Sunday, January 25, 2009

Leading into leadership – the Syracuse year

One fateful day in 2000, I heard Arthur Musah (one of my idols at Presec) had gotten into MIT. The excitement that greeted this announcement was big in Presec because MIT was supposed to be the best engineering institution in the world. I had sworn not to do anything related to biology because I hated my biology teacher and I was quite strong in Math. It was the first time I heard about the Massachusetts (not Minnesota, Michigan or Montana) Institute of Technology. I declared that I was going to follow in Arthur's footsteps and enrol in MIT one day. Praise be to God, one day in March 2002, I found out I was admitted into my dream school. For a moment, I wondered if it was the Michigan Institute of Technology; I had some doubts. I must have done something right with my time at Presec. Some decisions and goals I set led to this moment, but what happened in that lean year between Presec and MIT. A lot happened, but it ultimately made me a little different from the person I was at Presec.

The popular thing was for most public Ghanaian secondary school students like me is to excel in the SSCE and gain entry to one of the top programmes at KNUST or Legon. My parents lectured at Tech, most of my friends were headed there, but I had my sights set on MIT. Not America, but MIT. Some people in my family didn't encourage me, saying I could go abroad for my second (Masters) degree. My plan was not to escape from Ghana (far from that). I wasn't having the 'Ghanaian dream' - to get out of Ghana - either. I didn't even know what the 'American dream' was. I just wanted to follow in the footsteps of people like Arthur Musah, Paa Kwesi Imbeah, etc. I wanted to do something special, I wanted to show I could excel at the highest level.

10 days before the infamous September 11, I arrived in the United States. I've forgotten what expectations I had, but I did know I came to 'Yankee' because of MIT. I was an ambitious teenager who loved to do a whole lot of activities. When 9/11 was happening, I remember what I was doing, I was flipping through morning talk shows like Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy and thinking Americans must be a crazy bunch of people. I didn't notice what was going on in New York though I flipped to the news channels once or twice. When 9/11 happened, I remember feeling 'very American'. I learnt how to sing to American anthem because it was played on TV constantly. Tell me to sing it now, I will not know how to start. How did I get here?

My time in Syracuse living with my father taught me a lot. I learnt how to cook, to be more independent and started learning how to drive. I got introduced to the internet and Ghanaweb. There were a lot of Ghanaians in Syracuse, I worked at a local supermarket with a lot of them. When people asked me, "Do you go to school, Are you going to go to college?" I was surprised. I was not in school but it's because I needed to make some money for MIT. How couldn't I go to college? Because a lot of 'black' teenagers were not going to school, even though it was free. They were not kidding me. I remember I'll tell customers I was going to go to MIT (or going to MIT when I knew it), and some people would not know what MIT was. I was shockprised. Those who knew what MIT was would congratulate me and ask how I'd have money to attend such an expensive school. I had a benevolent uncle called Uncle Sam. This uncle is not as benevolent to me now but he sure was nice to me once.

When news started breaking out about the US attacking Afghanistan etc, my goodwill for America started reducing. I also felt they were being unfair/partial in their Mid-East policies. I once had a list of things I wrote about America that I thought were terrible. This was about the time my 'Ghanaianness' was increasing steadily and I appreciated Ghana and Ghanaians even more. I don't know when the homesickness kicked in exactly. My father got me a "student's child" card for Syracuse University so I was able to use their libraries. Maybe the sight of the Daily Graphic editions at the SU library spurred me on. The differences in development between Ghana and America began to kick in. Ghana could be better than it was. Ghanaweb news became my daily bread. I wanted to talk to Ghanaians as often as I could, seeing them at work and at home was not enough. I started entering Ghanaian chat rooms, and made some friends who I know till this day.

In short, my 'patriotism', interest in Ghana and its affairs, my hopeless love for all things Ghanaian and African started to paddle harder. I had sworn not to do a 'thing' for Presec when I was leaving the school, because it had been 'bad' to me and the old students never bothered to contribute so why should I? I found myself beginning to forge discussions on forums and encouraging the Ghanaians I met in chat rooms to be more interested in Ghana.

I experienced some racial profiling in Syracuse. This also made me feel more Ghanaian, less welcome, and more independent. Why are we being subjected to this? Because it's not our country? Wouldn't it be lovely if we didn't have to pursue this 'Ghanaian dream' that lands us in places where we don't feel like we belong? I promised myself that I would 'show' these people who were discriminating against me, one day. One day, I'll be so powerful, they'll need me for something. Getting into MIT was step one. What is Step 2? This step was/is probably not necessary. If we as Ghanaians collectively excelled in our environments and this spilled into our own home, we'll not need to make any more statements. This is where my ideologies shaped themselves and it's become a part of me.

You do realise, I haven't exactly mentioned leadership here right? Right. I was and maybe still am an angry black man who's bent on seeing African excellence. I had seen better in my time in America and wished so much better for Ghana and Africa as a whole. I wasn't that Pan-African before I went to MIT either. But wait, was Obama ever an angry black man? I will like to ask him that question. I do know anger, and some of the things I've mentioned here don't equate to leadership. Or do they in a way? I probably didn't have many opportunities to lead in Syracuse and the environment I was in, maybe I saw more of those in MIT. We'll find out in the next installment.
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