Thursday, June 09, 2005

Harvard Graduations and Okyeame

Harvard Graduations and Okyeame

So I attended The Girlfriend's graduation at Harvard today capping the end of 6 years for a PhD in the History of Science department (having read her work, I will write separately about it and dispassionately but enthusiastically about her achievement). I took lots of photos but being a 35mm film and scanner Luddite, they'll take a while to get posted to Flickr, for now you can see the dissertation photoset.

[Update] Graduation Photo Album.

Her cousin was also graduating from the college so there was a lot of Africans-at-Harvard pride and the family's achievement is undoubtedly wonderful. I'm proud to be joining them. The wider American part of her family weren't able to make it but those from the other side of the Atlantic celebrated double for them.

It was also 10 years to the day since I had myself graduated from Harvard so there was a little nostalgia as I walked around the yard and took in the familiar sights. A little bittersweet since I'd since seen many of these things take place ever since and back then it was all so exciting. I've come a long way. The bitter is also that I was wondering what was happening at work as the great cull was about to begin and some of the other iconoclastic people I work with would be targeted by sharp-elbowed bureaucratic discretion and what the lay of the land would be in coming months. I met one of my old friends who was back for our 10 year reunion, which I hadn't thought about but which I might now attend. Given that I am still living 10 minutes from my freshman dorm, I really don't have any excuse. It was great to reminisce about the vicissitudes of life and all that jazz... One of the speeches at the graduation, by Peter Ellison, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was about being humble but also about being bold as opposed to being arrogant and/or clawed with self-doubt the last 2 of which I have fallen prey to at times. I'm going to take that admonition to heart, be humble in your achievements and respect for others but also be bold, be fearless.

It did make me think however of this email that I wrote to Okyeame right after I took leave of the ceremony and got a little time away from the family. I recently happened upon it in my archives. Okyeame being the first mailing list for Ghanaians started by my good friends at MIT, Mawuli Tse and others. Okyeame is still going strong but these days web forums like Ghana Think are more easily accessible.

If you read it, you'll get a sense of where my head was during those days, you'll see that journalistic impulse at work and also the withering and searching tone to my writing - I was even more jaundiced if you can believe that. While other people were simply celebrating, Koranteng was seeking out some toli. The framework was the same, I'd start out on a seeming small point, in this case VAT and then explore it in my long, winding way (but I was briefer then)... Anyway I hope this doesn't prove to be an exercise in nostalgia or navel-gazing. And The Girlfriend is a historian so maybe if she ever does a history of the effects of exile on diasporic communities this could be a minor footnote. I just cleaned up the formatting a little.

On VAT, Graduation And Ghanaian Politics

Date: Fri, 9 Jun 1995 03:06:52 -0400 (EOT)
From: Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah
To: Okyeame@MIT
Subject: On VAT, graduation and Ghanaian politics

On Thu, 8 Jun 1995 Kwaku wrote apropos VAT:
The lesson has to do with what happens when a government fails to listen to its own people. It also shows clearly the dangers of a leader who surrounds himself with yes-men. Further, it shows clearly that the government is out of touch with the economy of Ghana.

Several of us on this net were quick enough to point out the problems of VAT, in spite of our absence from Ghana. How then could the government not have anticipated that VAT was inimical to the interests of Ghana?
To expand on this, one should note the very clear failures of our so-called parliamentary democracy in this whole fiasco.
  1. The government introduced a VAT bill in Parliament - without really providing any motivation for it (that would come later)
  2. Opposition points out obvious flaws in the scheme and raises vigorous criticism. The political atmosphere of the country is such that the government does not want to even consider dialogue. The authoritarian instincts of "those who know best" are aroused.
  3. The parliament debates the bill and introduces 42 amendments that any reasonable person can clearly see will worsen further the actual implementation of the, already IMO ill-justified and ill-conceived, scheme.
At this stage in a functioning democracy, and with a competent government, alarm bells should be ringing. I submit that we have neither in Ghana. Given the level of opposition, a competent government might pause to reconsider its proposal. Also I believe that a competent government would withdraw its proposal if even its rubber-stamp parliament so modifies its proposal as to make it unworkable. Anyway we have been arguing for over a year about VAT and others have similarly pointed out the numerous ironies and flaws in the whole matter and at greater length...

At my graduation today (oh did I mention I was graduating :), I was listening to Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, deliver a beautiful speech about amongst other things
  • the importance of human rights
  • the responsibility of politicians to those they serve and
  • cautioning about those who let their image and personal ambition rule all else...
In my champagne-afflicted haze, my jumbled thoughts turned to Ghana. In my mind I was imagining Jerry Rawlings giving a speech at a Harvard Commencement and obviously I burst out in kotokious laughter upsetting the pomp and ceremony of the occasion (visions of a Head of State incoherent, swearing and ignoring protocol). I stopped myself though, after all there are few people in this world let alone presidents who have the intellect or the moral authority of a Vaclav Havel or a Nelson Mandela. Also, not everybody is a good speaker and one need not be a writer to be a good politician. Maybe I was becoming a Harvard snob. Havel however made a very good point that politicians often set the tone for the whole community. This rings truly in the context of Ghana where our first President had a penchant for self-aggrandizement and our current is intolerant and doesn't believe in democracy.

Then I reflected about the news I had heard earlier about VAT being suspended "with immediate effect" and the tragicomedy of the whole affair. I thought of the countless similar affairs that have occurred since the first and especially the second coming of this regime. When half-baked ideas or poorly thought out lunacies pass for government policy. Also I thought back to childhood memories of this bunch of idealists who used to sit in our house and argue about how corrupt Kutu and co. were, these uncles who would take us horse riding and talked about fast cars, flying and what needed to be done to this country. I contrasted the high-falutin talk these idealists would spout, even to impressionable children, with what we have seen.

The utter mediocrity of the jokers who are ruling us boggles the mind. Their idiosyncrasies, pettiness, moral failings, violence or personal corruption aside, they are a truly incompetent bunch. It is sad to say this and maybe other politicians are/will be no better. But since those who rule us set the tone in a country, their impact is felt in our family homes in Jamestown, Aburi or even Abutia-Teti and all over the country. I am always amazed Ghana still keeps ticking despite the hardships of our situation and how badly we are being managed. In a sense, I am glad the VAT affair has occurred because it perfectly illustrates the many facets of the ineptitude of this administration.

But let me stop venting, I have been fairly quiet on Okyeame for the past four years and perhaps I am exposing myself. Food for thought though is food anyway and what is Okyeame if not to vent... Let me return to champagne and debauchery.

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah
'95 til infinity; Outta Here
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