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Niq Mhlongo

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Chocolate City

A little mound of disgusting steaming dog shit is what I stepped on as I came out of the crowded Brussels Central Station that cold Friday morning. I had just disembarked the train from the Brussels International Airport with Ilke, my host at the Passa Porta Writers Residence where I was going to spend one month.

‘Shit! Welcome to the chocolate and cheese city, the capital of Europe’ I thought to myself as I pulled my burgundy travel bag to the waiting taxi by the station.

‘Will you manage?’ asked Ilke as I loaded my bag at the boot of the taxi. On my shoulder I was carrying my laptop bag. I don’t think she had realized that I had dog shit under my lime Converse shoe.

Ilke had braved the cold Brussels morning to come and meet me at the airport that day of the 28th of November 2009.
‘I’ll be fine’ I answered while scanning the pavement for a secret place to remove the irritating dog shit. Unfortunately, the taxi driver’s eyes were fixed on me and I was afraid to clean my shoe in case he thinks I had brought the shit from Africa.
‘46 Dansaertstraat …’ that was all I could hear from Ilke, as the conversation between her and the driver was in French.

With the shit still caked on the sole of my left shoe, I sat at the back of the taxi with Ilke. It did not smell much; and I don’t know whether that was because of my blocked nose. But as we passed several shops on the street selling chocolates and cheese, the answer came into my mind. I was thinking that the reason Brussels dog shit didn’t smell much under my foot was because dogs were fed chocolates and cheese, unlike in South African.
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San Francisco-the city that was carved by a genius hand

Early in October this year, when some South Africans were busy chipping their tongues and teeth mispronouncing our new president’s name, Kgalema Motlanthe, calling him ‘Kalema More Atlanta’, I had the opportunity to visit my most favorite beautiful city of San Francisco, in California, USA. This was the memorable holiday for the writers sponsored by the International Writers Program in Iowa City where I’m based for three months. Now let me tell you this: if there is any city in the world that has striking similarities to South Africa’s Cape Town, it has to be San Francisco. I made that observation while standing at the Twin Peaks of San Francisco during the five days holiday there, and I can still maintain even in my sleep that the two cities were carved by one genius hand.

Looking at the mesmerizing city of San Francisco from the Twin Peaks is like standing on top of the Signal Hill with the panoramic view of Cape Town right before your hypnotized eyes. But from the Twin Peaks, your eyes will be introduced to something new in the iconic landmarks of San Francisco. These include the orange 4200 foot suspension Golden Gate Bridge with its 746 foot tall towers that connects to the Marin County; pyramid skyscraper shaped 48-storey Transamerica Building, which is the highlight of the city’s financial district and business centre. Moving your eyes a bit to the left you’ll see the Coital Tower looming over the Telegraph Hill, which for a second you might mistake it to the Ponte Building in Jozi. If you brought your binoculars along, you might be lucky to even spot the number-plates of the cars crossing to and from the distant Treasure Island through the magnificent two-way Bay Bridge. After that, all your questions about the city would have been answered; including why many Hollywood producers have chosen San Francisco as a filming destiny to close to two thousand films such as Dirty Harry, Dark Passage and Born to Kill.

We checked in at the magnificent Sir Francis Drake Hotel –Powell Street with eight other writers at about two in the afternoon of the 1st of October. I was sharing a hotel room at the 9th floor with a fellow writer and friend from Cameroon, John Nkengasong. The hotel is situated in the heart of the Union Square District, where the best names in fashion such as Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Macy’s have resided for over hundred years.

At three in the afternoon we met at the hotel lobby for a walk to the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Museum comprises of more than 25 000 works of modern and contemporary art mirroring artistic developments occurring regionally, nationally, and internationally, in topography, painting and sculpture, architecture and design, and media arts. We saw important works by Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Mark Rothko, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois; major holdings of Paul Klee, Clyfford Still, Philp Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, and the post-minimalists; photographers ranging from Fox Talbot and Watkins through Stieglitz, Weston, and Adams.

After about two and half hours admiring the beauty of the art, I was hungry. Some of our fellow writers chose to go straight to the hotel, but John and I wanted to explore some of the different restaurants around. For that evening we settled on the famous Harris, which is the San Francisco Steakhouse situated at Van Ness Avenue. After finding a table for two people, I ordered Rib eye steak, which is boneless rib steak tenderloin en brochette, tender pieces of filet magnon skewered with applewood, smoked bacon, onion, red bell pepper and saunteed mushrooms. For my drink I tried the San Francisco Amber Ale, which I really enjoyed. John chose to eat boti kebab, which consisted of a leg of lamb with ginger and garlic, brushed with papaya, and he complimented that with a glass of Corona. We stayed at Harris until half-past ten in the evening when we decided to walk back to the hotel.

The following day we took the city bus to the Pacific Ocean. Well, travelling around the city is easy and cheaper if you have a City Pass. This is a passport that entitles you to unlimited rides per day on any municipality passenger vehicles including cable cars, street cars, and buses. The Writing Program had bought each one of us the City Pass at $59 per person, which means that we could travel for seven consecutive days from the date of the first Pass use.

