Imhotep of Kemet, probably one of the most revered students of African history, once wrote: Success corrupts, usefulness exalts. Millennia later, Sidi Yahya of Timbuktu professed: In society there is no such person as indispensable, but such a person as invaluable.
Taken together, African history underscores the commune and rejects the idea of individualism and the tenets of exceptionalism that spring from its unholy penchant for material capitalism. Africa sticks with the fundamental idea that the interests of society and that of the environment are much bigger than the interests of any one individual.
Hence we cared for the weak, and the poor were not bound by a classism beyond hope. These were the times when we took our motherland seriously. These were the times when we took any threat to our homeland – real or imagined – as a threat to our own existence.
We did not exist in a vacuum. Neither did we exist as islands unto ourselves. Whether we lived in mud huts or caves or the confines of grass fences we still loved one another dearly. More important, out of this humble existence Africa gave the world its newfound civilization and scientific sophistication.
But even more, Africa remains the rhythm of the world. The pulse of the universe. Without Africa much of the debate and critique against the barbarism of Financial Capitalism and Materialism, against the unrelenting effort of the West to globalize world markets would be empty. Africa’s prodigious history offers plenty to learn from.
For that matter, I am a student of history. I remember King Osei Bonsu, ruler of the Asante kingdom, and I remember what his uncle Nana Yeboah told him when an expedition of four Englishmen came to pay their respects to Asanteman. The Englishmen, including a young keeper of the memories by the name Thomas Bowdich, had been sent by their governor on the Gold Coast. On his trading voyages to the West African coast, Nana Yeboah had frequent contact with the pale-faced men, and for reasons still unknown, he deeply distrusted them.
Folks from Dahomey and Eweland also minced no distaste when they referred to these foreign traders as Ayevuwo, literally meaning, Cunning Dogs.
The story continues that the young keeper of the memories, Bowdich, had assured King Osei Bonsu that Britain’s motives in trading on the Gold Coast were well-intentioned, “consisting of nothing more than a desire to share the benefits of English civilization.” The King guffawed at the remark and asked the young keeper of the memories, “Now, how do you wish to persuade me that this is only for so flimsy a motive that you have left this fine and happy England?”
The next day his uncle, Nana Yeboah, invited Bowdich to his residence and asked him: “Why if Britain was so selfless had it behaved so differently in India?” The Englishman was nonplussed by Nana Yeboah’s retort; he wondered how, deep in the bellows of Africa, men who do not speak or write English would know about the workings of the English in India.
This exchange took place in the year 1817.
Indeed parallels exist in contemporary Ghanaian society. Of profound worry is the debate around the fate of university education in Ghana. To this end, the motives behind 13-year-old Ashesi University – the first American liberal arts college in Ghana – must be assessed in their rightful context.
The university was founded by a Ghanaian, which is laudable, and he has won an American award for it; but the Ashesi University Foundation – which oversees the school, with over 80 percent white non-Ghanaian Board of Trustees – remains a United States Company. Is this a Ghanaian school or not?
Many Ashesi supporters and sympathizers rose against an earlier essay analyzing this relationship, to defend Mr. Patrick Awuah. But they misunderstand the piece outright. My critique went beyond Mr. Patrick Awuah and his project. I confront no human, like him; I only take on ideas. The notion and rapidly emerging reality of education as an expensive imported commodity in Ghana, controlled by few oligarchs and available only to a select elite is a dangerous trend that requires lengthy deliberation.
Ashesi University, however, helms the forefront of the neo-missionary educational project which aims to fast-track this previously far-fetched dream concocted by imperialists into a reality in Ghana. But a neo-missionary education is inimical to African tradition, customs, and mores.
According to the gospels of Imhotep and Sidi Yahya, the commune rises above and beyond any one given individual and whatever their interests may be. Yet by neo-missionary standards, an individual’s worth flies above and beyond the wealth of any community.
In turn, neo-missionary education is not controlled by the African community. Through systems of Indirect Rule from abroad, neo-colonialists can exert control over African regions, reigniting the same struggles residents of Ghana, West Africa, and the African continent have fought against over the last two centuries.
King Osei Bonsu and his uncle Nana Yeboah, would have asked the same questions – concerns about how the Ashesi University Foundation of Seattle, now strives to make the ideal of neo-colonialism become a reality throughout the canvas of African Time.
The royals would have arrived at the same fears I currently harbor. Without much deliberation.
Still, the students of the geopolitics, sociology and philosophy of this subject, have crepitated, “For whatever the agenda the Western world holds in Ghana, and in Africa – be it for good or for their sole benefit – we can only speculate without evidence.” This sententious reasoning is false. There is ample evidence.
The trauma of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, the recollections, feelings, and thoughts of those eras still reverberate and bring numbness today. To assert that, it is needless to belabor the minutiae of what happened on the Gold Coast during the time of King Osei Bonsu, or that it is unnecessary to incessantly narrate the suffering and horrors visited upon the good people of West Africa through our collaboration with the West; does not mean that we should forget what transpired here.
Broad lessons from our history serve as poignant examples for future reference. Their explanatory premises exhibit certain prima facie distinctive features that present considerable methodological interests for our complete comprehension of what’s at stake when we cordially welcome the Ayevuwo again, and now, into the midst of our higher educational spaces.
