On a basic level, Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi is a book about family and identity. A man named Kweku Sai, his wife Fola, and their four children. Kweku is from Ghana and Fola is from Nigeria, the two meet in America and get married. They both make sacrifices for Kweku to undergo training to become a doctor and in time the effort pays off with Kweku becoming a gifted and well-respected surgeon. Unfortunately, the comfortable lives they build are destroyed when a chain of events results in Kweku abandoning the family. The repercussions of Kweku’s departure have long-lasting effects on his wife and children but aren’t dealt with until years later when the family gathers following his death.
Having read the Ghana Must Go back cover blurb which described the book as being the story of a man leaving his family, I was immediately put off by and prepared to thoroughly dislike Kweku. I assumed this was going to be a book about a typical trashy womanizer who leaves his family for some younger woman. It is most certainly not. Instead, it’s a very engrossing read about how pride, fear, and secrets can steal our joy and cut us off from having and maintaining meaningful relationships.
As a child, Kweku’s family was poor but his hard work and natural intelligence brought him to the attention of the teachers at the missionary school he attended. The experience enables him to obtain a scholarship to study medicine in America ultimately becoming a surgeon in Boston, Massachusetts. Over the years, the couple has four children: their firstborn Olu, the twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and Folasadé (Sadie) the baby. The family eventually settles in a nice but not ostentatious home in the wealthy suburb of Brookline.
At first glance, this might sound like a fairly typical story of a boy from humble beginnings pulling himself up by the bootstraps and becoming successful through hard work and dedication. Yet, in this case, things don’t quite work out that way or at least don’t stay that way which is terrible for the characters but makes for a fascinating book.
Kweku grew up in Ghana with his mother, father, and siblings. At an early age, his sister dies from an illness where in other parts of the world with better access to resources, would have been a treatable disease. She was around 12 or 13-years-old at the time of her death and Kweku was about a year or two older. He felt a crushing sense of loss when his sister died and this later intensified when he learned that her life could have been saved. That experience combined with ambition and a desire for more out of life motivate him to go into medicine.
Before this, his father had left the family (though also under complicated circumstances) and his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings. Kweku’s parents had about five or six children in total, and given the time and this not being a large town there weren’t a lot of options for ways in which his mother could make money. He has to walk everywhere sometimes for long distances, help with fetching water, and perform other household chores. In other parts of the world children no longer having these day-to-day responsibilities makes it possible for them to go to school and focus on their education. But he and his siblings have to perform these tasks to keep the household functioning which makes his success in school even more impressive.
He is intelligent but there aren’t many obvious paths to wealth or success for a poor boy growing up in a relatively small village. So when the opportunity appears to move to America, attend college, and get an education he leaps at the chance to take advantage. But his mother fears losing him, likely as a result of having lost his father and sister. She is unsupportive and it leads to a disagreement where some unkind things are said by both parties and they part on bad terms.
Kweku’s mother doesn’t doubt that he will succeed at becoming a doctor but fears that he will leave and never return. Conversely, Kweku thinks that he will go abroad to attend school and will return as a successful prodigal son. He envisions himself as leaving Ghana poor, building a better life for himself, and returning to his mother as a success. To a degree, he achieves all that he set out to accomplish but circumstances and life get in the way of him reconnecting with his mother as he envisioned.
Feeling proud of what he has achieved professionally but also some shame about his past and his underprivileged childhood causes Kweku to hide parts of himself from his family. Because Fola and the older kids were there to witness some of his time training to be a doctor and his early career, she and the kids are pretty well informed about that part of his life. They learn a little about his mother and other relatives because Kweku and Fola made one return visit to Ghana with a very young Olu. But they only know minor bits and pieces about his childhood and early life to the point of knowing nothing about his father and sister. His family is also unaware of the grinding poverty of his childhood and just how much his station in life and his role as the family’s provider mean to him.
Ghana Must Go begins from Kweku’s perspective but then expands to include Fola and the children’s perspectives. And in a sense, it begins near the end of the story by bearing witness to Kweku’s death. He is now probably around his fifties, has moved back to Ghana, and remarried to a woman who is a bit younger than him. Kweku and his second wife live in a house that he designed intending to live there with his first wife and their children. The home was the manifestation of a dream he’d sketched out on a napkin years before while sitting in the hospital back in Boston. He’d hoped to live in this home with his family as a reward for all of the sacrifices that had been made. Years and effort were put into finding just the right builder and fixtures to make his dream home a reality.
