Search Sweet Country opens with the town fool Beni Baidoo sitting in the bush near the beach listening to the “language of the sea” that “spoke in shells that he could understand.” A seemingly minor character who appears only sporadically in lengthy chapters dedicated mainly to the plots of others, Beni Baidoo is “a sprightly old man,” twice retired, most recently from his position as letter writer in Post Office Square of Accra where he had the habit of “adding his own facts to the complaints of illiterate customers.” He is a fabricator, an elaborator, a writer whose imagination cannot be constrained, one he adds his own flare to the orated narratives passed on by more traditional Ghanaian citizens so that “often a story about a stolen piece of land ended up with a stolen wife added.” In this manner, while Beni Baidoo is only a minor character, he serves as the metafictional mouthpiece for the novel.
In a 1987 interview with Adewale Maja-Pearce, Kojo Laing said he wrote Search Sweet Country in order to explore the gap between the oral and written traditions in Ghanaian literature. He wanted to make up for other Ghanaian intellectuals whom he criticized for not making creative use of what he called the “gap” between the traditional and the modern experience, those who merely exploited it as a source of self-promotion in their careers. He said, “That gap should be the source of an original thrust in ideas, in invention, in creation, but it’s a gap that’s not being made use of, it’s not a source of originality.” To me, it seems he wished to explore this gap through the comings and goings of his minor character, Beni Baidoo.
As a character, Beni Baidoo has one single obsession. “Shrewd and shrivelled, he went around Accra … to found a village,” for “the search of a fool touches other lives.” To accomplish his mission, he travels the city, “sharing the teeth and noise among his friends,” seemingly begging for money and beer, but truly soliciting stories. In the tradition of the village bard, he both absorbs these stories and informs these stories, dictating the novel from the wings and calling himself the explainer, the “unimported explainer,” one with the voice of an “ambitious frog croaking high and coming out drunk from Star Hotel…” Driving his ambition to found a village “into other people’s garages,” Baidoo says, “All I need now is a little help from my gooooooood friends to start my village.” He has a donkey and can get land, he explains, so all he now needs are some characters and props, “a few human beings, some furniture, several superhuman girls, a family god, an okyeame, a village fool and a village thief, …” characters and props which subsequently become manifest. First he begs of Kofi Loww, “Young man, how much can you contribute to this great new village?” When Kofi Loww looks at his watch and offers him no story, Baidoo retorts, “That’s right! Quiet as usual!… as for me I know everybody, and the rumour I have to pass onto you is that they want to arrest you, …” an event which subsequently come to pass.
Beni Baidoo dabbles in “driblets of divination” which foreshadow the events in the novel. He divines that Adwoa Adde, his superhuman girl (“Sister, I told you you would have powers…”), will settle Kofi Loww down. “I vote for the fine weddings of spiritual women and vague male thinkers: add Adwoa to Loww!” He also divines that the couple will have spiritual children together, and later in the novel, they do.
Baidoo is ridiculed by the other characters, as when 1/2 Allotey says to him, “My old man, where’s your village now? Still in your head?” Baidoo retorts with instructions that foreshadow the narrative plot. “I see trouble for you ahead. Leave the hills, and go and give food to the black stools normally, in the normal way.” And later, “tell your friend Professor Sackey not to shout at me so much…; also tell him to look after his wife properly, otherwise she may want to run away.”
Soon the characters themselves ask him to foretell their futures, as when Dr. Boadi asks, “Boogie Beni, tell me about my politics… am I going to be president?” Baidoo tells him, “Nononono, you will always fluctuate in politics, you will betray one man after another.”
In other metafictional reflections, Baidoo complains to his superhuman girl, Adwoa Adde, worrying that his narrative voice is dated or uninteresting. “I became a letterwriter, when I first retired, but now my language is in the old trunk-box.” Desperate for recognition, he fears there’s nothing to recognize and asks, “Do my words sound like words from the tomb?” Later he admits to Adwoa that he has abandoned his little plan to found a village and replaced it with a new obsession to fly high, to have power, to gain status, and this seems to mark the start of his decline, for afterwards, he “rushes with lust toward the scattering girls.”
In his decline, he begs for the power to “change and be good.” In fact, he begs for all Ghanaian people to change and be good, for Ghanaians to be free from their new obsessions, those caused by the fluctuating and modernizing world. The word “obsession,” he argues, is not a word that he used in his earlier letter-writing days. Obsession is a new invention of modern Ghanian peoples. To rid themselves of obsession, he announces that what the people really need is a lively parade, a lively procession in the middle of Accra. “It has to be a procession of truth!”
