Oxbridge, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest, wealthiest, and most famous universities in the United Kingdom, was never part of my parlance and wildest imagination as a Zongo man from Maamobi, Accra. What I do remember about these two institutions was in my childhood days when my father, Anthony Prempeh (deceased) told me about the importance of using the Cambridge Dictionary to master the English language.
At West Africa Secondary School, established in 1946 and relocated to Adenta in 1987, my colleagues and I were given a Cambridge Dictionary (as students from 1999-2001). Since then, Cambridge was canonised in my mind as one of the best universities in the world. But I never dreamed about ever visiting the United Kingdom, not to even imagine attending Cambridge, which together with Oxford, constitutes the pride of the English people.
Later in 2009 at the Institute of African Studies, the name Oxbridge became synonymous with British imperialism in Africa. I recall friends who would damn Oxford and Cambridge as the superstructures of imperialist philosophy (later these same colleagues were frantically searching for an opportunity to study at Oxbridge). This banality of thought was similarly expressed by one Pan-Africanist when he visited Wolfson College, my college in Cambridge. Based on a friend’s recommendation, in 2018 I had invited this UK-based Ghanaian Pan-Africanist to give a lecture in commemoration of four centuries of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in America in 1619. We planned to have the event ahead of the following year 2019.
To my surprise, this Pan-Africanist had the balls and temerity to keep referring to Cambridge, established in 1209, as a colonial institution that visited evils on Africa. He said all this in front of Wolfson College administrators and a few Cambridge scholars. I was ashamed as the Master of Ceremonies. So, when I had the chance to comment, I found a way of neutralising his imperious argument with a bit of history.
After the event, as if to give me a piece of fatherly advice, this man told me that, "Don't take the things you learn in Cambridge, just get your certificate." At this point, I knew I had met one of those extremist Pan-Africanists!
I wondered whether this Pan-Africanist knew about the role of Cambridge in training Africanists. For example, The University of Cambridge trained one of the foremost Pan-Africanists, Joseph Casely Ephraim Hayford. Casely Hayford is also the patron of Casely Hayford Hall, the only male hall of gentlemen at the University of Cape Coast. Graciously, I am a proud Casfordian. I know my senior Cantab, Dr Njoki Wamai, who pioneered the Black Cantab, has a collection of early Africans to study in Cambridge.
To return my journey to Cambridge: My application to receive education at the University of Cambridge was an afterthought, since I have said above, I never dreamed of ever attending this globally recognised prestigious university. In fact, I was forced to apply to the University of Cambridge following multiple pressures from Dr Milliam Kiconco, my co-president at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University – Uganda.
I began my doctoral studies at MISR in January 2014. The Institute is arguably the best in Africa in terms of the rigorous and quality of academic work. MISR was established in 1948 as more or less the research arm of the colonial state, led by illustrious anthropologists, Audrey I. Richards and Lloyds Fallers. Later in 2010, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, an American-trained academic, took over the Institute as its director and introduced an American-type of doctoral training to nurture young African scholars from the continent.
Professor Mamdani’s vision was that these scholars would remain in Africa after they train to advance their African intellectual renaissance.
This vision was based on Mamdani’s despair that Africa continues to lose its brilliant students to the west after these students migrate out of the continent for postgraduate studies. Those who return also struggle to resettle in African institutions. In 2011, MISR, therefore, attracted about 10 of the best brains of students on the continent to begin their doctoral studies. The programme came with a juicy scholarship package which included accommodation, healthcare, transportation, meals, tuition, and stipend. It was, indeed, a great scholarship that implied that no student was allowed to work, while on the programme. This was even impossible, anyways.
I was fortunate to have joined the Institute on January 6, 2014, as the first Ghanaian at the time. The academic rigour at MISR was the best I had seen in my entire academic life. The programme is for a five-year duration – two years of course work, one year of teaching and writing of comprehensive exams, a year of fieldwork, and another year of writing a dissertation. The course work was so demanding that, we the students were reading not less than 150-page text a week and wrote response papers on every reading, submitted mid-term papers, and end of term papers, which together constituted cumulative grade point. In addition to all this, any grade below “B” was a good condition to send any student, regardless of the “As” they had recorded, home.
