Saturday, 10 March 2012

Tell Me the Old Old Story

One of my favourite hymns is Tell Me the Old Old Story which was on a much-thumbed page in my school Church Hymnary in my school days. To this day I feel a bit of a shiver when I hear its dying strains because it is one of a number of items in my personal auditory archive that recall my school time and the age of innocence. On Independence Day last Tuesday, Mr. Cameron Duodu, one of my mentors, wrote an article on his blog at, and for some reason I found myself humming the tune of the song Tell Me the Old Old Story after I read the piece.

The article is about what independence meant to the writer but in those two thousand words he managed to convey a sense of where this country was at its political birth and the ambitions and aspirations it thrust on its citizens and the reciprocal responsibility with which those citizens responded. The world in which Mr. Duodu, educated formally up to the Middle School Certificate, could study on his own to become one of the most educated men I have ever met, has almost disappeared. The institutions, characters and personal attitudes that made this possible are probably extinct. That is a tragedy.

This is what Cameron recalls of that time in his life: “I only possessed a Middle Form Four (Standard Seven) certificate from school. But I wanted to advance myself, and through an organisation called “The People's Educational Association” (PEA) I began to attend lectures on history and English Language. Through these lectures, I met a man called Mr E C E Asiamah, who came down to Asiakwa from Abuakwa State College, Kyebi, to lecture us once a week. He was sent to us by the University of Ghana's Extra-Mural Studies Department. He loved the English language, and he communicated that love to us. So we listened to him with rapt attention and devoted time to the essays he asked us to write. He had studied at the University of Ghana, Legon, and it was he who made me see, for the first time, the importance of reading a lot and absorbing a lot through reading. I loved the man and wanted to go to the University in order to be as knowledgeable as he was”.

With Mr. Asiamah’s encouragement and personal tuition Cameron Duodu passed his O’ Level in fifteen months but note that he adopted Mr. Asiamah as his role model for his knowledge and not his money. Today, the idea of a young man wanted to be as knowledgeable as anyone would be edited out as improbable if you included it in a novel. Today’s role model for young men don’t do knowledge; instead they do money, and it doesn’t matter how it is acquired; they do big flashy cars and mega big houses. This is the current narrative. Today’s role models don’t do discipline instead they push everyone aside in the effort to to bend the world to their will. That is the current template of personal success and it is this attitude that even young recruits exhibit at work because the myriad of motivational speakers tell them that they have to be assertive at everyone’s expense.

Contrast this with what pertained at work when Mr. Duodu joined the Ghana Broadcasting System, which was one of the most reputable broadcasting companies in the outpost of the crumbling British Empire. In his own on words: “I found that rigid standards existed at the GBS. When I got my appointment letter, I had to undergo a medical examination. They operated a voucher system for claiming allowances which you could never cheat. To ensure absolute subordination, ”queries” against you could be written by those above you, that were placed in your “personal file” and which would be taken into account if you were being considered for promotion. If you got a “case” outside, say in a court, a copy of the document concerned would be placed in your personal file”.

This world too has disappeared and in its place we have attitudes shaped by a complete misreading of democracy and over-enforced creed of personal advancement at the expense of communal well-being. Today, we are taught, especially by some of the new-fangled churches that communities do not matter and it is each one for himself and herself. The national ethos appears to revolve around the unspoken mantra: do as I do not as I say.

 It is this national schizoid tendency that is at the heart of our national disorientation and not anything to do primarily with the media per se. Let me explain. In this country we are all preachers of the good word but do not necessarily do the good deed. We characterise ourselves as God-fearing, hospitable, peaceful and honest people but that is not the picture of ourselves on the ground. I always cite examples from our traffic and driving behaviour because that is when you see us in our true colours. You can also see us for who and what we truly are when we are trying to get the best in a business deal. You might argue that this is the same all over the world, and I would agree with you completely, but in which case the exceptional Ghanaian attitudes that we claim are window dressing.

Of late, we have all expressed concern about the rise in the use of abusive and intemperate language especially in political discussions on radio, and many people see this as a problem of the media which can be cured when we sanction the media in some form or another. However, the media, as is often said, reflects society and not the other way round. Indeed, I would argue that our politics also reflect our values and therefore what we are seeing in our political media is the true reflection of who and what we are.

This is logical in the twisted consciousness of our time. We all want the media to discuss development issues and to trumpet our triumphs and positive attributes. And don’t get me wrong, there are many positives in this nation that need to be trumpeted, but the media cannot talk about them if that is not what our national priority is about. We all think that we are on the side of the angels while the other side, no matter how defined, is the devil, so when we demand accountability it means not us but the other side. This cannot be right.

What is even worse is that there appears to be no more Mr. Asiamahs to guide and inspire young people to advance themselves and their society and community. As for public institutions they serve the interests of those who work in them and not the public. If you doubt it, try this simple test: at every public institution for whom is the car park reserved? Of course, it is reserved for the top brass who work there and the Joe Public has to find some place three hundred meters away under a tree to park. Yes, the workers must have their parking lot but they must CREATE the space for the public for whom they are employed in the first place. What is worse, taxis are not allowed. Well, well!

We should have used our Independence anniversary to tell some old old stories because we have a lot to learn from the early years of independence. Ironically, when fewer people were educated and more people were technically poorer than now; when houses were small and cars very small and few; things seemed to work because leadership at all levels accepted its responsibilities. That is the key. Let those who can, tell us the old stories over and over again.

