Peter W. Vakunta reviews Benjamin Kwakye’s ‘The Other Crucifix’, a book which he regards as ‘the handiwork of a literary virtuoso’.
Ben Kwakye’s latest novel, ‘The Other Crucifix’, is a captivating tale of double estrangement. Born and raised in Ghana by an indigent but affectionate family, Jojo Badu finds himself obligated to undertake a journey he describes as ‘the road not taken’ (p. 1) in pursuit of Western education. The metaphor of a leap into the dark, as it were, is the thread that holds the multiple facets of this exhilarating narrative intact. In hot pursuit of a decent education he couldn’t afford at home, the protagonist leaves behind not only his caring parents but also his beloved girlfriend and would-be wife, Marjorie, after a sacred pact signed in blood. Jojo’s journey to the United States of America is portrayed as a rite of passage: ‘It’s important for the beginner to take lessons from those who have played it before’ (p. 6). Most importantly, this self-imposed physical exile portends hope for the protagonist: ‘I figured America had a lot to offer me … I was in America and was sustained by my sense of arrival, that I’d achieved something worthwhile—and was in a land famed for freedom, opportunity, democracy and justice’ (p. 8).
Interestingly, Jojo’s American dream turns out to be one of mixed blessings. Unable to understand the English spoken by Americans, he laments: ‘I soon realized that the English spoken here wasn’t my English. Accent aside, the quickness with which words were spoken and the slang that dotted expressions required patient decoding …’ (p. 8). Incidents like these often set Jojo’s mind in a whirlwind that plunged him into protracted moments of self-interrogation. His encounter with American immigration officials would be another painful eye-opener – a confrontation with brutal racism: ‘The official stared at me and asked matter-of-factly, “Where are you going, nigger?”’ (p. 7). The protagonist’s head-on collision with the contradictions inherent in black and white polarity in America is portrayed as psycho-pathology. This novel is an illustration of the American paradox of openness coupled with obscurantist racism. Psychological estrangement, a leitmotiv in the novel, is articulated in the form of racist slurs that haunt Jojo in good and bad times throughout his sojourn in the United States of America, causing him to rethink the admonition of his grandfather back in Ghana: ‘Do not stay too long in Amrika, you hear? You will never belong in the land of white people. The elders say that the foreigner never carries the head of the casket’ (p. 16). The old man’s aphorism is pregnant with meaning for his inexperienced grandson.
‘The Other Crucifix’ is an insightful narrative couched in terms of the limitations of the colour bar and the ubiquitous feeling of otherness. As the protagonist puts it, ‘For the first time, I saw myself more sharply in terms of color as a contrast to others and became self-aware of it in a native way I’d never known before’ (p. 31). The narrative underscores the debilitating effect of the sentiment of inadequacy that comes with physical and psychological separation. Psychological estrangement manifests itself in the form of mutual distrust that puts Africans and African-Americans at daggers drawn, as the editor of The University Review insinuates: ‘I want to ask you about how you feel about relationships between Africans and Afro-Americans. I hear you two don’t like each other’ (p. 36). Kwakye’s text is a clarion call to continental and diasporic blacks to work in tandem for self-liberation and genuine freedom. He offers no foolproof solutions to the irksome African-American conundrum. Rather, he cautions Africans against the temptation to give outsiders the leeway to tell the story of Africans. This novel is as much a rap on black-on-black prejudice as it is a diatribe against white bigotry. Kwakye constantly draws attention to the dilemma of Africans in the United States of America, as this excerpt suggests: ‘Africans are frustrated because they do not quite fit in with white students. At the same time, they can find no sanctuary among American Negroes because the latter, for one reason or the other, tend to deprecate their African counterparts. A number of Africans feel that black Americans relegate them to second-class status’ (p. 38).
