Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems (Ayebia, 2008; 124) by Abena P.A. Busia is an anthology of poems, diary entries (sort of) and memorial lectures. The general theme is that of loss - of loved ones, of country, of innocence, of self, of privacy, of culture; but also found interspersed amongst the loss are poems celebrating anniversaries: marriages and birthdays. And even these ones have the pathos of loss built into them; for what could be as sad as celebrating a marriage anniversary in exile.
As the title suggests, this collection provides snatches of scenes in the life of the author. And because of her special position as the daughter of an astute politician, whose freedom suffered and personhood abraded on the abrasive and unsmooth playing field of politics, the poems also provide glimpses into some of the not too pleasant part of Ghana's politics: the coups, the arrests, the executions, the route to exiles, living in exile, the exilic life, the zombie-ic posturing of military juntas and more. And it is events such as these that shape a person's belief and tune his or her mind toward a particular frequency from which he or she never returns.
Abena Busia, because this is a personal collection narrated from her own point-of-view, captures the emotional outcomes that seeped from such infractions and interactions perfectly. She showed the other side of politics; that politicians are not robots devoid of feelings; that they are not taken out of trees, belonging to no human-feeling family and having none of their own so that whatever happens to them or is done unto them is done in an emotional vacuum. None, apart from the victim, is victimised. She showed that an infraction, a negative interaction, a poor judgement, affect the family of the politician as much as it would have affected any ordinary citizen; sometimes even more since they very much live their entire lives under society's microscopic scrutiny. Thus, the perpetrators and followers should and need to consider all these. Perhaps, here, it would be wise to say that she might be re-minding us of that age-old adage which no particular book or personage can claim as entirely its own: do unto others as you will have them do unto you.
Abena shows how slippery and variegated the political landscape has been in the country and how power has been (mis)used to suppress the development of the country rather than providing the right catalyst for development; how people close to the victim, people on the periphery of the victim's coterie, and any remotely related to the victim have suffered immeasurable and irremediable losses - personal, material, physical, emotional, spiritual. And more importantly, how these people's emotional development might have been affected negatively or even been encouraged onto a maleficent path. It has often been said that in an African country of two intellectuals one is in exile and the other is the president; this simple description seemed a apt summary of Traces of a Life.
However, certain contradictions lay in the book. And it is expected for human beings are themselves contradictions, because wrong and right is all a matter of perspectives. Whereas the poems vehemently castigated the AFRC and PNDC coups and showed how negatively coups affect the development of a country, the author refused to use the same measure of her moral rod to judge Afrifa and the NLC's coup that overthrew Nkrumah's government. Regardless of the justification that the author might have had, this is a moral argument which cannot stand any scrutiny. In fact, Afrifa was praised and labelled 'Okatakyie', which loosely translates as 'war hero', in several of Abena Busia's poems. It is as if she is practicing the 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' ideology; for it was Nkrumah who got her father, K. A. Busia - the then opposition leader, exiled leading to the production of this anthology. Besides, Busia - the father - became the Prime Minister when Afrifa was the Head of State.
Thus, wrong and right become angular whose definitions are subject to our peculiar linear perspectives. The moral (or weak philosophical) question that arises is: does a wrong becomes right if it rectifies a previous wrong? They say two wrongs do not make a right, but what if, in creating its own wrong it corrects a past wrong? So it is not strange that Afrifa, whose coup against the first president set the precedence of many coups to come including those castigated by the author, was not denounced by the author as if some coups are justified.
Irrespective of these contradictions, which I will disregard if one should read this book not as a political history of Ghana - not in the slightest - but as a personal journey during Ghana's political past (with a capital 'P' on the 'Personal') the book is worth the read. The lines are infused with local metaphors, in the places they exist. They move smoothly, the lines, and are not as abstract as some poems from the continent are wont to be. The reader can relate to them even if he or she isn't a Ghanaian, for we all have experienced some form of loss in our lives before. With these I recommend the reading of Abena P.A. Busia's Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems.