Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Day or Two Away

For sometime now, specifically from December 2010 to March 2011, I have updated my blog every Monday to Friday and occasionally on weekends. However, I always knew that my engagements would not allow me to carry this through fully. And this week is one of those. Currently, I am on the field in Juaboso and Sefwi Wiawso in the Western Region of Ghana pre-testing a questionnaire. Thus, it might be difficult to keep my blogging schedules. I might therefore not blog until Saturday or Monday. However, I am still gnawing through Toni Morrison's Beloved. An enjoyable piece of work. The prose is unique. And I would let you know what I think.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Library Additions

I have been busy today but trying to squeeze in some time to share with you the latest members of my bookshelf that doubles as my library. I have been privileged to have received some books and I have also purchased others. Below is the list of books:
  • Neo-Colonialism - The Last Stage of Imperialism by Kwame Nkrumah. It is not every time that presidents set their visions into books. Most presidents, instead of telling us their visions, writes about memoirs, in an attempt to justify a wrong doing and improve their standings. Most memoirs have been self-serving - explaining away the unexplainable; justifying the unjustifiable. From Clinton, to Bush to Blair and Rumsfeld, presidents and lawmakers have used this genre to improve their standings. However, this is not so for Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup. Most of us just talk about the man but have hardly read him. The reading of this novel begins my personal journey to read his works. And there are many of these. The man remains enigmatic even today. And it is only in his thoughts that he could be discovered and understood. He saw many potential things and the most common one is found in his popular saying: the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the African continent. Voted as the African of the 20th Century, his ideas were far advanced for most of his peers. Needless to say, this book is non-fiction. My reading about Nkrumah is David Rooney's  Kwame Nkrumah: Vision and TragedyI must say I was also influenced to read non-fiction by Amy of Amy Reads who has read a lot of non-fiction books this year.
  •  A Sense of the Savannah: Tales of a friendly walk through Northern Ghana by Kofi Akpabli. I got copies from the author. This funny book would be launched tomorrow at the National Theatre in Accra. Copies have started selling at the Silverbird Lifestyle Shop in the Accra Mall. I would let you know what I think about this book. However, if his article The Serious Business of Soup in Ghana is anything to go by then it promises to be fun. This is also non-fiction.
  • Searching by Nawal El Saadawi. This isn't the book I have been looking for by the author. I am in search of A Woman at Point Zero, which is on my Top 100 Books Challenge, however like Bessie Head's whose A Question of Power  eluded me till I read  A Woman Alone, I hope by reading this novel I would, by some unexplainable means, come across the most-sought after novel. Again, this was the first English translation copy and I got it in a hardcover. Intact too!
  • Accra! Accra! More Poems about Modern Afrikans by Papa Kobina Ulzen. The author shared autographed copies of this chapbook at the last Book Reading organised by the Ghana Voices Series. Another reason for those who have never attended to attend. Where else could an author give, freely, autograph copies of his books? However, next time you are passing through, be prepared to make a purchase.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Duality: Dickens in Lagos, and Asimov too

Last week, Stefania of Books of Gold drew my attention to a particular article by George Packer of Lapham's Quarterly, a magazine of history and ideas. Perhaps it was in the spirit of sharing ideas that Packer wrote his beautiful literary article aptly titled Dickens in Lagos. According to Packer, and you could read his article first, the present day reader in Bombay, Rangoon, Mombasa or Lagos is more likely understand the contextual works of Dickens, and Hardy, and Dreiser and Gissing and Balzac than the Western reader in New York or Los Angeles because in these Western countries,
The conditions for Gissing’s version of unhappiness, and Hardy’s, and Dreiser’s (and, earlier, Balzac’s), no longer exist in the civilizations that produced their work. In the great cities of the West, the standard of living is too high, public life too rationalized, social taxonomy too fluid, and aesthetic taste too jaundiced, for a novel to turn on the main character’s frayed overcoat and muddy boots. Modernity and the welfare state did away with the naked sympathies and tragic destinies of the late-nineteenth-century novel.
However, in these megacity slums,
All is true. In vast, impoverished cities like Bombay, Cairo, Jakarta, Rio, or Lagos, the plot lines of the nineteenth century proliferate. Not ignorant mass suffering, but the ordeal of sentient individuals who are daily exposed to a world of possibilities through a sheet of glass—satellite TV, the Internet—that keeps them out. The extreme conditions of megacity slums contain the extravagant material that animated Dickens. In the gap between what their inhabitants know and feel and what they can have lies all the poignancy of Hardy.
For this reason,
in a country like Burma, which has experienced neither modernity nor the welfare state, an intense young reader is better equipped to enter the world of Dickens than anyone in Los Angeles or New York, and knows it. Also for this reason, Dickens' real heirs are less likely to have grown up in London than Bombay.

As Packer puts it, these dystopian novels no longer fit the description and current of conditions of the 'great cities of the West' and such writing template is almost absent in 'modern fiction'. It is fascinating to know that the perception of non-Western countries has skewed peoples' vision too.

If one looks at the broad picture, at the Hollywood part of things without looking at the individual scenes or characters; if one looks at the forest and forgets that in the forest there are individual trees as tall as one's eyes could see, fresh and green in addition to the epiphytes and lianas, shrubs and diseased and decaying trees, stumps and logs; if one takes the televisionised versions of Africa and the West (Europe and America); if one submits one's mind to such rape and skewness of sight; and if one takes Packer one of those whose affinity for the morbid blinds them to the other side, then Packer's article and version of Africa painted in there with his broad brush strokes and abstractions is no farther from the truth than mine is. In fact his would be the truth. For instance, in the heart of Lagos, Packer finds and describes
...the sensitive young mind trapped inside an indifferent world, the beguiling journey from countryside to metropolis, the dismal inventiveness with which people survive, the permanent gap between imagination and opportunity, the big families whose problems are lived out in the street, the tragic pregnancies, the ubiquity of corruption, the earnest efforts at self-education, the preciousness of books, the squalid factories and debtor’s prisons, the valuable garbage, the complex rules of patronage and extortion, the sudden turns of fortune, the sidewalk con men and legless beggars, the slum as theater of the grotesque: long after these things dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.
Descriptions like these abounds in Western media and Packer needs not have travelled all the way to Lagos only to look
at its slums, which turned out to coincide with the city itself.
This article could have been written by an average Western human being whose sense of the world goes no farther than the borders of his home. I mean those who consider Africa as one tiny country and are quick to ask you if you knew their friend in Kenya, whenever you tell them you are from Ghana but would look at you twice and sneer as if you are raving mad when you ask them of your friend who lives within the same city as they live. These folks could have written these without batting an eye or having to use google. Or it could have been written by a computer programmed to string together most commonly used words within a certain radius when such countries are mentioned or cities are mentioned. But it should not have been Packer, after all hasn't he travelled to Bombay, Rangoon, Mombasa and Lagos?