The Horrors of Colonialism
The horrors of Colonialism are in no way, historical imaginations in Africa. They are real. Ta-Nehisi Coates, puts this historicity in its rightful perspective: All our phraseology— white supremacy, racism and the Slave Trade —serves only to obscure the grotesqueness of Colonialism in Africa. It was a visceral experience: hundreds of thousands of Asante and Dahomeyan men and women fought and died, while several millions more West Africans were spirited away.
Colonialism and slavery are not myths. They dislodged brains, blocked airways, ripped muscles, extracted African organs and lives, cracked African bones, broke African teeth. The sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the African body.
For the past five centuries, Black bodies have been brutalized regularly. They were chained and sold from the West African coasts; dumped overboard in the Atlantic Ocean, beaten, whipped, and lynched during American slavery; diseased, rotted, jailed during Jim Crow and are now still being mass incarcerated for absolutely no human reason in the United States of America.
That is why when a new entourage of Ayevuwo stream into the safe spaces where the greatest West African minds are set to receive the highest education the land can muster, we must be exceedingly wary and absolutely apprehensive.
This is why, whether or not I can afford to set up an alternative Ashesi or not, I hold the inalienable right as a Ghanaian to be “concerned about the motives of the owners of Ashesi University.” I have the indefatigable right to openly state my case to my dear motherland.
The owners of the Ashesi University Foundation in Seattle, Washington, United States and their western-educated disciples in Ghana, characteristically assert Ashesi’s goal in the proverbial Bowdich tone: The intentions of the foundation “consists of nothing more than a desire to share the benefits of the American Liberal Arts Education with Ghana and Africa.”
That belief, while obviously heartfelt, unfortunately lacks verisimilitude. And of course, such a conviction betokens the replication of a troubled history.
Some have assumed that my analyses of the Ashesi model were only haphazard attempts at understanding the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, but my desire to connect the Ashesi University Foundation in Seattle to our brutal historical past with the West, is indubitably appropriate.
Actually, the linkage must be amplified. For, once bitten, twice shy.
Lessons from an African Historical Parallelism
Without aping vacuous rhetoric of what benefits an American liberal arts education could bestow upon the average African student, let us, for a start, take a historical walk in Nana Yeboah’s shoes. “Why if the United States Educational system of a liberal arts education was so selfless, had it left millions of African Americans without an education, without jobs, without homes, even, after the Civil War?”
Every day in the United States, more than 40 million children still go without food. African Americans have suffered this brand of neglect for more than four centuries. They have been left to the behest of Jim Crow segregation and mass incarceration, banning them from receiving this “coveted” liberal arts education that Ashesi desires for Ghanaian shores.
Now the typical African American household in the United States has just 6 percent of the wealth of the typical white American household. This comes a full 130 years after Reconstruction, after a war during which tens of thousands of African American soldiers fought and died for their freedom. The Union victory in 1865 may have given some 4 million African Americans their breakaway from slavery, but the United States, no matter its free thinking liberals, its free markets and its ‘exceptional educational system’ has managed to keep more than 35 million African Americans from the equal economic participation, supposedly granted to them by the laws of the land.
Today, the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, has more than 25 percent of the world’s prison residents mainly because America has doubled down on its African American population. The level of racism is stark. Though more than 14 million whites do drugs, compared to just 2.6 million African Americans who report using an illicit substance, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.
Why? Is it for the magnanimity of the American educational system, or is it for the benevolence of its Capital and Financial Markets? Which parts of this American exceptionalism do we wish to emulate in Ghana? Which parts of corporate America are we inviting into the college educational spaces of Ghana?
The vicissitudes of this American war on Blacks, rings loud and clear from the fulcrum of West Africa’s past relationship with the West. If the American educational system is worth adopting in Ghana, the question needs to be asked, “Why then has the U.S. model of liberal arts education left the median African American household wealth at a putrid 7,113 dollars, compared to the median white American household wealth which stands at a whopping 111,146 dollars?”
What other nation has privatized prisons, imported crack-cocaine into African American neighborhoods – communities already bed-ridden with poverty and unemployment from slavery and Jim Crow – so that the American Private Prison Industrial Complex can newly make huge sums of profits from free Black labor, again and again?
Is this the kind of Ghana we want to see, some 50 years hence? A country stooped in dishing out our wealth to enrich the ‘good’ white communities of America?
It is inconsequential to state the obvious. No matter all the racial inequality, injustice, and brutality in the name of the benefits to society of a liberal arts education, the Ashesi Foundation’s appeal to Ghanaian students by way of Ashesi University must be weighed against the vantage point of African American experiences in America.
What should Ghanaians make of the gesture, by hook or by crook, to bring America’s white corporate institutions into Ghana’s safe spaces of higher learning? Only a fool would believe something benign could stem from this relationship.
At what costs? An education that is fashioned by whites and implemented by whites for Africa? What would King Osei Bonsu say? What would Nana Yeboah say?
Some devotees of Ashesi University ignore these lessons from the African context and the American experiment and still claim that a liberal arts education helmed by American whites needs to be pushed harder in Ghana, in order that it can yet create that “group of Africans who choose to collaborate with the world.”
This response is oblivious of the facts. There is no logic in this answer, it is futile logic.
Furthermore, I am aware of some critics who believe that since racism and racial justice are not wholly manifested in Africa, they cannot be included in analyzing the issues around foreign investments by U.S. multinationals in Ghana.
