A race must always be finished

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· Memories of Mfantsipim headmaster Joseph Abruquah

Joseph Abruquah (1920-1997)

Had just arrived in Cape Coast from Accra, and decided to visit Mfantsipim, my old school on the Kwabotwe Hill. Having taken the Kotokuraba Market route, I entered the school from the direction of the lower dormitories.

Driving up, I noticed an unusually somber atmosphere with a few cars and some people staggering up the hill to the academic blocks. Further up towards the Assembly Hall, it now dawned on me that a funeral was in progress.


I found a spot to park the car and followed the small crowd into the hall. A casket had been mounted in the center, and peering into it, there lay Mr Abruquah’s corpse. That was past mid-day, 27th November 1997.

I hadn’t seen Abruqs (as we called him) since I left the school in June 1966. Regardless, there were particular people we thought would live forever, and to now see Abruqs dead, and readied for burial, was a bit too much to take. I was shaken by the rising tide of man’s mortality.

While the service was going on, I scribbled on the back of the funeral brochure bits and pieces of memories of the man who had served as headmaster in my impressionable teenage years. The resulting tribute was published in the Daily Graphic, March 11, 1998. I was soon to receive a phone call from an editor of the Ghanaian Times for permission to re-publish it, which he did March 28, 1998. He had read the tribute and as it was, Abruqs had served as his headmaster at Keta Secondary where a house was named after him.

A discerning educator

The 15-year-old Abruquah was admitted to Mfantsipim in 1936 where he built his secondary foundation. Before returning in full bloom as headmaster in 1963, he had made his rounds at Wesley College, Achimota, Kings College (London), Konongo Odumase, and Keta Secondary.

Though he walked tall with solid shoulders, and sported the familiar well-trimmed moustache, he could neither hop to Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” nor bout with The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”, the very lifeblood of the rhythmic youth of the sixties. On that basis, it was decided that Abruqs was too old, and not “with” it.

In retrospect, Mr. Abruquah was at his peak, and at the mature age of 42 had returned – with a great appetite – to head the great institution on whose hearth he himself had been nurtured.

He taught Geography in Form 3A, and at the end of one particular period, to absorb more of his time, I ventured to fall into step with him. Now I had to think quickly of some classy remark. Having conceived one on the tip of my mind, I launched it.

He cleared his throat, and in a deep coherent voice, probed for the finer hues in my demand. It dawned on me that he hadn’t simply framed a short cut and answered any old question. I respected him for it. And that act of tiny intimacy has lived with me to this day.

Like the first-class teacher and a literary artist, he sought for precision, in bits, largely awaiting with humility and patience the dawning of a new clarity. By the time we had settled on the nature of my uneasy request, we had covered much more than the ground between the class and the Assembly Hall. I returned to my mates elated.

Finish every race

One weekend, the school was engaged in an athletic competition among the houses. Though not a great runner, yours truly was in a group running 440 yards feverishly for Pickard House. Soon enough, the best runner stormed through the pack and tore the finishing line; others braved on and won their respective points.

The healthy conceit of the winners was established. The applause echoed and died off; and a heavy sense of finality brooded over the race. For all intents and scores the contest was over. What were the rest of us – our heads banging back and forth in sheer exhaustion – still drooping along in the field for? Couldn’t we be less masochistic, keep faith and determination on easier terms, and quit right here and now?

For me, the stamina sworn from the start had now receded into a slow jog, and what was left of my opening salvo was fast fading into a walk, that is, the kind of fatigue that happens just before you quit a race.

Mr Abruquah – sound hearted but perched on the official dais like an eagle teaching its brood how to succeed in the bigger game thereafter – was watching this race to see the very end of it. He had thrown a casual glance in my direction, and sensing that I was about to quit, now fixed a sterner look into me to finish the race at all cost.

Naturally, he was interested in who won. But what he really cared for were neither the firsts nor the lasts of the competition, except the habit of mind that when we started a race, we must finish it.

This business of trial and perseverance built the very landmark in character formation, the stage in self-efficacy that must develop first before any meaningful progress is possible. Speed may not always be as central as the will to keep body and mind focused on the target. The bigger picture, which was elusive then, was Abruq’s greater conviction and settled sense of purpose in making winners of us all.

In his leisure hours, he wrote two books – “The Catechist” (which was used as a literature text) and “The Torrent”. Besides the fondness for reading and writing, he loved agriculture and gardening, and encouraged students to plant citrus fruits in the valley behind the Administration Block which the pundits named Orange Free State.

For all the saints

At the funeral service, my mind flashed back in specks to the old familiar places, and how the drama of the life we shared with him was now partly summarised in a casket. Halfway through the service, the old boys were called to the body to sing the school hymn, “For all the saints who from their labours rest”. Those who had tears, and could not master their grief, prepared to shed them.

The tall robust figure now emerged in my thoughts sporting that cheerful moustache and flaring his commanding mien over the educational landscape at Cape Coast, on the last leap in his gallant journey through life.

It was too late now to have told the headmaster what we owed him, and how we revered him. He had proven his station by beaming his light on small lives – lives that otherwise would have remained obscure and hidden.

Email: anishaffar@gmail.com


  1. A great Gentleman and a prolific writer – proud of you, Mr Haffar
    That was a good tribute to a deserving Son of this great Nation of ours – he will be grateful and proud of his Student – You


  2. Beautiful illustration of a good man, a gentleman and a great educationist. Your comments on his hobbies and his effort to get others to plant trees, whose shade and fruits will benefit others, speaks to his desire to make the future better for generations to come. My generation had no clue that this headmaster created the Orange Free state. May his soul rest in peace.


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