Looking for Gladstone Ofori: A family’s Painful Search for Answers
By Benedict N. Wisseh
May 10, 2010
In the early 1960s, Mr. Ofori arrived in Liberia as one of the foreign football players who came to Liberia from other African countries and played before Liberian audience. The players came from Ghana , Sierra Leone , Ivory Coast , and Gambia . Mr. Ofori arrived in Liberia from Accra , Ghana , where he was a football player on the Black Stars team, the Ghanaian national team. At the club level in Ghana , Mr. Ofori played for President Kwame Nkrumah’s football team, the Great Republicans, that featured Ghana ’s best football players of that era. Those who played for the Great Republicans, as well as other football players in Ghana , were treated as national heroes. According to Coach Ben Amarfio, a Ghanaian known among Liberian footballers as “Coach Ben“, who came to Liberia in the 1970s and coached Barrolle in the 1980s, and considers himself a “ proud Liberian,” playing football in Ghana then was a “national honour.” Besides the iconic recognition playing football brought to individuals in Ghana in the 1960s, when Dr. Nkrumah was president, it provided for them a living that was tantamount to that of the middle class. Therefore, Coach Ben, now living in Staten Island , New York , explained that parents wished for their children to be footballers. So, why did Mr. Ofori leave this standard of living and national honour as a footballer to live and play football in Liberia ?
Mr. Ofori first travelled to Liberia in 1964 as a member of the Ghanaian national team that defeated the Liberian national side 5-4 in a game that remains a classic in the memories of Liberians who saw it. However, Mr. Ofori did not feature in the game because of an injury to his angle. While on this visit, something about Liberia and Liberians, apparently, caught the attention of Mr. Ofori and stimulated his interest in the country. Whatever it was that took his heart hostage for Liberia , it prompted and convinced him not to return to Ghana with the Black Stars.
According to Garretson “Bulldozer” Sackor, who is now 73 years old and lives in Newark , New Jersey , Mr. Ofori approached him during the after- game-handshake of the 1964 game and divulged his intention not to return to Ghana . Mr. Sackor explained that “how good Ofori was as a player, I did not know because I never heard about him or saw him play. But since he was on the Ghana team, I thought he was a good player. So, right on the field, just to make sure that Barrolle did not get him, I told Mr. Gabbidon and he contacted Mr. Campbell (C. Willington Campbell), who was the Special Security Services (SSS) director for President Tubman, about Ofori. Right away they made arrangements and found a place for Ofori. But we all wanted to see him play, and the moment he touched the ball during practice, you could see that Ofori was not a small player. The speed he dribbled and controlled the ball with was unbelievable. From that first day of practice, I knew he was a star. Man, Ofori was a great player,” Mr. Sackor concluded with emotional sadness in his eyes.
Mr. Ofori arrived in Liberia at a time that football and those playing it were struggling to gain social acceptance because they were born to poor families, lived in Monrovia ghettoes and squalors, and were poor academic performers. The poor academic performances were not unique to the football players only. Generally, people born to poor families in the Liberia before the 1970s faced insurmountable challenges to succeed academically. The governments of those years did not make kindergarten and elementary school education available to the poor in the areas they lived. As a result, the football players and other impoverished children from the rural towns were not prepared to successfully take on the academic challenges in high school and college. But because footballers were blessed with unique talents and skills that they exhibited on Saturdays and Sundays before thousands of Liberians, their academic progress were subjects of public discussion and ridicule that led to the long held conclusion that “footballers are stupid.” Therefore, playing football was an unacceptable exercise to parents. But Mr. Ofori, Jackson Weah, Tarpeh Roberts, Mass Sarr, David Momo, Borbor Gaye, John “Monkey” Brown, Arthur Wisseh, Wannibo Toe, Josiah Johnson, Philip Robinson, Charles “Babe Red” Weffor, and many others braved the national denigration and, with magnificent performances on the field and discipline off the field, constrained the Liberian public to appreciate footballers and the sport itself.
According to George Sackor, a national star of the 1960s’ football era, and now an aging 74 year old man living in Newark, New Jersey, under very desperate conditions, the foreign players were viewed with suspicion that they came to Liberia only because the country was a convenient conduit for them, as well as for other ordinary African immigrants, to travel to the United States with the aide of Liberian passports. Therefore, Mr. Ofori was treated with the same suspicion which his eventual departure for the United States confirmed later.
As a Ghanaian, after he departed for America , it was reasonably assumed that Mr. Ofori had ended his relationship with Liberia , for he had no reasons to return to Liberia . Unlike Mass Sarr Sr., another one of the foreign players, Mr. Ofori did not become a naturalised Liberian citizen. Every member of his family, after all, was in Ghana and the presumed reason for which he came to Liberia had been accomplished with his departure to America . In the years that he lived in America , Mr. Ofori only existed in Liberia in football conversations amongst football fans. They spoke fondly of his brilliant performances in football tournaments that raised money for government sponsored projects and promoted Liberia‘s relations with other countries like Israel (Israeli Cup) India (Nehru Cup), and France (UTA Cup).
