“….I go to school on weekdays (excepting Saturdays)…….
I speak English to soften my harsher native tongue,
It matters not if I speak the Fanti wrong.
I’m learning to be British, and treat with due contempt.
The worship of the fetish, from which I am exempt.
I was baptized an infant, a Christian hedged around
With prayer from the moment my being was unbounded.
I’m clad in coat and trousers, with boots upon my feet;
And Atamfurafo and Hausas I seldom deign to greet
For I despise the native that wears the native dress
The badge that marks the bushman, who never will progress,
All native ways are silly, repulsive, unrefined,
All customs superstitious, that rule the savage mind.
…I soon shall go to England….
And there I will try my hardest to learn the English life;
And I will try to marry a real English wife!”
Those were the words of the famous Gold Coast lawyer, nationalist and Pan-African culturalist, Kobena Sekyi (formerly William Esuman-Gwira Sekyi) in his long poem “Sojourner” in 1915 as part of his pursuit of defending African culture and tradition.
Being a firebrand nationalist, Sekyi became the president of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS), an organization that fought and won the battle against the British obnoxious Land Bill of 1897 that aimed at giving Queen Elizabeth of England all the unoccupied lands in Gold Coast (Ghana) and lands in British West Africa in general.
He was also an executive member of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), and member of the Coussey Committee for constitutional change that finally paved the way for the independence of Ghana.
Born in 1891 into the Gold Coast coastal aristocratic Fante family in Cape Coast, Sekyi became a highly educated member of his society but was brought up to believe that European culture was superior to African culture.
This widely-held view changed drastically for Sekyi after a mind-blowing experience whilst travelling on a ship to England.
His uncle, Van Hein of Elmina and a former president of the Gold Coast Aborigines Right Protection Society (ARPS), had sent him to study law in England in 1915 when the ship (SS Falaba), which he was on board was torpedoed by a German submarine. Of the 145 passengers and 95 crew, 104 lives were lost.
According to historical accounts, during the rescue operation, the white rescuers refused to pick Sekyi up or offer him a life jacket.
Being a Fante from a coastal town, Sekyi was a good swimmer and this helped him cling to a wood which he used to swim to the rescuing boat.
This experience greatly affected him, changed his Eurocentric views and would make him an unrepentant hardcore Pan-Africanist who championed African culture and traditions in his works.
Sekyi was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple in 1918 and also awarded MA in philosophy. He became a lawyer in private practice in the Gold Coast.
When he returned home, he removed his baptismal name “William” and became just Kobena Sekyi.
He became a famous lawyer and intellectual who actively resisted European rule and cultural imperialism to the extent that he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the colony to appear in court in a traditional African cloth.
This was in contrast to the European coat, wig and other apparels that lawyers in Gold Coast wore and even current lawyers wear in Ghana, a tradition that many find absurd.
Sekyi further expressed contempt at the anglicization of Fante names and total adoption of foreign names.
This made him put together a hilarious book, “The Blinkards”, which essentially criticises Gold Coast Fante tribe upper class over their names, lifestyles and manner of speaking (a Fante cannot speak a sentence without less than four English words, it is said).
His novel, The Anglo-Fante was also the first English-language novel written in Cape Coast.
Before his death in 1956, the political theorist and playwright became an integral member of the Coussey Constitutional Committee that was formed to make recommendations for the 1951 Constitution.
His contribution to the Committee, and earlier ones made with the ARPS, NCBWA, and so on, became a major step towards Ghana’s independence.
Though he did not live to see his country’s independence from colonial rule in 1957, Sekyi’s contribution to the evolution of Ghanaian national consciousness will always be remembered.