Friday, 2 September 2011

The Book Alor Left Behind

Sikaman Palava

Published by New Times Corporation

Edited by Dr. Doris Dartey

Reviewer: Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

I met Alor as everyone called him, only twice; in that sense I did not know him at all, not as perhaps most of you did because neither meeting lasted more than a few minutes, but I am happy I met him those brief moments when I did and for the reasons that I did. But now I know him very well through this book, and I am richer for it.

The first time I met Alor I had gone to Times Corporation to express my condolences after the death of Mr. Willie Donkor, aka Bafour, whose column had been compulsory reading for me for decades. Indeed, that moment had reminded me that I made a similar journey to the same corporation more than 30 years before to meet the man Bafour whose column held his readers spellbound. Expressions like “Holy Village” and had entered everyday language and his antics with his myriad of fascinating characters had made the Spectator a pleasant read.

Even when I was no longer living in Ghana I tried to get the Spectator whenever I could to read Bafour. Baafour disappeared for some time, or perhaps I lost track, but the column returned some time in the early 2000s and I was happy to put the Spectator back at the top of my weekend reading. This is why I felt a personal loss at the death of the writer and felt compelled to go and pay my respects to his colleagues. The man I went to see was my old friend Enimil Ashong who took me to see Mr. Merari Alomele, who had just taken over from Enimil at the Spectator.

With Bafour gone, I began to take a keener interest in other columns and stories in the Spectator and that is how and why I became very aware of the quality of writing in a new story in the Super Story series about a wealthy womanising contractor and his dealings with the criminal underworld. It was a riveting story and was more than a worthy successor to Bafour, in my estimation. I wondered who its author was because the name read Elemola Irariem. Then I looked again and realised that the name was a scrambling of the name Merari Alomele. That was when I paid my next visit, but this time I went straight to him and told him mischievously that I had a message for Mr. Elemola Irariem, the writer of Super Story. We both burst out laughing.

It was then that I suggested to him to compile his stories and articles into a book. He smiled and told me he admired my writing, etc. So, we parted company having just formed a mutual accolade club!  

Here is the book. Sadly, it has been published in circumstances that neither he nor I or any one of here would have wished. We would trade a million books for the man’s life, but that is now out of our hands. However, we now have the book and it makes the pain that little bit more bearable because Alor lives through these pages.

As I said at the beginning, I have got to know the man posthumously through this book which I received last Friday. I now wish I had known him better because he was a very fine writer and produced some of the very best writing in our newspapers in the last decade and half. There was to have been another contact with Alor. I called him many times in my head, as one does, but for some strange reason I did not really make that call, believing of course, that there was time in the future. I meant to call him and invite him to join the Ghana Association of Writers, an invitation I have extended to other writers whose works are published in the newspapers or blogged on the internet.

Alor’s work is best read as a book. The pieces in the Spectator are written as good stand-alones or as part of a series but they form an organic whole and present a coherent viewpoint of Mr. Alomele’s world and concerns. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer breadth of the subjects he covered routinely in his articles. I say routinely because in every article he could make several digressions to take the reader on a detour of knowledge and interests, which while appearing to be random, were seriously constructed as part of a whole.

Let me give you an example, Christmas is Coming (page 37) which ostensibly recollects his childhood enjoyment of Christmas. It starts like this:

My mum used to tell me about Christmas as it was celebrated in the good old days. The gramophone had to be wound by manpower before it gave off sweet music to which young girls in miniskirts, the not too young in midi-skirts and the over-40s in maxi danced. The young men were either in pimpinis or bell-bottom trousers. The popular haircut was termed ‘Show Your Back’. The young folks actually prepared for great events like Christmas and learnt the dance forms of the 1950s and 60s like waltz, fox-trot, hot fox-trot and cha-cha-cha.

Those were the days you heard of greats like Satchmo, Lord Kitchner, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and Jimmy Hendrix who took the guitar to heights no one has ever reached. In fact, it was Hendrix who popularised the guitar with such skill that when he released the likes of ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Electric Ladyland’, his phenomenon spread across the United States and infected Europe. He often burnt all his instruments after performances and this became his trademark. At 25, he died of an overdose of barbiturates, a sleep-inducing drug.

