Education, British history, and returning to Africa

UK ghana

‘Use your head, teach!’

It was those four words in that funny, headless TV advert of about two decades ago which inspired me to teach in the United Kingdom. I first saw those words one afternoon on the Tube, the Jubilee line, as I travelled towards the capital of East London – Stratford. 

That initial advert sparked my interest, and led to an exciting journey to various schools across London and, in particular, to my introduction to British education, culture and history. A history so vast in its global reach – not least linguistically – and so varied in its multiplicity of thoughts and people, several aspects of which I never knew existed while growing up in Ghana. It was quite easy, sometimes, to make out a number of occupants on a train carriage in London being nationals from other countries. Such a collage of cultural diversity was quite familiar.

Visiting, working and studying in the UK at various times from the years 2000 to 2010 meant I could learn more about some important events on the British historical timeline. 

British history, entene cordiale
Entente Cordiale celebration, 1905. Photograph: UK Parliament/Flickr

Specifically adding to my collection included the Magna Carta of 1215 which remains legally significant till today; the Kingdom of Great Britain coming into being with Queen Ann as the first Monarch (1707); the Battle of Trafalgar (1805); the Slave Trade Act of 1807 to abolish slave trade but which actually entered into force in 1838; the London Underground (1863) and it being the oldest underground railway network in the world; the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), whose era I heard mentioned quite a bit in relation to the age of buildings and many notable events; the Entente Cordiale (1904) signed to improve relations between the UK and France; Britain’s declaration of war on Germany (WWI, 1914); founding of the BBC in 1922; Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and UK’s handing over of Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

These defining events in Britain’s history also had, and continue to have, an impact on Africa: the Entente Cordiale, for example, or ‘friendly understanding’ notably sheds light on the effects of how that agreement also defined the frontiers of some African countries for the UK and France. This, and the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, are both events which critically impacted people and groups who have, in diverse ways, been an integral part of Britain’s pre-war, wartime and post-war events. These people contributed to the rich collection which shaped the form and course of UK’s historical heritage. 

Consequently, in these historical timelines are several events like the Windrush (1948 and 1971) which, doing well to mind the gap in recognition, will be for the greater good. Historical events occur either by accident or by design to become a part of the society in which they happened. They tend to either provide a new outlook or o dynamically influence a way of life which eventually shapes policy.

As I look back on my experiences in the classrooms in the UK, initially as a teaching assistant then as a further education (FE) assessor, I realize that the narratives on Black history has been evolving, and rightly so, as it isn’t just mainly or merely about slavery and colonialism. Indeed, good progress has been made since then as there certainly are several positive events and people from African and Caribbean descent who have, and continue to make, impact on society. I admire them the more I come across their good works in various fields of endeavour in the arts, education, sports, finance, farming, health, transportation, business and politics.

I cannot mention all of them. They include great mentors I was blessed to have met who were not only people of colour. So I will point to another advert by Halifax bank on TV which featured a familiar bespectacled face always wearing a big smile – Howard Brown – who for me represented what can be possible given the opportunity. There is something magnetic about aspiration which helps to ignite a desire in the younger generation to also succeed.  

I guess what subsequently attracted me to SOAS was my interest in learning about the global perspectives of strong research and scholarship on Africa and the curiosity about what makes SOAS the world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Next was my choice of a course of study, finance & financial law, intended to be applied practically on my return. That strategy worked just fine given that, among others, my ability to view the world from a global perspective remains intact. 

Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

It’s been almost a decade since I came back to Africa. At SOAS, Africa was presented to me from an interdisciplinary, multi-cultural environment which sought to project issues from a distinctively global perspective. I remember the library and the Brunei gallery where some of those insights and perspectives were shared by distinguished personalities. 

In June, 2017 when we, as the SOAS Alumni group in Ghana, paid a courtesy call on the Speaker of Parliament – the Rt. Hon. Speaker Prof. Mike Oquaye – he also shared with us how he once slept in the library till morning because he was “overwhelmed by the wonderful stock of books and documents.”

As part of the launch of the SOAS Centenary celebration in 2016 there was a Century lecture in Accra, Ghana chaired by Prof Mashood Badarin (Chair of CAS, SOAS) on 10th November. After the insightful lecture by Prof Gustav Casely-Hayford (SOAS Honorary Fellow) on the topic “The Place of Heritage Renewal in Forging Confident Futures: Go back to that which you have forgotten”, there was a question from the audience about any intentions of there being a SOAS on the continent of Africa. Good to note that through the SOAS transnational education (TEN) programme, a partnership between SOAS, UK and MountCrest University College, Ghana was beautifully launched in January, 2020 by Baroness Valerie Amos (former Director of SOAS). 

As I currently consult in various sectors of the Ghanaian economy, I am regularly confronted with development issues which come with their own mix of challenges, but inherent in which are corresponding opportunities to solve problems, to witness growth and to see a good project being developed. 

Peter Charway is the managing partner at Wayfields Partners Ltd, a boutique investment advisory-focused firm based in Accra, Ghana.

Peter has an MSc in Finance & Financial Law (2010) from SOAS University of London and has been an ambassador for the SOAS University of London Alumni in Ghana since 2016.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students. If you enjoyed the piece, take a look at pieces from other SOAS alum:

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