An Oral History of Talking Drums Magazine (Part 1)

Extracts from conversations with the staff of Talking Drums looking back on things. (moderated by Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah) - November 25, 2023


K.O.: I have sat and read almost every page, transcribed as I put the archive together and I am struck by the amount of energy you expended in this endeavor. What do have to say about it? What drove you to keep at it?

Elizabeth Ohene: We were young and we were angry, I think that's were the energy came from. And we believed in something... and we thought the whole country believed in it, which we were working at, and then suddenly, everything that we had believed in and were working at, we were suddenly being told it was wrong, it was not the thing. And we wanted to make the point that we believed in a government of representation, representative goverment. At the time it sounded very old fashioned.... Things like elections... people being you know... having a diversity of opinion. At that time no one wanted to hear that. But we believed in it.

Ben Mensah: We tried something. First at the Daily Graphic. At the zenith of the paper. We achieved something. The Graphic at that time, in terms of quality, in terms of circulation, and impact, the numbers that we reached had never been reached by any other paper. Thousands of copies of the Graphic were being sold at the time. These days it may not mean much, but this was a time when physical copies, in those days it meant a lot, distribution mattered. A standard. We had first established a mark at the Daily Graphic, a mark for quality. The standard at the Graphic aiming for and achieving. The standard that everybody in the country was looking out for.

And for this experiment to be cut by, you know, the establishment at the time, the powers that be, clearly had cut short the experiment. And we had the opportunity to continue. The 31st December coup... yes and these people now expected us to be vanguards of their so-called revolution. We were determined and we wanted an opportunity to continue what we were doing. When it happened that Granny, Kofi Akumanyi and myself, found ourselves together here in the UK, we decided that we could continue the experiment.

* Grandma was Elizabeth Ohene's nickname after her popular column in the Daily Graphic


Ben Mensah: I was in charge of circulation, the distribution of Talking Drums, taking it around to various newsagents and corner shops... Charlie's corner, Tottenham court road. When we started, at these places, initially the news vendors, they didn't want to know as they were distributing West Africa. But we didn't lose hope we kept going back to them and in no time, as soon as they saw me coming they'd start "Do you have copies of Talking Drums?". In very short order, the news vendors would be asking for copies, their clients were asking "Do you have Talking Drums?". They were no longer asking for West Africa but instead Talking Drums. And that gave me, and I reported back to my colleagues back in the office that, you know, this paper is catching on. And so this gave us the impetus to continue doing this because the public were asking for it, there was a clear demand. People were writing to our letters page...

Elizabeth Ohene: You know, it's a different world today, communication is much easier, if you're in London you can phone Accra and you can video call everywhere in the world. Mind you in 1983 when we started this, finding out what was happening in Accra was difficult. And it was at the height of revolution, or whatever you want to call it... Things were happening and people were... there was chaos. And people wanted to know what the hell was going on in Ghana and the continent. And one of the things that the government did, the new authorities did effectively and quickly, was to have a total clampdown on the newspapers and the various sources of information in Ghana.

So it was difficult now to find out what was happening, so we were serving as a welcome source of information for not just the Ghanaian community but the entire West African community and, in time, African and in fact, even the West Indian and even the Carribbean community because we were filling, we were telling a story that was not necessarily what the official view was. That was an interesting thing in 1983, 84, 85 til 86 when it collapsed, 86 July, I think. The fact that we were saying something different, we were challenging authority. It was not the done thing at the time. And the government in Ghana was... intolerant...

The Nigerian Shock

Elizabeth Ohene: And then, of course, we'd had the first 5 months or so, Nigeria was the beacon that we were holding onto and December 31st, they too had a coup. And so it was dramatic. In a way, it's sad to say so, but I think the coup in Nigeria helped to consolidate Talking Drums.

Ben Mensah: Nigeria of course was a bigger crowd and the interest was heightened after the Nigeria coup. There was no other paper that was articulating an alternative view. You know all of them... West Africa magazine was just parroting the official line. Just reproducing whatever the new government said. And we also established a column where we were bringing out the information... At Talking Drums we had the actual, the factual information beyond the local newspapers. Talking to some of the people who had arrived from Nigeria. We had correspondents who were local, we were reporting from Lagos and Abuja, from the local papers and so on. Unlike these days, social media where some of the information that you have is unreliable at all. You stand in danger of missing the story. But Talking Drums we had the actual, the factual information reporting, we had correspondents who. So we gave out a different theme from the stories that the established publications were putting out.

Elizabeth Ohene: And I think, we shouldn't underestimate that when the Nigerian coup happened. Two of the, what you might call, and I hesitate to use, where they notorious, famous or infamous personalities of the Shagari government got to London and we interviewed them... Nigeria after the coup, some of the most prominent members of the Shagari government and the interesting Nigerian personalities contributed in our pages.... It's possible that the Umaru Dikko interview and the exposure it got caused him later to be put in the crate.

