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Kwegyir

Aggrey

of Africa

His Life and Achievements

Woeli Dekutsey
















TABLE OF CONTENTS


Chapter 1 His Childhood

Chapter 2 His Years in Cape Coast

Chapter 3 Life in America

Chapter 4 Aggrey Returns to Africa

Chapter 5 His Last Days

Bibliography



































CHAPTER 1

His Childhood



He was his mother’s fourth child out of eight children. Anomabu, where he was born, is a coastal town on the way to Cape Coast in Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast). The people were mostly fishermen and craftsmen. J. E. K. Aggrey was born on 18 October 1875 to Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey (his father) and Abena Annuah (his mother). His parents were of the royal family: his father was an Anomabu royal while the mother was a princess of Ajumako. His full name was James Emman Kodwo Aggrey. “James” was his Christian name (when he was baptized); “Emman” is a Fantsi word, which means “great city or town” (or nation builder); “Kodwo” was his day name because he was born on Monday (in Ghana, day names are important); “Kwegyir” is a combination of “Kwawu” and “Egyiri,” the name of one of his forebears or ancestors; while “Aggrey” was the family name or surname.

On the eighth day, as custom demanded, the infant Aggrey was “outdoored.” This was a ceremony, which every child had to undergo to be welcomed as a human being into the world of the living. The child was paraded before family members. The infant was cradled in the arm and a drop of rum (a strong alcoholic drink) was put on the lips of the child. Thereafter, a drop of water was also put on the child’s lips. The significance was to make the child taste the difference between falsehood and truth. (The strong drink, rum, stood for falsehood, while the water stood for truth.) Thus from an early age, the child was taught to uphold the truth always, and avoid dishonesty or the telling of lies.

Later, on 24 June 1883, when the young Aggrey was almost eight years old, he was baptized in the Wesleyan Church in Cape Coast. He was given the Christian name, James. In those days, having a Christian name along with the African one indicated that one was a Christian (as is the practice even today).

His father, Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey was a well-respected member of the community. The title, Okyeame showed that he was the chief’s spokesman or linguist. In those days (sometimes even now), the chief of the town or community never spoke directly to his people. The custom was that he should speak through a linguist. This man was called the Okyeame, the chief’s mouthpiece, so to speak. It was not everybody who could be an Okyeame. The man, who served as the spokesman, was always carefully chosen. He must be a gifted and eloquent speaker. He must be quick-witted and very well versed in proverbs and customary law. Even if the chief made a mistake in his speech, it became the Okyeame’s duty to repair the damage. This the Okyeame would do by rewording the chief’s speech and smoothing the rough edges in order to make it acceptable to the people. (Therefore, Okyeames are very important people in the Ghanaian traditional society, even today.)

Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey excelled in this duty. He was not only a great speaker or orator. He was also one who could think fast on his feet. He was noted for his sharp memory and ability to analyze and draw appropriate conclusions.

One day, Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey’s abilities were severely put to the test. The British Governor in the Colony, Governor Cruikshank tried to settle a dispute but failed miserably. He finally sought the help of Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey who patiently heard statements from the feuding sides. After several days of hearing testimonies, it fell on Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey to sift through the troublesome half-truths and blatant lies in order to arrive at the truth and make a final judgement. Meanwhile tempers were running high and the fighting parties were threatening to spill blood if they were not happy with the verdict. That was when Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey rose

to his mark as Okyeame and proved his worth.

On the final day, he stood for several hours reviewing the whole case, throwing away the chaff and letting the grain stand out to be appreciated. When, after he had critically cut open the case and finally gave the verdict, the disputing parties were so impressed that they readily accepted the ruling and went home satisfied. Governor Cruikshank was so pleased that he presented Okyeame Kodwo Aggrey with five guineas in gold. What impressed the Governor about this feat was that even though Okyeame Kodwo could neither read nor write, he was able to review important highlights without recourse to notes.

It was no wonder that J. E. K. Aggrey, the son of Okyeame Kodwo, took after his father in eloquence and sharp perceptive power of analysis. The young Aggrey was not only a gifted speaker, he was also somebody who was moved by the suffering of other people. He displayed this feeling of empathy one day when his sister, Araba was naughty and their angry father raised the cane to flog her. Young Aggrey who was around quickly went to the rescue. He begged their father to spare his sister and beat him instead. Okyeame Kodwo did not flinch. Justice must be served, even if his son, the young Aggrey wanted to be the sacrificial lamb. The father whereupon set upon him and heartily delivered the flogging. Araba never forgot this sacrifice her brother made on her behalf. This incident drew them closer, and she did not flinch to walk the long distance from Cape Coast to send cooked food and other gifts to her brother, when later, the young Aggrey, was teaching at Abura Dunkwa, which was twenty miles away.

