TIME WITH UNCLE EBO-WHYTE
This interview was first published in the fifteenth issue of our magazine. Read full issue here.
Uncle Ebo, how would you describe yourself?
I am a man, I have two legs, two hands, one head… Is that enough? [laughs]
Um, I like to describe myself as a storyteller. That’s the only title I want to wear now– that I tell stories for a living. But I have a background in Statistics at the University. I taught myself Marketing and Accounting, but I’m currently using all these disciplines in the work I do as a storyteller and the CEO of Roverman productions.
Our theme for this edition is Elixir, a reminder to Christians of the excellency of the power that lives in us, and that the gospel we preach is the solution to the world’s problems. How do you relate to this?
In my daily work, I have only one focus, one objective– to honour God in all I do, in what I wear, in what I eat, in what I say, even in where I go and who I associate with. It’s all about Him. And I know this to the extent that one makes his life about God, the same God that empowers him and anoints him to serve His purposes. And that has been my life. I’ve walked with God for more than 50 years– I turned 66 this year, and I was 15 years old when I became a Christian. It’s always been about Him and trying to discern what His will is for me at any point in time. Whether it is popular or not, whether it makes sense to the next person or not, I’ve always sought to do that which pleases him.
I like the context of that bible passage you just quoted. The context is that we hold this power in earthen vessels. In other words, God is at work in us, but He hasn’t made us superhuman. We still remain human beings, fallible, as weak as the next person, and yet God wants it that way, so that one can account for what He enables us to do in only one way– that it is God working through us and not because of our remarkable intelligence, discipline, or focus. The people God uses, they cannot take credit for anything for themselves apart from ascribing all to the power of God, the mercy of God, and to the grace of God that works in them, and that is why that passage is one of my favorite passages in scripture.
If purpose were to be judged by observable impact, many would say you are fulfilling your purpose by the numerous successes you have achieved. Do you agree? And what were the factors that facilitated your arrival onto this path?
People watching me can say whatever they want to say, but I know what God put on my heart, and I know the direction He’s indicated that He’s leading me towards. In this respect, I know that I haven’t begun [anything] yet because there are some visions He gave me that I am still working towards. One example of this is owning our own theatre where we can do our own productions. We haven’t achieved that yet. Moving from doing eight shows a quarter, to doing eight shows a week– that hasn’t happened yet. If you see the gap between where we are and where the spirit of God has indicated that he wants to take us, it is a huge one. I don’t have the luxury of looking at us and saying ‘we’ve done a lot, and so we are very successful.’ I take it one day at a time.
If you look at the servants of God, you will not always see ‘success’ the way we regard it because that is not what God sent us to do. Even Jesus Christ was not a ‘success’, because His enemies got their way. John the Baptist was captured, killed, his head cut off and offered to a small girl. God sent us here not to be successful. He has called us to be faithful– to represent him in all we do, and to do that which honours him. That’s what I labour to do everyday.
When it comes to those factors that have helped me come this far, I would first and foremost like to mention the word of God. You can’t remain faithful to God unless you know his mind, and that means getting into scripture completely to know how he has dealt with other people and with certain situations.
The second thing I have found that has worked well for me is maintaining a very close private relationship with God. And I emphasize private because too many people are Christians on the outside. Everyone can testify that you are a very active member in a fellowship, but in private, when nobody is watching you, what kind of person are you? Do you live with the consciousness that God is with you? And I take this from the example of Joseph, when Mrs. Potiphar tried to seduce him. He said to her, “I can’t do this against God”. Joseph knew it was the God who rescued him when his brothers sold him out that had given him favour in the eyes of Captain Potiphar. God hadn’t stopped walking with Joseph and so he couldn’t work against Him.
Number three is making sure you have a testimony with everyone around you. And that I can tell you is not an easy thing to do. You know, the world doesn’t mind what you claim, but would always watch you to see if you live up to what you say you represent. Because you know people are watching you, you know you dare not do certain things, because they will eventually refer you. So those things have helped me.
The final point I would like to make is surrounding yourself with godly people. I do not reject anybody who comes to me, but you will not get too close to me if you are not God fearing. You must be God fearing, even to the point where you can hold me accountable, and your life can inspire me just as my life inspires you. Those are the things that have helped me in my walk with God.
For close to 20 years, your voice has been very relevant across our cultural landscape– from Food for Thought to the Rover Report to Roverman’s quarterly plays. What is the secret to remaining consistently relevant across changing seasons, especially as a Christian in an increasingly secular world?
There is a statement I picked up from Youth for Christ. Their motto says, Anchored to the Rock, but Geared to the Times. And that has been my chief philosophy in life. There’s a consistency in my faith in God, in my commitment to honor Him, in my stewardship to God, that is set in rock. It’s anchored, there is no compromise in that regard. But the means by which I conduct my work is geared to the times. For instance, we are having this interview through this medium [on Zoom]– that is geared to the times. Only about two years ago, we wouldn’t have done this. We would have done it in another way. So in the bigger context of continuing to honour God we must ask, “What are the things He has provided today that we can use or take advantage of to serve His purposes and sell the Kingdom?”
