“Search sweet country”, by Kojo Laing, was first published in 1986 and this new edition creates a fresh opportunity to enjoy one of West Africa’s most brilliant writers.
The setting is Accra in the mid-1970s, some twenty years after independence, and change is in the air. A general is the country’s president and his talk of transformation and progress is unpicking the fabric of a country where most people follow rhythms of life rooted in a pre-modern age.
Kojo Laing’s novel is stylistically audacious, confidently leapfrogging over what are sometimes the limitations of a writer’s first novel.
The book presents a swirling mix of personalities and situations that defy any easy summary. One can only list some of the characters and the confusions that surround them.
Kofi Loww loves Adwoa Adde but the ground is shifting around him: “It was precisely the yellow pull of sunflowers and mangoes, dances and wisdom that hid so many problems and crises underneath”.
His father tells him he always sees the edge and not the centre of life. Another main character, Kojo Okay Pol, is “the monkey who believes he could climb his own tail in any emergency”.
Osofo, a faith-healing evangelist, has a mania for intense preaching in his church. He is filled with a desire “to make the comfortable faith shiver for a new beginning. Somebody thought: Osofo’s passion was just like roast plantain kept on the ashes too long”.
There is an endearing scene where, preaching from the top of a tree, he is gently talked down by comradely but not uncritical members of his church.
There is Owula ½-Allotey whose name says a lot about his country’s conflicted self and confused sense of identity. When he upsets traditionalists in his village, he is told to go to Accra “and change the hearts of those city ants, with their souls in cigarette packets, bars, lotto, football parks and women”. A crowd gathers threateningly around him and “the hate flew over his roof and met the empty sky” but “the innuendos in their chattering only reinforced his walls, with the thatch above them rising up in a strong salute of the breeze.”
Allotey’s hallucinatory trip into the surrounding forest is a tour de force of African magical realism.
The novel’s language is richly metaphorical, sometimes bewildering, and the reader has to attend to the way thoughts and feelings are articulated. Adwoa Adde, we are told by the narrator, ‘mastered the sunlight, but she could make only half her darkness a force for good; her intentions were the faint dot under the question mark of her city”.
Reading “Search sweet country” is a linguistic adventure – there is a glossary of Ghanaian words and author’s neologisms – undertaken with antic enthusiasm.
This was Kojo Laing’s first publication and only one later novel, “Women of the aeroplanes”, is readily obtainable today. Hopefully, more of his writing will now become available.
“Search sweet country”,, by Kojo Laing, is published by Penguin