But the enormity of racial injustice as a global problem seeps into every facet of corporate hegemony, and therefore cannot be settled by ignoring and suppressing all reference to it. We cannot watch in silence while white Americans, now descending on African soil with this liberal arts mentality, cultivate new socioeconomic problems in Ghana before solving the issues of race and inequality they have brewed in America.
Certainly, we cannot be naive that the obstacles to sustainable development in Ghana are going to be settled by having our more educated and wealthy classes from an Ashesi model, for example, gradually and continually escape from their race, and from Africa, into the mass of white corporate America, leaving the rest of us to sink, suffer and die.
The Ashesi model is only interested in one thing – creating an inorganic African, or an artificial Ghanaian intelligentsia. Around the world, this venture has been tried and tested. It has never benefited the masses of local people. Not in America. Not in Brazil. Nowhere around the world. Each eventually abandons this parochial fundamentalism and moves towards a more egalitarian (re)-definition of self-determination, nationhood, and uniqueness in creating safe spaces for organic ingenuity.
American Corporate Money as Tools of Imperialism in Africa
There is no hiding that MasterCard has provided Ashesi University with some 13 million dollars to strengthen its project in Ghana. Still more in 6 million dollars of donations, which are not without socio-economic strings, and millions of loans from multinational corporations have given rise to endless brushed-metal-and-glass buildings at Ashesi University.
Bent into place by a small army of apparatchiks, this represents the aesthetic dimension of this ideology.
The naivety of Ashesi’s Ghanaian leadership are a marvel to behold. Since much of this money goes to subsidize the 60,000 dollar price-tagged American liberal arts education, many pundits in Ghana have viewed this as a truly benevolent gesture by ‘our American friends’.
But American corporations aren’t exactly magnanimous. They aren’t exactly the American people either.
Africa must come to face the fact quite calmly that whites do not like us, and are planning neither for our survival, nor for our definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all people in the West. A large group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of whites are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise. A saving few are worried about issues in Africa.
In 2010, for instance, Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks—a web organization that leaks secret government and corporate documents on various operations around the world—denounced Visa, MasterCard and PayPal. In a statement relayed by his mother to Australian television, Assange called the financial companies “instruments of U.S. foreign policy.”
His mother, Cristina Assange, reported Julian saying from his jail cell: “My convictions are unfaltering. I remain true to the ideals I have expressed. This circumstance shall not shake them. If anything this process has increased my determination that they are true and correct. We now know that Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and others are instruments of U.S. foreign policy. It’s not something we knew before. I am calling for the world to protect my work and my people from these illegal and immoral attacks.”
To come to the conclusion that a luxurious liberal arts education in Ghana is not a neo-imperial stratagem deployed by the West to re-colonize Africa, one has to try really hard to ignore the convictions of Assange and former U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The particular workings of MasterCard in Ghana, the strings attached to the 13 million dollars it gave to the Ashesi University Foundation might not be obvious today. But why wait until it is obvious? Indeed, Ghanaians cannot afford another period of colonialism and slavery.
We can presume the motives behind these American corporate donations and loans to Ashesi. These corporate structures are in some degree, relative to (that is, dependent on) the American mental and social context from which they spring. American corporations are an embodiment of the workings of the American government and the masses of the American people, no matter where they go.
This is the deeper lesson of the disturbing historical reality – that the American corporations, the communities from which they come, and their actions in Ghana cannot be understood apart from each other; that is, it is impossible to distinguish objective and subjective factors when considering the real intentions behind any corporate donation in the 21st century, especially, those donations to Africa, and in particular those donations towards the training of Ghana’s elite.
This liberating conclusion overlaps Sidi Yahya’s hypothesis that the truth of any business, like the arts and religion, is but one manifestation of the inner ferment that willy-nilly inspires all of its cultural products wherever it goes.
Our historicity thus should unwittingly foster our suspicion that American corporations have no official passport to the secret places of Benevolence, no priestly formula that enables them to rise superior to the geopolitical interests of the American Federal Government in Ghana.
Through a constant awareness of this intricate personal and social matrix out of which American corporations arise, we must become more critically conscious of what is going on with American corporate involvement in Ghana’s higher education spaces without the fear of corporate and political dissension.
King Osei Bonsu and Nana Yeboah, foresaw in Bowdich’s words and plans, what was yet to befall the Gold Coast more than a century prior – colonialism.
The way to stop this barbarism from returning to the Gold Coast again is to force Ashesi University, and its founder, Mr. Patrick Awuah, to sever ties with corporate America. Mr. Awuah must cut the umbilical cord that ties an institution in Ghana to the operations of the Ashesi University Foundation in Seattle and reconstitute a truly Ghanaian non-profit at Berekuso!
Otherwise, we must continue to highlight its proper affiliation: Ashesi University is an American University in Ghana. I love my country too much to be twice bitten, and twice marred.
Lessons from America’s educational system
Quite tellingly, America has experienced its own misfortune with this liberal arts experiment.
A typical Yale University student pays 60,000 dollars per annum to attend school. More recently, the President of Yale University – a major Ivy League School and beacon of the American Liberal Arts educational system – told 9 percent of his student population, who happen to be African Americans, “We failed you.”
