V.S. Naipaul and Kofi Annan, Death of opposites

BY: Ivor Agyeman-Duah
 Kofi Annan (right) and V. S. Naipaul
Kofi Annan (right) and V. S. Naipaul

It was a week of dramatic occurrence — the short passage to eternity of two contrasting (in manners and lifestyles) Nobel laureates — one of literature, V.S. Naipaul, and the other of peace, Kofi Annan. Yet, how least contrasting their lives stand in death.

A mid-octogenarian at 85 and the other newly attained, only to pass on months after, were both ‘subjects’ of British colonial rule in their youth.

Naipaul, the Indian, was born into family hardships in Trinidad of the Caribbean and as a teenager always wanted to live, in his own words, a better civilisation in England. Annan, whose aristocratic background taught him African values, became of much use when he left Kumasi to Macalester College in the twin city of St Paul’s and Minneapolis, a youthful journey that would be good for the world.

In adult life, those values he said in his 2007 Nelson Mandela Memorial Lectures, of which Mandela did the introduction, were still abiding with him.

Naipaul used the English language which he had studied at Oxford when he finally made it to his dream ‘civilisation’ to enrich the established culture. He wrote some of the masterful novels: A Bend in the River, The Enigma of Arrival and A House for Mr Biswas. Even critics, including Chinua Achebe (worried of his disrespect of the colonies) and CLR James, who said Naipaul wrote about the dispossessed in terms in which whites dared not, were happy that he did. They still had some regard for his craft, including the caustic non–fiction such as India: A Wounded Civilisation (the India Prime Minister mourned his passing) and An Area of Darkness.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan used the same language for the higher course of peace promotion and greater humanitarian work. He chose his words with precision and with the heart of human kindness. When he got angry once, it became news at the United Nations (UN) and it had to do with a reporter’s rude question on a third occasion of which he asked him to sit down at a press conference.

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The nearest I ever did to meeting Naipaul in person was somewhere in 2010. I got a mail from a Princeton University philosopher asking if I could work with him on his travel book, The Masque of Africa, which was his last impression of the continent, including Ghana. From an initial trepidation of an informal private conversation and canny observations he could turn into graffiti of enormous inferences, possibly observation mockery, I was still eager to see him come from Cote d’Ivoire where he had decades ago written the Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. He would in The Masque of Africa describe the city’s basilica as “vain glory”. That I did not eventually meet him had to do with time and parallel travels.

I had known Kofi Annan better and even worked with him in a United Kingdom (UK) university on a lecture he gave and his opening of its African Studies Centre. Twice I met him at his UN office and it was elevating when he spoke Twi with me in the company of my colleague international visiting fellows who were more than intrigued. I was also commissioned to write a cover story by the New African in London when he won the Nobel Prize, and as well reviewed two books by and of him for The Royal Institute of International Affairs - Chatham House.

He loved art and promoted it with his artist wife. They inspired with their presence in 2000, Wall to Wall Art and the artists of Sirigu in northern Ghana when the World Art Foundation and the Sirigu Women Organisation for Pottery and Art held their exhibition: The Artists Alliance Gallery at Labadi which he officially opened and other ventures.

I have wondered over the last couple of days whether Naipaul and Annan ever met at the Nobel Alumni meetings in Stockholm and if they did, what they conversed about – one, almost a deviant of the other cultural pose and Annan, who spoke in velvet tone and with innocent looks of God’s envoy of diplomacy!


Then I thought again: Distinguished individuals who have engaged and devoted time to multilateralism and humanity sometimes reconcile with the arts more meaningfully and can be participants of leisure creation - of literature, visual art and music. The great British economist, John Maynard Keynes, when working on the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions, was seriously engaged as Chair of the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, later called the Arts Council of England and its growth.

The Irish intellectual, Conor Cruise O’Brien, once with the University of Ghana who became a Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold in the Congo, wrote the classic play, The Murderous Angels, on the Congo crisis of 1961. The President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, at the time of his reforms, delighted in chairing the Kennedy Centre, the dominant high arts and culture hub among the elite in America’s capital.

So is the poetry of the top Indian diplomat and former Commonwealth Secretary-General – Kamalesh Sharma, a measured approach to challenges of global events in his Mille Fleurs: Poetry from Around the World (a poet of gentle happenstance) in his near reach in diplomatic stature to Annan’s. Naipaul and Annan could possibly be closer than I think.

The world is really a transit! And Naipaul was not rude to the bone in all life but philosophical in bouts of good times. This phraseology of his is wonderful: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Kofi Annan’s life (human flaws notwithstanding) was graceful and he got his honour. He allowed himself to become exceeding more than nothing; with world problems upon his shoulders till the end in sleep-death. He can only rest eternally in the year of the centenary birth of Nelson Mandela who nicknamed him ‘My boss’.

The writer is an Economic Development Specialist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Johannesburg