An old man walked into the 37th Military Hospital in Accra early one morning. He had known all his life that the 37th Military Hospital in Accra was a place for deserving Ghanaians, and so he had travelled there from far, obviously very sick and in need of emergency care.
Several hours passed as he waited for medical attention and care, while chaos reigned in the emergency ward. Doctors and nurses stepped over him in passing, and although reminded by several other patients, “the old man has not been seen to all day,” they merely waved a dismissive hand and disappeared along corridors lined with the sick and dying. “We’re busy ooo,” they crooned, for there was no one waiting who looked important enough to them. And so, they continued with business as usual.
Some people began to wonder if the old man had any family at all. What heartless relatives they must be to leave him sick and alone like this, they muttered to themselves and each other. Then at around 5pm, a worried-looking young man turned up from work distraught to see his father slumped half-dead by the emergency ward entrance. The old man had clearly urinated himself, and the son immediately pulled off his own jeans to replace his father’s soiled trousers. Standing there in boxer shorts for the entire world to see, he began to clean up his father as best he could. Then, when he was through, he turned his attention to the hospital staff.
So furious were the young man’s words that a junior doctor immediately flew into action with two or three ancillary staff. They checked the old man’s pulse and concluded that he needed a drip and emergency care. He had lost a lot of fluids. He was coughing up blood. They would see to the drip right away, they said, but they could do nothing further until the son paid up two hundred Ghana cedis in cash. That’s roughly £51/$85 or much more than large sections of Ghana’s population earn each month. The young man protested, but he seemed to have come prepared. He eventually pulled out the notes from a battered wallet, and reluctantly handed them over.
He would rush out, he explained, to get his father a drink and possibly some light food to eat. He asked that the emergency care team find a spare bed and set up a drip for the old man on what was already an overcrowded ward. The son left them at it, and walked outside in his boxer shorts. He had not been gone ten minutes when the old man coughed up a puddle of blood, and expired right there on the spot, exactly where he had sat unattended since morning. Other patients on the ward and their families fell silent.
When the son returned, about 20 minutes later, he knew immediately that his father was dead. He could tell it in the attitude of the people around him, in how they hung their heads in shame and prayer. He did not look across at the now lifeless body of the old man. He marched straight up to the duty officer’s desk and shouted, “What happened to my father?”
“Oh, sorry, he passed away while we were taking care of him,” the duty officer lied.
“I-want-my-money back,” the young man demanded.
“Calm down, brother,” begged the duty officer, attempting to quash the situation.
“I-WANT-MY-MONEY BACK!” the young man repeated, deliberately this time. “Cos I can’t pay for the treatment to come back thirty minutes later and find my father dead.”
“The money has been processed,” said the duty officer, apologetically.
“What? You let my father sit here all day outside this door, waiting. Now he’s dead. And you want to chop my money?”
Then leaping at the duty officer, the young man grabbed him by the throat and shoved him up against the wall. The whole place heaved and held its breath. “Don’t let me do anything I will regret,” the young man warned.
Just as other patients and their families looked on in admiration and horror; footsteps came rushing into the emergency ward. Two guards rushed pass the old man’s dead body to find their colleague dangling by the neck and choking up against the wall.
“My brother,” one of them said, holding on his truncheon like a gun. “This is the Military Hospital. You don’t have to do this.”
The young man turned to look at him and it seemed as if the “military” word brought some sense in his head. Releasing his grip from around the duty officer’s throat, he allowed the elder man to slide down the wall and onto his feet.
Again, the room sighed a sense of relief. One of the guards, the bigger, uglier one, took the angry young man by the elbow. He could tell that the boy was about to cry and gently escorted him from the emergency ward, as the other two men calmly followed. They stepped across the old man’s body with the son gently weeping and asking for his money back. That was the last anyone on the ward saw or heard of him as the room erupted in excitable chatter.
He had sat outside waiting all day in life, but it was only in death that an attendant came to wheel the old man away. They would take his lifeless body to the hospital morgue, where his family would pay to keep him on ice until the funeral.
It was about two hours later that a woman on a makeshift stretcher was rushed in through the same open ward doors. Flanked by a bevy of activity and a whole lot of praying, it was clear from her grey dangling dreadlocks that the latest patient was a senior citizen. However, under the cover of a thick red, gold and green blanket, it was neither possible to see her body or her face. From the conversation, it appeared that the woman had fainted. Above her uneven breathing stood a divot Rastafarian sister, waving arms and chanting obsessively, while a younger man speaking in Twi sought to get attention from the hospital’s emergency care staff.
The commotion had brought four or five of them out, peeking from around a closed door. When the man rushed up to them, it soon became apparent that he had not brought with him the right paperwork to have the sick woman seen to immediately. He tried to explain. The woman had suddenly taken ill. They had panicked, and rushed to the hospital for treatment. Could the emergency care team not see her first, while he rushed home to get the forgotten papers?