Ashesi University costs some 60,000 dollars for a four year degree amidst a population whose average yearly income does not exceed 1000 dollars per annum. Now, that is the definition of excessive! Obviously, the graduate of Ashesi, having dished out this huge sum in return for a college tutelage, can only be interested in cultivating business and enterprise that has a return to this sumptuous investment.
Alas, to what end?
An expensive liberal arts education in Ghana, copied from a tiny liberal arts college, Swarthmore, cannot be pasted atop a nation struggling to build roads without foreign aid. A luxurious liberal arts education from the United States cannot be adopted anywhere in our homeland, especially since we can barely afford to pay our public school teachers a living wage.
W.E.B Dubois has cautioned: If these leading African classes who can afford to pay these whopping sums of money for a university education, cannot assume and bear the uplift of their own proletariat, without outside intervention, they are doomed for all time.
It is not a case of ethics and profits; it is a plain case of necessity. The method by which Ghana can achieve sustainable development for all and by all, first, is to resurrect her old economic solidarity, based upward from our Communal Systems; not an individualistic appeal to Capital Markets, Corporatism and Elitism, and certainly not the invitation of Corporate America into our sacred spaces of intellectual work. That will only exacerbate the problem of selfdom and will inevitably bleed Africa from her ribs.
For the colonialism, slavery, and exploitation that reduced Africa to the present level, or at any rate hindered us from rising to meet the challenges of the 21st century, the white world – the West – is solely to blame. No one else.
Therefore, the age-long process of raising West Africa up, Ghana up, can never be rationalized through the escape of our upper class into any sort of a welcome fellowship with whites and their loot. The newly forming African intelligentsia, which Ashesi strives to create, would submerge itself if it bent its back to the task of copying oppressive white educational systems and replicating them with a kind of razzmatazz across our collegiate spaces.
I have carefully stated my analysis, in an earlier essay, titled: Ashesi University – Blackface U.S. College Corporatism Reaches African Shores. I underlined the threats to our social fabric that such a new educational paradigm, monumental as the razzle-dazzle of Ashesi, would bring to the college educational space of Ghana. It is not for the lack of evidence in the United States itself that the costs of such a luxurious liberal arts education in Ghana far outweigh the essence and benefits of a truly expansive effort to bring our people abreast with the intellectual dialogue necessary for our holistic uplift.
To this debate, many have inquired: What is wrong intrinsically with a liberal arts education? Perhaps, not much, or at all. It depends. However, everything is wrong with one copied over and helmed by white Americans in our own land – the last pocket left on this planet for Africans to freely partake in our self-determination.
There is also an important question inherent in my answer when I say, it depends: Whose Liberal Arts?
The problem is not that liberal arts is necessarily wrong for Ghanaians. This is not at all insinuated in any of my analyses. An expensive but conscious attempt to create a ruling class of people in Ghana to think like whites is exceedingly dangerous for Ghana and for Africa. The historicity cannot be overlooked.
If Ashesi was truly African, there is ample evidence in Africa with regards to an altruistic model, such as Sankoré, that is relevant to the Ghanaian experience for emulation with magnificence and with a ceremonial purpose, in the continued remembrance of who we are and of our self-determination.
The Sankoré University Model of Old Mali
There is little reason, and perhaps even more stupefying, why Ashesi should copy from an oppressive white American liberal arts educational system. Very little research into our immediate African past reveals a history awash with the jewels of a truly African liberal arts education.
Sankoré – or if you like, the University of Timbuktu of the Mali Empire fame – is the name of the oldest university in the world. This ancient preeminent institution of higher learning has influenced many societies around the world and perhaps even beyond. She has steered the mothership ferrying committed students from the shadows of medieval backwardness into the warm embrace, to some level, of civilization and scientific sophistication. Her history lurks in our shadows.
Why not learn from Sankoré and resurrect her overarching principles?
Unlike the American liberal arts system, Timbuktu underpinned the essence of a true collegiate space for selfless intellectual work. The Dogons did not brag about their mathematical prowess. Nor did they believe they were chosen by some god to entrench their superior advancement in cosmology on the vast expanse of African intellectual wisdom.
That the ideas of an affordable and easily accessible university education and the ideas of research and development were born in West Africa, and no place else, are not trivial. We ought not to gloat over these details in wanton cupidity; however, they should nonetheless serve as a noteworthy foundation for establishing the educational spaces necessary for high learning in all African states, especially Ghana.
In the ensuing discourse about the Ashesi model and the implications thereof, the Sankoré model is the case in point.
This brings me to the origins, the efficacy, and the practicality of a Liberal Arts education that many seem to think is being “pioneered” by Ashesi University in Ghana. The ideas are as old as Africa. They are not new. What Ashesi is pioneering, rather, is the introduction of a western styled – an American – liberal arts education in Ghana.
That the Ashesi model has been tested and tried in the United States and has largely failed its people, ensnaring poor unsuspecting students and their parents in its wake, even imprisoning students within the doldrums of Corporate American fangs, is not trivial.
Although the model has been hyped by a few “scholars” in Ghana as cutting-edge, sophisticated and perchance necessary for the continued advancement of the economic “prosperity” of the African continent, by and large, these scholars do not fully comprehend the systematic reach of the most oppressive educational system the world has ever known.
