Tail of the Blue Bird – an accomplished debut novel by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a British-born Ghanaian best known as a performance poet. He also writes short stories, appears at literary festivals and runs workshops, while as a public intellectual he comments on social issues and political matters.

This novel (his first) was published in 2009 by Jonathan Cape and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Parkes is active in cultural circles and committed to the encouragement of creative writing in Ghana and beyond. In his novel he weaves together the international sphere of the technologically savvy and sophisticated main character, Kwadwo Odamtten’s perspectives, which are informed by his UK training in medicine and forensic pathology, with the ancient courtesies and beliefs of the forest-encircled village world of the second main character, the elder (and hunter) Yaw Poku. Kwadwo is known to his drinking buddies as Kayo, one of those nicknames formed from initials (KO in his case), while Yaw Poku is usually respectfully addressed by appending the title Opanyin as a sort of prefix to his name. In fact, one of the pleasures of this text is that Parkes leaves many of the cultural references in the original local languages untranslated. For instance, the chapters of the narrative bear the names of the days of the week in the Twi language that the villagers speak, but the reader has to work out the meaning for her- or himself – with the help of a few authorial hints.

The narrative opens on a Sunday in the village of Kwasida, with Yaw Poku recalling a childhood moment when his mother warned him to watch out for his cousin Kofi Atta, whose birth had been clouded by a very bad omen. Kofi Atta, a cocoa farmer, has now disappeared and a passer-by originally from the area (she is the “girl-friend” of a cabinet minister) by chance discovered a weird, amorphous “piece” of what appears to be human remains in Kofi Atta’s deserted hut on this Sunday morning. Because of her influential connection and because she was so perturbed by what she saw, an immediate police investigation is launched from the capital. The man in charge as the “remote controller” of the process is the PRCC (Police Regional Coordinator Chief) PJ Donkor – an extremely ambitious man-on-the-make who knows that the way to rise in the police service is to cater to the whims of the top politicians, hence the alacrity of the response. But as an indication of how inappropriate the investigative methods of the urban police force are in this remote village, Parkes provides us with the following observations through the eyes of Yaw Poku:

As I reached the tweneboa tree I saw one of the policemen shaking Asare, the farmer, with his wife and the children watching. These people: policemen, lawyers, ministers, they will never learn; book law and gun power can never teach you how to deal with human beings. We have always had our own ways; remember that the monkey was eating long before the farmer was born. I shook my head and went to get my palm wine. (9, original italics)

The italicised words represent those that Yaw Poku uses in English to indicate how alien these figures are to the local village culture and ethos, where a serene kind of mood and manner are deemed proper, for “Man has his plans and the ancestors also have their plans, and sometimes they are not the same,” Yaw Poku knows. He states, “The needs of the earth are greater than the needs of us”, but adds, “We are not complaining” (13).

By way of indicating the initially rather different attitude of a young, highly educated and energetic Ghanaian, the scene shifts to the capital (Accra), where Kayo in his office at the laboratory (this is a business run by an unpleasant man, where he has found necessary but unsatisfactory employment) is musing: “That was the trouble with this country. People were being manipulated and exploited but they continued to sing” (16).

The contrast between the foregoing quotations will already have given an indication of how vividly Parkes conveys something of the range of registers of Ghanaian speech. We soon get further examples. The banter among Kayo and his friends at a local pub is in the local version of West African pidgin, his friends teasing him about his dress sense: “Chale, e be you this? When you come fine so?” / “Chale, your shirt bright aah say I no dey fit look you!”. To which Kayo responds, laughing: “I beg ooh, I beg.” But when his friend (like Kayo, a young professional) addresses the person serving them, he sounds quite British: “Waiter, please bring my man his usual Guinness” (27).

