Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book Review: Heysel - The truth

Francesco Caremani (R) after handing me a copy of his book

Before I met Francesco Caremani, I already knew that he brimmed with humanity.

The Italian journalist had sent me a Facebook request, accompanied by a warm message on my wall, upon learning that we had both been named finalists in the same category at the inaugural Sport Media Pearl Awards. Later, as I gradually became Facebook friends with most of the actors who were to play a role at the awards, I discovered that Mr Caremani had been to almost all of their walls to drop messages of gratitude for their acceptance. ‘See you in Abu Dhabi,’ he’d added to the messages, always signing off with a happy-faced smiley. It wasn’t much to go on, admittedly, but I cannot deny that he immediately struck me as someone who cares about people.

I met the man at the vast lobby of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, on the second day of the awards programme, just before an Abu Dhabi City tour planned for all finalists. He was all smiles and good wishes, emitting an aura of positivity that was contagious. Later, he engaged me in a conversation about how passionate he is about his club, Juventus, and how proud he thought I must feel as a Ghanaian regarding the impact Kwadwo Asamoah has had at the club.

The next day, Mr Caremani surprised me at a conference organized on sport journalism. He approached me, reached into his bag and pulled out a book. He smiled at me as he handed it over. “This is my present to you as a fellow finalist,” he said. “I learnt I’m the oldest finalist in our category and I feel a responsibility as a big brother be good to you and Johannes (Johannes Nedo from Germany). Have it, please. It is a new edition of book I wrote about my club. I hope you like it and at least will give you something to remember me by.”

L-R: Anaman, CaremanI and Nedo - the three nominees for 'Writing - Best Column' at the 2015 Sport Media Pearl Awards in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E

I was taken aback. Touched? Absolutely, I was – but I also felt a sudden rush of guilt. I hadn’t thought of bringing anyone any presents – it had barely crossed my mind. And I felt bad. I apologized that I couldn’t return his gesture. “Don’t worry at all,” he said. “Occasions like this is about friendship and celebration, and so it’s the least I could do. I’m glad to have met you and everyone. I wish you the very best at the awards tonight too, whatever happens. We are all winners.”

The book, titled Heysel: The True Story, puts under the microscope, the infamous disorder that burst to life among spectators just before the 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Indeed, what happened that day, 31 years ago - the 29th of May, 1985 – was a tragic blot on the integrity of the sport, a mad, bad and sad sequence that proved ultimately fatal, terminating the innocent lives of people whose only crime had been to love the sport so much as to turn up in a stadium to cheer their beloved club on. “What happened was avoidable. It could have been avoided. It should have been avoided,” Mr Caremani’s colleague, Roberto Beccantini, writes aptly in the foreword.

As a Liverpool fan, I was fairly familiar with the dark events of Heysel, just as I was acquainted with that of Hillsborough which occurred four years afterwards, but I admit that unlike Hillsborough (which is understandably always viewed from Liverpool's perspective due to the 96 victims being fans of the club), Heysel was always bit of a haze for me. Perhaps my knowledge of that tragic event was vague because its devastating effects swayed more towards Juve than Liverpool. And so it was an opportunity for me to learn. And boy, did I learn - and more.

What makes the book so rich in content is not only the enormity of the research and insight that under-girds the story, or the way Mr Caremani’s humanity is embedded in every opinion expressed, but also how he tells the tale with a sense of genuine care that can only come from someone who has a first-hand association with the tragedy. Among the people who lost their lives that day, two of them – Robert Lorrentini and Giuseppina Conti – were natives of Arezzo, the town where Mr Caremani was born and bred. The misfortune was close. And it was felt.

Indeed, Roberto was a close associate of Mr Caremani. He was a loved one, a friend of his family.
But for the unusual luck of a failed school exam (and his parents grounding him for it), Mr Caremani - then still a teenager madly in love with Juventus– admits that he would have been in Brussels that night. Unfortunately, Roberto managed to make the trip – and it eventually turned out to be the proverbial ‘journey of no return’ for a 30-year-old man who had his whole life ahead of him, one who had to leave behind a wife (Arianna), two sons (Andrea and Stefano) and a loving father (Otello Lorrentini, who later later founded and spearheaded the Association for the families of Brussels victims).

Otello Lorrentini plays a huge role in the book: his accounts, materials and activism guides its narrative, and as Beccantini writes, he serves as "a sort of Virgil who accompanied the author into the underworld both during and after the tragedy." Mr Caremani's gratitude and admiration of Otello is visible throughout the book. The author is inspired that a man can overcome and transcend his own colloquial pain to devote his life to seeking justice and meaning to the lives of others. "This is my life," the late Otello told the author. Mr Caremani is also awed that Otello managed to "raise his two grandchildren (Stefano and Andrea) with heart and soccer - nothing special for many of us, but extraordinary for someone who lost his only child on a stadium terrace."

Mr Caremani, who received the news of Roberto’s death with tears and fears the morning after, says a part of him died with his friend, and it sparked a lot of emotion that has endured till today. "The funeral service was attended by the entire city of Arezzo," he remembers. "The sorrow disfigured people's faces."

Along with 38 other people, Roberto was cruelly slaughtered at the altar of football. Together, they all paid a heavy price for their passion at the dreaded Block Z area at Heysel – and even more unfortunate was the fact that their lives were made to seem insignificant in the aftermath of the game, as many Juventini insensitively celebrated a subsequent win made possible by a penalty converted by the great French play-maker Michel Platini, an act Mr Caremani equated to "virtually stepping over the bodies" of the people who had died at the game. Mr Caremani agrees that it was "essential" that the match was played to avoid further carnage, but argues that cheering was wrong on the back of what happened. To him, the victory was meaningless, the celebrations shameful. He wants the victory erased from the records of the Bianconeri and the cup returned back to UEFA. He detests the mocking of the dead, the celebration of the win, and the trivialization of the tragedy. His stance is non-negotiable, exposing an essential truth: life is larger than football, and it can never be vice versa. Human life can and should never be sacrificed in the name of the sport.