As an interdisciplinary PhD in Social Studies, we were reading virtually all the courses in the humanities, including Popular Culture, Political History, Political Philosophy, Political Economy, Anthropology, Race and Decolonization, History, Gender, and Philosophy. Given the academic stress at the Institute, most of us students, including teaching fellows, never knew weekends. For a whole one year on the programme, I never attended church service. Most of my colleagues suffered what became known as "system breakdown" – regular sickness. For me, it was worst because I had three surgeries in the first two years while I was at MISR.
After enduring the academic discipline, real discipline or “mental torture” for two years, alongside living in excruciating pains from the surgeries I had, I recorded 9As and 3B+s. I also became the president of the defunct Student Union at the Institute. My election, which coincided with institutional politics at MISR – when things were falling apart – was primarily to defend the interest of students. This was precisely because Professor Mamdani, for whatever reasons, began targeting some students to victimise. The scholarship started losing its pristine, as drastic austere measures were adopted by Mamdani that resulted in a substantive cut in the scholarship package.
Unfortunately, Professor Mamdani’s threats against students crystallised during my tenure as the president of the Student Union. I, therefore, had the responsibility as a reincarnated Nkrumah, as my colleagues called me, to liberate the situation. The test of my leadership came in 2015 when one of my Ugandan colleagues, Balunywa Mahir, recorded 3 "Bs" in three courses. Upon that, Professor Mamdani wrote to him to get ready to leave the programme. This was at the time when we were almost done with our coursework.
My friend, Balunywa then appealed to me for redress. After consulting the entire student body, we agreed on the need for me to write to remind Professor Mamdani about the rules of the Institute, particularly about grading. Sadly, at this point, the revived Union started showing signs of disunity, as some of the continuing students became spies of Mamdani. These students become fifth columnists in our midst. One of such students was Yusuf Serunkuma – who later became the persona non-grata of Mamdani to the point of winning a court case against Mamdani.
I stepped in to redeemed the situation and wrote a letter to Professor Mamdani to politely remind him that he had miscommunicated MISR rules to my colleague. But because Professor Mamdani left for a lecture tour in Asia soon after he had communicated to Balunywa, I had to address my letter to Dr Lawyer Kafureeka. Dr Kafureeka, his assistant, saw the wisdom of my argument and yet failed to act. Dr Kafureeka failure to act on the letter at a time when tension was brewing at the Institute was because, like most of the scholars at MISR and the Makerere University, he did not want to get in the way of Mamdani.
So, my letter had to wait until Professor Mamdani returned. Upon Mamdani’s return, he grudgingly admitted that he was wrong. I guess the question he asked himself was: “How could a non-entity like Prempeh, defeat me, when no one, not even Idi Amin, who terminated his citizenship, had ever succeeded in doing that.” But his admission of error in communication to my colleague, unfortunately, made me the evil one before him. He saw me as a threat to his dictatorship and self-imposed semi-divine persona. He, therefore, demonically strategized to marginalise me. He refused to write to support a prestigious fellowship I had won through hard work and God’s grace from the Social Science Research Council in 2016. He also imposed himself on my research committee as the lead supervisor.
In addition to the above, whenever I submitted my comprehensive essay for examination to transition from PhD student to a candidacy, he would reject it with trite excuses. In all this, I would go his office and pleaded with him to act like a supervisor. There were times, I would ask him if I had wronged him. He would respond that I had not wronged him. But in all this, I would still continue to apologise to him – just to finish my programme. I did in line with the “idiotic philosophy” of a “foolish vulture” who prolongs his lifespan by eating from the rubbish dump.
None the less, given that dictators are incorrigible dictators from their hearts and after such rejections of my essays, which most of my colleagues could clearly read as signals of hostility and acts of vengeance, I sent the same essay to two other professors to give me comments. One of such professors had taught at MISR and the other had taught in the USA for two decades. So, from near and afar, both professors knew the system at the Institute. Fortunately, these two professors concluded that my essay was excellent and needed to pass. I also collected the views of my colleagues, who also confirmed that I was even ahead of some of them in terms of the quality of my essay.
