Writing for pleasure, to be read for pleasure, is a hallowed vocation. So precious is it that the American writer, William Faulkner, once said that the writer will “rob his mother” (if necessary) in order to write. He added, “The Ode to a Grecian Urn [John Keats] is worth any number of old ladies.” (William Faulkner in The Paris Review Interviews, 1956). Writing fiction when one is young, Faulkner might have added, is the only way to write fiction. For youth empowers one to speak directly. What is in the mind is what comes out on to paper. “Experience” has not yet taught the tongue the art of self-censorship; the thought of monetary or vocational gain has not yet buried one’s innocence in the graveyard of double-talk and euphemistic gibberish.
When I met Nii Ayi Kwei Parkes of Ghana at the launching of his first novel, The Tail of the Blue Bird (Jonathan Cape, London), I remarked to him that it was brave of him to use so many Ghanaian expressions in a novel that he was publishing in London. He didn’t think it was “brave” at all – just “natural”, “I mean, that’s how we talk.” Fortunately, he had been given an editor who appreciated the beauty of the language he had used and was wise enough to want to preserve it. The result is beautiful. Can you imagine your normal English Literature graduate agreeing to retain an expression like: “We were at our somewhere when they came”? I bet that 9 times out of 10, out would come the unhesitating red pencil and in would go something like this: “We were inhabiting our place minding our own business when…!”
Yet the simple word “at”, used as a verb, conveys more than the five words supplied by the red pencil. And the special meaning of “somewhere” would have been lost altogether if replaced with something else. “We were at our somewhere when they came.” At our somewhere safe. At our somewhere doing our own thing. At our somewhere without having offended anyone. The meanings keep tumbling out, in line with the fecundity of our own imagination. If only all publishers of African writers would allow them to write what they want to write, how they want to write. Nii Parkes, who is 35 years old and doesn’t yet care about the “rejection slip”, fills his novel with “Ghanaianisms”, both in his native tongue and in “nativised” English, and the work is all the richer for it. But that’s not all. He is also a poet – poetry seems to run through the veins of his family: it was his late uncle, Frank Parkes, who wrote the immortal words: Give me black souls; Let them be black; Or chocolate brown… (in his poem ‘African Heaven’). Frank thus presaged “the African personality” campaign of the politicians who ruled Ghana after independence. But it is the politicians who got the credit.
Well, Nii Parkes writes with the economy and discipline of the poet, while regaling us with the rich word pictures of an assortment of characters, such as the hunter whose mode of expression he captures brilliantly with such statements as: he can hear sounds “brightly” because he is used to the darkness of the forest. Who but a poet would know that a hunter who operates in the deep forest sees with his ears? And yet, the book essentially tells the story of a crime and its detection (note that I deliberately refrain from saying it is a “detective story”, which would be too facile a description and would indeed immediately typecast the novel as a whodunnit, whereas it is anything but a member of that tired genre). The plot, wonderful as it is, is but a vehicle for conveying those who care about language into a mysterious forest of luxuriant word play. What did E. M. Forster say about the novel and its need for a plot? “Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story.”
Nii Parkes has rediscovered the novel as the most convenient way of taking the reader along the paths of a woodland journey where there are no police posts for one to be stopped and asked for a bribe. On this journey, rivers are to be forded when they make their way across the road; if there are no bridges, “dugouts” will do. Dugouts in the form of “exotic” words like: agoo, amee, Awurade, bassabasa, Chale, kama, Paa and sebi.
The use of “sebi” to allow for words and statements that one would not normally use in polite company, is immensely effective. There is no equivalent of that in English, except perhaps, the feeble: “Excuse me to say”. Yet it will be understood, even by foreigners. Indeed, the statement Nii Parkes makes, though not in so many words, is this: “When I was in school in Ghana, I came across words like ‘snow’ and ‘finch’, of which I had absolutely no idea. Why can’t I, in my turn, introduce you to ‘sebi’ or ‘bassabasa’ and get you to love them?” And when he lets the bombshell drop, in the form of the proverb that follows “sebi”, you realise you are being led gently into the bosom of a culture whose expressions could be as explicit as you like but which contain an internal mechanism that strokes its aphorisms softly away from vulgarity.
What is the novel about? It is about a young man, Kayo, who studies forensic medicine in England and returns to Ghana with his qualification. The Police Department – like all departments that have to deal with “been-tos” (returned diasporans) is queasy about employing him, since it knows that it has a 99% record of “successful interrogation”. Yep. It does not need any elaborate digging for evidence to go to court and secure a conviction. Forensic medicine? Pah! Where do you think you are? Inside a Perry Mason biopic?
But then, the Police Department is faced with an unusual problem, when the girlfriend of a powerful man goes to her village and is confronted there with what seems to be a mysterious murder. Suddenly, the department remembers that Kayo’s forensic services are available. So Kayo is dispatched to Sono village. How does he relate to the people there? How do they take to him? Is he able to solve the crime in a society with its own ideas about crime, so alien to what he was taught in England?
If you have a credit card, or you know someone in the UK who won’t begrudge you the expenditure of £10 or so with his or her credit card, let him order the book for you from www.Amazon.com. Or order it direct from Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, UK . You are in for a real treat if you do. It’s definitely in the “unputdownable” class.
If Kayo, the hero of The Tail of the Blue Bird had been fortunate enough to read A Colonial History of Northern Ghana, by Ibrahim Mahama, he would probably not have felt quite as lost as he did in arriving at the village of “Sono”. By sheer indifference and a lack of imagination, very few educated Ghanaians know Northern Ghana or what used to be called, in colonial times, “The Northern Territories” – a deliberately marginalising term.
Mr Ibrahim Mahama has sought to lead the Convention People’s Party into power, to try and right some of the wrongs most Northerners feel are perpetrated against them by their Southern brothers. He is popular with his people, for, as the cover of the book puts it, “he is one politician whose name has remained current since the late 1960s”. He is therefore well qualified to lead readers into the history of Northern Ghana with deep knowledge and acute sensitivity. I am enormously grateful to a mutual friend, the eponymous Napoleon Abdulai, through whose good offices a copy of Mr Mahama’s book was sent to me by the author himself. It is a work of love, for it was printed in Tamale, the Northern Region capital, and knowing, as I do, the state of the printing industry even in Accra, I shudder to imagine the difficulties Mr Mahama must have gone through to get the book to see the light of day.
He is, in fact, a very doughty practitioner of the art of writing, despite his vocation as a senior legal practitioner, for he has published two other books. The latest work of 138 pages is the first exhaustive work by a Ghanaian I have read on the colonisation of Northern Ghana. It sets out the chequered history of the region, as it was tossed from one hand to the other like an unpopulated globe, by what he calls “the three combatants” – the Germans, the French and the British.
The book conveys in unemotional terms, the vivid feeling of frustration that the people have experienced as a result of how their ethnic groups, once powerful and homogenous, were carved up by these European colonialists at different times, without giving any thought to the interests of the people of the area. The Mamprusi and the Dagomba still mourn their loss of territory to the Republic of Togo, as a result of German occupation of the Eastern part of their country. The incorporation of the Mossi kingdom into Burkina Faso is similarly lamented.
Mr Mahama maintains that the Northern People’s Party (NPP) would have been better off if it had not joined the National Liberation Movement (NLM) to form the United Party (UP). His memoirs about the administrations under which he has served are eagerly awaited.