By Dr. Samuel Adjei Sarfo
In 1971, when I was a child of eight years old, I was well-known for being pretty dumb…..and when I say “dumb”, I do not mean the type of transitional albeit curable dumbness which is the rite of passage of many a growing child: I was dumb to the point where my class-three teacher nicknamed me “Ogyegyentwie”, a term which I later found translated into something akin to “monarch of all idiots”.
Couple that with the fact that my forehead protruded prominently forward to form a water-shelf over my sunken eyes, and you could say that I epitomized the word “ugly” in all its rainbow colors. If I were to recount the types of things my head and face were compared with in vintage insults, this space should be utterly insufficient to accommodate that serpentine narrative. Suffice it to say that I became the butt of society’s most objectionable ridicule, all because of my immutable appearance! As a consequence, I grew quite diffident over the popular outrage concerning my physical features, and I could not figure out any good thing I could do with my life.
One day, my friends and I were busy playing soccer on the Effiduase Methodist School field. I was playing so badly that the captain of our side, Kwadwo Pull, asked me to go and keep the post as was the custom with those who could barely play the game. When I protested, he kicked me out of the game. Then a certain man called Atta who was watching the game from the school veranda signaled me to approach him. He said to me:
“Young man, you are a very bad player.”
“I know that.” I replied.
“And I hear that you are the dumbest kid in your class?”
“I know that too. My teacher always reminds me of that.”
“And do you look at your face in the mirror every morning?”
“If you are trying to say that I am very ugly, don’t waste your time. I know that too.”
“Well, then you should know that if you don’t study hard to succeed in life, no woman will look at you twice. You will remain unmarried throughout your entire life.”
This last statement hit me hard. I had not contemplated a life of perpetual solitude before this rather dark revelation; I always thought that I would be married somehow and have beautiful children to carry on my family line. And now I was being told point blank that I did not stand a dog’s chance with the girls! Lost in this daunting possibility, I heard Atta’s voice continue solemnly:
“But if you bring me substantial amounts of money from your father’s wealth, I will perform a ritual to transform you into one of the wisest and smartest people in the whole wide world, and you will no longer be a laughing stock among your peers.”
“What about my looks? Can you transform my looks too?”
“No; your looks are unchangeable, but if you become very wise and smart, you will do well in life; and if you do well in life, nobody will notice how ugly you look, and you will find a wife of your choice one day.”
Convinced that I was on to something cool and not knowing that I was merely being a fool, I asked with some degree of alacrity:
“So how much will you charge me to buy this wisdom you are talking about?”
“Lots and lots of money, my little friend; but I know that your father is rich, so it should not be too difficult for you to bring me as much of his money as possible.”
I contemplated the matter carefully and decided to go for it. My father, Kwasi Agyei (born March 13, 1896) was indeed rich, having made his fortune in the cocoa business as a Secretary Receiver. He had lined the main street of Koforidua-Effiduase with three imposing story buildings that had made him the talk of the town. He kept large amounts of cash under my mattress downstairs to save himself from having to climb upstairs to withdraw money from his safe to pay the farmers. So I began pilfering money for Atta. When I was bringing too much of the blue currencies, he explained to me that the red ones were muchpreferred by the spirits. He pretended to perform all kinds of rituals to make me smart, including burying a talisman in my school compound and chanting and rubbing my head with Florida Water. Eventually, there were subdued suspicions in the Agyei household, but I remained out of the loop until my mother caught me red-handed.
One day, I was about to leave the house with a bunch of money in my shirt pocket when my mother, Akua Sarpomah, stopped me and started talking to me about sundry stuff. Throughout the conversation, I had folded my hands tightly on my chest. My mother then dipped her hand in my pocket and took out a wad of cash, and the whole world came tumbling down upon my head. Mother sent me to the police station where I was locked up in an adult cell with hardened criminals. Intermittently, a corporal called me out and gave me lashes with his belt or slapped me around. I then confessed that Atta made me do it, and the police went after him. But by then, he had already skipped town.
After the spell of torment at the police station, I returned home. I stayed awake the whole night in extreme remorse, and in the morning, my mother got me up, stripped me naked and lashed me until I felt I was certainly going to die. That was when my old father stopped her with these memorable words, “Let the boy be. If he was trying to buy wisdom or smartness, you should show him that these could not be bought or sold. Teach him the way to earn it!”
My mother murmured something about Kwasi Agyei being too soft on this “ omumu a odi amumusem” (to wit, ugly boy doing ugly things). But she took my father’s advice seriously and began the arduous task of teaching me how to think clearly and rationally in order to save myself from being hoodwinked in the future. Over a spate of eight years, she recited over six hundred Akan proverbs for me to write and memorize, and although uneducated herself, she made me read the whole bible and any other books she could lay her hands on.
But of perpetual memory to me to this day is the extreme physical and psychological torment I experienced in those days when I stole lots of my father’s money to purchase wisdom. That near-death experience and its concomitant lessons live with me to this day. For a long time, I became a pariah in my father’s house and many pointed fingers at me as being the cause of my father’s downfall. Thus the notion of taking what does not belong to me became a veritable anathema. That is why today, I keep on wondering why on earth somebody will decide to steal the people’s money and hope to have any peace of mind in life. What on earth will anybody gain through dubious judgment debts (as in the case of Woyome); or through fudging figures (as in the case of the world cup debacle); or mortgage the hopes of the people through corrupt practices (as in the case of SADA and GYEEDA)? What has been the state of mind of the CHRAJ boss now that she has become the subject of this decibel clatter of condemnation and utter calumniation? What about the rot revealed in the National Service Scheme? How can these arch architects of this criminal enterprise look at their faces in the mirror again and see themselves as human beings?
And all those going about engaging in little acts of corruption while pointing fingers at others…the police, the teachers, the judges, and the civil servants….. what is their conscience whispering to them in the middle of the night when they go to sleep after steeping themselves in the murk of theft? Are they genuinely resentful of the sea of corruption now drowning the nation? Or their daily complaints are more based on the fact that the politicians are asserting monopoly over the fleecing of the nation, leaving them out of the nectar of corruption? Are their daily complaints born out of a desire to be honest or anger that they are excluded from the general exploitation of the land?
As for me, I was lucky to have experienced serendipity about the futility and toxicity of corruption at a tender age when my own vulnerabilities and the inherent immorality of others became plain to me. And my experience acquired through the tough love of my late parents has forever convinced me beyond all reasonable doubt that there is no state of existence better than the life untainted by corruption….the life when it is possible for one to say of himself that he lived through life with dignity, integrity, honesty and sincerity……the life that will enable one to look back on his life with no regrets and be fulfilled in his role as a patriot of the great nation of Ghana. That, to me, is the life of true confidence, happiness and fulfillment…the heaven on earth!
Samuel Adjei Sarfo, Doctor of Jurisprudence, is a general legal practitioner resident in the city of Austin, Texas, USA. This article first appeared in his New Statesman column “Thoughts of a Native Son”. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org