“Do not look for words to trap these thoughts” – Kofi Anyidoho, Elegy for the Revolution, (1978).
President of the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW), Special Guest of Honour, Distinguished Writers, Ladies and Gentlemen, I must confess to a certain niggling feeling of impostor syndrome standing in this august assembly whose membership consist of veritable Giants in the pantheon of world letters – from Ayikwei Armah, Kwesi Brew, through Ama Atta Aidoo, Elizabeth Ohene, to Atukwei Okai, Mohammed Ben Abdallah and our two Kofis – Awoonor and Anyidoho.
How can a ‘mere’ oil lobbyist with a background in finance and economics purport to come and break bread with people, the force of whose ideas have chronicled history, held a mirror to our collective successes, failures, upheavals, hopes, dreams and fears? People who have literally provided vision for the most universal of all conditions: the human condition.
But maybe, just maybe, this human condition is the very reason which makes it possible for me to dare stand before you today. After all, didn’t our ancestors say that when a child learns to wash his hands well, he can dine with elders?
From the little literature I joyfully read, it seems to me that we are all subject to this universal condition which you and our forebears have excellently captured i.e., a woman is born, she lives, strives, struggles, laughs, loves and finally dies. But it is one’s reaction to this that makes them a heroine – or a little less than so? Whether born princes or kayayei, whether born in a palace or on the streets. This pre-named condition seems to be common to all of humanity on this wayside farm/ we call life’. Apologies to the redoubtable Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor. But then again, another common denominator of the human condition is excellence. A condition whose pursuit has defined Mankind’s adaptability and dominance over this space we call earth.
This leads to my given theme for this occasion; how should we encourage the pursuit of excellence in our works, in our writing, and universalized portrayal of the human condition in a manner which restores our spiritual elegance to move our nation back to greatness.
Ladies and gentlemen, just as we have crude oil in my industry, so do you as writers have all the crude talent and materials- a travaux preparatoires of sorts to elevate their craft to another level when effectively nurtured and refined to tell our stories, reflect on our society while acting as the guardians of truth, encouragement and criticism essential for the growth of human society.
As the Ewe proverb goes, it is on the old ropes that we weave the new ones. Thus, in our quest for excellence in our literary endeavors, we first need to look out for the old landmarks of excellence. What was excellent about us in the past that we can still distill and use to point the way to the future? I leave that to your ponder.
As I reflect on the literary state of arts in our present day, I am at a loss as to who our contemporary Ama Ata Aidoo and Elizabeth Ohene could be? Where would we find our next renown Anyidoho? Remember Ama Ata Aidoo leapt to literary fame at age 22 and I wonder whether it is possible for Ghana to produce another globally recognized literary who is 30 years old or less. I look eastward, however, and I sure see
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie keeping high the literary flame for Africa on the global stage. Yet right here in Ghana, right at the centre of the world we seem so quiet and dwarfed. What have we missed or how wrong have we been? I simply ask, where are our writers? I am definitely not blinded; I can see you right here but how visible and impactful have we been? When would we show the world again what we can offer?
Literary works and critiques have forever been the foundation and bedrock of our society, a lead tool for shaping, questioning the status quo, and inspiring the actuation of humanity. As my auntie, the journalist and writer, Elizabeth Ohene once told me, “If you are saying what we are all saying then you have nothing to say.” The piece which gets us to rethink what we are saying, the piece which effectively captures that state of our humanity, the piece which points to the path that ought to be, is that piece that sets itself apart for excellence.
But of what use will it be resting on the west end of some dusty shelf. Times have changed but I hardly see us as writers, as a nation, levelling and measuring up to the demands of our times. As we celebrate our writers today, simply check and see who has his or her works online, reaching the vast global marketplace through a website like Amazon. Who has taken his or her piece to the people? Few to none.
Are we lost in our old ways of perceiving literary works as that piece of excellence reproduced on aged wood? The world today is virtual, visual and audio visual. Chimamanda Adichie shot herself to broader fame and put Africa once again on the global literary map because she took her story to the people. She was not content to have her piece locked up in text but ensured that at the right opportunity, she shared her 2009 classic piece, ‘the Danger of a single story’, audio-visually and across social media handles. I absolutely acknowledge her prior exploits with her first notable piece, the ‘Purple hibiscus’ of 2003.
My son, who is in form 2, is an ardent fan of literature. I ask him which authors he is reading in school and all I hear is same as what my wife read when she was in secondary school –Ngugi W’athiongo, Ola Rotimi, Shakespeare, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. These are legends by all standards but if at that early stage of a Ghanaian child’s life he cannot find and read indigenous literature, who do we expect to tell our story and when at all will our story be told? I do not deny that the ‘Dilemma of a Ghost’ and a few others do stand in the gap for us from time to time. But we need more. And we must do more to showcase our literature to our kinsmen and the rest of the world.
Today, our freedom of speech comes with the freedom to write.
Everyone is effectively a journalist and a writer. I am invited to all kinds of book launches every now and then. It is not rare to even find people now call themselves ‘Author this’ and ‘Author that’. I honestly never knew the word ‘Author’ was a prefix title to carry around. I am sure the authors of social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will soon start titling themselves too as ’Authors’, maybe with an SM suffix – SM here meaning social media, not Shatta Movement.
