Saturday, May 2, 2015

My experience at the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop in Ghana

I was one of the participants of the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop which was held in Elmina, a picturesque coastal town in Ghana from April 6th to 19th. I travelled from Douala on Ethiopian Airlines, so I spent the night in Addis Ababa and boarded the long flight to Accra the next morning. We landed at the Kutoka International Airport in Accra in the afternoon and I proceeded to Immigration, to get my Visa stamped, since what I used to travel was a pre-arranged Visa. What impressed me first about KIA is its decent infrastructure and neat, interior designing.

An immigration officer looked at me and said,
“You’re a nice guy!” I was taken aback. Immigration officers in my country don’t lavish such beautiful compliments on anyone. They are either non-committal to you or they scold you. So I asked him,
“Why do you say that?”
“There are some people that when you see them, you begin to shiver. But you! I don’t think so. Where are you from?”
“Cameroon,” I answered.
 “It doesn’t matter where you are from, you’re a nice guy.” I felt flattered. Being airport staff myself, I knew he said that from his profiling of me, with respect to fake documents or illegalities.

The second officer who stamped my Visa pronounced my town of birth with a certain familiarity that something told me that he knew the place,
“Nkiacha, born in Kumba!” I halted, trying not to think of the exaggerated infamous stories of my birth place. But as he returned my passport, he added,
“I attended CPC Bali.”
“Oh! Really! Good to know.”
(CPC Bali is one of the first Secondary schools in Anglophone Cameroon.) We spoke French briefly after that. The “nice guy” one warmed up to my chat so much he even gave me his phone number.

I left for the arrival hall. A gentleman gave me a cart, placed my bags on it and told me,
“Welcome to Ghana”. It was another commendable act of gallantry. So off I went thinking about first impressions. “Ghanaians are generally hospitable, friendly people, birthplace of pan-Africanism really.” Then a voice boomed,
“This way sir, Customs.” (Damn it.)
“Anything to declare? Currency? Goods?” the man asked, his eyes on my bags.
“Nothing. Only clothing.”
“So where are you from?” he asked, spotting my foreign accent.
He sighed.  “You people came here in 2008 and eliminated Ghana in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations,” he snapped and flung his hand away dismissively. The unexpected reproach made me laugh, as I remembered the 1-0 defeat. An eight year grudge! Does he know our team has suddenly become the dead lions?
“I’m sorry about that.”   
Okay, first impressions. “Hospitable, gentle Ghanaians, customs officer exclusive.
I noted again that, Ghanaians generally speak their native languages among themselves, more than they speak English, especially twi. (I later learnt about others like Fante, Hausa, Ewe, Ga etc.) Once I was out of the arrival hall, I spotted my name on a piece of paper, held by the Hotel staff who came to pick me up. I shook his hand and saw another invitee, Malawian writer, Jonathan Mbuna and we were both driven to the Coconut Grove Regency in Accra.

Accra looked like the better behaved twin of my city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The commercial hustle and bustle was palpable. There were throngs of people in every street corner and avenue. I saw a multitude of impressive buildings and neat wide roads, garnished by lots of traffic lights and a glut of cars and taxis plying them. I noticed that the colour of their taxis is a mixture of grey and yellow, unlike ours which are plain yellow. The names of the businesses were entertainment; Downtown Virgins Auto garage, Shalom fast food, Glee Oil etc. We drove past the state house and I was puzzled it is along the road. Ours is a swanky mansion safely tucked away from public view in Yaoundé. The Accra presidency looks more statehouse like, with its pentagon like, slightly circular frame and grayish compartments and floors, surrounded by high flying Ghanaian flags. Accra is also a city with better architectural symmetry than Douala. Traffic lights at almost every junction guide movement, especially during hold ups. Though there weren’t any traffic jams as we smoothly made our way to the Regency.

I introduced myself to the other wordsmiths and director of the Caine Prize, Lizzy Attree who had all spent the night there. Some of us had already met virtually, so it was a boon to actually meet in person. After lunch, we all hopped onto two buses and began our long drive to Elmina, the coastal town in the Central region where we were based. Brainy conversations trickled on all subjects in our bus and I was impressed by the intellect of young Efemia Chela who sat next to me, telling me about Ghanaian life.
“Oh look,” she quickly pointed at a boy selling West African garden snails in a bowl and I gasped at their gigantic size as we drove past. I was asked about writing in English and not French, since I am from a “Francophone country”. I explained that I write in English which I am more versed in and some French which I studied in school. But I am Anglophone Cameroonian, though living and working in a Francophone city. Little correction, Cameroon is a bilingual country, though predominantly Francophone.