So if you ask how I have managed to stay consistently relevant, that motto says it all– I have remained anchored to the Rock, and geared to the times.
As a Christian with such a large platform both on and off stage, what are your guiding principles in life?
Pursue excellence, because excellence is it’s own reward. You know, we serve a God who says that even for a burnt offering (we are burning that whole animal to ashes, not as if anyone is going to eat any part of it) He wants an animal with no defect. This tells me that you can’t be His servant and not pursue excellence. Unfortunately I see too much mediocrity in the Christian Arts because we won’t put in the hard work. We think that when we pray, everything is going to be fine. I have another statement that helps me and everyone on my staff knows it. You see, pray as if everything depends on the prayer, and work as if everything depends on work. So hold the two together. You shouldn’t say, ‘I don’t believe in prayer, but I believe in work.’ For the Christian, you pray as if everything depends on prayer, but don’t end there. Work as if everything depends on work. And when you bring the two together, mediocrity cannot be a part of you. You’ll always be raising the bar, you’ll always be looking for ways of honouring God and raising the bar. So those things have served me.
There’s one more thing. I don’t want to stand before God to be asked, ‘What did you do with everything I gave you?’ only for me to be found wanting. Anytime I see some of these apps like the one we are using, I realize that this is something somebody put together, somebody with a brain just like ours. We are only consuming it. When I stand before God one day, He would say, ‘Somebody used his brain to do this. What did you use your brain for?’ This keeps me awake and working hard so that when my time comes to leave this world, I will do so empty-handed because I left everything I had to do here. I want to be able to stand before God and when he asks, ‘what did you use your brain for?’ to be able to point to certain things– that, that, that were some of the things I used my brains for.
You studied statistics for your first degree, a field seemingly far removed from what you do now. In this season of your life, did you ever feel derailed (from your God-give purpose)? What would you say to Christians who may feel like their current circumstance is worlds away from what they think they should be doing?
Well, they may be right in feeling dissatisfied where they are. But the point is, they should be committed to doing their best in that situation because it is only when you are faithful in what you are doing that God opens that door for what he has in mind for you.
You can’t be a lousy teacher or a lousy driver or lousy shop attendant or a lousy doctor or a lousy whatever and still say that “As for me, I know God has called me to something else and I’m waiting to be able to do that”. When you do that, you’ve just disqualified yourself. So until He opens the new door for you to move into your calling, excel wherever you are. The principle scripture gives us is that whatever it is we are doing, we are doing unto God. If Christians can understand that, it will change our attitude and maybe shorten the period we have to wait for His promise. God will wait for you till you’re ready– and remember He has eternity to wait. If you’re not ready, He’s not going to hasten the process. He’s going to wait. And if your time comes for you to leave and you haven’t done it, He will look for somebody else and give the same mission to him. The vision that is given to you, if you don’t fulfill it, God will use somebody else to do it. This is why God would reject King Saul and go for David when He anointed Saul as King. It was when Saul failed that He said He couldn’t go further any further with him (Saul). That was when He looked for David and honoured Him. If you don’t honour God in the things He’s called you to do, He will look for someone else who will. And the Spirit of God will always move on.
How do you deal with burnout and failure?
Somewhere in 1990, the Spirit of God threw a challenge to me: ‘Operate in the area of your gifting, not in the area of your training/ certificate.’ My gift was great stories. At the time, I had written and directed close to fifteen plays, all as a part-time playwright. I was doing all other things, and I didn’t want to move immediately into play production– I couldn’t see the way forward. Instead, I taught the principle to everyone I knew [laughs]. Finally in 2000, the Spirit of God told me that it was time to move.
Between 2000 and 2008, I made about three attempts at getting my productions going, and they all failed. Each failure devastated me more than the last, but I couldn’t give up. I knew that God had called me to this.
You go away from each failure feeling depressed and devastated. You cry in the room, you hide from everybody, and when they catch you crying you deny it. And you pick yourself up again and try again. It doesn’t work again. You take yourself through the same process of grieving the loss of a vision, a dream. And you pick yourself up again and try again. It wasn’t until 2008, in God’s own time, that for the very first time all the seats in the National Theatre were filled with people coming to watch a play. It had never happened before. All three levels of National Theater were filled twice because we did two shows on that day.
Let’s talk about general principles in how you deal with failure.
The first thing to note is that if you fail, don’t take it personally. Don’t move from ‘Oh, I failed to make the cut at medical school’ to ‘therefore I am no good’. You are not a failure. It doesn’t necessarily also mean that you will not succeed in any other thing. I know there are people who say that medical school or death. That’s a false impression of focus. In life, there’s so much else you can do. In fact, I’m sure you know some of your seniors who have qualified as doctors but don’t work as doctors. They’ve found something else to do and they are very excited about it. If a person like that had not gone to medical school, he may still have felt that his life was not worth anything. And yet here he is.
Don’t personalize failure.
