This is 1958 and you are on the first trip outside your home country to attend the first Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Tashkent, USSR. You end up meeting the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, and later the Chinese prime minister, Chou en-Lai in Beijing who tells you: “In China, we don’t think in terms of today or tomorrow or even decades. We think in terms of thousands of years.” Talk of a politician with foresight. Any lessons for Africa?
One of the weirdest radio programmes on the BBC is broadcast on Saturday mornings on the Radio 4 network (which is transmitted only to UK listeners but can be accessed on the internet too). It is called Saturday Live. It almost always manages to spring a surprise on listeners. It rolls along like any other programme, then suddenly, wham!, something comes along that makes your hair stand on end.
One item that caught my ear was a laconically-related account of the June 1967 war between the Israelis and the Arabs. A British architect had gone to Damascus, Syria, to discuss a hospital building project and no sooner had he arrived than the war broke out. Damascus was soon put into blackout mode and each evening, he and a colleague had to feel their way along the walls of Damascus, trying to find a restaurant where they wanted to eat dinner.
Another contributor related the story of how she went out of her office in Saville Row, London, one lunchtime, to buy sandwiches for her workmates. Outside, she heard loud music coming from the rooftop of a nearby building. It was Apple Records, the business office of the Beatles. The Beatles were recording an album and had gone on the roof for an impromptu concert. Naturally, the street filled up with delighted spectators. Two policemen who got to the scene, as the crowd thickened and blocked the road, said they went up to the roof to look for the person in charge and were directed to the Beatles’ road manager. He told them “the boys” had been recording an album and would finish soon. They only had one more track to do, entitled with unintended irony, Get Back. Soon, the Beatles finished it and did get back down.
Another track they recorded that day was Don’t Let Me Down. Imagine just going out to buy sandwiches at lunchtime and hearing a hit number like that beaming down towards you, played live from the rooftop above you, by – The Beatles! I was pondering over coincidences when the thought struck me: “Wait a minute! You’ve walked into a few coincidences of your own, haven’t you?” Yes – indeed I have. The first occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1958. It was during my first trip outside Ghana and it happened as I was on my way to Moscow to attend the first Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Tashkent, USSR. I left Accra by Air Liban, and we were to spend a night in Beirut and fly on to Cairo the next day, en route to Moscow.
The Middle East, as ever, was in turmoil. There had been a coup in Iraq, which had sent ripples throughout the region, and afraid that there would be civil war in the Lebanon, President Camille Chamoun asked the United States for assistance. President Eisenhower sent in the Marines. Who else? Now, there were groups in the Lebanon who didn’t like the idea of American intervention one bit, and snipers hid in all sorts of places, taking pot shots at the “Yanks”. But Air Liban’s officials ignored this and drove us in a bus to a hotel right in the centre of Beirut. It was one of the worst nights I have ever spent in a foreign country. Throughout the night, we heard the sound of gunfire. I had never heard guns fired in anger before. The rapid machine-gun fire, kah-kah-kah-kah, frightened the daylights out of me, as did the loud bang of the occasional rifle. When we embarked for Cairo the next day, I was as happy as a lark.
In Cairo too, I had a coincidence of sorts. After resting for a bit, I put on my kente and took a walk towards a park near my hotel. People came to me from everywhere to feel the texture of the kente and express their admiration. I of course didn’t understand a word of Arabic, except that I heard one particular word, qwe-iis, [okay] so often that it stuck in my mind. At the park, a beautiful Arab girl sat by me and began to teach me Arabic. I was enchanted by her because she wore a revealing blouse and you know…!
I still remember izzayak (the popular version of “how are you doing?” and the formal version, “kif haluka”, as well as the reply to them – qwe-iis and Al’ham D’ililah – to this day. If I had had more time in Cairo, I assure you I would have had myself an Egyptian bride, and all thanks to kente. And at that time, the special kente woven by Ghanaian weavers to commemorate the marriage of Ghana’s prime minister, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and the Egyptian lady, Fathia Nkrumah – Fathia fata Nkrumah (“Fathia is fit for Nkrumah!”) – had not even been invented yet, I think!
