Introducing the Ghanaian who serves poetry as golden eggs - to the honour of women, to the pleasure of kings, and to the glory of God
Adjei Agyei-Baah is a founding partner of Poetry Foundation Ghana, organizers of Ghana Poetry Prize 2013. His poem Mother Is Supreme won the Luv FM Mothers’ Day Poetry Promo (2008) and Similes of Love was awarded by the Hello FM Valentine's Day Poetry Competition (2009). Again in 2009, he emerged as one of the winners of TV3's Mothers' Day Contest, dubbed: Mother With A Purpose. He is the Assistant Registrar of St. Margaret University College, Kumasi, and a part-time lecturer who handles Strategic Management at University College of Management Studies. He holds a Masters of Business Administration degree in Strategic Management and Consultancy Service from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He lives in Kumasi with his wife, Benedicta and a child.
An interview with Adjei Agyei-Baah. By Darko Antwi
DARKO: Just as your poetry stands-out, you have a distinctive middle name that rhymes with your first name, and compounds with the last. If any, can you share stories behind your homophonous name? Has it got anything to do with your pen?
ADJEI: I am the third-born of ‘Agyei Baah’’ family, hence named by my late father as Eric Agyei Baah. This name I ‘used from the crèche till the ‘’Agyei’’ was altered (anglicised) to ‘’Adjei’’ through examination registration process when sitting up for my Ordinary Level Examination conducted by West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) in 1994.
So when I came into the creative writing circles, I decided to combine both my native ‘’Agyei’’ with the adulterated ‘’Adjei’’ to form my pen name to read as ‘’Agyei Adjei-Baah’’. For this name I found to be somehow distinctive since no-one had adopted a similar one like this. This I will say is the metamorphosis that my name has undergone till it got to its present form ‘’Adjei Agyei-Baah’’.
DARKO: More than anyone else, it has become your custom of writing poems that befit the warm atmosphere of Mothers Day. What is so special about that day which attracts your creativity? In an interview with Rob Taylor, you paid a goddess tribute by saying: "They [mothers] are the blessed centre of the universe...without them everything else ceases to exist" If that is not a mere hyperbole, it could be perceived that you are on a religious path to the idolisation of the day. Aren't you?
ADJEI: Mothers Day has always been special to me because it flashes back memories sour and sweet. I reveal here that I was ‘fortunate’ to be my mother’s doter (favourite, I mean) and she used to share her childhood stories with me especially how she struggled as a village girl till my father brought her to the city. This made our bond strong to the displeasure of my other siblings… Though she was semi-literate, she had great passion for education and will even go ahead to find us private teachers and pay our fees before my father makes the attempt. Even when she recovered from an accident which affected her spine and nearly left paralysed, she used her insurance claim to send my elder sister and I to the senior high school when my daddy was somehow reluctant.
As a child, she was with me when I drunk thinner (a caustic substance) from a green bottle which I mistook for ‘’Sprite’’ and pleaded with God to make me live once more…. these and many more I cannot talk about. She has been a mentor, guide and friend worth paying back. Hence a poet’s pen often paying homage to womanhood.
But must quickly add that she was not slow to punish when I did wrong, as her own ‘style’ punishment can be found in my haiku below:
one deep enema
still rings a bell
DARKO: Apart from honouring mothers, which I believe is remarkable, you are dedicated to royalty, your people, their history and way of life. Your poem, Ashanti, is symbolic to that assertion. There is nothing wrong with ethnic pride. But it does not stay entirely positive if nothing is done to foster the unity of your ethnic diverse country. Though I'm not alluding to the assumption that you wrote Ashanti as a matter of preference over national unity, would you agree that the persuasion in Ashanti is to the subtle neglect of national cohesion?
ADJEI: Nope, I don’t think it is wrong for someone to pride himself in the glories of their ancestors (tribe). Who will not love to hear about the great escapades, legends and epics of their people (tribe)?… Everybody will love to. One will simply brush it off when it is about cowardice, defeat or probably laziness of his tribe.
However, I think it only become unhealthy and suicidal when that canker of ethnocentrism and belittlement of other culture is cultivated. But irrespective of what must come first before the other one fact still remains: before Abraham there was God, like before nations there were tribes.
DARKO: Ashanti is an epic. Personally, I like it. I can only imagine a world where you woke up in your dream and found yourself in the midst of prominence, reciting to the delight of a king. If my imagination is fantasy, what are the realities of hardwork or the passages of protocol behind having that august reception with Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, at the main court of Manhyia Palace? How impressed was he? Has he kept those grand gold-framed poetry boards?
