“In South Africa, I am different – and this is liberating.” YKO Tetteh reflects on the third Writivism residency at Stellenbosch University

By YKO Tetteh

I listened to a podcast shortly before my departure to Stellenbosch. It was Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History and he was talking that episode about memory and our perception of time. He explained how our experience of time is a function of our memory – how time feels longer, fuller, and slower when expanded with memories. Conversely, a period with relatively few memories feels shorter and therefore quick. Our experience of time, then, is a relationship to what has been experienced and remembered – as much as an awareness of the present, or the continuous anxiety with what we’re doing with it as it flows past.

He continued to explain that the mind really only encodes new memories, which goes some way to explaining why time feels so timeless when we’re young. As a child we are swimming in new experiences and so new memories and so each day, in its way, in its passing, slows time down and makes life feel enduring. I found this both beautiful and arresting.  How strange to think, for example, that our feeling about the future (a movement of time yet to be experienced) is affected by our memory of the past, which is affected by whether we are having new experiences – in the present. I thought to myself: if I want time to move more slowly – if I want to have more time – I need to have more new experiences.

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I share all this because for the last two years I have begun most mornings with persistent, pressing anxieties that take a few hours to dissipate. These anxieties present themselves as ceaseless concerns about work, and money, and selfhood – which they are. They are also, I think now, anxieties about time. Because time has started to feel like it does not belong to me, not even a little bit, but rather like something that happens in swiftly moving, ceaseless cycles rolling and rolling into each other. Which is worrying because I’ve been betting on the slow expanse of time as the answer to all problems. Time is the space for us to conjure and enact the responses to our anxieties. Time is the tool that helps shape whom we are. Time is what will allow me to become a happy person and a good person – and to figure out what I mean by that.

So it seems to me, in consultation with Malcolm Gladwell, that I need more memories to make more time to feel less anxious.  Which I thought would be easier than I’ve found it. As an agribusiness entrepreneur, despite not going to an office everyday, my days tend to be shifting versions of the same thing. Each day is an alternating sequence of failures and successes with sourcing or production or new clients for my dried fruit product. Either I’m driving to the factory, or from the factory, delivering to a retailer or calling up a retailer. In any case I’m usually perspiring in the car for a few hours a day, gliding smoothly through the paved arteries of Accra or feeling frantic in the disturbing waste of time that is city traffic.

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This rotation of experience (as part of the grind of starting my own business) I’ve considered a down payment on a future where I am truly self-determining. If I can get this business to work then I can be financially independent; I can have the opportunity to do whatever I like (write more!); I can truly be master of my own life – and my own time. Here, though, is the chicken and the egg! – Or, something akin to that. Each day I allow myself to live a monotonous routine in the service of achieving a future of luxury and the luxury of time, I am shortening and speeding up the time I have to achieve that future. I am also shortening the time I have to enjoy that future. Which goes a long way to explaining why the Writivism Residency was so incredible, and why I chose to take a month away from work.

The Writivism Residency was a gift of time. It was a month of being able to structure days differently from their usual repetitive form, and to give them a comforting order with activities I find enjoyable and nourishing.  Sleep, yoga, cycling, coffee, hours spent in the warm, subdued cosiness of a small office with no Wi-Fi dedicated only to me, and my writing. It was a month of settling back into myself, and the time to take stock of who I am and how I feel – both through writing, and in my head. The residency was a month of affirmation that I do know how to write and think, and how wonderful it is do both deliberately.

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It was lovely and free, but also guided in a way that was deeply helpful without being overbearing. In a weekly review of what I had written, the head of the English Department helped me to the understanding that weaknesses in my writing are often manifestations of my insecurities and vulnerabilities. I have had close, brilliant friends edit my writing before – but there is something to be said for professional help.

The residency’s gift of time was in the new experiences of being in a new place in a new way. Stellenbosch is gorgeous; its light bright and enlivening, its surrounding mountains awesome and comforting, its air fresh and clear. And in this environment I also got to be new, in a way. In Ghana I often feel like I’m closing myself to conversation in the anticipation that I’ll be judged for not speaking my native language, or seeming different from what is expected of a Ghanaian. In South Africa, I am different – and this is liberating. With few or no expectations on me I felt freer and more ready to engage in conversation (which I did mostly with Uber drivers and two brilliant Honours students in the English Department.) I was glad for this combination of feeling more open, but also more able to be alone, because I find it’s perfect for writing.

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The most enduring gift of time given me by the residency was in the reminder that I have it. I may not be able to grasp it and control it, but I can hold it for a short time around me. Being away from the direct operations of my business, and limited in my capacity to run things, reminded me that I don’t need to immediately begin every day diving into the torrent of business-time. Instead, I can take time each morning to practice yoga, read, and write. I can take time to breathe, and appreciate the small newness of each day.

All photos courtesy of the author.

YKO Tetteh won the inaugural Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 2016. Besides a cash-prize of USD 500$, winners of the prize are entitled to a one-month writing (editing) residency at Stellenbosch University. Tetteh spent her one month in Stellenbosch between September and October 2018.

Previous Writivism writers-in-residence include Saaleha Idrees Bamjee and Pemi Aguda. The residency is made possible by the English department at Stellenbosch University, the Miles Morland Foundation, and the Center for African Cultural Excellence.  

The 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction is open until December 31, 2018. Read the guidelines here, and submit your entry here. You could be the next Writivism writer-in-residence at Stellenbosch. 

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