Ghana Must Go jumps around a bit to give the reader a more complete view of the overall story where you end up having more insight into almost everyone’s experiences and motivations. We journey back to the distant past of Kweku’s childhood and get most of his life story up to and beyond the point of his leaving the family. This gives some insight into how he becomes the man that he is. We also see the four Sai children from birth, their relationships with Kweku, their position within the family, and how they deal with the experience of their father leaving. That pivotal moment affects each of the children in different ways and we witness how it shapes them and how they move through life as adults.
Fola’s story unfolds differently because she’s Kweku’s wife and thus an adult at the time that he leaves. So while we also go back into her past to learn about her family, her story after Kweku leaves is focused on how she adjusts to life as a single mother. Early in Ghana Must Go she seemed to be a bit blah but became one of my favorite characters once the book shared more of her perspective.
While Kweku is intelligent, we learn that Fola is as well and the pair met while they were both students. Fola was offered the opportunity to further her education at law school but this occurred while she was newly married and under financial strain with a young child at home. It was already going to be a struggle for Kweku to attend school but would have been even more difficult for both of them to attend school at the same time. She sacrificed her dreams for Kweku to pursue his dreams and instead channeled her energy into raising their children and also found some success as a small business owner.
Within Ghana Must Go, the theme of Kweku’s pride getting in the way of communication and intimacy appears throughout the story.
As the reader, there is no doubt that he loves his children though he doesn’t necessarily tell them this. Instead, he believes that he shows his love by working hard and putting in long hours at the hospital to provide the family with a comfortable life. He expresses love in this way because he is trying to give his family all of the things that he didn’t have as a child.
But by not sharing the details of his childhood with his family and putting his hard work into context they don’t fully understand his intentions or him as a person. Kweku is not mean to the children but in trying to set an example about the importance of working hard, his actions are sometimes interpreted as being distant and unconcerned. The children in turn love their father and vie for his attention and approval.
There’s an example given where he is working in the home office and the kids, wanting his attention, begin making a lot of noise. They are obnoxiously loud to get his attention so he makes it a point to ignore them. It goes back and forth between the kids getting louder and more disruptive and Kweku stubbornly burying himself in work. When the kids eventually give up, Kweku is pleased with himself for the example he has set of working hard and being dedicated to taking care of them. But, when we read the event from the kids’ perspective, they feel ignored and as though their father cares more about work than them.
Kweku thinks he is giving his family everything they need by providing them with a nice house, access to quality education, and in the case of the youngest child vital medical care. Fola and the children respect the things he provides for them but place equal if not greater importance on his presence. Their needing and expressing their love differently leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings about what both sides deem as being important. To use a cliche, it’s like if you think of “love languages” where people have different ways of loving and being loved. It shows the importance of having family conversations to ensure that everyone feels loved and appreciated.
Kweku takes deep pride in being a surgeon, in part because of his humble beginnings. But, when one of the kids becomes ill he realizes that the other kids are very aware of his work and have great respect for his abilities to the point of seeing him as being gifted. They look to him when things are going wrong and because their dad is a well-respected surgeon they believe he is capable of making things better. Realizing that his children have faith in him and think that he is capable of what most others are not, motivates Kweku to continue trying where others would give up.
Unfortunately, when things go awry these habits of making assumptions and not communicating transform the situation from difficult to devastating.
Kweku is called upon to perform a risky surgery and it’s agreed that he does as good a job as any surgeon could be expected to. When the patient dies from issues related to her illness and poor condition, the family tries to seek revenge by threatening to sue. Racism and politics within the hospital lead to Kweku being fired and blacklisted. The job loss is devastating for Kweku because so much of his identity is tied up in his profession of being a doctor and his role as a provider.
Feeling lost and not knowing how to break the news to his wife and children, he keeps up the pretense of going to work for a year. Things come to a head when Kehinde shows up at the hospital unexpectedly and finds out the truth. Afraid of losing face, Kweku flees into the night after Kehinde promises to keep his secret. From that point, we then see how the individual members of the family are impacted by Kweku’s disappearance. There is a lot more to discuss with regards to particular events in the characters’ lives but I don’t want to give away everything.
I understood Kweku being embarrassed about losing his job but I just couldn’t wrap my head around his thinking it was a good idea to not at least tell his wife. It would take an especially cold-blooded person to turn their back on their husband or father because he lost his job through no fault of his own. Yet, Kweku comes to the misguided conclusion that they would be better off without him. But I’m sure and it becomes clear that the family would have preferred to have him remain in the house, even without his job title.
Having a chance to get some distance to stop and think, Kweku realizes his mistake. But it’s seemingly too late by the time he comes to his senses. There are too many hurt feelings and it becomes one of those situations where things have gone too far and his actions can’t be taken back. At the point at which he wants nothing more than to go back home to his family, they’ve pulled things together as best as they can in an attempt to survive and move forward.
