The distinguished Ghanaian physician Fred Sai has devoted his entire career to issues of health and reproductive rights. He is best known for drawing attention to the food and nutrition problems of Africa – particularly in connection to children – and is an internationally recognized authority on health, nutrition, population and family planning. He was also the honorary co-chair of the Women Deliver 2010 conference, where he spoke on the issues affecting girls and women around the world. Now, he has released his memoirs in a book called, With Heart and Voice: Fred Sai Remembers.
Beginning with memories of his childhood in the colonial Gold Coast, his Memoirs cover his medical training in post-war London, his medical work in Ghana under the Nkrumah and Busia regimes, and his further education in London and Harvard. Confrontations with color problems of the US in the 1960s are briefly mentioned. He describes his work as Nutrition Advisor to the Food and Agriculture Organization and Senior Population Advisor to the World Bank. He was later President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and in 1993 was the recipient of the UN Population Award.
He recounts his chairing of various international conferences including the WHO/UNICEF Infant and Young Child Feeding Conference in 1979, which led to the development of the International Code on Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, and his involvement with the launching of the Safe Motherhood Initiative and the later evolution of Women Deliver, and his roles as chair for the Main Committee of the International Conference on Population in Mexico in 1984, and most memorably, as chair of the Main Committee of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), in Cairo in 1994.
Written with humour and perspicacity, his Memoirs reflect his lifelong campaigning for women’s reproductive health and rights, abortion law reform, and a fairer deal for Africa from the international community.
Buy a copy of his Memoirs, “Dr. Fred Sai Speaks Out” at amazon.com.
Read below for a review of the book by Elizabeth A. Ohene
He has titled his autobiography, 'WITH HEART AND VOICE—FRED SAI REMEMBERS”, but it could equally be called FRED SAI'S BATTLES, or a more appropriate, if risque title would be THE LADIES' MAN.
Professor Sai, says in the foreword that he has written this account of his life mostly for his children and grandchildren and also for young professionals. The hope being that the young people will take on board the dramatic progress that has been achieved in one lifetime-- from the barefoot child in colonial Gold Coast, Osu through to Achimota School to becoming a medical doctor in the UK, to life in the newly independent Ghana as a young professional, to an internationally acknowledged authority on health, nutrition, population and family planning.
Prof. Sai calls himself “an apostle for family planning, reproductive health and the empowerment of women” and he sets about narrating the story of this apostle with admirable passion.
The success did not come easily, but he obviously delights in the battles he has had to fight in his life; whether it is as the Senior Prefect at the Salem school and leading his first strike against the Assistant Headmaster, or squaring up to the United States delegation to the United Nations Conference on Population in Mexico, or taking on the Vatican on the subject of family planning and abortion, or as Presidential Adviser on Population and HIV-AIDS.
Sai's battles are recounted with humour, and as he says himself, a lot of things have occurred in his life which could have led him to have a sad outlook on life. But he rejected writing a grim book and chose to lay emphasis on the funnier and lighter situations.
At the centre of all his battles has been the determination to fight for women's rights; and it would seem he became THE LADIES' MAN quite early in his life. It probably started from his mother and the powerful aunties and his spending a longer period in the women's house in Osu than was traditional for young boys. Or maybe it was his first job as a stand-in teacher of a class of 30 girls in Osu as he waited for the results of his Cambridge School Certificate exams, delayed by the second World War. Or maybe it was the trauma of watching young women die from botched abortions.
He married a strong professional woman who emerges as a veritable force by his side enabling him to live his talk of promoting female rights in his own home, including being acknowledged by the Asantehene as “Mrs. Sai's husband”! Tragedy also seemed to reinforce this outlook as his only son was killed in a car accident, leaving him as the only male in his home with his wife and three daughters.
Nutrition became his first battleground as the young medical doctor took on the fight to help women overcome child malnutrition and the consequent KWASHIORKOR at the time a major child killer. This led inevitably to the need for family planning and the spacing of births to give children a chance to thrive.
The challenges he faced ranged from superstition to political wranglings. Mothers believed their malnourished children were victims of the evil eye and jealous siblings. All those who have any interest in the health management story of Ghana will be riveted by Professor Sai's recollections, all told across the tapestry of the excitement and intrigues of the politics of the newly independent Ghana.
