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24.11.2009 Feature Article

The Tale Of The Tail By Cameron Duodu

The Tale Of The Tail By Cameron Duodu
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THE most precious thing about youth is the way it enables one to speak directly. What is in the mind is what comes out of the mouth. Experience has not yet taught the tongue the art of self-censorship; the thought of gain has not yet buried innocence in the graveyard of double-talk and mumbled euphemism.

When I met Nii Ayi Kwei Parkes at the launching of his first novel, The Tail of the Blue Bird (Jonathan Cape, London) I remarked to him that it was brave of him to use so many Ghanaian expressions in a novel that he was publishing in London. He didn

't think it was 'brave' at all -- just natural. Fortunately, he'd been given an editor who appreciated the immense contribution such expressions made to the beauty of the language he had used.

Can you imagine the normal holder of an English Lit. degree agreeing to retain an expression like,

“We were at our somewhere when they came”? Out would come the red pencil and in would go something like this: “We were inhabiting our dwelling place minding our own business when…!” The simple word “at”, used as a verb, conveys more than the five oe six words supplied by the red pencil. And the special meaning of “somewhere” is lost altogether in the "edited" version. "We were at our somewhere." How elegantin its simplicty. If only all publishers would allow African writers to write what they want to write.

Nii Parkes, who is 35 years old, fills his novel with many such

'Ghanaianisms', and the work is all the richer for it. But that's not all. He is also a poet -- poetry seems to run through his family line:Ghanaian of an earlier generation may remember his uncle, the late Frank Parkes, whose immortal words:Give me black souls

Let them be black
Or chocolate brown
'the African personality' campaign of the politicians who ruled us after independence.

Well, Nii Parkes writes with the economy and discipline of the poet, while regaling us with rich word pictures of the contrasing t worlds of the characters in the novel, such as the hunter who says that he can hear sounds

“brightly” because he is used to the darkness of the forest. And all this written with the rhythmic cadences of a writer used to writing poetry for oral rendition,.

And yet, the book is essentially a book of crime detection (note that I don't say a 'detective story', which would be too pat a description and would indeed immediately typecast the novel as a who-dunnit). The plot, wonderful as it is, is but a vehicle for delighting those who care about language, with a magnificent display of word play. What did E M Forster say about the novel's need for a plot? “Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story”. In other words, Nii Parkes has rediscovered the novel as the most convenient way of taking the reader on a literary journey on which there are no police posts where one may be stopped and asked for a bribe.

On this journey, Parkes takes us across rivers that are forded when they make their unexpected appearance on the road; where there are no bridges, 'dugouts' will do. Dugouts that take the form of 'exotic (in the sense of unEnglish) ' words like: agoo, amee, Awurade, bassabasa, Chale, kama, Paa and sebi. The use of “sebi” in particular, to allow for words and statements that would not normally be used in 'polite' company, is immensely effective. There is no equivalent of that in English, except perhaps, the feeble: “Excuse me to say”.

The politico'literary statement that Nii Parkes makes, though not in so many words, is this: “When I was in school in Ghana, I came across words like 'snow' and 'finch' of which I had absolutely no idea; why can't I, in my turn, acquaint you with “sebi”? And when he lets the bombshell drop, in the form of the proverb that follows “sebi”, you realise you are in the presence of a culture whose expressions could be as explicit as you like but which contain an inbuilt mechanism that exempts its aphorisms from the merely vulgar.

Okay, so you ask, what is the novel about? It is about a young man, Kayo, who studies forensic medicine in England and returns to Ghana with his qualification. The police department is queasy about employing him, since it knows that it has "a 99 percent record" of “successful interrogation” and therefore does not need the elaborate exercise of patiently gathering evidence to take to court to secure a conviction, on the basis of the evidence of a forensic scientist.

But the police department is faced with an unusual problem when the girl friend of a powerful man goes to her village and is confronted there with what seems to be a murder. Suddenly, in order to satisfy the big man and safeguard its own position, the department remembers that Kayo's forensic services are available. So Kayo is dispatched to Sono village. How does he relate to the people there? How do they take to him? Is he able to solve the crime?

If you have a credit card, or you know someone in the UK who won't begrudge you the expenditure of ten pounds or so with his or her credit card, let him order the book for you from
Or have it ordered direct from Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA UK . You are in for a real treat if you do so. It's definitely an “unputdown-able” book! Wit, satire, mock politicking -- it's all there. Like the incandescent colours you can expect from the tail of a blue bird, and the tales that that tail could tell you. were it to be able to verbalise all that it had observed from the numerous tree branches on which it had perched.

I had always thought of Mr Ibrahim Mahama of the Convention Party as a politician and was therefore delighted to receive, through the good offices of a mutual friend, Napoleon Abdulai, a slim volume he's just written on the history of Northern Ghana. A little digging told me that actually, he has published 3 books altogether. Entitled A Colonial History of Northern Ghana, lthis latest work of 138 pages is the first exhaustive work by a Ghanaian I have read on the colonisation of Northern Ghana. It sets out the chequered history of the region, as it passed through the hands of the Germans, the French and the British.

The book conveys in an unemotional but cutting terms, the feeling of frustration that the people of the area have experienced as a result of how their ethnic groups, once powerful and largely homogenous, were carved up by the colonial powers, at different times, without giving any thought to the interests of the people of the area, let alone doing it in proper consultation with them. Thus [he writes] the Mamprusi and the Dagomba still mourn their loss of territory to the Republic of Togo, as a result of German occupation of the Eastern part of their country. The incorporation of the Mossi kingdom into Burkina Faso is similarly lamented.

It is Mr Mahama's belief that the Northern People's Party (NPP) would have been better off if it had stayed in alliance with the Convention People's Party (CPP) instead of joining the National Liberation Movement (NLM) to form the United Party (UP) and thereby “surrendering” the leadership of the parliamentary opposition to its “junior partner” the NLM. The book is published by Gillbt Printing Press, P.O. Box TL378, Tamale, Northern Region. No price is given. We in Southern Ghana are unashamedly ignorant of the North/ Reading this book will help tpredress the balance. Somewhat.

Development / Accra / Ghana / Africa /

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2009

Martin Cameron Duodu is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a career as a journalist and editorialist.Column: CameronDuodu

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