Anis Haffar : Mensah Sarbah and the vision of education in Ghana

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Anis Haffar : Mensah Sarbah and the vision of education in Ghana

“Every person or nation must work out his or its own salvation. And it is because I am of opinion that suitable education and training will give a great impetus to our progress that I have endeavoured to do what I can.” With that posture John Mensah Sarbah (1864 – 1910) carved a visionary compass on the Gold Coast educational horizon.

The mindset of pioneers – driven by such attitudes, such apt declarations of spiritual awareness – awakened their latent energies, making them conscious of the qualitative nudges that distinguished activity from passivity, innovation from deprivation, and excellence from decadence. Great people are known and appreciated for the seeds they plant in wider spheres; they propel mankind to higher standards of thinking and living.

Sarbah called the battle for education a prime social demand, a leading civil rights issue, and urged the nation to take up the fight, to make education transform the life chances of the nation’s youth. The courage to do the right thing for posterity inspired him to battle for primary and secondary education for the Gold Coast.

Featured in the “Gold Coast Men of Affairs” – as a statesman, an educator, and a patriot of the best kind, as well as a firm believer in the possibilities of his race – Sarbah was disappointed that “somehow or other, those who have received the best education show no enthusiasm [for] the reputation of their country”.

A good many officials and bureaucrats tend to lull in comfort zones, away from creativity and innovation, hence the towering, ceremonial speeches that adorn passivity. Old habits die hard, and new ways of thinking and acting do not come easy. But it shouldn’t be difficult for policy-makers to see the reasons for new ideas or practices; and help eradicate the earlier no-longer functional habits.

Poverty is not an attribute of a country, but a condition of a people. Ghana is not a poor country! And poverty should never be suggested to the youth. The developed grey matter is worth as much as any natural resource endowment.

It’s impossible to find a nation that has achieved greatness without its human resource capacity optimised. And 21st century Ghana will not be an exception. Modernity demands that proper education and efficient training – matching the youth with up-to-date skills – begin but do not end in classrooms and lecture halls; they continue through work and service, through bona fide hands-on applications.

The facts we learn have useful meaning only when they are pruned in the context of applications. Academics provide the entry points only; applications and productivity are the movers and shakers that thrive at the workplace, and drive the economy and elevate living standards. Thinking and action are more closely allied today than ever in eradicating poverty.

According to F.L. Bartels, Sarbah considered the imperative of “self-help with self-reliance” as “an indispensable two-fold objective to be pursued in the cause of nation-building”. In his “Journey out of the African Maze”, Bartels discerned Sarbah’s “sense of pain at the thought that his people, who had at one time dealt with the English men and women as equal partners, were now taking instructions from them”.

In his autobiography, Kwame Nkrumah cited the efforts of Mensah Sarbah and J.E. Casely-Hayford [both contemporaries at Mfantsipim] in leading the nationalist movement – the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society (1897). Nkrumah recalled the courage and foresight of the two to forge “an unforgettable bastion for the defence of our God-given land and thus preserved our inherent right to freedom”.

There are tendencies, these days, to contrast the lack of persistent economic progress in Ghana with the bold achievements in South Korea, Malaysia, and others. It is no secret that the emerged nations sprang out of the shadows through a persistent work ethic, and continue to be so driven. To them, education is not some dormant indolent sedimentary affair; it is a full-day’s effort that persisted through a lifetime of dedication to work.

Kim Woo-Choong, the Korean founder of Daewoo, wrote that the most difficult thing in the world for him to do was to be idle, so he liked young people who not only got something going, but immersed themselves totally into what they had begun. He advised, “It is a big world out there waiting for you, and there is lots to be done. You have to find places that people have never been before, and you have to do things that people have not done before. History has been made by people who have been willing to do those things.”

That observation brought to mind a Robert Frost poem (The Road Not Taken) I used to introduce a Leadership Seminar: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

The greatness in our own forebears – Mensah Sarbah, Casely-Hayford, Kwegyir Aggrey, Kwame Nkrumah, and others – accrued from insights that helped to define education for Africa. In his day, Sarbah, relating to the Fanti Confederation of 1867, went as far as to compare the Gold Coast with none other than Japan; he remarked in 1902:

“Fanti patriots and the Japanese Emperor with his statesmen were both striving to raise up their respective countries by the proper education and efficient training of their people. The same laudable object was before them both. The African’s attempt was ruthlessly crushed and his plans frustrated. Japan [has] succeeded, and her very success ought to be an inspiration as well as an incentive to the people of Gold Coast Territories to attempt again, keep on striving until they win in the Twentieth Century that which was sought for thirty-five years ago.”

Sarbah was way ahead of his time and furnished a foretaste of Winston Churchill’s salient observation (in the aftermath of World War ll) that “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”

Curricula developed umpteen years ago are so incongruous with the demands of today that the future can be lost in the rusty haze; in other words, the current formal education unwittingly devalues the minds of our students for the world of the past where no one lives, rather than for possible worlds of the future where the younger generation is expected to live. The challenge is to organize youngsters to survive and thrive in a world different from one ever known or even ever imagined before.

Written by Anis Haffar

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  • Daniel Asante

    What a wonderful visionary.