‘My mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived’. The author Nana Ayim opens the book with this catchy quote by Nayyirah Waheed. As one progresses through the book one realizes the profundity of this quote in terms of its relatability with the experiences of the chief protagonist Maya. Reading about Maya’s childhood in Germany and England and young womanhood in Ghana, this captivating novel expeditiously brings forth the psychological and emotional experiences of a young Ghanaian girl trying to construct her own identity. A lot has been written on the themes of colonialism, white supremacy and lingering effects of racism on society but still, this book successfully touches upon the nerve of these sensitive themes in a way that keeps the reader hooked. The defalcation of African art and artefacts and the attempts of the key characters to restore their country’s lost history and culture is presented as one of the central themes in The God Child. From gender politics to the portrayal of living as a young black immigrant in Europe, the book is invigorated with rich characterization and brightly detailed scenes.
Maya, whose childhood and growing up years is torn between Germany, England and Ghana, is perceived as a foreigner in her home country and outside too. She stands out in the former because of her mannerisms and in the latter because of her external attributes. She longs to be invisible at times but is too conspicuous not to stand out, sometimes by curiosity or by ridicule or regard. Maya’s parents are quite different from each other and also from the world where she is growing up. Her father is a reserved and educated man while her mother is a gregarious woman with a penchant for dressing-up and lavish shopping. She loves spinning stories of the family’s former glorious past leaving a young Maya with more questions in her mind. As Maya seeks to find answers to her question from her learned father, his answers often leave her more puzzled. In one of the conversations with her father she asks him, ‘Why does Mowgli have to leave his home and friends and family?’ The father replies, ‘because, he has to learn from humans. Just like you have to learn from these people here.’ It’s not very late when she comes to the fact that her father was like an unknown in an unknown land, that he was lost and that she was lost with him too.
Our roots and ancestral history affect us in subtle yet profound ways increasing the quest in us to decipher our identity, our purpose and probable future. Listening to her mother’s stories, an intrigued Maya is desperately keen to quench her enquiries for which she turns to Kojo. Kojo, her cousin and her mother’s god child arrives in the family one Christmas and both the children develop a strong sibling bonding marked by mutual love, disagreements yet superseded by a strong concern and care for each other.
The arrival of Kojo changes everything. Kojo’s passionate talks about Ghana, its empire, fragmenting of the country’s treasures by colonialists provides Maya with a sense of understanding of her identity. She observes that Kojo’s knowledge gave him the power to upset the order of things. She is left wondering if she could learn those secrets and codes even though she did not grow up in her home country. However, Maya and Kojo are separated and sent off to schools in England. Maya experiences the racism of peers in her regular interactions. In a day outing with her friend Christine, when Maya shares that her mother lived in a palace because her grandfather was a king, it makes Christine angry and upset and she calls Maya a liar. Kojo also gets bullied in school and the children are not left unaffected by the cultural imperialism in school as they struggle to fit in what Kojo describes as ‘cold, wet Third World Country’. While Maya is compliant and conformable and tries to ignore her peers’ racist remarks, Kojo continues to land in troublesome situations because of his impulsiveness.
The story moves between Germany and England, and Ayim paints each landscape perfectly. The way Ayim expresses the discriminatory aspects through the experiences of young Maya and Kojo invoking the emotional side of the reader is remarkable. The narrative culminates in an adult Maya’s visit to Ghana, where she reunites with her troubled and now powerful cousin Kojo. She witnesses Kojo’s despairing struggle to establish a museum in Accra that he hopes will restore the family’s dynastic cultural lineage and country’s heritage. Navigating through personal misfortunes, loss in family, cultural complexities, and attempts to set up a museum, the chief protagonist Maya finds her purpose and voice.
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Without doubt one can say that this engrossing novel, The God Child paints a strong image of the changing perception of African culture and makes one question as to who decides which culture or society is more important and why? It also empathically portrays the struggles and conflicts that come with such demarcations in society. Ayim’s promising debut successfully captures the Ghanaian expatriate experiences set in the 1970 and 80’s. She has succeeded in weaving an enthralling tale capturing the effects of colonialism and transnational identity. The book with well-developed characters, electric prose and precisely detailed cultural allusions proves to be an engaging read. The only noticeable limitation is that as the vibrant story switches from one timeline to another, certain parts seem little rushed at places, especially the closing chapters.
Reading Maya’s story as she tries to discover which environment she really fits into; the book has the power to take the reader in a meditative stage only to realise that we are all one in this universe. With this book Ayim has definitely reserved her place as one of the most prolific and exciting literary voice from Africa. A must read for those looking for reading a strong storyline with a juggernaut of varied cultural experiences.
‘The God Child’ by Nana Oforiatta Ayim has been published by Bloomsbury Circus. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
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