Kwakye’s novel is an entertaining lampoon on the Manichaean stigmatisation of Africa. This becomes self-evident when an American university student directs the following question at Jojo: ‘I have heard a lot about Africa. Lots of myths and voodoo and crap. Is it true?’ (p. 29). Renowned Ghanaian creative writer Ayi Kwei Armah contends that Eurocentric racism is Manichaean in that it splits the world along racial lines and then assigns a negative, lower value to the world’s non-Western peoples. The assumption is that the rest of the world is primitive, savage, barbarian and underdeveloped, and that the West is civilised and developed (quoted in Olaniyan and Quayson 2007). Manichaean stigmatisation of Africa is seldom based on knowledge of non-Westerners; it often stems from ignorance reinforced by disingenuous denial disguised in misleading intellectual jargon. Its source is racial prejudice. Teleologically, stigmatisation cretinises non-Westerners, especially Africans. The result is that Africans start to doubt themselves. Worse still, they begin to buy into the fallacy that African history does not exist, and that therefore Africans have nothing to be proud of. This reasoning produces the stereotypical epithet of Africans as a ‘people without history’, to borrow from Eric Wolf (quoted in Booker, p. 25); it denies African peoples access to a usable past upon which they can rely in order to construct a viable future. In an attempt to debunk the myth of Africa as a tabula rasa, a clean slate devoid of history, Jojo Badu recounts the history of his people: ‘Ghana is named after a medieval West African empire renowned for its gold. The kings, reputedly full of splendour, were usually adorned with gold’ (p. 109). The protagonist underscores the valour of his predecessors by recounting the stiff opposition the Asante mounted against British colonialism: ‘From the beginning, the English faced stiff opposition from the Asantes, who fought and defeated the British in numerous wars … These events would catalyze the movement until the British had to cede power and eventually grant Ghana its independence on 6th March, 1957’ (p. 110).
The all-important theme of the partition of Africa by European powers at the infamous Conference of Berlin in 1884 is broached in the following terms: ‘Many African countries crumbled to superior technology in the grab of their land by European powers that were bent on exploiting Africa’s resources and adding to their prestige’ (p. 193). Reference to South Africa’s famed freedom fighter Walter Sisulu and his vendetta against apartheid is thinly veiled when Kwakye writes: ‘My name is Walter Sithole, born and raised in South Africa, now exiled because of my membership in the African National Congress’ (p. 187). Walter Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist, member of the African National Congress and one of the foremost influences in South African politics. ‘The Other Crucifix’ is captivating in several respects, but the quality that grips the reader’s attention is the writer’s continual recourse to documented history. He often resorts to historical cross-references in a bid to prove salient points, as this example illustrates: ‘Dwayne invited me to listen to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech in his dorm … “I too have a dream", Dwayne said after the speech. “I have a dream that someday the children of African-American blacks will hold hands with the children of Africans and proclaim free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last” (p. 40). Reference to Dr King’s speech is of critical importance in this novel, given the centrality of the theme of black-on-black prejudice, civil rights and self-determination in the narrative.
Despite the serenity characteristic of the narrative tone in this great work of fiction, sex comes in as comic relief: ‘… we would talk and make love. Forget fucking and screwing … this was making love, to put it on its deserving sophisticated pedestal. “Je t’aime,” I would say to her’ (p. 136). Jojo’s sexual escapades are portrayed as monumental failures. Not initiated into the Western ways of courtship, he often fails to win the hearts of American girls. His relationship with Joan is telling: ‘I tried to plan every move of the coming seduction, yet I hadn’t a clue. I was on a terra nova … I left with a swollen penis’ (p. 43–4). Or there is this really funny one: ‘You want a woman, get the fat ones … These white guys don’t like them. But me, I don’t care. In fact, I like some steak on my women’ (p. 74). These sexual innuendos are not only humorous; they are didactic as well. They serve as veritable rites of initiation for Jojo who is ill-prepared for the exciting adventure.
Kwakye makes ingenious use of language in his narrative in an attempt to adapt English to the worldview and imagination of his native tongue. Though writing in a European language, he manages to imprint his tale with the speech patterns of his people. By and large, he succeeds in doing so by having recourse to Africanisms – vernacular words and expressions that add local colour and flavour to the text, as seen in the following excerpt: ‘You see, it’s like the concept of Sankofa … reaching back and taking from the wealth of history’ (p. 6). Realising that the word ‘Sankofa’ would not make sense to his non-Asante readers, he comes to their rescue with a translation – the concept of reaching back and taking from the wealth of history. The presence of indigenous terms and expressions in the text shows that Kwakye strives to bridge the cultural gap between Asante and English. All too often, he resorts to the use of figurative language calqued on his mother tongue: ‘I was injured like a wounded warrior waiting in ambush, waiting for the opportune time to exact revenge, like a famished scavenger circling patiently, unnoticed, calm. Dangerous’ (p. 127).
In a nutshell, ‘The Other Crucifix’ is the handiwork of a literary virtuoso, anchored in the themes of psychological and physical exile and the quest for self-identity. The pedagogical import of this novel resides in its suitability to the young and the old. The language is clear and free of sophistry. Students and teachers with an interest in African history, languages and cultures would find the text an invaluable resource.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Benjamin Kwakye (2010) ‘The Other Crucifix’, Oxford: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 218 pp, paperback $9.83, ISBN: 978-0-9562401-2-5.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
Booker, Keith, M. The African Novel in English, Oxford: James Curry, 1998.
Olaniyan, T. and Quayson, A. African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.