Although it was a hot sunny day, none of us swam at the ocean’s icy water. We all preferred to dip our feet into the water, and some walked about half a mile of the 5 miles sand. After about two hours we left the ocean and took the bus to Haight Ashbury Street, the centre of the 1960’s hippy culture. My friend John, Glaydah, a fellow writer from Uganda, and I went to a restaurant called Tadd, whereas others chose from the many restaurants along the street. Inside Tadd, John ordered mashed potato and fresh red snapper-topped with shrimp, crab sauté, cream and wine sauce, as well Anchor Steam beer. I got myself some Oysters wellington with creamed spinach and smoked bacon in a puff pastry on a bed of sherry cream, as well as Liberty Ale beer. Glaydah on the other hand chose to eat grilled turkey sauteed with artichokes, mushrooms and creamy white wine sauce. At about an hour and half we all met at the bus stop of Haight Ashbury Street for the bus back to the hotel.

That evening we went to the City Lights Bookstore and the North Beach neighborhood. City Lights is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specializes in world literature, arts and progressive politics. It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and it is regarded as one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the Unites States. This was a famed hangout of the Beat Generation of writers like Allen Ginsberg and my favorite Jack Kerouac.

After exploring the bookstore some of us decided to walk to the nearby China Town which we entered through the green-tiled Dragon Gate on Grant Ave. The streets in China Town are crowded with overflowing souvenir shops, fish markets, antiques stores, lively eateries. We were also told earlier that China Town is also the home to one of United States of America’s largest populations of Chinese descent. Leornado, a fellow writer and film producer from Venezuela suggested that we try the Empress of China at Grant Avenue because he had eaten a delicious meal of a duck and rice there the previous night. But instead of repeating his duck meal, he ordered ginger Dungeness crabmeat, wild Mexican shrimp, avocado, and Louie dressing. I settled for the yummy A la marinara prawns, fillet of sole, scallops, mussels, crab, shrimp, clams and a dish of pasta and garlic bread. John ordered fresh fish-wild calamari steak panko-crusted, tartar sauce, garlic toast, classic Ceasar salad anchovies parmesan cheese, and house-made crontons.
We ended the night with few bottles of Corona, bud, Coors Light, and MGD.

On the third day we went on urban safari-a guided tour of San Francisco by the talkative Daniel Oppenheim who was all the time trying to talk Afrikaans and Zulu to me. This was a chance for us to see the various districts of San Francisco, amazing views of the city, parks, historic and contemporary places of interest. Inside Daniel’s bus we met tourists from Australia and New Zealand and the talkative Daniel kept on telling us how much he loved South Africa and how his son nearly died of malaria there. Our first stop was at the Exploratorium which is a remarkable museum that combines art, and science. Here we just walked around a huge beautiful building and a small man-made lake for about twenty minutes. The architecture reminded me of Sun City Casino in the North West Province.

We then proceeded to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was partly obscured by fog although we were standing under it. We took pictures for about ten minutes, and then drove away through a very posh neighborhood. Daniel pointed at some three breath-stopping houses and said they belonged to actress Sharon Stone, and actors Danny Glover and Robin Williams. He also told us that OJ Simpson is another ex-famous face from San Francisco before he was found guilty by the court in that week.

We stopped at the 144 foot tower of the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. This is one of the two largest public arts institutions in San Francisco. De Young Museum showcases American art from the 17th through the 21st centuries, and art from Central and South America, the Pacific and Africa. It consists of a collection of 4000 years of ancient and European art, displayed at the Legion of Honor. We then took a lift to the 9th floor for the panoramic view of the entire bay centre.

Our urban safari with the extremely talkative Daniel ended at about three in the afternoon by the Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39. This place really reminded me of Cape Town. Besides the fact that it offers a majestic gaze at the sea lions lazing on the docks, it is more similar to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town in many aspects. Just like in Cape Town’s Waterfront where you can catch a ferry from the Atlantic waters to the nearby Roben Island; in Pier 39 you can hop on the blue and gold Golden Bear ferry for the panoramic view and one hour Bay cruise to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz former prison. But before we cruised along the Pacific waters I left with John to the nearby Bubba Gump Restaurant where we ordered a platter of fisherman’s pasta-linguine, salmon, crab, snapper, bay shrimp and basil cream, surrounded by clams and mussels. We even had time for a glass of Pilsner Anchor Steam.

About forty minutes later we were already exchanging our City Pass pages for a ticket to board the Golden Bear ferry. In few minutes we were cruising past the Alcatraz, a 22 square acres tiny Island that was once a home to a military fortress and prison. Like the Roben Island in Cape Town, Alcatraz was the maximum-security federal penitentiary that was once the home to such fearsome criminals as Robert Stroud (aka ‘The Birdman’) and Al ‘Scarface’ Capone. Some of you might remember the ‘escape from the Alcatraz’ movie by Clint Eastwood, which was influenced by the unsuccessful June 1962 prison escape by 32 inmates.

Not so very far from the Alcatraz we could see the Angel Island, which is a 740 square acre state park with its pint size beeches, and campsites. This was once a quarantine station for soldiers during the Spanish-American War; then an immigration station detaining Chinese immigrants, sometimes sending them on to the mainland POW camp during WW2.

The fog was starting to settle in once we reached under the Golden Gate Bridge where we made a u-turn. Upon disembarking, we walked to The Hyde Street to board San Francisco’s world famous cable car on our way back to the hotel. Most of us were eager to watch the interesting Vice -Presidential debate between Biden and Palin in our hotel rooms.

