I was a teenager when I first decided that Uncle Paa Kwesi was a part of the man I wanted to grow into. Years later, he would become the largest part of that composite man.
Freudian tales have been written of sons killing and replacing their fathers, but boys are designed to adore and emulate the men who helped create them. I look like mine, as a result of which I remember innocently but proudly throwing my beloved mother under the bus whenever people (bizarrely) asked a five-or-so-year-old me who my favourite parent was.
I have since come to love my father with a hard kind of love, forged over time and under great pressure; the kind that can withstand, suffer, cut, burn, or set things aflame. I love my father. But I also stopped wanting to be him many years ago. Instead, I formed the father figure I aspired to be from aspects of different men in my life. My father’s generosity. Isaac Eshun’s calm. Ben Dorkenoo’s courtesy. Mitch Glickstein‘s relationship with his son. And almost everything else – especially service and a sense of family – from Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur.
One of my earliest memories of Uncle Paa Kwesi is from a family meeting that happened in his house, somewhere in the nineties. There’s a picture of it that I can no longer find in which three generations of his clan pose together. Two pictures, actually. One with the core family – my step-grandparents, my stepmother, her siblings, their spouses, and my many, many step-cousins – and another that included everyone else, including me. I remember holding my lip in the shot, looking thoughtful even while I wore round black and gold glasses and a white t-shirt over the baggy, faded blue jeans that early 90s hip-hop told the boys of my generation to wear with grabbed nuts and straight faces.
At the time, my father was married to Uncle’s youngest sister: a woman I still call Maa, not because I was forced to, but because it was a title she earned after burying all manner of stepmother stereotypes under mountains of kindness. Her family was one that would bring me food when I was broke in boarding school after letters to my father were left unanswered in the name of preparing me for a hard world. Our fathers were once raised by fathers who spread themselves thin and never said things like please, sorry, I miss you or I love you, lest they made women of their sons. Today, they are bewildered, criticised by the children to whom they extend the same strong, silent, hands-off kind of care.
I remember running around Uncle’s home that day with all my step-cousins, only stopping to eat and watch a Peter Pan movie (Hook with Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts), while all the grown-ups met and talked in another room.
My step-grandparents – two teachers who fell in love in old Cape Coast – remain the pinnacle of marriage to me: the couple who not only grew old together, but who did so with love, fidelity, genuine warmth, and constant laughter. Mamaa remains: a matriarch, a force and a being crafted from a beam of sunlight. She and Grandpa seem to have founded their family on all the aforementioned things and on friendship, rather than the rivalry, bickering and bad blood that defines so many other family relationships.
Uncle Paa Kwesi embodied the same principles that he was the fruit of. He made so much time for the younger members of his family, treating everyone with respect regardless of age. I remember once visiting him when I got my job at Joy FM. I had wanted to say thank you to my step-aunt for a piece of advice she’d once given me that set me on the path that led me to radio. She was a little under the weather and couldn’t see me, but Uncle Paa Kwesi sat with me and offered me laughter, warmth, and far more time than the son of a man who had broken his sister’s heart deserved.
I remember the sorts of things that dogged Uncle throughout his Vice Presidency: accusations of being absent, uncharismatic and such. These did not worry me. Charisma and media-friendliness do not a great leader make: a lesson Ghana has been taught a few times over. I scoffed when I heard Uncle Paa Kwesi had been nominated to be Mahama’s running mate. After all, he’d turned down the late President Atta-Mills‘ request that he become Minister of Finance & Economic Planning, apparently advising the President to make room for new blood. When Mills returned and insisted he become governor of the Bank of Ghana, he relented and IMANI soon named him 2010’s Most Influential Public Sector Leader:
“Despite pressure from political forces to go beyond moral suasion in compelling the banks to reduce interest rates, the Governor has been unwavering in going where the evidence leads… Diplomatically, he has rebuked the government to pay the contractors and stop dithering… His attitude to his duties has helped stem the loss of investor confidence that marked the early months of 2009… He may be dour, but only in a manner quite becoming of a guy who has his fingers on the nation’s purse strings.”
I remember after Uncle became Vice President and my sister and I wondered whether he would make it to her Ashesi graduation. He had a habit of attending every single family event, even if he’d arrive late and exhausted after everything had wrapped up. That day, the ceremony was well underway when we heard a rush of speeding cars. Uncle Paa Kwesi actually tried to sneak quietly into the audience, but our University’s President would have none of it, inviting him to the stage. The poor man ended up giving out all the graduation certificates and gave my sister – one of the top two performing students that year – a massive hug in front of the whole crowd. It was a beautiful moment. And it was very Uncle Paa Kwesi.
I never really understood his decision to become Vice President. While public service certainly drove Uncle Paa Kwesi, politics is a deeply dirty game and one I thought he’d left behind after his stint as one of Kwesi Botchwey’s deputies. Nevertheless, his involvement in it was one of a few reasons I had high hopes for Mahama’s administration. Their performance left me massively disillusioned. I did not know how to process it until a conversation a few months ago with someone who was there about what happened behind the scenes at the Senchi Summit. He told me about people who quietly find themselves in positions to prevent things from being worse than they might otherwise be.
I do not say this to absolve my uncle of anything, but as a reminder – to myself – that no man is a single story. Empathy is merely the acknowledgement of all of a person’s humanity, making it a little harder to sum up and judge a person. It brings us closer to truth.
I was on my way to drop my son at creche when Bernard Avle announced that Uncle Paa Kwesi had passed. I wept while I drove, thrown back to the day my mother died. It felt like I had lost another parent.
Sometimes, a person becomes a part of who you are.