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Your deed is done – Gabby Otchere-Darko eulogises late father, Barima Okyere Boateng

Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko

Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko at the burial service for his late father, Barima Okyere Boateng

I saw a few missed calls from my stepmother, whom we affectionately call Ma Felicia, on the morning of Independence Day, Saturday 6 March 2021. She had bad news. That my dad fell down the previous evening and was still unconscious.

Ma Felicia had travelled to Accra to visit her daughter Angelina Adjoa Ayim, who lost her own daughter, Ama Adoma Amu Lartey, 14, to cancer, a couple of months earlier. Ma Felicia returned late that Friday night to her husband who was fast asleep, ostensibly. She was told by his carers that earlier in the evening, around 5pm, her husband, with no remarkable history of high blood pressure, got hypertensively hysterical over a personal item he could not locate – a particular pair of shoes.

Odd for an old man, whose footwear of choice for the past decade or so were purely sandals. Boiling with rage, he fell down, so the carers carried him to his bed to rest. It was only in the morning when his wife noticed his breathing was abnormal that she realised there was something terribly wrong, more than 14 hours after what turned out to be a fatal haemorrhagic stroke.

 

He was taken to the Regional Hospital, Koforidua, in the morning; stabilised and transferred to Accra that afternoon by the municipal ambulance to the A&E of the University of Ghana Medical Centre, where I had been waiting with my good friend over the years Dr Jojo Takyi, the emergency doctor there. For the 37 days that Daddy was at the intensive care unit at UGMC, under the excellent care of Dr Ernest Ofosu Appiah, Dr Teddy Tottimeh, Dr Aba Lawson, respiratory therapist Nasirdeen Mulla, PNO Joan and all the brilliant nurses, among others, Daddy did not once get close to regaining consciousness.

It was a difficult period for his wife, children and other loved ones. Seven of his eight children live overseas. Yes, oh! Those who pray did, those who could fast, I presume, did: the few who could fly over to visit him did. Ma Felicia moved from Koforidua to be near her husband to visit him daily at the ICU. The visits by his first and last borns (Yaa Maggie from London and Boatemaa from Johannesburg) were for me profound in making the eventual closure a little easier to accept. We all hoped that he would regain consciousness. But even then, we dreaded the quality of life he would have because of the extent of bleeding in the brain and the damage from that.

 

President Akufo-Addo and the First Lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, Vice-President Bawumia and the Second Lady, Samira Bawumia, seated at the burial service

 

Two weeks after Daddy’s illness, I visited Koforidua to see how his house could be prepared for the specialised care we anticipated he would require after leaving hospital. I am not the superstitious kind, but something eerily struck me. Two big, ancient trees that stood majestically in the compound of his house had been uprooted the previous day. The instructions, I believe, were to trim; not to kill. Alas! they chose to fell Obrempong … It hit me as if Daddy’s soul had been sawn off and uprooted from the surface of this earth. Tellingly, as I left his home with deep anger mixed with sadness, it felt heavily painful that he might not see his home again. All in all, those 37 days in ICU were the most uncomfortable for me since 2009.

In 2009, my mother, Oheneba Sophia Afia Kyerewaa Ofori-Atta, went through a similar earthly closure. She suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage and stayed unconscious for three weeks in the ICU at the 37 Military Hospital before brain and lungs shut down completely. My dad would come to her ICU bedside and pinch mum so hard, hoping to trigger a conscious reaction, but all we got was a troubling substratal shrill. Those days, no hospital in Ghana could perform clipping, surgery to treat a ruptured aneurysm. Mum suffered another rupture while in a coma, this time fatally, happening just the day before we had scheduled for her to be flown to Germany for clipping and further treatment. To have your mother and father go the same way can be quite discombobulating.

My Oyoko parents

Both my parents were royals from the Oyoko clan. In my research into my lineage I came across this version. That, the name Oyoko comes from the phrase “wawe skoo” and in Fante language they say “Oyo ko”, meaning you have “chewed your own buffalo”. That was when some families of the Ekoona clan married each other and suffered the consequence of being banished from the community. Ekoo means buffalo, symbolising uprightness.

I was told one of the reasons why my mother’s brothers, notably William Ofori-Atta (Paa Willie), who visited the couple in Germany, and Fraser Ofori-Atta, were not for the marriage between my mum and dad was that they were both Oyoko royals, so their marriage was clannishly incestuous. But the relationship itself was too tempestuous to survive in any event.

Considering Asafo Adjei (the first leader of New Juaben), son of the late King Boateng of Juaben, who married his own cousin, Sarpomaa, Queen of Juaben, managed to succeed her upon her death as de facto king of Juaben, in clear violation of the traditional usage of matrilineal succession, I find that case by my uncles against the marriage as merely a convenient excuse to help end a bad situation.

The Juaben-Akyem bond

But Paa Willie, in a sort of snotty Ofori-Atta-esque way, did not particularly approve of the Okyere-Darkos, Mother once told me. In retrospect, he was old enough in the 1930s to remember the “rude” resistance, in particular, of the Mmrotuohene at the time. Barima Okyere Darko, Daddy’s revered great- uncle, put up against attempts by the Okyenhene, Nana Ofori Atta I (Paa Willie’s father and my maternal grandfather), to get the people of New Juaben to pay rent to the Ofori Panin Stool in Kyebi.

The New Juaben State sits on Akyem land which was given to the refugees from Asante Juaben in 1875. Asanteman had been rocked heavily by the Sagrenti War the previous year, and Asantehene had cause to complain as far back as in March 1874 to the colonial administrator about moves by King Amoako Atta I to instigate rebellion or support rebels within Asanteman. The same month, Lieutenant Colonel J Maxwell wrote to the Okyenhene, cautioning him not to “encourage or permit any more Asantees to revolt and come into your country for protection”. His successor, the acting administrator C C Lees, felt the need to repeat this six weeks later on 12 May 1874, in a churlish letter to King Amoako Atta I. Lees wrote:

“The King of Ashantee has sent to inform me that you are encouraging and assisting the Quarhoo people and others in taking up arms against the King of Ashantee. I am very sorry to learn this, as a letter was sent to you in March last telling you that … you were not to encourage or permit any more Ashantees to revolt and come into your territory for protection. You will on receipt of this at once put a stop to these proceedings and remain quiet until I send you the instructions that may arrive from England.”

The anticipated quietude was not easily achieved, though. For consistently planning attacks against the Asante Kingdom from his Akyem base, Asafo Agyei had to be deported to Lagos twice, where he died in exile. Until 1932, the New Juaben area was held by the migrants under two tenures. The southern portion held on the basis of arrangements made by the colonial government with the chief of Kukurantumi, under the authority of the Okyenhene, between 1875 and 1882, and the northern portion purchased by the government in 1894 and 1895, also from the chief of Kukurantumi and occupied under licence by the New Juabens.

Before the previous Juaben refugees left Kyebi, where they had moved to from 1832 to 1839, to return to Asante, their leader, King Boateng, swore an oath of everlasting friendship and fraternity with the Abuakwa people and their queen, Nana Dokua, and promised that his people would never participate in any hostilities against Akyem Abuakwa. Besides the occasional flexing of muscles, and isolated incidents, peace has endured to this day. It was the attempt to tax the Juabens that led to unrest between the two sides in the 1920s and 1930s, marked by petitions, litigations, arrests, imprisonment and even some violence. The situation could not have been helped subsequently when Koforidua was chosen cheekily as the regional capital, instead of Kyebi.

But from Okyenhene Nana Dokua in the early 1800s to the incumbent New Juabenhene, Daasebre Oti Boateng, who also married from Kyebi, the Akyems and Juabens have been good neighbours and partners. It is this ancient marriage between the two peoples that bore me. So even as we mourn the death of my dad, we must also celebrate this enduring bond that was struck between Queen Dokua of Akyem Abuakwa and King Boateng of Juaben some 200 years ago. It reminds us of a oneness between Asantes and Akyems which, on a broader scale, also reflects the beauty, sanctity and unity of our nation, a sacred communion of states and peoples, which must never, ever be lost on us. The ethnic diversity of my father’s female partners underlines this: his two children with an Asona woman from Koforidua, a daughter with a Ga-Dangme woman from Ada Foah, a son with an Akyem princess fom Kyebi and Akakum, and four daughters with a Guan woman from Larteh. After which he spent his last 35 years or so with Ma Felicia, a woman whose father was from Dodoekope, near Ada, and mother from Atiavi in the Keta District. We are, indeed, one nation, one people, whose destinies are tied.

