A Long Journey to Ashesi
March 14, 2012, 4:41 pm
Filed under: 10th Anniversary

By John E. Gaustad. Professor of Astronomy (Emeritus), Swarthmore College

One of the suggestions for this series was to write about “What Brought Me to Ashesi?” If  the interrogative pronoun is changed from “What” to “Who”, my answer would be John F. Kennedy. Let me explain.

In 1961 I was a graduate student at Princeton University, training for an academic career of teaching and research in astronomy. One day a notice appeared on a university bulletin board inviting interested persons to come down to a certain office and fill out a questionnaire that would help the organizers of a new government agency, called the Peace Corps, ascertain what kinds of people might be interested. Several of us students, inspired by Kennedy’s speeches and the Peace Corps idea, decided we were “that kind of person”, and went to the address listed. Little did we know that what was advertised as a questionnaire would actually be interpreted as an application! A month later, some of us received a letter saying “Congratulations! You have been chosen for the first Peace Corps mission to Ghana.”

With more than a year to go before finishing my thesis research and obtaining a Ph.D., I  could not accept this invitation.  But my interest in teaching in Africa remained. I finished my degree, spent two years doing post-doctoral research,  and in 1964 I was hired as a Lecturer in Mathematics (my first actual teaching job) at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  I spent three years there teaching Mathematics, Physics,  and General Science, as well as Astronomy. This was not with Peace Corps, but as a direct-hire, which turned out to be an advantage, for with the same salary and perks as a Nigerian lecturer, I felt I could speak my mind about policies and programs without being labeled a foreign interventionist.

Living, working, and traveling in West Africa (I actually passed through Accra on one summer holiday in 1965) taught me many things, and widened my horizons. I learned (and I eventually admitted) that I was from a European culture, even though I was an American. I learned about the support of the African’s extended family – in some cases an entire village had contributed the funds to send one of their own to university. On the other hand, a university graduate had obligations to his family, and many a bright student, perfectly capable of graduate study abroad, went instead to earn money in the oil industry so that a younger relative might also have the chance to study. I learned about young Nigerians’ pride and sense of humor: “Sir”, a student asked in an astrophysics class one day, “you’ve been talking about this concept of ‘perfect black-body radiation’. Does that mean we are more perfect than you are?” Most of my memories of this time are happy ones, but some are sad, as I had to stand by and watch as political and ethnic conflict led up to civil war – my last three paychecks had stamped on them “University of Biafra” in place of “University of Nigeria”.

I returned to the United States in 1967 to take a job as Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.  Although I maintained an  interest in Africa, corresponding with several Nigerian friends and former students,  and visiting or being visited by those who came to the U.S. for further study, even returning to Nigeria for a brief visit in 1975, my attention for 15 years shifted primarily to developing my career as an astronomer. Only after I moved  to Pennsylvania and the small liberal arts college of Swarthmore (having married in the meantime), did I get involved again with international students. At that time the College had the policy of completely closing its dormitories during the academic breaks, leaving the international students (unless invited home by an American) to scramble for temporary housing. We had a large house, and ended up hosting people from several different countries, as many as eight at once during one summer break. It was a great experience for my wife and me, especially since we had a house rule that anyone staying more than three nights had to cook! Patrick Awuah (though I may have met him once or twice) was not among those who lived with us, though other Ghanaians were, and in any case we became well-connected with the international student community. My wife’s notebook shows that over 130 individuals stayed with us at different times during this 18-year period at Swarthmore. Some still spend the Christmas holidays with us.

Thus, when in 2003 a reference appeared in a Swarthmore publication about a graduate founding a new university in Ghana, it caught my attention. Upon reading the Seattle Times article referred to, I was so impressed with what Patrick had done that I immediately wrote Swarthmore’s Vice-President, Maurice Eldridge, saying “surely someone has nominated this young man for an honorary degree”. “No,” replied Eldridge, “why don’t you?”, so I did. And Swarthmore responded in the affirmative by awarding Patrick the degree of Doctor of Laws at its 2004 commencement ceremony. Aside from recognizing Patrick’s considerable achievement, I wanted to show the graduating seniors that one doesn’t have to wait until becoming old and gray (Patrick was still in his 30s when Ashesi opened its doors) in order to achieve something important in this world, and by the look on the graduates’ faces I think that message was received.

In his address to Swarthmore’s senior class, Patrick accepted his degree with characteristic humility, saying “I see this honor, not necessarily as recognition of my achievements to date, but rather, as a statement of Swarthmore’s belief in what I might yet accomplish.” And he charged the graduates to remember that they were an “inheritance that Swarthmore college is giving to the world, not just for today, but for generations to come”, for “in the words of King Solomon, a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children.”

Having attended the dedication of Ashesi’s permanent campus in August, 2011, and having talked with students and alumni during that visit, I believe Patrick Awuah has already fulfilled Solomon’s definition of a good man. And, although I am certain that there is no direct connection, he has answered the call of my hero, John F. Kennedy, to “ask what you can do for your country, not what your country can do for you”.  In Patrick’s case, he has not only done something wonderful for his country, but also for his continent, and probably for the world. Were he alive today, JFK would be pleased, I’m sure. And so am I – I am both pleased to see what has been accomplished at Ashesi so far, and proud of the small part I have played in its beginning.

Congratulations, Ashesi, on reaching your first decennial. I will not see your centennial, but by then I am sure your sons and daughters will have spread the concept of ethical leadership far and wide. Keep up the good work.


1 Comment so far
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Perceptive comment on the Africa’s extended family system and a very useful piece that provides a capsule account of contemporary Africa’s evolution from the heady sixties to the resurgent now!!! I enjoyed reading this!!!

Comment by Lloyd Amoah

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