The Man Who Swam From Africa to Harvard

Anton N. Quist is hungry.

This morning he woke up at 6 a.m., as usual, and cycled 40 miles, out to Concord and Lexington and back. In four years, he has seen most of Eastern Massachusetts: the ball fields and the town dumps and the reservoirs and the small airfields. On some day his trek stretches 60, even 70 miles.

We meant to go to the International House of Pancakes but took a wrong turn and ended up in Watertown. "No matter," says Quist. Friendly's will do for lunch. Quist. skipped breakfast this morning and decides on what to order before I've opened my menu. Ten minutes later, Tammy brings me any hamburger and fries but keeps Anton waiting. I'm a little embarrassed by the situation, a passing metaphor for our respective home continents: he is hungry, I am not. I have food, he does not. Quist, born in Great Britain, is a citizen of Ghana, a country along the west coast of Africa.

Quist speaks with a thick, richly layered voice--a voice resonant with the melodic rhythm of Jamaica, the bass note of Ghana, the clipped, soproper pronunciation of the BBC, and clangy Americanisms picked up during four years of college. He can be loud when he want. At the Union dining hall, friends used to ask him to get the attention of someone at the far end of the hall, which he would do with a shout. He is of medium height, muscled so that people ask what sport he plays, thinking maybe soccer, maybe track, maybe boxing. He wears shorts almost always, even in winter. Walk with him through Harvard Yard, and it seems that everyone knows him and that he knows everybody.

During Orientation Week four years ago, someone asked Quist how he had come over from Africa.


"Without thinking, I told the fellow, 'I swam," Quist says. "After that, of course, I had to keep it up. I told him that Texaco had funded the whole thing. That first they flew me to the Liberian coast, where I waded out into the ocean and started swimming west. A boat followed me and picked me up at night so I could sleep, butanchored so I could start in the same place thenext day. I said the whole trip took about two anda half weeks.

"The guy just said 'Wow' and walked away."

For his first few weeks in Cambridge, Quistshrugged off questions about his homeland withlight-hearted wisecracks. When asked about thehousing situation in Africa, he replied, "Oh,there is a real tree shortage these days. It'sgetting so crowded that whole families have toshare a branch."

Eventually, a sense of duty overcame his loveof a joke, and he became more serious aboutanswering such questions. "Anyone who asked, Iwould sit them down and talk until they said,'Please Anton, let me go," Quist says. "Peoplethink that everyone in Africa is either fightingas rebel soldier or starving. 'That's all that yousee in the media. I realized that the myths aboutAfrica were a result of a lack of information."

He joined the Harvard African StudentsAssociation and served as treasurer and president.He introduced his roommates to Ghanian culturaldelights such as kenke, a hot, spicy fishsauce which they ate with their fingers off anewspaper spread on the common room floor. He sangfolk songs and performed the gumbut dancein the annual Cultural Rhythms show. he wrote forthe African Technology Review.

Quist wrote letter to the Admissions Office andlobbied for the recruitment and admission of moreAfricans. "Harvard likes to call itself aninternational university", says Quist. "But I amthe only member of our class who went to highschool in Africa. The other African students wentto high school abroad, in England or the States.Harvard seems to want Africa students to have someinternational experience before they come here,but I think we can manage. I mean, I've done allright."

At the age of 15, Quist did not expect tograduate from Harvard nine years later; he did notplan on going to college at all. "I was a naughtyboy," he says. "I was almost shot one time."Walking home with a friend after curfew on thestreets of Accra (the capital of Ghana), he waspassing the police headquarters and decided totake a closer look at a bronze plaque he had neverstudied before.

"My friend said, 'Anton, you don't want to dothat now.' But of course once I had it in mind Ihad to look at the plaque," Quist continues. "Thenall of a sudden I heard the sound of guns beingcocked. If I had moved they would have killed me,they are all so trigger-happy. They kept me injail all night long, sending me from room to room,asking me questions. The next morning the captaincame in and took one look at me and said, 'Gohome, kid. And stay out of trouble."

Quist did well enough in his boarding schoolclasses to enter the more prestigious tracks ofmath and physics, but academics were not hisprimary concern. "I was convinced that I wouldjust hang out and drive my dad's car," he says.Then he joined a production of Gilbert andSullivan's The Mikado, an this involvementgave him a new attitude. "I was amazed at how allthese people working together could create a showthat an audience would enjoy, how all this effortcould pay off."

Two years later, he was accepted into medicalschool, which in Ghana does not require anundergraduate degree. Higher education is free inGhana but demands two years of public service, andQuist spent one year after high school teachingclassical physics to eighth graders.

"I showed up and the headmaster gave me thetext and told me that I would start the next day,"Quist says. There was no lesson plan, no formaltraining. He had eight classes a day, 50 studentsper class. "They called me Mr. Quist. it waspretty cool."