Mr Caremani exhaustively investigates the saga through interviews exploring harrowing personal accounts, analysis examining public accounts, as well as a chronicling of the inquiry process, the legal actions, the punishments, and the wide spectrum of events that characterized the ensuing years in the tragedy’s wake. And this is done with a tone that takes no prisoners with the truth, a voice that fails corruption and hails morality. The probe is deep and honest, without pretence and without partisan protection. What Mr Caremani has managed is the creation of an easily accessible one-stop library of information on the tragedy; and as a Ghanaian, this feat made me embarrassed about the absence of a similar piece of work for our own tragedy: the May 9, 2001 disaster at the Accra Sports Stadium which saw 127 people perishing in the wake of crowd commotion and police irresponsibility, during a clash between arch rivals Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, Ghana's two biggest clubs.

The book is sprawled out upon a difficult canvas. The details are cold, requiring a bold person to get the story told, and Mr Caremani lives up to this billing with bravery, achieving a touching ode to the victims of Heysel. It is an emotional, engrossing read, one that highlights the futility of valuing football ahead of human life, one that expresses a relentless search for justice, responsibility and due procedure within a global sport that is supposed to be a force of happiness and hope and not of doom and gloom. There are lessons, reflections and realizations, through the pain of people slain and through the mistakes of stakeholders. The predominant hope that courses through the narrative is simple: never again.

There is a beautiful paradox at the end: the book manages to zoom in on the events of Heysel, but in the process, it also simultaneously manages to zoom out on the same subject to reveal a bigger picture: the fundamental sacrosanctity of humanity.

"That is why this book has its purpose, as memory confers dignity on the grief, whereas oblivion destroys and rage shrivels it and what is around it. I do understand that the Heysel disaster (over 30 years on) is now far from people's hearts and minds, but such dramatic events should never be forgotten, as behind every drama there is a real person who deserves to be respected for having been alive, a human being with loved ones, with dreams and with hopes, who walked the earth." --- Francesco Caremani


Thursday, 31 December 2015

On CK Gyamfi: A rare honour

My first meeting with Charles Kumi 'C.K' Gyamfi occurred under curious circumstances in November 2009.

I had entered Achimota School a year earlier as a lush green 14 year old, naïve and diminutive, who was still very much obsessed with football - a game I fell in love with during the 2002 World Cup.

It was within the calm, shady expanse of Achimota that I developed an aspiration to become a football coach. My life up till then had been dominated by a wide range of dream occupations. I had once wanted to become an action movie star, as crazy as that sounds, harbouring wild hopes of getting to emulate all my heroes; from Bruce Lee to Jet Li, from Jackie Chan to Chuck Norris, from David Hasselhof to Wesley Snipes. Later, I ditched it when I discovered that I loved writing.

I started writing from around age 10, amid the playful distractions of primary school. My infantile, fantasy-themed writing explored mostly subjects that I saw in blockbuster movies: Kung-fu, rattling machine guns, kidnapping, revenge, the underdog stories, and of course, the raging feuds between the good guy and the bad guy. I remember just how happy all that deliberately constructed chaos made me, and how I yearned to create such worlds through words. My dream, therefore, was to become a prolific author of fiction, and so I churned out story after story with boundless enthusiasm.

Later, after my heart sealed its vows with the beautiful game, I dreamt of becoming a footballer. I would spend days on end playing, practicing. But, by the time I entered Achimota, I had somehow become disillusioned with the idea of becoming a footballer. I don’t remember exactly why that was, but I remember starting to drift away from active play, suffering an inevitable consequence of piling on weight.

A decisive moment at Achimota came during a cold, quiet January night in the course a prep session in my classroom. My mates were busy studying, their heads buried in their books - as it was supposed to be. But I, on the other hand, was seated behind my desk, absentminded, my mind’s stubborn excursion into the realm of dreams refusing to be disturbed by the croaking crickets.

While everyone else was racking their brains around figuring out math equations, I was way detached, off curriculum, stacking my brain with wishful thinking, all in a bid to figure out one thing: what I wanted to be in the future. 

Then it happened. An epic epiphany. I wanted to become a football coach. The whole idea of influencing the game through defined ideas and strategies excited me. I had read about the game’s most successful coaches, most especially the Dutch master Rinus Michels, who managed the Netherlands national team in the early 70s and the late 80s, reaching the World Cup final in 1974 and winning the European Championship in 1988, achieving all that with a groundbreaking invention called total football – a philosophy that changed the face of the sport. I was intrigued. I wanted in.

That same night, I drew up a list of my life’s goals in a small notepad which I have kept till date. Among other ambitious bullets, I wrote that I wanted to become one of the most successful, most celebrated coaches in history. It was an exciting dream because I found that there had not been a single black man mentioned in the same breath as the great tacticians in the game’s history. I was baffled by it all. Why weren’t black people cutting it in coaching? I dreamt of changing that.

My Dad, Kwaw Anaman, who was just about the only person in the world who didn’t see my dream as laughable gibberish, told me that he wanted to take me go see a man called C.K Gyamfi. “I attended school with one of his eldest sons and I’ve gone to see him before,” my Dad assured me. “I’m sure he would tell you a whole lot about coaching.”

I had, of course, heard of CK Gyamfi several times, though I had never paid particular attention. He was embedded in my subconscious, mainly because there was no conversation about Ghana's football history without his name popping up at a point, but I never was privy to the full extent of his achievements. I had heard him mentioned within a context of reverence, of deep respect, as one of the immortal legends of Ghana's over 100-year-old relationship with the sport, but little did I know that he had been one of the most successful personalities Ghana has ever produced.

I was in a phase in my life where I'd developed a frenzied addiction to curiosity, and so I did not waste time in commencing a hunt for information on him. The more material I devoured, the more I became excited by his career and achievements. C.K Gyamfi had been an accomplished footballer who had played for and excelled for both Asante Kotoko and Accra Hearts of Oak - Ghana's biggest clubs and two of Africa's elite - which is a rare feat. In the 1950s, eventful years when Ghana was still known as the Gold Coast and football was played barefoot, C.K Gyamfi strove to play in boots, and was instrumental in the country's adoption of the boots culture. In 1951, he had been the young star of the national team, the Gold Coast XI, when they toured the United Kingdom playing barefoot and selling Ghana's widely hailed natural football talent through a series of trial matches. Two years later, he had become 'Sports Man of the Year', and seven years after that, the first African player to play professionally in Germany when he signed for Fortuna Dusseldorf. As if the feats chalked as a player weren't enough, he went on to become equally as successful as a coach, winning three of the four African Cup titles Ghana has won as a nation, an accomplishment that made him one of the most successful coaches in African football history. Here was a man of abundant substance and decoration, oozing inspiration.

