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Maya Angelou’s African connection

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Maya Angelou’s African connection

Recalling his reaction to first meeting her, and the political atmosphere that swirled around Accra at the time, this tribute to the late, great Maya Angelou – writer, singer, dancer, civil rights activist – is penned with affection by her friend Cameron Duodu.

 The year 1964 was a difficult one for me. I’d been editor of the Ghana edition of Drum magazine for over three years, during which I’d been attempting to straddle the very frisky political horse that Ghana was riding. The strain had been making me ride close to the very edge of the saddle.

This horse was itself confused. On the one hand, it wanted to achieve socialism, with all the totalitarian features that such a system incorporates. On the other hand, Ghanaian society was brought up, traditionally, to value freedom of thought: in our chiefs’ courts, for instance, we could say what we wanted to say and not be punished.

We could destool chiefs who did not make the mark as far as satisfying popular expectations was concerned. Socialist economic objectives were understood by us and mainly accepted. But what political and social sacrifices needed to be made to bring them about? In other words, should we accept the notion that the end justified the means?

Nowhere else was the debate on these issues as fiercely conducted as the Ghana Press Club. This was a cosmopolitan association in which the idea that someone else’s thoughts were more important than another’s was repugnant. But an informal pecking order had gradually been growing, in which the journalists who worked for the media that were controlled by the state – the Ghanaian Times (daily), the Evening News (daily) and The Spark (weekly) assumed that they should be our “leaders of thought”.

As the Entertainment Secretary of the Press Club, I was on the executive committee of the Association, and so had many close encounters with the ‘’Party Press Boys”, as we called them. I did not respect them too much because I realised they were not well read. As I was quite outspoken – a character trait that I had absorbed from my father, who was a chief’s spokesman – and which still dogs me – some of them took my attitude for arrogance!

As I was working for a magazine owned by a foreigner (and no less a foreigner than a South African millionaire!) this perception of my character made me very vulnerable indeed. Every disagreement I had with them could always be misconstrued as coming from the warped mind of an “imperialist agent” or worse, a person who was taking the shilling of an “apartheid collaborator”.

I wasn’t worried about any of this, though, for I knew of the sterling work Drum magazine had done in South Africa in promoting the welfare of the African populace, and as for imperialism, I had spent three years at the Ghana Broadcasting System denouncing it morning, noon and night. In other words, I was so sure of myself that superficial people would undoubtedly conclude that I was “cocky”.

But I had one fall-back position that was indisputable – the articles I produced in my magazine. Only an ass could, after reading my output, conclude that I was anything but a free thinker who called everything as I saw it.

I have drawn up this background for you so that you can adequately judge the import of one of the most important debates that ever took place at the Ghana Press Club – and in socialist Ghana for that matter – in those days.

At the time, one of my best friends was an African-American novelist called Julian Mayfield. He had published a readable novel called The Hit in the US, and since I was then serialising it in Drum, the story which was to become my novel, The Gab Boys (André Deutsch, London and Fontana London) we quickly became a mutual admiration society.

Now, without telling me, Julian was working as a speech-writer for President Kwame Nkrumah in his Flagstaff House office. His cover was that he was editing a magazine for the president’s office called The African Review.

I drank many a Club beer with him, whilst he railed against the “dimness’’ of the President’s Press Secretary, Yaw Eduful, under whom Julian worked.

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Written by Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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