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The Litro Literary Weekender: 25 May 2017 at Waterstones @ 203 Piccadilly, London

Jun 8, 2017

Literature of the City via Ato Quayson’s Oxford Street, Accra
The Litro Literary Weekender: 25 May 2017 at Waterstones @ 203 Piccadilly, London SW1J 9HD


Transcripts of the Social Imaginary in Accra – On tro-tro and other slogans in Ghana

According to Ato Quayson, when Ghanaweb posted an item by Karen Leigh in the New York Times listing Accra as the 4th most desirable destination out of 46 places in the world in a survey in 2013, it caused ripples on (the Ghanaian website that carries information and news on the country for both locals and the Ghanaian Diaspora), the news crashed the system.

Quayson said his inspiration for publishing Oxford Street, Accra (2014: Duke University Press) was due of an unsettling comment by his childhood friend Jeeba when he visited him at his home at the Ringway Estates  (not far from Oxford Street in Accra) to have lunch and “shoot the breeze” (another common Ghanaianism) which implied that he was mistaking Oxford Street for a street in Romeo and Juliet!

Writing Oxford Street, Accra therefore became a product of his quest for understanding that unsettling feeling he felt after his friend’s remark that implied that despite growing up in Accra he knew more about Shakespeare than the city that had shaped his childhood.

Accra the city of my birth means different things to different people…

Accra, or Ga as the indigenous people of Accra call their city or Nkran as the Twi’s or Akans prefer to call it (and incidentally the people from Accra are also called Gas) is a hub of economic, social and cultural activity for Ghanaians as well as visitors from within or outside the city.  Visitors to Accra regard it as one of the most economically stable places in Africa.

Oxford Street, Accra the title of Quayson’s book forms the major backdrop of his research for the publication – to achieve this incredible feat he delved into the historical, architectural, cultural and economic as well as the social aspects of Oxford Street as no other book I have read has achieved before.

Ato asked me to read the manuscript and make recommendations (as a native Ga speaker born in Accra) and I remember telling him after reading it that his book will become a classic and will win awards – which it has done.

Ato has promised to deliver my “proverbial” stone when he sees me in person – this is because in Ghanaian culture when someone prophesizes an event that will happen and it does – you give them a stone.

Historical perspective

Accra is the modern political and economic capital of Ghana and Ghana’s most populous city with an estimated urban population of 2.7 million as of 2012. It is also the capital of the Greater Accra Region and of the Accra Metropolis District.

The Greater Accra Metropolitan Areas (or GAMA) is inhabited by about 4 million people and is the 13th largest metropolitan area in Africa.

Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast) was first colonized by the Portuguese between 1500 and 1578 where they built a trading fort which provided an outlet for the European slave trade with the Ga people who where themselves migrants from the surrounding inland hills of the region. Then in 1642 came the Dutch who expelled the Portuguese. Thereafter there was a war between the English and the Dutch over the Gold Coast trade monopoly. And after the treaty of Breda in 1672, the victorious English established their own trading posts in Accra that was eventually expanded into a fortress and built other fortresses in Elmina and Cape Coast on the eastern coast of Ghana.

Accra, the capital has welcomed business travellers for many years and now tourists due to the New York Times recommendation as one of the most attractive destinations. Other attractive qualities include the recommendation by reputable international financial institutions that rate Ghana as a safe place for investment thus the recent phenomenon of tourists streaming in is a by-product of the fact that the country has Africa’s fastest growing economy and is also one of safest destinations.

Accra is a city (like London) that never goes to sleep…

One of the major attractions of Accra is the famous Makola Market spread over several acres and based in the central district of Accra.  The market women in Accra are ‘feared and revered’ for their commercial and business acumen. They are creative and resourceful and are regarded as the backbone of the Ghanaian economy.  Subsequent Ghanaian governments have had to tread carefully around them because ‘when they sneeze the Ghanaian economy catches a cold.’

There is also the famous Osu Night Market with its array of delicious Ghanaian delicacies such as domedo, tsitsinga and jollof rice as well as an international cuisine.

Due to the continuing success of Ghana young and growing confidence in its democratic political structures, Accra enjoys an array of international facilities including 4 and 5-star hotels museums, art galleries, boutiques, shopping malls, a national theatre, an international trade fair centre, international sports stadiums, universities and string of international banks and diplomatic missions.

And of course another attraction of Accra is its beaches. The Atlantic Ocean provides not just food for its Accra inhabitants and visitors but is a major of recreational space.

Sayings and Inscriptions  - The Ghanaian Character

… Ghanaians are full of sayings that are deeply embedded in our culture and the oral nature of our literature and I think harks back to the orality of our languages which rely on the spoken word rather than the written to transmit and communicate messages of our daily realities.

These are sayings of wisdom and witticisms that have deeper meaning and acts as a kind of ‘Ghanaian graffiti’ that helps us to navigate and negotiate the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of the Ghanaian cultural space.

