An Evening at a PEN Conference, in Berlin

By Toyin Akinosho


I have always fancied the international PEN as the United Nations at a literary reading session.
At age 85, PEN is almost a quarter century older than the UN, which turned 60 the year before this event I am reporting. The body had 144 centres, with 1,500 members in 101 countries around the globe. Which explains the amount of information about world affairs that get traded in a few minutes at a cocktail party, for example.

In the reception lobby of the Berlin City Town Hall “Rotes Rathaus” – at the welcome party on our first evening-I stood with Robert Louw, a publisher from Johannesburg, trading notes on frustrations of African politics.
Prakash A. Raj, a Nepalese writer, joined us and the discussion shifted to the state of affairs in Kathmandu. The city had seen a lot of bloodshed in the fight between the Maoists, an opposition group, and the King of Nepal. Even though the King had handed over most of the authority, Raj didn’t see an end to the human suffering. “We have replaced the dictatorship of the Monarchy with the dictatorship of the Maoists”, he explained. He had written a book on the issue. “Check, he told us, proudly. “ It’s there”.

Rainer Wochele dropped by to say hello. He had just returned from a six week trip to Rwanda in search of the victims of the 1994 genocide. He saw the hotel Milnes Collines, which provided the plot for the feature movie Hotel Rwanda. He had also read Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali, a terribly beautiful book, which documents the atrocities through a love story.

Wochele went to see where the United Nations Forces stayed. He saw a church, deep inside rural Rwanda, which, he explained, “is still painted in Belgian national colours”. Wochele has published six novels, and he was determined that the seventh one be plotted around the effects of genocide.

I was about to ask him why he was so fixated about the topic when Ekko von Schwichow arrived with his camera, almost shoving it in our faces. “You know what? ” , he interrupted without waiting to be invited: “I was born in Africa, in Namibia. Unfortunately, I left the place when I was three”.

“Where were you born? Louw asked.

“Walvis Bay”.

Schwichow has heard stories about places in the country teeming with wildlife. He was going to travel there with his father five years ago, “and then these bastards blew- up the Twin tower”, he remarked. “My father developed a phobia for air travel since”

“How old is your father”. Louw, who was no spring chicken himself, asked.
“He’s about 70”.
Let him go there”, Louw advised. “It will rejuvenate him”.
First Published in March 2006 (Not updated) in the Africa Oil+Gas Report.

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