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“Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must GoGhana must go (Penguin, April 2013) is the first novel by Taiye Selasi.

Born in London in a Nigerian-Ghanaian family, raised in Massachusetts and currently living in Rome, the writer attracted attention two years ago, when her debut in fiction, the short story The Sex Lives of African Girls, was published in the British literary magazine Granta and included in Best American Short Stories 2012.

The phrase that gives the title to the book originally refers to the expulsion from Nigeria of over two million immigrants - mostly Ghanaian - in 1983. «Ghana must go» was the slogan that went with it. About two decades before, however, it had been the turn of Ghana to banish from its borders Nigerians and other immigrants, despite the country’s tradition of welcoming fellow Africans. In both Ghana and Nigeria the decision to repatriate immigrants was a reaction to a time of economic and social difficulties, for which foreigners were held responsible. The Ghanaians who hurriedly left Nigeria in 1983 used large plastic bags to carry their belongings. They were durable bags with a red and blue plaid pattern, made in China, and came to be known as «refugee bags» or «Ghana must Go» bags. Lately Louis Vuitton has appropriated their pattern and model and launched his own «Ghana must go» bags on the market, surely at an exorbitant price. So what is the novel by Taiye Selasi to do? Economic and political crisis in West Africa between the 1960s and the 1980s and refugees on the run? 

Ghana Must Go is all about leaving, going. Its three parts are titled with different forms of the verb go: past participle, gerund and infinitive. Gone, Going, Go, each a stage in the life of a Nigerian-Ghanaian family apparently unable to settle anywhere for a long time. The first part, Gone, is told from the point of view of Kweku, the family’s constantly absent «patriarch». It tells about his last journey, which is a journey to death. While he is dying, Kweku goes back in his memory to the places where he has lived and worked, to his loved ones so far away from him. Piecing his memories together, we can retrace the story and wanderings of his family.

It starts in the late 1960s: Kweku Sai is running away from a childhood of poverty in Kokrobité, a fishing village near Accra, Ghana’s capital city. At the same time, Folasadé Savage, a smart, beautiful girl from a wealthy family, escapes from Nigeria at the outset of civil war. Both her parents are dead. Kweku and Fola are brilliant students, so they both end up in Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, which is the United States’ first black university. They meet there, fall in love and soon get married. When their children are born, a problem arises. Kweku is a promising surgeon, but Fola wants to become a lawyer. Will she postpone her career for the sake of raising the children? Yes, she will, because her husband’s dream is enough for the both of them. In a Boston hospital, Kweku proves to be an excellent surgeon and holds up «his end of the bargain: his success for her sacrifice, two words that they never said aloud.» Actually, he holds up his end of the bargain only for so long, until something happens at the hospital. Kweku, its best surgeon (though black), is humiliated and dismissed, and, unable to face his wife and children, runs away again, this time back to Ghana.

Fola is left alone to care for her children and once again all the family is on the move: Olu, the eldest, a medical student who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps; the beautiful, hazel-eyed twins Taiwo (girl) and Kehinde (boy), and little Sadie, «the baby», who was saved from death at birth by her surgeon father but never got to know him. At first, they move from bigger to smaller house, while the twins are provisionally sent to Nigeria, where more family trauma awaits them. Brilliant like their parents, all the children win stipends and study at the best universities, while their mother supports them with her business of selling flowers. As they grow up and Fola grows older, they all scatter across the world: New York, England, Mali, Ghana, the USA again. In spite of their success in their studies or profession, all of them are scarred inside. As good as they are at going, at leaving, they seem unable to stay in touch, to talk with each other about what hurt them. They do not want to be a family, they sabotage the little family they could be, and themselves. Fola lets them go, contented to know that they are alive, if not happy, «fish in water», she says. Only at the end does she realize that she must teach them something other than leaving. It takes an extraordinary event to re-unite them all, mother and children, back in Africa. There, where everything began, all of them finally seem to start to come to terms with their past and imagine the possibility of a future, of family and love.

Of all the characters, the parents are the most fascinating. Generous, beautiful and resourceful Fola, and Kweku, condemned to follow in his father’s footsteps and leave apart from his family because he could not stand to be humiliated in front of them. Sadie is a compelling character, too, the last born and the one who saw the least of her father and siblings, nostalgic of a family and struggling to find her own identity as the less attractive and talented of the group.

Like The Sex Lives of African Girls, what first strikes about the book is the language: an accumulation of nouns, adjectives, images. Especially in the first part of the book one is dazzled by the overflow of nouns, and sometimes has to read again to understand. This lush language seems to get even lusher when describing Ghana, its vegetation, the beauty of the ocean by Accra, the mud villages, the yellow in the landscape. In the last part of the novel, the time of family reconciliation in Ghana the pace gets slower, the text has a kind of elegiac tone, and its phrases read like beautiful verses.

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