As Quayson book attests, these sayings are usually captured in either local Ghanaian languages or in English on the back of tro-tro vehicles, passenger lorries, taxis, peoples houses, shop fronts, private cars, signwriting billboards, fishing canoes, wheel carts, kiosks, mobile food vendors carts and basically any available space upon which it is possible to write tell us about the relation between orality, visuality, writing and the overall social imaginary of this growing and elusive metropolis as a way of articulating peoples’ thoughts and feelings.

Ato Quayson’s analysis re Ghanaian Sayings

According Quayson: In Africa, literacy occupies an ambiguous place in a world that is still largely dominated by orality.

Orality is not just a mode of speech different from writing; it undergirds an entire way of life.  More importantly, the traditional aesthetic forms that are abound within African orality impact upon everyday environments as well as in more formal ritual contexts.

While the general ethos of orality is readily captured in the proverbs that are liberally sprinkled in Things Fall Apart, it is their widespread use in all kinds of urban contexts that show how much of what we see around us is a continuing negotiation between tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing world.

Therefore as Accra tro-tro slogan has it:  “Wan Hwe Nu Yie a, Wo Nhu Nu Yie” or “If You Don’t Look Well, You Will Not See Well”…

“As If But Not”: (means: one is pretending to be what ones not)

“Mama Chocolate”: A Short Man is not a boy” (this saying carries subtle sexual innuendoes)

“Sea Never Dry”: (refers to reliability and dependability)

“Red Eyes Never Lights a Fire:” (or envy never lights a fire)

“Ahene Pa Nkasa:” (in praise of distinction – good beads do not announce themselves noisely) or as we know it: ‘empty barrels make the most noise…

And finally…

“Tsoo Ohami Laimomo”: (refers to romance and an old flame)

Quayson insists and I paraphrase that: “To understand these spatial dynamics we have to think of the phenomena on the street – social, economic, cultural, historical and political – as first and foremost intersectional. And despite the invocation of its namesake in London, the intersectionality of the phenomena on the street is only partly that between the global and the local; more suggestively, it is the conjuncture between variant and sometimes quite contradictory forms of activities that produce Oxford Street’s peculiar character. It is in the context of this larger urban evolution of Accra in general that Oxford Street acts as both prism and counterpoint to what is happening elsewhere in the city.”  -- And I would like to add to that:  and what is happening in our imagination.

His book uses Oxford Street as an entry point and the key to opening up different dimensions of the evolution of the city.

Thus turned one way, the street leads us into the history of the city’s different spatial ecologies; turned another way it reveals the story f the absorption of stranger-groups such as the Afro-Brazilians of the mid-nineteenth century. These were transnational returnee slaves from the New World (US etc). However, these were not the only groups absorbed into the city’s fabric. Significant too were the many Syro-Lebanese traders who came to settle after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and the wave of labour migrants from the north of the country who have contributed so much to Accra’s cultural evolution and can usually be found in Accra’s New Town (or Sabongaris as the Hausas called it).

As mentioned before, opportunities to adorn available surfaces with inscriptions and slogans reveal a lot about relationships and how to navigate them.

He insists that there is actually more to discover from looking around one’s surroundings attentively than from reading any number of books or novels.

In other words, Quayson observes that Accra’s urban space is absolutely full of writing. There is writing literally everywhere and not just on the standard large billboards that are common place with every big city in Africa and elsewhere.

In Accra the surfaces on which the writing is to be found are appropriated as part of a cultural procedure for displaying distinctive experiences and for sharing proverbs and wise sayings as object lessons to serendipitous and not-so-casual observers on the street.

These are specific cultural phenomena that are deeply African.

No one captures the essence of these African sayings or proverbs better in my humble opinion than Africa’s most highly celebrated writer the late Chinua Achebe who famously wrote that:

“Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten…”

Here are some of my favourite Achebeisms:

“Wisdom is like a goat skin bag: every man carries his own”…

“Intelligence is like underwear. It is important that you have it, but not necessary that you show it off.”

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

“If a child washed his hands, he could eat with elders or kings.”

“… The modern African writer is to his indigenous oral tradition as a snail is to its shell. Even in a foreign habitat, a snail never leaves its shell behind” (Solomon Iyasere in Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature).

And finally, my all-time favourite saying by Achebe

“African people did not hear about culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all they had dignity."

Thank you very much. And I recommend that you buy a copy of the book.


West Africa Through Its Cusine
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen Book
Litro Literary Weekender: 25 May 2017 at Waterstones @ 203 Piccadilly, London


Zoe Andjonyoh’s Ghana Kitchen and which is the Best:
Ghanaian or Nigerian ‘Jollof’ rice?

Zoe: I have been reading and avidly following your articles on Ghanaian cusine in the Guardian with great interest and excitement and it gives me real pleasure to meet you here in person.