During the procession, Beni Baidoo gets a drum from somewhere as if maintaining the rhythm of Laing’s lyrical text. The citizens of Accra who begin to resemble a moving village sing and dance in the streets, and in the middle of the parade, Beni Baidoo’s legs become alphabetical, his knees bending into Vs and Ws, crossing into Xs, “while his mouth formed the vowels,” so that “when his hands started forming… their subtle meanings, the small uproar had already begun.” The procession soon turns into a protest, and when the police show up and offer to feed the hungry at Black Star Square, Baidoo suffers a confusing betrayal by Osofo, the spiritual leader, over the spiritual direction of the Ghanaian people. And it’s this betrayal that finally kills Beni Baidoo, this betrayal as well as his complicated relationship with Ama Payday who is “peopling his village for him with her alphabetical presence.”
When Beni Baidoo dies, then, there is a gap in the novel, a hole, a silence. Perhaps this is the gap to which Laing referred, the gap between the oral and written traditions, the gap between the stories that Baidoo was soliciting and the inscription of stories on the page. While Beni Baidoo was alive, that gap was filled by his fictions, by his imagination that could not be contained. When it is rendered empty by his passing, a new creative expression needs to take its place. It seems to be the more truthful art of photography.
Kojo Okay Pol is one character among many in the novel with whom Beni Baidoo shared “teeth and noise.” Other characters include Kofi Loww who suffers from a Shakespearean indecision either to follow the traditional path of marrying Adwoa Adde or to follow the more modern path of completing his education at the university. “[His father] deeply wanted Kofi Loww to realise, through his wanderings, that it was necessary to continue with university, since he, Loww, had persevered with his diploma course. It was a matter of degree, Loww would think with irony;…” 1/2 Allotey suffers from a type of paralysis caused by his inability to escape the ancestral trees that consume him. “The trees had already taken him over, and the ancestors shared bits of him with that playfulness that often hovered at the edges of horror and destruction.” Osofo struggles to reform his church by infusing traditional Ghanaian spiritual practices with Christian prayer. “For years Osofo had kept this marriage of Christ and herbs to himself, and when he finally told Bishop Budu, leader of the church, the direction in which his spirit was going, the bishop was quiet for days.” All of Laing’s characters, major and minor, suffer from an inability to define themselves in the modernizing world with both their traditional and postcolonial pasts. In many characters, this struggle manifests as impotence, as when Mustapha pleads with Kofi Loww to take him to the doctor. “Masa, something de trouble me paaaa… you see, my t’in, my popylonkwe, I no fit rise again.” Even Beni Baidoo wonders about his own virility and the virility of his people. To Adwoa Adde he complains, “I am an old man boogie and after all what’s the difference between erection and resurrection?”
Kojo Okay Pol, however, doesn’t suffer from this sort of impotence. On the contrary, he is an optimist, “the monkey that believed he could climb down his own tail in any emergency.” A little paranoid, a little ridiculous, Kojo Okay Pol moves into and out of the plot always wearing a fez, not because he Muslim but because for the time being he is inspired to wear one. His fez tilts and falls off. He has to buy a new fez because “the old one had shrunk, or his head had grown.” Kojo Okay Pol is a character entirely identified by the ridiculousness of his changing fezzes.
But shortly after Beni Baidoo’s death, a glow starts glimmering from the center of Kojo Okay Pol’s head. It’s then he starts taking pictures. He gets a motorbike and travels all over from Accra New Town through Dansoman then westward to Odorkor, looking something like half-policeman half squirrel, “all fezzed. FEZZED,” taking “amazing photographs of people, of goats… of buildings.” He travels through Bukum to Abodwe where he photographs “an old lady so wizened and so rough that his camera shook involuntarily.” He travels to Ridge Park where “there could be ghosts on the swings and roundabouts.” He travels to Adabraka where he “ate a little Lebanese bread before he took twenty pictures, some smelling of curry from the next house.” Then on to Labone “where the two circular houses with their single tower sitting rooms lay…”
Evening comes in a flash as he thunders toward his home, and “all the lights showed the different angles at which the rain cut this city into bits; into jig-saw puzzles, in restrained African razzle-dazzle.” Pol becomes the city of Accra through the flash of his camera, and if it seems according to the narrative that the Pol has a “yet unfinished sunsum, a yet unfinished soul, it was because Accra was the same.” Because he is still an eternal optimist, however, Pol knows there is hope under this “haha sky.” At the end of his picture-taking excursion, he sleeps, and as he sleeps, he becomes the future of Ghana, for “tomorrow was Okay Pol snoring through his own ideas, chacha by national chacha.”
Search Sweet Country opens with Beni Baidoo in the bush listening to the language of the sea. It ends with Kojo Okay Pol snoring through his own ideas with a camera full of pictures still undeveloped. It’s as if Laing, in an effort to explore the gap between the oral and written traditions, turns to a wholly different kind of art. And it is an art that captures the instant truth of his sweet country.