The morning of the forth and final day started with some people doing some shopping around the Union Square. Some people visited the Aquarium at the Fisherman’s Wharf, while others went to the China Town and African Museum. John and I walked to the Port of San Francisco area towards the Bay Bridge doing nothing really. But in the evening most of us took the underground train to the Litquake 2008 at the Herbst Theatre inside the War Memorial Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue and Mc Allister Street. This is San Francisco Literary Festival which featured 450 authors doing readings, panels and workshops. It was the gala opening night with storytelling, where eight selected writers told a ten minute tale about a specific theme, without using notes or memorization. The writers featured on that night were Amber Tamblyn, Cintra Wilson, Robert Mailer Anderson, Jonathan Ames, Will Durst, Neal Pollack, April Sinclair, and Adam Savage.

Most of us were hungry when the show finished at about ten at night. We took a train back to Union Square, but most of us decided to visit Nick’s Lighthouse at Taylor Street. My friend John ate lamb methi, which are cubes of lamb dusted with fenugreek, black mustard seeds and cumin in olive oil. Leornardo had lamb chop masala, which is a rack of lamb roasted and cooked with fresh ginger, garlic, cardemon and peppers. I ordered a beef steak with creamed spinach, fresh vegetables, fries, garlic mashers, baked potato, and ravioli with sauces –pepper, garlic, béarnaise. With our fully bellies we walked to our hotel at Powell Street, but instead of going to our 9th floor room where I shared with John, we landed in the Harry Denton’s Starlight room on the 21st floor. We paid the entry charge of 10 dollars and went inside to drink the Milkstream, Anchor Porter, and Bud Light until the wee hours of the morning. That was the most memorable night before we left the city to the airport at twelve mid day; back to Iowa City via Denver/Colorado Airport and Cedar Rapids.

The Great meal in America

‘When Obama speaks, even an angel reaches orgasm’
With that line alone, I’m sure you can take a guess where I’m writing this from. You’re right! I’m in Iowa City, Iowa State, 721 Lynn Street, Phillip House, United States of America. The line is from the advertisement in one of the many TV channels which is trying to sell Obama to the American voters. Luckily I’m here until after the elections which take place on the 4th of November, and if I’m not bored, lazy or drunk, I’ll probably keep you posted with all the developments. As I said, here the news is about who is going to deliver the mighty US from the economic crisis after ‘Bush 43’ (they call him that instead of Bush JNR)- and we are less concerned about who is going to be sworn in as the South African President after the demise of President Thabo Mbeki this week. Here in Iowa, the name on most people’s lips is OBAMA. Okay, enough with the game of politics.

Last week I e-mailed some pictures of me in the US’s McBride Lake in Iowa, near the Mississippi River to my friends and family. I just wanted to show them how I’m enjoying my stay in Iowa. One of my friends replied back by saying that I should stop lying because it looked like I was in Florida Lake in Jozi. He even went on to suggest that I should take a minibus taxi at the Main Reef and come back home to Soweto, or if I had a problem I should ask him to come and pick me up with his car. I understood, because all he wanted to see was me posing in front of tall buildings that he always see on movies-‘The Real America’ as he said. But I told him that I was in Iowa City, which is to me just like Grahamstown/Rhini. I tried to explain to him on the e-mail as well that this is the university town (The University of Iowa where I’m based being the city itself)- just like Rhodes University is the main town of Grahamstown/Rhini.

Okay, before I tell you the main story here which is about the greatest meal which I just had as I’m writing this, let me start by telling you briefly why I’m here. I came to Iowa about a month ago on the 23rd of August to be part of most prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa- and I’m here for three months. The reason I say this is prestigious is because most people tell me that this is the ultimate destination for a writer. Many writers from all over the world have been to this program. Among African writers, Meja Mwangi, my favorite writer from Kenya was here in 1975. When I was studying literature at Wits University some eight or ten years ago his Going Down River Road was prescribed. Another famous writer, Okot PBitek from Uganda was here in 1969, Charles Mungoshi from Zimbabwe was here in 1991, Veronique Tadjo Cote d Ivoire in 2006, Kofi Anyidoho from Ghana was here, Cyprian Ekwensi from Nigeria in 1974, Kole Omotoso from Nigeria in 1974, Amadi Elechi from Nigeria, Flora Mwapa from Nigeria in 1984, Helon Habila from Nigeria in 2004, Taban Lo Liyong from Sudan was here in 1988, and Bessie Head from Botswana was here in 1977. The South African writers include, Oswald Mtshali in 1974, Miriam Tlali in 1978, Sipho Sepamla in 1981, Pieter-Dirk in 1982, Muthobi Mutloutse in 1984, Etienne van Heerden in 1990, Nise Malange in 1991, Tom Dreyer in 2007, Zachariah Rapola in 2000, Marita van der Vyver in 1997, Rushdy Siers in 1991, Alfred Qabula in 1990, Leonard Koza in 1986, Willemse Hein in 1985, James Matthews in 1984, Gladys Thomas in 1983, Fatima Dike in 1979, and Peter Clarke in 1975.