 So, this is the start of a childhood recollection of Christmas but in just the opening paragraphs we have been treated to a juicy and knowledgeable trip into the music and counterculture of the middle to late 20th century.

 It gets better. Read this:

In those days, it was music that kept the world from falling apart. Cold war politics characterised the global political landscape of those times when the Kennedys and the Nikita Kruschev’s gambled with the lives of their countrymen.

The world was just sighing over a brutal second world war of the mid-to-Iate 1940s. Japan was barely rising from the ashes of the holocaust and the image of Adolf Hitler was imprinted on every Jewish mind. He had caused the extermination of an estimated six million Jews, and his chief hatchet-man, Adolf Eichmann, had become a target of Zionist forces. Adolf was chewing the cud in Argentina when the Israelis came after him. He was working in a bicycle factory. The Israelis mapped out his daily routine, captured, drugged and dressed him in the gear of a pilot, passing him off as a drunken pilot. When he woke up, he found himself in Israel. He was tried

and executed. The aggrieved world breathed easily now!

In the course of that one article, we learnt about the Cold War, the Second World War and Hitler’s attempt to exterminate all Jews, and how Hitler’s aide Adolf Eichmann was arrested in Argentina.

Further in the same article we are informed about the role of the likes of Faizal Helwani and Pat Thomas in the revived production of highlife in the 1970s, reggae music and wee smoking... and more.

The beauty of it is that he wrote in an unselfconscious way; his many detours and side trips were not meant to show off his vast store of knowledge and information but merely to help the reader as he or she travelled on the road laid out by Alor…. In fact, some of his best writing is about taking the piss about himself.

One of the funniest stories in the book is about his unusual first name, which he tells us is actually in the Bible at Genesis 46:11. Once, at a hospital, the nurse had so much trouble with the name that the best she managed was Mary Lomotey instead of Merari Alomele. Perhaps that was better than when he was called Ferrari Alomeli! At another hospital. Let us read the episodes in full at page 2:

A name under siege

Since the day I was baptised I have had trouble with my Christian (first) name. It has since then caused so much sensation, anxiety, worry, anger, spelling mistakes and nearly a third world war in those who hear or read it. I suspect it has caused some people to vomit. For one thing, people worry why a more “decent” name like Joseph or George should not have been accorded me, instead of the “unwholesome” Merari. And for others, they wonder, who was the fellow who chose that name for me? “Or did you carry the name yourself?” they’d ask.

No one has ever, at first instance, pronounced my name without enquiring from me whether that is the correct pronunciation. People think they need special training in phonetics to be qualified to merely mention my name. I guess my daddy who gave me this name occasionally also has trouble calling it. Perhaps to save him the burden, he calls me by the day on which I was born. I went to a clinic sometime back and a nurse came to mention names so that we could form a queue before seeing the doctor. She hesitated so much over my name. For a good three minutes, she tried and failed; she frowned, coughed, fidgeted and nearly passed wind before she managed to croak:

“Mary Lomotey.” What! I exclaimed to myself. I stood looking at her. No one responded.

She looked at the name again “Miriam Lomotey!” she barked this time.

“Madam, look at the name properly,” I said rather angrily. I wasn’t called Mary or Miriam, and to top it, I wasn’t a girl. As for the Lomotey, I didn’t know how she invented it.

“Is this your card?” she showed me the card. “Yes.”

“Get it!” she tucked it into my hand. She breathed easily. She had nearly developed instant hypertension and momentary diabetes. It was my turn to enter the consulting room. The doctor looked at the card.

“Is this your name?” he enquired.

“Yes, doctor.”

“How do you pronounce it?” he asked and I did just that.

“So do you feel happy with such a name?” he asked and I smiled.

“Who gave you that name?”

“My father.”

He asked where that daddy got that name from.

“It’s a biblical name. Genesis 46:11,” I said, and he wrote the verse down.

“I hope you haven’t brought a strange disease since your name is so strange.

“Oh no. It’s just headache and cold.”

“Next time bring a strange disease. It will befit your name,” he said jocularly, and wrote my treatment on my card with an extremely bad handwriting that I wondered if he could read it himself.