No, they said. That’s not how we do it. He was to return home to fetch the correct paperwork first, before they could see to the sick elderly woman he had brought in for emergency care. He could either take her with him, or leave her waiting on the overcrowded ward alongside the rest of the sick people. The choice was his. He chose the latter.
The hours passed. For it was to the mountains of Aburi that the young man had to travel. Luckily, at night, the roads were clear by Ghanaian standards. So, he collected the appropriate paperwork, took a puff on a spliff to claim his nerves, and drove nonstop all the way back to the 37th Military Hospital. As he entered the ward, he could see very well that his employer was alive. He walked straight to a room at the end along the corridor, where the group of doctors had spoken to him so abruptly. He was not even going to knock this time. The spliff had given him new courage. As he held out the forms in his hand, impassively, the doctors and others turned to look at him surprised.
Eyeing the young man with a mixture of scorn and irritation, a senior doctor who recognised him from earlier, took the papers, grudgingly. He glanced at the document in his hands, and when his pupils focused on the name written there, he did a double take. His eyes clearly bulged. It was as if the papers had suddenly become too hot to handle, and he quickly passed them to another colleague, indicating that she too should look. “Rita Marley,” the woman said aloud. “The Rita Marley?” she questioned again. And on hearing the name spoken aloud twice, a sudden clarity rushed to their brains.
They had left Rita Marley, wife of legendary reggae singer, Bob Marley, unattended on a stretcher in a corner of a dirty, overcrowded ward for more than three hours now. With the magnitude of what they had done etched across each one of their faces, they ran blindly from the room to attend to the sick woman. No longer was she just a nameless Rastafarian elder, whom they naturally assumed to be poor and worthless. She was the former wife of an international superstar, a legend in her own right, and a long-time friend of Ghana. They went to work with gusto. To save this woman’s life was now their ultimate concern. How would it look to the outside world, if Rita Marley should die from neglect in their emergency care?
It remains one of the most iconic photographs in sporting history. Heads bowed, black-gloved fists raised aloft, on a sweltering hot night in Mexico City, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos propelled themselves into the history books.
The image still resonates with quiet dignity and a palpable rage that is almost shocking to behold, especially in these politically neutered times. We live in an
age of bland sporting automata, steeped in the language of PR, super-aware of their salaried roles as ambassadors of Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and afraid of saying or doing anything that might alienate their sponsors.
Contrast this with 1968, when sociologist Dr Harry Edwards declared the ‘revolt of the black athlete,’ and added the voice of America’s black sportsmen to the civil rights movement. Dr Edwards was the organiser of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), and the group’s founding statement proclaimed that:
“We must no longer allow this country to use a few so called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary…any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”
Smith and Carlos’ distinguished, impassioned protest was to be the defining moment of the OPHR, the ’68 Olympics and – for better or worse – of their lives. History will remember them as heroes and also as martyrs. They made a stand for what they believed in and earned immortality – but they also paid a heavy for price for what they did that night.
Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1944, John Carlos a year later, in Harlem. Both were raised in poverty – Smith was one of 12 children, the son of a ‘dirt farmer,’ while Carlos lived in an apartment behind his father’s shoe store with his four brothers and sisters. Like many young black men, sport seemed to offer them the possibility of a better future, and their burgeoning athletic prowess won them scholarships to San Jose State College. It soon became clear that the two had the potential to become world-class athletes.
Smith went on to break records over 220 yards, 400 metres, and 440 yards, but his favoured distance was 200 metres, where his so-called ‘Tommie-Jet Gear’ allowed him to tap into a new burst of pace whilst travelling at high speed, leaving opponents trailing in his wake. However, in the Olympic trials, Carlos was to
defeat Smith over 200 metres in a world record time, setting up the prospect of an American one-two in the 1968 Games.
But Carlos and Smith had more on their minds than medals and records. At San Jose State, they became friendly with Dr Harry Edwards, who asked them, and all the other black athletes selected to represent the United States in the Mexico Olympics, to boycott the games, in order to bring the world’s attention to the injustices facing black America, and to expose how the U.S. used black athletes to project a lie of racial harmony at home and abroad.
