Henry Ofori: The Journalist Who Tried To Unite Africa’s Scribes (Part 1)
(*This article is based on a Tribute paid to Henry Ofori by CAMERON DUODU in New African Magazine, January 2015 issue)
For years, African journalists have been telling the people of the African continent about the attempts made by African leaders to unite to fight for the political and economic objectives that have been identified as essential for Africa's socio-economic growth. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and its successor, the African Union (AU)are not exactly strangers to the pens of African journalists.
But ironically, African journalists themselves have not shown, by concrete example, that they can organise themselves into a strong body whose views would, perforce, be taken into account not only by African leaders but also, by the Governments and media of other continents.
How often have Africans not complained of the negative manner that developments on their continent are portrayed by the world media? But have African journalists, as a body, massively added their collective voice to the complaints aired by the African people and their Governments? The answer is No!
Some sporadic attempts have been made to create an influential journalists' organisations – especially in francophone Africa. But either through a lack of funds, apathy on the part of journalists, or governmental interference – or a combination of all three factors – there is hardly a “one-stop” mechanism through which the concerns of African journalists can be made to the African people and, in the final analysis, the world. I have been an international African journalist for most of my life, but the number of times fellow African journalists have got in touch with me to join an organisation or support a cause is negligible.
One person who clearly saw the need for a continental African journalistic body and promoted the idea, although he could not get too far with it, was Henry Ofori, my predecessor as editor of the Ghana edition of Drum Magazine, and editor also, at one time or another, of the two state-owned newspapers in Ghana, the Daily Graphicand the Ghanaian Times.As Secretary of the Ghana Press Club, he initiated moves that enabled the Club to join the International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ) based in Prague. His hope was to use his seat on the IOJ to persuade his fellow African members to form an African Journalists Union of some sort.
Although Henry Ofori's efforts at uniting African journalists did not yield the results he hoped for, he became so well known in Africa that when he passed away in Ghana on 4 September 2013, at the age of 89, he received an obituary, 1,000 words in length, from the leading newspaper in South Africa, the Johannesburg Sunday Times.
Who was this Henry Ofori? He was a unique character in Ghanaian and African journalism. His forte was his sense of humour, which he exhibited through articles so funny that they were received with warmth in both his native Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. Ofori was exposed to a huge African market through his connection with Drum Magazine, which, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, was publishing separate editions in South Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.
The articles for each edition were compiled locally, but many articles were shared by all editions. Usually, the most important common commodity in all editions was the beautiful cover girl, photographed in full colour. But Henry Ofori's humorous pieces, written under his pen-name, Carl Mutt, were also often printed in other editions. This helped to give the lie to the erroneous notion that Africans from different parts of the continent are indifferent to what made the people of other areas of Africa laugh or smile.
Henry Ofori's writing life began in an exceptional manner. He was teaching at the Government Secondary Technical School at Takoradi (then one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Ghana) when the newly-established Daily Graphic, set up by the Mirror Group in London, made him an offer to leave teaching and become an in-house columnist. The Mirror Group published two newspapers in Accra – the Daily Graphic and the Sunday Mirror. Henry Ofori made his mark with distinctive columns in both papers.
Ofori made his mark with the Daily Graphic almost as soon as he joined it. The paper's parent in England, the Daily Mirror,had the largest daily circulation in the Western world, a circulation it had achieved by becoming one of the most readable publications in the world at the time. It had very well-promoted columnists, such as Cassandra, and gifted sports writers like Peter Wilson (who travelled around the world, no expense spared, to bring boxing and other major sporting events to readers in the UK and beyond.)
Ofori's Carl Mutt pieces soon became a regular feature in the Graphic and the Mirror, with the papers sending him on extraordinary assignments, which he executed with side-splitting hilarity. He was the first person to introduce humorous pieces into “serious” newspapers in Ghana, and since Ghanaians like to laugh a lot, you can imagine what an impact he made on the readers of the two papers.
I myself was first alerted to Carl Mutt's funny story-telling and the mischievous sense of humour beneath it, by one of his former students of Henry Ofori at the Government Secondary Technical School, Takoradi. This chap and I had been exchanging letters in which we tried to outdo each other with the number of florid expressions and hyperbolic descriptions of events that we could muster! Significantly, in my case, I had to manufacture my stories myself, for nothing much was happening in a sleepy town like mine, Asiakwa, whereas in Takoradi, almost every exeatthe guy obtained to go into town, brought him “adventures” that he was only too willing to relate to me in his letters. I have no doubt that these exchanges with my pen friend were the genesis of the fiction that I wrote later.
I lapped up my friend's Takoradi stories, which led me to imagine what occurred, on a daily basis, in a notorious, international port city. His stories were always full of how “American sailors” behaved, in their constant battle of wits with Ghanaian “pilot boys” (or pimps) who, whilst feigning to help the sailors to find “entertainment” in town, did not scruple to pick their pockets. Or collect money from the sailors that did not arrive in the purses of the girls procured for them. It was a game peppered with drunkenness, wee-smoking (marijuana inhalation) and sometimes – knife-throwing. Occasionally, even pistols came into play.
Well – that was what I was made to understand: the ''pilots'' could be bribed with cigarettes, especially “Lucky Strike”, a brand which was not available locally (it was intimated to me). “Nevertheless, they occasionally feel jealous of the sailors, especially if the sailors manage to attract young ladies the pilots have not yet managed to sleep with. At such times, neither dollars nor even American jeans might placate a 'pilot” and knives would come into play. That, of course, might make an American sailor bring out a pistol hidden in his socks!. Hmm – Takoradi life can be tough oh! Tough paa! (Really really tough)!”
My ears filled with such stories, which bore a strange resemblance to the story-lines of films we watched and comic books we read, I had to be extra inventive. Anyway, one day, this pen-friend wrote to ask: “Have you been reading the columns by Henry Ofori in the Daily Graphic and the Sunday Mirror?” He added that it was written by a former physics teacher of his school. “We used to laugh at him – because he had what we thought was a 'round head', and wore very thick-lensed glasses. But his antics in the classroom were priceless. For instance, if he caught a big oaf sleeping in class, he would demonstrate to him, how an electrical motor worked! He would ask the oaf to come and hold one part of the apparatus, and then crank it to produce a powerful electric charge, which would produce such a shock that the guy would jump two thousand feet into the air! We would all burst out laughing. The victim would never sleep in class again!”
On my friend's recommendation, I began to read Carl Mutt, and became hooked to Ofori's inimitable writing when he took the mickey out of the upper-class, newly-opened Ambassador Hotel, in Accra, where one ordered drinks to be sent to one's room by merely picking up the telephone and speaking some words into it, and yet, as a Ghanaian, could not get anything satisfactory to eat in the “Arden Hall” restaurant, unless a waiter was kind enough to tell one what consommé soup -- or something similar -- was. “If you make the mistake of thinking that because you see the word 'consommé',it is soup to be 'consumed'on its own, like Ghanaian goat or grass-cutter soup, you would die of hunger!” I remember him saying; or words to that effect. “”In fact”, he explained, consommésoup is like what we call nkwankrawain Twi – soup in which there is neither meat nor fish!”
He also had great fun, as a man born to the rural delights of Akim Oda (in Ghana's Eastern Region) trying out such dishes as 'Steak Tartar' and “Cuisse de grenuile” (frogs' legs.) I laughed and laughed! Frogs' legs on the menu of a hotel in Ghana? Henry Ofori entitled the column “The Man In Room 404.” And I still remember it, although it was published in 1957!
Another great story was this: if you and I read that part of the bodywork of an aeroplane on its way to land in Accra had fallen into a forest at Dodowa, about 30 miles from Accra, would we make a song and dance of it? Of course not. We would read that a search party had been sent to the forest to try and find the body-part of the plane to see whether it was still usable, and then forget all about the story, wouldn't we?
But not to Henry Ofori. He used the incident to pen an immortal story under the title, “Who knows what is in Dodowa Forest?”
Now, although Dodowa had been the seat of the extremely influential Joint Provincial Council of Chiefs (JPC) – the stomping ground of British Governors of the Gold Coast who went there to lay down the policy the British Government wanted the Gold Coast chiefs to pursue in carrying out their part of the bargain implicit in the fraudulent historical activity known as “Indirect Rule” – Dodowa's name had never been a familiar reference point in popular speech. But when Henry Ofori satirized that search for an aeroplane body-part in Dodowa Forest, all at once, people began to quote the phrase, “You don't know what is in Dodowa Forest” when they sought to describe a situation in which something was being under-estimated because it was “unknown”! So, ask a friend, “But why is she going out with that man with spindly legs?” and he might answer, “Hey Charlie, you don't know what is in Dodowa Forest oh!” Or “Are you sure Team A stands a chance against a famous club like Team B?” Answer: “My friend, you don't know what is in Dodowa Forest!”
So, Dodowa, scene of ancient battles between the peoples of some of the very chiefs who sat in the JPC in a bizarre quest for co-existence with each other and with the British colonizers (a veritable subject matter for satire in itself, that!) but a town that had nevertheless escaped savaging by social commentators; Dodowa, home to rituals associated with feminine puberty rites (the 'Dipo' Festival); Dodowa which had somehow escaped literary notice so far., became a household word amongst the Ghanaian intelligentsia, when Until Henry Ofori decided to immortalize its name. (He later capitalised on the popularity of the Dodowa Forest story by including Dodowa in the title of a collection of stories he published entitled Tales From Dodowa Forest (Waterville Press, Accra) which can presumably be found on Internet sites that deal in out-of-print books, such as the very reliable Abe Books (www.abebooks.com)Which I know to be very reliable. Another is Alibiris [www.alibris.com] although I haven't personally used it.)
