It is 5 a.m. and the power is out. Though I have showered, I can feel the beads of sweat starting to form on my forehead. My suitcase, a black Samsonite with wheels that wobble violently and a zipper that my sister has warned me is broken, stands in a corner. The day has finally arrived. I have been invited to a writers’ workshop in Ghana, and though my heart surges with excitement, I can feel my fingers start to tremble.
My sister has promised to drop me at the airport and as I sit, waiting for her in the darkness, I make a list:
I will visit the mills where the wildly patterned kente cloth is woven. I will search out the local delicacy banku, about which I have heard only good things. I will hunt down also, their jollof rice, long in dispute for culinary supremacy with that of my countrymen, and test those claims. And then, with a full belly I will stand by the road screaming akwaaba at the girls with ebony skins and bottoms I am told shake like balloons that have been filled with water.
In the car I can feel the dread condense around me. It’s been but a few years since I borrowed these robes, this title writer that still feels draped, far too lightly, upon me and in Ghana I fear a storm, one whose gusts would seek only to pull them free.
At the airport, the lady at the check-in counter calls me forward. There are bags underneath her eyes and her uniform is crumpled; as though tucked into some dark cubby hole in the airport is a rolled-up mattress on which she has spent the night.
‘I’m waiting for a friend,’ I tell her as from the corners of my eye I catch Jenny waving excitedly at me from across the hall. It will be our first meeting but I recognize her from the Writivism website. The lady gives me a knowing smile, her eyes even in fatigue, twinkling their judgment.
My seat is located beneath the wings of the small aircraft, a large engine with a feeble looking propeller blocking most of my view. Jenny is two rows ahead and has made a friend. Her shrill excitement floats down the aisle of the cramped cabin.
The plane rumbles as it propels along the runway. I shudder as we get airborne closing my eyes to the sight of a rusty receding brown.
When next I open them, the view is unchanged. Like Lagos, Accra is a rustic brown that seems applied like a photographer’s filter. ‘Africa is much like a coconut’ a well-travelled friend once said, ‘brown and fibrous on the outside, but down amongst the people, its heart is sweet.’
At the Kotoka airport in Accra, we must buy a SIM to check the currency rates. To buy a SIM we need to change our money. The woman at the forex bureau beckons at us through the holes of a translucent acrylic booth.
We will find, many hours later, that she has not been sweet.
Eric, our contact, tells us over the phone that he has arrived. His accent is heavy and smooth, like gravel mixed with honey. To get to him we fight our way through a throng of drivers who in a similar accent are offering us everything from reduced taxi fares to unbelievable bed and breakfast discounts.
Eric is young, with soft kind eyes and a chipped tooth. His car is musty and overwhelms us with its heat, and its smells, lingering, of dust and stale air freshener. It is a short drive to the hotel we have reserved online. It is expensive but it is clean. There are fresh towels in the bathroom and, in a small makeshift shed just outside the gates, a woman has a pot on a fire where we can take refuge from its steep prices.
It’s an hour’s drive from our hotel to Alliance Français, the venue of our workshop, and at 7 a.m., Eric is at the hotel to pick us up. Making our way through the light traffic, he points out excitedly, sights of interest. On our right, the President’s face plastered across the body of a municipal bus. On the left is the old presidential palace — a large building that looms like a mountain, of brick and steel, modern yet with the distinct recessed whorl highlights I have noticed in their more rural dwellings.
I ask about the numerous food joints, little shacks of crumbling zinc and wood snuggled between large cosmopolitan buildings. He laughs, a light gravelly tinkle that fills our space. He does not respond. Like a birthmark present all of his life, he hasn’t given them much thought.
The anxiety crawls from my belly and into my head as we draw closer to the venue. We ride the rest of the way in silence.
At Alliance Français, we find our facilitator has arrived. She is a writer of considerable repute and Jenny surges forward, awe and marvel of the gushing kind like waves and waves of the strongest Hausa perfume.
I stand at a distance, watching the exchange of hugs and scented pleasantries, my suspicions an anchoring root. Her appearance screams African Writer, dreadlocks, print dress, and wrists that are dripping with African themed charm bracelets. I do not doubt her prowess or success. I am skeptical only of what she is, what she represents: gatekeeper holstered with the yeas and nays to a club I so desperately want to belong to.
She will hate me, I tell myself when the hellos are done. I do not do well with authority it has often been said, and I fear that my writing is of the style I know in the coming days will cause much dispute.
The room fills up with the twelve other participants and our day is started. Besides Jenny and I are two other Nigerians; Vivian, mild and soft mannered, who is attending the workshop for the second time, and Ndi Charles who is half Nigerian-half Liberian, and is too tall, too loud, too present to pull off with any conviction, his act of grumbling disgruntled writer.
As the sun rises in the sky pulling the day along in its ascent we bond over words, sentences, style and find solidarity in our shared disgruntlement at the fact, newly learned, that lunch will not be provided by our hosts.
Over the next few of days I find little time to be a tourist. Ghana becomes a series of sights, witnessed through the dusty windows of the beat-up Hyundai.
In spite of my dread, the day comes finally when my story will be reviewed, and though we have agreed that they are to be read anonymously, across my prose are littered too many hints, too many chequered flags that draw the group in my direction. Knowing smiles dance across the tables when the critique starts and I sink into my seat determined to not say a word, to not defend my art though it be, before my very eyes, torn to pieces. In her eyes I find my fears founded. I can tell she does not like my work though she insists, in a voice shrill and chirpy, that she does.
‘It’s too wordy, too verbose, not enough restraint,’ she says. The rest of the class agrees.
‘Less is more, always less.’
And it is almost abominable they think, that I should question this.
I get to the hotel room that evening ruffled. Unsatisfied. I do not wish to come off as brash, and unyielding, but I refuse to submit to the idea of a defaulting minimalism, that less is always, without question, more and that there can be only, every couple of eons, one Nabokov. I fire up my laptop and trawl the internet for articles to defend my position. I find two: ‘The Audacity of Prose’ by Chigozie Obioma and ‘In Defence of Purple Prose’ by Paul West. Perfect.
I send them off to the group, hoping that they will find time to read. They do.
In the morning there is some squawking, and on both sides eventually, a slight shifting of positions. Subtle and barely noticeable, but for me, it is enough. With the validation I need, I go now to die.
And though I have done none of the things on my list, I go home grateful for these robes, secure still on my shoulders.
Bio: Eboka Chukwudi Peter is a writer of Literary Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction. In 2016 he was announced winner of the Saraba Manuscript Project for his collection of short stories Mosaic: Stitches of stories lived, stories learned, stories told. He attended the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop with Chimamanda Adichie in 2008 and in 2016 the Writivism Nonfiction Workshop that was held at Accra Ghana. He has had works published in Saraba Magazine, Blanck Digital, Happenings and The Africa Report. He lives in Lagos and is currently at work on a novel. He is an avid aquarist