Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Before Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi's essay, "Bye-Bye Babar" made me a fan of her writing and wit. If you have read this blog long enough you know I am fascinated by death. I knew, therefore, that I was reading the right book when it begun with, "Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs." A poetic beginning punctuated with several questions. If you suffer from a severe sense of curiosity (good for you), I do not, you will want to know who Kweku is, why he is dead and why it is so important it must be the first thing we read. We are welcomed to a funeral rather than a birth. Being Ghanaian, I recognized the name. Kweku is what you name a Wednesday born boy. He came on Wednesday and went on Sunday. There is something beautiful about that and I thought of  Dylan Thomas' famous poem, "Do not go gently into that good night."Is that what happened? Did Kweku fight off death through the night to give in at dawn? Did he go to death quietly, or rather with a few thoughts to ponder? but has his life not been quite? Prior to starting the book, I wondered about the title: did it have anything to do with that Ghanaian/Nigerian history? By the last page of the novel I had some opinions. In this review I will share my thoughts on how the historical title is used in the novel in both ironic and metaphoric ways to emphasis the displacement and frailty of belongingness to a place and the absurdity of citizenship.

In 1983, immigrants in Nigeria, the majority of whom were Ghanaians, were evicted. To carry their possessions, the use of a lightweight oversized plaid bag was popular. That bag has since been named  "Ghana Must Go." This phrase became also a form of reference to the expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria. In Selasi's novel, Kweku Sai's wife, Folasadé Savage, is Nigerian and Scottish. I look to their relationship for an explanation of the book's title and came to the sudden realization that Ghanaian fathers may have left behind their children and Ghanaian mothers, their half Nigerian wards. At best the book mocks the idea that the two countries are separate entities. What exactly is Ghanaian and what is Nigerian? A few decades prior, that concept of nations did not exist in Africa. So how does one define a Ghanaian man and a Nigerian-Scottish woman whose children are Ghanaian/Nigerian/Scottish/American? Where do they belong and where do they go to home? We are becoming homogenous and the strike here is that the concept that one must return or go back to a home, a past that no longer exists is laughable. When Kweku goes back to Ghana, according to the author, that which he encounters is a new place infused with memories and ties from his past. Kweku was, after all, born in 1951 in a place called Gold Coast which became Ghana in 1957 which he left in 1967 to pursue an education in a place by name of America. When he went again to Ghana to bury his mother in 1975, he in a sense became independent of Ghana.  Surely the Gold Coast turned Ghana without the unconditional love from and for a mother is a place of memories, at best. As he lay dying in the garden of the home he had built, his last thoughts were, "why did I ever leave you?" And it is obvious that it is not of Ama, his second wife, that he makes this inquiry, but of Folasadé and his family. It is not regret of leaving Ghana, or even of leaving America. It is regret of leaving a family, which is his real home.

The irony is that at the time when Ghanaians were being sacked from Nigeria, Kweku and Fola were married and had a child. But this event did not break their marriage. Their struggle was not Africa but  being immigrants in America. They were together living in a place where they could be asked to pack and leave, too. This mocks the divide that was at the same time happening between Nigeria and its neighboring West African countries. It interests me that it is Kweku's faith in America that broke their marriage: America in the form of racism and Kweku's shock and inability to deal with it. This sent Kweku packing for Ghana. He made himself into what he left Ghana to become only to realize that it had no merit in the play of power. But he could only know this by having gone through all the previous processes. The concise moment when Beth Isreal, or the machine as he was fond of calling it, betrayed him is when he lost his cause. Some call it the American Dream, but really, it is simply human nature. It begun when he was called into Dr. Yuri's office and was dismissed; finalized when he was shoved out of the hospital to the witness of his son, Kahinde.

I think of the Ghanaians and other immigrants whom after having been removed from Nigeria, went back to be given the sack all over again. But the point here is the absurdity of nationalism, and even racism. Kweku  was hired in the first place because of his skills. Dr. Yuki, the vice president of the hospital, who had the unfortunate task to pass on the dismissal issued by the board, was after all Asian. Her words; "Having reviewed all the details of Mrs. Cabot's (how fitting is that name!) appendectomy and of the complaint that the Cabots lodged against you therewith, this body believes that, though a phenomenal surgeon, you failed..." Here is the shocking blow which unraveled Kweku. Prior to this scene, the novel had given reason to expect the hospital to reach a biased conclusion. The Cabots had money, the president of the hospital was a family friend of theirs and they made donations to "the machine." Kweku had no connections whatsoever to the place. His presence there is owned to his education and skills. Skills that even the machine had faith in, at least at one point; which is why when the Cabots wanted the very best surgeon, the president found Kweku to do the surgery. And when upon seeing Kweku, Kip Cabot says "But he's a——" The president ended the sentence with a "very fine surgeon. The finest we have." So to say he has failed is cruel. And in a sense it is a truth. He had done all that he had agency to do. Only to come to the realization that his agency is limited.

I may seem a little off point, but I believe there is a parallelism and it is human nature; the way we think today and the cells/clubs we have created for ourselves and those like us are based on race and class. In a satirical way, the world is a stereotypical American high school. Hence Nigeria sacked it immigrants who had poured into the country for jobs upon its oil discovery and economy boom  when that boom disintegrated. The immigrant were given but a few weeks to leave. As if it had not become their home, too. As if their labor had not been necessary. It may not be morally correct, depending on where you stand, but it was legal. Just like the hospital found a way to legally give Kweku the boot. The dilemma is the notion that we are not just simply inhabitants of Earth. We still hold the idea that we belong entirely to specific parts of it. Therefore, in the case of Nigeria, the decision is country people over foreigners, and in Beth Isreal's case, powerful connection over best surgeon. Here the title takes on the immigrant experience which is in a sense the human experience. We are all immigrants and citizens of the world according to Selasi. Something that has nothing to do with passports.

Perhaps Kweku realized that he could indeed find another position, another hospital to dedicate his skills, but his faith in the system was lost. So he fought them and when he lost the fight had to go back to a place where he would not feel a victim. The understanding is that one cannot win in a land that considers one foreign and disposable for the sake of its own. The title "Ghana Must Go" serves as a mockery of the notion of not belonging and having a specific place to return. Consider birth and death: literally our home is the womb, and yet it is to the earth we go. Or maybe I have read too many essays and watched too many of Selasi's interviews.



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