Armed with all this positive evaluation, I wrote to the Director of the College of Humanity of Social Sciences (CHUSS), Professor Edward K. Kirumira, to ask for Mamdani to be replaced with another professor. Professor Kirumira, a former student and stooge of Mamdani, readily assured me that it was within my right to ask for a replacement and that he would easily help me. But after weeks of no-show from him, I wrote to the Director of Research and Graduate Training of the university. He was forthright in informing me that he did not want to get in the way of Mamdani and that he couldn’t help me.
I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Ddumba Ssentamu, a practising Catholic. He is such a good man, but he was trapped in a quagmire of a corrupt regime of Museveni and could not work independently as head of Uganda’s premier university. Given that Professor Ddumba is related to Dr Stella Nyanza, a fearless critic of Uganda’s longstanding head of state, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, Prof Dhumba was not in the good books of Mamdani. Enmity in politics tends to be socially inherited and passed on generationally.
Similarly, given that Dr Nyanza had challenged the dictatorship of Mamdani at MISR to the point of her stripping nude in protest against this dictator in April 2016, Mamdani devised a scheme to frustrate Professor Dhumba. As fellow dictators, Professor Mamdani is a friend of Museveni and he had worked his way up to the hierarchies of power to influence Museveni against everything Professor Dhumba stood for. This was also against the background that Dr Nyanzi was a mother to all students and teaching fellows at MISR who suffered from the victimization of Mamdani.
In all this, Mamdani had played the victimhood card and through the mediation of students like, Evarist Ngabirano, who was struggling with to pass his term papers, got the support of US scholars. Evarist wanted to win Mamdani to his side to continue on the programme, even though he was not one of the best in his class. So, he triggered his friendship with a few American professors to garner support for Mamdani.
As imperialist paternalists, these professors wrote a baseless petition to urge the Vice-Chancellor of Makerere not to tamper with Mamdani’s contract. Indeed, this was against the fact that Mamdani’s contract had nearly expired and his renewal prospects encased in contestation because of his advanced age. When students of the High Command – my administrative body, including Sabatho Nyamsenda, Noosim Naimasiah, and Ayalew Semeneh wrote a counter-petition to call the bluff of these American professors, calling out these professors were compelled to go undercover! Unfortunately, all these brilliant students (with Noosim and Ayalew as pioneer students of MISR) left the programme.
Given all these complex configurations, I had painfully become aware of how Professor Mahmood Mamdani had indeed become a thin god in the academic sector in Africa. His hyperbolic intellectual achievement had gone beyond the realm of mortal beings to falsely accord him the status of a god in the guise of men. He, therefore, brazenly wanted cultic attention from every “mortal”, but certainly not me! I made it known to everyone that I could not worship my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and Mamdani, a living-dead mortal being at the same time.
So, as my funding was drying up, alongside the failure of Makerere University to help me fight a just cause, I decided to return to Ghana. I did that without formally or informally stopping the programme. It was when I was about to return home that Dr Milliam Kiconco asked me to apply to Oxbridge. Unknown to me, Milliam had had her master's education at the University of Cambridge and considered me a better candidate for Oxbridge. I, however, resisted her pressure. But, as Milliam (who also left MISR to continue her studies in Asia) would not cow to my resistance, I yielded to her pressure and applied to Oxbridge. Graciously, both Oxford and Cambridge admitted me with funding. Around this time, I had had another admission to the Near East University to read Political Science and International Relations.
Nevertheless, I chose Cambridge because of my the academic interest of my then potential supervisor, Dr Joel Cabrita. Knowing how issues of supervision had empowered the demi-god of my MISR to appear to have trashed my dream of acquiring a PhD at MISR, I felt Dr Cabrita was the best for me. This was because she, an Africanist scholar, had shown keen interest in my research on Pentecostalism and indigenous chieftaincy in Ghana.
Unfortunately, when I arrived in Cambridge on October 16, 2017, Dr Cabrita had gone on maternity leave. I was sad, devastated and had a replay of MISR’s psychological traumas all over again in my mind. Fortunately, The Revd Canon Dr Jeremy Morris, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, had agreed to hold the fort until Dr Cabrita returned from her maternity leave.
