Litro #162: Literary Highlife | Transcripts of the Social Imaginary in Accra: Beyond Oxford Street

Fig 1: “If You See Me Tear Your Face”

I have always given a standard answer to enquiries about books to read by foreigners when visiting Accra. Typically, these have included Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Fragments, Kofi Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother, Amma Darko’s Faceless, Kojo Laing’s Search, Sweet Country, and Martin Egblewogbe’s Mr Happy and the Hammer of God. And for those who have an interest in poetry, Logorligi Logarithms never fails to entertain. But after the publication of my book Oxford Street, Accra City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism in 2014, I have begun to have second thoughts about this particular line of recommendations. The book itself was an attempt to retell the story of Accra from the time of its early settlement in the 1650s until its urbanisation and cosmopolitanism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Conventionally the street in contemporary urban studies is seen as the locus for the transfer of representations and cultural practices; the site of a peculiar geographical imaginary and the collision of architectural forms; and whose seeming limits may feed into a hinterland of social and political relations. A division is also routinely made between residential and commercial streets. This division is not directly pertinent to Oxford Street, for the spatial dynamics that govern it transcend what we might understand through the exclusive lens of the residential or commercial street. To understand these spatial dynamics we have to think of the phenomena on the street – social, economic, cultural, historical, and political – as first and foremost intersectional. And despite the invocation of its namesake in London, the intersectionality of the phenomena on the street is only partly that between the global and the local; more suggestively, it is the conjuncture between variant and sometimes quite contradictory forms of activities that produce Oxford Street’s peculiar character. It is in the context of the larger urban evolution of Accra in general that Oxford Street acts as both prism and counterpoint to what is happening elsewhere in the city.

My book then uses Oxford Street as a key to open up different dimensions of the evolution of the city. Thus turned in one way, the street leads us into the history of the city’s differential spatial ecologies; in another, to the story of the absorption of stranger-groups such as the returnee Afro-Brazilians of the mid-nineteenth century. Transnational returnee slaves from the New World were not the only groups to be absorbed into the city’s fabric. Significant too were the many Syro-Lebanese traders that came to settle on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and the waves of labour migrants from the north of the country that have contributed so much to Accra’s cultural evolution. Jiggled another way, Oxford Street leads us into the varied youth cultures of the city to be seen in salsa and bodybuilding. Finally, this urban key discloses the discursive economy of the city and the ways in which slogans and inscriptions on passenger lorries, people’s houses, shop fronts, signwriting billboards, and basically any surface upon which it is possible to write tell us about the relation between orality, visuality, writing, and the overall social imaginary of this growing and elusive metropolis. And it is this last turn of the urban key that has made me reconsider the recommendations I have been giving to new visitors to Accra. There is actually more to discover from looking around you attentively than from reading any number of books and novels.

To get to the proper understanding of the social imaginary from looking at the street, however, a number of things have to be borne in mind. The first that Accra’s urbanscape is absolutely full of writing. There is writing literally everywhere, and not just on the standard large billboards that are commonplace in every big city in Africa and elsewhere. The surfaces on which the writing is to be found are appropriated as part of a cultural procedure for displaying distinctive experiences and for sharing proverbs and wise sayings as object lessons to serendipitous and not-so-casual observers on the street. Thus, “Observers are Worried. Why?” inscribed on a house or lorry is a nose-thumbing gesture for people who might be questioning the source of the wealth that was used to build said house or buy said lorry. Other slogans of variant vintage solemnly declare: “Mama Chocolate”; “A Short Man is not a Boy” (which has subtle sexual innuendoes); “Ashawo” (an acknowledgement of sex workers, a central part of city life); “You Too Can Try” (a barely concealed challenge and sometimes even an insult); “Envy Never Lights a Fire”, or its variant “Red Eyes Never Light a Fire”; “And Jesus Wept” and “Insha’Allahu” (of religious inspiration); “Gold Never Rust” (in praise of distinction); “Fear Man and Take Snake” and “Kwaku Ananse” (both inspired by folk tales); “Okonkwo” invoking the famous protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; “Constitution” as a nod to the democratic order that has been in place since 1992; and simply, “Auntie Akos”, the last as tribute to the person that helped procure the vehicle. These slogans and inscriptions are often also the translation of global elements into a local cultural context. “Nike”, with a barely recognisable swoosh beside it on the back of a passenger vehicle is a clear sign of the global reach of the sportswear company. A barber shop display depicting haircuts of Barack Obama alongside Mike Tyson suggests that they both pack a mean punch whilst also enticing customers for a similarly “powerful” haircut. Images of Kofi Annan, erstwhile President Rawlings and Princess Diana may also be placed together on the same signart poster to suggest that they were all three “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, problematic as this might seem to ignorant sceptics. Read correctly then, each signifying surface of inscription is a dramatic scene, where the writing plus any added images are the nodal points and residues of much wider roles and discursive positions. And they all in their own distinctive ways invite viewer participation in the improvised scene laid out, whether the scene is exclusively written or a combination of writing and images.

