Saturday, 22 October 2011


The state of Ghana last week Friday conferred honours on 109 citizens who were cited for having made “extraordinary contribution to the national development” effort. Not a single Ghanaian writer was given any such recognition. In effect, according to the logic of both the occasion and the citation, not a single Ghanaian writer, dead or alive, had made an extraordinary contribution to national development. The President, who personally conferred the honours, “emphasised that a nation which does not honour its heroes is not worth dying for”.

Furthermore, the President reportedly said the awards “are intended to send positive signals to the younger generation to work with honour, sacrifice and commitment to country”. Obviously, a literary career is not one that should be recommended to the younger generation. It has to be added that there was also no publisher, librarian, book editor or bookseller on the list. Perhaps, there are criteria and definitions of national development and heroes that exclude writers and their sort.

The most generous interpretation that can be put on this massive snub of the literary community and Ghanaian literature is that it was an omission, some kind of oversight of decades of excellent work by scores of writers who have been recognised internationally and held in high esteem by the people of Ghana. Perhaps this is the loudest Freudian oversight in our recent public life, signaling as it does the true official attitude to culture, the arts and literature.
The more likely explanation is that the idea that writers (and publishers, etc) could have contributed anything to “development” is alien to a certain narrow definition of development limited to the immediate and tangible, by which development has to be road-and-bridge, brick-and-mortar, imported-from-China, …touchable. For that kind of mindset a book is at best a diversion, at worst a distraction.

But Ghana is arguably the only country in the world that routinely excludes literature from its national honours. Internationally, no area of endeavour is as recognised as literature and writing for which there are endless awards, prizes and many worthy tributes, not least the Nobel prize for Literature which sits at the top of the pile. Ignoring the contribution of writers to national development dishonours the very important roles played by many men and women before and during the independence struggle, and those who have continued to dedicate themselves to patriotic ideals through their art since independence to date.
Perhaps, we need to remind ourselves of the critical role writers play in our personal and national lives, and we ought to take as our starting point the creation and maintenance of our national identity, which we take for granted. Chinua Achebe said  “if you don’t like someone’s story write your own”, and that is the relevance of writers and literature to the construction of Ghana as a nation…writing this nation’s story.

Writing our own story has been the task at which people like Kobina Sekyi, Casely Hayford, Dr. J. B. Danquah, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Efua Sutherland, Kofi Awoonor, Joe de Graft, Kojo Gyainaye Kyei, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Atukwei Okai, Susan Alhassan, just to name random a few, have applied their resources throughout the decades. New generations of writers rise everyday to take their place alongside those on the venerable list that pioneered our literature of relevance.
To see development as a set of economic and financial indices and indications is to misunderstand human aspirations and how they are managed and met. If those who are paid to manage our aspirations were to be limited to such a small band of economistic understanding, it would not be a surprise that most of us feel so unfulfilled despite the best efforts of the powers to provide what they consider to be our needs and wants. Writers bring to the table different but vigorous interpretations of what the human condition is about; the Ghanaian writer speaks about our country, where it has been, where it is and where it going. The writer speaks about bread, books, language, weapons for good and bad things, and above all, about truth because truth, and not an election, elects the writer to his or her appropriate and deserved place in the democratic pantheon of public opinion and the marketplace of ideas.

We need to understand that writers generally do not write for national honours; indeed, most writers would probably want to be left alone to write, but the ignoring of writers is a symptom of the larger picture in which culture is regarded as an unimportant aspect of our national life that needs no nurturing and can get by on a small and inconsequential budget. Governments now and gone have paid lip service to the importance of culture but done very little about it. Even for those for whom development can only be calculated in tangibles, it must be a crying shame that apart from the National Theatre in Accra there is no purpose built cultural edifice of modern standing anywhere in the country.
Ignoring writers is not a one-off omission by the Castle this time around. In 2008, former President Kufuor gave awards to a large number of people but I don’t recall that there were many writers among them, although there was a smattering of arts people on his list, this could not have been a national merit list of literature, culture and the arts. It appears that even when people in the arts are honoured media appearances are used as arbiter rather than the criteria recognised all over the world.

This is not to argue that any of the awards recipients do not deserve them; far from it, apart from writers, it is good to see that people from other aspects of popular culture, especially sports are so heavily represented. Even so, in sports football, as usual is preponderantly represented while other sports are ignored. And it appears that our national awards are used to reward only results but not effort. This probably explains how and why the list is compiled.
Elsewhere, national honours also go to those who make efforts, sometimes away from the limelight, where those efforts may not have yielded immediate results. Some of our sportsmen and women in non-football or women sports, without a fraction of resources that go to men’s football are making great strides in their fields. Some of them even bring home honours, though they are barely reported in the media, which is why national honours continue to elude them.

This article is dedicated to my friend, Comrade and brother, Efo Mawugbe, former Director of the National Theatre, who died on September 13th this year and will be buried at the Osu Cemetery on Friday. In 2009, he won the BBC International Playwriting Competition in 2009, and had 19 publications to his credit. That is a deserving award winner too.
*The writer is the President of the Ghana Association of Writers.

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