Diary of a Journey to Senegal | Ishion Hutchinson | Granta

Diary of a Journey to Senegal

Ishion Hutchinson

The day ends with this miracle: a meeting with Ayi Kwei Armah. It is extraordinary how that happened, a sort of epiphanic encounter that explanation flattens. When I was going to Popenguine, it was mentioned to me that an old Ghanaian writer lives there in the village, that he speaks English (of course) and that it would be great for me to meet him. The name might’ve been said to me, but I didn’t register it; the meeting was actually agreed on or was spoken of as likely possible. Still, I wasn’t excited about meeting this old Ghanaian writer living in a sea-town village: all my interest was in the sea-town village itself.

On my walk through the village main street to the beach, I remember passing a man in a faded lilac jumpsuit, a perfect cloud or halo of white hair framing his small dark face. The jumpsuit, I thought when I passed him, looked like an astronaut’s outfit. We nodded greetings and went our ways. The stay at the water and the cliff, abiding in their healing, kept me overtime, and so I was late in rushing back to the village to meet up with my host for the (possible) meeting with the old Ghanaian writer. Even as I rushed back I stopped at an artisan’s shop at the side of the road, an old corrugated-zinc shack with masks made of refuse – iron, bottle stoppers, carton boxes – hanging on the side walls of the shack. I called for the owner. A man, fifty-ish, emerged from the inside. He pointed out that the artist, Mussa, was presently at home, which was a short walk up a dusty and craggy hill next to the shack.

Late to meet the old Ghanaian writer, I went in search of Mussa instead, climbing the hill and arriving at Mussa’s yard, which resembled his art shack: litter everywhere, but because of the paintings and masks hanging from his little house and the trees, the yard, like the shack, took on the quasi-sacred feeling I recognized from the yards of obeah man or witch doctors from home.

Mussa was sleeping in a low rugged hammock in front of his house. Cooking utensils strewn around him; a fire recently gone out was still smoking. A puppy was tied next to him with a string. I had to call several times to wake him; when he did wake, he rose and literally unfolded his limbs out of the hammock, so the man who had seemed so small lying down stood as tall as a palm tree in front of me, with the biggest smile on his face. He spoke some English. He invited me into his house, a box structure of one room that had a dirty mattress in one corner and was filled with the scrap material he turned into his art.
He worked in this room by a candle at night, he told me.

‘Only at nights?’ I asked him.

‘Only at nights,’ he said.

I wondered why, but there wasn’t enough language in common between us to discuss it. He showed me the mask he was making the night before, this one laden with rusty keys and coins and bent nails in the mouth holes. ‘Beautiful,’ I told him, and he touched his chest and said thanks.

We left his room and walked down to his art shack. He opened up the windows and showed me around. Of all the pieces that grabbed me, I kept coming back to a pink-mauve canvas with what looked like a raft sewn from cowrie shells. He told me to rub my hands on the shells. They felt like the welts of an old wound, which was what I was about to say to Mussa when my host appeared in a panic: they had been looking for me to take me to the old Ghanaian writer. Apologizing to Mussa, we left the shop and climbed another small hill to the writer’s house.

On the way, my host told me a heartbreaking story. That morning, a friend, an aspiring writer, had taken his life. It was a heavy thing to hear in the sunlight and amid the bougainvillea. He was the most recent in a series of suicides. ‘And all so young,’ she said. I said, ‘I am sorry to hear that,’ unsure of what else to say. I thought of a young African photographer I had met in Berlin who, not long after, took his life. We walked on in a silence so deep I didn’t realise, shortly after, that we had arrived at the old writer’s house.

There was the cloud-hair man in the lilac suit from several hours ago! He offered greetings and water. The space was a large room with low shelves of books lining the walls, airy and bright, a table-tennis table in the center. Books and papers were laid out for us to walk around and browse. I took his greetings, apologized for keeping ‘island time’; he was congenial and spoke with a twinkle in his eyes, waving me off and saying that he was glad I was there now.

I went over to the table-tennis table to see the books which were laid out, most of which belonged to the same publishing house and were produced in the same style, so cheaply made that they seemed more like reproductions than books. But then I started to notice that most of them bore the name Ayi Kwei Armah. That was when it struck me. I looked at the name on the cheaply printed books, and then at the old man in the lilac suit, then back to the books. I said, ‘Are you Mr Armah? Am I in Mr Armah’s house?’

He was as surprised as I was; I walked over to him and took his hands: the myth made flesh, the hands of the very first African writer I ever read, at Happy Grove, and the hands of the man who inadvertently deepened my love of literature, whose writing haunted me. After reading his The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, I refused to touch the railings of stairs and doorknobs for months, so powerfully (and lastingly) he conveyed human disgust. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was my first African book; the first time I lived with African characters and, in those very young years, the first time I had come to the sense or knowledge that the desperation of poverty, its disgust, was not only the terrible aftermath of colonialism, but a reality (terrible to recognize) common to his world and my own, in so many intimate ways, despite the vastness of space and time between us. Reading that book as a boy was an awakening. I said as much while I shook his hands.

