Patrick Asare

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Excerpts from The Boy from Boadua

By Patrick Asare

How, I asked myself, had I, an African boy growing up in a village where the prospects for education and betterment were slim to none, succeeded in beating the odds, when all these young people had to do was pay attention, complete their homework, and if they needed help, ask for it? Did they have any idea how utterly hopeless life was in other parts of the world, and how lucky they were to be growing up in a place like America?

Like most young people in Ghana’s rural areas in those days, for much of my childhood I pictured America as a heavenly place where neither poverty nor any of the myriad problems we saw all around us existed. From what little history I was taught in elementary and middle school, I knew about slavery and how Blacks in America were treated during that era, but I also knew that slavery had long since been abolished. What I envisioned was an America in which people of all races lived happily and in perfect harmony.

I began to retrace my steps along that unlikely journey that began from deep inside the African jungle and ultimately brought me to classrooms in Buffalo, New York. This book is not only a narrative of that journey, but also a reflection on issues such as race, socio-economic status, education, culture, the importance of role models, and some of the differences in social structures between Ghana and America that cause similarly situated schools to function differently in those two countries.

“I saw a man being beaten to death,” I replied, panting heavily from running so hard. “Who was he fighting with?” she asked, her anger abating a bit. “Some people accused him of stealing from a farm, and several men joined together to beat him,” I told her. Seeing how upset I was, she did her best to comfort me, telling me that the unfortunate practice was common and unlikely to stop, despite the best efforts of many women and some elderly men. Sadly, I would witness a few more such incidents.

Fear, unquestionably, can be a powerful motivator. It is what drove us as students in Ghana to sacrifice so much sleep and wake up at dawn every day, so we could finish our chores and get to school on time. No matter what, we somehow found a way to complete our homework.

In retrospect, I cannot condone the draconian measures the teachers took to enforce their rules, or the public shaming of less gifted students. However, these were different times, and none of us could afford to feel sorry for ourselves. Life was too hard, and self-pity would have made it harder. In an ideal, more enlightened world, there would have been more compassion.

I don’t remember what triggered my interest in reading at such an early age. It was a rather unnatural habit for any child in that village. No parents ever read to their children—mostly because they were illiterate—and none of my older siblings spoke to me about reading. Whatever that trigger was, it became the force that changed the entire trajectory of my life. Without the newspaper, I would never have considered secondary school.

“You should be extremely proud of your son,” Mr. Kpatakpa told my parents, repeating the same line from the previous evening. “What he has achieved is more than miraculous.” My parents listened quietly while he told them about Achimota Secondary School—and the near-certain impossibility of any child from Boadua gaining admission there. He went on to say that, in reality, it was completely impossible; he had qualified his statement only because I had somehow managed to overcome the odds.

I feared that any misstep, however small, could easily send me back to Boadua. Most of the students in my class used one notebook for every course, which meant ten notebooks each term. I often got by with four. Whenever I took notes in class, I fit two lines of writing in each space of the ruled notebook page. My letters were tiny. To my classmates, that was the weirdest thing they had ever seen. They wondered how I could read my notes. I never explained.

My father happened to be in Boadua the day I received the acceptance letter. “I’m so happy for you, Osei,” he said, smiling broadly. “You had to wait a few years, but your Achimota dream has finally come true.” “And I’m so happy to hear that your scholarship will carry over,” my mother said. “Nothing will stand in your way this time.” “It’s been worth the wait,” I said.

I had difficulty relating to anyone, because socio-economically, we had nothing in common. I had grown up in a village with no amenities. Most of my Achimota classmates lived in mansions in big cities and spent their vacations abroad, in places like London, Paris, and New York. Few, if any, had worked on a farm or done any of the chores I used to do at home. Therefore, conversation was difficult. I heard no mention of scholarships; clearly, no one at Achimota—except me—needed one.

While in secondary school, I had heard of a joint Ghana-Soviet government program that offered scholarships to qualified students to attend university in the Soviet Union. I had not given it much thought, because credentials from Soviet universities were somehow seen as inferior to those obtained from Ghanaian universities. Whether or not the judgment was valid, for someone who had dreamed of studying at Oxford or Cambridge, getting a degree that few would respect was not an attractive option. But I had reached a dead end.