The late 60s were a time of change and struggle – 1968 saw the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; anti-war protests coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which saw the U.S. lurching towards ignominy and defeat; only 10 days before the games were due to begin, hundreds of students occupying the National University in Mexico City were slaughtered by Mexican Security forces. The atmosphere was ablaze with a revolutionary spirit that is hard to imagine ever emerging again, especially in a U.S. that seems to be docilely submitting to a right-wing hegemony left behind by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co, after an ever so brief fling with the idea of change. While the proposed boycott did not occur, OPHR members decided to compete in Mexico and protest individually. Carlos, in particular, was by now a political firebrand who had been in support of a full boycott. But, as he stated many years later:
“…not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on the stick”
However, he and Smith surely knew that their chance would come, as they renewed their rivalry on the track and made swift progress through to the 200m final, with Carlos establishing a new Olympic record during the preliminary rounds. In the final, Smith drew his least-favourite inside lane, and ran with a strained thigh muscle, yet still came through to win the Gold medal in a then world record time of 19.83 seconds, while Carlos finished in third to earn the Bronze medal. Carlos controversially went on to claim that he slowed down in the finishing straight in order to allow Smith to win as, “the Gold medal meant more to him.”
This was a comment typical of a relationship that was fractious at best. The two were always colleagues rather than friends, as many people have assumed. However, as they took to the podium, they were in perfect harmony, coordinated in an eloquent, planned protest that would send shockwaves around the sporting and political worlds, and which would reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.
Stepping up to receive his Gold medal, Smith wore a single black glove on his right hand which, when he raised it above his head, was to symbolise black power in America. Around his neck he wore a black scarf, representing black pride. Carlos wore a glove on his left hand to symbolise unity in black America, and around his neck he wore a beaded African necklace that he said was,“for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” Both stood shoeless in black socks, to represent the enduring, abject poverty of black America.
As the Stars and Stripes were raised high above the stadium in Mexico City, and the bombastic strains of the Star Spangled Banner blared out over the tannoy, Smith and Carlos raised their fists and lowered their heads, disassociating themselves from the nationalistic triumphalism of the moment and sending a message of rage and defiance to the world. A thousand flash bulbs popped, history was made, and the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith changed forever.
There is an interesting side-note in the creation of this eternal image, in the shape of the silver medallist, Australian sprinter Peter Norman. When studying the photograph, Norman seems to represent a bland, white-bread counterpoint to the two black athletes. Their outstretched arms seem to make them tower above him; they gaze mournfully downwards as he stares, obediently, straight ahead, cutting an almost gormless figure, seeming to personify all the self-absorbed myopia of the white sporting world. However, Norman too played a part in the protest. Opposed to his own country’s pro-white immigration policy, he grabbed an OPHR badge from the crowd, and wore it on the podium in an act of solidarity with the two Americans.
The fallout from Smith and Carlos’ protest was immediate and devastating. The International Olympic Committee demanded that the U.S Olympic Committee ban them from the games. The U.S. team refused, but the IOC threatened to ban the entire American team, forcing the USOC to climb down. Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace, to face the wrath of a media who were both bewildered and outraged by their gesture. As a 1967 U.S. News and World Report put it, athletics was one arena, “where Negroes have struck it rich” – that two black athletes had chosen this forum to protest was perceived as uppity ingratitude. The press showed no mercy. The athletes’ bowed heads were perceived as disrespectful towards the American flag, and the clenched fists mistakenly interpreted as in support of the feared Black Panthers. Yet, never afraid of contradicting themselves, other media outlets described their “Nazi-like salute,” with Chicago columnist Brent Musburger dubbing them “black – skinned Storm-troopers.” Time magazine ran a picture of the Olympic insignia, replacing the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.”
Carlos did little to placate a furious white America with his public comments: “We’re sort of show horses out there for the white people. They give us peanuts, pat us on the back and say, ‘Boy, you did fine’.”
Smith and Carlos found themselves ostracised, struggling to find work, and in receipt of regular death-threats. Smith was forced to attend night-classes when he returned to college, and had to battle to make ends meet: “A rock came through our front window into our living room, where we had the crib…it seemed like everybody hated me. I had no food. My baby was hungry. My wife had no dresses.”
Smith was able to borrow enough money to complete his education, and became a qualified teacher. He spent several years with the Cincinatti Bengals American football team, later moving on to Santa Monica College, where he remains as a social science and healthcare teacher, and coaches athletics.
The outspoken Carlos found life even more difficult, being forced to travel to find whatever work he could, spending time as a security guard, a gardener, a caretaker. His situation became so dire that he was forced to chop up his furniture for firewood to keep his family warm. The stress of life as an out-cast was too much for his wife, who committed suicide.
Years on, Smith and Carlos have been justly recognised as heroes, being inducted into the African American Ethnic Hall of Fame in 2003. But John Carlos still cannot rest: “I don’t feel embraced; I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer.” He is dismayed that his and Smith’s legacy seems to have been wasted by a generation of black athletes who have reaped the financial rewards of sporting success, but turned their back on their social and political obligations. He believes there is still a battle to be fought, and is contemptuous of those who believe that athletes should be seen and not heard:
“Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human-beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?”
