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Travelling to Ghana - How Jack Caldwell came to work at the University of Ghana

Jack CaldwellJack Caldwell talks about the how he ended up working in Ghana. This is part two in the conversation with Jack.

In 1962 you took up a position at the University of Ghana, at Legon. Why Ghana?

The simplest answer is that, having completed a PhD, I needed a job. In those days you could not apply for a position at the ANU until two years had elapsed since the conferring of your PhD. Having been to Thailand and Malaya, and having written my thesis on the demography of Malaya, the idea of Ghana did not seem so foreign or indeed that much further away than Malaya. In those days one did not think of commuting as one does today. If you went, you went for the long haul.

How did it come about?

Ghana was the first of the African colonies to gain its independence – in 1957. It had developed its own sense of destiny early. Under Kwame Nkrumah, its first President, Ghana set out to assert itself as an independent nation, but one that was on a par with the imperial European nations of the developed world, from which Ghana, and then Africa in general, struggled to gain independence. Ghana intended to lead Africa in that struggle. It promoted non-alignment and African unity. To do so it was keen to study itself, as a phenomenon different from that of being simply a less developed version of the old imperial world. But it did so in part by forging partnerships with organisations in the developed world, and particularly with academia. The connection between the University of Ghana, at Legon, and the London School of Economics (LSE) had been long established. But in post-colonial days, this connection was deliberately strengthened (partly facilitated no doubt by Nkrumah having been a student of the LSE). Nor was it a one way process, Britain too wished to develop a new partnership now based on mutual respect. The ‘wind of change’ blew both ways.

Against this backdrop, the clamour for independence across Africa, and beyond, arose in the context of the Cold War. America too wanted to know more about Africa and certainly wanted to foster partnerships of its own. There was considerable concern at the time that the world would not be able to feed itself. Demography was seen, probably correctly, to be pivotal for addressing successfully the world’s most fundamental challenge. We saw the world then through much more Malthusian lenses than we do today (where concern now is more about the environmental future than with the immediate and pressing present). The outlook for the vast majority of the world’s poor seemed fairly stark. Every day interactions with poverty, disease and death made these matters real and urgent.

You took up a position attached to the Sociology Department at the University of Ghana sponsored by the Population Council. Why were they involved?

It was a mix of things that were somewhat random, as so often happens in life. But it hinged around Frank Lorimer. Frank had graduated from Yale in 1916 and by 1923 he had a PhD in Divinity, and he always retained a missionary instinct. Coming through Sociology and touched by eugenics, his thinking developed increasingly in the direction of demography. By the mid-fifties this led him to attaching himself, with some supplementary funding from the Population Council, to the emerging University of Ghana, at Legon (the university’s campus lying a few miles outside Accra). From this base, in between bouts of malaria, he explored much of tropical Africa. Frank saw tropical Africa as one of the laboratories of development theory and demography was a central plank.

At some point he met Anatole Romaniuk who was with the Belgium Colonial Office in the Congo, and together they gathered the demographers of African experience for a conference in Paris. The conference underscored the need for further demographic research in Africa as a priority. Lorimer flew to Aberdeen in the middle of winter, an experience he did not easily forget, to confer with Bill Brass about the needs and priorities of demographic research as Bill had been previously Deputy Director of the East African Statistical Department and had developed an interest in the demography of the region. From their discussion Lorimer then approached David Glass at the LSE on the feasibility of them funding a research position in demography at Legon. Effectively, this position would take over from the position that Frank had loosely created for himself at the University of Ghana. It should be appreciated that the University of Ghana, until quite recently, had been a college of the University of London. Legon stood out also because Ghana had carried out the first modern African census in 1960. LSE agreed and proposed one of Ruth Glass’s doctoral students, Dov Friedlander, for the position. And so it came to pass. As it happened the Friedlanders did in their Volkswagen after six months and, medically evacuated, escaped Ghana but his tenure had created the post of a demographer attached to the Sociology Department at Legon.

But Lorimer’s role carried further. Somewhat earlier he had met with a Ghanaian classicist, Alex Kwapong, then temporally at Princeton. He was keen to develop a Ghanaian-American relationship and thought that the US corporations might consider funding a post in Ghana, especially at Legon. Frank saw this in terms of demography. As an old friend of Frank Notestein, in the context of J D Rockefeller’s increasing interest in population, Lorimer convinced Notestein on the wisdom of the Population Council funding directly a research post for a demographer in tropical Africa.

So it came to pass that as Dov Friedlander departed Legon, the Population Council wished to fund a position in demography in Africa, and almost by default, one idea merged with the other. This was the first time that the Council had ever sponsored a research and teaching position. Following agreement, the University of Ghana sent out feelers to various universities including one to the Anthropology Department at Sydney University who, realising the demographic dimension of the position, forwarded the letter to Mick Borrie. I wrote to the Population Council saying that I believed that they were to fund a demography program at Legon and that they might consider me for the job. I was quickly accepted.