My Dad and I

My dad and I had an interesting relationship. Growing up, I thought he was too strict and he thought I was too much of a rascal. Admittedly, we were both right about each other. We got closer as we both got older and got to understand each other better. Indeed, it is clear to me that those ways of his which I resented are responsible for the responsible and disciplined man that I have become today. He was extremely brainy. I would like to hope that a bit of it rubbed off on to me. He was a strong debater, arguing with a compelling mixture of passion and facts. He was a jolly good dancer; a lover of good music. He walked with a swagger and dressed smartly. These are just a few of the many things I admired about my father and tried to emulate in my own modest way. At least I tried …

However, I grew up as an intensely wrathy child, subconsciously. Outwardly, I had a relatively happy childhood. But underneath it all was a seething inner anger. Angry because I felt alone and lonely, even among siblings or cousins. Angry because I missed out on growing up with both my parents and under one roof. Though blessed with lovely siblings, 11 in all (four from Mum and seven from Dad), I am the only child from Mum and Dad. I was upset with my parents inwardly and had my own ways of showing it. Troubled by this, I became a troublesome child. Both parents struggled to contain me in their respective homes. Indeed, I grew up as, more or less, in my own little way, a rebel with a cause that was not so clear to even the rebel himself! I remember promising myself not to follow the path of my parents and set a better example for them and myself by having all my children with one woman under the same roof. Well, after five children from three mothers from three countries … one can only be philosophical now.

 

A cross-section of friends and sympathisers at he burial service

 

Daddy prepared me

It was only in my mid-twenties that I began to understand Mum and Dad. Unconscious to me, Daddy was preparing me to be a strong, independent man. A leader and not a follower. A doer, not a loafer. A big-picture man, not petty-minded. A man of steel, not straw. It was never as if both parents didn’t love me, or didn’t care about and for me. They did not separate to spite me. It was nobody’s fault that their temperaments and upbringing clashed. I was simply a victim of a marriage of two young immigrants in Europe that failed. But, for them, the welfare of their children was always and ever paramount.

My dad’s own tribute to my late mum in 2009 explained it well: “Sophia Ofori-Atta (or Sophy) and I met as two young students in Bonn, West Germany, in the year 1964. In fact, we met at a party organised by Mrs Baffoe, mother of the former football star Tony Baffoe. We were very much attracted to each other and in the next year moved to Düsseldorf together …

“Right from the beginning of our relationship, it was very obvious how much Sophy loved her children. It sounds funny now, but it wasn’t at the time: one time I left money for her to use to pay our rent, which we paid quarterly. Three months later we got an eviction notice for non-payment of rent. I asked her what she did with the money. She just had this mischievous grin on her face. She had used the money to pay for the boarding fees of her first born, Doreen, who was then in school in England.”

As a sign of things to come, my Scythian childhood began even before I was born. My parents had me 54 years ago in Chelsea, London, when, in fact, they both lived together as husband and wife in Düsseldorf, West Germany. In my dad’s own words, “Since we were both young and students, pregnant Sophy was invited to London, England, by her uncle, the late Nana Kwabena Marfo, a legal practitioner (who later became Okyenhene Nana Ofori-Atta II), where she gave birth to Gabby.” From then I never settled in any one place until I was old enough to define my own destiny.

My dad qualified as a doctor the very year that I was born. But their relationship lasted only a year after my birth, with my mum moving to Bern, Switzerland, to pursue a course in macrobiology. Fortunately, both didn’t waste time finding alternative love and marriage, with my mum having two more children with the calm and accommodating paediatrician Dr Frank Ayim, from Koforidua and Abomoso, and my dad having four more with the calm and beautiful but mercurial Margaret Appiah from Koforidua and Larteh. So, by the age of 18, I’d spent my upbringing nomadically, between my mum and dad, in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and in Ghana, and more so with others on my mum’s side, namely Grandma Akosua Ahyia, Uncle K D Ofori-Atta and Auntie Emily Ofori-Atta, all of blessed memory – in short, unsettling periods in Koforidua, Kyebi, Sunyani, Kumasi and Accra.

