Pushing us to examine issues of leadership, Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura identifies a model leader for the modern period. Bangura is a professor of International Relations and a Researcher-In-Residence at the Center for Global Peace in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC.
What Afrika needs right now are more Aggreys!!!
'Only the best is good enough for Africa'
"My people of Africa, we were created in the image of God, but men have made us think that we are chickens, and we still think we are, but we are eagles. Stretch forth your wings and fly! Don't be content with the food of Chickens" - Dr J E Kwegyir Aggrey. This tribute for Black History Month was written by Prof Felix I. D. Konotey-Ahulu, the Dr Kwegyir Aggrey Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
"I am proud of my colour, whoever is not proud of his colour is not fit to live." That was Dr James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (or "Aggrey of Africa" but he was an early 20th century phenomenon.
I first heard of his name from my father many decades ago. Aggrey was born a mere 15 miles away from Cape Coast, at Anomabu in Ghana, on 18 October 1875 (exactly 129 years ago this month). His father was Prince Kodwo Kwegyir, chief linguist in the court of King Amonu V of Anomabu, and his mother, Abena Andua, was a princess of Ajumako.
At 22, Aggrey left for the USA to pursue further studies. Racial prejudice, known then as the "Colour Bar", was at its worst, and he went to the "Negro" Colleges. The Americans were surprised at his knowledge of English. A Mr H.E.C. Bryant was known to remark: "He is dark as dark, but very few in America can use English as he can."
Aggrey took his Masters in 1912, and was soon awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by the Hood Theological Seminary. His sermons amazed white and black Americans alike. He was happily married to Rosebud Douglas, and African-American, with whom he had two girls and two boys, the last born, called Orison Rudolph Guggisberg Aggrey, became a diplomat in the US Foreign Service. One American lady, Miss Caroline Phelps-Stokes, in her Will dated 1909, bequeathed $1m (a huge sum in those days) to trustees to be used mainly on "the education of Negroes, both in Africa and the United States, North American Indians and needy and deserving white students". Commissioners were appointed to do the ground work, and Aggrey was included among the all-white members. This enabled him to return to tour Africa twice in four years.
Wherever he went, he was in demand to speak, advise, or preach. He found the "Colour Bar" as vicious on his continent as in the USA, but he was remarkably equipped to deal with it. In Belgian Congo, the governor left him out when he invited members of the Commission to dinner! In Angola, when Aggrey saw the treatment of the Portuguese masters to labourers in the forced labour gang, he wept.
In South Africa alone, Aggrey addressed audiences 120 times. On one occasion when the hall was packed in Cape Town and Aggrey arrived, the white gate-keeper refused to let him in. Calmly, and in a dignified voice, Aggrey said: "But it is me they are all gathered to hear." Still the gate-keeper was recalcitrant, while others filed past him into the hall, until the white chairman of the meeting, becoming anxious, rushed out to look for Aggrey. He discovered that he was being obstructed. Aggrey was given a standing ovation. But in Pretoria, when he was trying to board a train to lecture, he was pushed out. Even so he was offered two professorships on the spot; one at Fort Hare, and the other at South Africa College. People listened to him with amazement.
Before the second Phelps-Stokes Commission tour of Africa, Aggrey lectured both in USA and Canada. His extempore lectures were followed by a series of questions, and once a Dutch South African minister shed tears of shame at the horrors of the race problem. It was during a lecture in Canada that Aggrey made one of his great statements: "Only the best is good enough for Africa."
In January 1924, Aggrey sailed from New York for England to joined the Second Phelps-Stokes Commission to go to the places in Africa where they had not visited before - Abyssinia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, Nyasaland, Rhodesia, South Africa again, and the Gold Coast. After hearing him lecture on the second visit to South Africa, a white man exclaimed: "Damn his colour, the man is a saint."
Aggrey run out to be a great educationist, just as he had wished when he was young . By an amazing stroke of fortune, he met two great white men with whom he co-founded Achimota College in Accra, the Rev A.G.Fraser and Sir Gordon Guggisberg, the colonial governor.
