Monday, 20 May 2013

On Yari Yari

I attended the Yari Yari Ntoaso conference which was held from May 16-19, 2013. It was held in Accra at the College for Physicians and Doctors, which is a lovely facility by the way, but customer service was lacking. Howver, the organizers made up for it by having a great team of student volunteers who really held the conference together.

The conference theme was on “Continuing the Dialogue” on engaging the past, the present and the future. It was the best conference I ever attended. All the big names in African/Global literature were there. This conference opened my eyes in two ways.

The first way has propelled me to write more, and give attention to my writing. I was mostly using this blog as my first draft. Now I know this blog can be much more. Not just me writing when I have time, but making time to provide information and writing well. This point was particularly important because attendees included great writers such as Ama Ata Ado, Veronique Tadjo, Evelyne Trouillot, Zetta Elliot, Amma Darko, Malme Kabu and other political activist such as Angela Davis. Needleless to say, it was in a sea of perfection. This group was why museums were created…to show and spotlight greatness in society. This conference was on ongoing curatorial dialogue on perfection.

The conference was perfect in two ways. The first way was that the writers were world’s best. They took their craft seriously and they mastered it.  But that was not the most important to me. The most important point of this dialogue on perfection was that it took place in Accra; a place where perfection tends to be a foreign word. Where few acknowledge it and where fewer aim for it. I hope this conference left its mark on Ghana’s landscape and start the process of change. How could one not be influenced by Amma Darko, whose unfinished work almost caused me to commit a felony? I need that book.

The second reason why I enjoyed this conference was on the social level. Nina Chachu was kind enough to email me the link for the conference, which I had not heard about. I went through the program and noticed three Haitian names. I had not heard of the individuals before, nor was I familiar with their art. But I took the liberality to email them simply because I was Haitian, and so were they. But I didn’t email to say just hello. I emailed to impose my Haitianess on them. I asked if they could do favors for me, a Haitian, they didn’t know or had heard of. They each answered categorically yes. Why wouldn’t day do this favor? It was understood. It was not a problem. If anything, this is what we do. We travel to foreign countries and bring things back for one another. We take things to Haiti for friends and those we are hoping to meet. It’s part of our socialization…cooking more than enough just in case a non expectant drops by.
Many cultures will claim to have this, in their traditions, but few live up to this the way Haitians do. It’s not “the way of the past” but the way that we define who we are, still today.

Mamle Kabu spoke on identity and how identity is negotiated. She discussed that identity is not only how you define what you want others to think you are but it’s also their willingness to take your word for it by allowing you in or keeping you out. One of the Haitian presenters I emailed was the talented and fabulous Gabrielle Civil. She responded to my email but also included that she was half Haitian. Automatically my expectations changed. My first instinct was “Oh oh.” Would she “real” Haitian? Would we just flow? Would I be able to freely/wholly be Haitian with someone who was half?
Why did I automatically question her half-ness as problematic to my “wholeness?”  I struggled with these questions in college when I came into contact with Haitians with different backgrounds than me. It turns out that Gabrielle was as fantastic as I had envisioned, and even more so. But what if my curatorial creation of Haitianess  was different from hers? Would I have dismissed her as “not enough”?  Would I have been “humane” enough to see that “one” identity did not override others?

I realized that the anxiety of difference is precisely because it is not known and familiar. I “think” I know how a Haitian would act, respond and behave. I don’t know that of another group. And because my self-seeking needs are easily met with the known, I automatically dismiss the unknown. And similar to Mamle Kabu’s story, identity has more to do with those watching waiting to include or exclude. Because who you really are, will come out, flawlessly as Gabrielle’s performance proved.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Where is the talent?

Writer, Mamle Kabu, wrote a short story entitled, “The end of talent.” This story, among other themes, reveals the competitive nature of Kente creative production. Instead of recreating the same patterns over and over again, Kente weavers are motivated to always outdo themselves. They aim to produce a better product each time and to outshine their competitors. By so doing, they attract the attention of the major patron, the king, and gain the reputation of being the best. Too bad we can only say this of Kente weavers.

No one talks about being the best any more. What you hear is the rising rate of mediocrity. Far from aiming to become the best, the current population seeks to “just get by.”  In fact, one can make the argument that competition, the idea of outdoing others and being the best is not part of the general mantra.  What you find is people trying to do less than is expected of them. The doctors not showing up for work, the nurses sleeping on the job, the teachers sending students to work farms or to the market on their behalf or the bank teller unmotivated to be of any service and of course customer service as rare as Japanese speakers. In fact, what you hear often is that “why should I do my best, this is not my father’s.” People are only invested in doing a good job if they have something to inherit from it. And even then, they don’t; let’s take a look at all the inherited family houses and gaze at their conditions.

It’s also surprising to me the rising rate of mediocrity within the music industry. For a country that suffers constant electricity problems, water shortages, bad roads, poor schools, gender imbalances, sanitation problems and so much more, I cannot name one song that has tackled any of those topics. The only recent musician who had me pay attention was King Ayisoba with his “ I want to see you my father” where he laments on his father’s philandering and irresponsible ways. We can all relate. Why only him? Where are the other voices on the vices of our society? Is this not why Fela and Bob Marley remain legends? From Ayiti to Zimbabwe, everyone can relate to their music because they speak the universal truths of some of our societal tribulations.

So where are the musicians in Ghana? What are they expressing? If my favorite Ghanaians are telling the truth, and I suspect they are, the real artists are part of an underground movement. Their music is not heard on the radio airwaves because they cannot afford to bribe the radio presenters to play their songs. The fact is the only music you hear on radio stations in Ghana are by those who can afford the bribe to get their music played. In theory, I can do a demo of my 7 year old’s guitar lessons and pay to have all stations in Ghana play it. He would become popular because he is heard over and over again. He would become the “best” based on the lack of competition. And if no one else is as heard, he becomes the best by default. This is how people get the title of musicians and artist in Ghana and ultimately win “awards.”

Musicians in Ghana, just like the doctors, teachers, nurses, and other unprofessionals realize that there is no need for competition. They don’t need to perform their best because no one is demanding it of them. No one is holding them to any standard. They are “free” to disrupt our ears with drivel because their Democratic rights, just like the journalist, demand that they just exist. Luckily the Kente weavers have not given up. They continue to outdo and outshine.