We seem to have lost sight of the essence of writing, and it seems we are not doing it well enough; we are not promoting it enough and as a result, we are not celebrating it enough. We urgently need to redefine who a writer is in a manner that defines quality, and I see no better home to host that seal of authority and excellence than right here at the Ghana Association of Writers.
From the above I argue the following.
- We have failed to optimize technology and contemporary media, thereby being less visible.
- We lack a concerted and structured effort to promote our works as a collective.
- We have failed to define the standard of writing and fallen short in developing systems to assure quality and unearth talent.
I humbly make the following recommendations
- GAW should set up an online publishing firm, reviewing literary works, publishing them and liaising with various international platforms to promote Ghanaian literature. The lower cost of online operations provides a perfect opportunity for GAW to leverage its brand into a powerhouse.
- We should institute a seal of quality just like the “New York times bestseller” list. This must be accompanied by a thorough review of works that assures quality.
- We should nurture the skills and culture of taking our work to the world, leveraging social media and driving visual and audio-visual pieces.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been very impressed with the growing number of Ghanaians writing and producing memoirs. The latest, of course, is that of Prince Kofi Amoabeng, titled the UT story. This growing trend of memoir writing is very welcome, and we should encourage it. We have been a country of oral history and as a result so much history, knowledge and depth has been lost to unrecorded oral story telling. Writing memoirs as evident today, is a mark of hope. We must support this emerging trend and help it to become part of our culture, an ambition for every Ghanaian who has a story to tell. We must do this even if it means encouraging ghost writing because it will enable us to capture the valuable and priceless stories many a Ghanaian do have and that can help shape the course and nature of our future.
We see a chemist like Nana Awere Damoah making strides in the arts and that is inspiring. The exploits of Aisha Haruna Ata and her contemporaries provide us with hope that someday we shall influence the African and global literary space again. We owe it to Mother Ghana to promote the great works of a new generation of writers to make this happen.
I have travelled the world and I am quite certain that many from the west see little about our vegetation or landscape, a huge value proposition to visit Ghana. I have seen grand forests, mountains, canyons, rivers etc across the US which can never be matched by what we have. What differentiates us, what we have that they don’t have is the beauty and originality of our culture and history. Let our writings promote our culture.
As we celebrate our beloved writers, I am reminded that we also have many classic observers of humanity and writers who question and effectively report our human condition in many remarkable ways. Legends like Jerry Hansen, E.T. Mensah, AmakyeDede, Awurama Badu, Kojo Antwi, Papa Yankson, Gyedu-Blay Ambuley, Koo Nimo, among others have produced classic literary pieces in the form of music which ought not be ignored. We see same with some contemporary musicians like Obrafour, Manifest, Sakordie and Kofi Kinatta. The depth of their works must be studied and celebrated for they also awaken the consciousness of humanity. GAW can only be better with such an association.
When we write, let’s not write in the space of the west for the west. Let’s write about our space, our cultures and our unique humanity for the rest of the world. As no one can be better at being us, we shall sure win over the world.
Mr. President, I commenced this speech by confessing to a certain feeling of imposter syndrome. Let me illustrate this by saying that in an alternative universe, I write poetry. The audacity of an Abutia-Teti and Klefe Child born to a Ga woman, on whose soil we stand, makes me believe that I can purport to read one of my ‘poems’ before you. It is inspired by events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the many racial challenges faced by being us. It is an example of how poetry enables us communicate the deepest of our human condition. It is titled:
When shall we breathe?
Poetry: When Shall We Breathe?
I can’t breathe
Centuries on, I remain at reef
Deep is my grief Forget that book!
I’m black and out
Coloured, I surely standout
And truly don’t count
Pushed down to out With nowhere to look Forget that book!
That book is just grammar
Being black, ain’t no drama
I’m guilty until proven innocent But he’s innocent until proven guilty Forget that book!
Is the oppressor’s hook
My liberty he took
Justice for me, a fluke
And yet he calls that book, a law to watch our back.
Damn! What crime is it to be black?
Forget that book.
We’ve screamed and screamed and yet we stuck!
True freedom and justice we still lack
What they offer always whack
No freedom in the land of the free
Potus blazing abuse
Rights making no use No equality in the house of justice What at all is this?
Forget that book!
My kids grow in fear
I can no more bear
The rules for them vary
And that makes me wary
Pulled over, my kids better pray
They are not their prey
Their kids know it’s just a chat over
Human are mine and same are his But justice somewhat remains amiss
Tell me, where is the book?
I just unearthed
That jogging is their preserve
I jog, I’m shot
Unarmed, I’m shot
Asleep, I’m shot
Toy gun I’m shot
Cigarettes, I’m choked
And when choked
The bloody bloke
Chokes as though for the slaughter I am a goat With friends to boast There is no book.
Brutalised in slavery
Oppressed in freedom What is my wrong?
My colour or my person?
Tell me, who is the book?
We are honoured to be coloured
As the sun rises and sets
So shall my oppression someday set.
When we know not when
We still can’t breathe
Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey
Martin Luther, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela,
we still can’t breathe
We must rise from beneath
And truly breathe
That day shall come
That day, we shall overcome!
[Dedicated to brothers and sisters of colour who have fallen to white supremacy and police brutality]
Authored by: Senyo Hosi, 30th May 2020
Breathe Gaw, Breathe!