The first African to get a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University in the UK was of Ghanaian-British descent, named Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah. A pure genius, Kwame Anthony Appiah, as he is better known, has been described by Stanford University in the US as “our postmodern Socrates”.
On 13 February, US President Barack Obama decorated him with America’s 2011 National Arts and Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House. Ivor Agyeman-Duah looks back on the life of the Ghanaian who the historian Henry Louis Gates Jnr admits “has the most settled mind of all of us put together”.
In 1962, there was a small palaver at the Okomfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city. An eight-year-old boy, Kwame Anthony Appiah, had been hospitalised. The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, was visiting Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, to see the newly built hospital.
Meanwhile, Anthony Appiah’s father, Joe Appiah, a lawyer and Nkrumah’s roommate in London and one-time advisor, was in jail. Appiah had accused Nkrumah of dictatorship and joined the conservative opposition, offending his old friend.
But Appiah had also married well – to Peggy, a daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, Britain’s former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was from a line of distinguished aristocrats. He had helped negotiate the terms for India’s independence.
Appiah lived with his new family in Kumasi and among his extended family, headed by the king of Asante.
When the British Queen got to Anthony Appiah’s bed during the tour of the hospital, she asked, according to one version of the story, after his father. Young Appiah pointed to Nkrumah and said: “This man has imprisoned him.”
Anthony Appiah is not so sure of what he might have said, or even whether he was aware of why his father was in jail. But the opposition and their newspapers had certainly made enough noise about it – much to Nkrumah’s embarrassment.
The Malawian doctor looking after Anthony Appiah, who was conducting the royal hospital tour, was eventually deported. Nkrumah said he was in league with the opposition.
But the controversy of the Appiahs’ marriage was fodder for the international media and partly inspired (with the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams of Botswana) the Hollywood film, Guess Who is Coming to Dinner?