During my second year at Achimota, just before the midterm break of the first term, my father decided to take me to our hometown of Winneba for the first time since the early years of my life. I was beyond elated – but I would be even more elated when he told me we’d pass by C.K Gyamfi’s house at Kaneshie on our return.

And so it happened. When midterm arrived, my Dad turned up to whisk me away from my hall of residence at Achimota, a building coincidentally named ‘Gyamfi House’ (though not in any way related to C.K Gyamfi). After a brief stop at my Aunt’s at Achimota Mile 7, we set off for Winneba.

In Winneba, my Dad took me to the National Sports College, where we did a few inquiries and spoke to some people about life there and the prospects. The idea, my father told me, was to equip me with enough knowledge and present me with viable options just in case my dream of becoming a coach was still alive by the time I was due to enter University three years later. That same Sports College, I learnt in the course of my visit, was named after none other than the great C.K Gyamfi.


We passed by C.K Gyamfi's tidily kept Kaneshie-Swan Lake residence on our return from Winneba. I remember that meeting so well. We sat with him on his porch, where I remember being awed by a painting of a football pitch on the terrazzo floor – a beautiful artistic piece that sadly perished when the porch was tiled some years later during a renovation.

I remember him, in his peculiarly energetic old age, sporting a vintage hat, holding on to a stylish walking stick. He was a few months short of turning 80 but he looked so full of life, so ebullient in his outlook. I had been very nervous prior to meeting him, but his demeanor proved more calming than intimidating. He was generous, and so our chat wasn’t onerous.  He spoke to us as if he’d known us all his life. I sat entranced by his stories, by his contagious love for football conveyed in his passionate tone, by the depth of his knowledge.

With an exercise book and pen in hand, and my father looking on, I wrote with voracious interest as the old man spoke. He spoke of his trade secrets as a coach: about how he got his players’ trust, how he got his players to work for him and for the team, how he believed that the secret to successful coaching was a healthy relationship with the players. “Be a friend to them,” he kept insisting. I felt it was profound how he emphasized that bit of building solid relationships with players, because I had been expecting a long, tedious lecture wading into the sometimes superficial world of tactics. I got the sense that he essentially thought creating that link with players was the foundation – and it had to be done right to be able to hold the subsequent layers of tactical dynamics.

Before we left, C.K, by this time so evidently engrossed in the interaction, told us that a book containing his memoirs was under production, and that he hoped it would hit commercial shelves by the end of 2009. It was such a refreshing thing to hear. I couldn’t wait to learn more about him, about his story, about the way he thought.

When we left the compound, I felt like the luckiest boy on earth. To have gotten to spend a significant amount of time in the presence of such a monolithic monument was an opportunity so rare, and I honestly thought it was going to be a one-off experience that I would cherish for the rest of my life; one that, in the future, I would wax lyrical about to my children on a loop.

But little did I know that fate would bring us together again.


I never met or spoke to C.K Gyamfi for four whole years after that meeting. The intervening years saw me lost in the lightning flight of time, events as blur as cars speeding past on a high way, but it saw me go through a lot of growth and changes. 

My dream of becoming a coach had fizzled out over the years, and had been permanently replaced by an aspiration to become a football writer. I had started to write about football during the short break between Senior High School and University, a time I spent consuming a lot of knowledge on my brother’s laptop amid the bliss of newly-acquired wifi at home in Kumasi.

Football writing had basically been born out of an experimental decision to merge writing and football, two things that represented what people around me claimed was my talent (the former) and what I was passionate about (the latter).

Months down the line, I had graduated from being a modest blogger to being a professional writer.

The next time I saw C.K Gyamfi, July 2013, I had just completed my first year at the University of Ghana, along with being a freelance writer. This time, I had gone alone. This time, I had not gone as an early teen looking for coaching pointers, but a fledgling writer looking to interview him and tell his amazing story through a write-up. My idea of visiting, in fact, had been to have a conversation about the 1960s – a golden era in Ghana's football history; an era I had grown so fond of with every piece of information I unearthed.

In the course of our conversation, I asked to record him, and he was most gracious to allow me tap into his vast reservoir of footballing knowledge. I was so excited by the amount of information I was able to extract from him that I suggested helping him write his story in full.

“Oh don’t worry about that,” he politely declined. “My memoirs are still in the works and I’m told it will be out by the end of this year.”

I found it odd that his book had still not come out, four years since he'd raved about its imminent release, but that nonetheless, that piece of new information rekindled my excitement about getting to read about him.

I left his house feeling so fulfilled. I held on to my nokia phone – which I had used to record him – like it was the Holy Grail while I was in a commercial mini-bus, a trotro, headed home. I remember alighting at the Accra Mall bus stop, in the middle of the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange, and placing a call to my boss, Kent Mensah, editor of – where I was freelancing at the time. “Boss! You cannot believe this! I got an interview with C.K Gyamfi!”

Kent was so excited. He congratulated me and said he trusted that I’d take my time to write it the best way I could. I told him I’d send the piece as soon as I was done. Later that night, and in the subsequent days, I sat down to listen to a playback of my recordings, and ended up writing and filing an over 2,500-word profile of him.

The piece did better than I had expected. Many people sent me facebook messages complimenting the interview, and that felt really encouraging. Among these messages, though, were two distinct ones from two men whose surnames were ‘Gyamfi’. The first was from Edwin Gyamfi, the second from Duke Gyamfi - both of whom, I later learnt, were sons of C.K Gyamfi.

Both were messages about how they were glad that I had done their Dad proud with how I wrote the piece, about how it was 'the best interview about our Dad that we've read'. For me, that was the ultimate compliment, a moment of fulfillment.

