Voices of Ghana: the story of the country’s first literary anthology | 60th anniversary

On the eve of Ghana’s independence from British rule, the country’s first radio programme dedicated to the broadcast of original literature aired from Accra, the capital of Ghana (then the Gold Coast). From 1955, The Singing Net, provided writers, poets, playwrights, journalists, and academics with a platform to share their writing with their fellow Ghanaians. Contributions to The Singing Net were compiled along with selected pieces from other literary broadcasts to create the anthology Voices of Ghana: Literary Contributions to the Ghana Broadcasting System, 1955-57, another first in Ghana’s literary history. To celebrate the publication of the revised second edition of this landmark volume, editor Victoria Ellen Smith shares an insight into her research.

A photograph of a 1958 edition of Voices of Ghana, from author’s personal archives

The first time that I saw the original 1958 edition of Voices of Ghana was when Martin Swanzy, a son of its compiler, Henry Swanzy, sent a copy to me in 2009. When I opened this small hardback book of mid-brown with its bold green printed title, I found a handwritten inscription on the first page:

To Sam van Eeghan
with regards
from the compiler June 1958.

The original recipient was the compiler’s brother-in-law, who received his copy three months after it was published by the Ghanaian government’s printing press in March 1958. It was generously loaned to me when I began researching mid-twentieth century Ghanaian literature and its dissemination through the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service (which became the Ghana Broadcasting System on independence in 1957). I didn’t realise it at the time, but I would keep this copy in constant use over the coming years as I researched its content and publication history in preparation to edit the 60th anniversary second edition. As I write, the original 1958 copy sits, as usual, on my desk. In assisting me to bring about a new 2018 edition, its pages have become rather more thumbed than when I received it and the corners and spine of the cover are now frayed and delicate.

Voices of Ghana was the country’s first anthology of poems, short stories, plays and essays in which the works of forty-nine Ghanaian writers including Albert Kayper-Mensah, Geormbeeyi Adali-Mortty, Amu Djoleto, Andrew Amankwa Opoku, Frank Parkes, Efua Sutherland, Henry Ofori, Kwesi Brew, Joyce Addo, J.H. Kwabena Nketia and Cameron Duodu come together, with the addition of the Trinidadian-born poet MacNeill Stewart, to present narratives that were maintained by oral tradition, reinventions of folklore, and new tales of city life. The book has a two-part structure – ‘The Countryside’ and ‘The Town’ – which represents the apparently opposite worlds of the traditional, rural and the modern, urban. However, many pieces explore the tension found in the complex transition between these worlds. The collection ends with a number of pieces that depict the historical events of independence and articulate the writers’ hopes for a new era in the country’s history. The final piece is Ghana’s first national anthem which has a rather controversial history of its own, as I explain in the introduction to the second edition.

Most of the literature in Voices of Ghana was originally broadcast on The Singing Net, the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service’s first literary radio programme. It gained material for a weekly 14-minute Sunday evening programme through submissions from staff at Broadcasting House as well as both new and established writers who listened to the programme when it aired across the country from the capital, Accra. Competitions were also mounted to encourage those with a passion for writing to submit work for consideration. The 1955 playwriting competition, for example, asked for short plays written in any of the languages that were used for broadcast: English, Akan (Twi and Fante), Ga, Ewe, Hausa and Dagbani. In addition, a play’s narrative could be ‘Traditional, Imaginative or the Pathway to Independence’ – a set of themes that evidently found their way into the structure of the anthology. There are no known recordings of The Singing Net, which aired from 1955 to 1966, but research suggests that Voices of Ghana reflects that which was broadcast on the programme.

Voices of Ghana
Literary Contributions to the Ghana Broadcasting System, 1955-57 (Second Edition)
Edited by Victoria Ellen Smith

Born from radio, the printed anthology not only enables understanding of mid-twentieth century Ghanaian literature but also the broadcast culture of a time when programme makers and writers were responding to Ghana’s unique position as the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence. In his Foreword to the new edition, The Singing Net contributor Atukwei Okai refers to the text as ‘a literary time capsule’ and ‘a great “archaeological” find’ – one which James Currey has now made available to a new generation of readers. The second edition includes an unabridged copy of the original text with the addition of a new Preface, Foreword, Introduction and annotations. However, its cover differs dramatically from that of the first. The striking 2018 edition draws on the symbol of the 1950s microphone and the national insignia of the Ghanaian flag with its red, gold and green stripes and central black star.

Sixty years on, this collection of writing is as engaging as it was at the dawn of Ghana’s independence; and the additional editorial material is intended to introduce new readers to these works through a celebration of the broadcast culture from which the literature came.

Victoria Ellen Smith is a Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Ghana, Legon.

Voices of Ghana: Literary Contributions to the Ghana Broadcasting System, 1955-57 (Second Edition) will be published by James Currey in September 2018 in hardback for £60/$99 RRP. A paperback edition for African countries will also be made available from James Currey for £9.99 (Sub-Saharan Publishers will publish an edition for Ghana and Nigeria).

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