My love for Patricia became all-consuming. For a while, I couldn’t think of anything else. My parents liked her immediately—and so did my siblings. Helping my father on his farm began to feel like torture. I couldn’t stand being away from Patricia for even a couple of days, but I had no choice but to spend multiple weeks at a time in the jungle.

Classes would be taught entirely in Russian, which I had never even heard spoken. The first time I saw the alphabet—Cyrillic—was when I picked up my visa from the Soviet embassy in Accra. I couldn’t even recognize my name. Studying electrical engineering in English was difficult enough; I couldn’t imagine how I would do it in Russian.

The most powerful lessons I learned during that first year in Kyiv came from living with Dmitry. It forever changed the way I look at the world. I also came to realize how easy it is for seemingly innocuous prejudicial views to morph into dangerous vehicles that can inflict grave harm on other groups of people. The people in Ghana who shared their views about the Soviet Union with me in truth knew little about that country. They were basing their opinions on hearsay.

I spent parts of the next four months in Ukraine watching events unfold in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It was a chaotic period, with ordinary people in the newly independent republics (states) wondering how life would change in the coming months and years. I was extremely fortunate, in the sense that I had graduated earlier in June of that year.

How busy the city seemed! Even that time of the night felt like rush hour, with everyone moving briskly about. Standing outside the terminal, I was shocked to see how much taller the buildings were than in Europe. The bright lights of Times Square were dazzling. My luggage prevented me from venturing too far outside the terminal. I simply stood there, mesmerized, and watched people go by for about an hour before catching my bus to Buffalo.

“Acting White,” as I later came to understand it, is a pejorative term used mostly within Black communities in America. It refers to Black people who conform to socio-cultural attitudes typically associated with White people. They are seen as betraying their culture. In schools, the term is used by some Black students to refer to others who make a serious effort to excel academically. A Black boy or girl doing something as normal as reading a book risks being seen as “acting White” by Black peers. The “offender” could become a social outcast within Black circles. It is only natural that Black children would try to avoid that label. Even adults do whatever they can to “fit in,” both professionally and socially.

I grew up in an environment not vastly different from that of my Buffalo students. In some ways, Ghana was worse. The poverty was much greater, and the schools I attended as a child were rudimentary in comparison. In spite of that, I was able to travel all the way to the Soviet Union for a college education and then to America to teach. I doubt I could have made the same journey if I had been born in urban America. I could have been forever trapped in poverty. As I continued to think about Antoine, I began to appreciate the irony. How lucky I had been to be born and raised in the poorer of the two countries! In Ghana we had tribalism and crushing poverty, but there were counteracting social and cultural influences that made it possible for the schools there to function reasonably well, allowing me to obtain the basic education that provided my ticket out of the village.

Because of my firsthand experiences with the U.S. immigration system, I have followed the long-running immigration debates with considerable interest. I know the pain of leaving loved ones behind. Whenever I see pictures of struggling immigrants, I wonder about their personal stories and what drove them to leave their homelands.

I have lately begun to think differently about the issue of race relations in America. Racism is alive and well in some parts of the country. However, there are also many hopeful signs that some of the progress American society has made to address the issue will endure. It is important to recognize those positive signs. Equally important, in my view, is the way conversations about race are framed.

The sad reality is that the ability of some children to make productive use of their innate talents is constrained by external factors. Which part of the world a child is born in matters a great deal. For example, because there were no markets in Ghana for the talents of many of my classmates in Boadua, not every child had an equal opportunity to excel, especially in the fields of sports or entertainment.

In some parts of Africa and other developing nations where illiteracy rates are high, parents simply do not know enough about education to even begin to talk to their children about its importance. In America, every adult has had at least some exposure to the education system. I have heard many people in minority communities admit that it was their failure to focus on education that ruined their lives. Such parents must share this extremely important lesson with their children.

Some people are born lucky. The not-so-lucky ones must overcome many more hurdles to achieve their dreams, but many do so successfully. The absolute worst thing anyone can do is to dwell on some disadvantage they believe to be a permanent barrier to success.

Because I wasn’t born and raised in this country, I will never be able to fully appreciate the entire range of feelings American-born people of color have during their daily interactions with broader society. I know that I risk sounding insensitive or naïve.

My journey began with the accidental discovery of an interesting piece of information on a discarded scrap of newspaper. That information triggered the series of events that ultimately took me on a magical journey around the world.