Later, Edwin kept in touch and, when he came to Ghana on holiday sometime in March 2014, asked me to meet him for a chat.

Our rendezvous, the Papaye (fast food chain) branch at the ever-nocturnal Osu, was emptying when Edwin walked in late in the night and introduced himself. We went upstairs and had a sprightly conversation about my career and how I met his Dad. He said he’d expected me to be a much more older guy, and that he was surprised that I wrote with what he described as a 'matured sense of delivery'. 

In the middle of our chat, he mentioned his father’s memoirs, and I immediately made him know that I was aware of it being in the works, though I found it a bit odd that it was still not out five years after I’d been told it was coming out 'soon'. I still really looked forward to it, I told him.

Edwin then sounded out a suggestion; a request, if you will, that would stun me. “My brothers and I would love for you to have a look at our dad's original writings and see if you can turn it into a book.” 

At that moment, I remember thinking: “Wow, this isn’t happening!”

I knew how much of a big deal it was. I was being asked to author the autobiography of someone who'd come to assume heroic status in my life, and I was being asked to do so just two years into my career as a sports writer. I'd been lucky to have experienced many milestones unusual for my level of experience: having gotten to do work for global media giants such as SuperSport, ESPN, Telegraph and Goal, all on the back of me - an untrained (formally, at least) journalist thriving on passion and hunger - being barely two years old in my field. Weirdly, all of these rare, surreal opportunities had largely found their way to me, blindsiding me as they came along, and I always thought about them being as frightening as they were exciting; but perhaps their most important quality, for me, was their challenging nature. They carried an intimidating weight of responsibility -  a responsibility to exhaust my reserves of hard work and ambition to prove worthy of such early career blessings. To date, getting asked to ghostwrite the autobiography of someone who many consider as the most influential figure in Ghanaian football history represented the biggest challenge yet.

During that moment when Edwin offered me the opportunity, it also dawned on me how poetic it all seemed: the project that I’d been so eager to read chose to find its way to me – not as its reader, but as its writer.


It took many more months before things properly kicked off. That was when Edwin's younger brother, Duke, came down to town from his Canada base. I first met Duke at his Dad’s at Kaneshie-Swanlake. Like Edwin, Duke also had that look of bewilderment when I introduced myself as ‘Fiifi Anaman.’ “What?! How old are you?!” he joked, both of us breaking into laughter. We had an even heartier laugh when he offered me a beer and I told him I did not drink.

Duke’s visit was basically about updating me on status of the book: how C.K Gyamfi started it, when it was started, the state it was in at that moment, and how he - representing his brothers – wanted things to be going forward. He then formally presented me to his Dad as the writer who was going to work on his memoirs. Because C.K Gyamfi, or 'Nana', as I affectionately called him, knew me already, he readily accepted me and pledged to give me all I needed to make his project a success.

It was not until a March 2015 that I received Nana's original scribblings: a close to 57,000 word account of his professional experiences up until 1982. It was a gold mine, especially given the fact that it was at a point where his memory was fast fading. He could only remember selectively, or after long talk aided by pictures or texts. Sometimes, I could see physical pain on his face anytime he tried to remember certain things that happened in his event-laden life.

My original job, as prescribed by the legitimate instruction of my contractors, Nana's sons, was to put some flesh on his blueprint of recollections, while delivering it in my own writing style.

Along the line, when the project’s variables became more visible and an understanding of it became bolder, that role gradually evolved. It became more complex: about leading the production and artistic direction of a coherent story by using all available sources of information - the most basic of which was the original writing. This meant that I was to write the entire project from the ground up by conferring with the information sources. In this regard, I was to determine how the story was to be told, which topics to accentuate and which ones to tone down on, how the narrative would flow, the chapter names, themes and scopes, the tempo of the plot, possible asides to construct from my conversations with him, and many other artistic factors. It was, admittedly, a mountainous task. An intimidating one, too. It filled me with trepidation many times, because I'd been thrown in at the deep end, and my only snorkel was my talent.

There was a haunting fear of a screw-up, an anxiety to do the subject the justice that it deserved, and this influenced the whole process. It was a slow, conscientious one, involving a lot of brain work and an obsessive attention even to the most irrelevant of details. I wanted to justify the honour bestowed on me, to step up to the plate, by bringing something refreshing to Nana’s story. 

During the time of writing I had stepped aside from my mainstream job, mainly because of school, and so had a lot of free time to read up on a lot of art’s great minds – across writing, painting, music and film. What I discovered of each master, was an ambition to be different, to translate influence to innovation, and to stay true to an original feeling, an original goal. It resonated with my innate leanings. I had been given a lot of freedom by Duke and Edwin with regards to style, so I planned to make this empowering license worthwhile. And so, rather than just being guided by the story, allowing style to be bullied by the facts of the narrative, I decided to respond to my craving to be artsy by constructing the story accordingly. Certain parts of the story feature puns and alliterations and rhymes and many other literary instruments – some subtle, others bold, all in an attempt to tighten the story being told. 

The other sources of information aside the original writing were many. For instance, in an attempt to fill in gaps, trying to bridge storylines and trying to correct chronologies and factual errors appearing in his writing, I had to commit to painstaking research. The research part, though heavily stressful, came easily to me, thankfully, as I had been spending a lot of time at the Archives section at the offices of The Daily Graphic since November 2014. I’d been going there to mine information on Ghanaian football during the 50s and 60s – an era that basically had Nana in the mix of everything. This thankfully meant that I was well equipped with a great deal of knowledge about him and about that era – which was so critical in his story. This put me in a position to summon enough confidence to tackle the project.

I continued visiting The Archives, but this time, went there with a particular target to dig up information related to Nana. The commercial transport route I would use – starting from Mile 7, passing through Lapaz and Kaneshie before the destination at Graphic Road - would see my trotro pass right in front of Nana's house anytime I went to do research. 

I remember staring at the house each time my trotro drove by, wondering what he was up to. I would imagine the common sight: him seated in his specially designed chair in his living room, his walking stick resting on his wizened legs, gazing into his large, flat screen TV - which would either be showing cartoons, or wrestling, or even the popular telenovela La Gata - with a quietude that felt so therapeutic, especially given the air of innocence that graced his face.