 

Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia and the Second Lady, Samira Bawumia, reading through the service brochure

 

He was a good man

Daddy was a good man. Knowing what I came to know as an adult, if I were given the opportunity to choose my dad it would be him again. Not the lovey-dovey kind, though, but genuinely kind. He lost his own mother, Odehyie Akosua Dufie, who used to pamper him, when he was barely 14. His parents had divorced long before she died. His father, Opanyin Kwame Okyere of Baamang, was neither around, nor was he minded to step in and step up after Grandma Dufie died. This hardened the young teenager, who had to depend on scholarships, his sister, girlfriend and great-uncle to see him through secondary education. Daddy had to defer his sixth-form education for a year to work to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. By the time he left for Germany in 1960, he’d already two children of his own to cater for, Yaa Maggie and Yaw Sakyi.

After twenty years in Europe, and five more children there, my dad bid auf wiedersehen to Germany to move to Ghana in 1980, where he had his last born, Josephine. I was enrolled at St Peter’s College, Nkwatia, the same year, where I picked up the blasphemous-sounding nickname GOD, because my dad insisted that my initials should be on all my belongings, including my pairs of white underwear.

One thing that I am mightily grateful to my father for is that, in spite of my obvious rascality, he saw in me a Fred Harkness, that character in Michael Croft’s 1954 novel, Spare the Rod. A rebellious, skinny scallywag, but talented enough to aspire to something better on leaving school. If only he could be guided and guarded …

Like my mum, my dad was uncompromising on education. For him, the three things that mattered were (1) education, (2) skills, (3) profession. If you don’t want to be in his good books, then stay away from your books. However, in approach, he was the exact opposite of my mum. He believed frugality prepares the child. He would spend his last pesewa to give his children the best of education, but don’t expect any spare change. He would not exactly spare the rod either. For Daddy, children needed just enough to survive to toughen them up, while my mum was the mollycoddling kind of a parent.

Perhaps, more interested in showing off that “this is the son of an Ofori-Atta, Princess Afia Kyerewaa’s son”. My dad, for instance, had big issues filling up my chopbox for boarding school. For him, the focus was to chop down on the list of items rather than to fill it with a lot of things to chop. If you complained he would snap, “Didn’t even get that when I was at St Augustine’s College!” I would respond cheekily, “But, Dad! Your daddy was not a doctor! Mine is!” Thankfully, one of the few advantages of having your parents separated was that you could take from here and take from there, as well.

My dad’s tragedy

My dad’s tragedy, in my view, was that he was let down by Ghana and, even more importantly, by those he loved and trusted. For a man whose only focus while in Germany was to move back home, it was such a sad irony that between 1960, when my dad left Ghana, and 2006, when he retired and returned, he only got to spend about ten years in his own country altogether. He was compelled by undesired circumstances to spend most of his time using his skilful hands and mind to heal the sick in foreign lands.

This has even continued today with his eight children (four of them in the medical profession), scattered on and rooted in three continents, with only one child, myself, currently resident in Ghana.

Sadly, it is a story that some parents and grandparents in Ghana are all too familiar with, especially the middle class: you invest heavily to educate your children all the way to study abroad; they get their fine degrees over there, get stuck, build their lives there, leaving their ageing parents far away in Ghana here in their last years on this earth; a time in their lives where they expect weekend visits from their children and grandchildren, especially.

Daddy was a workaholic. Perhaps, besides Akufo-Addo, Daddy was the most hard-working man I ever knew. And, he could still find the occasional time to indulge. In the 1970s, as a young doctor, Daddy took a bedsit apartment near his workplace, St Josef’s Hospital, Dortmund. There was a period when he would leave his home in rustic Menden, near Bonn, on Monday and return Friday, working routinely 16 hours a day. In those days, he earned on an average 13,000 Deutschmarks a month, an amount that could buy a terrace house in Germany or England at the time. But, he did none of that and saved it all to invest his money back home in Ghana.