Back to what prompted me to write on this blog: I already told you about my photos that I sent to my friends and family back in SA. But my mother’s response was very interesting. When I called home the other night she told me that my brother has shown her the pictures, and she was very concerned that I’m losing some weight. Perhaps she was right. I had told her that we cook our own meals here and she knew that I can not cook-or let me say, a very lazy cook to be safe. But I assured my mother that I’m enjoying myself and I share a house with several other writers from around the world. I mentioned that my fellow Nigerian writer (Uche) is a great cook, and we eat gari, pepper soup, yams (okay, with yams I exaggerated as he didn’t bring any), and curry. I also told her that there are parties almost everyday where we eat and a lot and drink beers. This week alone, I told her that I was in at least four parties. Dina from Kazakhstan prepared a great Kazakh dish called Borsh for us, Alina from Romania prepared Gulash, Hu from China prepared Tilapia fish his Chinese way and it was so tasty, and we drink the real Chinese tea (Chai) not the fong kong that we buy in Southgate Mall; Veronica from Italy also prepare her dish for us-also there are pizza parties almost every week during the readings. I also told her that my writer friend from Cameroon, John, had brought a good quantity of gari made out of cassava, and we prepare good African meal every time. We also eat bitter kola nut before we go on a drinking spree at the nearby Georgies at Market Street so that we don’t get drunk easily. I didn’t understand why she was fussing about.

But what prompted me to call and talk to my mom for almost twelve minutes today on the 24th of September has nothing to do with the JSE, or the rand losing power because of Mbeki and Manuel’s resignation, or any political uncertainty. Anyway, who cares about who’s going to be the next president. As long as nobody interferes with my absolute presidency of this blog (I want to rule it like Mugabe), I’m fine. I called mom today because something special had happened for the first time since I’m here in Iowa City.

Okay, let me start from the beginning. On the 5th of September I was presenting my paper that I had written about ‘The city’ at the City of Iowa Library-how it influenced my writing (you can actually read that on the University of Iowa website). On the panel it was Nikola Madzirov from Macedonia, Ruby Rahman from Bangladesh, Veronica Raimo from Italy, and I. During questions time, a man asked if I was influenced by Ayi Kwei Armah, because my presentation reminded him of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which he taught at a college in Ghana. The man later introduced himself as Alan Brody, a former UNICEF representative to Swaziland.

Days later on the 24th of September Alan invited us for dinner- John (Cameroon), Uche (Nigeria), Glaydah (Uganda), Tarek (Formerly Sudanese, Egypt, now Austrian), Peter and his wife Mary Nazareth (formerly from Uganda but now Iowans for decades), and Uncle Joe (formerly from Malawi but lived here in Iowa decades ago). Unfortunately John couldn’t come because of other commitments. But it is this dinner that made me to call mom-I just wanted to tell her that it was the best meal that I have had so far since I came here to Iowa. Alan came to pick us up in Iowa City around five and we drove to his place at the Woodland Heights. The place is just three miles away from Iowa City, and it is along the Iowa River. He told us that his wonderful wife, Mary, who is also a Ghanaian, had cooked dinner for us. Wow, Woodland Heights has a great scenic view. For those who stay in Cape Town, the place reminded me of Kirstenbosch in spring, with all those beautiful tall trees, green grass and assorted flowers. The only difference might be that typical of US houses, this one of the Brodys was also made out of wood and was just few meters away from the snaking Iowa River. Deers were grazing and moving about lazily like goats at the nearby trees and Iowa River, and Alan explained that they were wild deers as nobody owned them. After parking the two cars next to his house, Alan took us for a little walk to see a bit of the place. We didn’t go far, but came back and sat on a long table outside the house. Alan came with the drinks, others had red wine and orange juice, but Alan and I drank Minsterrey beer. He then went to fetch the Suya (which is the chopped beef that was marinated tastefully and roasted while pinned into a long thin stick like a chop stick)-it is that meat that hawkers from outside South Africa braai at night outside pubs. Now you know-in Nigeria it is called suya. But this one the marinating was done so perfectly overnight and it was mmmmmm sooooo great.

Later on Alan told us that the food was ready, and we had to go inside the house to eat the Ghanaian way, and also to avoid the bugs outside. His wife, Mary, he told us was a daughter of a chief in the Western Part of Ghana where food was plenty for everyone to eat, including the passersby. Uncle Joe (he’s the one that recruited Alan to work for the UNICEF ages ago and is 74) concurred by telling us that he was once left at the Brodys house for two weeks when they were away, and there was so much food that he didn’t know how to begin eating it.

Upon entering the dining room I understood what the both meant. By mere looking at the table, I salivated with the aroma of the food. There were bowls and bowls of different food, from beef Jollof Rice, Baked Egg plant & Chick peas, baked Cauliflower & Broccoli with Cheddar Cheese, Mixed greens, Mealie Mealie (known as Banku in Ghana or pap in South Africa), Baked Chicken with soy sauce, Toast bread with garlic and dill, and Franzia Chillable Red Wine. I ate two full plates and took some home with me. For dessert we had a chocolate cake, which Mary was so kind to put on the foil paper for us to take home with together with the meat, rice and vegies.

