President Rawlings: My tribute to an unusual African Leader
One January afternoon in 2012, I as a nine-year-old girl, accompanied by my parents and younger siblings were ushered into a large but very modest waiting room in Ridge – Accra. I was nervous, not because it was Ghana, or that the heat was sweltering.
Rather, it was the very first time I was going to meet a Statesman – one who had governed a country for almost two decades, and also revered on the African continent. His name was Jerry John Rawlings.
With my Video Camera, lights and stand safely tucked in my backpack, I slowly went over the questions I wanted to task him, about the Ghana Revolution, as we waited to see him.
The reason was I had entered a competition meant for 11 – 16 year old’s back at school in California, and we were challenged to do a play act, or create a short documentary about a successful revolution anywhere in the world.
I wanted to do something totally different from my classmates [I was 2 years ahead], and because I was younger, and smaller, they didn’t like my idea of doing something outside of the US very much – especially not in Africa of all places. So, I wrote to President Rawlings, explaining my predicament, and asked if he would allow me record my meeting and session with him, for the documentary about a successful revolution.
His answer came 3 weeks later. ‘It was simple, and blunt. “if you are serious enough and can come over to Ghana, I would make time for you and your documentary”
I was told before we arrived that he had 15 minutes for me, because he was busy, and was traveling overseas that evening. It was probably true, because there were about 9 older people waiting in his lobby, when we arrived.
An hour later, my camera rolling, I began asking him questions about the Ghana Revolution, and what things were like then in Ghana. He spoke very candidly, giving as an example of how he was asked by his superiors to fly a fighter jet over those demonstrating, to intimidate them into silence. He didnt like that at all. I was a little surprised he shared that, and many more things on camera, but perhaps – his openness and penchant for fairness was a flaw he lived with.
President Rawlings at the end of our session, walked my family and I to our car and spent more time talking with me, while others still waited to see me. He said whenever I was in Ghana, I should stop by to say hello, and share with him how I was doing with my projects.
My second short documentary at the age of 12 was on the 1967 OAU and the effects it had on three countries – Malawi, Tanzania and Mauritius. For that project, I sat down with Presidents Joyce Banda of Malawi, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Rakeshwur Purryag of Mauritius.
The African Union heard about the documentary project. As an example of their belief in the power and voice of youths,I was invited in April 2013, to screen it in Ethiopia during the 50th Anniversary of the OAU – now called Africa Union.
In the main hall of the AU building in downtown Addis Ababa, there were trains of world leaders, their staff and personal security – walking from one end of the hall to another, attending plenary and bi-lateral meetings. There were more than 70 heads of state there, mostly from the AU, but also Caribbean, Latin America, and some from Asia.
And there he was – President Jerry Rawlings and his train. I called out to him, and he stopped, turned around, and belted out in his deep voice – “Zuriel, is that you.” His entire train came to an abrupt stop also, were surprised, and the look on their face asked the question – ‘who is that girl, and why is he talking to her”.
In my mind, I answered, ‘that’s grandpa Jerry. He hugged me tight, and had questions for me, asking what I was doing at the event. It was my second time meeting him. He was pleased and so proud it was my documentary showing later that afternoon.
When I was 14, I got invited to share my journey at the University of Pretoria and then Ashesi University in Ghana. I remembered what President told me the last time, so, we stopped by his office to let him know I was in Ghana. I learned [disappointed] that he was in Namibia for the new Presidents inauguration.
Ashesi was a fantastic experience, as I had never been to the Eastern Region before. On my last day in Accra, President Rawlings office called and asked what time was my flight out that evening. I let them know it was 10:30PM.
I learned his flight from Namibia via South Africa was landing at 9PM. He had been told I was in Accra and leaving the same night he was arriving, but he wanted to see me. We met at the VIP Lounge at the airport, so I didnt miss my flight. He introduced me to his wife Ms Nana Agyeman, and we all hugged, sat, and had a lot to catch up on for almost an hour, as it had been 2 years.
He made time – just to see this 14 year old. Perhaps, that was a flaw, but he was seriously interested in my projects and what impact I was making at school. I left that meeting smiling, on my way to show my film – A Promising Africa, in Tokyo.
It had been three years since I last saw grandpa Jerry. In between speaking at UNESCO, COP, my school work, meeting other word leaders, and expanding my film making class, and then his busy schedules, where was the time.
And then in January 2018, I was heading back to Ghana, to speak at a poor community in Accra called Chorkor. Some call it the slums, I call it a place where nuggets are hidden, waiting to be discovered.
I let President Rawlings office know I was coming to town again. What I didn’t know was he asked his senior advisers to research me on their own, and then have questions for me when I arrived. He simply wanted to show off, his granddaughter.
And yes, they threw some tough questions at me on every global topic, as he watched me try to answer each one. He was simply proud, of this little girl. It was the last time I saw him personally, but we always stayed I touch.
And then, I learned he passed a few days ago. One of my favorite pictures that adorned the walls of his office, is him on a horse – as his mode of rural transportation in the days of the revolution. I also understood better the bond shared in a picture of him with Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, another young African leader in the 80’s.
I am ever grateful for the times we spent together, the stories he shared, the lessons on bravery he taught me, and the challenges of leadership to led me to understand.
Hopefully, I would get to make you even more proud, some day. Good bye grandpa Jerry [John Rawlings]. I would miss you. Africa, as a continent, would miss you too.
Zuriel Oduwole is a Film Maker and Education Advocate.