My eldest half-brother never went to school. But so interested was he in the world about him that he used to buy school textbooks and cajole those of us who had been fortunate enough to be sent to school, to teach him how to read. His curiosity was simply unbounded, and since books were there, he wanted to master them. It was inspiring to observe his untiring efforts and his refusal to become intimidated or shy because he was not lettered. For instance, he tolerated a lot of nonsense from the brother who came next after him and who had been sent to school. So, taking a cue from his desire to learn, I didn’t play with my chance to acquire an education when I got it.
Through studying with him, I was able to master many of my school textbooks before I ever stepped into the classroom where I was supposed to encounter them. I suspect he even secretly went to a village near ours, Sadwumase, to take lessons from some educated guys there. Certainly, his ability to read or write couldn’t have come solely from his younger brother, who wanted to be one up on his elder brother and so didn’t consider educating him as a matter of priority. I shall never forget how this indefatigable learner once helped me to defeat the designs our Class Three teacher – the one I wrote so angrily about in this column in April – to whip me. I had been sick and had not been in school when the teacher asked the class to memorise a story from one of our books. The way the teacher looked at me when he told the class, “You will recite that story this afternoon!”, made me realise that he would not exempt me from the recitation, though I hadn’t been there when he set the children the exercise. So I spent my lunch hour learning the story by rote. The only trouble was that none of my schoolmates was around to test me to see whether I could remember it and reproduce it.
In desperation, I asked my brother to read the story while I recited it. Whether he could actually read it or not, he did as I asked and I recited it to him again and again, with him nodding to indicate that I was reading it correctly. If he wasn’t able to read the story, then he was a great psychologist, for he made me believe that I had conquered the story in every detail. I was very lucky that I had taken the trouble to “chew” the story by heart, for as soon as our teacher finished marking the register in the afternoon session, he took his cane out and descended on us. Of course, he started with me! He didn’t ever get the chance to whip me as a result of mistakes I made answering his questions, and he probably thought to himself, “Today, I shall get him!” Well, he was “lying” to himself, for I delivered the stuff koko (as if it was porridge ready to be eaten!) and received applause for doing so. Then I sat down to watch uncomfortably as the teacher caned each and every one of my mates. None of them had taken the precaution I had taken, believing foolishly that the sadist of a teacher would give them a little more time to commit the story to memory. Not that it was a remarkable story! Only some banal fable about a guy called Nasni, who was in reality a coward, but managed by a series of bizarre accidents to frighten away a gang of highwaymen who had been frightening people in his neighbourhood. The moral of the story – although not stated – was, I think, that heroism is not always intended to be so by those considered to be worthy of being called heroes.
When I got home after the school session, I took the trouble to write my first-ever letter – to my brother. “Dear Brother,” I wrote. “Thank you very much for helping me to memorise that story. I was the only one in the class who was able to recite all of it. The others all failed to recite it and they got caned. Without you, I too would have got caned. I hate being caned.” However, there was a blank expression on his face when he tried to read my letter and I ended up by reading it to him myself. There were similar ambiguities about his behaviour sometimes. For instance, he once brought some rabbits to our house and put them in a hutch. He persuaded me to be their keeper, on the understanding that when I had fed them and they had become very fat, he would sell them and split the proceeds with me. I used to walk about half a mile, twice every day, to cut fresh grass for the rabbits. I was sustained in carrying out this chore by the fond hope that I would probably get four shillings, or maybe even six shillings, or if I was really lucky, 10 shillings, when the rabbits were sold. I would buy a sharp pen-knife, or – oh, my imagination ran wild as I made the trip to cut the grass.
But when my brother sold the rabbits, he didn’t give me any money. He gave me a jumper – some silly-looking, cheap jumper at that – and said he had used the money to buy it for me! I wanted to ask him: “When did I tell you that I needed or wanted a jumper?” But I had been trained not to be a cheeky kid, and I let it pass. But I never forgot how he had done a sleight of hand on me. And I never wore the wretched jumper. Was he a cheat or not? I didn’t want to answer the question. But I continued to admire him and his sense of initiative. For instance, even though he could not read fluently, he was the cleverest person I had ever met. He taught himself how to repair bicycles. And watches. And sewing machines. He even got me to order a welding machine for him from a catalogue. At that time, I, who was educated in a school, didn’t know what a catalogue was! The welding machine came, and he was able to use it to weld all sorts of things for people in our town, in exchange for sixpence here and a shilling there. He became rich enough to open a shop, which he sometimes left to me to keep for him. At such moments, every beautiful girl who came to buy toffee or chewing gum from the shop got a little extra! Yeah – I regarded that as fair recompense for the rabbit money I hadn’t got.
When he was 50, he inherited a family chieftaincy stool and took the name “Opanin Akrasi”. At this stage, he began to cultivate cocoa farms with gusto and was so good at it that he was eventually crowned “Best Farmer” of Ghana. He was thrilled when I took a BBC crew to film him working on his farm. People from our town who were in Britain saw him and wrote letters to him saying they had seen him on BBC television. The idea that he had appeared on BBC TV pleased him almost as much as winning the “Best Farmer” title itself. The reason was that long before this happened, he had been one of the first people in our town to buy a radio (or wireless) set. It was a small Philips with a red “magic eye”, and was battery-operated. I used to spend hours listening to it. He utilised the “pips” that the BBC played each hour to set the watches he repaired. He and I marvelled at how we could hear the voices of newsreaders talking to us from London, and that’s why being seen on BBC TV meant a lot to him. Alas, he passed away before he could see me on satellite TV, discussing world news on either BBC World or Al Jazeera. He would have loved the idea that he could see his younger brother “in the flesh”, though he was thousands of miles away.
It was also he who introduced me to insurance. He got a proposal form from Norwich Union and I helped him to fill it in. I recall he insured the welding machine I had helped him to order. I have often wondered whether such a man could have achieved as much as he did, if he had received a formal education. I can bet my bottom dollar that he wouldn’t have had the curiosity and the time that enabled him to take watches, bicycles and sewing machines apart, and put them right when they needed mending. In the sort of education we got, you were taught by a teacher; you regurgitated what the teacher had taught you in an examination, and you either passed or failed. Original thinking hardly came into it. And adventurous experiments were discouraged. And it was thought “backward” to be a “mere farmer”. And we moan that our continent is not doing well?