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Accra, Ghana//-The life of an opinionated newspaper columnist is best lived on a single track; holding and expressing two or more views at the same time on any matter produces not only bouts of self-contradiction but confusion for one’s readers.
Therefore, on most subjects, your columnist tries to find clarity before putting pen to paper, or more accurately these days, striking the first key on the laptop keyboard.
However, on the question of dreadlocks and Achimota School, I find myself arguing for one hand, then the other hand, and even finding a third hand. While most people have probably taken sides on the issue, I have agonized on it because I feel empathetic towards all sides of the controversy.
To recap for the benefit of those newly arrived on these shores, two young people who have gained admission to Achimota School have not been enrolled by the school authorities because they have dreadlocks, which contravene the school rule of “short hair” for all students.
The parents of the boys, who are of the Rastafarian faith, and many Ghanaians who have expressed opinions, say that the school is discriminating against the two boys.
The Ghana Education Service (GES) ordered the school to admit the boys but that was before powerful voices entered the fray on the side of the school authorities. To fully appreciate the extent of this debate, one has to understand the standing of Achimota School in our country’s history and society.
Founded in 1924 by Sir Frederick Gordon Guggisberg, Dr. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey and the Rev. Alec Garden Fraser as the Prince of Wales College, the institution is perhaps one of the most famous secondary schools in Africa.
Its list of former students includes top scientists, academics, business tycoons and entrepreneurs. Even more impressive, the list boasts of names of statesmen and women including many African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Akufo-Addo, Jerry John Rawlings, and John Evans Atta Mills all of whom are former Heads of State of Ghana.
The Prime Minister of the Second Republic of Ghana, Professor Kofi Abrefa Busia as well as Robert Mugabe and Dawda Jawara, former Presidents of Zimbabwe and The Gambia respectively also attended Achimota.
Therefore, as one can understand easily, the school’s alumni are among the most “connected” in the country. Known as Akoras, the alumni occupy big positions in every sphere of public and private life in the country.
Their group, the Old Achimotans Association came out against the GES directive as did the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT), another powerful lobby.
The parent-Teacher Association also dreads the presence of dreadlocked students at the school. Not surprisingly, according to one of the parents, GES changes course and threw the mandate back to the school.
On the face of it, an institution as venerable as Achimota has got traditions which have survived for nearly a century because of rules to which everyone must adhere in order to build a cohesive community.
If short hair is the rule at Achimota, parents must ensure that their children can fit into the life there before applying. The adage, if you go to Rome, do as Romans do, comes to mind. In that sense, one can understand the position of the Achimota authorities and the Akoras cheering them on. Traditions must be maintained and rules are rules.
However, as with all elitist situations, contradictions arise mainly from privilege, which undermine the rules. Social media is brimming with photos in which WHITE young people are seen with long hair.
Some of these are group photographs in which those of Caucasian extraction stand out not merely by the colour of their skin but by the length of their hair.
School rules exist to help students manage their time and resources in order to make the best of the opportunity offered at the school. The hair question presumably arises because taking care of one’s hair does take a lot of time.
However, dreadlocks must be the easiest to manage. So, it appears that the issue is not so much the length of hair but the enforcement of conformity. However, as we have seen, some students are allowed to keep long because their culture allows them to step outside the rules.
Some people have argued that admitting the students will set schools on a slippery slope of “anything goes” when school rules would no longer apply.
Others feel strongly that this scenario is not likely to happen. Schools have always made room for exceptions on medical, social and religious grounds.
If a few white students have been allowed to keep their hair long and the world did not end, admitting two dreadlocked students won’t overturn the school’s discipline overnight.
The debate, such as it is, comes right on the heels of the gay controversy that raged just three weeks ago. Although they appear to be completely different subjects, both issues and their debates are about the kind of society we are, could be and probably will become.
They also show that we are a society experiencing change, some of which is generational. The very idea of a young person turning up in dreadlocks on opening day at Achimota, or any school is itself dramatic enough.
No matter how the current Achimota imbroglio is resolved, it will not be the last socio-cultural dilemma institutions will face in this country.
There is a lot of agonizing going on – parents, young people, teachers, heads of educational institutions, policy makers and religious and traditional leaders are all feeling the wave of change and uncertainty blowing in our society.
While some pillars of our culture must be reinforced, others will crumble and eventually fall. New ideas are bound to come and replace the old.
As the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his famous passage from The Idylls of the King: The old order changeth, Yielding place to new; And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom corrupt the world…
First published in the Mirror