Some will be fascinated by the story of the young Medical Officer in charge of Nutrition addressing the nation on the radio and attracting the personal attention of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah himself. Today's University lecturers will marvel at the conditions of service enjoyed by the young Mrs. Sai at UST, which included: “summer leave with full pay, all fares paid plus fares for children” which enabled her to spend quality time in London with her husband.
The story of the young doctor surreptitiously providing contraceptives to women because the Prime Minister had ruled there should be no contraceptives in the country will hold some spellbound. The change in President by 1961 is perhaps illustrated by the story of the dismantling of the West African Council for Medical Research.
The overthrow of Nkrumah brought with it a change in official attitude towards family planning. It is probably worth quoting here part of the speech made by the late E.N. Omaboe (as he then was) at the launch of the Population Planning for National Progress and Prosperity in 1969. A speech, I suspect, the Professor of Preventive and Social Medicine had a hand in drafting. In less than a decade, President Nkrumah's diktat against contraceptive use with the assertion that population growth was not, and could not be a problem for Ghana had already been shown to be misplaced.
The Commissioner for Economic Planning, Mr. E.N. Omaboe said: “the size of our present population does not pose immediate problems for us. However the rate at which the population is increasing will very certainly create serious social, economic and political difficulties before the end of the century. If we want to alter the rate of growth, even marginally, in two decades' time we must initiate action now”.
The problems indeed arrived earlier than projected and current observers might note that most of our current difficulties were foretold long ago. It is worth pointing out that this was one of the few occasions that Professor Sai did not have to battle officialdom of one kind or the other in his efforts to push women's reproductive health issues.
On the international scene it would seem the battles were even more fierce. There are many lessons to be learnt from Professor Sai's times with international organizations, especially the International Planned Parenthood Federation, IPPF, and the World Bank.
Not everybody will agree with his belief in international conferences, but you cannot help but sympathize with his position. He has spent and chaired more international conferences than most people have had hot dinners in their lives and makes a candid admission he cannot remember all of them.
Of the many conferences that he helped organized or chaired, it is worth mentioning five of the big ones that have certainly had a lasting effect on the world. The International Conference on Population held in Mexico, the WHO/UNICEF Infant and Young child Feeding Meeting in Geneva, Family Planning in the 1980s conference, Jakarta, Safe Motherhood conference, Nairobi and probably the most famous, the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994.
It is truly amazing to be let into the intrigues and political wranglings that go on behind the scenes at these conferences. Even though I found the details of these conferences quite tedious, I am sure sociologists will be grateful to Professor Sai for his meticulous reports in these memoires.
Ghanaian readers will no doubt be taken up with Professor Sai's political adventures and he provides enough anecdotes to keep all sides of the political divide oohing and aahing for quite a while. His experiences as Chairman of the Transition in 2001 in particular make very interesting reading.
Now in his 80s, Professor Sai is still full of activity and has mercifully had the opportunity to have been appreciated in his lifetime. In the chapter on Recognitions, Professor Sai makes the point and I quote him: “To spare my blushes, I will not list or describe all the honours, awards and public recognition that I have been lucky enough to receive”, and indeed, the few he lists are impressive enough and shows he has been acknowledged for his efforts.
Under the Kufuor Administration, as a recognized senior member of the ruling party and in recognition of his lifelong work, he was appointed Presidential Adviser on Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS and a member of the board of directors of the Bank of Ghana. It is interesting that Professor Sai does not mention the fact that under the Kufuor administration, his wife, Florence Sai set up and headed the Office of Accountability, and his daughter Oboshie was a Deputy Chief of Staff at the Presidency and later a Minister of State. Even though Prof. Sai had some misgivings about some of President Kufuor's actions it is obvious the Sais were very much part of the ruling class.
There are some irritating proof reading lapses in the book, but luckily they do not interfere with the flow and this book should be of interest to the general reader. On matters of population, it must rank as an unrivaled textbook, on the operation of NGOs, it provides unequaled insight and as a potted social and political history of Ghana for the past 80 years, it makes gripping reading.
There cannot be many men alive who have spent a lifetime fighting on so many fronts for women’s rights with such passion and the bravery with which he has championed the campaign for difficult and unpopular subjects like safe abortions makes me feel at the end of the book that Fred Sai is indeed the LADIES MAN.