But Packer wrote this and more. This piece does not attempt to declare Packer blind for his eyes saw the garbage and the scavengers and pickers, the social sufferings, the slums, the blinking electricity, the flies, the frustrations, the burnt aspirations and perhaps the sun, which he did not mention. Packer saw all these and more because, as in ALL societies, these landmarks exist, albeit in different forms at varying degrees. But to declare social suffering extinct in Western countries while blossoming in non-Western countries is an outright lie and an imposition of a prose so trite that anyone who reads about this part of the world expects to meet it. Perhaps Packer's travel sponsors wanted him to confirm what they have always read or heard; this we cannot be sure but we are sure that in his article he pandered to Western descriptions of non-Western countries, borrowing words and phrases almost to the borders of plagiarism.

Is Packer saying that in 'the great cities of the West' all forms of suffering have been eradicated? that there are no beggars in the West? no homeless people? no individuals aspiring to be in college but could not because of cost? no jobless people? none with bottled up dreams? None which could make it into 'modern fiction'? However, Packer and We would not see these individuals, would we? when their individual sufferings have been painted over by the broad strokes of Hollywood; when we have linked our aspirations to the scenes on TV and almost every African woman wants to be the next Beyonce (forgetting Beyonce has not the average American woman look) and every man wants to be the next Jay-Z (that he too is not the average American man).

Whereas these descriptions, not the emotive associations, are mostly true, they reflect the other side of the argument, the side that could make Westerners and Westernised folks tour such countries to observe and write and film about. The side that is most famous and representative of our 'condition'. And seeing with Packer's eyes, we accede to these representation so that most African authors have entered the fray and have imbibed these stories into their writings, either to sell or to tell the Westerners that "this is how far we have come, haven't we done well? Please pat us on our back." Some make it direr so that the comparison with where he or she is with where he or she began would be stark... such leaps of destiny. And funny enough Packer does not consider the works of these authors as modern fiction.
This situation affords an emotional register of yearning and pathos that is almost absent from modern fiction, and has never been dominant among American novelists, who, with exceptions like Theodore Dreiser and later Richard Wright, have been drawn to the free individual more than the social victim.
What about the other side? Wouldn't the average reader in these mega-slums associate themselves with the works of Asimov and other futuristic writers based on what they have seen in their countries? Is there no ray of hope? Is there no other story to this doomed pictures? According to Packer,
Even in the few wealthy enclaves, children hawked cell phones and cigarettes in traffic, unlicensed motorcycle taxis filled the streets, and illegal hovels sprouted like mushrooms between the walled houses.
This is how bleak the picture is. How much worse could this be. Yet, in another breath there is a garbage collector who browses the internet. So there must be the 'other side' - the side that is hardly ever heard, written or filmed about by both Westerners and indigenes. Just as there is Dickens in Lagos, so too is there Asimov. For in addition to the fly-infested markets, there are the supermarkets and malls; in addition to the slums there are the estates and gated communities, something I detest most; there are those who have remained in their countries, educated in their country and have risen in social status, in addition to the struggling stragglers. There are the materialistic items such as Range Rovers, Jaguars, Hummers, which honest and hard-working citizens of these countries have acquired, in addition to the Matatus, Danfo, and Trotros. There are those who find themselves in Asimov's novels in addition to those whose world exist entirely in Dickensian novels. And though this duality is a symptom of every country, state or nation, though this is not a foible of a few poor countries, do we hear of them in stories or on screens? Where mentioned, as in most Nollywood and Ghanaian movies, they are either linked to corruption or occult practices; there are never genuine hard-working wealthy folks, according to these movies. Thus, the African himself have come to believe that his story should elicit a high level of pathos. And the more sympathy, tears and emotions the reader sheds the better the story is.

There is Dickens in Lagos, and Asimov too.
Caveat: the writer has never travelled outside his home country and therefore might be entirely wrong in associating any form of social suffering to these Western countries.

Proverb Monday

Proverb: ɔkoromfo wia ɔkoromfo ade a, Onyankopɔn serew
Translation: If a thief steals from a thief, God smiles
Context: No one minds if a bad man is paid in his own coin. God likes to see justice done.
in Bu me Bε by Peggy Appiah et al.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Where Do they Come from?

Among people likely to change countries are writers. Today most writers of Indian descent are now either British or American Writers. In Africa most of the high-flying writers have stayed outside of the continent for so long that sometimes what they write about it could be described as either complete patronage or romanticisation. However, for some of these writers the flight from the country is the only means for survival. An example of which is Bessie Head, when she left South Africa for Botswana. For others such as Coetzee it was a personal decision. The question is how should such writers be classified in terms of their citizenship? Is Coetzee a South African or Australian? What about Bessie Head, Albert Camus, Doris Lessing?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quotes for Friday from Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy

Unlike Bessie Head's A Question of Power, this book does not contain enough aphorisms that could be quoted. Or perhaps I failed to see them. Whatever be the case I would serve you with the few that I found interesting.

