Kwiminally talented

Lunch with Kwame Kweh-Armah

Originally published in Lunch With The FT

“Excuse me,” says my dinner guest suddenly, lowering his head and spreading his hands over the full plate before him. It’s roughly the position you might adopt, over a basin, before washing your face; and for a moment I wonder if he intends to shovel food into his mouth with his hands. But then I realise that he’s saying grace.

Kwame Kwei-Armah was spotted praying this year during the BBC’s Celebrity Fame Academy, in which entertainers competed against each other, by singing, to help raise money for Comic Relief. In consequence, his agent got a call from another charity: Christian Aid wondered if Kwei-Armah might travel to Senegal as a goodwill ambassador and see for himself how difficult it is for food producers to compete against subsidised imports. He could investigate a national dish, thieboudienne, and report back on what he discovered.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, sketch by JPF

And that’s why the FT has come to meet Kwei-Armah at Dara’s Molokai, a Senegalese restaurant in Deptford, south-east London. The rudimentary furniture is brightly coloured and West African pop videos contribute to a lively atmosphere. In chalk, on a blackboard, there are instructions in French on how to order a taxi, for a clientele from all over French-speaking West Africa.

Though thieboudienne is not usually on the menu, the proprietors have agreed to Christian Aid’s request that they cook it specially for the two of us. When it arrives, there is enough for six people, maybe eight. What’s more, the kindly maitre d’ has decided to serve up similarly vast quantities of the house speciality, which includes large pieces of lamb, chicken and fish. Even after Kwei-Armah has spooned up healthy portions of this delicious food for both of us, a mountain worthy of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy remains piled up between us, hardly to be reduced even after two hours.

In person, Kwei-Armah – who wears a red tracksuit top with jeans, and groovy sunglasses pushed back on top of his head – exudes the high energy and massive presence of many entertainers. He’s elaborately polite, addressing restaurant staff as “Sir” and frequently congratulating me on asking questions he’s never been asked before, even when I know that to be untrue. But he also commands a serious and politically engaged conversational style rarely encountered in celebrities.

Over several days in Senegal, travelling from one end of the country to the other, Kwei-Armah discovered what Christian Aid already knew about thieboudienne: that the ingredients are more cheaply available to the Senegalese as imports from richer countries. Rice, typically, comes from the US. Onions from Holland. Tomatoes are Italian, oil European. As for fish – well, foreign fleets net the best, so all that is left to Senegalese chefs is what was described to Kwei-Armah, rather poetically, as “the dust of the sea”.

As he travelled, a voice at the back of his mind asked whether the farmers he met were perhaps growing the wrong crops to make a living. But by the end of his trip he realised that he’d had the same thought about all of them. They couldn’t all be wrong. “Suddenly what had become a near-addictive dish for me began to lose its flavour.”

Having seen first-hand this “recipe for disaster”, Kwei-Armah wishes to make clear that free trade is unfair and that poor nations should be liberated from the one-size-fits-all trading model, promoted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. In brief, he says – taking a sip from a fiercely hot ginger drink called gnamacoudji – the onion farmers of Senegal need unfair trade: trade that is weighted in favour of the poor. And if FT readers care about this they should inform their elected leaders before crucial decisions are made by the WTO at its next meeting in Cancun, Mexico, early next month.

Kwei-Armah was born Ian Roberts in west London in 1967. His parents, who’d come to England from Grenada, were shocked by the poor quality of education in Southall, and worked hard to educate him privately. (His mother had two jobs, one during the day and another at night.) When he was 12, he watched a televised version of Alex Haley’s Roots. The effect was sensational: at last, Africans were shown not as savages and cannibals (“with bones through their noses”) but as proud people with a strong cultural tradition. Young Ian told his parents that he intended to change his name.