In this covetous attempt to dislodge the very essence of an African education from the fulcrum of enlightenment and renaissance, the disciples of Ashesi’s model gallivant the educational terrain of Africa and hope to enforce the belief that an American Liberal Arts Education is the way forward, if Africa wants to compete in the intergalactic Star Wars of the future.
But though the ideas of enlightenment, and of a free advanced education – that is, free access to the materials of intellectualism – were conceived first in West Africa, some fourteen hundred years ago, the ideas of the Ashesi model contradict the tenets of Sankoré. That of opportunity, that of a free education, and that of an education central to the necessities of the masses which are not prescribed anywhere in the American model.
It is in this light that I re-examine the discourse on Ashesi University, the educational model underpinning its curriculum, and the United States Foundation’s efforts to create this luxurious space for the one percenters of Ghana to access the otherwise tried-and-tested, but failed model of education, under the guise of a liberal arts education for all.
Whose Liberal Arts?
Though many accuse critics of the Ashesi model for want of an alternative, the historiography of a Sankoré education is fundamental to the discussion. What is a Sankoré educational model? This name was chosen to mark the desire of Africans to appropriate the most modern resources that are vital for transmitting knowledge, perpetuating culture, and harnessing the forces of nature towards the continued sustainable development of the continent and of mankind.
During the century of the Askias (1493-1591), the University of Sankoré took on its greatest luster, radiating across large parts of Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, from the Spanish Coasts to the Gulf of Guinea. The scientific and literary glory of Timbuktu has simply been unmatched in its essence and in its purpose mainly because of three aspects.
First, it was meritocratic. Second, it was wholly affordable; that is, no one who qualified was left out. And lastly, Timbuktu embarked upon the world’s first mass production of knowledge, building print shops for the publication and distribution of books and articles across the Mali Empire.
Within the safe intellectual space of Timbuktu, renowned writers from across Africa and the Orient came to West Africa to complete their studies and sometimes settled here permanently, like the famous Ahmed Baba. The authors of the Tarikh-el-Fettach, the first history books ever written, by the Sudanese, Mohammed Katé, and his grandsons, are but a few examples of the reach and influence of a Sankoré education on today’s modern university environment.
From this point, West Africa, rather than waiting to copy from others, pioneered her version of the collegiate space and birthed the first modern era university that the world would come to appreciate.
Literature, the arts of music and of poetry, of philosophy, history and sociology, prospered here in West Africa until the second coming of the marauding Arabs of North Africa and the Bible-toting Christians of Europe. An African Liberal Arts education was pioneered and flourished between 15th and 18th century West Africa. Through the discovery of advanced works written in various languages of the Sarakoles, the Songhois and the Touaregs, the products of this literature are now beginning to be revealed.
To further enumerate all the scholastic achievements of Timbuktu would be superfluous. But this highlights the boundless African genius since Kush, since Nubia and since ancient Egypt. We need not copy, only innovate in accordance with who we are and who we envisage ourselves to become.
A course or a department of Africana Studies in an African school on African soil is a contradiction in terms. It only makes a mockery of the vast contributions our ancestors have made to this collegiate space. The curriculum in any school in Ghana or Africa needs to emphasize this understanding; it needs to be African from its core. History from Africa is just history, not African history. Europa studies, on the other hand, must be removed, excised, and (re)-located to the periphery of a truly African liberal arts education, where it marginally belongs.
That West African principles upheld the ethos of Sankoré ought to be appreciated in Ghana.
Ashesi can make the bold return if it can cut off its ties to Corporate America’s apron strings. Ashesi can uproot the overseeing foundation from Seattle and resettle it in Accra, or Berekuso. Ashesi can wipe the Board of Trustees clean and make it truly West African, truly Ghanaian, and allow the genius of Timbuktu, as in the organic brilliance of Africa, to shine through.
Uniqueness, accessibility, and affordability should underscore any educational effort on the continent. These values are inextricably connected to the Meaningful Use of our resources and the sustainable development of the continent.
But why would a group of young Africans, hungry for success and delectation, wait for a truly African educational tradition to organically develop? Seeing what Harvard University is today, seeing what Yale is today, why should Africa believe in sticking to the ethos of a truly African educational foundation?
The lure of the wealth of the United States is almost always enticing to those who survey only a section of it. But this is the very reason why business and especially corporate America cannot be allowed into the safe spaces of our university education. They will corrupt our minds. Absolutely.
To complete our understanding of why the American liberal arts model is detrimental to the future of Africa, we need to comprehend the sources of its wealth that has given it the luster others covet, in order that we may yet appreciate a home-grown African educational space.
The Lure of American Wealth is no basis for adopting their educational system
The building blocks of an African education should be born out of an African intellectualism, but the newly constituted states of Africa have yet to adopt the model as a viable template. (Dr. Kwame Nkrumah tried, but the United States CIA overthrew his government.) Why Africa refuses to adopt the Sankoré model is simple – Africa is money poor and she is continually dominated by the dollar.
The reason Ghanaian students look to Ashesi is because it is money rich – brandishing 13 million dollars from MasterCard and 6 million from donors in the United States and boasting of state-of-the-art amenities, although at an exorbitant price. This currency is enough to coax and even coerce young unsuspecting students into open fellowship with a corporate educational system.