However, it is not merely their proliferation that makes these slogans and inscriptions of interest, but that they also suggest a super subtle interplay of orality and a variety of languages within an intensely multilingual environment. English-language inscriptions are of course everywhere to be found but to see them simply as “English” would be a grave mistake. Rather, the English-language inscriptions, like the other local-language inscriptions to be found, are always placed under generative transformational pressure from the multilingual context in which they are located. Three examples will suffice to make the point.

On a tro-tro passenger lorry, this: “When you meet me, tear your face”. This sounds humorous even without knowing the source and meaning of the odd word “tear” in the sentence. The entire sentence is a word-for-word translation from the Akan “wo hu mia, ti we nim”, where the word “ti” can mean both “open” (when you meet me give open your face, i.e., smile), or to tear, as in, “to tear a piece of paper”. The humour found here turns on the fact that the translator has used tear instead of open/welcome, thus placing the sentence midway between advice and admonition. It also transfers something of the innuendo that is carried in oral contexts, for in the original Akan such a sentiment can only come from a more powerful or potentially irritating figure, such as an in-law, a landlord, or even a competitor or rival. Or another saying: “As if, but not”. This has no local-language correlative but rather is simply used to indicate that someone is a hypocrite. While it is most likely to be spoken as part of Pidgin English, it is not uncommon for it to be found in standard English contexts. The saying can be delivered with a fair amount of sarcasm to indicate that some people behave as if they are one thing, but they are really not that thing at all but something else. In fact, you sometimes hear said that “he and she is as if paaa” (paaa being an intensifier commonly used for emphasis in several Ghanaian languages). In this way, both English-language renderings transpose layers of social realities into the innocent-looking sayings. The transactions are both inter-lingual, as they reveal the interplay of different languages within the urban context, and social-transactional, in that they reveal the dynamic social relations that are shaped by local cultural attitudes.

Fig 2: “As If But Not”

The third slogan is a little bit more complicated, and allows us to place the first two I have just mentioned within a larger context. “The World is a Stage” is a slogan I discussed a little bit in Oxford Street. I noted there that it was inscribed on all eight passenger and freight lorries owned by my uncle at Nsawam, a market town some twenty-five miles northeast of Accra in the Eastern Region of the country. I spent a wonderful summer with him and my aunt when I was in high school and got to see at close quarters not only his extraordinary love of driving but also the way that the slogan had come to be his fond moniker for use by both close friends and casual acquaintances. When strangers came into town looking for him they were first directed to look for “The World is a Stage”, which was of course the name of his vehicles and his own famous moniker. The slogan was split into two with “The World” written boldly on the front headpiece of the vehicles and “A Stage” splashed in similarly elaborate calligraphy on the back. His favourite colours were yellow and blue, so these festooned the writing and could be recognised from a fair distance. And whenever he appeared in company he was hailed with “The World”, to which he would promptly reply “eye (it is a) Stage”. I must have been thirteen or thereabouts when I spent that wonderful summer with them. Coincidentally, it is also in this period that we were being introduced in English class to an anthology of literary excerpts, one of which was Jacques’ famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On encountering my uncle’s tro-tro slogan at that time I assumed without any sense of unusualness that the slogan must have been culled from Shakespeare. This was such a conviction for me that thirty-five years later when I remembered him it was if he had been a closet Shakespearean. And this was what I concluded to have been the case in Oxford Street.

