FOR A WHILE NOW I HAVE TRIED TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT AFRICAN LITERATURE, a far from simple exploration for a European dominated by the White canon. And now here, in Accra – who would have thought so a few years ago – I have the historic chance to dabble at a literary fair that I have seen advertised in the Ghanaian Daily Graphic.
So today I will be stopping in Accra. How delightful to awake late, filling your diary only with what you fancy for your next port of call. Refreshed, I have breakfast on the pleasant terrace of my hotel surrounded by shrubbery and unannounced lizards. I keep telling myself over and over “today is the Book Fair, a wonderful opportunity to get closer to African literature.” This is because here, in Ghana, unlike, for example, Liberia, there are quite a lot of books. It is not like there are bookshops all over the place, but you can see books and you can see people reading.
A short while later a taxi driver appears looking like an evil buccaneer, like one of those who chase behind the goody from the outset of the film. We haggle over a price and are off. We head towards the Fair Trade Centre, and whilst on route we pass by the Jokers bar, which I see from outside painted all over blood red and decorated with tons of multi-coloured balloons.
I cannot help but grimacing, and the taxi driver, who realises straight away, asks me “Do you know Jokers?” “Well, sort of,” I reply a few seconds later. He laughs and we embark upon a conversation. He tells me that his sister wants to marry a white man because she does not like black men. I look at him, and he tells me that he will give me her number.
Afterwards, he gets up and flutters his hands to add that she is tall, strong and curvy – aha. I laugh out loud, but inside I am far from laughing. “Man, are you talking to me about your sister?” I ask. He nods and I say “Well, I will be in the Tantra nightclub the next few days. “But give me your number,” he says when I am already outside. Grinning, I reply “No way.”
The appearance of a large pavilion with a huge Ghanaian flag flying from the entrance announces the presence of the fair inside the premises. My steps take me in, and I find myself before several rows of book stalls. In the background decent music is playing – rhythm, rhythm. I scour and leaf through books, leaving to one side the majority, which are children’s books, and rather focusing on the other literature.
I find a stall in the custody of a Nigerian and see several books by Soyinka and Achebe. The Nigerians seem to ask who is better? Finally I come across a copy of Achebe’s Things fall apart, but it is out of my price range, as it comes with some delightful illustrations.
In the next stand, a girl with a dynamic voice sells Bibles and tells me that I should be aware that God died for all of us. I reply by telling her that I already have a Bible and that I sincerely wish to read it. She agrees, but also tells me that buying a Bible in Ghana is something special.
I continue to walk and leaf through several books on Ghanaian education intended for school children. I can verify that from a very young age, Ghanaians are instilled with a system of values based on respect, education and rights. I continue to browse books, trying to find The Beautyful ones are not yet born, by Ayi Kwei Armah. However, the search is fruitless. Who I did find was Ama Ata Aidoo and her The girl who can.
I stop off at a stand where I cannot fail to notice the scars that a man has marked on his face. They look like scratches from a cat’s claws. Four or five each side of his face, some on top of others. I ask the man, rather daringly I guess, whether those scars are self-inflicted or else… The owner of the scars looks at me with a certain amount of disdain, with a look that reminds me of those who dish out the punches in insalubrious bars, and replies threateningly “Should I follow your example?”
A little concerned, I take a step backwards and say to him “Erm, I mean, well, I didn’t.” Whilst I splutter this sentence out, I am interrupted -or, perhaps more aptly, I am saved – by a young and fresh voice belonging to a bloke of around twenty and a bit years. “He says that he has his life model,” he adds, clarifying things with a friendly tone. “Of course,” I say and then thank the lad internally for getting involved and strike up a conversation with him.
Once more, football saves me. In this case, the ones that rescue me are, obviously, the Nigerian footballers playing in Europe such as Finidi or Amokachi, whom I luckily remember. The brute nods knowingly when he hears the names of these players, calms down and even breaks out in a little dance to the tunes playing in the background. We are now mates.
Not very far from here, someone tries to flog me a book entitled Ama that tells the story of the life of a slave. I am also informed that the author, Manu Herbstein, is milling around. I do not buy the book. Shortly after that, I meet a Bohemian chap with a wide-fitting African shirt, wandering aimlessly through the passageways. I stop him and strike up a conversation. It’s Herbstein.
He tells me that he was born in South Africa, though for many years he has lived in Accra. I enquire about bookshops in Accra, and he recommends me the EPP, next to pavilion in front of us. Then, I ask him if he had fun writing Ama, and he looks downwards, making a strange noise with his mouth. I know what he means despite everything. Every writer knows what that means. Now it is Manu’s turn to ask me “Did you buy my book?”
I leave the pavilion after a good while and enter the EPP premises. Wow! It’s all books! It’s books all around, displayed in a circular fashion. Once again, music is playing – some modern, nightclub, daring stuff. I begin to stumble upon incredibly valuable books, books that analyse literature as if it were a game of chess, just like I myself had also pondered on more than one occasion – is innovation impossible?
You can feel Ghana’s colonial British past in the selection of works, most of which come from the United Kingdom, from British publishing houses or from English-speaking sources. I settle on a few more books, although I still cannot find the one by Ayi Kwei Armah.
Opposite me, a child in a yellow uniform leafs through a book on Hitler and then goes off hopping. One of the supervisors, a girl of around twenty, begins to talk to me, because in Ghana, in Africa, everyone talks to you. Everyone asks you something. Everyone wants to get to know you. She tells me that in Ghana people do not like fighting. “Myself, if I see a fight taking place anywhere, I get up and leave,” she says. “Liberia is somewhat behind in this sense,” I think as she speaks.
I continue to walk for a little longer, and the music sounds so good, so full of life, that it makes you want to go out for a wild night. I am so excited that I return to the pavilion to purchase Herbstein’s book. I offer dollars as I am out of cedis, and a girl starts to do the sums and to scribble something on a piece of paper. Suddenly, an attractive Indian woman appears and tells me that she will take care of things. The Indian woman gets out a calculator, hits a few keys and shows me the price. A new book for the basket.
I exit the pavilion. I exit the book fair. It is twilight. I suddenly feel the need to lose myself, to get drunk, to get high, to overcomplicate life, to live beyond my limits, to ride the train of euphoria, to save myself with emotions. I go on like this for a while, for a good while, whilst the taxi continues quickly towards Accra, where night has already fallen.