The young Aggrey showed early signs of being a gifted child. This was noticed by the Wesleyan missionary of Cape Coast, Rev Dennis Kemp, who decided to select twenty of such brilliant boys to stay with him at his missionary home where he would mentor them to grow up into responsible adults in future. This invitation greatly helped these boys who enjoyed the special favour of the Kemps. Rev Kemp made sure the boys worked with their hands during daytime and gave them extra tuition in the evening in subjects like Logic, Science, Mensuration and Euclid.

Mrs Kemp made sure they said their prayers at night and frequently inspected their rooms every morning before they went to school. They slept four to a room. Upon waking up, the boys had to tidy up their rooms and dress the bed. They were taught good manners. All these helped to mould the character of young Aggrey and kept him on the straight path always. In spite of the heavy schedule that the boys kept under the roof of the Kemps, the young Aggrey made time to read far into the night after everybody was asleep. He developed a fondness for books.

In those days learning consisted of memorizing lessons, which the children recited at the bidding of the teacher. For example, in learning the months of the year, the teacher taught them to recite:


30 days hath September,

April, June and November.

All the rest hath 31

Except February alone

Which hath 28 days clear, but 29 in each Leap Year.”


This “learning by rote” (or as the Ghanaian would say, “learning by heart”) was the method of teaching in those days. The morning started with Mental Arithmetic, which involved a drill where the children were required to memorize the Multiplication Tables:

Two one Two (2 x 1 = 2)

Two two Four (2 x 2 = 4)

Two three Six . . .” (2 x 3 = 6) . . .


and so on. The drill was for the class to stand up and recite the Multiplication Tables from 2 to 12, after which the teacher walked around with the cane and quizzed: “6 times 8 equals what?” The child was required to promptly give the answer “48.” Any hesitation or failure to supply the right answer promptly elicited a crack of the cane. Therefore, in those days most kids, especially the dull ones, feared this early morning mental drill. It was no wonder that some kids dreaded school and dropped out. But not so for the quick-minded Aggrey. He could recite the Multiplication Tables from back to front with ease, and go on with the “Lord’s Prayer,” adding the “Apostles’ Creed” for good measure. For him, school was something to look forward to. As a result of his good character and brilliance, the young Aggrey was made the Class Monitor or Prefect.

Rev Kemp was a strict disciplinarian at the school under his care. He made sure the rascals among the students were flogged into place, as the Bible says at Proverbs 23:13. (“Do not hold back discipline from the mere boy. In case you beat him he will not die.”) But the young Aggrey and his friends in the missionary home thought that playing a little prank on the side might also serve to add a bit of fun to this holy exhortation. It had fallen on the boys in the Kemp home to prepare the canes for use in the school. With one accord the boys decided to pull a prank. While preparing the cane for use, they cut a few notches to make the canes weak. So after the cane had been applied a few times, it got broken in several places and therefore became useless. At first this ruse went on for some weeks but the zealous teachers soon wised up to what was happening and decided to prepare the canes themselves instead of relying on the boys in the Kemp home to perform same.

Owing to the diligence that the young Aggrey showed both in doing his home chores and in schoolwork, Rev Kemp became fond of him. He took him as his own child. This “father” and son relationship grew so well that when later the young Aggrey was appointed teacher at Abura Dunkwa, it was Rev Kemp who walked with the promising lad all the way to his duty post. In those days, public vehicles were scarce and people walked long distances. The pair had to stop for rest several times on the way. Rev Kemp at one stage had to sleep in a pulpit, while young Aggrey slept in the pew.

When they reached Abura Dunkwa, Rev Kemp and the young Aggrey had to share the same bed. All this togetherness between Aggrey and the white man, Rev Kemp etched lasting memories on the mind of young Aggrey. He became aware that there was one-humanity running through all peoples of the world. The difference in skin colour (whether black or white or brown) was God’s own way of creating variety to spice life. All human beings were the same everywhere. This simple home truth prepared the young Aggrey very early against the discrimination he would suffer on his travels as a result of his black African skin.

When Rev Kemp made sure that his ward had safely settled in at his new duty post as a teacher, he left the young Aggrey to fend for himself. At that time all the young Aggrey had as his possessions were a small sum of money his family members gave him in addition to his books (which never left his hands), two loaves of bread and a packet of sugar.

At the duty post, the young Aggrey plunged into work with gusto. He liked the children, and the children loved him in return. He was an extraordinary teacher. He took pains to prepare his lessons before going to the classroom. When he stood before the class with his chalk, he made sure he took his time to explain the concepts thoroughly. He was patient with slow learners.

The one strong point for which the children doted on him was his sense of humour. On many occasions he had the class in stitches by cracking jokes and creating a convivial environment where learning could take place. He was not like the other teachers who were a terror to the pupils, lashing out with the cane on the least provocation and making learning a miserable experience. With the young Aggrey, learning was fun. Everybody wanted to be promoted to Aggrey’s class. For all his pains, his salary was £4 a year, but to the young Aggrey,


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