To appreciate the sense of the meaning of money in higher education, one can look at the University of Oxford. Fifteen years ago, only 5 percent of the world’s foreign ministers had studied at St Antony’s, Oxford’s postgraduate college. By 2012, Oxford opened the Blavatnik School of Government, thanks to the Russian, who now lives in London, and who secured the honor of having his name on the gate for 75 million pounds.
From that much, about 60 graduates of Oxford have been prime ministers and presidents, not only in England but around the world. This is the extent of the hegemonic aspirations of money in education.
In the U.S. these examples abound. For instance, Harvard University, formed seven centuries after the first modern era college Sankoré, is now the world’s richest university with a 36.4 billion dollar endowment. Not even Sankoré, in one of the richest empires known to man – The Ghana Empire (300 – 1270) — and which in the 12th century enrolled more than 25,000 students from across Africa and the Mediterranean (compared to Harvard’s 21,000 today), could boast a tiny fraction of Harvard’s wealth.
Harvard’s endowment is larger than the gross domestic products (GDP) of individual nations: Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Chad, Togo, Benin, Mauritania, Cape Verde, Jordan, Bolivia, Iceland, and some 85 assorted independent countries.
That wealth is 77 percent of Ghana’s GDP, 10 percent of South Africa’s GDP, and 7 percent of Nigeria’s GDP – the largest in Africa. Surely, Harvard is not a country. But with the exception of a few nations, Harvard is richer than all of West Africa. That is the dirtiest reality, since more than 40 million children starve daily in the United States alone.
America is rich. Havard is rich. But largely, the lack of insight in Ghana into Harvard’s wealth and America’s wealth is worrisome. It must be correctly linked with the proceeds of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (of which the Gold Coast played a significant part), or we fail to appreciate the truth. Slavery, Jim Crow, and today’s Mass Incarceration of African Americans have gone a long way to bolster the insane wealth of Harvard University.
And in fact, MasterCard.
Worse yet, many Americans and Africans still find convenient explanations to believe that Harvard’s wealth, resourced from a colonial slave past, was only a phenomenon of the Old American South. They claim that the chains of subjugation of millions of Africans in America were regional aberrations linked only to cotton and the Civil War in the South of the United States.
But the truth is not a secret. African slaves were hardly uncommon in Colonial New England, where Harvard now enjoys its fame.
Even today people suffer from what anthropology professor Rosalind Shaw has called “social amnesia about the role of the slave trade and the presence of slaves” in the Northeast of America. The truth is that for more than a century and a half, every colony in the New World was a slave colony. In fact, much of the University of Tufts Medford-Somerville campus sits on what was once Ten Hills Farm, a six-hundred-acre slave-plantation presided over by one of the founders of Harvard University, one Isaac Royall.
There is literally not a single Ivy League School in the United States that wasn’t built in some part with the blood money from the brutal exploitation of Africans in the diaspora.
Without this comprehension, many African students cannot understand how Africa lost and continues to lose priceless resources to the West. Adopting an educational system stained in the flesh and blood of poor Africans forced into the belly of ships and into the guts of slavery in America would be the last nail in the coffin for a people who have yet to fully grasp the genius of their African-ness.
The African student, together with the African scholar, need to understand that the seeming wealth of Harvard and of the United States was not created through any meaningful hard work, Protestant ethic, or begotten exceptionalism; it was created through the most brutal and violent means, with African bodies and natural resources. Without the slave labor of our brothers and sisters, spirited to the Americas, exploited and brutalized around the clock, the seeming wealth of the United States would be nothing worth noting.
Ashesi cannot be the model for the education of Ghana’s leaders
When the Ashesi University Foundation of Seattle, Washington in the United States descended into Ghana, with Mr. Patrick Awuah, to begin Ashesi University in 2002, it had a plan: identify the nation’s future leaders and give them an American liberal arts education.
Ashesi’s liberal arts curriculum, designed by a group of white American professors, is modeled on Swarthmore’s liberal arts education, 10 miles outside the city of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania. So is Ashesi’s honor code; students at Swarthmore complete closed-book take-home exams, a practice Mr. Patrick Awuah claimed he had never seen before enrolling at this school.
Mr. Awuah is entitled to his unique experiences in Ghana – having grown up without an honor code. But it is fair to infer that the building of an institution, let alone the influence that such a luxurious education would come to bear on the educational terrain of Africa, cannot be constructed from the vantage point of one Ghanaian, one African, whose experiences in Ghana are outright distinctive. Add to that, involved in this design are a group of white American professors who know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the ethos and pulse of Africa.
As to whether a closed-book take-home exam is relevant to any school is a tiny detail. But suffice it to say that Ghanaian societies, more than even her schools, have always had an honor code.
In fact, the Ghanaian honor code does not begin in college, it starts at home. Before colonialism and the proliferation of materialism, the humble life of the inhabitant in Ejisu could hardly boast of a lock on the bedroom door. There are many Ghanaians who grew up in villages, where without locks and keys on every house, children were taught to respect the spaces and properties of others.
But an honor code is the least of Ghana’s problems. More important, what is probably a greater honor code is to not betray one’s history. This is why the mission statement of the American Foundation, to identify Ghana’s future leaders and give them an American liberal arts education, seems rather cocky and particularly unnerving.
Ellen Wexler has claimed that Mr. Patrick Awuah himself has stressed, “the people in the universities and colleges are going to be future leaders of the country.”