Sometimes, after each session, I would pass by his place to have a chat and show him some of the images I took from certain old newspapers. I remember how excited he was anytime he’d take my iPad and glance through the images, nodding, smiling. Such moments, when the calm, frail old age of his present became immersed in his youthful, glorious past, were so beautiful.

Part of my process of exploring other sources involved a series of interactions and transactions with Mr Harold Akwetey Quartey, the nephew of Nana's second wife, Mrs Valerie Quartey. Mr Quartey was of immense help. He had known Nana since the late 90s and had been very close to him, almost like his right hand man, and had started to help the old man with his book along the line. In the process, he had rewritten parts of Nana's original writing, stocked with additional information and research. When I was brought on board to ghostwrite the project, he was kind enough to lend me his files to scan through to use information that had not appeared in the original. I often visited Mr Quartey at his office at Kokomlemle, and sat across his book-filled desk to have chats about Nana and about certain portions of the story where I needed clarification (he was in a position to say a lot as he’d had infinite conversations with CK over the years, especially during times when he could remember every detail of what he wrote originally and could give additional perspectives). Our conversations were always so substance-filled and helpful, just as much as his writing was.

Also, I figured I had to talk to the people close to Nana, the people who knew him, to get information that could help building his story. The principal source in this regard was the legendary Ghana defender Dogo Moro, who played with and under Nana as part of the Black Stars from 1958 to 1963. I had struck a friendship with Alhaji, as I call him, when I first visited him as part of research for a project I had started in 2014. Alhaji gave invaluable insights into CK’s character and personality anytime I paid him a visit at his Kenyase home during my Kumasi trips. Sometimes, when in Accra and when distance did not allow physical meetings, I had long, rich conversations with him on the phone.


The strategy I adopted from scratch was to visit Nana as much as my time would allow, to have conversations with him with the hope of salvaging whatever memories he still had in connection with any part of his text. Luckily, it was always an exciting process, because Nana was always very hospitable and eager to converse. 

Most of our conversations were not on record, as he struggled to talk with the coherence and flow he would have had no problem producing if he was younger and with a good memory. I talked with him about many things and made notes of what he said – which I would later construct texts out of, for incorporation into the story.

In all of this, the underlying aim was about getting to know him, about becoming deeply acquainted to the workings of his his thought process, his emotions, his demeanor and all the other idiosyncrasies of his personality. This was important because I was basically going to be him anytime I was writing. I owned the words and the style, but the story, with its accompanying thoughts and feelings, its soul, were solely his. And I so had to live him – to live his thoughts and experiences. I had to be a method writer anytime I sat behind my laptop to do what I code-named ‘CK writing’. 

Such writing sessions were many, spread across many months. There were times when I would sit for hours and only manage to write one paragraph; other times when my creative juices were most kind and so would translate to many words and pages. There was a lot of rereads, a lot of back editing, a lot of rewriting – all in a bid to chisel out the very best I could manage for Nana.

And boy, did he deserve the best. This work had been in the infamous ‘pipeline’ for many years, and I got the unmistakable sense that its delayed completion worried him. Once, he even told me that he had almost given up on it, resigning himself to the feeling that it was probably never going to be published. In fact, during my research for the 2013 profile I wrote of him, I stumbled on an interview he'd granted the Ghana News Agency many years ago, in which he'd claimed his book was going to be on the market by the end of that year. It was in 2004. 

He always talked to me about how he had started a long time ago, about how he’d been told it was almost done one too many times, about how he really wanted it to happen. Anytime he said so, I felt a conferment of responsibility, from his heart to my conscience, and I would, without hesitation, promise profusely to do everything I could to make sure it materialized. He would look me in the eye and tell me about how he believed what I was saying. These conversations always felt like an exchange of trust, an establishment of legitimacy, and it spurred me on during the lowest moments of production.

Nana made me feel motivated with how he opened his doors to me. Anytime I went there, he looked so happy to see me and would ask about how school and work was treating me. He always reminded me, with a sort of congenial curiosity, that I looked familiar. I remember how he would joke about me having the same name as one of his favourite grandchildren. Once, I heard him introduce me to one of the ladies of his household as “my friend who is handling the writing of my book". "I trust that he will do a good job and all will be well in the end,” he had added. Friend. This was from a man who was a good 64 years older than I was.

Anytime it was time to leave, he’d thank me for the conversation, for keeping him company, then he’d make me promise not to let too much time elapse until my next visit.

Indeed, who are we kidding? I was perfectly aware of the delicate underpinnings of having such a young, relatively inexperienced writer handle such a high profile project. And I’m sure Nana did too. But, interestingly, not once did he ever express doubt or convey a sense of insecurity around me or about my being in charge of telling his story. Duke would constantly remind me in our correspondence that he and his brothers were totally sure of having me at the helm of such the project, not only because of their claims of loving my style of writing, but also because they respected one of their father’s most recognizable philosophies: giving young people a chance; investing confidence and belief in youth talent. During his years as a coach, he cultivated a stern reputation of being an overhauler of squads; someone who believed in discarding incompetent experience for competent inexperience. 

Indeed, having Duke, Edwin and the rest of the brothers express confidence in my ability to deliver was great, no doubt, but feeling that vibe from Nana himself was priceless. Nana always made me aware of how he trusted that I would do a good job, and I would respond to this vote of confidence by giving him an assurance. This assurance was basically that I was doing the best I could to see to it that his dream of seeing his story published came true before he checked out of his amazing life of earth.

I grew deeply fond of Nana and found myself looking forward to our meetings, though they were, regrettably, few and far between: well, at least not as much as I’d wanted. Nonetheless, I lived for such moments like when he would burst out in laughter, almost to the point of tears, upon recalling a particular memory – be it the beatings he endured from his father and elementary teacher, his days as a stubborn teenager causing havoc everywhere he went, and much later tales of how he would play deaf as coach anytime his players complained about his physically demanding training sessions, which would result in them surreptitiously slandering him and labeling him with hilarious nicknames. I remember, too, the purity and the romanticist’s wonder that wrapped around his words anytime he talked about how much football meant to him and how football had changed his life.


On a dry August afternoon, one of Nana’s sons, named Nana 'Egya Alonso'  Gyamfi, who had been in the country for a while corresponding with me on matters concerning the book, asked me to sit through an interview his father was granting to Top FM Sports – an interview that would turn out to be his last.

Because of Nana’s feeble memory, he struggled to have a firm grasp of the things he wanted to say, and so I was asked – as his ghostwriter – to help clarify some of the things that his tired mind was laboring to recall. He would listen intently, nodding with seeming approval anytime I was asked to come in and throw light on what he was saying. After the interview, he shook my hand, looked right into my eyes and said. “Oh Fiifi, thank you very much. You’ve really helped me. If it wasn’t for you…” He paused suddenly and climaxed his incomplete speech with a smile.  

That moment – though occurring in just a split second – represented something so powerful to my mind. I don’t think I can ever explain why, and even more strange is the fact that I’m comfortable with leaving it at that: a soothing Je ne sais quoi.

I left for Kumasi soon afterwards and so couldn’t stay in touch with him for about two weeks.


On my return to Accra, I was unable to go see him immediately due to the formalities of school reopening swarming me.

Then one night, while I sat behind my desk in my room at Legon Hall, coincidentally working on the book, I got a call. It was Mr Quartey. “Fiifi, I hope you are well. Nana wants to see you.”

“Nana Gyamfi?” I asked.

“No, not Nana Gyamfi,” he replied. “I’m talking about the old man himself.”

I told Mr Quartey that I would steal time the next day, Friday the 28th of August, to go see the old man.

That night, before retiring to bed, I kept wondering why Nana had asked to see me. It was strange. I had heard him ask of me, heard him send his regards, but he had never once particularly asked to see me. Was something wrong? My instincts couldn’t shrug off the oddity.

I turned up at his residence the next day, entered and realized that he was not seated at the Living room. That was yet another oddity. Mr Quartey slipped into the hallway and later reemerged, his face dead pan. “Let’s go in,” he said, tailing his words with a signal. “He says I should bring you over. He’s not well.”

I remember seeing Nana struggle to get up from his bed to take a seat by its edge. I had never been to his bedroom, but I did not have time to steal a quick visual tour as I was so overwhelmed by concern. I was asked to sit in a chair by his bed. He extended his hand, as always with an accompanying smile, to shake my hand. “Ei Fiifi, how are you doing? I didn’t hear from you again since that last meeting. Where were you hiding?”

“Oh Nana, I went over to Kumasi to have a little rest ahead of school. But I’m back now and I hope to spend much more time chatting,” I said. “I’ll be in Accra till year’s end so we’ll chat till you get tired!” I joked.

I asked if all was well and he told me his leg aches had gotten worse, that he was unable to walk well. His face lost its glow and his voice dimmed in liveliness while he slowly recounted how unbearable the pains were becoming.

Then, he changed the topic. “Is everything ok with the book?”

I sensed apprehension in his voice and it unsettled me, so much so that I struggled to articulate a response. I think what I felt in that moment was panic, because in truth, the project had experienced a hitch at a stakeholders meeting shortly before I had gone to Kumasi. And so things had stalled as I'd contemplated giving it up. And I felt guilty about it. He did not deserve that, I thought.

Mr Quartey, perhaps noticing my difficulty, cut into the conversation, offering a background of why Nana had wanted to see me. Apparently, Nana was worried about progress on the book, and, especially as he felt his health recede, wanted to know if everything was okay.

I felt even worse because I knew just how much the book meant to him. And so, immediately, I assured him, almost out of impulse – because I hated seeing him worried – that all was well. That all was still on track. That I was almost done.

Then, again, I reiterated my regular assurance, but this time with a sense of desperation. I really wanted to calm his fears. “Nana, I know how close this project is to your heart and hearing you say you want it done inspires me to carry on. I promise you to go through with it, to finish it, to make sure you get to see it as soon as possible.”

After saying this, I felt a surge of adrenalin, not least because I saw him nod. I felt renewed energy:  I wanted to get back to the project and get done as soon as I could just so I could present it to him. I wanted to see him happy.

I told him I’d come to see him early the next week and he said he very much looked forward to it. He said his usual thank you and reached for the parting handshake. I said my thank you too. “Your legs too, will be well, Nana,” I said as I got up to take my leave. “I’ll be praying for you.”

That was it. The last time I was privileged to be in his presence.


Tuesday morning. I logged unto facebook and saw a friend of mine post that CK Gyamfi was gone.

I could not believe it. I did not want to believe it. A day before, I had called Mr Quartey to seek clarification about a discrepancy I had found while researching early 1972 to aid me in writing a chapter about events at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. (Nana had coached the national team to the football tournament).

Before asking my questions, I asked if all was well with the old man. “No, all isn’t well,” Mr Quartey said. His tone was plain. “His leg pains got worse and we took him to the hospital.”

I told Mr Quartey, from whom I got a sense of pessimism, that I did not believe that the hospital thing was ominous, and that I was positive he’d get well soon. I had, after all, heard Nana complain about his legs many times and not once did I ever feel that it had the potential to be fatal. I always saw it as ‘one of those things’, and indeed, we had once had a laugh about how he felt it was a haunting hazard of his addiction to overhead ('scissor') kicks during his hey days.

He looked a fairly healthy, handsome old man, all the time – even to the last time I saw him in his bed. I always got the sense that he had so much life within him, though he exuded an aura of loneliness sometimes.

And here I was, on a Tuesday morning, lying on my bed, trying to convince myself that what I’d seen on Facebook was an inaccurate report. Shortly before then, my body trembling with shock, I remember exclaiming, cursing expletives of disbelief, thinking it was all a bad dream. I remember some of my floor mates storming into my room to ask what was wrong, but I could not utter a word of explanation. I did not have one.

I later called Mr Quartey. “Hi Mr Akwetey,” I greeted, barely concealing my impatience. “Yeah, Fiifi,” he responded.  His voice was solemn, a heart breaking confirmation even before the inevitable words that followed. “Yes, it’s true,” he said. “He passed around 2am this morning.”

Afterwards, I could barely speak in an organized way. My questions were many and meaningless, and I remember wishing I could be as calm and composed as Mr Quartey on the other end of the line. 