Doing the Right Things in the Wrong Way

Harry Houdini, the great illusionist and contortionist wrote a book called The Right Way to do Wrong, in which he exposed the many ways by which criminals took advantage of their victims. If that most famous magician were to visit Ghana today he would have to write a new book entitled Doing the Right Things the Wrong Way in celebration of our famous ability to turn our blessings into curses. Ghana sometimes looks like a person who has who has all the winning lotto numbers but comes away empty handed because of wrong permutations.

Look at our media scene: when I returned to Ghana after living abroad for several years I could not get enough of our media. I grew up during the lean media years when we had one television channel, two radio stations and about four newspapers and the whole lot belonged to the government which controlled them with excessive jealousy. The contrast between then and now could not be starker. Instead of a handful of media outlets the country is now littered with perhaps more than 20 daily, weekly and bi-weekly newspapers being published regularly, more than 100 FM radio stations and a score of television stations and the number is set to rise dramatically when the analogue platforms gives way to the new digital system.

Indeed, my returnee feeling was that to wake up and be able to switch channels and listen to different voices and viewpoints was like a dream from which you just didn’t want to wake up. I don’t think it is just my imagination, but I remember good arguments on radio and TV, especially on morning shows of various descriptions. Television was especially lively and provided different insights; especially the format of GTV’s Breakfast Show on Saturday was brilliant both in creative setting and content. Newspapers were more propaganda oriented and partisan but less bombastic.

But the problem with the media today is not the partisanship and propaganda. Regrettable as that may be it is to be expected in a multiparty plural system in which to win is everything but to lose is zero. Today, what we see in Ghana is a parody of a plural media. The media scene has all the noise of a marketplace without any quality offering to justify the sacrifice of reading, listening and watching. To put it bluntly, our media has regressed over the past few years, and what is worse, it appears that those who run them are unaware or do not care that this is the case. 

A key feature of the media scene in the last decade is the accessibility to every Kofi and Amma who wants to express himself and herself to the rest of the world. Twenty years ago only professional broadcasters, journalists, public officials and such like had guaranteed access to the media. Today, anyone who has a mobile phone or can borrow one can participate in the big media jamboree. This should be a good thing, except it is not. Indeed, that is a classic example of Ghanaians turning positives into their woeful opposites.

Indeed, to understand the full impact of this mass access to the media, especially radio, one has to explain that it is not the rapid spread of telephony that has created the access but the massive use of local languages on radio in the country. Ghanaian languages have been used on radio even before Independence but it was a deliberate policy of the Nkrumah government to upgrade local languages that saw six of them used regularly in the early 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, as part of the general deterioration of the nation which took place under the Akyeampong regime, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation was starved of new investments into Ghanaian languages and the External Service.

However, with liberalization came new ideas, and the revival of Akan use on radio is generally credited to the University of Ghana’s campus radio, Radio Universe, and Professor Kofi Agyekum of the Department of Linguistics at Legon. By the mid 2000s, Akan had been established as the main radio language in the country while the use of other languages had increasing listenership.

This should be a good thing except that once again, a good thing is being used in a wrong way. In the last few years, everyone and every group that can voice displeasure at the violence of language in political “discussions” has had their say. The President, Vice President, Members of Parliament, Chiefs, the Clergy of all persuasions, and us ordinary folks, have all said very loudly that we are not happy with the way and manner in which political “discussions” are carried on in the media especially radio.

Two things have to be addressed. The discerning reader would not have failed to notice that the word discussion in the previous paragraph is in commas because what passes for discussions, say on morning radio, is nothing of the sort. The studio participants or discussants are mostly propagandists from the NDC and NPP who vehemently espouse and defend prepared positions at the cost of their lives. They provide the setting for everything else that happens in the course of those broadcasts as their followers then rush in like soldier ants to defend their respective battlements. No one changes his or her mind ever in these encounters!

This is all normal fodder for democracy. What is not normal for either democracy is the second point, which is the open glamorisation of personal insults. In a spirited democracy, insults are to be expected but they are often crafted creatively to address positions adopted or stated by the opponent instead of the opponent as a person. However, when the President is described in highly unflattering personal terms as every President of Ghana has been subjected to, that cannot be part of democracy.

Sadly, many people are beginning to question the wisdom of our opting for democracy, and most of them do so believing that the insults on radio are a necessary development of democracy. Some, including many well-placed people in our society think that this insult thing is a problem of the media. It is not. It is a reflection of the general indiscipline that is gradually engulfing all of us. There are no standards in anything anymore in this country. Everything is relative and down to the individual’s personal choice and this includes the option to obey any rules at all.

We all know the dangers inherent in loose talk on radio; there are too many examples from around the world, including Rwanda in Africa, to remind us that we have a responsibility not to overstep the mark. However, some people believe that we are hell-bent on pressing the self-destruct button. I am inclined to a more optimistic view. We are going through a phase and it will pass, but there are so many flashpoints along the way that we may self-destruct before we get to the better destination.

Harry Houdini used to make large objects disappear in front of live audiences so if he was here I would ask him which pack he would cause to evaporate – politicians or the media. Let us explore the solutions together next week in this column. In the meantime, if you have any ideas send them to the email or blog address below.