I was to receive an injection. My turn came and when the nurse was about to call my name, she squirmed, looked at it as if she were examining a germ under a microscope. Before she voiced it out, she was sweating profusely. Obviously the name had made her very tired. . .

“Manila Lamley,” she cried.

I wasn’t shocked a bit because no one has ever called my two names correctly on first trial. But I couldn’t be the capital of the Philippines and have no relations whatever with the Lamleys of


“Open your eyes properly,” I said. “You nurses are fond of mispronouncing simple names.” Obviously, my tone had a suggestion of anger and she got angry too.

“Look,” she said, “we are busy here. If you’re from Kenya or Tanzania, you can’t come here and instruct us.”

“I am a Ghanaian,” I protested.

“You can’t be a Ghanaian,” she emphasized in an attempt to withdraw my citizenship, which would in effect disenfranchise me so that I wouldn’t be able to vote in the district level elections. She continued: “lf you want to be a Ghanaian, go and naturalize the proper way and take a better name too, and stop worrying us with Swahili and South African names. You’re too tall to be a Ghanaian, anyway.”

I smiled and went inside. The injection was very painful that day and I guess it was punishment for not having a good name. I went to collect drugs from the dispensary. A Hausa man was the chairman. He looked at the name and nearly collapsed when he ventured mentioning it. “Ferari Alomeli,” he fumbled out terribly. I immediately wondered whether he was suffering from river blindness.

“Haven’t you gone for treatment?” I asked him smiling.

“What treatment!” he retorted, rather perplexed.
“For river-blindness.”

 “What are you talking about?” he asked quite angrily. A patient should not be asking such questions.

 “You’re seeing Merari and you’re calling it Ferari. Ferari is a name of a car, so I thought you were a victim of river-blindness.”

“You’re a fool to tell me that,” he yelled at me.

“Forget it brother, forget it,” I cooled him down. He looked back at the name a long time and said: “Mehari, come and take your medicine and go home.”

 On page 39 we read about his first day at school when he arrived with a chop box on which the words James Bond had been written. As if that was not enough he wore bell bottom trousers with each “bar” measuring more than 30 inches in circumference. He was asking for trouble, and he got it. I can go on and on, but time will not permit that, and in this short piece, there is not a lot that can be said but there are two things that need to be said about Alor’s writing.

 The first is a deep sensitivity to, and appreciation of the human condition. He demonstrated a profound understanding of the soft underbelly of human existence: our fears and anxieties and the means by which people simply coped with life. How people coped with ill health, addiction, and even death or the fear of it.

 The second is the sense of humour and how exquisitely it was rendered even on the cold black-and-white page. Every page drips with humour; sometimes you just have to scream out loud, other times the laughter creeps gently on you until it fills the inside of your mouth and just has to come out. How it comes out is as much a matter of choice as of physical location. If you read this book in the comfort of your home, you can just let the laughter rip.

Alor was a very good writer from every perspective. Perhaps under different circumstances he may have made a living in creative writing instead of journalism, but in this country that is almost impossible but journalism has allowed him to pursue both passions for reporting and regaling us with great stories. On my part, in recognition of his immense talent and contribution to literature, I will propose to the Executive Committee of the Ghana Association of Writers to nominate him for a posthumous honorary membership of the Association after the next Congress in October.

Alor’s writing has been well organised by his friends and colleagues, and they deserve praise for this labour of love. The team was led by Dr. Doris Yaa Dartey, who also edited the book; other members are: Mr. John Ackom Asante, Mr. James Addy, Ms. Betsy-Ann Boateng, Mr. Affail Monney and Mr. Andrew Akolaa. They have organised the chapters according to the different themes, so that we have, for example, Love and Romance Palava, Health Palava, Politics Palava, and so on. This must have been a challenge because Alor wrote on a vast array of subjects and themes, and they were not even in his mind, clear cut and compartmentalised.

Alor should have been around to read his book. I am sure he would love it. Now, that is not possible, unless perhaps he is watching all of this, a big man in every sense, with a wry smile, behind a silver cloud.

Dr. Doris Dartey told me that her best line in the book is this: Dead men don’t eat banku. It is a classic.

1 comment:

  1. Your excerpt from "A name under siege" had me in stitches. Look forward to getting this book. Hope it's available a the Legon Bookshp