Classics and Global Humanities: launching the Classical Association of Ghana

(Professor Barbara Goff writes.)

Nigeria and Ghana have long and distinguished classical traditions.  Although Latin and Greek were taught to West Africans as part of colonialism, the ancient languages, literatures and histories paradoxically become prized cultural resources which could be wielded very effectively to promote the value of African traditions, African intellectual attainment, and African independence.  Nineteenth century nationalists argued passionately for the importance of ancient Greece and Rome to the education of Africans.  When the first universities were opened in Nigeria and Ghana, in 1948, departments of Classics were among the first to offer Honours degrees.   There is now only one department of Classics in Nigeria, in Ibadan, and two in Ghana, in Legon (just outside Accra) and in Cape Coast.  These latter are both joint departments of Philosophy and Classics.  They all operate under considerable financial constraint, and they have to defend themselves, perhaps even more than classicists have to do in the UK, against people in their societies who find them irrelevant.  Since the African continent in general suffers from underdevelopment, the departments do not have extensive libraries or other resources like our wonderful Ure Museum.  Sometimes they do not have dependable electricity.

In the face of such challenges, the departments in Nigeria and Ghana have established themselves as centres of research and teaching in the classics.  Ibadan in particular has made a specialty of teaching and research about Africa in the ancient world.  Ibadan also regularly puts on African-authored plays which draw on Greek tragedies, like those by Ola Rotimi (‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’) and Femi Osofisan (‘Tegonni, an African Antigone’; ‘The Women of Owu’).  The departments often teach large ‘service’ courses like ‘Latin for Lawyers,’ so they reach big audiences, and have cultivated good relationships with alumni who have gone on to become prominent people in government, law, business, finance and the media.

2018 sees the 70th anniversary of the founding of the universities of Ibadan and Legon, and as part of the celebrations, the department at Legon decided to inaugurate a new Classical Association of Ghana, with the country’s first international conference on Classics.  Prof. Kunbi Olasope, who teaches at Ibadan and who has been a Visiting Scholar at Reading, is currently working at Legon, and she kindly invited me to give the keynote at the conference.  I was delighted to accept.  I helped develop the theme for the conference, Classics and Global Humanities, because I think classics has become an even more global discipline in recent years, especially with the emphasis on classical reception, and the very existence of this conference seemed to underline the point.

Prof. Barbara Goff with Prof. Kunbi Olasope


Among other visiting speakers, and scholars and officers of the University


The conference turned out to be properly international, with participants from the UK, the States, Germany, and South Africa, as well as Ghana and Nigeria.  Sessions were held in the beautiful Great Hall, decked out in the gold and blue colours of the university, and the student helpers were dressed in special T-shirts with the logo of the new Association.  The first day included speeches from various university dignitaries, as well as an alumnus who is a prominent TV news presenter.  He pulled no punches in his account of why newer nations, like those of Africa, need to learn from the old.  Lunches were served out of doors, under awnings, where we could eat goat stew, okra, yams, tilapia and jolof rice, as well as sandwiches and salads.  Watermelon or pineapple juice was very welcome, especially when we all had to stand around in the tropical sun for the dozens of obligatory photos.

View of the campus from the Balme Library


A tour of the campus on one day took us past the Balme Library, named after the distinguished British classicist who was the first VC of the university at Legon.  The campus architecture is unassuming but elegant, with long low white buildings with red roofs, statues, ornamental pools, and a Botanical Garden.  What I had not expected to see on campus was a huge number of huge termite mounds.  Stay away from these, as they bite – even the well-educated ones.  On another day we drove to Cape Coast, where there is the other department of Classics and Philosophy, and also the somewhat misnamed Elmina Castle. This was built as a fort to protect European traders, first Portuguese and then Dutch, but had a far more dreadful history as a holding point for captured Africans before the Atlantic crossing. 

As always with conferences, the conversations were most important, where we exchanged thoughts about teaching, academic life in the different locations, the value of what we do, and what we should do next.  There is no sense, in Legon or Ibadan, that the classics are an alien heritage that should be rejected; classics is not a reminder of the toxic legacies of slavery and empire.  Instead it is a way to provoke and sustain debates about issues that exercised people in antiquity and that remain significant.  The discipline was ‘global’, though perhaps not very humane, when European colonisers took Latin and Greek to West Africa; now it links scholars internationally in new and fruitful ways.


The Department of Classics honours Black History Month with an exhibition on the Classics in Nigeria and Ghana.  Please visit our corridor on the ground floor of Edith Morley.

Leave a Reply