And it was so that I met the old man of that early glimmering of self-consciousness, the old Ghanaian writer in the village by the sea, and it was truly moving.

The conversation was, naturally, about the man himself. His coming to Senegal from Ghana (‘snared by a beautiful woman’), and how before that he had decided, when very young, to develop his knowledge of Africa, to, in fact, become African by traveling throughout the continent and residing long term in different countries. He has now lived in many parts of the continent.

The knowledge – of Africa, his knowledge and great passion – began in Egypt. The walls of the room were lined with books about Egypt, ranging from its language to its culture and history. ‘No country in Africa,’ he said, ‘studies in their institutions the knowledge of Egypt. They don’t see that Egypt is the source knowledge of all of Africa.’ He spoke sadly and slowly about this. You could see the young man he was in the old man he had become, the singular determination to possess something difficult and far larger than could be grasped in one lifetime: that was the drive, to submit to that impossibility and write his way into it.

He had done his work, and continues to. His home, in fact, was a place where village children visited to do ‘play workshops’ in Egyptian hieroglyphics; he had founded a printing press which made Egyptian-themed children’s books; he translated (from the French) massive tomes of out-of-print Egyptology books: there were versions of these, so large and thick, phone-book size, with liners from at least seven different languages (many of which were tribal African) set off in bright colours on each laminated page. The admirable enterprise made me think of the young man’s determination which can’t – or won’t – be met with ‘success’ in his lifetime, but must be done. The recluse, as indeed he had become, lived by touching the outside while remaining on the periphery (there was early fame with The Beautyful, but disillusion followed soon after).

I sat low in my slung chair, looking at him in disbelief and admiration. The head of cloud, the lilac jumpsuit (like an astronaut’s uniform), the affable expression on his face, which remained present even when he voiced his failure (not so much speaking of it as failure but with the open admissions that things had not come to fruition or remained small – and yet it was so large an issue, the cradle of knowledge of an entire continent and the world, and he was one of an almost-forgotten minority who was fully entrenched in that knowledge!). He spoke and spoke about himself and his quest for the knowledge of Africa, but he was not self-indulgent or self-involved in doing so. Then he started to ask questions about my life and my work.

My mouth felt dry in responding. If it were just the two of us alone, I would’ve wept. I spoke to him about home, especially, to my surprise, about the rivers of Port Antonio.

Îles de la Madeleine at dark. The sea at night is a dance floor of occasional foaming white lights cutting thin and broad, horizontal and vertical, so that one feels plunged into a parallel universe of happiness standing before the waves.

The night sea wears a light-feather coat and a scent so dangerous planets cover their noses, but still they bow to the sea. Sea night music: what is the music?

That music is the underbelly of leaves flashing in slight breeze, so that the sound is much more in sight – an acute sound like razor blades thrown on ice – and the mountains making small steps, rocking back in place, repeating and repeating.

The sea at night. Somewhere between Port Antonio and here, Îles de la Madeleine, lie these forgotten (nearly, for fishermen still use them) and never-inhabited group of islands (four altogether): there, rock pools fill with water that looks black and greenish but is as clear as tears; bluffs are whitened by the shit of cormorants and other birds; the wonderful clear smell of this ancient and renewed bird shit that has the balm scent of salt.

Now I know something else, something about the composition of the sea at night, the dance that lasts into the shimmer of morning and all is full of a settled, coral joy.

Dusk. How soft the light falls through the still bright bougainvillea, that, without sun – or rather with the sun so lowered down – they’re brighter, bright as the last gasp of coals in a stove, of life beginning as it ends. The soft dusk with its sounds. I can hear the movements of things and register them as familiar – not familiar: intimate. As now I hear the clatter of utensils from the building next door: I hear and see the hand pulling the kitchen drawer out and grabbing the well-used silverware and allowing them to clang on each other, for the sheer reason of their sound, just the delight of doing so, letting the forks and spoons and knives take claim as living presences in the house. I hear voices. Bubbling up they waver, their tones carefree. The fast but pronounced lilt of mixed languages. Now a woman’s voice – her bright laugh – fills the dusk. A child’s squeal follows. More laughter, this time in unison. Is there a party of people drinking – sitting, I imagine, at a low table (hands reaching for drinks and peanuts) – over the wall by the pool? I am writing this at the guest house, in a lounge chair by the blue-and-white-tiled pool – a single swimmer in the water (cloudy with chlorine) moving waddlingly without haste. Noises from other apartments: a radio playing consistently the same jingle between the news and a talk-show program.

Somewhere else, the loud creak of a door as it opens, and is then slammed shut.

Ishion Hutchinson

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is the author of the poetry collections Far District, winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, and House of Lords and Commons, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize in Literature, the Whiting Award and a Donald Windham-Sandy M. Cambell Literature Prize, among others. Photograph © Marco Guigliarelli

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