But those he trusted to grow his businesses and protect his wealth ended up eating the seeds or killing the sprout from neglect. What was left fell hostage to the era where wealth was prone to being “criminalised”. If owning two toilets in Airport Residential Area in 1982 was bad, then owning to two Mercedes Benz saloon cars, with a fleet of commercial vehicles in Koforidua, was understandably abominable, notably under the watch of the notorious bully Warrant Officer Class I Yaw Nkwantabisa. Daddy was forced to leave his home in Ghana for refuge in America. But America was not for him. Depressed, he returned to Ghana a couple of years after he was assured that those harassing him had found something else with which to occupy themselves.

He was already a frustrated patriot. Dad always had tea, bread with marmalade and two boiled eggs for breakfast before heading to work. There got to a time in Ghana that getting bread and sugar was a real struggle. I remember only a few enterprising women with deep “connections”, like Auntie Love, the wife of the Omanhene, Kwaku Boateng II, had access to scarce commodities like flour and sugar to retail in Koforidua. A chain Rothmans smoker at the time, Dad would stand alone on the huge balcony at home, deep in thought, puffing his frustration up and away, but in a seemingly recycling smoke. Trapped by his own choice to return home to contribute. Surely, this was not the Ghana he was eager to return to and it was obvious he felt guilty for bringing his children back home at the time he did, at the beginning of the ill-fated, short-lived Limann administration. Yet, the ship had sailed and he needed to be strong for his family and encourage his children to look to the future with hope.

I remember a call he made from Koforidua to me at home in Oxford in 1987, putting up a thinly disguised brave voice and yet sounding candidly hopeful that the economic liberalisation path that the PNDC had embarked on, through the Structural Adjustment Programme, was the right path. He believed it would soon lead Ghana to democratic rule. His enduring optimism was not misplaced. Yet, two years later, divorced and alone at home with four dependent girls, whose mother had left them behind for Europe, his own difficult economic situation pushed him to leave Ghana once again, this time for South Africa, where he remained in relative comfort, serenity and homesickness, all in equal measure, for 17 years.

Done deed

Dad’s migration coincided with the dramatic changes beginning that same year in South Africa. Indeed, he was inspired by signs of imminent change in South Africa to move there when he did in 1989. This was at a time the South African economy was itself struggling with the effects of the internal and external boycotts, as well as the burden of its military commitment in occupying Namibia. The ruling National Party had just forced Prime Minister P W Botha to resign. In his first address to Parliament in February 1990, F W de Klerk did the inevitable by lifting the ban on the ANC and others, and allowing press freedom. Shortly after, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years on 11 February 1990. Daddy’s last two daughters, Daisy and Josephine, joined him in SA, where they both continued their education to qualify as a lawyer and doctor, respectively. His deed was done.

 

 

I did not see my dad much until 2006 when he retired to Ghana. I had the priceless opportunity to catch up on some precious moments with him when he moved into my home in East Legon, Accra, for most of 2013. He spoke frankly about how his plans after Germany didn’t really work out but felt content that his children turned out well. For him, it was the most pleasing of all his earthly deeds, equalled only by the many lives, mostly of strangers, he saved as a doctor. His deed was, indeed, done.

“I lost it all in the 1980s, but I had the future of my children to energise me and my profession to fall back on. For me, you can strip me bare of everything but not my education,” he once told me and Nana Doquea, my third daughter, without a trace of bitterness. Always ready to find a bright side to blight, Daddy said to me once at the dining table, “Yaw, Ghana had to go through that period of struggle and structural crisis management for us to appreciate the Fourth Republic, which has now endured more than any other. Once we have peace, stability and freedom, we will get there. We will get there …” he repeated, as if to reassure himself.

The only wristwatch that my dad ever wore was a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that my mum gave to him in 1965. And it is the only watch that I wear when I do. I pray that you both watch over us, your descendants …

Barima Okyere Boateng, your daughter-in-law Nana Adjoa, your grandchildren Gabriella, Jasper, Afrakoma, Nana Doquea, Nana Kow, your great-granddaughter Lilja and I are proud of you and privileged to have come from your stock, and we will love you always. We shall miss the sound of your music.

Rest well, Daddy.
Your deed is done,
Done and done well.
The sun has gone to bed.
And so must you, Dad!
Hamba Kahle, go well.
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Goodbye!

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