There is no reason to believe that “The World is a Stage” may not have been taken from As You Like It, but I now think that this is highly unlikely to have been the case. This is because of my growing recognition of the role of that polysemy of African oral genres play in the mechanisms of transfer and transpositions across the different semiotic landscapes within which they are located. As anyone familiar with the folklore-inspired novellas of Nigerian Amos Tutuola will readily attest, an oral story will likely also have songs, several proverbs and wise sayings, a puzzle or two, along with ample references to real-life events surrounding the raconteur and his or her audience. Crucial to understanding the mechanisms of transfer and transposition from oral genres are the forms of entextualization that define the layered and interconnected modes of transfer and transposition that especially occur in an African urban landscape. In her book The Anthropology of Texts, Persons, and Publics (2011) Karin Barber of the University of Birmingham defines entextualization as the processes by which a given instance of oral discourse is transformed into a written text. The processes are variable, but inherent to entextualization is the assumption that meaning is free to circulate across both oral and literary platforms and that it is not “owned” by anybody. Thus there is nothing like plagiarism in the urban public commons suggested by tro-tro slogans. What we must add to Karin Barber’s formulation is that entextualization is not limited exclusively to the relay between orality and writing, but that the process takes place regularly across various citational networks that may have an oral standpoint but may also readily have been transposed from a written source that has itself been dissolved into the resources of orality before being restored to the ambiguous place of writing. Such is the case with the slogans drawn from the Bible and the Koran, as well as from some perennially circulating literary texts first introduced into the educational curricula as far back as the colonial period, such as the plays of Shakespeare, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, among various others. Entextualization in the public commons of urban inscription thus defines a citational circuit that is neither linear nor straightforward. The contrast with literary intertextuality is instructive, for whereas intertextuality conventionally implies an earlier and likely written work that a later writer draws upon and that is safeguarded by the interdictions of author copyright, entextualization suggests transfers across multimodal platforms with no clear priority of sequencing among them. Furthermore, the nature of multilingual environments in Accra and in much of Africa means that the writing that we see on lorries and other sites across the urban landscape is also the product of various translational transactions between various languages. Even when the inscription is in English or another European language, the translation is such that it does not entirely efface the multilingual local-language sources from which it may have been derived. Translation within a multilingual context regularly estranges the English-language text, raising doubts about what kind of English it was in the first place.

It strikes me now that there are two plausible reasons why my uncle’s “The World is a Stage” could not have come from Shakespeare after all. The first reason is that my uncle was not known to have had many classmates in his lifetime (i.e., he did not have much schooling), and second is that there are at least two Akan proverbs that hint at or directly reflect upon the fact that the world is a stage. The two Akan proverbs – “Obra Ye Akuantuo Tintin” (Life is a Long Journey) and “Obra Pa gya Owura Kwan” (it is good character that illuminates a person’s life path) – both recognise the intricate relationship between this life and the one to come. Thus my uncle’s slogan was most likely the English-language entextualization of such Akan proverbs that derive from a holistic sense of the sometimes volatile proximity between the worlds of the living and the dead. This awareness requires caution and respect for all whom we meet on the journey. This is not to say that as urban observers we are somewhat blocked from seeing a literary source for “The World is a Stage”, but that ultimately the source, whatever it may turn out to be, is not as important as the processes of entextualization and the related translational transactions between English and the multilingual context out of which tro-tro slogans emerge in the first place. Once we explore tro-tro slogans through the prism of entextualization we find that we are no longer allowed to settle for easy or even single sources for them, as I mistakenly did in assuming a singular Shakespearean source for my uncle’s favourite slogan.

In Africa, literacy occupies an ambiguous place in a world that is still largely dominated by orality. Orality is not just a mode of speech different from writing, it undergirds an entire way of life. More importantly, the traditional aesthetic forms that abound within African orality impact upon everyday environments as well as in more formal ritual contexts. While the general ethos of orality is readily captured in the proverbs that are liberally sprinkled in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it is their widespread use in all kinds of urban contexts that shows how much of what we see around is a continuing negotiation between tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing world. As another tro-tro slogan has it: “Wan Hwe Nu Yie a, Wo Hu Nu Yie”, or, “If You Don’t Look Well, You Will Not See Well”.

Ato Quayson

About Ato Quayson

Ato Quayson is University Professor and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He was educated at the University of Ghana and at Cambridge. His most recent book is Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism.

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