The next thing is to make sure that your purpose in life is intact. If you fail at one thing, what does that tell you about your purpose? Do you have to try again? I had to try again because I remembered the vision God gave me in 1990 that I should work in the area of my gifting. And so I knew I had to mourn the failure and move on.
Next, learn the lesson in every failure. We learn more from failure than we do from success. That is why there is no successful person who doesn’t have failure in his past, and whose path to success was not defined by the failure he suffered. Once you remember that and accept it as part of life, you would then know that this too shall pass. Also remember that we cannot ever imagine God’s way of doing things.
When you fail, I would want you to adopt the stance of Moses. Moses was called by God to go and tell Pharaoh let His people go. He goes to Pharaoh, and if Pharaoh was a Ghanaian he would have said “Go-way -you! Who are you?” That is failure. Yet, the example Moses shows us is that he walks out of each of these disappointments and failures and goes back to God. You know, he didn’t hide in his room and mope around. That is what I think I have learned from this– when the failure comes, go back to the God who you say sent you. And tell him, “Lord, I tried it. It didn’t work. What else do you have for me?” And He would guide you. If you get these principles together, I think it will help you to endure and survive every disappointment.
Uncle Ebo, you are an inspiration to many. Who are some of the people who inspire your own life?
I do not take my inspiration from living human beings because of the environment in which I was raised. n Kumasi. As a boy growing up in Kumasi, I did not take my role models from the people in my environment. I picked my role models from the Bible. And so I picked Joseph, Daniel and David as my role models. And in a lot of the situations that I faced, I would always ask myself, how would they act in a situation like this?
Because of this, I think I was spared a lot of the corruption in the environment in which I grew up. I grew up in an environment that was very corrupt, you know, the kind of environment where you were not regarded as a boy if you’re not chasing all the girls around. The whole community looks down on you.
There were a few people I looked up to as my heroes and not as my role models . And at 66 I’ve had the joy– and I use that word purposefully– of seeing all my heroes die. I do not talk about physical deaths.
I’m sure growing up there were people you respected so much and now circumstances have brought you and those people together and you’re so much closer to them. Suddenly you can see the quality of their lives much more and now you are disappointed. And sometimes you think, “Is this the same person that I had so much regard for? What happened to this person?”
That’s what I mean by heroes dying– somebody you regarded so highly changes status because you suddenly realize they are not who you thought they were originally. And I have had every one of the heroes I had die this way.
You come to realize they are just human beings– they are no better than the next person.
When I look into scripture, Daniel teaches me about public service, about how to function as a Christian in the public space. David teaches me first about creativity, but beyond that I learn a lot about leadership. Faithful, honest, committed, leadership. Joseph teaches me about excellence. When you read his life, you realise whatever Captain Potiphar put in the hands of Joseph was one thing less to worry about because he (Potiphar) knew he could just as easily consider it done. And so from Joseph, I have learnt to deliver to the highest level and always exceed expectations.
Those are the three role models I have had. Along the way, I’ve had minor role models that I have picked because of individual situations. For instance, the fact that Joseph, Mary’s husband, did not throw her out immediately when he discovered she was pregnant, but was rather looking for a way of saving her face tells me a lot. And mind you, this was before the angel spoke to him. Now, can you imagine a modern boy dealing with a situation like this? He would immediately take to social media and destroy her reputation completely. Joseph would spend sleepless nights asking himself, “How can I end this marriage without raising too many questions?” “How can I end this marriage without disgracing Mary?” Can you imagine? This is a girl who has “cheated on you” and you are worried about not disgracing her? So things like this inspire me. Boaz, for example, is a very interesting man. He refused to take advantage of a vulnerable girl and decided to do what is proper and what needs to be done in the proper way. So those are where my role models come from.
One defining characteristic of Roverman productions is excellence in time management, and in the technical aspect of productions. We at GNOMIC also believe in excellence for God’s glory– as youth, in every area of our lives. What do you think the missing ingredient is for the youth to achieve this excellence?
Not settling for less.
Don’t settle for mediocrity. Remember that whatever you’re doing, it is for the honour and the glory of God. And this God deserves the best from us. Therefore, kill yourself to produce the kind of quality that will be worthy of him.
And love what you do. If you love what you do, it’s easy to give off your best. You may not always get to do what you want to do, but whatever you are doing, make sure you do it as if it is what you have always wanted to do. If you do, doors will be opened for you so you can do what you’ve always wanted to do.
What one question do you wish you were asked more often?
[laughs] No question. I wish people would only wave at me and go their way and leave me alone
Any final words?
I would like the youth to know that I believe very much them. I believe and I want the youth to believe in their own future. If you listen to the news and what people say, it will look as if the young people of today have gone to the dogs. There’s no truth in that. I am 66 years old and I can tell you that the young people today are far better and much more fantastic than I and my peers were at their age.
Your generation knows what they want. Your generation has had to virtually raise yourselves on your own because the traditional parental controls have not been that strong for many of you young people. Yet, somehow, we still have young people making it to medical school and going on to do big things. I believe in you, and I want the you to believe in your future. Your future is bright and I want you to realize it.