I was gutted by the chain of events that took place and felt for everyone involved. It was upsetting that this man has worked hard to achieve his professional and personal dreams only to lose everything. Just imagine that he began life with nothing financially, lost his birth family along the way, and had to leave home for a shot at a better life. He then gained professional success, married, and made a family for himself. Only to lose it all. It’s especially troubling that the losses he incurs are set in motion through no fault of his own but rather trying to help save someone’s life.
There’s a generational link between Kweku, his father, and Olu. It was a complicated situation but Kweku’s father left his family after a similarly emasculating experience that filled him with shame. His father’s absence contributed to the difficulties of his childhood. Thus, while I understood Kweku’s feeling of shame at losing his job, I was dumbstruck by him also deciding to leave his family. If no one else understood, he should have known how devastating the loss of a father could be to a family. Yet, even with that first-hand knowledge, he still abandoned his family. Olu has a lot in common with his father, including both his career and demeanor. But afraid of being hurt again or hurting someone else, he fears commitment and holds himself back in relationships.
Feeling abandoned by the man who is his role model and combined with societal expectations of men being borderline unhuman can result in men who are out of touch with their feelings and struggle with intimacy. The difficult situations they endure don’t excuse their actions but offer an explanation that provides context. Olu wasn’t my favorite character but I enjoyed reading about his growth and development throughout Ghana Must Go. In recognizing and coming to terms with his feelings of abandonment, Olu is eventually able to become more open and present in his relationships. The dysfunction that is handed down between these three men reminded me of men in real life who grow up without their fathers.
From the outside, the Sai children seem to all be success stories despite their father leaving the family. All except Sadie who in most families would still be considered a success but is out of place among her family of high achievers. She’s not described as being ugly but feels unattractive in comparison to Taiwo who along with her twin Kehinde is described as being very attractive. Sadie’s angst and feeling out of place is at least in part, a result of her trying to figure out her identity while also navigating young adulthood.
Several years younger than her siblings, Sadie is still in her late teens when Ghana Must Go picks up around the time of Kweku’s death. The other Sai children know very little about their father’s past but Sadie knows almost nothing about her father even from the time that he was present. She was very young at the time Kweku left and unlike the other kids doesn’t have any firsthand memories of him. Thus she feels disconnected from both him and the rest of the family. Journeying to Ghana for her father’s funeral offers an opportunity to not just learn about him and that part of her identity but also an opportunity to reconnect with the rest of her family.
Ghana Must Go puts a different spin on the concept of a person’s life flashing by before their death. As Kweku is dying we witness both the actual moment of his death and also him looking back at his life. (Don’t worry, his death isn’t gory, and while unexpected isn’t exactly sudden as it takes several pages to happen.)
Yet, Kweku as well is having a bit of an out-of-body experience in the sense that he is also watching himself die. In part, he is a bit removed from and amused by the experience as he has seen this scenario on multiple occasions from the perspective of a surgeon. He knows what steps should be taken to save his life and recognizes everything that is going wrong but is powerless because he is the patient.
This speaks to identity and what’s important in life. Sure, Kweku’s career as a doctor flashes by but the memories that elicit emotion and regret in those last few moments of life are related to his family. The one he lost in his youth as well as the one he lost as an adult. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with professional ambition but rather that it’s not the thing upon which we should base our sense of self or identity.
Immigrants typically leave their place of birth and their families to move elsewhere in pursuit of opportunities and a better life. Over the years Kweku forgets about or pushes aside painful memories from his past but those moments play a vital role in shaping him as a man. In losing touch with this part of his identity, he fills in the gaps with his profession. When he loses his job, there are now these gaping holes in his identity that weaken his sense of self.
Kweku looms large in his children’s lives and when he leaves it leaves large gaps in their identities. He taught the children the value of hard work but failed to also hand down the story of his early experience and development. These missing parts result in the children being incredibly high achievers but also feeling somewhat empty and unfulfilled. Kweku teaches them how to work and achieve but not nearly enough about how to be content with themselves.
I’ve read books and seen movies where estranged family members gather for a funeral. But what I enjoyed about Ghana Must Go is that the story doesn’t stop at the characters just revealing secrets and rehashing old hurts. Instead, we jump back and forth in time and between characters to see how moments from their lives have affected their development. Looking at one event from a variety of perspectives offers a more complete picture as we better understand the characters’ motivations and thought processes.
I listened to the audiobook around the holidays and thoroughly enjoyed the story as well as the characters, though I did like some characters a bit more than others. I can’t think of any glaring flaws or things I specifically dislike about the book. But there were a few moments where I found myself yelling at characters as they made unwise decisions. I highly recommend Ghana Must Go and look forward to future titles by Taiye Selasi.
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