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Independent Africa: Visions and Realities

Dr. Patrick Cole, visiting professor of history, was musing about the influential African and African-American men who have taught or studied at the University -- a roster that began with W.E.B. DuBois and has included the presidents of Nigeria and Ghana and the former prime minister of the Cote d'Ivoire. (Cole himself has been a candidate for the presidency of Nigeria, a member of its Federal Cabinet, and Nigeria's ambassador to Brazil.)
Illlustration by Susan Saas spacer

   "How did these great men end up at the University of Pennsylvania?" he asked during a colloquium titled "Visions of Independent Africa," sponsored by Penn's African Studies Center and a consortium of University offices and departments. Perhaps, he speculated in his richly-accented bass, it was a tradition of open-mindedness, or perhaps it was "some irresistible force within the atmosphere" that caused them to "pass through the portals of the University."
   It would be a mistake to suggest that Penn has always been a thoroughly welcoming host, as Louis Massiah, the filmmaker whose documentaries include W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices, was quick to point out. While DuBois was hired in 1896 as an "assistant in sociology," both his title and his salary were less than his experience and his credentials (which included a Ph.D. from Harvard University) should have earned him. "The relationship between the University and DuBois," said Massiah, "is not one to be extraordinarily proud of."
   DuBois spent the last years of his life in Ghana -- now celebrating its 40th anniversary as an independent nation -- where he was hosted by its first president, another Penn alumnus, Kwame Nkrumah, G'42, G'43. "Nkrumah was able to honor DuBois in a way that we were not able to do in this country," said Massiah after his film was shown. "This is very, very important, and something that we feel a great debt to Ghana for."
   Nkrumah's son, Dr. Francis K. Nkrumah, is a pediatrician who serves as director of the Nogouchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana and collaborates on sickle-cell-anemia research with Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong, associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and director of the Sickle Cell Center. The younger Nkrumah recalled with some amusement that one of his father's fellow graduate students at Penn once remarked that "no matter what a paper was supposed to be on, Nkrumah twisted it around to write on African freedom and the anti-colonial's problem." While "Africa must unite!" was his father's "vision and political battle cry," said Nkrumah fils, "it was also just that vision which ultimately brought about his downfall and destruction."
   Cole argued that the career of Nnamdi Azikiwe, C'33, Hon'80, the first president of Nigeria, could be divided into two phases: as a leader of the pan-African movement, and later "within the Nigerian context," where he got bogged down in the tribal politics that plague the country even today.
   "If indeed wishes were horses," said Cole, "instead of having 54 countries in Africa today, you might only have one or two, and in those circumstances one believes that the history of Africa would be totally different."
   Alassane D. Ouattara, Gr'72, the former prime minister of the Cote d'Ivoire who is now deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, argued that "the development of a country is not possible without the development of free-market initiatives." Unfortunately, those initiatives have often been accompanied by flagrant corruption, which Ouattara called "the most difficult aspect of African politics."
   But although it's hard for people to accept austerity measures "when they see leaders driving around in Mercedeses," Ouattara said, Africans today "are demanding more accountability" from their rulers, giving him hope that the continent is moving in the right direction.
   Even the teaching of literature takes on a visceral urgency in Africa, as Dr. Robert Lucid, emeritus professor of English, indicated when he talked about the South African writer and then-exile Dr. Ezekiel Mphahlele, professor of English at Penn from 1974-77 and again from 1984-85. Lucid recalled a time when he was asked to host a group of young literature teachers from African colleges. When they arrived at Penn and found that Mphahlele was on the faculty, they insisted that their return home be delayed in order to meet with him. The next morning, they did.
   "There they all stood, faces bathed in this extraordinary glow of anticipation," recalled Lucid. Mphahlele "stepped past me into the room. As I backed out the door, I saw how they surged forward to surround him, and how he laughed and spread his arms in greeting.
   "It had been wrong of me to think that I knew our colleague," Lucid concluded. "He was not just a distinguished teacher and man of letters. No. At that moment I could see that he was far, far more. Ezekiel Mphahlele was an authentic hero."

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/11/97