Life, he says, is like the chameleon, changing colour all the time.
Page 36

The elephant does not rot in a secret place
Sophie, Page 41

Ah, these whites, she burst out. The dog can die of hunger beside his master's meat. They don't bury the goat up to the horns. They bury him altogether.
Sophie, Page 44

They lamented 'the Martyr' as they called Father Gilbert because he died on African soil.
Page 53

The river does not go back to its spring.
Page 56

Truth lies beyond the mountains. You must travel to find it.
Page 57

If I talk it is because I have a mouth. If I see, it is because I have eyes. The eye goes farther and faster than the mouth, nothing stops it...
Page 60

Since when does the pot rub itself against the hammer?
Page 62

Is the white man's neighbour only other white men? Who can go on believing the stuff we are served up in the churches when things happen like I saw today...
Page 76

When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. I am the cook. The white man does not see me except with his stomach.
The Cook, Page 87

It is the voice of wisdom ... outside his hole the mouse does not defy the cat.
Page 87

Our ancestors used to say you must escape when the water is still only up to the knees.
Page 100

Thursday, March 24, 2011

72. Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Title: Houseboy
Author: Ferdinand Oyono
Translator: John Reed
Genre: Novella/Anti-Colonialist
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 122
Year of Publication: 1956 (in French), 1966 (in English)
Country: Cameroon

This is a story by a Houseboy written in the first person and in the form of diary entries in two exercise books. It describes the relationship between French colonialists and native Cameroonians during the period of colonisation from a Houseboy's perspectives.

The Houseboy, Toundi, escaped from Cameroon where he was wanted for an alleged crime - a crime he did not commit but has been framed up for his part of spreading the amorous and sexual encounters between his master's - the local Commandant - wife and the giant Prison Officer, M. Moreau. As a Houseboy, Toundi, saw a lot in the house of his master especially when his master's wife came to the household. And as innocent as he was couldn't keep his mouth shut on such issues but went ahead to ask questions pertaining to what he sees and it was these that put him into trouble with his master's wife and which later led to his death after escaping to Spanish Guinea. For instance, after discovering a condom under the bed of his master's wife, after she had asked to him to clean the place, the master's wife got angry and threw him out of the room. This got Toundi shocked. He doesn't know why a common rubber should make the master's wife angry so he set out to ask the other workers in the household who told him,
Toundi, will you never learn what a houseboy's job is? One of these days you'll be the cause of real trouble. When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. I am the cook. The white man does not see me except with his stomach. (Page 87)
Innocent as Toundi was and fascinated by the ways of the whites, he kept on asking questions even when Kalisia had told him to leave the household because
... they will never forgive you for that. How can they go on strutting about with a cigarette hanging our of their mouth in front of you - when you know. (Page 100)
Toundi himself had run away from home when his greed led to a quarrel between his father and his friend's father. It was this greed for simple things like a lump of sugar that led him to seek shelter at Father Gilbert's residence and later the Commandant. Using this, Oyono shows how our greed for foreign things has led us to sell ourselves and conscience, has led us to reject ourselves, so that beaten and trampled and killed we still cling onto this greed.
When the Germans made the first war on the French his younger brother was killed fighting for the French. When the Germans made the second war on the French his two sons were killed fighting for the Germans. (Page 36)
The above quote shows the extent of the greed and the indecisiveness of natives' allegiance (note that Cameroon was first ruled by the Germans and then by French). Toundi's mother even predicted that his greed would lead him to his death.
My mother always used to say what my greediness would bring me to in the end... (Page 4)
From Toundi's exercise book dairy entries we are told of how Christianity was used to deceive the populace to succumb even though the propagators of the gospel practiced not their preach. They have illicit affairs, drunk, and extort. They arrest innocent civilians, beat them and when they die ask the natives to pray for their souls. Though the French (Europeans) pretended to hate the blacks (natives) and would sit at different places even at church services and use different entrance, they still slept with the natives and hide their deeds from one another.
I know why the Commandant is not like other European men without madams - who send their boys into the location to hire 'mamie' for them. I wonder what the commandant's wife will be like. (Page 46)
Oyono mixes humour and wittiness to explore the complex relations between Europeans and native Cameroonians. For instance, they (Europeans) showed more love for animals and plants than they did to humans. 
Next we went to see the goat-park. Madame kept murmuring, 'Ah how sweet they are! How pretty they are!' She let them lick her hands. Then she stopped by the bed of roses and hibiscus. She bent down in front of each flower and breathed its scent in deeply. I was on the other side of the flower-bed facing her. She had forgotten I was there. (Page 48)
The perception of Europeans was also made clear from Toundi's keen observation. We see how each European tries to tell a 'better' story that shows how much the 'African is a child or a fool'. And when the father died in Africa and called him a martyr because he had died in Africa.
They lamented 'the Martyr' as they called Father Gilbert because he died on African soil. (Page 52)
The limitation of the story is that we know all these only from Toundi's opinions. Thus, Toundi's interpretation of peoples' actions is all that we know not their own interpretation. This is small book of only 122 pages contains a lot to make one laugh, cry and annoyed. And I would recommend to all. It's one of those stories you can read right after a very difficult book or you can use prop up a slump in one's reading.
Brief Bio: Ferdinand Léopold Oyono (14 September 1929 – 10 June 2010) was an author from Cameroon whose work is recognized for a sense of irony that reveals how easily people can be fooled. Writing in French in the 1950s, Oyono had only a brief literary career, but his anti-colonialist novels are considered classics of 20th century African literature; his first novel, Une vie de boy—published in 1956 and later translated as Houseboy—is considered particularly important. Beginning in the 1960s, Oyono had a long career of service as a diplomat and as a minister in the government of Cameroon. As one of President Paul Biya's top associates, he ultimately served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 1997 and then as Minister of State for Culture from 1997 to 2007. (Source)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Sense of Savannah Tales from a Friendly Walk through Northern Ghana by Kofi Akpabli

