20 YEARS ON… (I would do the same thing all over again) – by Ace Ankomah

May I reminisce?

11th July 1994 was a Monday. I was still 26, bright-eyed, and a tad confused about life and its twists and turns. At 10:00am, it was definitely a nervous me who was ushered into the room where I was to defend my masters thesis with a long title: THE DESIGN AND OPERATION OF TAX INCENTIVES FOR FOREIGN DIRECT INVESTMENT IN LESS DEVELOPED COUNTRIES.

You see, for the preceding 11 months I had been a student at the Faculty of Law, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada studying and writing, in an attempt to acquire a Master of Laws degree in International Taxation Law. The course itself was not stressful. Earlier in February, I had indicated to my supervisor, the late Professor Alec Easson (an extremely pleasant Englishman, Oxford and LSE grad), that I thought that I was ready to defend the thesis. He patiently explained to me that my course had a three-semester residency requirement, and that although he agreed that I was ready, I simply had to wait. I absolutely admired and adored Alec. He was the first law teacher to tell me “Ace, my name is Alec, not Prof Easson.” Another time, he said to me, when I was busily regurgitating law, “Ace, I am not really interested in how much law you know. I am more interested in what you think about the law you know.” Alec shaped my life and thinking in more ways than he ever knew, and I quietly mourned him when he died in January 2007.

Thus between March and July, I just had fun. I worked for Alec as his Research Assistant to make some extra money. And then I watched loads of TV. I also spent time discovering the more interesting aspects of Canadian life with my key buddies, Tanzanian lawyer Hamudi Majamba (now Professor of Law at the University of Dar es Salaam) and Barbadian engineer Robert Bascom. And there was fun-loving Camerounian lawyer Nicoline Ambe (who still looks like she is 16), and Ghanaian MBA Aba Cato Andah, who was my movie-watching mate (yeah, Tuesdays were cheap nights). Ah, there was that Christmas 9-hour drive from Kingston to Philadelphia with American human rights lawyer Alan Clark (He has never stopped reminding me we got lost at some point because I couldn’t read, and then I left my passport in his car!!) But easily my ‘classleader’ was Andrea Timoll, whose thesis was on deconstructing Antigone and had coined the word “phallologocentrism.” And the encouragement of Prof Rosemary Ofei-Aboagye King. I wrote, arranged old Joyful Way songs, and did sequencing and pre-production of the songs that ended up on Joyful Way’s 1994 Osabarima album. And I did a lot of “church”, helping to organise a gospel music concert at my church. Incidentally, I am struggling to contact the church now. It seems to have disappeared. Yes, it was months of fun. But I digress.

When I entered the room, the law professors were there, some seated, and others grabbing a cup of coffee. Of course, Prof Easson was there. I also remember that Prof Venkata Raman (whose Foreign Investment/NAFTA course I had audited in the First Semester) was seated. I think the Dean of the Faculty, Prof Don Carter, was also there. And then there was the external examiner, Prof Vern Krishna, International Taxation expert from the University of Ottawa. and the then Executive Director of the National Committee on Accreditation of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada

I was directed to sit in a chair at the head of the table, my heart beating, but at the same time confident. For the next two hours, I thoroughly enjoyed the banter, question and answer, a unique opportunity to joust with my betters, my superiors and established academics in my area of study. At the end of it I was asked to leave the room for the panel to confer. When I was called back, Prof Krishna announced that I had passed, and that all I had to do was to fix some typos and formatting.

As was the tradition, the panel took me to lunch in some flashy restaurant in downtown Kingston. I was seated next to Prof Krishna. In the course of lunch he asked what my next plans were, and I said that although I had gained admission to do further grad work in Michigan, I was going back home to Ghana. He could not believe it. He calmly advised that I stay and apply to University of Ottawa to do the doctorate programme in international taxation law. He added that he would also recommend me for accreditation so that I could write the Bar exam and qualify to practice in Canada. He turned to Prof Easson and said to him, “this gentleman should not be going back to Ghana.”

Excited? Yes! Flattered? Yes! Tempting? Yes! I could simply melt into Canada, say bye-bye to Ghana. New life. New prospects.

But what did I do? That evening, I went through my thesis to fix the typos and formatting issues. I spent the next day, 12th July 1994 doing nothing but thinking. I made some hard decisions. I called my family in Philly to tell them what I was going to do. That night, I partied (like I had never done) with my flatmates who had organised a party for me. The next morning, I caught a Greyhound bus to Lester Pearson Airport in Toronto. It was from the airport that I called my cousins in Toronto to tell them that I was returning to Ghana. I boarded the Air India flight to London. I got to London the next day, 13th July 1994, spent the night with my sister at Maida Vale and was on the Ghana Airways flight back home to Ghana, touching down at Kotoka in the evening of 14th July 1994.

Why? Because the night of 12th July 1994 was a turning point in my life. I had the degree that I went to Canada to get. I thought long and hard. Did I really want a doctorate in law, so that I would become “Dr. Ankomah” by when I am 30? But was that what I wanted to do with my life? To the disappointment of my profs and some family members, I concluded that I did not want to spend the next 4 years of my life studying one area of the law just to add some more alphabets before and after my name. That was all a doctorate meant to me. Canada was a great country, but it was clearly not for me. North America was not for me. It was there that I discovered that I was black. I wasn’t ever going to get used to being checked out when I enter a shop, because being black meant that I was a potential shoplifter. I wanted to live and work in a country where most of the people I meet, would look like me!

I was only 26 years old. But I wanted to make some money, I mean real MONEY. I had spent a year as a scholarship student in Canada, and I didn’t want to spend more years like that. 20 years on, I am pretty certain that I would take the same decision if I was faced with it today.

So I arrived in Accra within 2 days of defending my thesis, got married, resumed work at my law firm, babies came along (yes, 3 of them in 5 years), Associate, Lecturer, Senior Associate, Senior Lecturer, Partner, Managing Partner…

[And now for the tired cliche] “The rest,” as they say, “is history.”



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