Pelu Awofeso looks back at a literary festival in Ghana where he was a guest author
On my first evening Accra, after I had settled down into what would be my private space as a guest author at Pa Gya! literary festival, writer Mamle Kabu dropped in with a plate of Kelewele — diced ginger-tinged fried plantain with roast groundnuts on the side. “It’s a common snack here and I find it quite filling,” she said, after we had exchanged pleasantries. It was the first time we were seeing each other after our first meeting at a writing workshop in Lagos in 2009.
When Writers Gather
Soon, Mamle and I were joined by other festival guests: the poet Efe Paul Azino and editor-cum-publisher Anwuli Ojogwu (both Nigerians), Ghanaian poet Sonny Rhymes, Cameroonian journalist Dzekashu MacViban and American travel writer and photographer, Marla Sink Druzgal. Seated in a rough circle on classic-contemporary Ghanaian furniture, the conversation from that point onwards touched on different issues in our respective countries and in the world: migration, music, traffic, elections, cuisine, publishing and more.
Then, just as he was to leave, Sonny asked if any of us would be interested in a performance poetry event he was headed to. We thought it was a great way to round off an evening of bond-building chit-chatting; so we packed into two vehicles and off we went to the Badu Lounge for The Rhyme Show.
For the next hour and a half, one young performer after the other serenaded the gathering with solo renditions about love, everyday challenges and our addiction to smartphones. One artiste did musical snippets about an imaginary ‘Atheist Church’, which had almost everyone laughing as the dim lighting switched from green to blue to orange.
“If you don’t know me, I like to sing silly songs,” he said with both hands resting on his guitar. He then went ahead to sing a few more silly songs from his repertoire.
“An Atheist Church is a contradiction in terms,” Kabu observed lightheartedly. The evening wrapped with a saxophonist performing to a cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come and Efe Paul dazzling everyone with a poetic tribute to writers everywhere.
I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome to Accra.
Reading Across Borders
Pa Gya! (19-21 October 2018) was — and still is — jointly organised by the Goethe Institut in Ghana and the Writers Project of Ghana (WPG). It was promoted as “a celebration of literature, friendship, life and our interest in the progress of our continent” with the hope “that networks and friendships will be struck, and will expand and deepen far beyond the period of this festival.”
Browsing the festival’s book stands the next morning, I was in a daze to see the fine range of Ghanaian literature. Clearly, I knew next to nothing about the country’s contemporary writers and authors. My literary shortcoming was highlighted even more at the panels on “Translations and Literature in West Africa,” and “Literature Across African Borders”.
Africa, the panelists argued, wasn’t fusing together well enough on many levels, the literary being no exception. With its writers and creative thinkers writing almost exclusively in English or French, there weren’t enough competent translators and publishers to catch up with the volume of work being produced yearly; as such, the creatives didn’t reach millions of potential readers who would enjoy their work if only they could read them in their indigenous languages.
As the conversations carried on, someone in the audience posed the question: what would it take to create a situation where writing in an African language would be the natural thing for an African writer to do?
“I don’t think Togo is a Francophone country just as I don’t think Ghana is an Anglophone country. The percentage of people who express themselves in French or English is a little,” said Komla Avono, a registered translator based in Lome. “Go to the market in Togo or Ghana. They’re not speaking French or English.”
Togolese poet and translator Patron Henekou argued that the reason why Africa faces these hurdles is because “the borders that exist in our state, exist in our minds too.” Earlier in April, he participated in a reading jointly convened by poet and essayist Kwame Dawes and the African Poetry Book Fund. Since Henekou writes primarily in French, he had to translate some of his poems to English.
“I view the decision to translate my own work as a political decision to transgress the linguistic borders in my mind, just as there is a need to transgress the borders between our countries in Africa,” he explained to me, days after Pa Gya! had ended. “This is because the image that exists in our mindscapes as francophone Africans doesn’t take into account English speaking countries in Africa, and vice-versa. So when an Anglophone speaks of African poetry, there is a great chance that he or she means Anglophone poets alone. And the same applies to francophone Africans.”