A new, witty, travelogue by CNN/Multichoice African Journalist for Arts and Culture, Kofi Akpabli, is about to be launched. The launch date is Wednesday March 30, 2011. Writing in his very usual manner, Kofi warns at the back of the book
Caution: For fear of emitting loud, embarrassing laughs do not read this book in public.
Again, I quote what led to the writing of this book. From the back cover:
When Kofi Akpabli was posted to the northern border town of Paga to do his national service he thought it was just going to be another 'national suffering.' But when he encountered love at first sight with the landscape and the people, he was soon to realise that something close to destiny tied him to the place. The author was welcomed to a world refreshingly different from the back streets of Accra and Cape Coast. He discovered the smell of dawadawa, the taste of pito, and the mystery of border towns. Over a period of seven years, Kofi criss-crossed the Upper East, Upper West and the Northern Regions. His real life adventures have been published in a cross-section of Ghanaian newspapers. By popular requests, here comes A Sense of Savannah, a witty collection of travel tales that best express the character of Ghana's savannah setting.
 A synopsis:

Way West to Wechiau
Kofi Akpabli
This is the hard core, nature lover’s dream expedition.  The object of chase is the hippopotamus, the largest mammal on land after the elephant. The vehicle to accomplish the mission is a narrow, 15 foot canoe dug out of mahogany. A river safari on the Black Volta, provides an unforgettable experience. Find out what happens at the moment of truth when the beast rears its ugly head.

Plus, there is more in this idyllic setting nestled between Ghana, Burkina Faso and La Cote D’ivoire. Also, learn about the Lobis who used to pierce the lips of their women. But that was then. Today, of course, a young Lobi lady would rather have her lips greased with designer lip shine.

Plus, do you know that there are people in Ghana who still spend cowries as a currency? A stroll at Hamile market stumbles across a Forex Bureau where you are asked if you want cedis or cowries. How does it play out when the ‘Chancellor’ of this Forex Bureau also sells cola nuts?

A Market Day in Navrongo
Ordinarily, a market day is a normal activity. But when it is also the platform for marriage, naming and other social ceremonies, then it becomes one big communal celebration. The Navrongo market day occurs every fourth day. But do not despair if you don’t have a calendar to keep up. When in the morning you see a young man pull a herd of goats, followed by an old man with a guinea fowl tucked under his armpit, next rides a boy in a donkey cart who overtakes a woman carrying a pan of shea butter… 

This discourse takes readers through what happens on a typical market day in Navrongo. But in the heat, and noise and spirited interactions, a place such as the Navrongo Police Station is not spared the action. The peace post receives a fair amount of the market share, as it were…

Christmas in Hamile
Hamile, the north westernmost part of Ghana might not be your ideal travel address for Christmas. However, when this destination was put to the Yuletide test, the result is an unforgettable experience that Accra may never provide. Here, a greeting such as ‘‘Barika da Christmas’’ is not a cultural shock but an admission of a shared heritage.

In Hamile, the pito drinking session is a kingly treat as the lady servers actually bow to present you with your calabashful. Also, experience a free sample of the Christmas atmosphere in Nandom, Larwa and Wa. Check all this out, and you would wonder why some people spend all their Christmas in the city.

A Savannah Valentine
Over the last decade, the media and an aggressive market place have made Valentines’ day a big social deal in Ghanaian society ‘‘Love is Contagious’’, says  the words of a song, and Tamale, has also been caught up in the Valentine web. This narrative captures how the foremost Northern Ghana city celebrated one such event.

This article is a running commentary on what went on where from midday until… well, Valentine expired. Faced with an influx of young lovers all dressed up in red, how does a poor, old Hausa kooko seller assess the event? And, oh, after all was said and done, what happened to the narrator himself in Room No. 26, Hamdalla Guest House on Valentine midnight?

Bawku the Beautiful
Frankly, the first word that comes to mind when Bawku is mentioned should not be conflict. This is one area in Ghana that nature has actually spoilt with beauty. For characterisation, Bawku possesses the indifference of New York, the business savvy of Kumasi and the live-and-let-live-in-spite-of-ethnic-diversity of Nima.  If you are wondering just how special Bawku can be then ask yourself this: how many places in Ghana share boundaries with two different countries?

From the moment the author arrived in town, with the instinct of a thirsty stranger, one interesting encounter led to another. Take the Yarigungu area which is enclosed by a lovely chain of hills. This stretch of highland is actually known as Agol, the protector god. His wife, the river goddess Agolok flows below. The children of ‘Mr. and Mrs. Agol’ are the blessed, little crocodiles in the river. And of course, they all live happily together ever after.....

Bolga to Kumasi by GPRTU
Gateway. That is the one word that underscores the importance of Kumasi to northern Ghana. As the nearest big city, it means more in several respects than Accra. Even for those hustlers who have the capital as the final destination, Kumasi is where to transit, learn the ropes and earn the passage.
A journey from Bolgatanga to Kumasi on a GPRTU bus, turns out to be a very important teaching experience. For example, if one wants to quantify the volume of akpeteshie that is quaffed in the Upper East Region, the best place to begin the survey would be the GPRTU Kumasi station at Bolgatanga. But the lessons are not limited to research. A course in long suffering also gets some credit hours. What other choice is there when one is trapped on a rickety bus, in an all night long journey and the co-passengers profile includes the following: a blind professional beggar with white cane and boy guide, some quarrelsome kayayes, a barber with scissors on the ready and a khebab seller travelling with his iron grill. Final lesson: sometimes, drama travels on wheels.

The Sirigu Success Story
What could make United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan leave his heavy UN schedules in New York to come all the way to Sirigu to interact with local women weaving baskets? ‘‘Inpiration’’ is not a bad guess. Sirigu used to be a poverty stricken savannah community until a retired old teacher, Madam Melanie Kasise found her long forgotten undergrad long essay among her old stuff. Her project work was on reviving the dying wall art of Sirigu. She brought out the book, dusted it and said ‘‘no’’ to a boring retirement life. Madam Kasise has never looked back since. She mobilised local women and now her Sirigu Women Organisation for Pottery and Art (SWOPA) has 300 young and old members. 

