Ideals that last

J. B. Danquah

Fifty years ago, on February 4, Dr JB Danquah died at Nsawam Medium Security Prisons.  He was a political prisoner who had been held without the benefit of a trial, a casualty of the sort of paranoia and corruption that often come with absolute power.

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The manner in which Danquah died is completely antithetical to the principles that guided the liberation movement, not to mention the very foundation of brotherhood upon which the notion of Pan-Africanism supposedly rests.  It is an indelible stain on the fabric of Ghana’s history.

Who was J.B. Danquah

Be that as it may, my fascination is with Dr JB Danquah’s life, not his death.  My curiosity has always been much more personal than political.  The man was a serious cultural and intellectual heavyweight: a poet, playwright, philosopher, theologian, anthropologist, statesman as well as devoted husband and parent.  Though Danquah is publicly revered for his writings and his political contributions, I knew of the man first—and for many years, only—as a father.  My mother’s father, my grandfather.

Growing up in America, I had my primary source of information about Ghana from what I heard and learned in my home.  I had a vague understanding of him as someone of note, but my mother—Josephine Boakye Danquah—rarely spoke of her father, her namesake.  When she did, I was only ever able to gather snippets of information—his birth date, a university he attended, a place to which he’d once travelled.  


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I knew Dr Danquah had died, but I did not know the circumstances surrounding his death.  I knew, too, that his death had wounded my mother deeply, perhaps even irreparably.  Every year on February 4, the anniversary of Dr Danquah’s death, mum would just sit in an almost vegetative state and stare out into space, a look of anguish in her eyes.  Very so often a tear would glide down her face, but mainly she just sat, trapped inside a memory or an emotion that seemed to have no use for tears or sound, movement or companionship.

Researching Danquah

When I was 12, following my parents’ breakup, I opted to use my mother’s surname instead of my father’s, which is “Brobby”.  I did so because I had stronger relationships and emotional ties with that side of my family.    That same year, upon introducing myself using the name Danquah, a substitute teacher at my school, a man who’d once travelled to Ghana and was familiar with its history, asked if I was related to Dr JB Danquah.  When I told him “yes”, the teacher asked a dozen questions about my grandfather, each one betraying a precious pearl of information about this man who’d died two years before my birth, this man about whom I knew so little.  

It was then that I started researching Dr Danquah, reading whatever I could about him and his accomplishments.  In this way, my knowledge and understanding of Dr Danquah had always been more academic than sentimental.  I became greatly impressed with his commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, to the life of the mind.  He was a prolific writer who, not unlike so many other great men of history, proved that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword. 

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The writer 

A lawyer by trade, Dr Danquah was also an immensely gifted poet and playwright of the Shakespearean order.  His five-act play, “The Third Wife,” is written entirely in blank verse.  Though he was a commanding public speaker and, by all accounts, a great conversationalist, Dr Danquah was also quite fond of epistolary communication, often writing lengthy letters to friends and relatives, as well as responses to articles in newspapers and magazines or public statements made by others.

In 1931, Dr Danquah established The Times of West Africa, which was the first daily newspaper in Ghana.  His scholarship in theology can be seen in his book “The Akan Doctrine of God:  A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion”.  Likewise, his scholarship in anthropology can be seen in his book, “Akan Laws and Customs”. 

A great many of Dr JB Danquah’s achievements are not widely recognised because they have fallen into the dark and treacherous divide of Ghana’s petty politics, a divide within which people are reduced to one-dimensional caricatures and stereotypes without the context of their specific times or the essential complexity of the human existence.  In such renderings there is always only a friend or a foe, a devil or an angel, a sinner or a saint; never is there an in-between, never are there shades of gray. 

Through the letters, speeches and other writings I found, I was able to piece together a picture of Dr Danquah, the public individual.  I craved a picture of the private one, the man he was while in the company of those he loved.  So this year on February 3, for the first time ever, I asked my mother to tell me something about her father, something that could not be found in an encyclopedia, something personal and humanising.

“He loved music,” she said in a hushed tone, her voice dropping several notes.  “Especially opera, classical and gospel music.  Every year, in December, around Christmas or just before the New Year, he would have a dinner and all the Danquah kids would come together.  Each of us believed we were his favourite because he treated us that way.   He had a special relationship with each of his children.  His one main rule at dinner was, ‘Elbows off the table.’ Even now, at my age, if I get lazy and put my elbows on the table, I’ll hear his voice saying that and quickly remove them.” 

I added this anecdote from my mother to the stack of files containing information about my grandfather, research I’ve been gathering since my teens.  Flipping through the other notes and documents, I found it rather impossible to believe that they could all be about the same person.   The epicure, the father, the lawyer, the journalist, the playwright, the opera enthusiast, the friend, the voracious reader, the nationalist, the visionary, the leader:  how many fully-developed selves can one person unfold in the course of a brief lifetime? 

Mindless partisanship

Sadly, the brilliance and complexity that was Dr Danquah is all but lost in so much mindless partisanship and stilted political posturing.  This is evidenced by the government’s refusal to allow access, on this significant anniversary, to the Nsawam prison cells to which Dr. Danquah was condemned and the one in which he died.  This is a man whose life should be celebrated by all of Ghana, not just by one party, or one family; this is a man, a founding father, whose legacy should be claimed by the entire nation.

In his 1954 book, “Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos”, black American author Richard Wright documented his travels throughout Africa.  During his time in Accra, Wright met Dr Danquah, whom he describes in his book as “a dreamer,” not unlike a poet.  He wrote: “[I]t suddenly flashed through me that this man was not a politician and would never be one.”

Dr Danquah, who was already being described as “the doyen of Ghana politics,” was not at all disturbed by Wright’s rejection of him as a politician.  In fact, that same year he wrote a friendly and engaging letter to Wright critiquing the book.  In that letter, Dr Danquah wrote: “[Y]ou looked in West Africa for politicians but not for statesmen.  I don’t blame you for that.  A nation’s history is longer than the life of a politician, but the statesman builds upon ideals that last, like good poetry.”  

Indeed, Dr Danquah, indeed.

Damirifa due!  Damirifa due!  Damirifa due!  Due! Due! Due!