In Memorium-Soa; A Dirge
A life of service steeped in controversy
After more than 30 years of loyal and meritorious service marked by many public dissensions with university authorities, it should become blindingly obvious to the KNUST community that Dr. Samuel Osafo Acquaah (aka S. Osafo Acquaah, aka SOA) was genuinely committed to the execution of an all-encompassing vision of an expansively defined goal of academic excellence. The only point of contention that may arise about his aspirations may be in the “modus operandi” that he employed to implement his grand vision of an academic paradise. Given the fluidity of the ethical and regulatory issues that he skirted in his drive to accomplish his monumental vision, many reasonable and informed minds will legitimately differ in opinion about its ultimate value, about its success and, inexorably, about SOA’s place in the annals of KNUST.
SOA taught courses in organic chemistry for the Department of Chemistry and for other satellite departments at a time when the mere mention of the words “organic chemistry” sends fear and dread down the spine of conscientious students. He took some of the embedded fear out of the course and allayed students’ apprehension mostly with a plumb and an enthusiasm exposition of organic chemistry principles. The clarity of his thoughts and the incisiveness of his words all delivered like an instructor who is a cross between a charismatic preacher and a motivational speaker often elicited an enthusiastic bellow from students. “Prof! Prof!” they shouted loudly in perfect unison.
As the academic landscape slowly changed, he never became disenchanted with the insidious trend of students disinterest with rigorous academic work that has crept into the community of scholars but continued to believe inherently in inducing sufficient motivation to turn intellectual apathy into academic exuberance. SOA was an exciting mentor. He nurtured several batches of student groups into scholars through his unorthodox means that relies more on the use of long frequent conversations centered on his many random thoughts. As a magnet to acolytes, students gravitated to him to enjoy primarily in the life of his overactive mind. Towards this end, SOA was always surrounded by a dedicated bunch of eccentric students who were uniformly characterized by their exposition of axioms spanning archeology to zoology. Many of the students who were drawn to his strength are now struggling to come to terms with his untimely death. They remember the long fatherly advice, the meandering discourses and the drawn-out intellectual sparring sessions he had with them in informal sessions, in class and in the Students Chemical Society meetings.
It is in SOA’s leadership as HOD that his philosophical outlook exhibited a sharper contrast to that of the mainstream. Many, including this author, promptly and strongly disagreed with his methods and opposed the fundamental thrust of his administrative stance. In both style and substance, SOA embraced bombast and change as a leadership approach. Departmental meetings became an arena for theater. But he neither governed by fear nor led by grievance. SOA was not a political ideologue – he owed political allegiance to no one and so he took issues in their stride, often with beneficent intentions but voiced his positions with stridency. He was not a bad-faith actor but was a zealot when his focus turned to “change.”
Change, not as a pre-requisite for efficiency, or even a necessity for progress but change as an end in itself! Change for its own sake! Change, just for the heck of it! Change: its militant simplicity will cut through the labyrinth of academic maze filled with indecipherable jargons that has engulfed our professional life in the department. Change is the theater of the real world not the theater of the absurd world of academia. Change is when you snap your finger; when blink your eyelids and when you nod your head. Change is the natural order of things and so should evoke no fear. In fact, the only thing we have to fear about change is the fear of change itself. Change will transform the stifling inertia within the department and the stultifying academic decay into an island of academic innovation and scholastic creativity. The inevitability of change, therefore, became the sacrosanct religious creed that bound the faith and the fate of his chosen Department to a golden future of academic bliss. Change became, also, a comfortable cradle of reason for SOA’s irrationalities. As his fervor on “change” verged into fanaticism he began to wield “change” as a magical cudgel that answers all the departmental shortcomings. For an academic department that prides itself on monotonous regularity, all the pontifications and disputations about the value of change to its internal character and to its daily heartbeat was jarring. The Department of Chemistry settled into a rather calming mood of passive indifference.
But SOA was rarely silent and rarely evasive about his block-buster transformative plans euphemistically termed “change.” He often argued against the grain and never conceded any ground in a verbal argument. He never folded on his philosophical positions either; always doubled-down and occasionally upped-the-ante. Through it all he never projected weakness, always exuded strength. Many of SOA’s administrative decisions as HOD can be considered a contradiction, thereby making the broader contradictory realities of life in academia part of the departmental conversation. Some reasoned that SOA is deploying this stylistic choice purposely to enhance his anti-establishment identity in university-wide relations. His divergence from acceptable and unquestioned norms should not be viewed, it was contended, as accidental but as a conscious subversion of “standard” approach to university-wide policy making. Unsurprisingly, his controversial positions often provoked the ire of the university administration. A repetitive pattern of cause and effect dichotomy, of action and reaction opposition was established between SOA’s style and substance and the university administration’s orthodoxy. SOA’s views of rightness along these lines was always strident and so unbending that it often triggered denunciatory responses even from perceived friends. And this lack of equivocation became a singular most potent emotive force that galvanized disparate groups of aggrieved students unified by their common hatred of SOA and by their increasing exasperation with his leadership style. The implausibility of students’ claims is often no bar to its acceptance by authorities when it is packaged with political pressure. Establishment figures and university authorities were once again irked but SOA never budged. Students matter most! Eventually, the university stopped using subliminal messages and innuendos to deal with SOA’s recalcitrance. This time, the confrontation between SOA and the university administration was a head-on collision. When the dust settled, SOA was out as the HOD before the official curtain on his term was drawn. SOA will later reminisce, waxing poetic to anyone who will listen, about his ordeal that will turn out to be a stepping stone to greater and bigger appointments.