 SWOPA also aims at providing simple but quality tourist services. The compound houses a museum, workshop, restaurant and a traditionally styled four-room guesthouse. Today, SWOPA has become the centre of community life. At night, secondary school chaps visit to study under solar light. At dawn, children come to draw water from the borehole. And during the day, this same place is overrun by mothers who have all come to assert their craftwomanship.

A Pilgrimage to Paga
Perhaps, no area has more relics and landmarks related to the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade than the northern regions of Ghana. Historians tell us that the bulk of the slaves were caught from the area. The border town of Paga Nania has a former slave camp that continues to attract all levels of interest. The Paga-Nania Slave Camp is sited on a huge area of rock known as Pinkworo ‘‘the Rocks of Fear.’’ With thick vegetation cover, the spot proved an ideal hideout.

The horrific event of the slave trade took a new meaning the day a group of 14 African-Americans arrived at Paga to re-discover home. Ever the true Ghanaians, the people and their chiefs, slaughtered a sheep, poured libation and served a delicious dish of hot African dance. What happened when an inexplicable spirit drew the African-Americans to the floor to do the Nagla dance? Talk about soul music.

Kumasi to Bolga (State of Emergency)
Some adventures never seem to leave you alone. A return trip from Kumasi to the north turns out not only more dramatic but reveals further insight into the people and systems that run our society. And then what happens when due to a security alert the journey is interrupted and the ‘‘son of man’’ has to spend the night on the hard, cold street and among very strange strangers? Another lesson: at the height of the helplessness of the human situation, comfort comes from the most unlikely places. This time, from the radio set of a tea drinking, Bin Laden apparelled gang. Ever heard of Wangara lullaby?
Drop me at Abavana Junction
This is an up close encounter with a man who helped Nkrumah to administer newly independent Ghana. The popular Abavana Junction at Kotobabi in Accra is named after L.R. Abavana (Esq.), but the interaction took place in Navrongo where he hails from. Coming shortly before the 82 year old passed away, the interview touched on his service to the nation as Minister holding a total of five portfolios.

An athlete in his days and a tennis freak, our hero was actually nicknamed ‘‘Lightening.’’  He reminisced the doubles he played alongside Kwame Nkrumah against Kojo Botsio and Gbedemah.  Find out the particular joke President  Nkrumah used to play on this humble man each time he bumped into him on the corridors of flagstaff house where they both shared an office. Hint: it begins with Nkrumah sniffing Abavana’s pocket.
I would be interviewing the author and reviewing the book on this platform, so keep visiting. Note that the book would be launched on Wednesday March 30, 2011. Visit Kofi's personal website here. Read his funny, rib-breaking, award-winning article on soup titled The Serious Business of Soup in Ghana knowing that there is more in the book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conversation with Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Author of Tail of the Blue Bird

Nii Ayikwei Parkes writes poetry, prose and articles. He is a former Poet-in-Residence at the Poetry Cafe and author of three poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999); M is for Madrigal (2004), and Shorter (2005). His poems have appeared in several anthologies. His latest novel Tail of the Blue Bird (2009) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Best Book for the Europe and Asia Region Category (perhaps because he lives in Britain. Don't worry he's a Ghanaian). Parkes main areas of exploration as a writer are reinterpretation of language, micro-cultural conflicts and power. He's been influenced by several African writers including Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kwesi Brew, Christopher Okigbo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariam Ba, Meshack Asare, Atukwei Okai, Ola Rotimi and others. He sees a future in writers and performers such as Mamle Kabu, Mutombo Da Poet, Elizabeth-Irene Baetie, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ayesha Haruna Atta, Lesley Loko, and others. 

Parkes took some time off to talk to ImageNations on issues ranging from poetry, prose to his views on the literary scene. Below is the interview.

How would you describe yourself to those who do not know you (education, career and anything in between)?
I'm a North Kaneshie boy, I honed my early writing at Ann's Preparatory School, then wrote love poems for love-struck boys in Achimota School, taught Physics and Biology in Tolon Kumbungu for National Service, left to study in the UK, returned to work in Ghana, then left again to 'become a writer'. I've had many accolades, but none have made me prouder than the ACRAG award I got in Ghana in 2007.

You won an Art Council Award for the novel The Cost of Red Eyes in October 2003. How was publicity like, because I never heard of this story? Was it your first novel? How many novels do you have as of now?
It's a novel that has not yet been released because when I met my agent, he felt that Tail of the Blue Bird was a stronger novel so we went with that first. I suspect I may release it much later, like Walter Mosley did with his first novel, Gone Fishin'.

Your recent novel Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Category, for South Asia and Europe Region, to represent Britain. We would have loved to have seen it on our shortlist, what happened?
Well, the thing that you are never told in publishing is that your publisher enters you for these awards and decided which category to include you in; I qualified for both Africa and Europe because I was born in the UK and I guess my publisher thought I stood a better chance in the South Asia and Europe Region. I hold my hands up; I can't explain it, nothing to do with me.

Whodunit is a genre with fewer authors in Ghana. Some Ghanaian book bloggers and I have talked about it. I can only mention Kwei Quartey with his inspector Dawson series. What led to the writing of this novel and why this genre?
I didn't exactly set out to write a whodunit and, technically, the book isn't a whodunit; the question in my book is more of a how? than a who? but the benefit of writing in the structure of a crime novel is that it creates tension, a book like Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose, uses almost the same device.

What’s theme of Tail of the Blue Bird?
It's an exploration of power – power and violence and retribution and consequence and self-regulation; the power of state justice versus local justice, the community versus the individual, of the scientific versus the superstitious, of writing versus oral storytelling, the power of ignorance and innocence. It's a theme that gets deeper as you try to escape it.

