Accra beckoned to me from below. Her lights looked like stars sprinkled across an expanse of pitch blackness. As the plane descended, the lights grew bigger. I started to make out the outlines of houses and moving cars.
It was my first visit to Ghana and, I looked out for quirks that defined the country and its people, as I do on every first visit. I also started to worry that I looked different; that I was standing out. But the staff at the airport could have been me: their smooth, dark complexions, their casual motions as they checked our travel documents; the almost irritating familiarity with which the immigration lady said to me, ‘Ah! Mama Vivian, why are you punishing yourself? You can go.’ I had my Yellow Card and shouldn’t have been on the line. I walked away, smiling at her use of the appellation ‘Mama’. It was so familiar, so Nigerian. I felt safe at once — that kind of safety that is born out of sameness, like when you’re far away from home, in another time zone, and you hear a stranger speak your first language.
I cleared my luggage and stepped into a very warm night and a sea of faces. Voices called out, ‘Taxi? taxi?’ Reluctant to pick up just any cab, I shared my worries with an immigration officer. She beckoned into the crowd and a middle-aged man in a white shirt, black tie and black trousers emerged. Mr. Asafo was his name and he would be my unofficial chauffeur for the next few days. ‘That hotel is far,’ he said when I told him I’d already made a reservation. He knew a good place close by and he took me there. About one and half hours later, hungry and tired, I fell into a listless sleep.
I hadn’t built up any expectations about the workshop, because expectations are the bane of reality. My mind was, therefore, a blank slate that yearned to be written on. The next morning saw me up and early at Alliance Français, two hours ahead of schedule. The rustic ambience of the expansive compound — old-style buildings covered with murals; outdoor seating of wooden benches and tables; well-tended lawns, plants and trees; a fence of traditional mats — melted my exhaustion away. A restaurant and bar was tucked in a corner and nestled beside it was the exhibition hall, the venue of the workshop. It was a low concrete structure with wooden beams, steps and rails. Ndi Charles, one of the workshop participants, was seated on a wooden bench, reading. We quickly became acquainted. Yewande Omotoso, the workshop facilitator, arrived accompanied by Ama, one of organisers of the workshop. We watched as they bustled about, setting things up.
I escaped briefly into the restroom and when I emerged, Jennifer and Chukwudi were there. ‘Hi, Vivian!’ Chukwudi called out, as Jennifer and I embraced. She had sought me out on Facebook after we received travel grants from the African Women’s Development Fund to attend the workshop. In the weeks that followed, we’d share bits of gossip and exchange information about our grant monies and travel plans. Soon, our Ghanaian counterparts started to arrive. There was Fiifi, Nana Busia, Billie, Nana Boateng, Joseph, Richmond, Kwabena and Aisha.
Yewande’s brilliance came to the fore as she handled the sessions with a mix of firmness and conviviality — sessions that were often heated up by Ndi Charles. We talked about ethics, respect and restraint; about perspective, especially as different people would give different accounts of one incident. Yewande urged us not to wield the big stick when presenting an argument but, rather, to present the reader with different shades of the problem to show the complexities in it. This undid all my notions about writers as people who should be all-knowing, who should come at things with certainty, else they’d appear unintelligent.
Like me, most of my co-participants juggled day jobs with literary preoccupations. I wondered how much space it occupied in their hearts. Could they shun the lure of pay checks and regular incomes for full time writing? In my quiet moments, I have asked myself these same questions. I have no answers. Yet.
Each day, the ice thawed further. We talked about our future plans. We suggested reading lists and literary resources to each other. Yewande gave us names of publishers and agents. We pooled monies together so Richmond would provide breakfast and internet service. At break times, we lounged under the shade of the gnarled but leafy trees. On March 6, Ghana’s 57th Independence Day, we asked our Ghanaian friends what special treats they had for us. We urged them to display the special Ghanaian hospitality — the concept of akwaaba we had heard about for so long. They, in turn, chided us for coming to Ghana without bearing gifts from Nigeria. Ndi, who Yewande had dubbed the renegade, riled Nana Busia to no end. Afterwards, he’d be seen helping her organise her files in her computer. Ama organised lunch for us, the (in)famous Ghanaian Jollof, served with fried chicken. Yewande and I would share a big pack and she’d leave the bigger portion for me. It tasted just as good as Nigerian Jollof and I wondered what the long-standing rivalry between the two dishes was all about. On two occasions, I ate Acheke, an Ivorian dish, surprising even myself who’s notoriously unadventurous about food. One evening, pining for ‘swallow’, I bought bitter leaf soup and eba from a restaurant. But it didn’t taste the same, neither did it have the same smell — that badge of honour that sticks to your fingers even after many washes.
I had planned to explore Accra, so I’d taken the tro-tro, Nigeria’s version of danfo, a few times. Yewande, Billie and I had scoured the Art Centre for gifts. I had interacted with the staff at the hotel where I stayed and the taxi drivers who ferried me around town. Yet, I hadn’t felt the pulse of the people as much as I’d have loved to.
As the workshop drew to an end, sadness tinged my excitement. On the last day, Yewande brought apples for us and, while we were feasting on them, the Nigerian writer Elnathan John arrived. She offered him one but he said he’d rather not accept it, considering a certain incident in the history of Christianity when a man had accepted an apple from a woman and the consequences that ensued. Our roar of laughter was a fitting tribute and closure to five days of learning and growing.
Bio: Vivian Ogbonna has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She was a Goldman Sachs Scholar at the Enterprises Development Centre of the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, and currently an alumnus of the Cherie Blair Mentoring Women in Business Program. Vivian is an Interior Decorator by profession. In 2015, she participated in the Writivism Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. Her short story, A Ball of Thread, was long-listed for the Writivism Short Story Prize. She has also been published in The New Black Magazine, Olisa TV, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times Blogs and My Mind Snaps/Blog.