He was the most powerful man amongst the Ashantis from Ghana . His name, Otumfuo Nana Sir Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II, KBE.
At four-years-old in 1896 his uncle, Prempeh I (the 13th Asantehene), the queen and relatives were exiled to the Seychelles Islands by the British. It was retribution for not yielding to British rule following several battles between the British and Ashantis.
Prempeh I and his Queen were held in Elmina Castle in these two turrets in the distance before their exile. The British indeed owe Ghana immeasurable restitution.
You could say there was no love for the British then, perhaps, but a firm friendship would blossom between Nana Prempeh II and a British methodist by the name of Reverend Sidney Pearson (see top photo).
Nana Prempeh II took the throne in 1935. In the 40s at a time of intensified interest in education in Ghana, then called the Gold Coast, he and Reverend Pearson struck up a friendship. Their friendship is evident in a casually-looking King with none of the wealth trappings or aides in the shot.
Invited to dinner, the King learned of Reverend Sidney Pearson’s educational and Methodist background. Reverend Pearson had gone to a local Grammar School then to Durham University (1st degree ) and then later to Cambridge (2nd degree).
The King wanted a school that reflected equivalent academic enterprise and character, and through conversations and Tonka Toys; the Reverend had a collection which he shared with King, they came to an agreement, of sorts.
Could there be a school in the heart of Ghana which primed its young for the future? However, there were crucial differences. It must be a school in which its alumni would work for their country instead of thinking the country owned them a living. The school too would be open to all. It’s first intake could only accept 500 boys; 2000 applied.
Ghanaians place great store and take great pride and strategic importance in education. In 1925, under British rule, a new education code limited the teaching of English in the school system. There was mounting vehement local opposition which in 1930 led the Governor of the Gold Coast, Gordon Guggisberg, to attempt to soften the impact of the legislation by pushing “Good character” as a priority for students.
In the Gold Coast Time newspaper, Kobina Kwaansa (a nom de plum) wrote: “If the people in the colonies aren’t taught English, they will be exploited by the capitalist”. Whilst local vernaculars were welcome, to Pan Africanists and intellectuals, without English, the future Ghanaian would be hamstrung and as the country in the 40’s into the 50s increasingly looked to self- rule, who would run the civil service and negotiate at the highest levels?
Wisdom and Character would become the motto of the school Reverend Pearson and the King of the Ashantis had in mind. Suban ni Nimde3 ( Good character and knowledge). It launched in 1949. That agreement of sorts in a minute.
Below, (on the left) is a photo of my father Edward Gyimah with his friends — just the sort of people the Reverend had in mind. Just after Ghana’s independence, my father arrived in in the UK to continue his studies at the LSE. He’d been a rising policeman in Ghana, but that wouldn’t work outin the UK. Like the wave of Africans coming to the UK, the idea was to gain qualifications and return to Ghana to help with its growth.
My father did not attend the newly minted Prempeh College, but he revered it. Many years later, having settled in the UK with his children, he would return to Ghana with my siblings and I, keen to send me to the school he fêted. There was another reason. The mid 70s was fast becoming the heightened sink education system (special measures) being offered to black children. It was captured in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s small axe on BBC TV. To escape that option I was to join the caravan of Brit-Ghanaian children shipped to Ghana as “Been tos”. Cultural and identity shocks were enough to derail many children.
THE GOOD REVEREND
The idea for a school in the middle belt of Ghana began to take shape with the backing of the British, (Governor Guggisberg) and figures from Mfantsipim (where the late Kofi Annan went to school). Supporters also included Ghana’s Churches e.g. Presbyterian and the Asantehene (King of the Ashantis). Now to that agreement of sorts.
Reverend Pearson had travelled back to the UK when he received a telegram from the Asantehene (King). The telegram asked him to return to Ghana because the new school needed managing — something the king had entrusted to his new friend.
On arrival at Ghana’s port harbour Rev Pearson was picked up the King’s envoy and driven to the school. It was a long and arduous journey Reverend Pearson recounted, and then it came to an interesting end. The driver stopped in open land.
Bemused the Rev alighted, looked around and asked the envoy, “Where’s the school?” “ Oh, you’re here to build it”, the envoy replied. Reverend Pearson was, to put it, delicately, “surprised” and chuckles whilst telling us the story.
The school, however, was completed and in 1949, massively over subscribed it opened its door to the first cohorts. Some years later because of ill health, Reverend Pearson sailed back to the UK. His legacy as both the founder and headmaster lived on with it some of the key figures who would run the country in the future.
There the story might end. In 1974, the Reverend and his wife, Irene May Pearson (known by everyone as Renée) attended the 25th Anniversary Celebrations of Prempeh College. In 1999 Reverend Pearson was invited back to Ghana, accompanied by his son Keith, to celebrate Prempeh College’s 50th anniversary. Despite that, several old boys were none the wiser where they could find him and a search would start in 2000 of his whereabouts. In 1999, information flows weren’t as manifestly visible via the Internet as they are today.