As a recently returned “been-to”, Kayo still relishes the local food, sights and smells, whatever his misgivings about the way the system is run; savouring “the aromas of tsofi and fried yam, rice, kelewele and kenkey” (30). But he is professionally frustrated at this point. After obtaining his medical degree in London, Kayo not only specialised in forensic medicine, but also practised for two years as a forensic pathologist. Haunted by the inexplicable death of his beloved grandfather when he was a young boy, Kayo had returned to Ghana with high hopes of becoming a forensics officer in the police force. Deaths ascribed to witchcraft make him long to investigate such cases scientifically and find “real answers” (32). But his quest for a police appointment were thwarted from the start: he was interviewed, but nothing came of it and he is struggling to obtain even a post application form. Nor is he prepared to follow the “normal” local route of bribing someone, as one of his friends, both a sociologist and a realist, advises – something in him finds the idea of bribing someone to get a job for which he is by far the best qualified person around, impossible to stomach.

Suddenly, fate takes a hand. Donkor, the PRCC, decides that Kayo is just the person that he needs to solve the mystery of the fleshy remains in the hut in order to please the minister (and his girlfriend) and so obtain further promotion and/or bonuses. He enlists Kayo’s expertise, not by way of offering him employment, but simply demanding that he take time off from his job to do the work. The fact that Kayo’s boss refuses to give him time off to do the investigation is no obstacle; his boss (without Kayo’s knowledge) is placed under surveillance, blackmailed for picking up an under-age prostitute (and other illegal activities!) and ordered to fire him; while Kayo is simply arrested that same evening on the grotesque (and almost irrefutable) charge of “attempts to destabilise the government” (44). He is identified as “definitely our man: a been-to in a second-hand VW Golf who asks big questions” (42) by the policemen who arrest him.

Donkor’s more-or-less insane ruthlessness becomes further apparent to Kayo when, after an uncomfortable night locked up in a police headquarters office and police transport to Kwasida to conduct preliminary investigations, he is taken to the former’s palatial home. Donkor yells at him: “I am not interested in the truth. I am interested in results. Do you understand? I need you to make this a big case with international implications” (87). Kayo spots a holstered gun lying ready for use (evidently, on anyone who thwarts him!) under Donkor’s chair.

Parkes interweaves passages describing the lush landscapes of northern Ghana into the whodunit style narrative as indication that this is no ordinary tale of crime and detection. Through Kayo’s eyes we are made to see the beauty and vitality of the harmonious co-existence of people and nature in this area:

… the varied wealth of the landscape driving up from Accra to Tafo; the hills that appeared to fade into the massed trunks of giant trees; the odd baobab rising like a grey sentinel above smaller trees; and by the sides of the roads life progressing as though modern initiatives were a passing fancy. Children balanced yam, cassava and woven baskets containing tomatoes on their heads, farmers walked bare-chested and barefoot into the shade, with cutlasses swinging at their sides – and every one of them understood the language of the forest; a language Kayo didn’t know. (90-1)

“Language of the forest” does not refer to the Akan Twi of the village (in which Kayo is fluent, thanks to his mother), nor to an understanding of local courtesies which, thanks to his upbringing, he is versed in. In fact, Kayo manages to earn the cooperation of various villagers exactly because, unlike the initial police investigator, he treats them with the necessary respect – and also precisely because he knows that there are local knowledge systems to which he does not have access without their help.

Not that the investigation is plain sailing, however. Kayo is not told the history of the missing man (Kofi Atta) until several days into his village sojourn, and even then with the sly twist that it is just a village tale from elsewhere and involves people with different (some legendary) names. Yaw Poku tells him the story, and it is a rather tragic one of a loss so unbearable that it results in twisting the love of a father for his daughter into something ugly and terribly destructive. The man in the story loses the wife he had loved and slaved for since childhood after a mere two years of married life; his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him a baby girl. He initially goes almost catatonic because of the shock, with his wife’s mother bringing up the baby, but is eventually persuaded to reconcile himself to the loss, which he does by becoming almost besotted with the child, now his reason for living. On an occasion when the girl is about four years old and wanders into the forest without returning by nightfall the father first beats her to the point of injury when she is found and returned. Of course he is stopped by the shocked bystanders, but his mother-in-law puts a curse on him that warns him against ever repeating such treatment of the girl on pain of dreadful vengeance by the ancestors:

She picked up the child who was motionless on the ground and stood a little away from Ananse. If you beat her like that again, I will kill you, and if I’m not here, the moment she conceives, that will be the beginning of your punishment. I curse you in the name of all my ancestors. You are not a man. It is not a man who raises his hand against a woman who has sixty years [for he had beaten her, too, to the ground when she had sought to intervene]. I curse you. (108)

Unfortunately the man falls into a pattern of violent abuse of his daughter and clearly an element of intensely possessive jealousy soon becomes evident in his behaviour. The grandmother, Yaw Poku narrates, was killed within a month after pronouncing the curse; “killed by a speeding truck when she went to visit one of her older daughters in Accra for the Independence celebrations, for surely she would have killed him. That woman was powerful; she never failed to do what she promised” (108).

The story is told in the space where wonderful local fare is sold by a woman called Akosua Darko. Palm wine is also made available here from the excellent village palm-wine tapper. Parker vividly captures the pleasure of this convivial gathering, but Akosua Darko tells them that she has to close up her premises when only half the story has been told. Kayo has been eyeing Akosua Darko’s lovely daughter Esi and is teased about this by his village companions – Yaw Poku and Oduro, the local herbalist and spiritual guide, as well as Constable Garba, who was assigned to assist his investigations. Garba, although a policeman and not a villager, is a man who has a sensitivity concerning the old ways of country people; he is efficient as a policeman, but has not lost touch with those outside the power structures of the modern state. He is bitter about corruption and interference in police work (of the kind Inspector Donkor thrives on), but he repeatedly warns Kayo not to risk offending the PRCC, or simply, not meeting Donkor’s expectations.

But Kayo had himself gleaned an inkling of Donkor’s sinister capacities, not only in the police chief’s manic outburst when Kayo had earlier indicated a focus on establishing the mere truth of the case, as well as spotting the gun under his garden chair, but in the ancient, dreaded Akan symbol of an executioner’s knife embroidered on the PRCC’s dressing gown. The story thus puts Kayo in the middle of a field of forces involving variously the gangster-type viciousness of Donkor, the village ancestors’ mysterious powers and his own conscience and scientific knowledge and skills. These are not relaxing considerations, yet Kayo clearly continues to do his duty as forensic pathologist with a real commitment to “solving” the case and also increasingly enjoys village life, puzzling as some things remain to him.

The first confirmation of Kayo’s hunch that the supposedly fictional anecdote about the man, his daughter and his mother-in-law’s curse is in fact the key narrative that will lead him to understanding what the strange piece of now quite rotten flesh in Kofi Atta’s hut is, comes when he hears the distant but unmistakable strains of the giant marimba (as it is known in the southern parts of Africa, called a xylophone in Parkes’s novel) that had featured in the story. His night-time quest to find it is thwarted, but he continues to pick up clues on the morrow. First he is told that Kofi Atta was seen, a month before the discovery of the remains in his hut, appearing suddenly considerably younger than his actual seventy-odd years. Next, a boy whose broken arm Kayo had set comes to inform him that he had spotted a strange “boy” going into Kofi Atta’s hut only a fortnight before the latter’s disappearance. Then Constable Garba brings Kayo the information supplied by the wine-tapper (whose hut is next to Kofi Atta’s) that he had heard the water-pot breaking – one of the few bits of “evidence” being the shards of this pot in front of Kofi Atta’s hut – either during the night before or very early on the morning that the minister’s girlfriend had seen the red piece of meat she had immediately if somewhat hysterically identified as “evil”, particularly because, although unidentifiable, in its redness it appeared bloody and “it moved” (121, original italics). Despite this collection of possibly merely disparate but possibly mysteriously connected “evidence”, “Kayo was aware that he had nothing” (123) and that Donkor is breathing down his neck awaiting suitable results. The only evidence he can still expect (if his hunch is correct) is based on the DNA samples that he collected surreptitiously from Opanyin [Yaw] Poku; from Akosua Darko; from Oduro the “medicine man” and from the remains. He did so because “in a community as small as this one, someone was bound to be related to the remains” (if the piece of flesh is indeed, as he suspects, Kofi Atta’s) and because:

Everything was too serene considering that a man was missing from a village with just twelve families. Kayo knew that if he was to make a breakthrough, it would have to be today, when Garba brought the DNA results. […] It was tenuous, but [it] was his best chance of unsettling the balance, causing enough discomfort to make someone talk. (123)

When Yaw Poku’s tale is resumed that night his wife has joined them, but since she is (as he says) familiar with the story, he need not recapitulate. Yaw Poku gives further glimpses of the domestic life of his mythically named man with his young daughter, relating how the father would sneer at the child’s studies and acquisition of literacy, pulling her by the ears to the supper table and warning her to remember that it was he who provided the food. “And then (and this is the madness) he would sit with her and say ABC with her, and tell her stories about her mother as if he had done nothing unusual” (130), Yaw Poku says. The most painful aspect of the narration is the child’s protective loyalty towards her only surviving parent or close relative: she would never reveal her father’s abusive treatment, but would cover up for him, possibly sensing the pain and loss and love that in him produced such a strange, twisted expression. On a later occasion, when her father again beats her (now a young woman) to a pulp for having a suitor (a young engineer and road builder), she bears it without uttering a word or resisting, but leaves her father and goes to live in the hut of her grandmother. Her boyfriend comes to propose in the traditional way, but because her father is away and she is injured, he takes her to a hospital in the city and afterwards she starts living with him.

When she returns to the village two years later she is pregnant and the marriage rites are concluded. Her father appears to have learnt his lesson. He falls ill and, even though she is near term in her pregnancy, she goes to live with and look after him. Then he beats her again, despite her advanced pregnancy, and because he could not be stopped in time, she loses her baby (a boy). The stillbirth happens in the forest close to the enormous marimba. Yaw Poku had gone after her secretly to make sure she was safe; he sees her terrible grief and agony. Twice more the now adult, married daughter conceives and twice more her father, seized by sudden mania, beats her to the point of aborting the baby.

All three children had been boys. She falls pregnant a fourth time, with a girl, but loses her husband and, when she learns that her now elderly father is grievously ill, she again returns to nurse him; she has become an evangelical Christian and forgives him for his previous assaults on her and the children she would have had. Yaw Poku says that, even though he was terribly afraid for her and the fourth child, keeping constant though discreet watch over her, the village’s spiritual adviser had reassured him that, this time, she and her child would be safe.

Yaw Poku says he himself saw a strange boy running into Kofi Atta’s hut; what startled him was that the boy’s only bodily covering was a piece of cloth exactly like that with which the man’s daughter had covered her first stillborn baby. The Oduro of the village, says Yaw Poku, told him that all three boys would return in this way from the forest to help fulfil the ancestors’ curse. They would grow to adulthood, but not outlive their mother, and although strong and healthy, be unable to father their own children. Each boy’s appearance would take twelve years off the man’s life, but once a girl was born the process of his “age reversal” would be speeded up intensively. The purpose of the strange punishment was to teach this violent man, who “was to grow younger but keep his adult mind so that he would understand what it is like to be at the mercy of someone else” (148). Yaw Poku says that, even though they had all observed the man so to speak dwindling, they had forgotten that the daughter’s daughter would bring the curse to its completion. He concludes: “[W]e, the elders, knew, but we had forgotten. Isn’t that our problem, as men? That we keep forgetting?” (149).

Though light-headed with the “strengthened” palm wine he has been consuming, Kayo at last sees an opportunity to spring his little trap in order to elicit further information from the naturally private (rather than secretive or malicious) villagers. He insists firstly on the evident parallel between the man in the story and Kofi Atta and then adds: “[Y]ou know where [his daughter] is because Kofi Atta is your relative” (150) – two points on which the villagers had never enlightened any of the policemen or Kayo.

He achieves the desired result; they are all somewhat startled that he has managed to work this out without their help. “Kayo knew he had struck a nerve. It was the piece of information he was least sure of, based on the assumption that whatever was in the hut was related to Kofi Atta” and on the DNA information he has obtained, along with the scientific proof that the human tissue found in the hut was not an afterbirth. Though the villagers are still reluctant to come out with the full story, Garba warns them that, unless Kayo can weave a suitable “explanation” around the truth of the matter, the village will never know peace again, since PRCC Donkor will harass them unrelentingly till he obtains what he wants. Kayo adds that he knows that “[t]he thing in Kofi Atta’s hut, it is from Akosua Darko’s son or her father”. He threatens to go and ask her himself, when Yaw Poku at last, in grief and shame, acknowledges that Kofi Atta was the father of Akosua Darko, and that: “[h]e beat her …” (152).

The story Kayo concocts to protect the villagers’ secrets and mysteries while satisfying PRCC Donkor is that Kofi Atta had a lover from Côte D’Ivoire, a woman whom he had beaten even though she was pregnant; and that three men had come from that country to warn him against this, on pain of some dreadful vengeance. Kayo goes to Yaw Poku’s hut and asks him to spread this part of his narrative throughout the village, so that information gathered to test his own report will tally with what they tell police or reporters.

Soon after completion of his report, which includes the “evidence” obtained from DNA testing, that the flesh in Kofi Atta’s hut was a lung, indicating that he had been murdered and then cursed by having his corpse desecrated by the men from Côte D’Ivoire for persisting in his violent abuse of their relative, Donkor arrives. He comes with a whole crowd of avid reporters and, with Donkor as the undoubted star of the show, Kayo too is roped in as the heroic yet scrupulously scientific investigator who solved this terrible case with its “international implications”.

In a private conversation with Donkor, Kayo learns that the minister’s girlfriend was utterly relieved that the piece of human flesh was merely a lung, hence nothing “evil” that would contaminate her spiritually for having seen it. Donkor is under no illusion that what is in the report is the “real story”, but he is pleased with Kayo and, having invited him along on the return trip to Accra in his luxurious official chauffeured limousine, offers him permanent police employment: “[Y]ou will be head of new forensic techniques and you will be under the BNI. But you will report to me” (166). When Kayo hesitates, the PRCC offers him a last chance, at gunpoint at the roadside in the forest: take the job and get rich, or it’s all over for you. But even with his life at stake at the mercy of this madman, Kayo refuses, turns his back and walks away.

Kayo survives and finds his way back to the village through the forest – not because Donkor had not shot at him, but because the chauffeur, a former military man, had had the foresight to remove the bullets from Donkor’s gun – he had developed a liking for Kayo as a feisty, honest young compatriot who did not deserve to be shot down by the ghastly Donkor.

In the final section of the last chapter the narrative perspective is assigned to Yaw Poku, who informs us that, subsequent to his escape from Donkor, Kayo comes to the village three days in the week. Although Esi (Akosua Dorku’s lovely young daughter) is no doubt part of the attraction, Kayo comes also to learn the lore of plants and the local beliefs and divination skills from Oduro. Yaw Poku is clearly delighted that “the graduate, this Kwadwo” (168) is aligning himself with the villagers. Yaw Poku pronounces the local conclusion about the strange end of Kofi Atta, a man doomed to return to the childhood and then foetal state he had abused in his daughter and her children, before ignominiously dying as a piece of mere flesh:

The wise ones say that sometimes when the wrong done is bigger than us, justice is taken from our hands because we cannot carry it, and, in our zeal to hold it aloft, we may injure ourselves and those around us. This is why Oduro [the village healer] had told us that we didn’t need to keep watch over [Kofi Atta’s daughter]; the ancestors were in control. (169-170)

It is a fitting way to end a narrative that so gracefully and tactfully reconciles the modern with the ancient, and the natural and spiritual forces of our world with the realities of the corrupt power politics and ugly greed that contaminate the social sphere. The novel works in the form of a fable, one that is charmingly and convincingly “modernised”, and that only half-playfully employs its elements of African magical realism.

One hopes for more writing from Nii Ayikwei Parkes in the near future, given this accomplished debut novel.


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