Guest Post by Ayal Hayut-man
“That may be your story. I am not the one to tell you what is true. I am telling you a story. On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”
Kwadwo, also known as Kayo, returned to Ghana after completing his medical studies in Britain. Instead of specializing in a medical field that would have provided him with a stable job, which is what his family wanted and would have made the most financial sense, Kayo chose to specialize in forensics, and even worked for a period as a forensic tech before returning to his home country. His choice was motivated by the suspicious death of his grandfather, which the Ghanaian police force did not have the professional tools to investigate..
Unfortunately, the Ghanain police still hasn’t established a forensics unit. Thus, Kayo finds himself working in a government lab analyzing environmental samples and performing boring work under a domineering and incompetent boss. He has a brother and sister whose tuition fees need to be paid, so resigning is not an option. Kayo’s life changes when he’s summoned by police to investigate a high-profile case that took place in a small, remote village located far away from the capital city of Accra. In one of the huts, passerbys found what, according to DNA tests, appear to be human remains. However, these remains don’t look remotely human. Kayo’s investigation leads to a dead end, and it appears that the villagers – especially the old hunter Poku and the witch doctor, Oduro – are concealing information from him. However, the ambitious police inspector, Donkor, is unwilling to settle for less than a fully solved case accompanied by a professional, “CSI-style” forensics report. Kayo’s life may be in danger if he doesn’t deliver what Donkor demands.
A Window into Ghana
Disclaimer. If what you’re looking for is a classic detective story, you may be disappointed. Only by the second half of the book does it become clear what the mystery actually is, and the reader is definitely not provided with enough clues to figure out the solution. While the mystery does eventually get solved, it is not Kayo’s forensics work or witness cross-examinations that solve it. Similarly, you may expect the same level of disappointment if what you’re looking for is a speculative horror mystery in the style of Chambers or Lovecraft. While the book does indeed include a speculative element, it only exhibits an obvious presence towards the end of the story. In fact, after the initial drama surrounding Kayo’s recruitment to the investigation, a good portion of Tail of the Blue Bird is just people in an African Village sitting down, drinking palm wine and talking to each other.
What this book does offer though – and this is what makes it especially suitable for the Sefer HaOmer project – is a kind of window through which one can observe Ghana, a country that I personally know very little about. This relatively short book (176 pages in the paperback version) is able to weave into the story many of the problems and rifts the country is struggling with: poverty and lack of resources, excessive admiration of anything Western, gaps between the village and the city, cultural traditions that allow violence against women to endure, and of course the corruption and incompetence of government systems. The latter is what is presented most sharply and effectively: starting from Kayo’s boss who refuses to release him for police work because the policemen didn’t speak to him before talking to Kayo, as his honor requires; continuing with the policemen who arrest Kayo on trumped-up charges of attempted revolution in order to coerce his cooperation; and concluding with the way the entire investigation is managed. It would never have been opened in the first place if the mistress of the district’s governor hadn’t happened to stumble across the mysterious remains. The picture being painted is of a system that burdens its citizens instead of helping them, spreads fear and encourages lawlessness, while also misusing the precious human capital of young people with university educations.
At the same time, there are also many moments of grace: starting from the descriptions of Kayo and his friends sitting down for a drink after work and complaining about life; and continuing with nature descriptions, and especially village customs that, except for a few cosmetic changes, have remained unchanged for the past several hundred, and perhaps several thousand, years. These village scenes are related masterfully, and they are what make the story so powerful and compelling: the conversations full of dialect and cultural misunderstandings between the villagers and city folk, the stories related at the impromptu “bar” of palm wine and overall the general atmosphere of village life. In general, the book presents a pretty stark contrast between the state institutions and Ghanaian senior officials, who are presented almost completely in a negative light, and the regular people: whether they are villagers, junior bureaucrats in service of the state and the World Bank, or even the officers who initially arrest Kayo.
What I thought?
Target audience. English is the official language of Ghana. However, while reading I got the sense that this book is targeted at an international audience at least as much as at readers from Ghana. There is a large amount of exposition in the book, as well as descriptions of social and urban experiences that the average resident of Accra is probably already very familiar with. For comparison’s sake, when Etgar Keret (Israeli author) writes a story about Tel Aviv, he doesn’t bother to explain the Ayalon Highways to the reader, or what time is rush hour. On the other hand, the language often slides into a local dialect or “Pidgin English” (a combination of English and a local dialect), which makes reading difficult. Readers who are not from Ghana will have to guess the meanings of more than a few significant words.
The book attempts to present the way in which Kayo – the city-dweller who was educated in Europe, the rational scientist – gradually adopts the quiet village life and its ideals. But the attempt to convey this doesn’t exactly work. Kayo has a pretty decent background in his native culture. We see this from the first moment when he arrives in the village and addresses the elders respectfully, in their own language, and later when he asks permission from the chief before he begins the investigation. Admittedly, he repeatedly thinks about scientific techniques, but in general it looks like accepting the village culture and values doesn’t pose any serious conflict for him.
One of my major criticisms of this book, which really does need to be called out, has to do with a complete lack of significant roles for any female characters – in a book in which violence against women is a major theme. When female characters do appear, such as the woman serving date wine and her daughters, they only get a few lines of dialogue; it is their physical appearance that gets the most attention.
Without spoiling too much, I will mention that the ending left me a bit confused. As I mentioned earlier, the conventional investigation methods don’t result in a solution. The mystery is only finally solved by using storytelling as a tool. In addition, the ending retains a certain level of ambivalence: two possible solutions for the mystery are presented, depending on the target audience. Kayo, who has been striving since childhood for certainty and dedicated his life towards accomplishing this goal, accepts this ambivalence, and even plays a major part in its creation. It’s probably the deepest sign of how much of a transformation he underwent throughout the book. However, for me, this conclusion feels very strange. In a book that aspires to tell the story of an entire society, should this be read as a call to abandon the Western standard of absolute truth in favor of some sort of post-modernism based on the tribal customs of story-telling? It’s entirely possible that my interpretation is a far cry from what the author intended, but again, I was left wondering.
About The Author
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer, editor, socio-cultural commentator and performance poet. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck (University of London) and is a 2007 recipient of Ghana’s national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy. Nii’s début novel Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize and his work has been translated into Italian, French, Chinese, Dutch, German and Arabic. His latest books of poetry are: the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted pamphlet, ballast: a remix (2009) and The Makings of You (Peepal Tree Press)