To argue that, in death, his perennial norm-shattering moves that often stirred deep collegial acrimony should be customarily silenced or avoided entirely is as absurd as the argument that such unconventional positions took the sheen out of his innate nobility. Alas, focusing only on his eccentricities distorts the comprehensive picture painted by the nature of the man, the substance of his many contrarian positions and the context of his key polarizing decisions and actions. Analyzed within its unique context, SOA’s well-publicized positions largely challenged university orthodoxy and revealed the paradoxes and the contradictions that are inherent in life in academia worldwide. Through it all, what has puzzled many observers is his extraordinary ability to compartmentalize: keep a series of unrelated and even related grand activities going simultaneously so that bottlenecks encountered in one does not derail the others.
Another bone of contention that engulfed SOA in a leadership position was with the Ghana Chemical Society (GCS). To call SOA an exemplar of progress in GCS and of academic organization more broadly, might appear an understatement to his many High School fans. He rightfully saw High School students as the future of Chemistry. That his unwavering commitment remained that High School students become his unyielding focus for outreach is a testament to both his talent for discovery and his drive for caring for the nation-wide blind spots in career choices. He robed me in on his High School outreach program and an indefinable sense of camaraderie developed between us on our frequent trips. In many of his self-funded trips to High Schools all over the nation, SOA expanded students’ realm of career possibilities with unparalleled enthusiasm and strength. His gentle yet powerful command over crowds that gathered to hear him speak made his tenure in the GCS Presidency eventful. Undoubtedly his trips inspired large number of High School students to study and to aspire to greatness and to make the logical career choice in Chemistry.
SOA showed his humanity with boundless compassion. Acts that show his kindness are plenty. Students who lived at the edge of financial despair and junior staff who are chronically strapped of money found a dependable benefactor. At 6 foot 3 weighing probably 250 pounds, SOA cuts a distinctive figure and is often the most towering bodily figure in the department. And when intellectual inspiration hits him (and these were frequent), he covers his enormous upper body frame with a coat. As he struts through the corridors of the department, he looks more like a throwback old benevolent military dictator whose pre-occupation with political survival moves him into bread and butter issues than a scientist whose pre-eminent interest in plants secretory phytochemicals led him to examine chemical means of communication among biological species.
Any expectation that SOA will replace much of the bluster surrounding him with a placid academic life dominated by contemplative ruminations evaporated when he retired. For an apostle whose purported divine-calling focused on a message of change, the poignant irony surrounding his retirement is that he made little overt personal changes to accommodate his declining energetic content and his physical availability. Even after retirement, SOA’s vibrant acuity propelled him to plow through life with his customary restlessness and boundless enthusiasm. While still in retirement, he continued to apply his immense capabilities and talents with the extra free time to additional range of endeavors: Ghana Publishing Association and others societies, bringing his extramural commitments to a staggering bunch. He also continued to execute, with alacrity, the core mandate of the university and enlarged his research group by accepting more PhD candidates. He shuttled between UK and Accra for collaborative research meetings and seminars and presentations. He even passionately and angrily argued for more undergraduate students to be added to his supervision list! Sadly, that ill-tempered argument at the departmental board meeting is the last mental picture I have of his life in academia.
Too many people die with their music still left in them. Not SOA! He belted out his song loud and clear. Actually, he sang all the parts in the symphony and single-handedly played all the instruments in the orchestra. He was his own conductor in the theater of life. And he sang different tunes, besides his natural baritone, at different places and at different times. In fact, he sang his last song a fulfilled man. His lyrics were as much a philosophy of life as they were a song. These same lyrics were both a promise and a responsibility. As we listened to his lyrics, we formed a variegated picture; the bubbly variation in his thoughts and the passionate appeal for the changes that he saw in everyday sphere made us alternately happy and angry. Such emotion-laden lyrics were always a lightning rod for any issue that required him to stake a position. No one could extinguish the light of rebellion in his soul nor silence his strident voice. His rampart philosophizing filled with hyperbole and monologues filled with polemics was never spoken with bitterness. Academic maverick. Universal figure. Goodbye!
SOA departs this world as a man of mystery, as a figure of fascination, as a patrician maverick who inspired an equal measure of admiration and fury from the same collegial community. Rest in peace SOA. Author, chemist, scholar, educator, researcher, evangelist, motivator, critic, innovator, fixer, husband, father, publisher, anti-establishment crusader and many other accolades that have no Standard English language descriptors. Wherever the pendulum of your views on SOA swing, let it be known to others that SOA will unquestionably loom large in the annals of KNUST as one of the university’s most interesting personalities.
“All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.” William Shakespeare in “As you like it.”