But I just couldn’t. For me, his demise seemed too sudden, too out of the blue, and though he was 86, I had never prepared myself for his exit. The shock rocked me, dampening my mood for the next few days.

I entered a state lethargy, locked up in a lull of constant reminiscing. Trying to recollect my encounters with Nana was a painful exercise, because I realized that I had not paid particular attention to many things, most certainly because of my misguided belief that he was going to be around for much longer. I took many things for granted, postponed many conversations, and I regretted them so much.

But, I realized – upon reflecting on our last meeting – that he probably knew he was on his way out when he asked to see me that Friday.

In hindsight, I deciphered that he wanted to leave with an assurance that I was still committed to the project, that I’d see it through to the end – even if he would not be around to see its completion.

I’m glad that I was able to make a promise.

NB: Beyond C.K Gyamfi's death on Tuesday September 2, 2015, I managed to complete his autobiography, which is scheduled to be published late in 2016. I wrote this article in the weeks following his death, in an attempt to recall the full extent of my relationship with him. It was published here on December 31, 2015, my 22nd birthday, to accompany a press statement released by his family naming me publicly as his autobiographical ghost-writer. Knowing him and working on his story will remain an indelible honour that I will take to my grave.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part IV


[All photos were taken by Kennedy Danso, a friend and course mate also in Legon Hall, who is a budding photographer]

I VISITED GILBERT twice in the next few days. The first time, a quiet, chilly Saturday night, I walked in on him seated on one of the desks in his room.

There were two other people in the room – a lady and a gentleman - both of whom he later introduced as good friends. The guy, who was seated on a chair by the bed, was well-built and wore a jalabia. The lady, who was lying on Gilbert’s bed, was slim and light-skinned, and she wore a bright looking African print outfit. The two seemed to be in a good mood as they watched a loud, seemingly action packed movie on Gilbert’s laptop.

As for Gilbert, he had arched his torso on his desk, as if to give the impression that he was asleep. But he wasn’t. I knew because I saw him giggle at a point, then his voice became a bit audible. It was unusually soft and measured, and so I immediately assumed that he was on the phone with someone he liked. Girlfriend perhaps? I smiled and stared for a while before alerting him of my presence.

“Oh bra Fiifi, how’s it going?” he said.

“I hope I’m not disturbing your conversation with the Mrs,” I teased.

He laughed. “Oh, that’s not my girlfriend. But it’s one of my girlfriends!”

The girl lying on the bed immediately sprang up and laughed out loud. “Ei Gilbert!” she exclaimed, in a manner that sounded part-teasing part-astonishment.

“Oh, I told Fiifi when he was here the last time that I don’t have one girlfriend,” Gilbert responded. A mischievous smiled licked around his lips. “So he knows.”

I laughed, too. “Yes he did,” I told the girl.

She looked at Gilbert and shook her head, still smiling.

Gilbert had told me in our last conversation that he had a girlfriend – who is sighted - and indeed hoped to marry one day. He however said that because he had a natural mistrust for sighted girls, citing previous experiences in infidelity and deceit, he had resorted to openly sealing a back-up option: a blind girlfriend. 

Andre had led the unanimous outburst of laughter after that fascinating revelation.


FOUR DAYS LATER, I visited Gilbert’s room again. He was not around. On his bed lay a guy who – like Gilbert when I’d last seen him  – was on the phone. He had his back turned to me as he spoke into his phone in a hushed tone. He had given me an order to come in in the first place, so I presumed that he knew I was standing, waiting for him. It was after I stood for close to 10 minutes without him turning or speaking to me that I realized that he probably was not aware of my presence. I had to give him a gentle tap on the back to get his attention.

“Gilbert has gone for a lecture,” he informed me as he turned. I could not help but notice that he looked very much like Gilbert. “Are you his brother?” I asked. He gave a dim smile and feebly nodded. He was looking at me, yet was not making eye contact. I found it a bit odd. “Older or younger,” I probed further. He smiled again and said nothing. I smiled back. “Please tell him Fiifi came around,” I said. “No problem,” he replied, and rolled over on the bed, so that he faced the wall again.

I heard him resume talking on the phone as I slowly closed the door and made my leave.


THE NEXT TIME I saw Gilbert, I asked him about the guy. He said he was not his brother, but just a friend. Apparently, he is blind too – though his is partial. That explained why he had not noticed me standing and waiting, I thought to myself.

Also, I found out that he is on the same block at Legon Hall as Gilbert. “There are about seven blind boys on this block,” Gilbert revealed as he sat to talk to me. He was, like all of the times when I'd seen him, dressed in a simple lacoste shirt and a pair of khaki trousers, his feet covered with loafers. "Among them is a senior of mine from Okuapeman. He was the senior school prefect in his final year,” he added.

I was astonished. Then impressed.

“Wow,” I said. “A blind school prefect?”

“Yes!” Gilbert said with a heaviness of tone that exuded pride. He bared his teeth and smiled. Then he said: “He won the elections overwhelmingly. He beat all the sighted candidates. He was really popular and turned out to be one of our best prefects.”

“What about you, though, Gilbert?” I inquired. “Did you go for the position in your final year?”

He smiled again, hesitated a bit and said: “You see, I wanted to. But I realized that not everyone liked me. Some of these things are like that, you know. I studied the system and sensed that if I went, I’d lose. So I decided to let it go.”

Gilbert had just returned from a provision store around his block. In his company was a friend of his, who he said was his junior at Okuapeman and in fact is still there. He had come to visit him.

“I’m not surprised to see you here at all, bra Fiifi,” Gilbert said. “I came to see you in your room a few minutes ago but was told you were not around, and so I figured you were told and decided to come see me.”

“Oh really?” I asked. I had not known he’d come to see me because I was returning from town and had decided to pass through his place.

“Oh, you can ask my friend, I came there with him,” Gilbert said. “Yeah, Room H5 right? We were there not long ago. Someone from the next room said you had gone out,” his friend weighed in. He, too, looked at me without making eye contact. Gilbert later told me he is also partially blind.

