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Professor Sutherland-Addy reviews Sylvester Mensah’s Authobigraphy, ‘Reflections from my Mirror’

Esi Sutherland-Addy, a professor at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies working in the Language Literature and Drama Section has reviewed the autobiography of Sylvester Mensah, Chief Executive of Ghana’s National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA). The review, written in rich language with meticulous analysis, itself makes an interesting must-read. Sylvester Mensah and I […]



Book CoverEsi Sutherland-Addy, a professor at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies working in the Language Literature and Drama Section has reviewed the autobiography of Sylvester Mensah, Chief Executive of Ghana’s National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA). The review, written in rich language with meticulous analysis, itself makes an interesting must-read.
Sylvester Mensah and I had one of these smiling and nodding relationships. Every time I heard him on air parrying questions about the National Health Insurance Scheme and more recently leading an international celebration of the 10th anniversary of the scheme, I wonder about institutional building in Ghana and why it seemed to be such a tortuous process. I hoped that he had the clarity of vision and the tenacity to make this institution work for all our sakes.
So one can imagine my surprise when I received call from this self-same gentleman requesting to see me about something urgent. I had been recommended to him by a personality for a review of his autobiography In the Shadows of Politics: Reflections from my Mirror. He quietly explained his view that in spite of the risk of vulnerability, he thought he ought to take the risk of doing an autobiography relatively early in his life. His 50th birthday seemed appropriate. I was intrigued and agreed to do the review having warned that my analysis would be a critical one. He agreed enthusiastically and I hope when I have finished, he will not regret having requested for this review!
Sylvester Mensah has joined the slowly but surely growing number of Ghanaians who are sharing their life stories in the written form known as autobiography. Biographies and autobiographies provide us, in today’s world, with crucial perspective about motivations, processes and ideas about continuity and change in our collective lives. In Ghana, it is not uncommon to realise what people have done only during their funerals when their biographies and tributes are read. It is so regrettable these personalities did not leave their story behind.
However, in recent years persons from different walks of life are sharing their life stories and well they should because for a young country like Ghana, people involved in the very makings of new institutions and policy and in setting the pace in the society are leaving the scene without having contributed to building our collective memories. Our society seems to have such a short memory and a poor documentation of our recent history by those actually involved in it. Autobiography is not an exact science and anyone looking for ‘objective narrative’ is looking in the wrong place. It is rather a place to look for perspective, motivation and impact.
So my task was to find out what story lay behind the smiling face and boy there was a story!
In the Shadows of Politics: Reflections from my Mirror is a compact 153-page narrative about a life which has so far been a roller-coaster both at the personal, professional and vocational level. This is certainly a life story which is almost melodramatic because of the ironical twists and turns of fate which befall its protagonist.
Mind you, Sylvester Mensah does not portray himself a victim of a cruelword but demonstrates all too clearly how choices made by his parents and by himself end up having life-changing effects on the family and his own trajectory. Indeed he does not hide the fact that he has been brought down a peg or two sometimes due to his own arrogance. This capacity to confront his own weakness is a big plus because what may be read as arrogance on one side of the coin turns on the other side to be the self-motivation and ambition which led him to take several leaps into the unknown to propel himself professionally and in his political career.
In the Shadows of Politics is indeed an account of the evolution of a Ghanaian politician but I am excited by the fact the he cares to dedicate a considerable part of his account to what he calls the political antecedents. This is probably my favourite part of this story (sorry Sylvester that I seem to have chosen your father over you!) and I suspect that given the prominence given to it, Sylvester finds these political precedents inspiring. Indeed the reader is given the privilege to read about the politics of the immediate post-independence era through the life of Sylvester Mensah’s father Lovelace Mensah. Sylvester Mensah’s life story is preceded by vignettes of his father’s life. This makes it possible to be in the present while reaching back 50 years and pausing to consider what were the issues and imperatives of the time. One cannot help being struck by the power of the Pan Africanist vision which could cause a Ghanaian to risk his life literally and conceptually for the African Liberation Struggle in Congo and elsewhere. It was the stuff of legend which Nelson Mandela’s recent life recalls so forcefully.
At the risk of sounding nostalgic, the jolt back into the present experience seems so confined and parochial, where there is a scramble for power with which to do exactly what, one cannot exactly fathom! – But that discussion is perhaps for another time.
Anyone who is an avid fan of films and fiction about power, whether in the board room, among various cabals or in the political arena should have an interesting time trying to figure out the intrigues of multi-party politics in Ghana. What might make ones blood run cold is Mensah’s matter-of-style as he narrates the gladiatorial battle involved in the process of seeking electoral office in the bowels of the National Democratic Congress.
However, Mensah does not come across as a victim – not at all! He is an avid participant in a battle of wit and wills in the political arena which he thoroughly enjoys. Because of this one cannot help being on tenterhooks about the possible turn of events. This is important because sometimes people in politics do not openly admit their thorough enjoyment of its intrigues.
In parts, however, In the Shadows of Politics recalls Arthur Kennedy’s Sending the Elephant Back to the Bush and as such this is not going to be a comfortable read for sensitive party stalwarts and yet I dare say that they ought to read it and reflect on the political legacy that political parties operating in the 4th Republic are setting for the nation of Ghana moving forward.
My personal impression is that this is a life story that is still in the making. He has so far had a full life enriched by his relationship to his parents – his mother especially as wells as his relationship with his wife – and their family. He acknowledges his mentors also along the way. His openness about this personal aspect of his life and about the spiritual growth that merges out of it is commendable because many male public personalities would find it either very difficult or irrelevant to let the public into the recesses of their private space.
I would say, from reading Sylvester Mensah’s In the Shadows of Politics: Reflections from my Mirror, that it both reflects and anticipates the journey of a restless spirit which is on quest for – well – something! Bro, I hope you find it but in the meantime, we should thank you for the account of your journey so far because it surely has alarm bells and sign posts all along the way for anyone who has the privilege of being in a position of power or responsibility in our country.
When I was young I was taught to sweep a room or a compound in measured stretches, gather up the dirt in a dust pan and begin again on another so that I would not have the opposite effect of scattering the dirt already swept over a broader area. Perhaps what Sylvester has done is to gather up the dirt swept so far so that we can see how much there is and strategize as to how to sweep our compound clean.
Like many a good story, when one reads sections of this book, one cannot help wondering what there is to it. I guess the suspense and unanswered questions will make this book one that lives beyond the confines of its pages. What will happen to the protagonist next? I guess that is the mystery of life because unlike the writer of a fictional political thriller, the author actually has no idea and he must be as curious as we all are about what will happen in the coming years. Like us all, I hope through lessons learnt from this frank evaluation of his trajectory so far coupled with a sense of vision, he will emerge from the shadows and count himself among the transformational leaders whom our people cry for.
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