“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest”
By Akwasi Aidoo
The passing of Frank Thomas is such a sad loss. As the saying goes, “He was the tallest tree in our forest.”
The metaphor of him as a tree captures the memories I have of him as a composite of grounded roots of rights, firm stem of distinction, supported branches and all the fruitful philanthropic bearings.
He was a trailblazer who stood up against apartheid in South Africa, championed equity across the Ford Foundation, promoted philanthropic social investments in poor communities, and more.
When I joined the Ford Foundation in February 1993 and soon headed the Dakar Office, he was my father-figure, always willing and able to serve as a sounding board on how to partner strategically with grantees and leaders in the conflict countries of Francophone West Africa, even though he was not my direct supervisor.
When I heard of his joining the ancestors and ancestresses, the news brought to mind this perspective on dealing with the loss of loved ones among the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. According to the Akan people, humans have three elements:
Honam, or body, our physical being, given to us by our parents, Sunsum, or soul, given to us by the Creator, who is Onyankopong, and Nkrabea, or purpose (pronounced “Nkra-bi-ya”), which emerges from a “negotiation” with the Creator. When we are ready to come, to be born, the Creator holds a meeting with us, during which we say what we intend to do on this earth. A deal is struck and Onyankopong gives us the go-ahead with our Nkrabea, which shows in our passion and all the things we dedicate our life to. It’s the purpose or meaning of our life.
Hence, the Nkrabea is more like “destination”, and the journey to that “destination” is entirely in our hands. There is a lot of room for human agency and responsibility for our actions and how we navigate the ways to our greater calling.
When a person dies, the Honam “comes to an end”, although for some it continues to flow through progeny. The Sunsum never dies, and the Nkrabea, if fully realized, is enthusiastically celebrated on end. Akans, therefore, give more significance to the Sunsum and Nkrabea than to the Honam.
One of the ways the Nkrabea is celebrated during the funeral is embodied in the coffin. A shoemaker, for example, will be buried in an artfully designed shoe-coffin. (From The Guardian: Ghanaian Coffins—in Pictures)
All of this is to say that Frank’s Sunsum and Nkrabea have left a trailblazing legacy for an endless period. Though he is physically gone, his wondrous and unalloyed gifts of Sunsum and Nkrabea are still alive.
Akwasi Aidoo worked at the Foundation from 1993 to 2006 in the Dakar and Lagos offices and in the Peace and Social Justice program in the New York office.
LAFF Remembers Franklin Thomas: Co-Presidents’ Reflections by Suzanne Siskel and Betsy Campbell
He Left the World a Better Place by Susan Berresford
A Man of “Vision, Tenacity and Dignity” by Barron “Buzz” Tenny
Celebrating the Remarkable Legacy of Franklin Thomas by Darren Walker
“A True Humanitarian” by Shepard Forman
From the Class of ’92: “We worked for Frank” by Radhika Balakrishnan, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, Natalia Kanem, Anthony Romero and Marcia Smith
Grantees: “Up Front and in the Center” by Charles Bailey
Taking Risks “Is What We Do” by Steven W. Lawry
A Leader With “Vision and Courage” by Barry D. Gaberman
Forging “New Paths on Multiple Fronts” by Judy Barsalou
“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Akwasi Aidoo