When informing friends, relatives, and co-workers that I was headed to Ghana I received mixed reactions and saw some raised eyebrows. The exclamation of â€œWow, that sounds amazing!â€ was often followed by the question, â€œWhatâ€™s in Ghana?â€
For me this trip was a few years in the making. I had the pleasure of studying with author/poet/professor Jeffrey Renard Allen at The New School and remained in touch. He had e-mailed some of his former students that he would be starting the Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) with the intent to spread a unity of African and African-American writing with a diverse crowd (hence the name, Pan African). July 3rd marked the inaugural year of PALF.
Part of the group I flew in with and I arrived at a gorgeous beach hotel called Afia Village Resort. It was named after the ownerâ€™s daughter. You see, in Ghana one may be given a name based on the day of the week they were born. My Ghanaian name would also have been Afia because it means that I was â€œborn on Fridayâ€ the equivalent for a man is â€œKofiâ€.
Afia had an abundance of lizards that scuttled across the pathways, roosters that screeched in the afternoon, and a lulling ocean that continuously crashed providing a soothing sound even when youâ€™re about to go to bed.
Going from hot and humid weather to just plain hot weather wasnâ€™t something one would think would take getting used to. Being from a metropolitan area for the majority of my life Iâ€™m used to ducking and dodging the sun in the shade of high-rise condos and scaffolding. I was constantly in the sun in Ghana as sweat dripped down my face while I bargained with street vendors for dashikis or black stone from the Volta. Sun block became a necessity for many.
The first few days were spent getting to know each other, getting used to the heat, and absorbing the fact that you were in Africa. I met students who knew Jeff and co-director Arthur Flowers at the Summer Literary Seminars in Kenya a couple of years back. They were extremely excited that Jeff began this program based on his thought that African and Americans should study under both faculty from the country and those whoâ€™ve studied it. Much of the faculty came from America (Yusef Komunyakaa, Matthew Sharpe, Faith Prince), but there were also members from South Africa (Niq Mholongo), Kenya (Binyavanga Wainaina), Nigeria (Hope Eghagha), and Liberia (Patricia Jabbeh Wesley).
What was great about the variety of instructors was the array of knowledge they brought about in their workshop classes and also the relaxed nature of us all being around each other. Poet Patricia Wesley now resides in the United States after exile from her home country of Monrovia, Liberia. Such a loving and maternal woman she showed much concern when I got sick. Sheâ€™s also very carefree, outspoken, and professional. She wore lovely skirts and dress suits to class even in weather that was extremely hot. She told me that it was better to have meat on my bones then be a stick because men preferred that. And her laugh was so hearty that you couldnâ€™t help but laugh with her. I had the pleasure of being in Binyavanga Wainainaâ€™s fiction workshop. Heâ€™s the Founding Editor of Kenyaâ€™s Kwani magazine and an award-winning author. Binyavanga (who was referred to as Binya for the most part) had a boisterous personality and was so approachable that many of the students enjoyed having drinks or sharing a cigarette with him. His advice in our fiction workshop was profound with basic tidbits like getting that first draft out of the way before focusing on the nitty gritty details. Banter was always lively in Binyavangaâ€™s class. After class the evenings were full of readings and panel discussions from visiting authors or attendees. There was a panel on magazine publishing and the next day one on book publishing with Atria Books VP Malaika Adero present.
Each evening we were treated to hearing the work of those around us from Tyehimba Jessâ€™s stirring recitation of his poem â€œleadbellyâ€ to Arthur Flowers blues-filled rendition from one of his novels to the PALF contest winners in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry reading portions of their winning pieces to the crowd it was refreshing to be surrounded by such an enigmatic and focused group of artists.
The surroundings of Africa played a part in inspiration. While I was in a foreign land the people were helpful, the vendors only slightly abrasive when it came to sales, and the food tinged with spices I relished. My biggest concern in Ghana was explaining to a cab driver how to get to specific places. In Accra landmarks are the best way to illustrate where you need to go. So explaining how to get to the W.E.B. DuBois center involved knowing where the U.S. Embassy was or getting to Ghanaâ€™s NYU Center you had to know where the ChurCheese (Accraâ€™s Chuck E Cheese equivalent) was located.
After ten days of city life, five days of workshops, and evenings packed with readings the group of us traveled to a retreat location in Kokrobite. There we were in a more remote area where the difference of the culture was more apparent. Huts lined the dirt roads where women braided hair for the equivalent of $17 USD. Along the main road one could purchase various types of homemade foods including fish, jollof rice, and other dishes. At one stop two ladies and I ended up buying beads galore while playing with the daughter of the man selling the lustrous necklaces and bracelets. Girls in green and yellow school uniforms bid us â€œgood afternoonâ€ as we walked up and down the streets in search of a hip location called Big Millieâ€™s. On the beach of Kokrobite we met up with some Rastafarians who gave us a good deal on a bulk of beads. It was upon my return to Accra later that week that a vendor on one of the main streets said he loved Americans because we always spend money when visiting Africa. Needless to say my street purchases had me bombarded with sales men to the point where I couldnâ€™t help but purchase more items that would remind me of my time there.
At PALF I met people who inspired me to progress in my own work. Women whoâ€™ve worked on novels for ten years, others whoâ€™ve researched theirs for several years and just had to get pen to paper, and some who were still struggling (like me) but were making strides with the aid of an instructor or two. The best part of PALF was that the education never stopped and the camaraderie was constant.
One of the best nights in Ghana was when a group of us listened to a live band near the beach and danced in the rain. Poets, fiction, and non-fiction writersâ€™ alike bonding, enjoying the mixed sounds of African beats intermixed with reggae and rock as we slid our feet against wet tile to enjoy an evening in paradise.
WORDS: Jennifer Baker-Henry