Now that’s what I call the great meal in America. And it is for that reason that, at the end when we left the Brody’s house at 8:30 PM, we thanked them the Idi Amini way: ‘Thank you for having us in your house and your good food. We are really fed up (while caressing our stomachs). We will make sure we revenge you when you come to Africa because we will cook you also’

Mar de Letras – Cartegena-Spain

I wrote this piece in 2006 after my trip from Spain. I thought it was wow to read then and sent it to about four different magazines to publish it. But you know what? They all rejected my story and said it was bullsh…, very politely though. I then put it away with the hope that one day I will be my own publisher. I was consoling myself of course, as you know that rejection hurts. As you can see now, today I have my own blog, and I’m my own publisher. Maybe after reading you’ll understand why it was not published. But who cares whether is good a piece or nor-let me abuse my powers as a publisher on this blog.

Mar de Letras –Cartegena-Spain

Ask any published author, and they will tell you that the most fulfilling thing about writing is to know that there are people out there that are reading and enjoying your perverse sense of humor. To be honest, I never imagined that my debut novel Dog Eat Dog with its wicked and hell-bent humor would open up so many opportunities for me, here at home and abroad. In July of 2006 I was invited to participate in the Lar Mar De Misicas, the annual cultural festival in the city of Cartagena in Spain. Those who know the city will tell you that it is ‘three cities in one’, but I’ll tell you later why they say so. Let me firstly tell you the reason of my invitation:
Around June of that year I had received a cell phone call from my publisher (Kwela), telling me the good news- that Dog Eat Dog had been short-listed for some competition to be translated into Spanish. They said it was submitted to the Spanish publisher El Combre. The other two authors that were short-listed are Achmat Dangor (Bitter Fruit), and Zakes Mda (The Whale Caller) and one of us was to receive the award during that month-long festival.

I didn’t care whether I was going to win or not. The greatest accomplishment in my mind was that I was associated with these two South African literary minds, and also that I was going to Spain.

The festival itself was dedicated to South African artists, and Cartagena had turned into ‘the Bloemfontein across the Mediterranean Sea’ for the duration of that summer festival. The line-up, among others, had featured great South African artists such as Mama Miriam Makeba, Mahotela Queens, Lucky Dube, Johnny Clegg, Simphiwe Dana, Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Hugh Masekela, Thandiswa Mazwai, Zola, and others. In film, it was Dumisani Phakathi who stole the show with Don’t fuck with me I have 51 brothers and sisters. There were also special showing of South African films such as Tsotsi; Yesterday; U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha; Drum; Soldiers of the Rock, Ubuntu Wounds’ etc. In still photography we had an exhibition by Oscar Gutierrez from Guatemala, who is based in South Africa; Obie Oberholzer, Peter Magubane etc-so it was a huge Mzansi thing outside South Africa.

Now you can imagine how thrilled I was when I left for Spain on Sunday the 9th of July by South African Airways at 20h40. Well, let me spare you all the boring stuff I did on that ten hours flight, except that I arrived at the Heathrow Airport (London) the following morning with a heavy babalas. You might recall that in 2006, terrorism attack, bomb-scare and suicide bombings were at their peak around the world. The officials at the Heathrow Airport didn’t take any chance with me, and to them I was another potential suspect. That is the reason I guess I was thoroughly searched and asked to remove my hat and my black All Star boots takkies, and I walked bare-footed through the scanner.

An hour later after buying Rik Mayall’s Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ at the book store at the Heathrow Airport, I boarded a connecting Trans-Atlantic flight, which took almost two hours to Spain’s Alicante Airport. The journey uncomfortable because of the turbulence, and that we had to buy our own booze and food inside that small plane. One man even vomited on the isle before he was given some shot of an injection that lulled him to sleep.

It was a very hot morning (about 4o degrees) in Alicante Airport when we arrived. Some young guy who introduced himself as Reyes ‘and originally from Valencia’ was standing by holding an A4 piece of paper with my name printed on it. Without wasting any more time we got into his white van and drove for about an hour to the west (the opposite direction to Barcelona). We passed salt factories, grape and orange tree farms along the Mediterranean Sea. Reyes was about my age, and he played his hip-hop music by the rapper 50c on the van’s CD player throughout the journey. At the same time he was busy orientating me about the city of Cartagena. He told me that it was the nearest city to Africa because in a good clean day one could see across the Mediterranean sea into Morocco, by using binoculars off course.

Upon my arrival at the Novo Hotel in Cartegena, which is by the sea side, I was welcomed by the organizers of the festival. Most of them spoke little English, but there was a young lady called Isabel who was assigned to be my interpreter for the duration of my stay during the festival. The other two ladies were from my Spanish Publisher El Combre, and they were holding the three copies of Perro Come Perro, the Spanish version of Dog Eat Dog that they gave to me. Although from our E-mails correspondence all the signs were there that I could be the winner, it was the first time that the publishers confirmed it. I was thrilled. Isabel told me that I had only an three hours to prepare for the interview with the radio and the local newspaper.

After the interviews, which I went with Isabel, there was dinner at some posh restaurant in the city centre. There I met other writers like Patricia Schonstein (South Africa), Achmat Dangor (South Africa), Jose Maria de Prada Samper (Barcelona-Spain), Brian Worsfold (a lecturer at the university in Spain), Bobby Fourie (from the Nelson Mandela Chilren Fund in Spain). Patricia had come to Spain with her son, Gaelen Pinnock who was also a student at the University of Cape Town. It was during that dinner when I was told that Zakes Mda and Andre Brink couldn’t come because of the commitments elsewhere outside Spain.

