Dr. John Kenneth Mensah

Senior Lecturer


Dept: Chemistry
Chemistry Department
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KNUST
Kumasi, Ghana

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Research Areas/Interests

Bio-organic Chemistry where research interest is at the intersection of chemistry with biology....~more

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The Long Walk Home

The graduation ceremony was unusually raucous as the VC regaled the congregants with amusing stories of his student’s days that had all attendees in titters.  But when the candidate finally received his BSc certificate for Computer Science the feeling of elation was surprisingly momentary, replaced by a brooding concern that was clearly visible to his accompanying family during the photo-ops.

“It’s your graduation day, be happy and make merry because you’ve accomplished what few can merely attempt in their lifetime,” his elated mother reminded him.

“What’s wrong?” demanded his older brother.

“Nothing” he replied nonchalantly. “Just thinking about what is next” he added with a little afterthought.

“Of course, what ahead is that national service!” His older brother replied facetiously.

He has exhausted his family’s capacity to endure financial hardship to pay for his “knick and knack” that were part and parcel of his undergraduate education. Now, she is dead set on her decision that four years of Higher Education are all she can afford. No, they won’t fork out additional borrowed money for the graduate school he so desires and for which he had repeatedly dropped hints. Collectively, his mother and older brother are resolute on this decision but have not verbalized to him that going into debt for him to acquire more degrees is not an option.

As his vision for his future remained prescient, his instincts told him that if he doesn’t get an extramural scholarship, BSc will probably be his terminal degree. And he has way too much talent to wallow in the heap pile of first degree holders. Unless of course he gets a job after national service to enable him save up for his graduate education in Ghana. This thought was what nagged him consistently, and echoed at the back of his mind as the graduation ceremony unfolded.

More pronounced than any of his character traits, he has been a stickler for order. He was a remarkable undergraduate student: smart, studious, curious and highly motivated with an academic behavior that was marked by an exceptional love for Computers and an intense devotion to scholarly work. He really worked hard in school and knew he could have made first class if there was food in his belly as often as he needed it. Precise and meticulous in his timing and planning, he has now taught himself how to write block chain algorithms on apps. Apps are now his favorite subject and block chain algorithms his core thematic area and both areas are tentatively the new wave of the future for computerization.

As the National Service always does, it came and went in a flash. Almost a whimper. For a man dedicated to academic pursuit, he merely pushed papers from office to office as an errand boy for the permanent co-workers at CIBA for one-year. During that duration, he barely saved up enough money from his meagre allowance to keep him from starving. So he did fleeting interviews for the few jobs in the few IT companies where he hoped to work briefly as a system analyst, intending to save up for an eventual entry into graduate school. Misery and misfortune work in tandem, with one following the other. Every one of those interviews did not yield a call back, even in those interviews that he swears by God, were perfect.

“Let this one work God. Make it work Lord,” he whispered under his breath repeatedly as though he wanted to hypnotize himself with those words until God “made it work for him.”

Although level-headed, he invested in this interview an outsized expectation and a hefty emotional capital that it would somehow lead to the consequential transformative job that will place him on the bridge to his future. And the hope that he had in this job, and in this job only as the answer to the bottleneck in his impending postgraduate education distorted his perception of reality, undermined his carefully cultivated inner strength that has been accumulated through years of display of survival instincts and blurred his vision of the realm of possibilities available to him.    So assured was he of success in this interview that he failed to plan for the scenario that must be confronted in todays’ job-market: success requires utmost flexibility with continuously evolving skill-sets that go beyond one’s philosophical and intellectual and educational bent. An inexorable circumstance fueled by high graduate demand for job opportunities that are non-existing.

The day before the interview, he fasted and prayed the kind of loud, preachy, “authoritative” prayer common among Pentecostal Christians: commanding God; taking God by His word; and reminding God that one is only appropriating His divine promises that he is privileged to get only through prayer; asserting that prayer is the glue that keeps all things in life from falling apart and that prayer represents the unseen force that opens all locked doors. He still cannot or would not pray a silent prayer because in his theology it robs him of the confidence to approach a rich and powerful God who owns all things. A silent plea isn’t culturally appropriate for the God he serves is not a pauper to be approached in secret and to be spoken to in barely audible tones.

With high decibels, he kept at it for more than an hour: binding the forces of evil arrayed against the interview and loosening the unmitigated divine favor that will ultimately give him the assurance that God has given him the job. Never mind that he knows nothing about the details of the job for that was not provided in the advertisement. That unnecessary detail will be dispensed with as soon as he gets the job, he reasoned. Just be successful in the job interview, that’s all there was to do now and that is what he can control. He has the utmost assurance that success will be his portion. How he knew that the job was his through God’s providence, nobody knew. It was a kind of revealed truth or perhaps internalized faith that he later confided to his mother. He was, after all, not ignorant of the things of the spirit and professes, occasionally, to know more than what most roadside preachers know. No, his dream and his passion of becoming a professor will not be curtailed by this rough sparring session with money? Above all, he has remained a consummate optimist. Despite his lack of success two years after graduation, he remains convinced of the value of education as a vehicle for upward mobility and for self-improvement and strongly believes that qualified students should not be denied the benefits of an education simply because they lack funds. “Under no circumstance should lack of funds be allowed to derail educational aspirations,” he had told a rather bemused classmate with his trademark absolutism.

