Commencement 2016: "Treasure your Ashesi friends," says Provost Dr. Marcia Grant

Good morning, Class of 2016! Your reading assignment during this next year is to get hold of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book COSMOPOLITANISM and read chapter seven about globalization and Kumasi.  Today’s reading is also partially about Appiah – but it really is about friendship – and it is from the book:  CRUCIBLE OF THE AGES: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF WOLE SOYINKA AT 80, PP. 103-104, edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochukwu Promise.

In the mid 1970s when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. went to Cambridge University for his doctorate degree programme in English literature, people on campus kept asking him whether he had met with Anthony Appiah.  He had not but realized that, when white people keep asking a black man such a question, it’s most likely the other person is black.  He eventually found Anthony Appiah at Clare College where he was initially an undergraduate in medicine before he switched to philosophy later earning a doctorate.  They were in their 20s and became friends, a friendship now into decades.

At around that same period, in 1973, Wole Soyinka, already an established playwright and poet had completed  a two year solitary confinement in the course of the Biafra War in Nigeria and had before that lived in exile in Accra, where he was affiliated with the University of Ghana.  He was in Cambridge to deliver a series of lectures that would later be published as MYTH, LITERATURE, AND THE AFRICAN WORLD as part of his two year lectureship in English at the Faculty.  

To his surprise, the Faculty did not recognize African literature as a serious area of study within the “English” tripos and was virtually forced to accept an appointment in Social Anthropology.  The three became great friends.  Soyinka was one of the supervisors of Gates’s PhD which would later be published as THE SIGNIFYING MONKEY. It was also at Cambridge that they discussed lofty ideals (including W.E.B. DoBois’s idea for an Africana encyclopedia, which had established its office in Accra, and was encourage by Kwame Nkrumah).

Two decades later these dreams were fulfilled. Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize in 1986; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. became the chair of W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard and one of the leading black scholars in the United States and Anthony Appiah a world philosopher and NEW YORK TIMES best selling author.  They also became powerful in diverse ways such that when the Nigerian rule and dictator, Sani Abacha put a price on Soyinka’s head – dead or alive, it was to the W.E.B. DuBois Institute he took sanctuary.

Dear class of 2016:

When Dean K asked me to speak as well as do a reading for your graduation – because I, too, am leaving Ashesi – I stumbled on what I just read to you and realized that the life lesson I wanted to share with you this morning is TO TREASURE YOUR ASHESI FRIENDSHIPS AND CELEBRATE THEM.

When I look at the Ashesi banners and see scholarship, leadership, and citizenship I want to add a fourth ‘ship’ – and that is FRIENDSHIP.

There’s something about a small liberal arts university and friendship that is very, very special.  Your friends from Ashesi know you:  they know your values, they know your joys and your weaknesses – whether you keep your room clean or stay up all night to get an assignment in….like the Christmas song, “they know who’s naughty or nice.” You know all of this about each other – and you value each other – and that is truly a gift.

I graduated from Swarthmore College in 1960 – fifty six years ago – and in the past two months I have been in touch with my roommates from College several times – and I’m expecting one of them to visit me in France next month!  When I go to the States they are who I stay with or go to see – and when an announcement went out that I’d taken a job in Paris for next year, rather than retiring, I have heard from a dozen classmates, including one who offers to have his niece visit me from England!  When I first visited Ghana in 1960, the person I went to see was the mother of my friend – Wentworth Ofuatey Kodjoe – Her name was Elsie Ofuatey Kodjoe.  She was Queen Mother of Jamestown, and she made me an up and down and took me dancing with her much of the day, starting at the lighthouse.  Years later, Wentworth showed me a picture of Elsie.  It was a Ghanaian stamp in her honour, as founder of the Girl Guides.  So our university friends also know our parents!

When I was at Swarthmore as a scholarship student twice I went across the United States by Greyhound bus to go home to California.  It took four days and nights!  What made the journey a real adventure was that I carried my Swarthmore directory with me, and wherever I could I would call a friend from the bus station – and even ended up going to a big League baseball game in Chicago as a result of my calls!

You are the most international class we are graduating from Ashesi to date and I have a vision for Ashesi graduates in the future, armed with their Ashesi Alumni directories, travelling not across the United States by Greyhound, but flying across Africa and visiting friends in Kenya and Zimbabwe, in Nigeria and the Gambia, in Cameroun and Rwanda.  And maybe meeting up in London and Paris, in Abuja and New York, in Johannesburg and Mumbai.

I also want you to take the Ashesi alumni association seriously as part of your treasuring Ashesi friendships.  It took me twenty years to go to my first Swarthmore alumni reunion because I thought I hadn’t accomplished very much compared to all the classmaters who were writing books and getting a Nobel Prize.  But once I got there I realize how much I had missed them – and then they elected me class president, so I ended up organizing these reunions! What I found was that I made new Swarthmore friends at the reunion – that I was more confident to get to know people who had seemed so smart – and found that they were amazing people.

And then – here’s the big surprise.  You’ll start making Ashesi friends from the next generation!  When my daughter went to Swarthmore she became friends of my classmate’s children – and one of her friends is now one of my dearest friends – and was the first person I hired to work at Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

And there’s something else about these friends that struck me at my 50th class reunion:  It’s that my Swarthmore – and your Ashesi friends and classmates are like family.  And like family we can’t divorce them.  We are forever related to them through our relationship to our university.  I will grow old and be forever connected to my class, no matter what – as a child of Swarthmore, and you will be connected to your class as a child of Ashesi.

Yes, Ashesi education is transformative:  it is about critical thinking, about leadership, about ethics, about liberal arts and entrepreneurship and programming and social concern.  But I want to argue today that you should never, never undervalue how important friends have been to you at Ashesi and how much of a treasure they will be for you in the future.