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Opinions of Monday, 24 November 2008

Columnist: Nsarkoh, Yaw

The chains fell off...Yes We Can

I am a first a human being. I am also a man. And I am black. So I am a black man - that is part of my identity. Until I lived in South Africa and became more aware of race as a major descriptor and feature of life, my racial identity was there but I was not necessarily aware how much it could define some people.

In South Africa, I would often be seen talking to people about the need for us to set standards high and aim high and achieve great things; my view has always been that superior achievement breeds respect. Often citing the experience of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and how Singapore came from being a backwater territory to International prominence and respectability, I encourage people to drive for excellence.

On many radio stations, in any forum that would have me while I was back in Ghana (for 18 months), I could be heard saying this: we are as good as anyone else. We just have to do more to embrace excellence and be intolerant of mediocrity - be it in sanitation, in chaotic transportation systems that leave us spending so much time in traffic( burning away expensive fuel while standing still), in educational systems paralysed by years of anti-intellectualism, in Institutions of governance atrophied by years of deliberate and subversive neglect and in value systems disordered by poverty and materialism of the vilest kind (glorification of wealth even if acquired through theft or criminal conduct).

How can our society develop if one of the principal vectors of social mobility, education, no longer plays this role? My mother, just as an example, came from Bechem to Achimota school. My father was the son of a woman who sold kenkey leaves but he made it to Mfantsipim from a village school in Akrokerri. Both of them from the bottom of the economic pyramid were to study in Ivy League universities. Many of you can give similar examples about your parents and uncles and auties. Does this still happen? With the same frequency? And if it does not, why not? Are the poor and desperate therefore condemned to give birth to kids that will not escape the poverty cycle? Questions to ponder...

And worse, perhaps, are those of us a bit more fortunate right when we seem to think all those who are poor are merely lazy? Have we, unconsciously, accepted the notion that Ralph Ellison railed against, that such as these - the poor - are and will remain - THE INVISIBLE MEN? Shut away in townships, as they used to do in South Africa, far from us where the inaccessible ghettoes oozing with diseases, filth and putrid smells are the breeding grounds for the next generation and the incubators of crime? Can there be peace when two worlds exist in such close proximity, are so dependent on each other but are allowed to be so separate and unequal. Violent crime is one of the derived outcomes of this particular social algebra. Nietzsche, the strange philosopher was insensitive - as we would expect him to be - when he argued that slavery was an essential condition of a hugh culture and that the misery of those that suffered should be increased so a few Olympian geniuses will be left to create the great works of art. But what about us, scions of a generation so great?

To Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew was obssessed by the idea of CLEANLINESS - he made this his first major priority in nation building. It was his conviction that while SANITATION was engaging enough to be used as a mobilising vehicle, it was also easy for the population to assess government effectiveness on this if it was the mobilising idea.

But Lee, as he will later reveal, understood even more: to clean up a country on a sustainable basis required a fundamental re-organisation and upgrading of a way of life. They would have to improve underlying logistics in all aspects of their life - in town planning, in law enforcement, in general life, in rubbish and toilet disposal, in all ways...and the populace would have to be healthy and in such a state of mind that the need to do this would be appreciated. Thus it came to be - that as he would say, deriving from first principles, they have banished malaria....and in many ways, Singapore makes London and many other cities of the Western world look like a joke from the point of view of mere efficiency. Lee Kwan Yew said about government buildings that if there was a button, it had to work...period. This obsession with excellence has paid off. Theirs is not a perfect system - the challenges in the political space will remain for sometime and it will determine how sustainable this story is. Yes, there are more complex parts to the story as well - the fact that, a socialist himself, Lee played his cards well during the Cold War and got the most from both sides - his understanding of how a world class harbour could help; the development of Singapore as a major centre for Financial markets, uniquely positioned by their time zone so they could work when Western Markets went to sleep, his ability through high salaries and efficient taxation to attract and retain A-grade talent to run the public service, etc... but I have focussed on the most basic element for a reason. We too can do it, no doubt!

How is it, that against the unmitigated aggression of the worlds major miltary power, Fidel Castro has built what is judged by many as being among the worlds best medical systems? How is it that Cuba has eradicated illiteracy? How did Cuba come to have the highest doctor per capita and teacher per capita ratio in the world? Such things have got to make us think. Without thinking we will go no where. But when we are done thinking, we must do and there, I have always maintained, leadership has the responsibility for developing a culture of execution. When you hear leaders in Cuba, for example and no matter what their other short-comings are, correlate protein in-take variances to crime. When I hear Lee Kwan Yew discuss how the curriculum of nursery schools will be altered: because the model of development now requires more than hard work and conformance since the world is no longer at steady state due to rapid technological development, and insisting that there must be more focus on creativity and risk taking...I know that leadership does matter. And that, we as Ghanaians must be encouraged to explore and challenge orthodoxy more - there is no one right way in development economics! But I do wonder after listening to a formen MP in Ghana, a week ago bragging (on radio!) that one of his major achievements was the construction of a KVIP toilet "where people are now excreting freely", whether we are aiming high enough?!

Yesterday, sitting at my barbers shop, the brothers got talking. In 2008, Usain Bolt stunned the world breaking a world record even with a celebration before he reached the finish line. Lewis Hamilton won that race in a most gripping manner and Obama has done what he has done. There was excitement even if perhaps at the level of superstition. Is this the time of the brothers - the Jamaicans and Africans kept asking? I chimed in: it has always been our time! When Jesse Owens caused Hitler to leave the stadium because he - Jesse Owens that is - had reversed Aryan supremacy orthdoxy by being so successful at the Olympics; when Muhammad Ali so dominated sport with his sporting ability and rhetorical prowess, they were both showing this. Konotey Ahulu, Wole Soyinka, Adu Boahen, Achebe, Mazrui, Aggrey and many, many of our scholars - superscholars - have shown the way. Mandela, Kofi Annan, Martin King and hopefully now Obama are good examples. And everyday that we each go to our work place and do what we know is our very, very best we set the needed example.

The black (wo)man is no better and no worse than anyone else around him. So we must get on with it, believe in ourselves and be willing to persevere. Mediocrity should not be tolerated and if we are to do it, then let us say: anything worth doing should be done in a world class manner! Perhaps the brothers at the barbers were superstitious, perhaps they romanticise history a bit, perhaps...

But as a marketer, a builder of brands for a living, let us say I understand how an idea can be seized for mobilisation. In YES WE CAN... I see one such idea... much bigger than Obama who popularised it in slogan. For Africans and peoples of African descent all over the world, from the warrior chief Mahmadou Lamine to the athlete Usain Bolt; from Jesse Owens to Cheick Anta Diop; from Konotey Ahulu through Cameron Duodu to Ibn Khaldun; from Toussaint Oliverture to Yaa Asantewa and Queen Amina and many more...perhaps this indeed is our time.

If it is, then let us invoke the deeds of the many who in difficult, very difficult circumstances achieved the hitherto unthinkable, shall we say: just when we were about to give up, to surrender to despair and hopelessness; hope returned! The dungeons shook and our chains fell off, our hearts were free and we reached out to be the best we can. God gave the earlier generation, the sign of the rainbow, perhaps in our time this is the sign...we can if we think we can!

"Hate the sin, never the sinner.."

Yaw Nsarkoh

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