Born in Ghana, Prince Mensah has twenty-five stage plays to his credit. Some of them have been acted at the Accra Arts Center and at several locations in Accra. His articles and stories have been published in the STEP magazine, P & P, Ghanadot.com and The Free Press. His poetry has been published in the Munyori Journal, UNESCO's Other Voices International Project, The Muse Literary Magazine and the Dublin Writer's Workshop.
Prince is head of North American promotions for One Ghana, One Voice.
Five questions with Prince Mensah:
1. Were the events described in "Accra" experienced in one day or visit, or were they a compilation of years of experiences?
“Accra” was written in bits and pieces, using various circumstances and time frames. I tried to play time-traveler in the poem, commuting back and forth through future, present and past. I deliberately chose not to rhyme because I sought to illustrate the level of catharsis I experience when writing about such issues. Everyone has a love affair with their country. Most experiences are bitter-sweet. I picked Accra, because as the capital city, it is the mosaic of experiences endured by every Ghanaian.
2. You often use words that non-Ghanaian readers might not understand. That being said, you often take great care to include translations of the key Akan, Ewe, and now Hausa, words that you use in your poems. In this sense, you seem to be balancing the needs and interests of both Ghanaian "insiders" and "outsiders" in your work. Do you have an intended reader in mind for your poems? If so, are you considerate of them while you are writing, or do such considerations come to you after the poem is complete?
According to a report on languages, an indigenous language dies every fortnight. Check the Scoop Magazine and National Geographic. I shudder at the fact that in a few years, the languages I spoke frequently would lose their means of expression, because no one knows how to write them, read them or publish them. I remember my school days in Ghana when English Language was the official language (still is) and the indigenous languages were labeled as ‘vernacular’. That allowed the smothering of any attempt to literalize native language into lingua franca, usable in international settings. I was not pleased with the marginalization of our native tongues. To me, that was a string of colonialism. But let’s not digress.
Like the way French, Greek, Spanish and Latin words have made their way into English, I intend to make several words in my native language familiar with my readers. I want my reader to read the word as it is spoken in its original setting. I am also writing to the Ghanaian, using local words they are all too familiar with. Apart from reading the poem, I want my reader to immerse him/herself in the culture I write about. People are eager to learn new things, new words and new realities. I have always believed there is a poetic essence of African life, left untapped by its literary children.
Writers like Achebe gave their readers an unadulterated taste of life as an African. I think we dilute our writing with too much pandering to what we think our reader wants. The truth is our readers want us to be original, to push them to new thoughts. I think African poets, ethnic poets for that matter, are being irresponsible with an overdependence on English. We must encourage the poets to write whole poems in their native languages, alongside English translations. Remember, there is a huge market on grants for literary translations. It does not hurt to be original.
3. The question "What would Nkrumah think of Ghana if he saw it now?" is an interesting one, one I'm sure many have asked themselves over the years. You teased at an answer in the poem - would you care to elaborate on your opinion here?
Kwame Nkrumah has always been presented as a radical. He had, as Martin Luther King said, ‘the fierce urgency of now’. He was misunderstood by his people and his frustrations drove him to undertake measures that aided his downfall. In hindsight, Nkrumah’s thesis was that we had to own what was ours, warts and all. I personally think the marriage of African independence with socialism was the biggest mistake of our founding fathers.
In his article in the East African Journal (July, 1965), "Problems facing our Socialism", Barack Obama’s father wrote that “the applicability of planning within the embryo of African Socialism, while essentially an economic matter, cannot be divorced from the politico-socio-cultural context in which we find ourselves and as such we should not ignore these factors.” African countries are set up differently from western countries. We already have a certain level of socialism in the communal nature of our societies. The viable solution is to introduce a certain strain of capitalism that works in concert with the existing social structure.
I think Nkrumah would not be pleased with the lethargy of our progress as a country. He would demand an overhaul of basic social infrastructures such as school systems, hospitals and businesses.
4. You seem to share the blame for Ghana's struggles amongst both the politicians and the people, especially on the "Fa ma Nyame syndrome" that cripples the country. In what ways can we break this negative cycle?
To be blunt, the Fa Ma Nyame syndrome is the reason why Ghana is not in a civil war. We have all the ingredients for chaos but the average Ghanaian prefers his/her peace of mind above everything else.
In this regard, the question is whether our politicians are taking us for granted or that we are all lost in a socio-economic wilderness. I am also to blame. Every Ghanaian is. Blame is an equal opportunity employer. Our politicians have not been truthful with the people, as it is everywhere. But in Africa, it reaches critical mass, when the army (a totally undesired alternative) interrupts national politics.
A new kind of politics has to be introduced where accountability and probity are independent institutions that audit officials. Most of our leaders were trained in great Western institutions but the failure to apply lessons learnt makes the people wonder. Education must be a priority. Employment must be another priority. Social justice must also be reinforced as a national concept. The endemic nonchalance has to be replaced by a spirited involvement in national politics.
5. You recently joined the OGOV team, and are helping to lead our promotions in the USA. A large portion of our readership is US based - what help could you use from interested American readers?
Please tell us what issues you need and want to hear about. I think this is not only a poetry site, but a place to start a lot of soul-searching. We can only start as poets, but knowledge must be spread through other means. I believe many of the poets featured on this site will be pleased to answer questions about culture and history. Push us on, readers. We want to do better. [Editor's note: This is an archived interview - Prince has been our associate editor and U.S. promoter for three years now. He could certainly still use your input, though!]