Diaspora dance

Documenting Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’ in a genre-defying novel

By Olivia Snaije

Posted on August 18, 2023 13:39

 © Ghanaian novelist Kobby Ben Ben.
Ghanaian novelist Kobby Ben Ben.

‘No One Dies Yet’, Kobby Ben Ben’s high-energy debut set in Accra, delves into the Ghanaian government’s invitation to the African diaspora.

The heart of No One Dies Yet, so rich in subjects that it feels like five books in one, is structured around Ghana’s year-long programme of activities that took place 400 years after the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans in the US – The Year of Return in 2019.

The government invited Africans from the diaspora to visit Ghana to explore their heritage, visit sites from the transatlantic slave route, and even acquire citizenship if they wanted to establish residency.

Kobby Ben Ben is an Accra-born multidisciplinary artist, bibliophile and bookstagrammer, who was inspired to document his country during this flagship year.

“I write about the euphoria in the city and the hypocrisy of the Ghanaian government strategising to bring in African Americans to restore the tourism economy and get foreign exchange into the country,” Ben Ben says, speaking to The Africa Report from Ridge, the neighbourhood in Accra where his characters, Elton, Vincent and Scott, rent an Airbnb after arriving from the US.

Not a celebration of Blackness

The Americans were interested in getting to know the city’s underground queer scene, and for this, they hired the book-loving Kobby, whom they found on the Man4Man app.

When he’s not foraging for second-hand books sold by street vendors or stockpiling over-the-counter drugs to use when he’s depressed or bored, Kobby frequents the privileged and tolerant circles of Accras’s art scene.

The Year of Return was a silo’s worth of weevils boring holes into our savings

The Americans also hired traditional, religious Nana to take care of shopping, cooking and general housekeeping.

Kobby and Nana share their stories in No One Dies Yet, describing the weeks spent with the African Americans.

The novel explores the Ghanaians’ relationship with the visitors while also highlighting the “duality of lives in Ghana through Kobby, who lives a modern life, and Nana, who is in touch with his cultural background”.

Years of neglect

Ben Ben says that instead of the Year of Return being a celebration of Blackness, Ghanaians weren’t included in the festivities, primarily because prices shot up and locals couldn’t afford to participate. The protagonist reflects on this reality in the novel.

“For city dwellers like me, the Year of Return was a silo’s worth of weevils boring holes into our savings.”

The city of Accra is a central theme in the book, and Ben Ben doesn’t hide his passion for his home city.

There are many tolerant spaces where people can thrive, he says, including those outside the heteronormative sphere, despite the Ghanaian parliament passing an extreme bill against the LGBTQ+ community in July.

A welcoming example is the Chale Wote street art festival held each year in Accra’s Jamestown neighbourhood where creative street style is at an apogee.

Road trip

Like many visitors during the Year of Return, Elton, Vincent and Scott want to visit the 15th and 16th-century Elmina and Cape Coast castles which were major sites in the transatlantic slave trade of Africans to the New World.

© No One Dies Yet, by Kobby Ben Ben (Europa Editions)

The five set off on a road trip. Ben Ben uses this trip down the Atlantic coast to highlight the fantasies each culture has about the other.

The character Kobby is reluctant to visit the castles, recalling a class trip from when he was a child that was traumatising.

“In Ghana, the history of slavery is not taught very well in schools,” says Ben Ben. “We couldn’t process the information and I didn’t understand the point of us being there. At that age, what were we to do with history like that?”

Adults don’t go, he adds, noting that the character of Nana wouldn’t have visited the castles on his own. “It’s not his life.”

In contrast, for his African American friends, the experience was deeply moving.

“A lot of them are trying to discover their roots and are pursuing their heritage,” Ben Ben says.

Ghanaian perceptions

The author said almost every person visiting Ghana has Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning novel Homegoing, an exploration of the legacy of slavery, “thrust into their hand, but there are other issues happening in Ghana too. We are more than the castles”.

“African Americans forget that although their ancestors were enslaved, we were colonised and still have a colonised mindset, particularly when it comes to the US,” he says.

Until the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, Ben Ben says many people in Ghana didn’t know that the US “was such a racist place and that people like us don’t thrive in America”.

“We should open channels and get people in the diaspora and locals together,” he says.

“I would love that people come to Ghana in a sustainable way, helping out locals and making sure that the economy doesn’t go to hell with the influx of the diaspora. But we should not be posing ourselves as the only African country to bring everyone home.”

Unearthing stories

“I’m passionate about all subjects. Life is an avenue with so many issues hitting you at once. The Year of Return tried to remove the fact that Ghanaians are people and also have stories.”

It’s clear that Ben Ben is brimming with stories, and No One Dies Yet is like a kaleidoscope. One turn of a page and it’s a literary thriller, another and he’s delving into serious issues with zany humour and gaiety, one more turn and there’s an erotic scene.

Ben Ben is working on a new novel that “won’t be about race and identity. It’s about two brothers fighting for custody of their mother who is mentally ill.”

No One Dies Yet hits the shelves at the end of August with Europa Editions.

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