on 10 June 2009
This book is a real gem. The story follows an investigation into the truth behind mysterious human remains found in the Ghanaian village of Sonokrom. Kayo, a Western-educated forensic scientist, meets Opanyin Poku, an old hunter in the village. Through their interchanging narratives we learn more about the tragic incidents that have led to the existence of these remains. The explanation is not one that can be arrived at through logic. It is one that requires Kayo - and the reader - to be immersed in the atmosphere of the village and accept that it has its own ways of dealing with crime. The writing is as beautiful and unexpected as the story. The rhythm of it lulled me into another way of thinking, just as the palm wine lulls the characters into seeing things in new ways. Ultimately we are shown that justice can come about through storytelling. Whatever wrongs people do to each other, it is the stories around them that live on to teach us - and those stories can be as rich and fantastical as they like.
on 30 June 2014
It feels good to read an entertaining story like this: Tail of the Blue Bird by Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. He is presenting us with an original murder mystery, an adventure story that moves beyond fact-based evidence with believable, well drawn characters. Despite its fantasy-like cover image, Nii Ayikwei Parkes's novel is firmly grounded in modern-day Ghanaian reality that incorporates urban as well as rural life and with it the need to bridge the different cultural, linguistic and spiritual traditions. The author brings all the different narrative strands convincingly together and does so in a lively and engaging way.
Most of the action takes place in a remote village two and a half hours drive from Accra, the capital. The young forensic expert, Kayo, has been dispatched to the village with his police sidelick, Garba, to investigate the foul smelling remains of what appears to be of human nature. The solving of the case has political ramification for him and the police inspector in Accra. Time is of the essence... but evidence cannot be obtained or verified without the cooperation of village elders... and their world operates on different parameters than city people would assume.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes pulls the reader very quickly into this different world; his characters, Kayo and Garba, and the central figures in the village are very well drawn; their personalities are endearing and affecting and at times surprising in their own ways. The author's depiction of the northern Ghana landscape is evocative... and you can easily imagine the presence and the power of the ancestors' spirits. Just one caution, the language, especially the dialogs take a bit of getting used to for most of us. My recommendation: just relax into it and the fast paced story; it will become easy after a while. While terms are not directly explained, the author finds an organic way to let you know what they mean in due course.
This novella, a Ghanaian whodunit with a dash Magic Realism, is well worth reading. The opening chapter takes us straight to Sonokrom, less than 3 hours in a police car from Accra, the Ghanaian capital. A Minister’s ‘thiiiin’ girlfriend, who lives nearby and has arrived in a cream Benz while following a blue-headed bird, has found something smelling rather nasty in a hut belonging to Kofi Atta, a cocoa farmer. Her connections mean that 5 police cars soon arrive at the scene but the policemen find themselves ill-equipped to make sense of the mystery which is described by the village hunter Yaw Poku (or Opanyin Poku), who operates as both narrator and storyteller.
The second chapter introduces us to Kwadwo Okai [Kayo] Odamtten, an Imperial College-trained forensic pathologist, who has returned to Ghana in the hope that he could work as part of the national police force. Unfortunately the police do not want him, partly because their use of specialised ‘interrogation’ delivers the outcomes they want and partly because he was unwilling to offer a bribe to support his application. We find him working for the odious Mr Acquah’s company, Acquabio, analysing ‘sample after sample of agricultural chemicals, food ingredients and flavourings, human and animal fluids, new products for importers wanting to prove that they were meeting the standards of the Ghana Standards Board for whatever they were selling’.
Kayo is contacted by the police want him to carry out a forensic investigation in Sonokrom, but his boss will not allow him time off. As Police Inspector PJ Donker has already promised the Minister an investigation, and the right conclusion, pressure is put on Kayo to carry out the investigation.
The story is about what he uncovers and how modern science [DNA PCR analysis, hi-tech "blue merge" goggles to uncover urine on the floor, computerized modeling of the crime scene] and traditional values offer different perspectives during the investigation carried out by Kayo and his assistant Constable Garba Musah. Garba speaks to the villagers in Pidgin, ‘Garba clapped. ‘’Ehee, e say make we burn am for the tree im bottom, then bring the top come village’.’’ But it is Kayo’s readiness to listen to the villagers, understand their indigenous wisdom and interpret their stories that enables him to reach a solution. As Opanyin tells Kayo ‘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 -- how we live’.
The author and publisher have taken the decision not to translate or explain the Pidgin construction or the words in the local language, Twi. When the narrative belongs to Yaw Poku, the author italicises English words and conversations in English. Of course, it is generally the foreign words that are treated this way in English language books but here English is the foreign language.
The lives of the villagers, their food and drink, their customs and beliefs are all very deftly presented by the author so that, by the end, the reader knows quite a lot about rural Ghana. Nii Ayikwei Parkes, born in the UK to Ghanaian parents but raised in Ghana, is a performance poet, writer and sociocultural commentator. He is, therefore, ideally placed to capture the spirit of urban and rural Ghana, which he does marvellously.
Kayo’s narrative presents a Ghanaian who feels foreign and whose thoughts are those of a foreigner, about failure, how best to formulate a scientifically-justified conclusion about what happened at Sonokrom. Of course, Ghanaians will be better placed to pick up references to songs, the radio station Sunrise FM, and the trees and foods of the country but so clearly were these described that they created an indelible landscape and social setting.
The effects of Westernisation, seen through the sophistication of regulatory analysis and forensic medicine, as well as through the new roads cutting through rural areas are changing the lives of the rural inhabitants, hunting becomes more difficult, herbal treatments and medicines give way to pharmacological drugs and the young move from rural to urban areas, exactly the places that are ruled by the corruption so well shown in the upwardly mobile Police Inspector.
With a single exception, the female characters all remain rather sketchy which, I assume, reflects Ghanaian rural life. I have some doubts whether a sequel or series would be as successful as, for example, Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Botswana. However, there are few enough Ghanaian novels and this is certainly an entertaining read.
on 20 August 2009
Nii Ayikwei Parkes's Tail of the Blue Bird has lengths of conversation in the pidgin of Ghana with little more than context to help the reader to decipher it. But it is a lovely tale of the clash between modernity and traditional values, and somewhat mystical in its acceptance that science and technology do not always have the answer when the age-old magics are at play in the world. So what happens in the book? Well, the girlfriend of a high-level politician finds a misshapen body in a hut in a little village she is visiting, and is so horrified by it that the politician demands a thorough investigation. Nobody can tell if the body is human or animal, much less if there is even a crime to investigate, but the policemen sent in are baffled by the villagers' lack of cooperation. A newly-minted forensic investigator, a genteel and polite Ghanaian man educated in England, is forcibly coopted by the chief of police (who, obviously, has his own agenda in pursuing the case). Once in the village, his innate courtesy admits him into the village's confidence: both the great hunter and the medicine-man take him under his wing. He soon recognises that there is hidden evil in the minds of men even in this bucolic setting, and the consequences of that evil are not readily explained by his rationality and science. An endearing book.
I bought this book based on the excellent reviews here on Amazon and I am thoroughly disappointed. First of all, the book is replete with Ghanian words and at times even the context can barely guide you to what it means. I have heard that this is the trendy thing to do these days, but I don't buy it. Actually I find it really irritating.
Secondly, I thought this was a Ghanian police procedural concerning the investigations of the only forensic investigator in Ghana; sort of like how Dr Siri is the only coroner in Laos in the excellent series by Colin Cotterill. Unfortunately it isn't.
As another reviewer has mentioned, it is some amalgam of lyrical, West African prose in a magic realism setting.
Mumbo jumbo as far as I am concerned.
I'm putting up my copy for sale; I'm sure some undergrad from SOAS is bound to buy it!