Both Hisham Matar and Helon Habila described this novel as ‘poetic’ and as borne out of a ‘poet’s sensibility’ respectively. How attached to poetry are you? Will you say that poetry ticks you the most, relative to all the other genres you write in?
Poetry is my first love. I heard it in conversations as I was growing up; I think coming to Ghana as a child when, even though I spoke Ga, English was the language I heard most of the time, really had an impact. I developed a fascination with the Ga language and its rich imagery. I would eavesdrop mercilessly (and sometimes be beaten mercilessly for my merciless acts) and hear in all those conversations little threads of poetic clarity. Poetry is the music of speech, the illogical logic of nature, the name for the unnameable, so, yes, poetry is, relative to all other genres, my preferred dancing partner. It doesn't step on my toes.

You have won several awards. However, one that I followed or tried to and even blogged about it was the nomination of your poem ballast: a remix for the Michael Marks Award. What happened, because I never heard anything again, not even from their site?
I didn't win the award, but the ballast poems became an entire section in my new book of poems, The Makings of You, so for me it's a win.

Your poetry anthology Shorter published in 2005 is geared towards raising funds for a writer’s fund in Ghana. Could you please tell us something about this fund and how other individuals could help? What are the objective, vision and goal of this writer’s fund?
I just answered this question for One Ghana, One Voice, so I'll give you pretty much the same answer. Although The Writers Fund is on a small hiatus while I build a bespoke website for it, my passion for it remains the same. My goals for the project relate to the huge gap in the production of writing from Ghana since the 60s and 70s and my belief that that dearth relates to the lack of resources to support writing and reading. Our goals are: To serve and encourage excellence in creative writing in all the languages used in Ghana; To raise public awareness of the pivotal role of literature in shaping, preserving and developing a society’s identity and cultural life; To lobby educational institutions at home and abroad to secure residencies, scholarships and research opportunities for Ghanaian writers; To work to ensure that Ghanaian writing is well represented in the curriculum in schools and universities both at home and abroad; Support the initiatives of the Ghana Association of Writers. Anyone who has ideas is very welcome to contact me and initiate the exploration of those ideas. One of the things that drives me is the notion that our literary reading - both academic and personal - is in general so many years behind that we haven't tuned in to what we can do with language, how (learning from the Latin American writers, for example) we can bring our unique approach to how the English language is used etc. As a result, I am really keen to set up libraries all over the place and anyone who knows how we can get our hands on free shipping containers to use as the framework for building these libraries would be a very welcome contact at the moment. I have had some preliminary discussions with architects about how to customise containers using locally sourced material to create library spaces that are fascinating and conducive to reading/learning.

You have stated that you read mainly works from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia while growing up. Who are your favourite authors then and now and which of them have influenced your art form?
Mariama Bâ, Meshack Asare, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kwesi Brew, Christopher Okigbo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ola Rotimi, Atukwei Okai. I'm sure there are influences within my work, but I haven't consciously sought influences. What I will say is that Atukwei Okai, by acting as a mentor to me when I had doubts about whether to become a writer, has been the most influential in actual terms.

You have stated that your main areas of exploration as a writer are reinterpretation of language, micro-cultural conflicts and power. What do you mean by this and how do you face these broad subject matters in your writings?
Well, if you look at what Ngugi says in Decolonising the Mind, you realise that our use of English is in a way a form of masochism, but as we already have the language, we have to think of ways to strip it of its weapons, its means of expression that devalue who we are, who we were – that is one of the frontiers of the reinterpretation of language. With micro-cultural conflicts, I simply mean that I am very interested in the tiniest shifts in psyche, for example how a walk through Agbogloshie market will differ for me and my younger brother simply because, even though we grew up in the same house, he may understand Hausa and I don't – or I may know 50 words of Dagarti and he doesn't, making us react very differently to what the random collection of people that make the market buzz with its mysterious energy might be screaming. I think I have spoken about power in the context of Tail of the Blue Bird (which actually contains all the elements listed in your question – the italicisation of non-Akan origin words in the hunter's voice, the differences in attitudes between Kayo and his friends/parents, and the plight of the police in Sonokrom, for example.)

Though you have lived in Britain for many years, you describe yourself as a Ghanaian. Not lost yet, I think. So how do you see the literary landscape in Ghana? Is there hope or it is in total descent?
Where there is life, there is hope. Don't forget we have stars developing right under your noses – the Mamle Kabus, Mutombo Da Poets, Elizabeth-Irene Baities – as well as a very good crop of Ghanaian writers abroad who are keeping their connections with home very tight. Writers like Lesley Lokko, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Ayesha Haruna Atta, Nana Ekua Brew Hammond, Dzifa Benson – it's a long, long, list.

Thanks for your time, but before we go any last words to writers? And please tell us where we can get your books to buy in Ghana. People do ask me of this.
For writers, write crooked. For buyers, check SyTris books – they really support me and they try to always have my books in stock.

ImageNations would be bringing you a review of his novel Tail of the Blue Bird during the Ghana Literature Week.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dreamscape: A Poem to Celebrate World Poetry Day

I am breaking a tradition I have held for so long: I don't post more than two items in a day. However, all my posts today are time and day specific. For instance, today is Monday and so I would have to post the weekly Proverb Monday, a list of Literary activities for this month (beginning today) could only be posted today if I am to talk about today's event and, finally, today is World Poetry Day - can't leave without a poetry post. So do forgive me if I have made you visit my blog more than once today.

So you think you know Death
when at the point of divergence
you took that path;

when you submitted cruelly
to his subtle cravings
talking about the love he has not.

Death has never been a destination
we arrive at;
Death has never had presence
or an essence – in a sense
Death has no existence –
it plays pretence with reality.

At transformation’s point
the soul’s vibrations increases
– that little tapings hidden
on the borders of the soul –
and the light shines in degrees
and decreases the darkness
in the dreamscapes of our minds.

Proverb Monday

Proverb: W'ani nkum a, na wose: "Mennya dabere"
Translation: If you are not sleepy, then you say: "I have no place to sleep"
Usage: (If you are really tired, you can sleep anywhere). If you really want to do something, you would get it done.
No. 4316 in Bu me Bε by Peggy Appiah et al.
Caveat: Text in red is my interpretation.

