Kofi Asare Opoku: An Intellectual Whose Feet Are ‘Firmly Planted In The Ground’ (Part 1)

In thevideo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC2OzFoEqso&feature=youtu.be,a man is seen standing in front of a huge Onyina tree. 

He stretches out his arms as wide as they can go,
trying to wrap them around the tree.

His arms don’t manage to enclose even one of the
massive externally-growing branch-roots of the Onyina tree.

“You see?” the man tells his interviewer. “That’s
why our African ancestors coined a proverb that says, ‘No single individual can
embrace a baobab tree!’  In this case, the big tree happens to be an Onyina, not
a baobab. But the meaning is the same: no single individual has all the answers
to life”. In other words, no one person can build a nation. 

 The trees in the forest, if we listen
attentively enough to them, will teach us that co-operation is the only way to
go, the man implies. 

I am intrigued. Who is the sage being interviewed?
The voice does sound familiar, but the video doesn’t immediately give me an
indication of who he is.

I keep watching. And then the pen drops:  it is
my old friend, Kofi Asare Opoku! 

In our early  post—independence  years,
Asare Opoku, Fifi Hesse and Kwame Arhin were three of the young intellectuals
produced by the University of Ghana who made a conscious effort to break out of
the ‘Ivory Tower’ represented by the university. They befriended individuals
who were not university-trained themselves but were curious about
knowledge (such as myself).

It was a joy to sit at the feet of these young
intellectuals, have a beer with them and listen to them talk. They argued about
everything, including politics. They were neither snobs nor showoffs. They just
exuded knowledge as if it were the very air they breathed. 

life eventually dispersed all of us and we mostly lost touch with one
another. To hear and see Asare Opoku again was therefore a great pleasure.
And, as ever, he was stimulating and full of wisdom.   

What he was saying in the video was that we, as
human beings, do not pay enough attention to our environment. But those of us
who grew up in forest areas, in particular, are fortunate enough to live among
whose ancestors have been exposed to  trees and plants for thousands
and sometimes millions of years. Our whole way of life and our beliefs have
been shaped by the trees, herbs and plants that supported us in life. 

The verdant vegetation amongst which we live does
not only give us food but – especially — medicine. They make sure that “we do
not die!” unnecessarily. There is vegetation whose medicinal content is so
powerful that our ancestors made sure they planted some around their gates and
compounds so that if the need arose, the plants and herbs would be readily

There are plants that can prevent bleeding from
wounds; some plants also attract bees who produce honey – and honey also
contains an anti-bleeding substance! It’s only recently that Western scientists
have cottoned on to some of these healing substances of which forest dwellers
have been aware for thousands of years. 

Asare Opoku says he bought a piece of land he calls ‘Anansekwae’
on the Akuapem hills four decades ago and decided that rather than cut down
the trees and build a house on it, he would maintain it as a forest and add new
plants to what was already there. Today, the farm has become a ‘forest town’ which
he has named after the notorious hero/anti-hero of Ghanaian folk tales, Kwaku

Among the plants he’s cultivated is one of my own
favourites — asaa (asowa in Asante Twi):  that unique and
miraculous plant whose beautiful red fruits, once eaten, sweeten everything
else that one eats — including bitter lemons. He knows the peculiar qualities
of each plant, in the order of things, and he tries to find out the
philosophical apothegms that the forest-dwellers crafted around them.

 Who is Kofi Asare Opoku?  Born in
1933, Asare Opoku was educated at the University of Ghana, Yale University (in
the United States of America) and Bonn University (among others). 

 A past Administrative Secretary of the famous
Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana, Legon, Asare Opoku has
published several books and contributed chapters to others. His articles in
academic publications can be numbered in thousands. He’s also taught in many
prestigious institutions abroad. 

Indeed, like that of the late Professor J H Kwabena
Nketia, (whom he considers his mentor) Asare Opoku’s curriculum vitae reads
like a book in itself. Yet he was nearly lost to academia at the beginning of
his scholarly life because his family wanted him to become a Presbyterian
priest, just like his father and grandfather before him!

Among Asare Opoku’s books are: Speak to the
Winds: Proverbs from Africa,
 New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co.

West African Traditional Religion, Singapore: Far Eastern
Publishers (1978);

Healing for God’s World: Remedies From Three
, (with
Kim Yong-

Bock and Antoinette C. Wire), New York: Friendship
Press (1991);

Hearing and Keeping: Akan Proverbs. Pretoria: University of
South Africa Press,

(1997); Togbe Adawuso Dofe: Mami Water in
the Ewe Tradition
, with Kathleen O’Brien

Wicker:  Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra
(2007); and Healing and Prophecy at Mehu: The Life and Work of Prophet

Kwadwo Amoaforo, with Kathleen O’Brien Wicker and Margaret

Streetor. Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra.

Prof. Asare Opoku was the Director of the Kwabena
Nketia Centre for Africana Studies, African University College of
Communications, Accra, Ghana, from August 2013 – September 2015.

He was also Visiting Professor, Africana Studies and
Religious Studies, Lafayette

College, Easton, PA, USA. between January and
June, 2011.

(To be continued)


From Cameron Duodu

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