His friendship with the Asantehene was a firm memory; the king had died in 1970. There’s a wonderful story about what happens when he lands and at the airport is greeted by a roll call of past students, in which one student won’t let go of his hand, but I’ll save this for another time. Picture a scene in a village, of one boy who has a place but is to destitute to go, so the teachers club together. Fifty years later — even a Hollywood movie could not have dreamt up the ending.
Prempeh College alumni have several chapters around the world and the UK is one of its strongest and at one meeting I started to muse with colleagues. Wouldn’t it be great of we could tell the story of Prempeh College through alumni, the Brits who attended and Reverend Pearson? Then one day I had a break through. His son, Keith, was traced by an article and I’d found an email where he worked. Reverend Pearson was very much alive and living in Canoustie.
I’d undertaken a range of big projects in my career, such as filming Lennox Lewis’ heavyweight clash with Mike Tyson in the US, and producing and directing Ghana’s first co-production with South Africa’s public service television. It meant taking Ghanaian Television personalities to South Africa, where I was a previous freelance correspondent.
The 11-hour journey which was completed in 9 hours itself was a drama. Packed inside our car filled with equipment were Rupert Phillips (Cameraman, Sound, Lighting) Sajo Idrizinovich (Award Winning Photojournalist) and me. Michael Donkor (co-producer) drove.
We left London at 12 midnight. Around Manchester our first issue. Micheal was gassing the car and the result was a motorway flash that had him going let’s say an interesting bit more than 70mph on a vacant motorway. A penalty and fine would follow. And then about an hour from our destination our car broke down and we had to wait to be towed to Carnoustie. The fault with the car would cost £60 but it meant taking the engine out. Cost £600. We were doomed. But the tow driver said, if we were able to complete a third of the journey, we could ring his service again, but that meant we could only go at a max of 40mph driving back on the motorway. A third in we stopped and were towed back to London.
Nestled in Canoustie was a giant of a man, whose impact on many lives is immeasurable. Our shoot went well. He spoke about his friendship, the school, his memories and the impact it had had on him. This wasn’t going to be a film about white saviour, but one which gave context to the many people who Reverend Pearson worked with, those he inspired and one that turned grassland into one of the most respected schools in Ghana. A year and a bit latter Reverend Pearson passed away.
The tapes of Reverend Pearson remain unedited laying somewhere in a thousand beta tapes previously in this author’s home. But during lockdown we located some valuable tapes that a global body deemed historically important. It is our ambition; my co-producer Michael Donkor, archivist Jose and I to tell this story of Prempeh, wrapped around personal a number of stories.
It’s a heartfelt one of a touching friendship with the King. It’s also a narrative of a school whose legacy burns bright. It’s a school which allowed my dad’s wish to come true. My siblings and I would leave London and spend our growing up puberty attending school in Ghana. Somewhere in that picture is me, a been-to, growing up amongst brothers .
This photo (below) shows British PM Tony Blair meeting His Royal Majesty, Okyenhene Osagyefuo Nana Amoatia Ofori Panin, King of Akyem Abuakwa in Ghana. Note the ceremonial hands that enable the King to extend his arm.
Next to Blair is the President of Ghana, John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor KCB. John Kufuor is an alumni of Prempeh College. His son also called John was the house prefect of Aggrey House and is the photo above, four rows up, three from the right.
Stories within Prempeh are manyfold as any old boy will tell you. Each era too attaches special conditions. Today, many of the alumni have cemented careers in the higher echelons of their profession and in Ghana. Francis Osei, a former banker, (below) in the same house as me has created one of the biggest Maize farms in Ghana in two years.
In 2018 I returned to Ghana after my mother died. The comfort and condolences from these band of brothers is unlike anything I’ve seen or read elsewhere.
This strong belief in helping one another nurtured all those years back is a hallmark of the legacy created from the school’s conception, owed to in no small measure to Reverend Pearson. In moments of need they rally around each other, as demonstrated at gatherings like this in the UK they undertake frequently. This video was produced in 2007.
Everyone is addressed as “senior/ amanfo”. Here, from the class of 82 in London they’re wishing one of their own a safe flight and support at the loss of a dear family member.
Many in the UK will be familiar with Jon Snow, a national figure who presents Channel 4 News. Here’s Jon meeting Ghana’s First Lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo in what is a gem of an exchange.
I worked with Jon as a producer on Channel 4 News and on the day I was leaving I asked if he would be the narrator for this trailer I made of the Reverend.
In 2018 I visited Ghana for the first time in many years. I’d had a fleeting visit in 1997, but this time I made a short video with one of our old boys.
Author Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is an academic, producer, journalist technologist and entrepreneur. He’s worked in media for more than 30 years and is a former freelance foreign correspondent in South Africa in the early 90s.
He’s won several international awards for his work beating the likes of CNN, BBC etc. He’ s co-founder of the Media Diversity journal Reprensentology with Birmingham University’s Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity.
He’s just finished working as an Advisory board member for their Breaking News exhibition that opens in April 2022. He’s working with archive producer / DocumentariannJose Velazquez, MA• He’s been voted as one of the top most influential Ghanaians in the UK. More on him here.