While Smith seems to have found some peace, Carlos’ revolutionary spirit cannot come to terms with today’s insipid, apolitical, hyper-commodified world of sport. He paid a terrible price for his actions one hot night in Mexico City, but the image that was created there will live forever as a beautiful symbol of defiance. Forty-two years on it burns as fiercely as it ever did, still resonating with all the possibilities of the human spirit. But, for John Carlos, the fight goes on.
Kwame Nkrumah once said, “Far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else.” This statement directed against the British colonial forces oppressing Ghana at the time has inadvertently come to represent a way of life for one Stephanie Benson, modern heiress to the ancient Queen of Ashanti throne.
Sultry, sexy singer, mother of five, independent woman, and loving wife are just some of the hats worn by Stephanie Benson. Dressed casually in jeans today, this beautiful woman would cut a dashing poise in any setting. But don’t let the chiselled features, hour-glass shape and sexy pout belie the strength of character and steely determination that drives this woman towards her single-minded path for happiness.
The stories of a fairytale princess never normally go from rags to riches, not that Stephanie is short of a bob or two these days. But never did the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights tell tales of beautiful princesses who gave it all up for love and a bungalow in Kent. Then again, these stories were written long before Princess Akua Ohenewaa Asieanem of Kokobin (a.k.a. Stephanie) was born. So, this daughter to millionaire pharmacist Samuel Benson and Queen Nana Achiaa Boahemaah II decided to marry an English bloke and live in the unsanctified world of unsanitised people.
It all started when Stephanie’s father died. She was sent to live with her strict uncle in England. At the age of 15, she thought that she had escaped the restrictive lifestyle of royal protocol but found out that although she was living in North London affluence, her movements were still constantly supervised and under the watchful eyes of her uncle and his employees.
When she had finished her schooling, she took up employment as her uncle’s secretary. Whilst there, she was sent on a computer training course where she met her future husband, Jonathan. It was more or less love at first sight for him, says Stephanie, and she recalls that it took slightly longer for her to warm to the idea.
“I was 19 when I went on my first date with Jonathan. And I ended up falling head over heels in love with him. I had also realised that my uncle would never accept it, so we had to meet in secret.” When Jonathan proposed Stephanie eagerly accepted. The night she rang her mother to tell her the news, her uncle insisted that she return to Ghana immediately.
Once there, a huge party was arranged and the place filled with eligible suitors. Despite thinly veiled attempts by the family to force her to stay, Stephanie quickly returned to England where she is now twenty years into her marriage. Five children later, a chocolate shop and factory in Tunbridge Wells, a record deal she walked out on, and a flourishing career as a singer, she still claims to be very much in love.
But who in their right mind would follow the little man’s dream in reverse – from riches to rags – and still loudly proclaim to be happy?
Why would anyone want to give up a life of luxury; personal servants, a 25-bedroom mansion, education in the best schools of the world and, an annual trust fund as big as most people’s lifetime earnings?
“My life growing up was really never easy,” she sighs. “My mother was never around very much. Our life was governed by strict protocols, customs, rules and old-fashioned traditions. I couldn’t just run up to her for a hug when other people were around, or even call her mom,” she says rather wistfully.
This enforced distance between mother and child is in stark contrast to the relationship she cultivates with her own five growing brood, aged 9 to 20 years old. Her busy day-to-day world is very much like any other mother, yet despite a hectic schedule, daily school runs, live performances, time in the studio, and helping to run the family business, she still somehow manages to share quality time with her children.
“I like to be a trendy mum. My children know they can talk to me any time. I am their mum, and their friend,” she says matter-of-factly. So what lessons on race, identity and culture does a black woman who grew up in the royal lap of luxury pass on to her mixed-race children, particularly when deciding on schools and where to live? None, apparently, and it works just fine. “My two eldest daughters went to a private school from the age of three and, as it were, they were the only black children there. They never suffered any harm from it,” she shrugs.
“The only time we had a problem was once when another child told my son, ‘We don’t sit next to brown people.’ My son didn’t understand what he meant and was quite upset by it,” she says now, visibly disturbed by the memory. “That was probably my mistake. I never really discuss racism with them. I never had a chip on my shoulder in that way.” This statement, which to many may seem both ignorant and cold, underlines the reality of Stephanie Benson’s world view.
She has never really seen herself as a ‘black’ woman as such. She has never really shared the same cares or concerns as the masses. What Stephanie Benson knows above all else is that she is in-line to the throne of the royal Queen of Ashanti. She carries within her the lineage of great warriors and daring heroines, and that knowledge of history coupled with determination is what propels her through life and gives her an edge on self-worth.
In fact, Mrs Benson comes across as fiery, rebellious and very, very confident. None of it is a front. She is a consummate professional and utterly charming with it, too. This strong, rebellious, single-minded ancestry is what she claims to pass on to her children, and hopefully, they in turn to theirs.