But why must Ghana be subjected to this sort of entrenchment? Why must Ghana come to be led by a group of people who never believed in the African experiment in the first place, let alone people who are seemingly unprepared to rhyme with the pulse of Africa and coalesce around a common historical identity – not an American liberal arts identity – to foster a sustainable development that Ghana can call her own?
Why should Ghanaians go with a leader who cannot seek wisdom in the same way our ancestors did in Kush, in Nubia, in ancient Egypt, and at Sankoré? Rather, that 10,000 year history is set to be flushed down the drains.
If the Ashesi model comes to dominate our Ghanaian educational spaces, we can kiss goodbye to Freedom and Justice. Such newly educated classes will be molded in the same ovens as those from our Mission School systems. Some will perhaps be air-lifted ayonder to the Market and Capital Economies of oppressive and racists nations in the West for a copious bath in the whims and caprices of the European or American Domineering Democratic Process.
The new African leadership that Ashesi seeks will rather be impotent on African soil. It cannot revive the true African genius needed across the West African region for a truly pragmatic education that can benefit all.
No matter how it may have been founded, neither by “a visionary African,” or that it “fosters ethical leadership and innovative thinking for a new Africa,” when all is said and done, the “new Africa” envisioned will not square with the intellectual customs and traditions of Africa’s 10,000 year history, way before it was rampaged by savage Europeans. It will not care to provide for the needs and aspirations of the new Africa that it might have envisioned.
At best, Ashesi University is the Trojan Horse pulled into Ghana’s higher educational space to storm our homes and deal that final blow to thwart any attempts to bring Ghana out of her stupor. More than 80 percent of the men or women hidden within the horse’s belly are not Ghanaians. They are not even Africans. Ashesi University is the property of a United States Foundation with an intrepid staff of colonial-looking elites, stitched together to work for the pre-supposed realization of the aspirations of a whole continent of people in American Corporate acculturation.
The students and supporters of this Ashesi model can brag all they want about the varied expanse of western amenities made available daily for their tepid mass consumption throughout a four-year Disneyland in Berekuso. And even beyond. They can brag about the jobs available to them in corporate Ghana after graduation, while altogether forgetting the origins of these multinationals and the forces that have connived and brought these Blaxploitation crackers back into the depths of Africa – our minds – in search of newer and newer resources for their unquenchable gluttony.
The intellectual myopia is insidious and the bravura with which affiliates of the school entrench their vituperation in debate strikes a chord similar to a Gold Coast historicity stooped in giving away their resources – gold, diamonds, lands, oil, and gas – and even their own flesh and blood, in return for pieces of paper (the dollar) or for the enchantment of Caribbean Cowries. The discursive spaces incumbent on this cognitive dissonance smells pungent whatever the characterization any effort strives in otherwise painting a hopeful image of this putrid period in African renaissance.
The school that is Ashesi can barely boast a real beginning, no matter the chosen name signifying “beginning” in Twi. (Akan is not a language, only a meta-ethnicity and ethno linguistic group.) In (re)-signifying a beginning, the mission of the school seems more intent on erasing the very historicity and notion of a model that is truly borne out of an African intellectual tradition, especially one that is stooped in paving the course of a pure African university education in Ghana.
Otherwise, how does a truly African university use the words of a Bowdich-looking fellow, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German, for its mission statement? Is it for lack of a better griot in West Africa?
Ashesi is merely an American University, here in Ghana, to train our children for the laborious analyst positions that the swopping wide-eyed multinationals on every street corner have come to Ghana to carve out, forcibly or through the workings of a corrupt overarching superciliousness of our governments.
At this moment, though the owners, Ashesi University Foundation, is a Seattle Non-profit organization, the university enjoys full tax exemption status in Ghana. Although, the multinationals that supply the school with loans continue to rake in profits from high interest rates.
Some pundits in search of fame are vociferous, and dare I say, even convinced in their carnal understanding that Ashesi is in Ghana to offer a liberal arts education to our children, and that this is a serious path to African development.
If it were true, that debate would not have thus far been concluded with numerous studies in the last 30 or so years, especially in the United States, pointing to the waste that a liberal arts education can truly be.
For the first time in the history of the United States – where Ashesi’s educational model originates – government data can now back up what many parents have long suspected about the educational choices of their children. According to the Wall Street Journal, students who choose elite liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore, do not earn as much money in their careers as those who attend highly selective research institutions.
There you have it. Any discussion of the import of a truly American or European liberal arts education in Ghana – the one you would find at Swarthmore – is invariably a complete waste of time and effort. No meaningful return on the investment in a liberal arts education can be validated.
Why shouldn’t we learn from others’ experiences?
Ghana will not lose anything of value if the project to implement an American liberal arts education in Ghana ended. Ashesi University students are not learning the fine arts of African Drum and Dance, they are not imbibing copious literature on the Guinea Lamban. They are not studying the Poems of Libation, and they certainly are not studying the deeper philosophies of the Book of the Coming Forth by Day and by Night. They are barely aware of the 700,000 literary works of the University of Timbuktu, let alone the oral Traditions of Africa’s griots.
Ghana will survive alright. The question remains, “Whose liberal arts, if at all?”
But the Ashesi fellowship is gargantuan in its call, bullish perhaps, and mostly misguided at its core. Worse yet, this is a school gallivanting the country and the West African region in the name of bringing higher and higher education to Africans. It claims its brand of education will uplift the continent from her stupor.