The following morning I had breakfast with the Mahotela Queens at the Novo Hotel where most South Africans were based. I had been told the previous day by my hosts that Mahotela Queens were the ones selected to perform during my award presentations. That was the greatest honor as I had known and loved the group since I was a small child.
I left the breakfast table at about 9AM when Isabel and the moderator of the presentation; Ramon Alonso Luzzy came to fetch me. I was scheduled to talk about the post-apartheid South Africa at ten o’clock at some college. The environment was a bit intimidating at first with so much attention from the press and TV.

The presentation and the interviews lasted for about two hours and after that I walked around the city with Isabel. There were sales allover the city and Isabel told me that it happens every year in summer. It was also during that leisure walk that she told me a bit about herself. She was actually twenty-seven years old English school teacher at a town outside Cartegena. She had been recommended by somebody to come and interpret at the festival because of her knowledge of the English language. She didn’t know much about South African authors although she had read J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace and most of Nadine Gordimer’s work. However, she had read my Perro Come Perro some few days ago and liked it very much. She even taught me some of the Spanish saying which kept on popping on her mind each time she read Perro Come Perro. One of the saying goes like ‘O comes o te comen’, which if loosely translated means ‘you eat or they will eat you’

After the lunch, which consisted among other things, of sardines, rice, soup, wine, cerveza (beer) and draught, I went to do the reading at the theatre. That reading turned out to be one of the most enjoyable in my career so far. Although the schools were closed for that long summer, there were about thirty school pupils that came, aged between eight and seventeen. Some had come with their parents and they asked me so many questions about South Africa. Some of them already had copies of Perrro Come Perro and asked questions. Isabel and the moderator Antonio Jose Cano had to work very hard on that day as they interpreted lots of the stuff that I had to say. My Spanish publisher was also there with the copies of Perro Come Perro, and there was a long queue of young and old people that were buying the book. When busy autographing the copies for the kids as young as ten years old, I was also reflecting on what the youth of South Africa might be doing at that moment. Given the fact that the majority of the South African youth do not read, I concluded that they were probably in the nearest internet café busy downloading the music ring tones into their cell phones rather than going to a book reading.

We finished dinner at about 9:30PM, and the sun had just set some few minutes ago. We then walked to the old fort amphitheatre on top of the hill, which is one of the city’s most picturesque buildings. From the fort you have a great bird’s view of Cartagena, and it is there where Ibdullah Ibrahim Trio was performing great songs like Mannenburg. I went there with Gaelen, his mom Patricia Schonstein, Jose Maria de Prada Samper, as well as my photographer friend, Oscar Gutierrez. I knew Oscar from Ochre Media back home where another friend of mine used to work. I called Oscar comrade, and we listened to the beautiful music until the early hours of the morning.

In the morning after the breakfast with the Mahotela Queens again, Isabel was there to take me to some interview with the university radio station. It was a very hot day and temperatures were high at about 44 degrees Celsius. Most of the questions during the interview were from the students that had known South Africa only after the announcement by FIFA that we had won the bid to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The questions also related to the geographical location of the country, soccer, crime etc.

After the interviews we went to lunch where Achmat Dangor regaled us with the anecdotes of the old Sophiatown. It was him who told me that back then they used to call the poet Don Matterra as ‘Bra Zinga’ and that if I see Chris Van Wyk I must call him ‘Viva Witty’.

After about an hour and a half, I left for a tour to the old part of the city with Isabel, Gaelen, Patricia and Jose. That was also the highlight of my visit as I saw why Cartegena was called ‘the three cities in one’. On the surface Cartegena was a modern city, but as we walked into the center of the city we saw a different old city of the Roman time. My interpreter-turned tour guide Isabel told us that the modern city was literally built on top of the ruins of the old Roman city without necessarily destroying most of the structures like the forts, the theatres etc. The Roman city was also build on top of the ruins of the Arab city, and this was evident as we took the stairs into the basement of some of the buildings. We spent more time at the underground museum and saw lots of the items that were used by the Arabs and the Romans in the olden days, like the cooking utensils, clothes, tombs, and other things.

It was after about three hours when we came back into the modern city and to our hotel. There I met comrade Oscar who took me to the gallery where his photos were exhibited. Most of the photos were about the late singer Brenda Fassie in the eighties. Other musicians he featured were Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. There was also a box full of photo booklets and comrade Oscar asked if I could take that with me on my flight home the following day. I agreed.

That very same night of the 14th of July was also the night of the big concert and the big presentation at the fort’s amphitheatre. I was to be presented with my award called ‘Internacionale La Mar de Letras’. Among the musicians that performed was Salif Keita of Mali, DJ Floro of Spain, and Michel Camilo & Tomatito of the Dominicana Republic. But it was the Mahotela Queens that gave an unforgettable performance as the whole amphitheatre danced and sang along, and even asked for some more. I found myself surrounded by many white people who wanted to know what each song was saying as we drank cerveza and danced at the amphitheatre.

The Mahotela Queens played about four songs before they took a short break of about five minutes to allow me on stage. It was during that break that I was presented with my literary prize, which was a heavy bronze trophy. It looked like a bronze light bulb with the size of a child’s head. I had been warned earlier that it was too heavy, and that I must receive it with two hands on stage. There were lots of cameras clicking on me and the Mahotela Queens during the presentations. When I descended the stage, several interviews were waiting for me by the TV News and newspapers. I slept at about three that morning and my head was heavy with a serious hangover from the cerveza that I’d been drinking at the amphitheatre.

