Meet Kobena Sekyi, the educated elite who never wore European clothing

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Kobena Sekyi

Kobena Sekyi was the first African lawyer to never wear anything that was European clothingMon, 5 Apr 2021

Fashion, they say, is like eating; you shouldn’t stick to the same menu, but that is where this educated elite from the Gold Coast era in Ghana’s history, broke the cycle.

Even more, Kobena Sekyi, who was a nationalist lawyer, dared to be different, sticking only with his traditional African cloth for all of his life, even attending court proceedings in his choice for fashion.

The celebrated Pan-Africanist was also a politician and a writer, and the last president of the Aborigines Right Protection Society (ARPS) in the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

He was, and perhaps remains, the only educated elite in Africa who vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the British colony to appear in court in a traditional African cloth.

According to details on @GhanaianMuseum on Twitter, Kobena Sekyi never wore European dress again until he died in 1956.

Born on November 1, 1892, as William Esuman-Gwira Sekyi, he was better known as Kobena Sekyi. He was a firebrand nationalist who became the president of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS), an aboriginal organization that fought and won their battle against the British obnoxious Land Bill of 1897 that seek to give Queen Elizabeth of England all the unoccupied lands in Gold Coast (Ghana) and also entire British West Africa in general.

Kobena Sekyi was also executive member of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), and member of the Coussey Committee for constitutional change that finally pave way for the independence of Ghana.

As a person born into the Gold Coast coastal aristocratic Fante family and a highly educated member of his society, he was brought up to believe that European culture was superior to African culture. But it did not take long for Sekyi to commit class suicide and transmogrify into an unshakable apostle of African values, traditions and culture. Sekyi did not only became an unrepentant hardcore Pan-Africanist in his days, but, in fact, he lived and practiced African culture and traditions to the very core; so much that ‘he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the colony to appear in court in a traditional African cloth. He never wear coat and European dress until he died in 1956.

Though an ethnic Fante man himself, Kobena Sekyi criticized the manner his Fante coastal towns have became anglicised to such an extent that even now a Fante cannot speak a sentence without less than four English words. They anglicised their local names into English such that you can hear Koomson, Blankson, Menson, Filson etc. Some have all foreign names without a local name. To show his utter abhorrence and disdain for this anglicization of Fante names and outright adoption of foreign names, Kobena Sekyi as a matter of principle and leading by example removed “William” from his names and became just “Kobena Sekyi.”

Kobena Sekyi was born into a Cape Coast (Oguaa) aristocratic family. His father was Mr John Gladstone Sackey (note, Sackey is the anglicization of Fante name “Sekyi” to suit European tongue), headmaster of the renowned Wesleyan School (Mfantsipim) in Cape Coast. Mfantsipim is the first secondary school in Ghana and was established in 1876. Mr John Gladstone Sackey himself was a royal and a the son of Chief Kofi Sekyi, the Chief Regent of Cape Coast.

Kobena Sekyi`s mother was Wilhelmina Pietersen, also known as Amba Paaba, daughter of Willem Essuman Pietersen (c.1844-1914), an Elmina-Cape Coast businessman and one-time President of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS), a later president of which was Sekyi’s uncle, Henry van Hien, whose heir Sekyi was.

Like his father, Sekyi was also educated at Mfantsipim School and and went on to study philosophy at the University of London. He was accompanied to Britain by his maternal grandfather. Sekyi was originally to study English Literature, however, a fellow student (Nigerian) persuaded him to give up English Literature in favour of Philosophy.

After completing his philosophy degree, Sekyi returned to Gold Coast to teach for sometime and participated in the political affairs. Realizing that Gold coast has many lawyers and liberal art scholars, Sekyi went back to England in 1915 with plan to become an engineer like his mother’s younger brother, J.B. Essuman-Gwira, but because his family controlled the purse strings and they wished him to study law, so that was the career he entered.

He was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple in 1918 and also awarded MA in philosophy. Sekyi became a lawyer in private practice in the Gold Coast.

It should be emphasized that Kobena Sekyi had life changing experience whilst traveling on a ship to England. It is said that “On the voyage out his boat, the SS Falaba, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and some lives were lost. Sekyi managed to get to a lifeboat, at which point a European shouted at him that he should get out of the boat, as a black man had no right to be alive when whites were drowning. It was this incident that had a profound effect on him, confirming his rejection of European pretensions to superiority.

Robert Ross in his book “Clothing: A Global History’ published in 2008 citing authors White and White, “Slave Clothing” page 156 averred that “Equally, in the Gold Coast, Kobena Sekyi, a coastal lawyer, is said, in the family tradition, to have been subjected to racist racist insults when wearing a suit while being trained in London during World War I. In consequence, he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the colony to appear in court in a cloth.”

Whilst practicing law in Gold Coast Sekyi married Lilly Anna Cleanand, daughter of John Peter Cleanand and Elizabeth Vroom.Source:

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