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26.11.2008 Feature Article

Review: “Journey out of the African Maze” by Francis L. Bartels of Mfantsipim

Review: “Journey out of the African Maze” by Francis L. Bartels of Mfantsipim

The ace novelist/poet, Thomas Hardy, once hinted at “the voiceless ghost”, inferring that many accomplished people, having already honoured their duties to society, slacken, exhaust their inspiration in some way, or at least, firmly stop thinking. Not Francis L. Bartels! In his younger years, he served in various capacities: First, the illustrious African headmaster of Mfantsipim School (Cape Coast, Ghana) where he taught UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; then a high-ranking member of UNESCO; and later, as Ghana's ambassador to Bonn, West Germany.

The grand ol' man has now clocked 98 bold years, and he's still not about to rest from his labours. For him, there's no such thing as letting your thoughts stiffen. Close the mind, and the body mass itself begins the rusty descent into decay. For him, study was never a chore, but a vibrant responsibility and a pleasure. As a young student at Mfantsipim in the 1920s, he braved the unusual combination of English and Mathematics with equal dexterity, placing first in his group.

In his writings, he remained equally ambidextrous: with one hand thrust brazenly in the past, and the other tellingly into the future. His everlasting belief rests on quality education, the lack of which barrier formed, blocking Africa's ultimate emancipation.

He has just finished and published his latest book, Journey out of the African Maze: Indigenous and Higher Education in Tandem. (Available at In Ghana, the book is available at the MOBA Secretariat, Methodist Headquarters, Accra, opposite Total House on Liberia Road.

The one before that, “The Persistence of Paradox, The memoirs of F.L. Bartels”, came out only a few years ago. It was published first by Ghana University Press (2003), and the new edition by “” (2006). His “Roots of Ghana Methodism” was published by Cambridge University Press, 1965. In between, he has written extensive reports on education and development.

Inspired perseverance by any other names is hard work, and commitment. Those virtues in the educator, tested and nurtured over a span of decades, have bequeathed to the larger African community and the wider world feats of impeccable work in history and education. Universities and colleges everywhere will find the book a useful platform for meaningful discussions on Africa.

Akin to U.S. president John F. Kennedy's “Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country,” the enigmatic centenarian, F.L. Bartels, asks in metaphoric contexts, “What part will you sing?” That critical refrain persists from his earlier book “The Persistence of Paradox”. Believing the youth to be the true key for development, he continues to take an inventory of education in Africa, and makes informed commendations for the future.

Great people have much in common. W. Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, W.E.B. Du Bois, Professor Kwabena Nketia, John Hope Franklin, and others, all in their weighty eighties, persisted in literary and historical quests that continued to highlight the world's intellectual landscape. F.L. Bartels, in his loftier 98 years, led the chart. [He was born 13 March 1910]. Never a dull moment in his focused intellectual life, he has raised the ante many bold notches up in the continued search for what's in Africa's best interests.

From this new book, the author's tireless effort is becoming increasingly symbolic of the lifelong commitment to questions that refuse to go away. In offering “A bird's eye-view of what has been, what is, and what is possible”, the critical questions inferred are themselves the answers: Can Africa neglect the import of education? What type of African man and woman is education expected to mould? What is old? What is new? Is the fusion of the old and new possible? And where do we go from here?

He cautions that if education's true purpose is not identified and practised through meaningful, collaborative, hands-on activities, then idleness and truancy will persist. In promoting a “creative engagement between the life of learning and the life of humans”, he suggested embracing elements from both our African roots and modernity. He sees education as “a home-grown crop as well as a transplant”, and suggests extracting from our native roots “strands in the developmental process” that worked in the past, and merge them with the new.

Our past traditions, in fruitful cooperation, allowed everyone “to sing a part”. Participation was a wholesome, communal affair: No one was left out. Inputs came from everyone, including: the youth, (mbrentsee); the elders, (mpanyinfo); and the old man or retired leadership, (akodee).

The Akan hierarchy of values sustained a rich tapestry of moral and jural education through a community of learners where the youth “sit literally and figuratively at the feet of their elders”, or “squat by their elders in order to learn”. All that supported “good up-bringing”, (ntsetseepa). The author envisaged a great society “where education proceeded more by example than precept, more by participation in adult life than by instruction”, where ambition was “not for personal distinction but for service to the community”, and where grooming (ntsetseepa) reduced the blatant “mediocrity in high places”.

The modern equivalent in higher education embraced the “postgraduate student”, “his professor” or lecturer, and “a retired professor” all working in tandem within a purposeful network. Education is a collective rather than an individual process in which orderly connections are key. It takes a village, as they say.

MyjoyOnline, © 2008

This author has authored 338 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: myjoyonline

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