When you said: ‘my only access to Ghana was food’ – what do you mean and can you please expand on that?

Zoe: you say in the Introduction to your beautifully crafted and deliciously produced book Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen that your inspiration for writing the book was peoples’ reaction to you whenever you mentioned Ghanaian food.

Why do you think that African food has been so marginalized in people’s consciousness in the West?

Zoe: you say again in your Intro that: ‘I am not a trained chef I am self-taught. And the point of this book is not to give a definite guide to Ghanaian cusine but to highlight Ghana’s great ingredients, subtle flavour profiles and cooking methods.’

And when you mentioned the ‘holy trinity’ of ingredients in Ghanaian cooking my eyes lit up! For the purposes of those who have not read your book what are these ingredients and how can people incorporate them in their daily cooking? (onion, fresh root ginger and chilli added to tomatoes) and you call yours “chalé sauce” – you couldn’t get more Ghanaian if you tried...

Zoe: you said: ‘ you will note that almost every indigenous Ghanaian spice has both a cooking and medicinal purpose and also there are many spices and herbs used in Ghana that are common to cooking worldwide’ – can you expand on some of the medicinal aspects of these spices – such as ginger?

Zoe: you said; ‘I believe we are on the cusp of an African food revolution – In what way?

Zoe: you said; “for too long Africans have kept their amazing food a greedy secret cooked and closely guarded by mothers and grandmothers in the home.” And yet it was your Dad who gave you precisely one cooking lesson when you were 10 years old. How did your love for cooking Ghanaian foods developed from that stage?

Zoe: it seems young entrepreneurs from across the Diaspora are reaching back into their past for an anchor while their first generation immigrant parents travel in the other direction pushing towards a new life in the UK. Somewhere in the middle between pride, curiosity and ambition, these visions clash. How do you navigate these spaces?

Zoe: You said:  your main mission behind Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is that ‘very good West African restaurants exists in London and other cities in the West and yet there has been no attempt to encourage the crossover of these cusines into mainstream eating – until now!” To share the passion and secrets”… How far would you like to take this?

Zoe: I am delighted to see so many variations of veggie meals in your book because Ghanaian and more so African cusine in general tends to be heavily meat based.

How do you research into the nutritional value of your recipes?

Zoe: I read and enjoyed your visits to Accra - in one of your articles in the Guardian, you describe ‘Accra’s Jamestown as electric – its like Hackney Wick on steroids’…

Tell us a bit more about your experiences in Jamestown and your visit to the Kaneshie market on your research trips…

Zoe: I like the way you use authentic Ghanaian names for recipes in your book – names such as:

Waakye (Rice and beans)

Aboboi (Banbara Bean Stew)

Nkati Nkwan (Groundnut Soup)

Nkruma Nkwan (Okro Soup)

Nkrankra (Light Soup)

Gari Foto (childhood favourite and very easy to prepare)

Red Red Stew (also popularily known as in Ghanaian circles as “palava sauce)

Kyinkinga (meat kebab)

Nkontomire Froe (Spinach Stew)

Ntroba Froe (Garden Egg & Okra Stew

Ewe Fetri Detsi

And the elephant in the room – Jollof Rice!!!

Rumour has it that last year when the Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Nigeria, he described Nigerian jollof as delicious but was immediately cautioned by his close Nigerian friend not to compare Nigerian jollof to that of other countries.

I know there’s currently a raging argument about which country makes the best jollof rice in West Africa?

Ghana or Nigeria?

I have it on good authority that Ghanaian jollof is simply ‘superior’ to the Nigerian one by the outgoing British High Commissioner to Ghana – Mr Jon Benjamin.

And according to Mr Benjamin, he enjoys telling his Nigerian friends that Ghanaian jollof is tastier than Nigerian jollof!

In response to a tweet on what his favourite Ghanaian dish was, the British diplomat tweeted back: Ghanaian jollof rice. The GH version is of course the superior one… to all the others.

But was he just being a diplomat or what…?

I realize he and I may both be a bit biased. But, (wait for this… drum roll…!!!!!)

Nigerian Afrobeats star, Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun (also known in showbiz circles as “Wizkid”) is the latest artist to wade into the Ghana/Nigerian best jollof battle!

Wizkid, 26, said he loves Nigerian Jollof but Ghanaian Jollof is bad, bad, bad!!!

“I love Nigerian Jollof 100 per cent but when I go to New York or I am in Ghana, my friend’s wife makes this crazy Ghana Jollof with some goat meat… it is real bad!” He told Ace in a recent BBC Radio 1Xtra interview in London.

I think the jury might be out but the evidence is clear –

Ghana 1   --- Nigerian O!

The trophy clearly belongs to Ghana. Yipeeee!!!

And finally, I cannot recommend Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen highly enough. Please buy a copy!

Thank you very much.

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