Rev Fraser wanted the best for Africa, while Guggisberg, rare among colonial governors, recognised the potential of the black man, and set about building Takoradi Harbour, Korle Bu Hospital, and Achimota College (now School). Rev Fraser was principal and Kwegyir Aggrey assistant vice-principal. Apparently, the Colonial Office in London objected to making a black man vice-principal in a college which was originally called Prince of Wales College.
It was Aggrey who persuaded Governor Guggisberg that the college should be co-educational. Aggrey said: "The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family."
He stressed that education should encourage "original thinking, research [and also] help to add to human knowledge... We in West Africa have proved that we can get the classics, theology, philosophy. We are past masters in jurisprudence and dialectics. The question is, can we turn such knowledge into the service of the common weal?"
Aggrey always held that the essential part of education was training the mind, encouraging good character and being original. He believed in co-operation, which involved equality of opportunity. "It means that each side has something to contribute - something more than brawn on one side, brain on the other -to the wellbeing of both." Hence his famous piano keys illustration on the badge of Achimota School. "You can play a tune of sorts on the black keys only, and you can play a tune of sorts on the white keys only, but for perfect harmony you must use both the black and the white keys," Aggrey said.
The co-operation he was calling for between whites and black was not that between an ass and its rider. I always like to think of his piano keys illustration as depicting what he (black key) and Fraser and Guggisberg (white keys) managed to achieve in bringing Achimota School about.
Aggrey's humiliy too is worth mentioning, as when he took his fellow Fante, Rev Anaman, by surprise, by polishing Anaman's shoes when spent the weekend with him.
Aggrey's ambition for his continent - which he described as enigmatic, its shape on the map posing a question mark - is demonstrated in the following story he narrated:
"A certain man went through a forest seeking any bird he might find. He caught a young bird, brought it home, put it among his fowls and ducks and turkeys, and gave it chicken's food to eat. Five years later, a naturalist came to visit the man, and noticed the bird. He said to the owner: 'Look here, this is an eagle, not a chicken'. 'Yes, you may be right,' said the man, 'but I have trained it to be a chicken. It is no longer an eagle, it is a chicken, even though it is enormous.'
'No', said the visitor, 'it is still an eagle; it has the heart of an eagle, and I shall make it soar high to the heavens'. 'No,' said its owner, 'it is now a chicken, and it will never fly'.
"They agreed to test it. The naturalist picked up the bird, held it up, and said loudly: 'Eagle, thou art an eagle; thou dost belong to the sky and not down here. Stretch forth thy wings and fly', and with that he hurled the bird up. The eagle turned this way and that, and then looking down, saw the chickens eating, and came to join them.
"The owner said: 'I told you it is now a chicken'. 'No' said the man, 'this bird is an eagle. I shall come back to prove this to you. The exercise was repeated three times, with the same result. The bird always came back to feed with the chickens.
"The naturalist came back again, chose a hill, and held the bird aloft, pointing it to the rising sun, and shouted: 'Eagle, thou art an eagle; thou dost not belong down here. Thou dost belong to the sky; stretch forth thy wings and fly.' The eagle looked round, tembled as if new life was filling it, and suddenly it stretched out its wings, and with the screech of an eagle, it mounted higher, and higher, and never returned. It was really an eagle, though it had been kept and tamed like a chicken!
"My people of Africa," Aggrey continued, "we were created in the image of God, but men have made us think that we are chickens, and we still think we are, but we are eagles. Stretch forth your wings and fly! Don't be content with the food of chickens."
After Achimota School was opened in 1927, Aggrey went to the USA, lecturing and preaching, and completing a book in Columbia University. He fell ill on 30 July 1927 from pneumococcal meningitis in New York, and died very quickly, aged 52. Great lamentations was made on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tributes included that of one of his best friends, Dr Jesse Jones. The honorary pall-bearers who carried his coffin were all white citizens of Salisbury, USA - a real token of Aggrey's influence in the community in those days of "Colour Bar".
His ability to inspire Africans, especially Ghanians has never abated. There is an Aggrey House in Achimota, an Aggrey Memorial Chapel, and the country has Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg lectures. There is an Aggrey Annual Prize Examination at the University of Cape Coast, linked to the personal professorship graciously bestowed on me by the university. Surely, that white man in South Africa was right: "Damn his colour, the man is a saint". NA