ADJEI: The origin of this piece is quite an interesting one. I will say Ashanti was inscribed after reading JP Clark’s Ibadan for the first time. That was the source of inspiration. I fell in love with the piece for its potent display of imagery which creates the ‘’absent but present’’ feeling in the mind of the reader and thought it wise of painting a similar piece for the region of my birth. After writing the piece, my aunty who had fallen in love with it showed it to a friend (Nana Adomako Barfi, Fmr. Registrar, KNUST), and also the Chief of Ankaase (Bekwai-Ashanti) who afterward connected me to Manhyia. It took me about 5 months for all the ‘’ups and downs’’. A friend (Roland Bosomuru) who had then been designing the mags and catalogues of Manhyia turned the king’s picture and my poem into a beautiful portrait before I finally presented it to the King on an Akwasidae festival with my entire family around March, 2008.
On that day, there were a lot of important personalities like Ex-President Kuffour, Kofi Annan, Rep of the Queen etc. and other dignitaries from far lands and I was made to unveil and recite the piece on the portrait. This I did with the powerful crow of Chanticleer. After the recitation, Otumfuo instructed his swordsmen to pave the way for me to shake his hand for the great work done. I walked through the crowd majestically and shook the hand full of gold. I wanted to shake it hard that some may fall for a pick but the King has this kind of suppressing aura of mystery around him and I was simply tamed by it.
This encounter, I will say: it brought me neither gold nor silver but it opened multi-doors, which I will forever recount with joy. A story I will live to tell my grandchildren someday…probably an honour I may not have known in my lifetime.
DARKO: Far from the anxieties and uncertainty expressed in Showers of Struggle [published in 2008 by Modern Ghana], you are a person who would be giving thanks to God for the grace of achievements that adorn your career and manhood. May I ask if you still see transition from childhood to adulthood as perplexed as you created in Showers of Struggle? Or...is that kind of developmental distress a common phenomenal of the average African child who goes in and out of the doors of his poor home?
ADJEI: I must say that though I was not from a poor background, I grew to learn in the hard way. Probably my father wanted it that way. I love hard work… I am the kind of guy who works hard for my money. Don’t know much about life but one thing I know for sure is that, hard work pays and this has always been my guiding principle. Aside that, I believe struggle will always be an albatross for the Africa child to battle with, till their leaders do the right thing… that’s satisfying their needs instead of their greed.
DARKO: When a collection of your love poetry is examined, it becomes obvious that you uphold a balanced perception of human-to-human relationship. In specifics, you have dealt with themes of betrayal and dishonesty in This heart of Mine. Also, there is an element of deception in The Flowers Speak of Pain. In a diametric opposite, you spiced Unshaken with a high sense of commitment and sincerity. In Love Defined, that balance is well-struck by the following couplet: Love brings pains / Love brings gains.
If you reflect on your treatment of love as a subject, would you conclude that the progress and failure of an individual (or humanity) is dependent on the altitude of love (forgiveness, kindness, respect etc) he gives and receives?
ADJEI: I’ll say yes and no. The issue of love has always been a delicate and complicated thing and each individual may have his/her own philosophy based on his/her personal experience. Some give love to get it in return and others give it only to be hurt to the core of their heart. As a young man, I have had my own share of love drills when once I gave my all. What will you do if your ex-girlfriend comes to you on the eve of your marriage for reconciliation? A daunting question I answered in my piece (First Love Calling). But my philosophy about love will always be: ‘It is a sweet grain of pain’’.
DARKO: Except the protestant Baptismal Baffle, the various titles of your religious poetry share concern about mortality, and man as a rebellious being. Based on the content of Man and Adam's Elegy, I have understood that human beings have a sinful nature. And I therefore believe in extension to your context that man cannot repent to the attainment of righteousness. If my believe deviates from your intention, explain what you would otherwise convey as a matter of faith, applicable to your verse.
ADJEI: I must say; this is a difficult one and I should have consulted my pastor for a little assistance. But my little observation is that: man is a forward backward creature who is hard to predict. He will simply stop at nothing, often moved by his insatiable taste (and sometimes poverty) has often led him to sin. One thing we human forget to know is that God has created so much for our need but not for our greed. But that notwithstanding, man is at liberty to choose between right and wrong, good and evil as the Holy Bible says. And our chance of being repentant and righteous is high since we have our conscience and the freewill.
DARKO: Counting on the wisdom of your illustrious works, and by virtue of your leadership position, you have become a key player in contemporary Ghanaian literature. Do you deem it necessary to assist a generation of writers to come after you? I mean, would you value mentorship at a time when the literary arts in Ghana is barely recognized?
ADJEI: I will. And this is something I have started already. As a tutor of language, many student writers come to me for assistance. Besides, I give a lot of assistance behind the scene, especially to budding poets who call on me through Facebook and other social media platforms. I think I had my own share of frustration at the early stage of my writing career. That was when I needed someone to mentor me. But my targets seem to be busy doing their own thing and had no little time for me. Traces of my frustration could be felt in my piece In The Event Of My Demise. I don’t want the young ones to suffer similar fate.
DARKO: Thank you very much for your time on The Street. I appreciate!
ADJEI: It’s an honour for someone to see your good works from afar and bring you into limelight. I am grateful.
SEE ALL PHOTOS: Adjei Agyei-Baah at Manhyia Palace