At the time, they didn’t take this particularly seriously, but years later he did some research on his family background. He started by calling directory enquiries to get a number for the defunct Colonial Office, and eventually found himself at the Public Records Office, negotiating with “snotty” women for records relating to Grenada in the mid-1830s. He spent the first day flicking through massive volumes without finding anything interesting – but when a voice on the public address system announced closing time, he flicked angrily through the volume he happened to be holding and, miraculously, found what he was after. It turned out that he had a direct ancestor called “Coffee” – or more likely Kofi, a popular name in Ghana. In due course, the actor would give the same name to one of his sons. For himself, he chose Kwame, in honour of the Ghanaian independence leader Nkrumah – though it means “born on a Saturday” and Ian Roberts was born on a Thursday. (His first son, who was born on a Saturday, is called Kwame too.) “Slavery was an illegitimate act, and I don’t wish to carry that into my everyday life. Carrying a European name supports the notion of western superiority and I won’t have that.”

When Kwei-Armah was knocked out of Fame Academy, the Daily Mirror’s headline ran: “That’s Kwiminal”. He’s delighted, not only for his own sake but because he feels that, until recently, black actors wouldn’t have been invited on to the show, and national newspapers certainly wouldn’t have punned with such affection on an African name.

As well as singing songs such as “Try A Little Tenderness” on Celebrity Fame Academy – very well, by all accounts, though he was ultimately knocked out of the competition by the comedian Ruby Wax – and playing a paramedic on BBC1’s hospital soap, Casualty, Kwei-Armah is a successful writer. His first play, Bitter Herb, won a Peggy Ramsay award. His latest, Elmina’s Kitchen, is onstage at the National Theatre. He counts among his most significant influences not just Haley but also playwrights such as David Mamet, Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Another who taught him a useful lesson is James Baldwin, who wrote somewhere that writers should give their strongest speeches to the character they like least – something that Kwei-Armah has tried to do in his own plays.

As its name suggests, Elmina’s Kitchen has a culinary theme that lends itself well to our own mealtime encounter. It’s set in a dingy West Indian diner in east London, and presents a thoroughly grim idea of what lies in store for young black men in Britain: the final scene, involving the diner’s proprietor, his gun-wielding teenaged son and a similarly armed Yardie of their acquaintance, is almost unbearably bleak.

Not surprisingly, the play has successfully attracted a larger than usual black audience to the National. But the programme takes care to spell out issues that may be unfamiliar to more traditional ticket-holders. The name Elmina, for instance, means little to most white people. In the play, it refers to the woman who established the diner. But many black people will know that Elmina Castle is the fortification in modern Ghana from which enslaved Africans were shipped to the New World. As Kwei-Armah sees it, if he’d called it “Auschwitz Kitchen”, audiences would have understood the subtext at once.

He wrote the play, he says, to show how young black Britons fall easily into bad habits and life choices. He rattles off the statistics: “Black 11-year-olds are excluded from school three times as often as their white counterparts. Two-thirds of black boys leave school without qualifications. More black men are in prison than in university. One in four black men under 25 is unemployed.” Despite the bleakness behind these figures – and in his play – he insists he feels optimistic that things will improve. (He says much the same about the future of Africa. “I have to hope.”)

I might not have believed this optimism was altogether sincere if he hadn’t himself achieved so much, through sheer, cussed determination not to conform. And, presumably, the faith that Christian Aid so cleverly spotted. Putting modesty aside, he rightly lists himself as one of many positive role models available to black youths in Britain. (Among the others: the artist Chris Ofili and the novelist Zadie Smith.)

But he knows the pressures that young people are under: after all, his sons are at the age where they find it embarrassing to be kissed or hugged. And even at the “old” (as he puts it) age of 35, he still feels those pressures.

Pushing away his plate of thieboudienne, a dish that symbolises his own best efforts to improve the world, he says without undue self-pity that it’s still hard for black men to get credit for doing and being good. “There was a [white] guy at work [on Casualty] who asked me what I wanted to drink. I told him I don’t drink alcohol. So he asked what kind of weed I wanted. I said I don’t want any. And he said, ‘My God, what kind of black man are you?’ So being black is about being seen as baaad.”

The Bill, Dara’s Molokai

1 x thieboudienne
1 x mouton
1 x poulet
1 x poisson
1 x bottle of OK TipTop cola
2 x glasses of gnamacoudji
Total bill: £94