Ben Mensah: You know this gives the opportunity to reveal when he (Umaru Dikko) was going. We were at the heart of the Umaru Dikko story for example. The early interview maybe even drew notice and might have contributed to the poor man being singled out and bundled in a crate. You know he was on his way to be interviewed by our editor when he was kidnapped. Despite the significance of the story in Nigeria, if Talking Drums had not been there, not much would have been heard about it.

Elizabeth Ohene: I don't think they would have had any challenge. They [the military governement] were not used to being challenged. You know, when the military takes over, they just walk all over. But for the first time they were being challenged.

We took on all the military governments. Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and wherever. That hadn't happened before. There'd never been such a situation about the military governments. They were free to rule and do whatever. This was the first time that newspaper, a magazine taking them on. And there we were in London.

They weren't used to it. The soldiers were used to just doing their thing without regard from anyone. Now they were being forced to change course. It was always interesting on a Friday when Kofi Akumanyi with his long list... how we managed to get the magazine to Ghana. Circulation was tough... We couldn't distribute officially to Ghana (we were banned) so we had a long mailing list, a few copies each.

We mailed 6 copies every Friday to The Castle - they knew what we were writing.

We took on other things, when there was the Ethiopia famine, Sir Bob [Geldof], you know all those things about how Africa was being covered so in a way we managed to broaden our interest a bit. What we never got was the business angle of things. We were not a business-like magazine that is a fact. Not for lack of trying... We tried... reporting on Lome convention, the economics of things, how things were being done, ... The governments were not interested.

Looking Back

Ben Mensah: In 86, when we talk about collapse, how we ended, it was not merely an economic decision really, Talking Drums, we were reviewing things. We were careful and professional with the way we reported, and analyzed the news that we put out for the West African public. Because we felt we had stayed out of the region for a long time and were slowly losing contact and the feel for the things on the ground, the detail of the story was weakening. And we also felt that we were starting to depend on indirect sources for some reports. And we had our own reputation, we needed to take a stock. And that is how Talking Drums came to an end. Because what was happening in that part of the continent needed to be articulated competently for people to know that Talking Drums was not just one of the papers that was regurgitating news but that it was a quality paper. A mark of quality, we prided ourself on doing serious homework and serious research in order to come up with the stories.

Seizing Opportunity

Elizabeth Ohene: I don't know at which stage one would have been... the amount of hard work that was involved... I don't know under what other circumstances the three of us would have been able to work so hard. Because it was non-stop, you didn't have anything to fall back on. We didn't and we wanted this thing... We believed in something, as I said, it was driving us. The state of Ghana as we were observing was not something we were happy about. We wanted things to work. I wonder whether... well we were young also... - but there are lots of young people who I don't think are willing to put in the kind of hard work that we did. I'm just trying to see what drives three people to just go on and on and on like that. Maybe the rest of the world, I'm thinking of Africa Now, Peter Enahoro's paper. It was a strange time of the world, the early eighties were totally a different time from whatever we have now. Maybe we had an opportunity to do something different and we seized it. I suppose so because the normal thing would have been to just do what everybody else were doing. But I can't see us doing West Africa.

Ben Mensah: Every organisation's number one asset is the people. Yes money and other things count but the number one asset is the people and when we found ourselves together to have the kind of rapport... that gave us the impetus. We knew. We had done it with the Daily Graphic and here we are so why wouldn't we continue?

Elizabeth Ohene: Mind you, we never paid anybody. contributors. And people were happy to submit. I remember, that was West Germany then, we had quite a good readership in West Germany... In America...

Ben Mensah: Even in Belgium too. And other places, people would call us ask for copies to send them in France, all over, copies of Talking Drums.

Elizabeth Ohene: The Judges had been killed. And the report... I think the report, when we started Talking Drums that was when the report came out wasn't it?

Ben Mensah: Yes and we confronted the almighty Guardian and made them sit up... And writers like Victoria Brittain... Yes they were sitting up they were just publishing whatever Rawlings, and the government told them, stenographers, just publish the official story without cross checking the source and the story. Yes, that was another major achievement of Talking Drums, they [The Guardian and others] had to change and start checking. They were sitting up.

Technology and Timing

Elizabeth Ohene: Sometimes I wonder... If the technology had been, if it had been just a few years later, we might have been able to produce the paper more cheaply. Because within a few years of us stopping the technology, desktop publishing had come, we would have been able. We were just a little behind with the technology.

Ben Mensah: Do you recall? Mary [Mensah] was first employed as a typesetter by our printer Mr Patel. Madhav House. To do typesetting and all those difficult things. Today anybody can do those things.

