Friday, March 13, 2015

Christopher Peter Aluah: A Tribute

Yesterday, I received word that a friend of mine, Chris Aluah, has passed away this week. Chris had been fighting an illness for a while now, and sadly his condition deteriorated quickly and he passed away. I had not spoken to him very much for the last few years, but I had hoped to be able to visit him when we returned to the States. I'm very grateful I exchanged emails with him just a few weeks ago to send him some moral support.

I want to pay tribute to this man.

Chris was from Ghana (he can be seen in the picture below demonstrating a traditional Ghanaian dance at a meeting of the International Students Association back in 2010). He has been studying for several years at the University of South Carolina, which is where I met him while I was serving as an International Student Advisor. Chris earned dual masters degrees in Social Work and Public Health and most recently was working toward his PhD in Public Health. (Here's a Student Spotlight about Chris from a few years ago.)

Chris sacrificed a lot to be here. As many foreign students do, he left behind a family to come and earn his degrees. He has a wife and three kids back in Ghana; for various reasons, he couldn’t bring them over to join him in the States. To be so far away from family and so far away from home is a difficult thing, but Chris committed himself to his education to provide a better life not only for his family but also for those around him. He studied Social Work and Public Health; clearly this was a man who wanted to make a better world.

Chris was a fixture of my time at USC, but I am most indebted to him for his assistance in getting a simple idea off the ground, an idea that has grown into one of the most vibrant student organization on campus. Back in 2009, there was a clear need for supporting African students studying at USC. I had an idea to start an African student organization on campus; ideally, it would be a group where students from across the African continent could meet, socialize, and support one another. However, I wanted an authentic African voice to bring this organization to life, the voice of someone who would be speaking not just to African students, but as an African student; I immediately thought of Chris. We shared a Social Work background, and he had already demonstrated a commitment to working to improve circumstances for other African students through various avenues on campus.

I outlined my idea for an organization to Chris and explained that I could logistically pull it together, but I felt the call to create a Pan-African student group really needed to come from an African student. I asked if he would be willing to be the voice of the invitation, and he readily agreed. We decided that he would draft up a letter of invitation to invite any African students to join us for a meeting to hammer out the details and formally draft a constitution for this new group. He would write this letter, and I would send it to all the African students on campus through the channels at my disposal as a International Student Advisor.

Within mere hours, Chris had emailed me a draft of his letter of invitation, and let me tell you, it was beautiful. I wish I had a copy of the eloquent text to share with you here, but I’m afraid it’s lost to time. But it was heartfelt, engaging, and a beautiful call for unity and cooperation. It was the spirit of Africa at its finest. The core idea may have been mine, but the soul of the group, that came from Chris.

A small group of dedicated students from across Africa responded and subsequently gathered for several nights of back-and-forth discussions, brainstorming, and debates. In the end, the group hashed out a constitution, I was selected as the organization’s Advisor, and Chris was elected the group’s first President. The Pan-African Student Association (PANASA) was born.

The founding members of the Pan-African Student Association.
Chris is standing in the center wearing his ubiquitous Ghana shirt.

PANASA is now in its 6th year and is going strong, a vibrant and active campus organization helping to support students from Africa and spread the word with the larger USC community about the beauty and talent that Africa has to offer. In the end, this group rallied to help fund raise and garner support to help cover Chris’s medical expenses; the group Chris helped found in order to support African students ended up supporting him in his time of need. There’s a tragic beauty to that.

With the news of Chris’s death, it’s easy to shake my head and think “What a waste. All that hard-work, all that time and effort, for nothing.” He never finished the PhD and was never able to go back home to Ghana to use his education to better his beloved Ghana. But his death is NOT a waste; it’s a loss. The world is a poorer place without him. Chris was a role model to many and a friend to everyone. And his influence stretched far and wide, directly and indirectly: For every African student that felt they had a home away from home in PANASA, Chris has touched their life. Every student that learned a little more about Africa by attending one of PANASA’s Africa Nights, they ultimately have Chris to thank for that. And for all of us that knew the man, who laughed with him, who learned from him, we are all better people because of what Chris Aluah brought into our lives.

His untimely death is a damn shame, but his life was certainly a life well-lived.