So the family – myself and Pat, and initially the three younger boys, Colin (13), Grahame (10) and Bruce (5) – headed off to Ghana where I was on a local salary. Peter was to join us later that year, after completing academic courses. Life was pretty frugal but most enjoyable.

But you went via New York, why?

There were several reasons. Not having funded a research post before, and one situated out of Manhattan, they were not sure where to go. So together we workshopped ideas that gave shape to the role that I was to undertake. They also wanted me to confer with the Princeton group and with Frank Lorimer in particular, then at Princeton. Crucial to Lorimer’s presence was the development of Princeton’s tropical African demographic research program. Involved with this was Ansley Coale, Don Heisel, Etienne van de Walle, Paul Demeny, and Bill Brass was visiting. As it happens, Brass was one of my doctoral examiners. I also met Irene Tauber.

Frank Notestein personally accompanied the family to the Penn Station Greyhound bus station to put us on the bus to Princeton. So we spent a week there while I developed lasting contacts, in between learning to identify the different types of duck that were to be found on the ponds in front of the old Princeton Inn and seeking out the homes of Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson and Paul Robeson elsewhere in Princeton.

But you also did your viva in New York?

In those days the ANU required a viva for the granting of a doctorate. The Oxbridge model no doubt worked well on home turf where the examiners were usually to be found down the corridor. In this case, examiners and candidate had to meet at a place of mutual convenience with the ANU paying both fares and expenses. With myself and Bill being both close to New York, it was simply a matter of arranging for Nathan Keyfitz to meet with us there. This he did for the price of a fare and three nights’ accommodation in the Commodore Hotel at Grand Central station, and so it was there that I had my oral examination.

The examination was more searching and formal than I had anticipated, or, as it turned out, than Bill Brass had expected either. Keyfitz was dressed in full dinner suit, in preparation for his attendance at the opera. After an hour’s grilling I was shown the door. But I pleaded that I needed to know the result as the entire enterprise of going to Ghana rested on the outcome. Keyfitz relented and he and Bill then discussed it for a further hour while I paced the corridors of the 16th floor of the Commodore followed by a gathering posse of house detectives. Eventually, having established the purpose of my behaviour, we all paced anxiously around the corridors together. Finally the door was swung open, I was told that I had passed, Keyfitz gathered himself to depart for the opera, and Bill and I slung off to find a bar to recover. The doorman looked at both of us, Bill in Scottish informality as much as my own, and suggested that the Rough Riders’ Bar was probably our scene. Bill needed the drink as much as I, but it was a highly fruitful way of making initial contact with a colleague whose professional advice I thereafter treasured.

Any further memories of New York?

Arriving in New York in early March was a bracing experience. The kids were dressed in tropical ware – after landing in Fiji, Honolulu and San Francisco – it was a shock to land at Idlewild, as the airport was then called, in the middle of a blizzard. Having a duty of care, Qantas carried the kids bodily out to the terminal wrapped in blankets. That night, staying at a hotel high above Madison Ave, we watched through the windows, young dancers performing in the building across the road but 10 stories above the street, as they learnt their ballet from George Balanchine. After which we went out to find dinner at an automat. We thought we were in the centre of the world.

And the view up Park Avenue through to the Bronx Court House, from the old New York General Building, in which in 1962, the Council was housed, was simply exhilarating. This was truly the Big Apple.

The Council didn’t quite know quite what to do with us or what the ultimate purpose behind their branching out in this new direction might prove to be. So they decided to throw a farewell party, a very formal luncheon at the Harvard Club, in midtown Manhattan. This involved every guest being personally served by an individual waiter, with the maitre d’ serving a five year old Bruce exclusively. A senior administrator at the Council was somewhat flummoxed by the whole arrangement and muttered that he had never known the Harvard Club to allow children in before. The lunch probably cost the Council the equivalent of my entire salary for that year and it was a generous gesture. It was also an impressive introduction to New York corporate life and the meaning of the Ivy League.

And London?

London was grey, heavy and bleak. Rediffusion ruled radio, transmitting through a copper wire network, and this very largely defined the nature of British entertainment. Soho was mean and sleazy but passed for glamour in a down at heals London. The blitz was all around us and Lyons Corner Houses defined elegant dining. And all men wore bowler hats. Within a year we returned to a London that had forgotten the War and had changed forever. By then the Profumo scandal was changing the culture of Britain, along with the arrival of the Beatles.

I met the Friedlanders, Eugene Grebenik, David and Ruth Glass and we went to the University of Leicester to meet the African sociology group. Fully prepared with British experience of Africa, we headed off to Accra, hopping between West African capitals all the way along the Atlantic coast until we reached it. The flight took two days and this included a delightful night’s stay in a hotel in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands in the days before any tourists ventured there. Ahead of me lay Africa.

Other reflections by Jack Caldwell

Updated: 8 September 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head, School of Demography / Page Contact:  Website Administrator