A Glance at Literary Activities in the Coming Weeks

Beginning today, there is a series of literary activities happening in Accra, Ghana. Here is a list of them and what they are about.

World Poetry Day at PAWA House (Today, 21st March, 2011)
Today, 21st March 2011 is World Poetry Day and to celebrate this day, the Ehalakasa TalkParty would be participating in a poetry performance at the PAWA House at 6 o'clock pm. This event is a collaboration between the Ghana Association of Writers and the Ehalakasa TalkParty movement. 

However, currently taking place is a Street Performance/Flash Mob. This is to let the people know more about the Ehalakasa Poetry Movement and to ensure that poetry and spoken word, as art forms, become synonymous with Ghanaian life. From Ehalakasa's fan page on facebook:
EHALAKASA!!! IT LIVES IN US! COME JOIN US TO CELEBRATE INTERNATIONAL POETRY DAY IN A JUBILANT WAY! There will be street performances from Ehalakasa poets with unsuspecting members of the public as the audience. We are meeting at Odo Rice at 5 am where you will be provided with an energizing breakfast of hausa koko and kose. From here we will go to Nkrumah circle for the first performances. There we will proceed to the Sankara/Ako-Adjei interchange, then Danquah circle Osu, 37 on the run and finally Accra Mall. Come, let us show Accra traffic that we got poetic talent! Do you Dare?
If you could not make it this morning, you, perhaps, could make it this evening at PAWA House.

The Ghana Voices Series' Monthly Book Reading (Friday, 25th March 2011)
The Writers Project of Ghana in collaboration with Ghana Voices Series would this month host Papa Kobina Ulzen, author of a collection of poems titled Accra, Accra! A Collection of Poems About Modern Afrika. This program takes place at the Goethe Institute on March 25, 2011. Goethe Institute is close to NAFTI, Cantonments.

Papa Kobina Ulzen is a Ghanaian-born Toronto-based writer, poet, and playwright. He has had his poetry published in Akwantu and Thoughts of a New Canadian. Papa has written and/or produced several theatrical short plays including Karibuni Canada, Malaika, Bus Stop, Lunch Time, Lunch Time Again. He is currently working on his first African themed feature length play "Ekua na Kamau".

Ehalakasa TalkParty Plus (Sunday, 27th March 2011)
On Sunday March 27, 2011, the Ehalakasa Poetry TalkParty presents its first TalkParty Plus of the year. The Plus is purely performance based. Come and listen to songs, spoken word artistes and more. Come and express yourself. Come with a drink and a friend or both, making sure that the both contains the drink.

Ehalakasa TalkParty takes place every other Sunday at the Nubuke Foundation East Legon. Official address: No. 7 Adamafio Close; Unofficial address: Behind Mensvic Hotel (the new one).

Book Lauch at the National Theatre (Wednesday, 30th March 2011)
Kofi Akpabli
Though Kofi Akpabli describes himself as a communication professional with special interest in tourism, culture and environment I prefer to refer to him as a Literary Journalist. Kofi is more than your regular journalist. As an award-winning journalist for his article on Soup (yes you heard me right! Soup!), he has been recently put together his thoughts as he travelled through the Savannah. This book, titled A Sense of the Savannah: Tales of a Friendly Walk Through Northern Ghana, would be launched at the National Theatre on March 30, 2011 at 5:30 pm prompt.

I happen to hear Kofi read his Soup article at the Ehalakasa TalkParty and you would need more than one mouth to laugh. So be part of this occasion.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quotes for Friday from Bessie Head's A Question of Power (II)

Last Friday when I brought you quotes from this novel, I promised that if the latter part of the book has as many deep aphorisms as I presented I would do a part two of this and this would have been the first time I am sampling from one book on two different Fridays. The promise was affirmed when I reviewed the book yesterday. In fact, I could quote the who novel if possible. Today, I sample from the part of the book which had not been read as of last week's post.

When someone says 'my people' with a specific stress on the blackness of those people, they are after kingdoms and permanently child-like slaves. 'The people' are never going to rise above the status of 'the people'. They are going to be told what is good for them by the 'mother' and the 'father'.
Page 63

When people stumble upon magic they study it very closely, because all living people are, at heart, amateur scientists and inventors. Why must racialists make an exemption of the black man? Why must she come here and help the black man with a special approach: ha, ha, ha, you're never going to come up to our level of civilisation?
Elizabeth, Page 83

The victim is really the most flexible, the most free person on earth. He doesn't have to think up endless laws and endless falsehoods. His jailer does that. His jailer creates the chains and the oppression. He is merely presented with it. He is presented with a thousand and one hells to live through, and he usually lives through them all.
Elizabeth, Page 84

Who is the greater man - the man who cries, broken by anguish, or his scoffing, mocking, jeering oppressor?
Elizabeth, Page 84

'God isn't a magical formula for me,' ... 'God isn't a switched-on, mysterious, unknown current. I can turn to and, by doing so, feel secure in my own nobility.
Birgette, Page 85

Love is so powerful, it's like unseen flowers under your feet as you walk.
Elizabeth, Page 86

You don't realize the point at which you become evil.
Sello, Page 96

Say a warrior takes on any kind of battle because war is his business. It is an ugly business but, like all activities, it forms its own moral codes so that the business may be conducted as nobly as possible.
Page 103

Never think along lines of I and mine. It is death.
Page 134

When a man is born to create beautiful dreams he seems in every way mentally prepared for the event.
Page 150

If things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer.
Sello, Page 199

This concludes the quotes from Bessie Head's A Question of Power. Read the previous Bessie Head's quotes here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

71. A Question of Power by Bessie Head

Author: Bessie Head
Genre: Fiction
Publishers: Heinemann African Writers Series
Pages: 206
Year of Publication: 1974
Country: South Africa/Botswana