The data does not lie. In time, like the government of the United States has learned, soon Ghana will learn.
To the Ashesi Student and the way forward
The very diversity of responses stimulated by the essay, “Ashesi University – Blackface U.S. College Corporatism Reaches African Shores,” should help explain the protracted character of our inextricable destiny as Ghanaians. But there are other significant underlying factors.
The intellectual power of the argument derives in no small part to my disregard of western subject-boundaries, made possible by the extraordinary compass of Africa’s 12,000 year-old history.
Consequently, this analysis can be approached on several levels: as a specific historical thesis, claiming a correlation between colonialism and American corporate interests in Ghana’s entrepreneurial attitudes today; as a causal analysis of the influence of the Prophetic Traditions of Africa on Capitalistic activity; as an interpretation of the key components of western society as a whole; and as part of an attempt to identify divergent courses in the rationalization that American corporate money is good for the Ghanaian education business.
We all learn, one way or another. Ghana does not belong to one man. Neither to Ashesi. We are Ghanaians first and I share too much in common with the students of Ashesi to want to demean anything they do as against the framework of African Intellectual Tradition. These are students, and students do what they are taught.
But, serious times call for serious people, and for serious work. Sometimes we ought to unlearn, in order that we might yet learn. Imperialism is as real as racism. It is as real as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which ferried our brothers and sisters to the bottomless abyss of unknown lands to suffer and die, so that white men and women in Europe can dress up in cotton coats and drink their tea with sugar.
If one cannot empathize with that moment in African history, one can at least sympathize with the enormity of that history and the seriousness of the issues about which I raise concerns regarding the motives of the owners of Ashesi. Otherwise, there is terrible disillusionment of the history and the facts.
Imperialism is as real as colonialism. In fact, imperialism is to the 21st century, as colonialism was to the few centuries prior. How should our children, and our children’s children, come to judge our actions of this era? Would they, like us, be dumbfounded about our inaction in confronting imperialism, the same way we have learned about the inactions of our ancestors in the trading of flesh and blood during colonial occupation?
The questions I raise are not mine alone. The merits of my concerns to keep Ghana and our sovereignty intact are no small matter. Unless of course, you disagree with both Imhotep and Sidi Yahya – that we share a common destiny.
Our lives and our fortune as Ghanaians are more important than that of a single institution and whatever candid commitments its good people could have made towards its fruition. But no institution, especially one that is funded in a major part by multinationals, is above Ghanaian law. No institution is above scrutiny. The trend must be confronted with the utmost volition and appreciation that Ghana is more important.
For the rest of the collegiate space in Ghana and in Africa, I urge us to take a cursory look at our history, who we are, and what our destiny should be. I believe that collegiate spaces are as sacred as the Temple walls of the once great University of Sankoré.
We must resurrect this prophetic tradition in the print shops of Sankoré and revive all of its monumental works in all its modernity and splendor with some pomp and pageantry, knowing full well that this historicity in the heart of the West African intellectual space will inspire us, our children, and their children to greater and greater heights.
The sustainable development of the continent, and in fact the world, is at stake because of it. We must not allow this unrelenting spirit in West Africa to perish once more. We must finish the work our ancestors begun in grandeur and perhaps follow in those footsteps to lead the world out of the doldrums of the excesses of crony Financial and Market Capitalism.
Today, we must fight and oppose all forms of foreign invasion – be it in politics or in education. Or, as Malcolm X. put it: You will be taken, bamboozled, and cooked.
If an Ashesi education – a failed American educational experiment – should come to ruin our country, if this American liberal arts education should come to devastate our country, once again, we can all swear on the graves of our forebears who fought for our independence and self-determination that we can never be forgiven.
If Ashesi is that proverbial Trojan Horse that torches our nation finally, we can do well to remember that we were forewarned. We shall not be forgiven in this life or the next for whatever our marauding naiveties may have been.
In ending however, almost all debates owe something to caution, namely tremendously valuable viewpoints. Hence, the dilettantism, as expressed by sycophants of Ashesi, as a leading principle in discussions like this, will be the end of worthy debate. Nothing will be farther from the intent of a thoroughly serious study than such an attitude.
The question of the presence of American corporations and their motives in our collective higher learning spaces, which I compare here, is an absolute problem in Ghana. In good faith, this analysis is only in regard to arriving at a kind of sincerity about our collective interest in the fate of Ghana’s collegiate tradition, and in addition stoke the timely debate we need.
The path of our destiny as Ghanaians cannot but appall him who surveys only a section of it. And I might do well to keep this commentary to myself unless of course I was called to give it expression in artistic or prophetic form, like Sidi Yahya.
Furthermore, speaking in voluminous generalities about the corporatization of education, which I fear is the only available commentary on the subject, does nothing but conceal a lack of perspective towards American foreign policy in Africa.
Our history provides the full context with which we must assess and judge this American corporate infiltration into our educational intellectual space. We must not repeat the collective mistakes of our ancestors. We must move forward and shun the charade.
For, the skin of the leopard is beautiful, but not its heart. A corporatized education, looks good, but it is a dangerous trap.
Nefetiti, the Managing Editor at Grandmother Africa, has penned a summary of public responses to Akosua’s Abeka’s earlier article here:Public Response: Ashesi University, College Corporatism, and African Futures.