who would want to be like him, than he was to the old whose life is already spent. Moreover, it is the youth who are more at home with the tech means of expressing grief - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Whatsapp, etc.

It is not often that a Ghanaian gets such a position at BBC. And, like Mark Antony, we ask ourselves: Here was a Dumor, when comes such another? And our national pride is shaken when we know there will not come such another. So our tears for Komla were also tears for ourselves as a nation desperately in search of heroes. This is especially so since our political leaders have so hopelessly let us all down. Who else is there now on the international scene we can all be proud of as representing the very best of Ghanaianness?

Some have sought to draw lessons from his death. They have pointed out that if he had been a bit more particular about his health, he would still be alive today and this should be a lesson for the rest of us. Then there are those who have reminded us that we are overplaying the whole thing. Was he not just a news reader who got to where he is as a private individual? Is he really the best journalist our country ever produced only because he read the news on BBC? Would he have been mourned this much if he had not had the lucky break of moving from BBC audio to BBC World Service TV? Are we really not overdoing it when we asked for a state burial for him and to name streets and scholarship awards after him only stopping short of asking the Pope to canonize him?

The only real down side of the grieving process, however, came from those who sought to play politics over his death. Why was not Rawlings among those who first expressed sorrow over his death? Why did Rawlings and his wife give the kind of tribute they gave at his funeral when they, themselves, are no great exemplars of what they were preaching? And what if Komla Dumor had been called Kwabena Dwomoh? At least, we could have spared his memory all these. He was not known to have supported any of our political parties. And, going by his name and the ones he had given his children, he may have been a proud Ewe man married to … a proud Fanti woman. What about that?

Kofi Amenyo (