Sat, 04 Feb 2017 Feature Article

Elizabeth Ohene, it’s too soon to say goodbye

Elizabeth Ohene, it’s too soon to say goodbye

There are two distinguished Ghanaians I would like to take to dinner before I depart from this part of the Jordan. Readers familiar with this column may have observed my special admiration for former diplomat K.B. Asante, the respected statesman behind the ‘Voice from Afar’ column in the Daily Graphic. The other is Elizabeth Ohene, also a columnist with the Daily Graphic.

Last year, I shared the same discussion table with K.B. Asante and other statesmen at a civil society forum held at the plush La Palm Beach Hotel. Also sharing my table were Rt. Hon. Professor Mike Ocquaye, now Speaker of Parliament; Emile Short and Hackman Owusu-Agyemang. I felt like a piece of vegetable in the midst of these venerable gentlemen. I asked K.B. Asante for a selfie and he replied: ‘What is that?’ He smiled through a few photos when I explained that I wanted us to take a photograph.

Footprints of excellence
I am yet to encounter Elizabeth Ohene–beyond her brilliant flashes of thoughtful insight usually exhibited in the Wednesday edition of the state-owned newspaper. Occasionally, I read her brilliant articles on the BBC website. I understand she left footprints of journalistic excellence when she worked at the BBC. I am also aware that she edited the Daily Graphic before she joined the BBC. Her record still speaks for some of us.

After many years of absence, it was refreshing to see the experienced journalist back “on the pages of the paper.” By her own accounts, she began her writing career at the Daily Graphic some 50 years ago. She has gained a lot of following along the journey, exciting news lovers with her delightful and pithy expressions while educating young journalists about the nuances of the writing profession. Hers’ was the quintessential guide to writing good and readable features.

Every Wednesday, I look forward to reading what Elisabeth Ohene has to say about matters that made the news the week before or the previous day. Mostly, she is unpredictable; she would seek to expand the horizon of our creative imagination by introducing an expected but exciting subject. She sustains your attention with a writing style that is unique to her alone. She is unputdownable. You want to read her again.

How to say goodbye
Last week, Elizabeth Ohene surprised her loyal readers with a very unwelcome subject. Those of us in the journalism business were frightened by the headline: “Hello and Goodbye.” Elizabeth is a true professional who works by the book. She keeps the subject line simple and short (KISS), as we were taught in journalism school. Her leads are punchy and smart, except that this time it was the obituary of a column we love.

The journalist did not provide ‘satisfactory’ reasons for her intention to end her very informative and entertaining column. She has “been having a conversation with [herself] about stopping the column...” Thankfully, it seems the conversation has just started and we hope the editor of the newspaper will convey the message from her readers and admirers that the time is not right to say goodbye.

When is the time right to stop writing, anyway? I have been writing newspaper columns since 2005. From London to Canada and now back to Ghana, I have sunk in not less than 700 articles across different beats and genres. I must confess I have felt the urge to say goodbye a few times but I have always lacked the courage to punch past my own convictions to deny my first love (journalism) the well-deserved connubial felicities.

The influencers
Incidentally, my first newspaper publication was in the Daily Graphic. I didn’t know who the editor was at the time. The English teacher in my secondary school days, Michael Agyemang (presently at ST. James Seminary), set it all up when he showed me the worth of words in William Wordsworth’s poems. Mr. Hall-Baidoo, another fine English teacher, polished up my virgin scripts. Today, I make the beast with two backs from different positions, but only in words. My latest influence has been Elizabeth Ohene.

The thing about writing is that you feel the native nosiness and the itchy curiosity to tell a story when you wake up from a slight slumber. Suddenly, everything around you is news–from the neighbour’s dog to the selfish politician who stashed lots of stolen money in his girlfriend’s bank accounts. The girl had bolted with the money. You can even write about Mahama Ayariga or Trump. Elizabeth Ohene feels this urge, too.

Sometimes, it is a chore but mostly it is real pleasure. It is 1:00am and I am only about half way through this column. I usually finish at 2:00 or 3:00am. This has been my routine for the past 10 years. Elizabeth Ohene must have lived this all her life. The job of a writer comes with a few perks. You are either editing your friend’s PhD thesis, mending CVs or acting as an amanuensis when no one is willing to waste their time.

Lessons from Elizabeth
Like K.B. Asante, Elizabeth Ohene will be writing when she is 92. Hopefully, the paper would command the same respect and journalistic scholarship as the New York Times or the English Guardian. For now, our journalism professors tell us we need a lot of improvement to meet the highest professional standards.

The standards here are not terribly bad. Elizabeth Ohene and a few others have lifted up the game on these scruffy turfs. She exemplifies the good standards we admire in Andrew Marr and Melanie Phillips. Elizabeth’s calling is to write, and she does a pretty good job at it. If she is saying goodbye, either partially or totally, we are not waving back. Last week, she wrote: “Something tells me this is not a total goodbye.”

While she is still here, what do I hope to learn from Elizabeth Ohene? First, I love the brevity of her headings. She doesn’t use too many words but she tells the story. Second, she knows how to sustain your interest. She is never boring. Third, she is not verbose; she uses the most appropriate register and her sentences are never too long.

I hope she writes her column next week. In return, I promise to buy her dinner in a good restaurant as a birthday gift. I will bring along a proper birthday card, not a virtual representation. She hates those. Who knows? I may throw in a bouquet?

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
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