I began reading Henry Ofori's stories, usually presented in his weekly Nobody's Diary, in the Daily Graphic,when I was still in elementary school. His writings, as well as those of Moses Danquah, Bankole Timothy and a few others, made for such compelling reading that I bought a subscription to the paper with my schoolboy's pocket money! Two pennies a day for a whole month – I tell you it could have bought me a lot of delicious suya! (grilled meat). The sacrifice was particularly difficult to make because the UAC shop at Kyebi, which acted as the Graphicdistributor when I was being educated at the Kyebi Government Middle School, was close to the market, from where the mouthwatering aroma of grilled kebab from the charcoal fire of an excellent suyachef, rose each morning, as I passed by the market on the way to pick up my copy of the Daily Graphic.Years later, when I basked in the glory of being one of the youngest-ever editors of the DailyGraphic,I used to look back on my school days and acknowledge that the sacrifice I had made – in preferring to pay for a subscription to the paper rather than use the money to enjoy to the sweet taste of suya – had paid off in enormous dividends to me.
Henry Ofori, whose writing had been responsible for my taking a subscription to the Daily Graphic,was also the man who opened the door for me to take the job that was to be the greatest challenge in my life – editor of Drum. It happened this way: while I was working at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a News Editor in the News Division, I was also moonlighting (as it were) by writing short stories and plays for the Programmes Section of the Corporation. The setup was so civilised that if you wrote for the Programmes Section in your own time, they paid you the normal artist's fee that would have been paid to you if you had been an “outside” contributor. Now, as the first of my nine siblings to obtain a job, I was paying the school fees of two secondary school students and so money was always a problem for me. Writing fiction for the GBC was therefore a great motivation for me to be productive and in addition to radio plays and short stories, I also regularly contributed poetry to the station. It had a fantastic creative writing programme called The Singing Net devoted to short stories and poems, as well as Ghana Theatre,for plays.
My first short story for the GBC was called Tough Guy In Town, and as it happened, was based on the stories I had heard about Takoradi from my pen-friend at the Government Technical Secondary School there. A few days after the story had been broadcast, I was sitting at the news desk of Radio Ghana working on the news of the day when I received a call from the reception downstairs, telling me that “Mr Henry Ofori, editor ofDrum Magazine, wants to come and see you.”
I was dumbstruck! Henry Ofori, my hero, wanted to see me? What on earth for? I had never met him before! Nor had I even spoken to him on the phone! Obviously he'd done his research about me and knew the shift I was on! There was no escape!
Henry came up to the newsroom, accompanied by a photographer! He told me he was writing a piece on Ghanaian writers and wanted to interview me as part of the feature. He began to ask me questions: why were there so few creative writers in Ghana? What were the difficulties I experienced when I tried to move from hard news into fiction? And so on and so forth.
I was so shy, and indeed overwhelmed with emotion at being interviewed by Henry Ofori, that I couldn't say half of what was actually in my mind, lest he thought I was big-headed. After talking to me for a while, however, he expressed his satisfaction with me and left. The next month, someone showed me a copy of Drum, with my picture in it! The article over the article was entitled “Where are Ghana's writers?”, and included interviews with a few other writers, all older than me. A girl-friend at Achimota School wrote to tell me that she had been showing off to her friends with the article and my photo!
Henry Ofori himself had apparently been contributing fiction to the GBC, including a play called The Literary Society. Since we were both using the same medium, he had listened to some of my output and had decided that my views were worth eliciting for his article. But that was not the end of it. He was so impressed with me that he recommended me to the owner of Drum, a South African millionaire called Jim Bailey, to be employed as a feature writer for Drum. Therefore, when Jim Bailey came to Ghana on one of the regular visits he used to make to the countries where Drumwas published, he asked to see me. I thought Henry Ofori would be present at the interview, but he wasn't! Jim Bailey wanted to take my measure by himself. I found Bailey to be a man full of good-humour and who was extremely erudite. He was also non-committal and when I left him, I didn't know whether he had decided to employ me or not. The only thing I knew was that I had made him explode with laughter at something I had said, and that he, in his turn, had made me laugh several times.
In the mean time, I heard rumours that although he was a millionaire several times over, he was quite “stingy”. This proved to be true, for when he eventually made me an offer, it was only a slight improvement on the salary I was earning at the GBC. In any case, as soon as I told my bosses at GBC of the offer, they promoted me to the next grade above me. They made me aware that they had had to get the special approval of the Civil Service Commission in order to promote me for the second time in a single year.
After the effort the GBC had made to keep me, and also taking into consideration, the fact that the offer Drum had made to me was not exactly over-generous, I didn't take up the appointment. Apparently, Henry Ofori got to know of what had happened, for when I next saw him, he told me, in mortifying tones, “When I approached you to join Drum, I didn't know you would be using the offer as a means of seeking promotion. I did it because I thought you were a good writer.”
(To Be Contd. In Part 2)
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Cameron Duodu and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.