Gilbert then got a phone call. “Ok, ok,” he seemed to be saying. “Please hurry up because things are really rough here. I’ve got to be the most broke guy in the whole world! I have nothing. I’m totally impecunious!” he said, following it with stifled laughter.

He had been speaking in Twi, but had said ‘impecunious’ in English, with such impeccable pronunciation. Gilbert loves and knows his words. As I stared at him, my mind shuttled back to the day of our first interview, where he had described himself as ‘gregarious’. I remember observing that he had a command over his English and how he articulated it.

In a conversation in relation to this, he had told me that he felt he was a natural-born broadcaster, destined to reach millions with his skills. “I’ve been told by some friends of mine who are journalists that I can do a great job on radio,” he had said. “I think so too because I listen to most presenters and I realize what they are doing is nothing extraordinary. I can also do it. I can do news presenting, sports, name them. Either in English or in Twi. I’m good at it and I have a passion for it so I know I will be there one day.”

He had then proceeded to give me a spirited freestyle commentary (in twi) of a hypothetical game between Real Madrid and Barcelona that gave me Goosebumps.  “I love football a lot,” he had said afterwards. “I’ve loved it since I was about five years old. My dream was to become a commentator, but little did I know that this would happen to me. Had it not been for my eye, I would be a commentator by now. Of course now I can’t see so I can’t run commentary, but that has not stopped me from showing people that I can do it. When I was in Cape Coast, some business men working for a local branch of Barclays Bank loved my freestyles so much that they made me record them unto CDs which they bought from me!”

“The last World Cup I saw when I could still see was the 2002 World Cup. I remember it so well,” he had looked so excited. “I remember Ronaldinho! His long hair, big teeth and all – I remember people teasing him about him not being good looking but that didn’t matter because he was so good!”

Since Gilbert lost his sight, his love for football has had to make do with experiencing the game through listening and imagining. The voice of commentators have become his eyes, their words translating to motion pictures in his mind's eye. His inability to see the 'Beautiful Game' has in no way diminished his passion. 

He had told me that he is an avowed fan of Spanish and European champions Barcelona, and that it was one of his biggest wishes to catch just a momentary action glimpse of Lionel Messi; the club's talisman who is heralded as one of the greatest to ever play football.

The nimble-footed Messi came into worldwide prominence about three years after Gilbert became blind. This means that Gilbert has never set eyes on the Argentine. He has no idea how he looks like or how he plays like. But that has not stopped him from idolizing him.

“I wish I could just see him do all that magic the commentators chronicle endlessly,” he had said, followed by a pause and a sigh - a deep, if-wishes-were-horses kind of sigh.

“From what I’ve heard, he is incomparable as a footballer.”


NOW, GILBERT WAS speaking to someone – his brother, I suspected – who was bringing him money because he was cash-strapped. “Around 8 o’clock? Oh ok, no problem,” he continued. “I’m now even about to take some mashed kenkey.”

His friend was seated on the bed, massaging the kenkey in a deep cylindrical bowl while he added water intermittently. I decided to ask him a question to while away the time Gilbert was spending on the phone. “How was Gilbert like in school? Was he popular?”

He smiled. “Oh yeah he was. Gabby was really popular. Even up till today, all of the teachers say good things about him and still speak of him.”


AFTER HE GOT OFF the phone, Gilbert asked if I had started writing a profile on him. “Yes,” I answered. “I’m hitting close to 5000 words already. You did speak a lot during that last meeting!”

He laughed. “If you don’t restrain me I can talk and talk all day!” he reeled with glee.

“Maybe, next time you come here, you can bring the article on a pen drive so I can save it on my laptop and use my Microsoft Word audio player to listen to it,” he suggested.

“No worries, will do that,” I said. “But if you want to listen to it right now, I have it saved in my mail and I can open it on my phone and read it to you.”

“You do?!”  He sounded excited.

“Yes,” I replied as I went through my phone to access the mail and the file. “Should I start? I’ll read the portion describing the sequence that resulted in you becoming blind. I want you to alert me if I mention any fact that is not accurate,” I added.


So, I started reading. He stared at the ground as I read slowly, and he seemed so attentive, so pensive, that it made me a little nervous. But, he would nod in between paragraphs, and that felt really comforting. There were times when he would smile, other times when he would cut in and offer a correction or a suggestion. There were times, too, when he looked bewildered, and so I would explain my choice of words and style, spelling out the impact I was looking to achieve. “Oh ok! That’s interesting!” he would say. 

“Are you a poet? You write and sound like one!” he teased afterwards.

In between reading, I could see some of his block mates stopping by the window as they passed by to peep and eavesdrop. We were interrupted too –  twice, in fact – by friends who came to visit him. Both were blind. The first entered and made a lot of deliberate jokes to distract our interaction, but they were all in jest. The second, too, burst into the room in a hilarious manner and sat for a while to listen in. Both of them, though, seemed to be as outgoing, amicable and fun-inclined as Gilbert himself.

At the end of my reading Gilbert gave me more details that he felt would add significant dimension to my construction of his past. Then, he said: “You’ve written this very well. Your style is different.”

I felt proud that he liked it, and told him I’d see him one last time to get more details. I suggested writing another article on him, and he was open to the idea, even after I shared the relatively unorthodox method I planned to adopt. The method was basically an experiment of spending a whole day with him, in his company – though not close to him, but monitoring from afar. It felt like an ambitious plan, because it did not seem mainstream. “That’s very interesting! I would love to do that. Even if you want to do it without me knowing, I have no problems. I’m an open book and I don’t hide anything,” he said. “I even told you about my two girlfriends!” We both laughed hard.

When I said my farewells, and walked out the door into the corridor, I felt him following me. After a few steps, I decided to turn around for confirmation, and I was right. 

Behind me, he was walking slowly and quietly and calmly, but he wasn’t after me. He was going to a room about three doors from his.

I stood and watched him enter the room, and later, come out with two of his friends.

He slipped in between them and put his arms around both, and, as they strolled in unison back to his room, they all looked so happy.

They could not see me, but I was there, staring, the camaraderie of their shared challenge causing a strange stir in me.

Suddenly, I felt happy too. So happy, that I felt an urge to cry. But I had no idea why.