Sitting on her couch in the Sarah Ntiro Lounge of the Ankrah Foundation, a retreat at the top of Besania Hill in Mukono, the late afternoon sunlight casts a warm glow on Maxine Ankrah’s face, highlighting the black, rectangular jewel stones on her ears, setting off her smile and her crown of medium length hair, with the grey reflecting her age.
The simple yet tasteful necklace of brown and woody tones matches the colour of her skin.
In circles of academia in Uganda, Maxine Ankrah needs no introduction.
Ankrah, who holds a Masters degree in Social Works from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate (PhD) in Sociology from the University of Nairobi, lectured in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Makerere University from the mid to late 1970s and mid-1980s to the early 1990s, rising at one point to become the head of department of Social Works.
Her work in the promotion of women’s rights and research on HIV/Aids is also well documented.
Ankrah’s Ghanaian husband, Canon Kodwo Ankrah, served as Africa secretary for the World Council of Churches and as a director in the All Africa Conference of Churches before coming to Uganda, where he worked within the administration of the church and as a lecturer at the Bishop Tucker Theological College and, later, Uganda Christian University in Mukono.
Known for their service in the church, the couple, in their later years, set up the Ankrah Foundation, mostly remembered as a hospitality establishment but initially set up with the aim of promoting science education.
Born Eleanor Maxine Moore on January 29, 1934 to Rodges and Minnie Moore, in North Carolina in the United States of America, the 84-year-old Ankrah is the great granddaughter of slaves.
Upon the urging of an academic, a Fulbright scholar and friend, Prof Patricia Johnson, in April 2014, just after her 80th birthday, Ankrah embarked on the writing of an autobiography, later titled, Maxine: A Life without Baggage.
The professor says she stumbled upon her book title after writing the autobiography. On the phone with her daughter, Aba Tweba, she was hit by a realisation: “It seems all the baggage I had just came out. I guess the book is all about the fact that I have no baggage. I am no longer tied to the issue of my colour, my poverty, not even my successes or my failures,” she explains.
Published in 2018 by Fountain Publishers Limited in Kampala, the book is instructive on race relations in America of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Admittedly, given the fragility of race relations in America even today, decades after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in writing her story, Ankrah was torn up about where to start.
If she opened with the realities of racism in the American society into which she was born, there was a chance that a section of the public might not read beyond the first few pages.
But there is no way to edit a life. Growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, most areas of life were segregated, including schools, jobs and social services. In Ankrah’s hometown of Greenville, for instance, there was a sign outside the only swimming pool in town that said “Whites Only”. This applied to theatres, the best restaurants and the football stadium.
“It was deeply emotional; an issue of catharsis [purging emotions] from beginning to the end because the first question I posed to myself was should I go the way of starting with the issues of racism in America?
And the reason I posed this question was if I wanted this book read by whites at all and I started off with racism in America, that would take the book to a dead end,” shares Ankrah. In the end, she decided to be honest.
In writing, Ankrah’s tone is candid, as she delves into difficult subjects, including the strained relationship with her mother.
So bad was it at times that Ankrah, one of 14 children born to her mother, admits years later, “I could not remember a single conversation with my mother.”
In opening up this way, the accomplished academic becomes the human being, prone to mistakes that many ordinary readers will relate to.
There is also the often murky politics that played out during her tenure in academia at Makerere University and which eventually led to her exit from the institution, on two separate occasions.
If the conflict does not come out strongly enough in the main body of the book, you may want to turn to the appendices at the back for a look at the correspondence, whose inclusion required a disclaimer.
In her no-holds-barred account, the professor carries her readers along on a ride through difficult processes of decision-making, troubling thoughts and her weaknesses laid bare.
And yet, although she does not shy away from dissecting the low points, it is not Ankrah’s challenges that stand out in the 237 pages of storytelling.
Ankrah’s catalogue of achievements is long. Even her account of working as a maid in the houses of White people to raise university tuition sounds like a high note that depicts Ankrah as a determined young woman who set out to emulate her independent and enterprising father.
Not surprisingly, the one statement that is said to have had the most profound effect on her life came from her father, who told her one afternoon, “You can be anything you want to be.”
This seems to have become the mantra of Ankrah’s life as she set out to conquer.
Graduating summa cum laude (best overall student) for her first degree at Clarke College in Georgia, US, was only the first step in a long line of academic achievements.
Although she states that some of her writing is based on notes made through the years, Ankrah’s recollection of the characters in her busy and varied life across several continents is nothing short of amazing.
Almost everybody is recalled, named and given their rightful place in her story.
Of the more than 50 years she has lived in Africa, at least 40 have been spent in Uganda alone where Ankrah and her husband first arrived in 1974.
The energy and passion that Ankrah has invested in making a home, building a career in academia and contributing to social causes in Uganda, will dazzle the reader.
In what appears to be a deliberate effort, rather than a matter of course, as soon as he comes onto the scene, Ankrah’s husband is woven intricately into the thread of the story.
The reader sees and gets to know Kodwo Esuman Ankrah almost as well as Maxine. There is a touching tribute to Kodwo Ankrah at the time of his passing in May 2015 after a lifetime of service to the church in Uganda and at the global level.
Ankrah’s book is a journey of five decades through Africa, offering often very clear snapshots into Kwame Nkrumah’s post-independence Ghana, Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta and persevering in Uganda under the troubled regime of Idi Amin.
So committed were the Ankrahs to fulfilling their mission of service that, as Maxine recalls in the book, “Kodwo and I realised that there was no way we could abandon our commitment to the Church of Uganda.
Kodwo had said that if we were to leave, ‘God himself will have to evacuate us.’”
And to this day, the Ankrahs have never left.
As to whether it is a life well-lived, the reader can form their opinion, but Maxine Ankrah is certain of one thing, as reflected in her final chapter, “In Closing”. She is putting a full stop on that chapter of her life: “…I do not need to go back to nothing. After this, I can go forward.”