Homing instinct

Black Gold of the Sun: searching for home in England and Africa

Ekow Eshun <em>Hamish Hamilton, 23

In the 1920s, the American poet Countee Cullen asked:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?

While born-again Africans still yearn for such a mythic time and place, there is a generation whose comparatively recent displacement from the mother continent, often for reasons of education or politics, lends itself to the sort of clear-eyed self-examination at which Ekow Eshun excels. His rich memoir, which comes fittingly adorned with a golden jacket designed by Chris Ofili, attempts to answer the question: "Where are you from?" Eshun's search for home and identity is sometimes achingly poignant, a story of semi-detachment, of fragmentation and duality, which must have been cathartic to write. "There is no singularity to truth" is its refrain.

Born in England in 1968 to Ghanaian parents, Eshun was transported "home" at the age of two, when his father, a diplomat during Kwame Nkrumah's regime, was released from political detention following a military coup. He returned to England at the age of five, and for the next 28 years carried a mental picture of a Ghana frozen in the early 1970s. Something of his sense of self was lost: he was rooted in a white country where he was made to feel an interloper. His very name, Ekow - denoting a boy born on a Thursday among the Fantes - prompted childhood taunts at school in north London. Growing up in a Britain where The Black and White Minstrel Show reflected "how a white audience wanted to see blacks: as supine, childlike and cretinous" and where racist abuse in the playground was rife, he also had to adjust to the straitened means of his family, as the political order in Ghana ruled out imminent return.

At the heart of Black Gold of the Sun is Eshun's lengthy trip to Ghana in 2002, undertaken in the hope of discovering a sense of belonging that might make him whole again. He soon realises, however, that "between leaving and coming back, you change. And because you don't stay the same, neither does the place to which you return." The idea and the reality don't match. The canny local youths working as tour guides in Accra are decked out in basketball vests and Nike trainers in homage to US sporting heroes, while the African American tourists wear dashikis and pious expressions: "In their eyes Africa was a land of enduring wisdoms. They were its lost kings and its Nubian princesses. Both groups saw in the other a reflection of their own dreams."

Whorls of memories of family life - particularly his interaction with his older brother Kodwo - are imaginatively layered with vivid observation, convincing speculation, recherche nuggets of information. Most affecting is when he has to accommodate the revelation that one of his ancestors, seven generations earlier, was a slave-trading Dutchman who married an African woman in the 1750s, and that their son Joseph de Graft also traded slaves and grew wealthy by virtue of his privileged status. "Instead of trying to resolve all the paradoxes I came across, what if I accepted that Ghana was made up of multiple histories?"

As Eshun configures the nation's contradictions, he acknowledges his own:

We are not creations of our environment

so much as its interpreters. In the three decades since I was a child, Britain had changed from a place where kids carved National Front logos into their desks at school, to somewhere more open and less fearful of change. Each person of colour living there had helped to create that shift . . . In the same way, it was impossible to arrive in Ghana without bearing some traits of the west. Nevertheless, the way I behaved was my responsibility, not the result of culture or genetics, and that was surely a cause for optimism.

The book is as eclectic in its references as one might expect, given its author's track record as a broadcaster and critic. He warns that some names have been changed "to protect the innocent and the guilty", but a reprint would do well to spell-check each oburoni, Afrifa, Reindorf or Yaa Asantewaa. Eshun's courageous exploration of his past and present may not have left him better able to say exactly where he is from, but his conclusion is liberating: "There was no template to being African or English. You were free to make it up as you went along."

As we Ghanaians say, ayekoo!

Margaret Busby is researching and writing a family memoir

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa