Kobena Sekyi was also executive member of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), and member of the Coussey Committee for constitutional change that finally pave way for the independence of Ghana.
Kobena Sekyi, nationalist lawyer, politician, writer. a celebrated Pan-Africanist, last president of the Aborigines Right Protection Society (ARPS) in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the only educated elite in Africa who vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the British colony to appear in court in a traditional African cloth. He never wear coat and European dress until he died in 1956.
As a person born into the Gold Coast coastal aristocratic Fante family and a highly educated member of his society, he was brought up to believe that European culture was superior to African culture. But it did not take long for Sekyi to commit class suicide and transmogrify into an unshakable apostle of African values, traditions and culture. Sekyi did not only became an unrepentant hardcore Pan-Africanist in his days, but, in fact, he lived and practiced African culture and traditions to the very core; so much that 'he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the colony to appear in court in a traditional African cloth. He never wear coat and European dress until he died in 1956.
Though an ethnic Fante man himself, Kobena Sekyi criticized the manner his Fante coastal towns have became anglicised to such an extent that even now a Fante cannot speak a sentence without less than four English words. They anglicised their local names into English such that you can hear Koomson, Blankson, Menson, Filson etc. Some have all foreign names without a local name. To show his utter abhorrence and disdain for this anglicization of Fante names and outright adoption of foreign names, Kobena Sekyi as a matter of principle and leading by example removed "William" from his names and became just "Kobena Sekyi."
Kobena Sekyi was born in November 1,1892 into Cape Coast (Oguaa) aristocratic family. His father was Mr John Gladstone Sackey (note, Sackey is the anglicization of Fante name "Sekyi" to suit European tongue), headmaster of the renowned Wesleyan School (Mfantsipim) in Cape Coast. Mfantsipim is the first secondary school in Ghana and was established in 1876. Mr John Gladstone Sackey himself was a royal and a the son of Chief Kofi Sekyi, the Chief Regent of Cape Coast.
Kobena Sekyi`s mother was Wilhelmina Pietersen, also known as Amba Paaba, daughter of Willem Essuman Pietersen (c.1844-1914), an Elmina-Cape Coast businessman and one-time President of the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society (ARPS), a later president of which was Sekyi's uncle, Henry van Hien, whose heir Sekyi was.
Like his father, Sekyi was also educated at Mfantsipim School and and went on to study philosophy at the University of London. He was accompanied to Britain by his maternal grandfather. Sekyi was originally to study English Literature, however, a fellow student (Nigerian) persuaded him to give up English Literature in favour of Philosophy.
Lawyer Kobena Sekyi in his African cloth
After completing his philosophy degree, Sekyi returned to Gold Coast to teach for sometime and participated in the political affairs. Realizing that Gold coast has many lawyers and liberal art scholars, Sekyi went back to England in 1915 with plan to become an engineer like his mother's younger brother, J.B. Essuman-Gwira, but because his family controlled the purse strings and they wished him to study law, so that was the career he entered. He was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple in 1918 and also awarded MA in philosophy. Sekyi became a lawyer in private practice in the Gold Coast.
Lawyer Kobena Sekyi (L) in his Western dress before he became Pan-Africanist who never wear European cloth until his death in 1956 with his grandfather Willem Essuman Pietersen (ca. 1844 – 6 January 1914) also known as Willem Edmund Pietersen, was a Gold Coast merchant, politician, and educationist. He is also remembered as a goldsmith and watch repairer. Pietersen was co-founder of Mfantsipim School in Cape Coast and a one-time president of Aborigines Right Protection Society (ARPS).
It should be emphasized that Kobena Sekyi had life changing experience whilst traveling on a ship to England. It is said that "On the voyage out his boat, the SS Falaba, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and some lives were lost. Sekyi managed to get to a lifeboat, at which point a European shouted at him that he should get out of the boat, as a black man had no right to be alive when whites were drowning. It was this incident that had a profound effect on him, confirming his rejection of European pretensions to superiority.
Robert Ross in his book "Clothing: A Global History' published in 2008 citing authors White and White, "Slave Clothing" page 156 averred that "Equally, in the Gold Coast, Kobena Sekyi, a coastal lawyer, is said, in the family tradition, to have been subjected to racist racist insults when wearing a suit while being trained in London during World War I. In consequence, he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the colony to appear in court in a cloth."
Whilst practicing law in Gold Coast Sekyi married Lilly Anna Cleanand, daughter of John Peter Cleanand and Elizabeth Vroom.
SS Falaba, a British ship which was torpedoed by German U28.in 1915. Of the 145 passengers and 95 crew, 104 lives were lost. One was the American mining engineer Leon Thraser, who was returning to the Gold Coast (today: Ghana). Lawyer Kobena Sekyi was one of the lucky people who survived.
Sekyi was later elected as a president of the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society, succeeding his uncle Henry van Hien. The Gold Coast Aborigines' Rights Protection Society (ARPS) was an association critical of colonial rule, formed in 1897 in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was known. Originally formed by traditional leaders and the educated elite to protest the Crown Lands Bill of 1896 and the Lands Bill of 1897 that threatened traditional land tenure, the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society became the main political organisation that led organised and sustained opposition against the Colonial Government, laying the foundation for political action that would ultimately lead to Ghanaian independence. J. W. Sey, J. P. Brown, J. E. Casely Hayford and John Mensah Sarbah were co-founders.
ARPS prominent success was its victory against the obnoxious Land Bill of 1897 that seek to give Queen Elizabeth of England all the unoccupied lands in Gold Coast (Ghana) and also entire British West Africa in general. ARPS sent delegation to British parliament using celebrated Ghanaian (Gold Coast) lawyers and some of their Nigerian and Sierra Leonean lawyer friends to argue their case that in Africa when a land is unoccupied it does not mean the land has no owner "all you need to do is to enter an unoccupied land" or start develop it and the real owner will show up. They won their case in the British parliament and 1897 land Bill was thrown into oblivion thereby saving entire West Africa from their lands from being appropriated like what the British did in East and Southern Africa.
Kobena Sekyi ably led ARPS as a vocal mouthpiece of the Gold Coast people against British imperialism until the organization started declining in the mid-1930s and dying out finally. That saw Kobena Sekyi as the last president of ARPS. The ARPS colapsed because in the first place, it never gained strong roots beyond Cape Coast in the Central Province. For example, the society never developed in the adjoining Eastern Province. The society also remained elitist, and its decisions were made by a few individuals at the helm of the organization. Above all, the Cape Coast elite, in spite of the rapid economic transformation and social change as well as the vigorous consolidation of colonial rule, had called for radicalization of African protests and could not disengage from the old reformist protests of the nineteenth century. Thus, by the 1930s the ARPS, having lost popular support, existed as a ghost of its former self. Indeed, in the 1920s it had been taken over by the equally elitist but broader-based and more radical NCBWA, which sought to bring about fundamental change in colonial rule.
Sekyi also became an executive member of the National Congress of British West Africa after the demise of ARPS and contributed towards radical opposition to the British colonial regime. The cofounders of NCBWA included Thomas Hutton-Mills, Sr., the first President, and J. E. Casely Hayford, the first Vice-President. Other co-founders and early officials included Edward Francis Small, F. V. Nanka-Bruce, A. B. Quartey-Papafio, Henry van Hien, A. Sawyerr and Kobina Sekyi.
With the involvement of Sekyi, The Congress agitated for the establishment of a West African Court of Appeal, where judges would be nominated Africans. As a result of their demands, when
In his regard as an astute politician and celebrated Gold Coast lawyer, Kobena Sekyi was appointed as a member of the Coussey Committee for constitutional change. It must be stressed here that in 1948, a chief of Osu Alata in Accra Mantse Nii Kwabena Bonnie III led a a group of Gold Coast workers, ordinary citizens, politicians and demobilized Gold Coast soldiers to boycott all foreign goods and also a peaceful march to the Christianborg Castle to present a petition to the Governor about the plight of veterans. The veterans were shot at the Osu Christianborg crossroads resulting in three casualties; Sergeant Cornelius Frederick Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey. The riots that ensured led to the taking into custody, in remote parts of northern Gold Coast, six of the nationalist leaders of the UGCC, namely, Ako Adjei, Edward Akufo-Addo, Dr Joseph Boakye Danquah, Emmanuel Odarkwei Obetsebi-Lamptey, William Ofori-Atta and Kwame Nkrumah and the setting up of a Commission of Enquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Aitkin Watson. The detained nationalists have since then come to be known as the “Big Six”. The Watson Commission of Inquiry reported that the Burns constitution of 1946, which had granted Africans a majority in the legislative council, was “outmoded at birth.” The outcome of Watson’s Commission was an all-African committee under a eminent Gold Coast jurist and a president of West African Appeals Court Sir James Henley Coussey which was set up in December 1949 to draw up a new Constitution for the country. The recommendations of the Coussey Constitutional Committee formed the basis of the 1951 Constitution, which marked a giant step forward towards independence. It was this important Committee that lawyer Kobena Sekyi was an integral part of. It was so unfortunate that Sekyi did not live to see Ghana`s independence in 1957. He died in 1956.
In his capacity as one of the early Gold Coast writers, Kobena Sekyi famously authored a hard-hitting comedy "The Blinkards" (1915) which satirized the acceptance by a colonized society of the attitudes of the colonizers. His novel The Anglo-Fante was the first English-language novel written in the Cape Coast.
As a political theorist and playwright Kobena Sekyi predicted in the early part of the century that what was needed most for Gold Coast Africans to survive the modern world was not dwell on the dichotomy between European and African cultures, between the "civilized" and the "savage," but a pragmatic drama and concerts that creates space for critical evaluation and selective appropriation. He was of the opinion that the day when Africans were told they have to learn to speak English, eat with fork and knife, wear covered shoes and Western clothing, value nuclear family over the extended matrilineage, marry one spouse, stop paying homage to ancestors, and attend Christian churches must not portrayed to in plays and concert as the only way Africans can fully partake in the economic advantages of "progress." Unfortunately, in today`s drama world both Nollywood and Ghallywood in Nigeria and Ghana respectively are still portraying what Kobina Sekyi admonished Africans to avoid, instead of concentrating on creating space to show the rich African culture to the world.
A REVIEW OF KOBENA SEKYI`S "BLINKARDS" BY NANA FREDUA AGYEMAN
The Blinkards by Kobina Sekyi
Title: The Blinkards, A Comedy and The Anglo-Fanti - A Short Story
Author: Kobina Sekyi
Genre: Play/Short Story
Year of Publication: 1974 (this edition, 1997)
Country: Gold Coast (Now Ghana)
To understand why Kobina Sekyi, who himself was from the elite who were eagerly morphing into caricatures of hybrids, turned around to criticize the status quo, which in the beginning of the nineteenth century marked the borderline between civilisation and bushmen up to today, one needs to read about his biography above.
The Blinkards is a satirical play written in English and interspersed with Fanti (all the Fantis have been translated on the left hand side of the page or the even-numbered pages). It tells of the consequences of blindly mimicking the European culture.
Mrs. Borɔfosεm (someone who exhibits too much European tendencies in his/her actions) eats only European foods, though we know that at several points in time she yearns for locally prepared food such as roasted plantain. She goes everywhere in a frock, boots with an umbrella and a lorgnette. Though she speaks bad English, she does so with a forced English accent. As a wife to Mr. Borɔfosεm, she forces him to behave as an Europeanised man: smoking cigar, eschewing local foods and dresses.
Mr. Tsiba (a cocoa farmer) brought her daughter to Mrs. Borɔfosεm to train so that her daughter would become just like her and this Mrs. Borɔfosεm did with eagerness, instilling in her 'proper' English mannerism. Later, Miss Tsiba met a young man, who to attract her attention as an Europeanised man, had also gone to work with Mr. Onyimdze - a lawyer who avoided anything European except those that are germane to the execution of his profession such as the wearing of black gowns and white curled wigs.
As the play goes on we find that the two (the young man Okadu and Miss Tsiba) finally met at a garden party thrown by Mrs. Borɔfosεm and there and then got engaged in manner of one they had read from an English novel (without the presence of any family member). Mrs Borɔfosεm told Mr Tsiba that her daughter was about to marry and that he, Mr. Tsiba, had to buy the clothes for the impending wedding. He got furious but calmed down when he was told that it was the ways of the Europeans for the bridegroom's father to purchase the clothes for the bride and bridegroom. When Na Sompa (wife to Mr. Tsiba) heard the news she got furious and insulted Okadu. It was in the middle of one of such vituperations that she got a heart-attack and died. Nana Katawerwa, hearing that her daughter (Na Sompa) was dead and her granddaughter was marrying without following tradition stormed the chapel and disrupted the whole program.
Nana Katawerwa refused to let Miss Tsiba into her 'husband's' house. Later Miss Tsiba was to marry another man through the traditional mode. This infuriated Okadu, who got grandmother and granddaughter arrested. The case went to court and Nana Katawerwa and her daughter won under the exposition of the Native Law.
The story is deep and borders on several aspects of our lives. It is a pity that the situation still pertains today. People cannot speak their local language properly and yet would do everything to show that they can speak English including faking the voice. It is easier to see people in three piece suits walking under the scorching sun. Still the borderline between enlightenment and colloquialism is measured by how much one has adopted Christian and European values. But there is hope: gradually people are changing, people are finding their roots... it is a slow process now but it would work out. It is the language that is becoming a problem. There is a former presidential candidate who changed his name from Joseph Houston-Yorke (yes he is a Fanti) to his local name.
The Anglo-Fanti Short Story
Like The Blinkards, this story concerns blind assimilation of European culture. It's about a boy who was brought up to become an aficionado of European mannerisms, while shunning African culture. Following this path and learning very hard he got a scholarship to London where he studied Law. Whilst there he realised that London was not all that they say it is. There are classes and divisions and the people they imitated are on the lower scale of their social ladder. He also recognises, that no matter what he did he was described as a savage especially when people began asking whether he wore clothes or not (and they do now ask Naipaul!).
"It does not take him long to find out that he is regarded as a savage, even by the starving unemployable who asks him for alms. Amusing questions are often put to him as to whether he wore clothes before he came to England; whether it was safe for white men to go to his country since the climate was unsuitable to civilised people; whether wild animals wandered at large in the streets of his native town." (page 230)
However, there were many Africans who also came to a similar disillusionment when they saw England with their own eyes; yet these group began to accept these disconcerting matters as incidental to civilisation.
"... but if his friends, even those who had been similarly disillusioned, have begun to accept certain disconcerting matters as incidental to civilisaiton, and instead of arguing from the unpleasantness of such incidents to the inherent unwholesomeness of that to which they are incidental, they conclude somewhat perversely that whoever cannot explain cannot explain away such unpleasantness is not civilised. " (page 231)
Time came for Kwesi Onyidzin (Kwesi without a name) - known as Edward Cudjoe - to come to Gold Coast and to Cape Coast. His family were all expecting him to behave like an European man. So when he set down to work and began wearing native dresses and eat native foods they became disappointed in him. Some even considered him mad. Others made it their duty to show him the way. After he was virtually thrust into marriage, it became his wife's pursuit to force her husband to behave like an European. Later, she resorted to the cooking of European foods and throwing of garden parties. Working harder and ever harder to avoid these incidents, Kwesi Onyidzin broke down.
The issue of cultural invasion is one that has taken the world by storm especially in these days of globalisation. Should there be a universal earth culture? and who would determine what should be in such a culture? or each country should keep its culture? Are other cultures at a threat from European culture? These are questions we need to ask. Culture is something you are born into. It grows with you. Yet people who were born outside of it like VS Naipaul and other aliens who spend a day or two in ones country, only to label their culture as backward, are either insane or mentally distabilised. To me such behaviours and thoughts are infantile and express nothing save folly. Ignorance is no sin yet ignorance expressed in hatred or bad language is stupidity.
This story is purely narrative with no dialogue in it. If you love a narrative novel I recommend this to you. If you are a staunch believer of the communalism rather than individualism, I recommend it to you. If you believe in selective cultural absorption, incising certain unproductive parts of culture and replacing it with tested ones not just dumping the whole into the society, I recommend this to you.