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Opinions of Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Let’s Ban Second-Hand Scholarship

Along With Second-Hand Underpants, Let’s Ban Second-Hand Scholarship

Sonnet, my first daughter, belongs to a book club, where they exchange books and discuss stories they have read. They also meet for fun activities occasionally. Her grandmother does. My wife has been a member of a club of eleven women for some twenty years. She recently joined the local branch of the Toastmasters. Me? Who Born Dog? I had no idea what book clubs did until recently. They are not popular where I was born. There was not quite a living room to sit and read. There was only one library in the city I lived 37 years ago. Today, the small library that could not sit 30 people remains the only one in the city, the capital of a region that boasts two universities and a polytechnic.

Sometimes, I imagine what I would be now if I was Sonnet. I would have authored several best-selling books as Malcolm Gladwell has done, written for a president as Jon Favreau is doing, edited a very big newspaper as Piers Morgan did when he was only 28 or even dream of becoming the prime minister of a very rich country, like David Cameron. I could be a millionaire and be giving to charity, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is doing. Or I could be sitting and reading everything, everywhere–on the bus, at the coffee shop, during breaks at the office, on parks, and on the go. I would try to finish a book before going to bed and wake up to start another one before going to work.

I never saw anybody around me reading anything. We had no bookshelves in my house. We didn’t have a piano. We were encouraged to read the Bible daily and memorise popular scriptures. Newspapers were not regular in our house. For some reason, they were deemed not too helpful for liturgy and spiritual business. Even after completing secondary school, we would not rush to listen to the news on TV or sit to watch news analysis and current affairs programmes. Reading was a chore and nobody cared if you didn’t read any book. You didn’t get information from anywhere apart from what seeped from the mouth of the teacher in the classroom. Remember that they had grown up in similar circumstances, or perhaps worse. The filter leaves an imprint on the filtered.

At sixth form and even university, we sometimes read prescribed textbooks just like how we wore second-hand clothing. You joined the pieces of the plots of the books as the lecturer went through them and discussed the dramatic importance or the style of the apprenticeship novel. And when you were lucky to have a great teacher, you could afford not to read the book at all, because he would paint a picture with the written word and write a script through a painting. You could quote freely as if you read it from the text, because he would disembowel everything for your consumption. We played smart and didn’t quite do our readings properly. That is second-hand learning. Often you didn’t care if you didn’t come first; the second position did us good.

Often, that is how our foundations were formed. Our university libraries were stocked with books by people who bore names like Kyle Worthington, Ed Pickering and Gary Keeble. You didn’t find any by your own professors. All the theories you dealt with were postulated by folks who live in a dreamland. So your dream after graduation was to travel to where the theories were cooked before they were brought to you. It would be nice to meet and strike hands with Umberto Eco. Your professors were happy to quote them intelligently. You find brilliant African adaptations of great western philosophies and plots of popular stories. Yet, the local authors stamp their distinguished authorship on them, as if the gods are not really to blame. Sophocles is not to blame either.

That is how second-hand scholarship works. It is not different from the second-hand underpants we are banning from the Ghanaian market. On CBC Radio’s current affairs morning programme appropriately named The Current, the PR officer of the Ghana Food and Drugs Board and Joy FM news editor Ato Dadzie, dignified ace hostess Anna Maria Tremonte’s questions with some good reasons regarding the ban. The two attempted, and indeed, appeared to have succeeded in speaking the consensus of the Ghanaian populace. They cited national pride as one of the reasons why it is improper to wear another person’s underpants. The FDB PR man explained that “it is purely on health grounds”, as they could be the cause of infections and ailments. Good job, sirs.

National Pride! It will not be in the interest of Heaven for me or any Ghanaian to confess that he ever wore second-hand underpants. However, Heaven would permit us to say whether we used and still use the clothes. I used it: shirts, trousers, shoes, ties, belts, and caps. When you saw a particularly beautiful shirt (first selection) that was originally designed for women, there were tailors who would perform a surgical fashion operation to convert a transvestite into a gender of your choice. So, we in Ghana had a shemale and hefemale fashion culture before science made it possible in America and Europe. When the conversion was not well done, it showed in an unfortunate elongation of the collar of the shirt. In the case of a pair of trousers, it negotiated the space the genitals rested. The women also paid a price for having their buttocks look like the squinted eye of an owl. Often it showed in their walking. The same applies to right-handed vehicle conversion.

As I write, I have in my wardrobe a very nice second-hand tie I bought for my graduation in Legon. It’s been 13 years now. My wife has bought me two dozens more in two years, but none of them comes close to that one. I had sworn never to wear a used item again in my life. I had suffered enough in Africa, always dressed in dead robes. Over here, I can afford any designer shirt or shoes. I can even afford the same car my mayor drives. After all, professors ride bicycles to school, where they invest time in research. Our professors drive better cars but guinea worm infection is on the rise. That is what second-hand scholarship does to a nation. They have no first hand knowledge of anything.

So, I do not find it surprising that I have not been able to complete a book I dreamed of writing when I was in Africa. When you travel with second-hand clothes, you are never able to punch-past your second-hand intellectual holds and venture into promising territories of scholarship. I realise it takes me too long to read a little book. At the rate Sonnet is going, she would have read 500 books when she attains my age. I am often ashamed when I see 70 year olds in wheelchairs consuming thick pages of novels, when all I do on the public bus is look at people with an adult eye and yawn away. In his latest book, Decision Points, George Bush tells how he found time to race-read books with a colleague. He may have made time for wars, but he also found time for scholarship. As we ban second-hand undergarments, we should also ban second-hand scholarship. By the way, whoever is writing ex-President Kufour’s memoirs has been very quick with it.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist who writes stress-busters and opinion columns. He lives in Ottawa, Canada