Before I left for South Africa in the morning of Saturday the 15 of July, comrade Oscar came to my room with his box of photo booklets that he had asked me to take home with the previous day. On my way to the Alicante Airport with Reyes I regretted for having agreed. My luggage was now exceeding the flight limit because of the books, my prize and other items that I had bought.

I was in the queue for checking in at the Airport when I saw my picture on the front page of the free Airport newspaper. The picture was taken when I was accepting the prize the previous night at the amphitheatre. Although I could not read Spanish, I picked the newspaper and went through the pages. Among other news in the newspaper was the train bomb blast in India that killed several people.

When my turn to check in came, I put my two bags and comrade Oscar’s box on the scale. But as I was standing there, an alarm went off. All of a sudden there were police and their dogs that had surrounded me near the check in counter. The dogs started to sniff at my bags while a policeman searched me. For a moment I thought that comrade Oscar had given me some contraband without me noticing it. Most eyes at the airport were on me, while I blamed myself for being such a fool for trusting comrade Oscar. One of the police officers was pointing at my prize that had appeared on the video of the scanner, and was also talking something in Spanish that I didn’t understand. Without a word, I instinctively pointed the front cover of that morning’s newspaper with my picture holding the prize on it. The police officer took a little look at the newspaper and smiled. He then patted me at the back and muttered what sounded like ‘bon voyage…amigo’.

The overnight professor

Imagine standing in front of the class of about 15 people. All of them write and speak in English far better than you do. But they are there to listen to you tell them how to write fiction in English. Some of these people are accomplished writers like, Manu Herbstein. You are aware for example that Manu is well known in the literary world, and has produced fat volumes of work that you had just bought the previous night. Some of the people in your class are doing PHD’s at great US and Nigeria institutions. Some have published more work than you have, and have attended international literary festivals than you did. Some are great storytellers that have produced the work of fiction, theatre plays, poetry, and movie scripts. Yet you are there standing in front of them and they are there listening to you as you tell them what fiction writing entails. Intimidating isn’t it? But it is also very special moment for me. That’s exactly how I felt on my first day of conducting the workshop for creative writing (fiction) at the NYU office in North Labone, Accra.

If all this happened in South Africa, I guess I would have easily called my situation as Affirmative Action. I mean; a lot has been written about me on the Internet, including that well known secret that I’m a law dropout. But there I was, leading the workshops with big literary names like, like Binyavanga Wainaina from Kenya (fiction), Hope Eghagha from Nigeria (poetry), Kofi Anyidoho from Ghana (poetry), Faith Adielle from the US (creative non-fiction) Arthur Flowers from the US (fiction), Matthew Sharpe from the US (fiction) Yusef Komunyakaa from Ghana (poetry) and others. The class also consisted of very talented and creative people who were very kind to call me ‘professor’ from Monday the 7th of July 2008, until Friday the 11th when my ‘professorship’ ended.

We started everyday from ten o’clock in the morning until one in the afternoon. People in my class came as far as Nigeria, USA, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Binyavanga’s class was immediately after mine on the same venue. After each class, my South African colleagues and I would go back to our Ellking hotel for lunch, and then back NYU center for the readings. This happened everyday from seven in the evening. Talking about food at our Ellking Hotel, most of us liked the grilled tilapia and banku. Ngidi specifically liked the red snapper with yam or okro.
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Looking for a hotel in Ghana

Saturday night, the fifth of July 2008. The Du Bois Centre in Accra Ghana was packed with international literary people. It was the opening ceremony of the Pan African Literary Conference. Professor Keorapetsi Kgositsile, the South African poet laureate gave a reading and keynote address. Other readers that lightened the day with their talent were Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and Tyehimba Jess, and Arthur Flowers from the US. Musical performances were by Grandmaster Masese, a Kisii man from Kenya with his unique traditional self-made instrument called Obokamo. Toni’s Jazztones All Stars complimented the day with velvet jazz tunes.

The ceremony lasted until late and we left around twelve mid night. Yes, most of us were tired, but that didn’t stop us from passing by our Protea Hotel bar before we retired to our rooms. The person that was serving us that day was a very friendly guy by the name of Raul. I indicated to him that it was our last night at the hotel as some of us were strangely booked for three days. Only Kea, Siphiwo and the Prof were booked for extra days. The hotel, we were told, could not extend our stay. There was another group coming from South Africa that was to occupy our rooms that following night. Raul looked genuinely concerned that we were leaving as he had become a good friend. He promised to find a nice hotel for us the following day. When we went to sleep at about two in the morning, Raul promised to call me very early about the hotel. Some of my colleagues had also spoken to the receptionists about an alternative hotel, and they had also been promised some help.