Our conversation sort of paused when we drove past a car accident scene. Pede Hollist finally broke the silence a few minutes later,
“I noticed we were all quiet. So what inference can we draw from that?”
“It was heart breaking. But it seemed nobody died, only injuries. I saw a lady with some blood on her body,” someone answered. That was the only sad moment in our bus trip. Nature consoled us with scenic views of lagoons, fresh foliage and beautiful villages like Winneba and Anomabo, where we saw a clown who had disguised like a woman at a small beach party. We drove along the coastline, where hundreds of wild coconut trees lined the seashore and its waters breathed fresh breeze on us. The bluish green sea was quite a sight, as its gruff water currents splashed noisily against the shores, leaving behind a meshwork of brown seaweeds. After three and a half hours, we finally arrived at the eye catching, Coconut Grove Beach Resort Elmina, a plush seaside hotel built in a grove of wild coconut trees. It has entertained guests such as Kofi Annan, Serena Williams and Bono.  After checking into our rooms, we later had dinner and chatted at length, to know ourselves better.

There was a lot of entertainment the next day; delicious food and wine, swimming in the beautiful ocean, table tennis, crocodile viewing in the pond and horse riding. I rode a horse for my first time and saw my first donkey too. We all assembled in the conference hall at 5.00PM and our facilitator, wonderful Sudanese novelist and first winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Abouleila, gave us a guided imagery writing exercise to do, to send us into writing gear. We wrote and read the short pieces. From the readings and discussion of the short stories we intended writing, it was already evident how different and unique we all were. Our second facilitator, South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner joined us two days later and she was another amazing and funny writer to complete the very panafrican group of fictioneers.

 (Left to Right) Diane Awerbuck (South Africa), Dalle Abraham (kenya), Jonathan Dotse (Ghana), Facilitator Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa), Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi), Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana), Jemila Abdulai (Ghana), Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria), Efemia Chela (Ghana, Zambia), Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya), Aisha Nelson (Ghana), Onipede Hollist (Sierra Leone), Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon), Facilitator Leila Abouleila (Sudan).

So it was on. We wrote and wrote and then wrote some more. Each evening, there were readings of work in progress by three writers. The facilitators gave feedback, suggestions and positive criticisms to make the stories better. The other writers did too. Each reader had the option to either accept, modify or reject the suggestions. I worked on one short story and stuck with it all along. I judged most of the feedback to my story helpful. Apart from the facilitators, I also profited from the knowledge of writers/teachers like Diane Awerbuck and Pede Hollist. The workshop was also an opportunity for me to network with other writers and understand their different creative processes. By the time our stories were concluded, it was no surprise that the range was so wide; from realist fiction to science fiction, tragedy to comedy, stories set in the earth’s water bodies to high up in the air, aboard a plane, to be published along with the 5 shortlisted stories this year in the Caine anthology in July by New Internationalist. Don’t miss out on that literary feast!

Evening readings of work in progress

Apart from writing, there were other events that spiced up the workshop. Some of us did radio interviews on City 93.5 FM organized by Writers Project Ghana. I did mine with Jonathan Mbuna and Akwaeke Emezi. We generally talked about our writing journeys and Caine prize workshop experience. Five other writers had done theirs at the Regency in Accra the night before I arrived. The proprietor of the hotel, businessman, Mr. Kwesi Nduom also came to see us, to encourage our work and said he wished we attained all our objectives. Groupe Nduom was also a sponsor of this year’s workshop, together with a couple of other funders.

Acclaimed Ghanaian writer, Kojo Laing also visited us one Monday. Before he started his conversation, he looked at Ghanaian writer, Jonathan Dotse and I sitting next to each other and asked if we were twins. I laughed and said, I never even knew Dotse before the workshop. He talked about his writing, precisely his love for poetry which led him to writing prose. He said he writes his novels the same way he writes poetry. His main interest is surrealism. And he is very stubborn, he doesn’t listen to any writing suggestions. He told us too, without boastfulness, that he doesn’t submit his work to publishers. They usually write to him asking for his manuscripts to publish. And I remember thinking, “that’s such a luxury!” He talked about his beliefs surrounding death and cremations. Then he took a photo with us after the talk and joined us for lunch before leaving.
Kojo Laing with Lizzy Attree and Leila Abouleila

We also visited some secondary schools in groups, to talk about writing and reading and to encourage the students to do so. I visited the Catholic Girls Junior Secondary School, Elmina with Zukiswa, Dotse and Akwaeke. I read to the students from my children’s short story illustrations book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and they enjoyed it. The girls showed so much interest in the book, relishing the cartoon illustrations and passing it on, so I gifted my copy to the school. We asked if they had written any short stories that they could share with us. They were initially shy but soon warmed up to Zukiswa’s arresting presence and produced three stories, read by three different authors. We were impressed by their writing skills. Akwaeke never forgot a beautiful line from one of the girls’ stories about a promiscuous female character,
“She was a rolling stone in the hands of men.” Wow! But there was a scene where a character received a “wonderful slap” and I gasped. Before we left, we informed the headmaster about some children’s short story competitions and urged the girls to submit their stories online.  