In the mid1970s, after more than a decade of living in America , Mr. Ofori returned to Africa . But he did not go to Ghana . Instead, he returned directly to Liberia to, perhaps, manifest his appreciation for the country for facilitating his travel to the United States . Again, just as he was viewed with suspicion when he initially came to Liberia , it was suspected that “he was just passing through” Liberia on his way back to Ghana . Yes, indeed, Mr. Ofori returned to Ghana to see his family that he had not seen in decades when he came to Liberia in the 1960s. But he returned to Liberia and settled there permanently, carrying on a life that was as pedestrian as that of an average Liberian life before the Liberian civil war erupted in1989.
The eruption and life of the war, in an ironic twist, tested Mr. Ofori’s commitment to Liberia . While natural born Liberians, many of them wealthy legally and illegally, fled the country for the safety and comfort of other peaceful countries, Mr. Ofori willingly opted to stay in Liberia . Having come from Ghana , the Ghanaian military contingent of ECOMOG would have evacuated him to Ghana . But he did not seek them out for such privileged opportunity. Instead he bravely suffered all the indignities and agonies of the brutal war as was every helpless Liberian. One day, either late in 2004 or the first half of 2005, as he had wished, and corroborated by his decisions to return to Liberia from America and stay there during the war, Mr. Ofori lived and passed away in Monrovia.
Sadly, however, away from the national audience and cheers that greeted him at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium, Mr. Ofori was quietly buried in, by now, a worn grave embedded in the earth somewhere in Monrovia . Although in football conversations, Mr. Ofori is rated as one of Liberia ’s greatest football players ever, neither the Ministry of Youth and Sports nor the Liberian Football Association (LFA), issued any press release to announce his death and acknowledge his sacrificial contributions to the national relevance of football in Liberia . Suffice it to say that no one from the ministry or the LFA attended his funeral in an official or a private capacity. Even today, embarrassingly, I have to confess that I doubt if the leadership of the LFA knows what has happened to Mr. Ofori.
The death of any person saddens those who knew the person personally, especially family members. Therefore, the psychological closure for survivors is to know immediately when the person has died and the circumstances of the death and burial. This opportunity never came the way of Mr. Ofori’s daughters, Favour and Ivy, who he had left behind in Ghana when he moved to Liberia . But one of them, accidentally, stumbled on the information of their father’s death in June 2008 in an article, “Wannibo Toe and David Momo, Football Legends Whose Time Has Come To be Honoured, Too,” written by me and published by The Perspective in June 2007. This prompted emails to me from both daughters, enquiring if their father had really died, and if that was the case, they wanted to know the circumstances of his death and burial. I confirmed to them that their father was dead but had no information about how he had died and was buried. Subsequent efforts by the children and me, since then, to secure sources with eyewitness knowledge of how Mr. Ofori died and was buried have been unsuccessful, thus prolonging the agony of his children and other family members. In April 2009, Mr. Ofori’s family held a three-day memorial service for him in his home town of Vakpo, Ghana, a country he abandoned for Liberia, not knowing that the latter for which he did so much as a footballer would treat him with no appreciation and reverence at the end of his life.
There is something shameful and dishonourable about how we treat our retired athletes. On Sundays and Saturdays, we congregate at the stadiums to cheer them as national heroes as they entertain us playing against other countries in defence of our national honour. In farewell comments at airports in Liberia, when footballers are about to depart to play other countries, Liberian government and LFA officials queue to remind them that “you are ambassadors of this country, so represent this country well on and off the football field while you are away.” Mr. Ofori, undoubtedly, did hear this comment countless times and did precisely as he was appealed to by the officials. But in death, the Liberian government and the LFA ignored him as they did with David Momo, Philip “Coacha“ Davies, Sylvester “Red“ Weah, William Nah, and others too many to name. As a result, his family was denied the opportunity to know promptly how and when he died and where he was buried.
In Liberia , we cannot cheer athletes as national heroes and ambassadors when they are only useful to our national psychology. For their tremendous efforts and boundless sacrifices made on the football field defending Liberia ’s national honour, at the very least, the government owes them our grateful acknowledgement in death with funerals and burials that are tantamount to those of the politicians.
In July 1980, IE held an awards program at the Monrovia City Hall that was attended by Gabriel Baccus Mathews, then the foreign minister of Liberia . In a conversation between us at a table, he told me that the football games we played following the 1980 coup “created an atmosphere of stability and unity” in Liberia . Mr. Mathews’ comment, apparently recognises the indispensable role football plays in our national psychology during crises created by politicians. It also, undoubtedly, tells us that the deaths of prominent footballers deserve the sort of national honour and mourning that the deaths of politicians, even insignificant ones of recent past, get from government. For Mr. Ofori, this consideration to be buried in dignity has passed him by. However, the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Liberia football Association, using their respective resources for the benefits of Mr. Ofori‘s children, must find out how he died and where he was buried so that they can have a closure. Nothing more will be consoling to them than to know how their father died and where he was buried. This appeal also goes out to ordinary Liberians with knowledge of his death.