Chuma Nwokolo, author most recently of the Extinction of Menai, shortlisted in by Publishers Weekly as one of its Best Books of 2018, believes that as Africans “we need to read across borders.”
Sex, slavery and silence
Perhaps the session that pulled the most attendees, and quite expectedly so, was the one on “Writing Sex and Sexualities: Adventures from the bedrooms of African Women,” moderated by feminist Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. Tweeting in advance, she encouraged interested guests to “Come ready to chat and engage openly. Bring your brave most open selves.”
And that’s exactly what played out. Panelists Boakyewaa Glover, Nana Akosua Hanson and Ayesha Harruna Atta read lurid excerpts from their books; they were the cues participants–male and female–needed to open up about their own sexual experiences and preferences.
Attah (author of The Hundred Wells of Salaga, themed on the African slave trade), revealed that while researching her novel, she learned that women in 1950s Ghana exercised enormous sexual freedom: they kept multiple partners and didn’t feel any societal pressure to be secretive about it.
The general silence on the subject of sex and the slavery years is the focus of doctoral student Philomena Mintah thesis: “Ghanaians don’t think they should discuss the subject, because according to them, it has already happened and talking about it is only going to make people remember a past they would rather forget,” she said to a room full to capacity. “I am getting excited with some of my findings, actually–I have found out that the silence is borne out of a culture of indifference and not guilt and shame.”
“Write the revolution”
But sex was the last thing on the mind of Accra-based Ugandan Namata Serumaga-Musisi. Hours before the festival’s closing session, she delivered a brief and hard-hitting protest, reading the riot act to sit-tight leaders in Africa, particularly President Yoweri Museveni, 74, who has ruled Uganda for 32 years (He won another five-year term in 2016).
“The African Union remains silent while Museveni rapes Uganda, while Biya is raping Cameroon, while Gnassingbe rapes Togo,” a visibly displeased Serumaga-Musisi said, looking down every now and then to a handwritten note in her left hand and urging her audience to speak up and support the movement. “Where are the African Union, the international observers who congratulate Uganda on a free and fair election, while we are being freely and fairly brutalised? We are freely and fairly tear-gassed, beaten [and] killed. People power must reign–Museveni must go. And Uganda will be free.”
Serumaga-Musisi said she chose to protest at Pa Gya! because there were readers and writers, facilitators of dialogue from across the Continent present. “Pa Gya! Is to ignite. It seemed an appropriate space, and the immediate support shown by the Writers Project Ghana team confirmed that” she explained. “The aim is to raise awareness of the situation and issue a call to action, which happened. That said, this is merely one step, one contribution to a process of liberation.”
And Serumaga-Musisi was by no means the only woman, present or past, speaking out. There was a taste of something similar two days earlier, at the workshop hosted by Afrikult (the literary organisation that curates and facilitates workshops to broaden the reach of African literature). Titled “Writing and Rioting: Women’s use of the Pen”, founders Marcelle Mateki Akita, Zaahida Nabagereka and Keren Lasme took turns to talk about two “Inspirational women”: Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu (Nigeria).
Akita said of Saadawi early on in the workshop: “In her fiction, she is challenging a system, and mostly her system is the patriarchal islamic society that her characters find themselves in.”
Yakubu, who was first married off by her father when she was just 12, found herself in a similar situation in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. After secretly learning how to read and write in Hausa, the dominant language of the region, she would later channel her inner muse to creating romantic novels that have become a hit among the young and the old in the region, birthing a whole new literary genre —Soyayya (the local word for love) — in the process.
When the organisers invited me to be a guest at the festival (I was on two panels on Travel Writing), I got the impression that Pa Gya! was a small festival; but 60+ sessions packed into three days is not small, however one chooses to look at it. Conversations ranged from workshops on young adult fiction and poetry to discussions on the contributions of libraries to reading and selling books in the age of the App. And that’s not to mention the multiple book launches, book readings and packed-out evening sessions that charged up the audience with Afrobeat and highlife.