On our last Wednesday, we travelled to the village of Kakum and visited the Kakum National Park. It is a protected forest which is home to the forest elephant, yellow b acked duiker, 300 species of birds and 600 species of butterflies. The forest guide told us it was unlikely that we were going to see the animals because they are mostly nocturnal and human noise scares them away, so they hide. The marvel of the park is the canopy walk 250 metres above sea level and above the forest. The canopy walk is done on eight hanging bridges, linked atop the forest’s tallest trees. The view of the forest from above is really stunning but equally terrifying. It is a vast expanse of lush greenery that spreads on all sides, as if you were watching it from a helicopter. But the amazing part of the whole thing is that, no matter how hard you look below, you cannot see the forest floor, only tree tops in the middle layer. The more you look, the scarier it becomes, coupled with the fact that the bridges swing. We did the canopy walk successfully. There have been zero accidents since construction. The bridges are safe and undergo maintenance often.

Next up, we proceeded to Cape Coast to visit the Cape Coast Castle near the sea. It was built around 1760 by the Portuguese as a trade centre for gold, ivory and later slaves from many parts of Africa. It was finally ceased by the British. There are canons around it. Even the cannon balls are still there. A fort was built nearby, where soldiers were stationed, to fend off any impending European attack. The castle guide took us through the dark dungeons and cells and told us the gruesome slave stories, about men and women who were packed in there and they lived in the most horrible conditions, defecating, peeing and menstruating on themselves, with little food and water. The women were raped repeatedly. The ones who resisted rape were locked in dark cells and starved to death. Stubborn men also faced the same treatment. And when they died, their corpses were never buried. They were simply thrown into the nearby sea.

But the tough ones who clung onto hope and survived, walked through the “Door of no return” in heavy metal chains, onto ships anchored near the castle and sailed off to America and the Caribbean.  At that moment, you ceased to be Fanti, Ga, Hausa, Ewe, Akan and other African tribes. Your name faded. Your tribesmen and family became a memory, your identity flickered out like a burnt candle, your language slowly disappeared like a sinking ship (for you were with other Africans who didn’t speak your mother tongue) and the Cape Coast beach became a mirage that disappeared too, as the ship slowly sailed away. You simply became “slave”, toiling for the rest of your life on never ending plantations overseas. The castle visit is a terrible experience. It has pulled hundreds of people to tears.

We didn’t visit the oldest castle in Ghana, the Elmina Castle, as a group because of time. That didn’t go down well with me. “How can we live in Elmina without visiting the five century old castle?” I wondered aloud to Kenyan writer, Kiprop Kimutai. So a few days later, Kiprop and I did a private trip to the grand old castle. It was built way back in 1482 by the Portuguese (who shipped their slaves to Brazil.) It was later captured by the Dutch in 1637, (who shipped their slaves to Suriname and Guiana) and then purchased by the British in 1872. Though the British shipped their slaves to America and the Caribbean from other castles, they never did so at Elmina Castle.

Elmina is a bigger castle than Cape Coast though it has fewer canons. However, there is Fort Jaego nearby, where European soldiers guarded the castle. It is as brutish as Cape Coast, perhaps even more. There is a female dungeon there where the scent of feces, urine and blood is still intact till date. The third and smallest castle exists in Accra but none of us visited it. I heard it has little grandeur and isn’t as historic as the aforementioned ones.

Back at the Coconut Grove, we submitted our final drafts to the facilitators and witnessed a spectacular traditional dance by the Akumapa Culture Group on our last afternoon. They were men who danced traditional rhythms so acrobatically and engulfed fire sticks in their mouths. I froze when I heard one drum rhythm which was so close to that of the Nteuh dance from my tribe. I joined the men and played the drums, before heading out to our bonfire night with calabashes of fresh palm wine. And there was dancing, a lot of contemporary African music.

The next day, we bade painful “au revoir” to Coconut Grove Hotel Elmina and traveled back to the Regency in Accra, to prepare for our literary event at the Goethe Institute. There were short speeches by Prudential Plc representatives, this year’s main sponsor of our workshop and by Lizzy Attree. After that, Jemila, Kiprop, Leila and Zukiswa did readings of their works to great applause. A panel discussion of African Literature by Pede Hollist, Nana Nyarko Boateng, Jonathan Dotse, Jonathan Mbuna and myself followed. The audience was engaging with questions about our writing perspectives and the literary scene back in our various countries. There were also book sales, book signings, meet ups and chats. The event ended on a high note, which was also formally, the end of our workshop.

 As I embarked the bus to the airport the next morning, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, after participating in one of the prestigious creative writing workshops in Africa, in that hospitable land of Kwame Nkrummah, where many people and even the signposts tell you “Akwaaba” (welcome) and the people are always ready to make you their “Charle” (friend).  

"Nkiacha Atemnkeng catching a candid group lunch shot" Akwaeke Emezi
Listening to Kojo Laing
Sitting on the canoe with Kiprop Kimutai and Jonathan Dotse
A grove of coconut trees at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort
Visiting Kakum National Park with the whole writers crew
Honoured to be on the panel. Sitting on the right, next to Lizzy Attree in red
with Leila Abouleila at the Goethe Institute in Accra
with Zukiswa Wanner at the Goethe Institute in Accra 
with Caine Prize director Lizzy Attree
with Efemia Chela
with Diane Awerbuck
Leaving Cocunut Grove Regency Accra
Kutoka International Airport Accra
Addis Ababa

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