Q: On returning home, Ghanaians who had studied in the Soviet Union were ostracised by the new regime. There were some persecutions. What was your own experience?
It was a most despondent time in my life. It was indeed a very low period for me. I was already a writer and broadcaster of some note before I went to the Soviet Union. It galled greatly that those of us that went to study in the former Eastern Bloc were tarred by the general suspicion attached to socialism in those days. We were not politicians and we did not get our scholarships on our political affiliations. We were young Ghanaians with a passion to help build the country. I wrote application upon application for employment – not a single organisation even bothered to reply to me. The situation was so scandalous that the late Jawa Apronti would write [about me] in the Evening News newspaper, in an article titled, “Can’t We Use This Man?”. At one point, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation invited me for a job interview with several other people. I was the only person out of the lot that was denied employment. On enquiry, I was told that the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) had collected my file and had not returned it.
Q: Ghanaians would later learn that despite your qualifications and your huge talent in the arts, not only could you not get a job then, you had to depend on stipends from your mother. How did you cope with such experiences?
It was tough, very tough. Imagine a highly-qualified person like myself roaming the streets of Accra, while colleagues with whom I had studied, were gainfully employed. Imagine trekking around the city on your feet in the sun. It was sometimes friends and former colleagues driving their own cars who stopped by to offer you a lift. My situation was dire, and I don’t know how I would have survived were it not for the generosity of my mother. And by the grace of God, every morning she gave me two shillings, which was just something to have in the pocket, just in case, as I went from office to office. At one point, I roamed Accra the whole day on an empty stomach. It was harrowing.
Q: Then your passport was seized and you almost lost the chance of a scholarship to a British university. How did you finally resolve matters?
I had a scholarship for the University of London. But on returning from the Soviet Union, my passport had been seized at Accra Airport and it had not been returned to me. Time was running out for me to leave and there was a chance I would lose the scholarship. I decided on direct confrontation. I went to the police headquarters and demanded to see the Inspector General of Police. I was ushered into his office. He smiled and asked: “How do you do, Mr. Okai?” I replied: “Sir, I am not fine.” When he asked me why, I narrated my story to him. Lo and behold, right there and then, he pressed a button, summoned an officer and asked him if he knew me. The officer answered: “Yes, sir!” And he asked him to go and get my passport for me. That was how that case was resolved. Just like that!