Dr Jeremy Morris is not an Africanist scholar. Unlike Dr Joel Cabrita, Dr Morris is a British historian who specialises in church history and serves as a Church of England priest. His role, therefore, was to help me navigate the first-year registration exercise (a written assessment within the Faculty of Divinity that all PhD students have to complete at the end of their first year. Professor Gareth Austin, a renowned historian of Ghana, was to partner Dr Morris. But it turned out that Professor Austin would serve as one of my internal assessors for my first-year assessment, so I had to work with only Dr Morris.
With all this, I wasn’t sure whether the MISR episode would be repeated, since it was the same stage of promotion assessment I got to before things turned against me. But after my first meeting with Dr Morris on November 18, 2018, at his Trinity Hall office, I was upbeat about my prospects of overcoming the MISR spell. Five days after our first meeting, Dr Morris gave me a tour of the University of Cambridge library. He took me to the various sections of this Huge library where I could easily get subject-related books for my thesis.
Given my experiences with Mamdani, an Indian with a Ugandan citizenship, I wasn’t sure how Dr Morris’s supervision would go with me. But based on my impression in our first meeting, I knew I was in safe hands. Dr Morris has sterling qualities that are simply humane and productive. He is very humble and ready to listen. He allowed me to think widely; write as much as I could. He never imposed his thoughts on me. He often told me, “You are here to educate me on your subject and Africa.” This was a surprise to me: to teach my supervisor?
Nevertheless, Dr Morris's statement boosted my morale to work hard to impress him that, indeed, I knew about Africa – since I have had two degrees – BA and MPhil in African Studies from the University of Cape Coast and the University of Ghana respectively. He also told me that I should also get in touch with Dr Joel Cabrita and that I should not take his words and comments as conclusive. This was against the background that Dr Morris had become my principal supervisor, as Dr Cabrita relocated to the US to reunite with her husband (as a first-time mother) and to also take up a teaching post at Stanford University after her maternity leave.
All this armed me and given that I had spent three years without getting any degree from MISR, I was in a hurry to finish my dissertation in Cambridge ahead of my three-year schedule. So, many times, I would hurriedly write without properly editing my essays. I would then go to Dr Jeremy Morris, whom I met every other week, and complained that I had written poorly. But instead of him reprimanding me, he would say, “Charles, don’t worry, you are only an apprentice, you would master the art of writing after you have completed.” This was similar to what Dr Cabrita had told me that, “PhD is an art of continuously learning to write.”
Nevertheless, Dr Morris’s response to my lack of editorial attention was an intellectual-cultural shock to me. This was because I still recall that after I had submitted my first MPhil proposal to my supervisor at the Institute of African Studies, the University of Ghana in 2010, he summarily dismissed it saying, "You write like a journalist, here is not a school for journalists. You better learn how to write academically". It was as if journalism was the antithesis of academic work.
Indeed, my MPhil supervisor was right since I had spent all my years as an undergraduate student at the UCC writing academic (at an undergraduate level) and more journalistic articles for hall magazines. So, I was more attuned to journalistic writing than academic writing. But I did not expect such a rebuke from my supervisor. Thank God, today, my MPhil supervisor and I have been writing academic papers together. He later realised that I wasn’t dumb after all, as I was the first among my colleagues at the IAS to complete and submit my thesis on the sociology of marijuana consumption among Muslim youth in Accra in 2011.
I must, however, state that postgraduate supervision, in most of the public universities in Ghana is like two pugilists engaged in pugilism. In many cases, one would easily notice supervisors hardly read students’ thesis and they are usually so judgmental and dismissive of students' ideas. Unfortunately, most of our professors are overwhelmed with consultancy work to generate extra income that they hardly concentrate on offering quality supervision. Some also have complex family-related issues. In addition to that, they tend to have a huge teaching and administrative workload. Of course, there is also the lack of interest among some professors to mentor young scholars for banal reasons like fear of competition.
Indeed, all the above are hardly good reasons to stampede the training of the next generation of African scholars. In this life, none is without a challenge in life. Students also have real challenges, including those their supervisors struggle with, when they write. My supervisor had his own set of administrative challenges and yet worked with me so I could complete ahead of schedule.
Unfortunately, unlike Cambridge, there is hardly any enforced system in Ghanaian public universities to compel supervisors to keep to the duration of supervision. All this tends to unreasonably prolong the duration within which postgraduate students complete their studies. As I write, a friend of mine (nearing his retirement from public service), who submitted his doctoral thesis in July/August 2019, while I was conducting my fieldwork in Ghana, is yet to receive comments. Meanwhile, I have returned to Cambridge, written, successfully defended my thesis.
Returning to Dr Morris, I have benefited from the kindness and patience of my supervisor. He always encourages me; urges me to work hard, and pushes me to broaden my thinking horizon. Dr Morris is never afraid to appreciate hard work. In fact, apart from my early days in Cambridge when I had done no academic work, Dr Morris always ended his annual assessments of me with, “Overall, he is an excellent student and a delight to work”. In a three-page recommendation letter he wrote for me on February 6, 2021, said concluded as follows:
“He (Charles Prempeh) has been a hugely stimulating student to supervise, up there with the very best I’ve worked with over twenty-five years. His energy is prodigious, and his range of reading remarkable. What has been particularly impressive is his hunger to learn.”
Dr Morris is always ready and happy to write recommendation letters to support my funding applications. Through such recommendation letters from him, I had funding to cover fieldwork, data transcriptions, writing, conferences, and living expenses (aside from my annual stipends).
The quality of Drs Jeremy Morris and Joel Cabrita's supervision is that I easily passed my thesis defence on February 19, 2021, with minor corrections. Both of my examiners, Professors David Maxwell (internal) and Karen Lauterbach (external) appreciated the quality of my thesis and strongly suggested I published it as a monograph. I have deeply enjoyed my studies at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Morris has been a father to the point of always ready to help me. For example, when the Student Registry of Cambridge officially communicated the success of my viva to me on March 18 2021, I misread the date for me to resubmit the revised version of my thesis. Instead of June 19, 2021, I strangely misread it as, July 19, 2021. So, when I suddenly received an email from Katy Williams, the Graduate Studies Co-ordinator of my Faculty last two weeks to remind me of the pending date for me to resubmit my revised thesis, I panicked.
I panicked because while it took me just a few days to work on the revised thesis, I deliberately delayed in resubmitting to the internal examiner for approval. And when I did submit it to him, I told him to relax and not rush to inform the Faculty that I had finished with the revision. The examiner was also relaxing, as he attended to other tasks. So, when on June 8, 2021, Katy Williams emailed me, I found myself distressed. Quickly I emailed and sent a phone text message to Dr Morris, asking for a meeting. Since if I did not meet the deadline I would be temporarily withdrawn from the university, I ended my message with, “I am worried.”
In about ten minutes of sending Dr Morris my message, he responded, "Charles – don't worry – we will fix this! It will I'm sure be straightforward. Let's talk at 4 pm. These things happen – everyone will want to make this work for you." This message which came through a phone text was enough to tell me of such a towering father figure I have. Indeed, by the time we had our usual Zoom meeting at 4 pm, he had fixed the problem. He wrote to Katy Williams, the degree committee of my faculty and the internal examiner. Given that the revision was minor, the following Monday, June 14, the internal examiner wrote to approve my revised thesis.
Fathers are rare. It is easier for fathers to have children than for children to have fathers. In the face of radical feminism since the time of Simone de Beauvoir, fatherhood continues to sink low with many fathers becoming irresponsible. In the same way, the neo-liberalisation of public universities and the troubles of the world have made the chances of getting good postgraduate supervisors extremely difficult to find. The rat race for materialism and personal recognition among supervisors and students have all burdened postgraduate education.
So, if God blessed me with a man who understands the ethos of fatherhood and academic mentoring in the person of Dr Jeremy Morris, all I can say is, “The Revd Canon Dr Jeremy Morris, God bless you and keep you strong until your work on earth is over. I also wish you a Happy Father’s Day. May your life be blessed as you serve the Triune God and humanity.”
May God bless students with The Revd Canon Dr Jeremy Morris and Dr Joel Marie Cabrita of Stanford University, United States of America.
In my supervisors, God fulfilled Genesis 50:20 in my life.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications - Accra, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, UK