Elizabeth Ohene: A few years after that, desktop publishing started. If we had just caught that, we would have been able to print with far less effort. What was the place in Old St where we went to have the typesetting done - Mr Kofi our printer..

Enjoying Ourselves

Elizabeth Ohene: Believe you me, it wasn't just drudgery, you know. We were enjoying ourselves hugely. We didn't mind the hard work, we were enjoying ourselves.... Colt 45...

Ben Mensah: Sometimes we didn't want to leave the office. We wanted to stay a little longer to just have fun.

Against Military Rule

Ben Mensah: Surprisingly you know this is 1983, in the early eighties, that was when they were glorifying military rule, coups and so on. That was when Talking Drums came. And realize, it's starting now again.

Elizabeth Ohene: Exactly... saying that "the only way to solve our problems is to have the military come in and... ". It's the same thing. We are back.

Ben Mensah: Talking Drums played a leading role in making people realize that coup d'etats were not the solution. For four years of its life, Talking Drums brought this message home. We made a sustained impact demonstrating that coup d'etats were not the solution. Today, there's nothing like that, nothing like Talking Drums. Look, today, the soldiers are back.

And not being questioned, not being scrutinized not even on their own terms.


Ben Mensah: We said there was a need for visionary leaders... we said there was a need for an informed public... And there was a need for critics as well. Because the work of dissenting is also a serious business. That came to be our motto.

So now what is happening, everything is back. Glorified military rule all over the place. Even though some of our leaders are not trying to hang in, military rule is not the solution to our problems.

Elizabeth Ohene: People should know that once upon a time, there were different opinions to whatever the official position was. That people were willing to put out different opinions. I think people should know.

On the Team

Ben Mensah: Kofi [Akumanyi]... he had huge sense of humour, and had his column Nokoko which attracted lots of attention, with his columns, it was amazing, for as long as Talking Drums was running. That was his strength. He also worried about the design of the magazine - Our art editor. He designed our page plan. He was always having a tough time arguing with our printer Mr Kofi - No Nonsense. And Mr Patel. The very first issues, we were not very happy, but subsequent ones were okay but Kofi kept probing adjusting improving the appearance of the cover. So it was not only the Nokoko column, he had other articles.

Our editor - the dynamism that she was bringing from the Graphic, which got the Limann regime jittery, I mean some of the leaders used to say, you the Graphic you are cutting. It's just like when you are cutting a tree, you start cutting down the branches and then over time you find the tree without branches, and you go straight to cut the stem and the tree is dead. So the dynamism was there, and the way to communicate was also there, excellent. We had a team that produced a fine newspaper.

Elizabeth Ohene: And then of course there was Musa [Ibrahim]. There was Whispering Drums which brought in the inside gossip of what was happening in Nigeria. Sometimes it went very close, it cut very close to the bone. Leading, I must say, to the first time we were sued. Well there were many threats of lawsuits but they never did because they couldn't. But we were sued for one of the Whispering Drums columns. It went on for a while but in the end it was settled.

Ben Mensah: Musa played a big part. He did very well by bringing the Nigerian angle to Talking Drums. And that brought a lot of readership from the Nigerian community. And when West Africa magazine realized that not only Ghanaians were reading Talking Drums, that Nigerians and as we said earlier, that copies were being requested from the rest of the region, they realized they had to sit up. They have to compete.


Elizabeth Ohene: But it was good while it lasted, I tell you. It really was.

I remember there was a Cameroonian girl who came, she was doing a dissertation on the editorials in the magazine. She came and spent a whole week in the office, I never saw what she did write... in 85 and 86.

Sometimes there are things that I've wondered, did I write things then that I regret today? I don't know. Look at Cameroon, Paul Biya. The coup that brought Paul Biya. There was an attempted coup that came to try to reinstate Ahidjo. We were violently against it and supported Paul Biya. How were we to know that thirty something years later, Paul Biya today.

The last issue featured editorials and columns (Museveni had just come to power) including this one Traps ahead for Museveni.

Elizabeth Ohene: And well that says it all. Almost 40 years on. He has fallen into every one of those traps...

Kofi Akumanyi, Elizabeth Ohene, Ben Mensah

  • Kofi Akumanyi was columnist and Art Editor of Talking Drums. He was a former Features Editor of the Daily Graphic
  • Elizabeth Ohene was Editor of Talking Drums. She was a former Editor of the Daily Graphic and would later go on to be a producer of Focus on Africa for the BBC African Service
  • Ben Mensah was columnist and News Editor of Talking Drums. He was was a former News Editor at the Daily Graphic.

Talking Drums The West African Magazine talking drums back covers