After my platonic romancing, I returned to my hotel to find that – I couldn’t gain entrance to it! The place had been blocked of by the police, and was filled with reporters and political activists who had been witnessing the installation of Ferhat Abbas as prime minister of the Algerian Provisional Government in exile. It was only my kente that saved the situation.
On the plane to Cairo from Moscow, we stopped in Rome for a while, where I saw headlines linking Boris Pasternak, the Russian writer, with the Nobel Prize for Literature. I, of course, knew nothing about the trouble Pasternak was having with the publication of his novel Dr Zhivago in the West, and I must have innocently annoyed my hosts the Soviet Writers’ Union by pestering them to arrange an interview with Pasternak for me! They always said politely, “Ok, we shall try”. But the interview, predictably, never happened. In fact, Pasternak had probably been put under arrest even as I asked for him, as he was imprisoned for a long time and died a broken man.
One day, the Russians said they were taking us to a reception in the Kremlin. For a young journalist who had heard so much about the Kremlin from news reports, this was most exciting. So out came my kente, though the temperature felt like it was around freezing point. I wore a pullover beneath the cloth and also wrapped a scarf tightly around my neck.
We were in the Kremlin reception hall sipping our drinks when the whole place fell silent all of a sudden. Everyone then broke into applause. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had made his entrance. At that time, “Mr K”, as he was known to the world press, was perhaps the most famous man in the world, following his denunciation of Josef Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, and his ruthless crushing of the Hungarian revolt against communism. You could hardly tune to a foreign news broadcast without hearing the name of Khrushchev.
As I made my way towards the circle he was in, someone I presumed was a KGB man kindly propelled me forward towards Mr K. This was being done quietly to other African delegates as well, and very soon, Mr K was surrounded only by a group of African delegates, including the Senegalese writer and film-maker, Sembene Ousman, two Angolan writers, Mario de Andrade and Viriato da Cruz, and a black Brazilian artist called Tiberio Wilson. I bent down to admire the Order of Lenin on Mr K’s chest as a photograph was taken. The picture made it to the back page of The Times [of London] and when I returned to Ghana, the director of Ghana Information Services, the late Jimmy Moxon, generously gave me a copy of the paper.
Mr K told us that he could see in us, the strength and youthfulness of Africa, and that he was sure Africa would rise up to play an important role in world affairs. It was nice to hear. From Russia, I was invited to China by the Chinese delegate to the Tashkent conference, a poet by the name of Yang-Shuo. I spent three weeks in China, having an idyllic time. One day, I attended a banquet at which a score of different, extremely delicious dishes, were served. Twenty dishes!
On another day, while we were strolling in a park at Wuhan, a city on the Yangtse river, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of Young Pioneers, red scarves gleaming around their necks, who sang to us with the most angelic voices, a beautiful song which so impressed me that I can still sing it (after a fashion!) It was called yeesuchii-hao or something that sounded like that. I was told by our interpreter that it meant “socialism is good”.
In Beijing, I met the Chinese prime minister, Chou en-Lai, who told us that “in China, we don’t think in terms of today or tomorrow or even decades. We think in terms of thousands of years.” He was the man who had the foresight to bring the American secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and later, President Richard Nixon to China, and thus paved the way for the entry of China fully into the international arena. This is the diplomacy the results of which we see today in China’s emergence as a major, if not the major, economic player in the world. Talk of a far-seeing politician.
A sad fact often ruins my recollections of my visit to China: my friend, the poet Yang-Shuo, is reported to have committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-78. If this is true, it is terrible, for Yang-Shuo made many friends for China in the years he worked in the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation in Cairo, which helped to organise the writers’ conference in Tashkent.