It seemed almost incidental that he was an African. So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years that he preferred an identification with mankind to an identification with a particular environment. And yet, as an African, he seemed to have made one of the most perfect statements: 'I am just anyone.' (Page 11)
This is the statement that introduces us to the bizarre world of Bessie Head's A Question of Power. This novel runs parallel with the author's life and perhaps documents the tragic and traumatic life of one of Africa's unrequited and most ill-treated author: leaving South African on an exit visa with the clause of never to return, it took about fifteen of years of being stateless in Botswana before Bessie was granted citizenship. In this novel, however, Bessie tells of a woman, Elizabeth - whose circumstances (white mother and native black South African father) were akin to hers - as she journeys from her home country, South Africa, to Motabeng, a village in Botswana. Before young Elizabeth grew to make her own decisions, she was told by the head of the missionary, where she stayed during most of her infancy, that her mother went mad and she had better be careful else she would also go mad.
Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a baby by the stable boy who was a native.
And mad she became. A Question of Power relates to us the intricacies, workings and visions of Elizabeth's mind as she moved in and out of insanity, hospitals and mental homes. Divided into two parts, the first part deals with Sello and the second part Dan. Sello was both God and Satan and he haunted the dreams and thoughts of Elizabeth. Later, he started appearing with Medusa and Elizabeth considered him to be benign almost god-like. Sello holds discussion and even though Elizabeth hated him she grew to like him for he was the one who provided her with 'the lever out of hell'.

Unlike Sello, Dan did not hold conversations with death; he also understood the mechanics of power and it was this quality of Dan that made Elizabeth's description of Sello as been merciful and having prophet-like qualities precise, for Dan was out to kill Elizabeth. He haunted her, leading Elizabeth to the edge of suicide and a visit to a dilapidated mental home. It was only through the intervention of Sello that Elizabeth survived Dan's threats of suicide. Yet it was to Dan that Elizabeth was attracted in the beginning. And Dan has many sexual perversions.

This is an emotional piece similar in essence to the movie A Beautiful Mind that told the life story of the Nobel Laureate in Economics John Nash who was a schizophrenic. Elizabeth's story inspires. It shows how we should not give up; how we must battle with ourselves if we are the hinderance to our own progress and a threat to our own lives and this Elizabeth and Bessie did so successfully. At several points I find myself not knowing what the end would be. For instance, though from the initial pages I found that Elizabeth may not die, I still couldn't resist such thoughts. Who would save her in this desolate Motabeng village where almost all the inhabitants are R.2 away from poverty, if not dead poor?

Though the story describes the events before, during, and after Elizabeth's breakdown, describing the nitty-gritty of the mental illness: describing their hallucinations and telling their conversations so that sometimes it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real physical characters and those that project from Elizabeth's mind, most of the beautiful lines and those that are deeply conscious, and would get the reader thinking, are those written during her breakdown periods, when she saw 'things'. Elizabeth's discussion revolved around politics, religion, sexuality and humanity.
And throughout that whole year Medusa only replied in despicable terms, the wrong things were stressed. When someone says 'my people' with a specific stress on the blackness of those people, they are after kingdoms and permanently child-like slaves. 'The people' are never going to rise above the status of 'the people'. They are going to be told what is good for them by the 'mother' and the 'father'. And she made wrong kinds of attacks on Elizabeth. (Page 63)
Isn't this a foible of autocrats? Isn't this what all of them are seeking or exhibiting - the Ben Alis?, the Mubaraks?, nations (East? West?), institutions (IMF? World Bank?) It continues...
Sello, the monk, had proclaimed this very road in opposition to horrors - let people be free to evolve, let everything alone and re-create a new world of soft textures and undertones, full of wild flowers and birds and children's playtime and women baking bread. He kept on looking hopefully at Medusa. Oh no, she simply wanted to be the manager of the African continent with everyone she found disagreeable - OUT. (Page 64)
 In a conversation involving race, Elizabeth states that
The victim is really the most flexible, the most free person on earth. He doesn't have to think up endless laws and endless falsehoods. His jailer does that. His jailer creates the chains and the oppression. He is merely presented with it. He is presented with a thousand and one hells to live through, and he usually lives through them all. (Page 84)
Some commentators have stated that this novel could be read on two levels: an insider description of the mind of a suffering, delusional person and as an exploration of power relations and political-social evil. And on these two levels the reader leaves feeling satisfied.

To end this review, I quote the sentence that births this title:
If the things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer. (Page 199)
This is a brilliantly written novel about the nature of mental illness and the nature of oppression. It's almost like a transcription of A Beautiful Mind and more. If you ever loved that movie you would love this too. I enjoyed reading this though it took me a while, but I cannot blame the novel for it. Consequently, I would benefit from a second reading or re-reading of passages. This novel is on the list of the Top 100 African Books of the Twentieth Century. I highly recommend this to all lovers of literature especially to those who love to read something different or are adventurous in their readings.

Several of such beautiful lines and thoughts and aphorisms are found scattered throughout the novel. Last Friday I brought a whole list of quotes from this book after only 60 pages of reading. This Friday I bring you part 2 this novel.
Click here to read Bessie's A Woman Alone and her brief biography. A Woman Alone is her autobiography; it takes snapshots at several moments of her life including the writing of this novel.

ImageNations: 5.5 out of 6.0

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three on the 2011 Orange Prize Longlist

The Orange Prize long list has just been published. The list include highly successful books such as Emma Donoghue's Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Awards and Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love which recently won the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book Award for Africa RegionLeila Aboulela also won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 with The Museum.Out of the twenty (20) long-listed books, three of them are by Africans:
  • The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone)
  • The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Nigeria)
  • Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Sudan)
The Orange prize was created to celebrate "excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing throughout the world". Read more about the long-listed authors here. Also read my interview with Lola Shoneyin here
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Featured post

Njoroge, Kihika, & Kamiti: Epochs of African Literature, A Reader's Perspective

Source Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart   (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in E...