On Sunday morning around 5:30 am while I was still enjoying my morning sleep, Raul called. He told me that he had found a place for us. Unfortunately it was a B&B house belonging to his friend, and it could accommodate only five of us. The two of us had to share, which unfortunately no one was prepared to do. I thanked Raul, but told him that we would rather look for an alternative place. He then promised that he would look for another place for us. He said to me that there was a place that he knew in Accra and it was very nice. But he also warned that it was a bit expensive. He then promised to call me soon, which he did in less than fifteen minutes later. He announced that he had found a very nice place that will accommodate all of us and we have to drive there as soon as possible. I told him that we will meet him at the said place at about ten o’clock after we had checked out. I then went back to sleep.
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Looking for sexy tilapia, bankou and barracuda in Makola Market

We arrived at the Makola Market with Noah forty-five minutes later because of the Accra traffic, and parked the car somewhere in the basement of some old building. Vonani (I call him VO) and Kitso both had cameras, and wanted to take a picture of some sad looking faces on the veranda. But before they could click on their cameras there was a loud protest (I can only guess it was in Gha language) by some ladies who demanded to be paid. Kitso mumbled something in Setswana language as well, asking why she should pay to take the pictures- but she ended up not taking those pictures. We then walked through the congested pavement where everyone seemed to be selling everything. There were stands selling bras, under wears, peeled sugarcane, peeled oranges, cheap soccer kits, and etc. The difference with South Africa is that in Ghana there is too much freedom that you are allowed to quench your diabolic thirst on the street pavement without the police harassing. This is because hawkers are allowed to sell beer on the side of the road on a cooler box. Imagine walking on the pavement of Smith Street in Durban, or Commissioner Street in Jozi where a hawker is selling beer on a cooler box to you-that’s Accra for you. Another thing I observed was that I had never seen any Ghanaian smoking -let me say on the street to be safe, unlike here in Mzansi.
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On the Accra Road

We arrived in Kotoka Airport in Ghana around 12h00 midnight South African time, but in Ghana it was only 10h00PM. The Ghanaians, like the British are two hours behind us. Immediately I came out of the plane I felt some strong humid hot air that made me sweat a bit. It was as if we had just landed in Durban in a hot summer night. At the immigration office, some friendly man that stamped my passport asked us where we are from. When Ngidi and I told him that we are South Africans, he shouted happily, ‘Shaka Zulu. You are the warriors’. He then asked us to give him ‘anything from our heart’. Ngidi searched his pockets and gave the man the fifty billion Zim Dollar that Chris had given him inside the plane. The happy man kissed his hands and blessed him.

The strange thing about the Kotoka International Airport is that if you are not traveling, you’re not allowed inside. Maybe it is because it is very small and there are less than ten shops inside.

We pushed our trolleys outside the airport where everybody was waiting. We saw two guys smiling (like I said, everyone smiles in Ghana) while holding a white paper written: PALF-SIPHIWO. These were the drivers that were arranged to take us in their two cars to the Protea Hotel in East Lagone. Chris decided that he would crush with me at the hotel as there was no one to pick him up that night. As we were traveling to the East, our driver (I forgot his name) was busy orientating us about the city. From what he said I gathered that East Lagone was your Sandton or Camps Bay of Accra. He pointed at the homes of Abedi Pele, Michael Essien and Steven Appiah that were as big as the Protea Gardens Mall across my home in Chi.
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In the kingdom of Dr. Nkrumah

We were supposed to have left to the Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) in Ghana on Wednesday, 2nd of July at 17H25. At least that’s what my electronic South African Airways ticket from my sponsor, The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) reflected. Around one in the afternoon, on the departure date, while waiting for the driver (he was arranged by DAC) to contact me about the direction to my home in Chi in Soweto; Siphiwo Mahala, the writer, and one of the leaders of the delegation from the DAC cell phoned me. With that friendly voice of his that sounds like he is hungry and talking under water he said, ‘eish baba, I…I think there is a problem baba…ehhh, ehh, our accommodation had not yet been confirmed in Accra…eish..baba. I think we’ll have to leave tomorrow just to be on the safe side, baba’, he concluded.

Although I was looking forward to the trip on that day, as I was one of the PALF staff members to teach Creative Writing (fiction) with Binyavanga Wainaina, I was happy that the trip had been postponed until the following day. Eintlik, I didn’t mind the fact that I would miss out being called a professor by my students for one day in Ghana. The fact is, the previous night we were in some lala vuka moer party in Soweto’s Chi with my friend Wonderboy. I had slept very late and had forgotten to swallow my malaria pill a day before departure, as per the doctor’s prescription.
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The Xenophobia tag

On the 2nd of July a bunch of South African writers, including myself are going to the inaurguration of the Pan African Literarary Forum in Ghana. Ta to the Department of Arts and Culture for sponsoring the trip until the 18th of July. Before the regrettable and recent ugly scenes of the attack on foreign nationals by some South Africans, i was looking forward to this trip with great interest. Firstly, it is my first trip to the West African country, and Ghana has a great historical significance in Africa -as the first to achieve independence under Kwame Nkhrumah. secondly, I’ll be rubbing shoulders with my most favourite writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi, Kofi Awoonor, Ama Ata Aido, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina and others. That was what occcupied my mind before the recent xenophobia attacks here in South Africa.

Now after the attacks, it is very embarassing to travel as a South african because what happened have earned us a ‘xenophobic name tag’. Like my favourite cartoonist Zapiro has shown in one of his master pieces in recent weeks, i think that beautiful pay off line of ours- ‘proudly South African’ has been badly dented, and has been turned into an embarrassing ‘sadly Xenophobic’ tag by the recent xenophobic violence. sadly, the people that feel this humiliation are those that travel internationally. We writers find ourselves commenting more on xenophobia during international writers festivals nowadays, than we talk about our own works.
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