The only weapon for success he now has was to heed his mother’s advice to “pray about everything.” “Don’t fret about it,” she would intone. “Just pray and a host of heavenly powers will be mobilized on your behalf. Just pray and you’ll untie God’s hand to turn the course of events in your life. Just pray and God will re-arrange events and situate people at the precise moment in time to meet your every specific need.” What could he have done without his mother’s theology which taught him also how to lift up his head and walk with a straight back as if he was a real millionaire. So he has really prayed and prayed hard.

His turn before the interview panel turned out to be eventful.

“Your resume is among the best we’ve received and you have the job,” thundered the chair of the interview panel.

“Just like that,” he retorted and had to pinch his right thigh to dispel his obvious doubts and to shut his instinct to celebrate too early.

“You have all the qualifications that we need,” said the chair of the panel in unequivocal assurance. The he pointed to the middle-aged Chinese national sitting next to him and continued his speech.

“Mr. Hu here first made contact with Ghanaians in the early seventies when batches of Ghanaian students came over to Chondui on bilateral cultural exchange programs. Back then, Mr. Hu marvelled at their chiselled figures and admired their athletic looks and wondered what it is in their diets that gave them such excellent muscular physiques. Now, Mr. Hu has observed with consternation the increasing bulge of Ghanaian exchange students’ stomachs when they come over to Chondui for the annual bilateral exchange. Mr. Hu loves Ghana as dear as any Ghanaian would ever love her and so to stem the tide of the epidemic of obesity among Ghanaians, he developed a formula and prepared a brand of Yoghurt with unique blend of nutraceuticals that are metabolically efficient. Your job is to take samples of this yoghurt to Ghanaian homes and convince Ghanaians that this yoghurt’s nutritional benefits are far superior to that of fufu, you-ker-gari, aprapamsa, ampese, TZ and all the carbohydrate-rich dishes that we conjure up with zeal to recharge our obese instincts.”

The inherent absurdity of his responsibility hit him like a bolt of lightning. As he kept on thinking about this new job, questions lingered and his brain scrambled to decide whether they should be verbalized. Here I am with the intelligence, curiosity, and creativity needed for the study of Computer Science and you want me to be a common hawker? I have the resilience, enthusiasm and perseverance for future success in any research career in science and I am told all that its’ good for is to gurgle yoghurt? You got to be kidding me!

“You’re hiring a BSc Computer Science graduate to go sell yoghurt?” That’s all he could muster the strength and courage to ask the chair.

“We look at what you can do not at what you have studied. Because when it comes down to it, what you know is not as important as what you do with the little that you know.”

“So I am a salesman for “Made-in-China” yoghurt?”

“No, you are better than a salesman – you’re a facilitator for good eating habits among Ghanaians. You’re a fighter for the battle of the bulge and it’s our dearest investment in the wellness and longevity of Ghanaians. We invest in people because we see people not as a profitable venture but as God-given resources that must be nurtured with good food. Until we discard the culture that celebrates plumpness as beauty, our waistlines will continue to expand and our cheeks will keep on ballooning until the sheer weight of our bulk decreases our health-related quality of life. We are literally eating ourselves to an early grave. And this yoghurt is the answer to our battle with the bulge. The yoghurt is a fantastic nutritional source of vitamins, minerals and proteins,” the chair has put his tried-and-tested spin on the job description and was confident of its designed impact.

The way he manages his anger and disappointment is always unpleasant. Listening to the committee chair prompted tears and nausea. And the revelation of the job description elicited dismay more than fury. With his trademark precise manner, he slowly bent over, and methodically unlaced his shoe strings and removed his meticulously polished shoes one after the other. He kept his black socks on for effect. He then held the left shoe by the heel with the tip of his index finger of his right hand and held the right shoes by the heel with the tip of his middle finger of the same right hand. Laconically, he politely thanked the interview committee who now have their collective eyes glued on him as he began his slow waltz to the exit barefooted with just a covering of the pair of socks. He got out of the office and out of the building barefooted and continued his dejected walk on foot through filthy streets and congested alleys over bridges whose adjoining stinking gutters are choked full with plastic garbage, stopping only to shake his head at the futility of his decision. He walked staidly through puddles of water and stepped gingerly in dog faeces, crossed streets at inappropriate points until he has covered the entire three kilometer distance home shoeless.

Lying sleepless in bed that night, he reflected over the financial travails of his short life and promptly lowered his academic expectations for the future before finally concluding that his country can only be loved through a heartache.

 

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