At the end of April it was announced that the Benin bronzes in Berlin were to be returned to Nigeria; the bronzes are a collection of 13th century plaques and artefacts from the historical kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria, that many considered had been looted by European colonisers. As the news was announced, Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, was quick to note that further significant objects of this kind would still be exhibited in Berlin and in other German museums.
But in reality, that's likely wishful thinking. The post-colonial nations of the world have learned their lesson from this futile fight over stolen cultural treasures. In many African countries, young experts and politicians have influenced debates about reinstatement of the looted treasures. Among these voices is Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, an art historian, filmmaker and granddaughter of a former king of the historical Akyem Abuakwa region, today a part of modern Ghana Oforiatta-Ayim was born in Germany in the 1980s and grew up in Europe. She studied politics and worked for the United Nations before going on to study African culture in London. Eventually Oforiatta-Ayim moved to Ghana where she founded the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge in Accra.
Oforiatta-Ayim is considered to be one of the most important African voices in the world today. At the ANO Institute, her objective was to re-write African cultural history but from an African perspective. She demonstrated how she could bring tradition and contemporary culture together at the Venice Biennale in 2019, where Oforiatta-Ayim curated Ghana's first ever pavilion at the all-important international art show. That same year, Oforiatta-Ayim also published her first novel, The God Child – this is currently being translated into German by Reinhild Bohnke. In the book, everything that Oforiatta-Ayim has worked on flows together: Her biographical and cultural heritage, childhood memories, national history, uprising and tradition.
In the novel, protagonist Maya Mensah – a sort of alter ego for the writer – talks about her upbringing in Germany and England, as well as her return to her family's ancestral lands. While her mother revels in her royal family tree, her father introduces her to western literature and cinema. Even so, Maya still feels like a stranger, something like the alien E.T., or the child abandoned in the jungle, Mowgli. Eventually her cousin, Kojo, who is taken in by Maya's family, becomes her support. His fairy-tale stories from the kingdom of Kaba, that their common grandfather used to rule, unlock the hidden chambers of her identity.
The stories of Kojo and Maya very much mirror the European experiences that many people of colour talk about. Even though theirs is not a tale of deprivation, it is certainly one filled with racism and feeling “other”. Their story is one of the intimacy between two people searching for belonging. As a young woman, Maya eventually moves to Ghana, where Kojo is already well known for his connections and ability to pull strings. At this stage, the tales of the glorious kingdom to which Kojo wants to dedicate a museum, begin to overlap with those of a nation awakening after colonialism.
The two royal offspring play a twin function in this story. On one hand, they bear the toxic burden of colonialism and the weight of their lineage, but on the other, they also carry the ideals that come with this new beginning. As Maya sees it, the history of her lost kingdom could be told primarily through the preservation of its remaining artefacts, even though these – and their meaning – had been lost, distorted and neglected. It was up to her and Kojo, she says, to restore the artefacts and to create lasting histories.
Despite Oforiatta-Ayim's obvious literary ambitions, writing in The God Child does not always shine. The different episodes in the story simply exist alongside one another, and sometimes the motivations are not clear; some of the characters are only roughly drawn. Yet there is still so much to this book. The European chapters sound like early Toni Morrison or Jamaica Kincaid. In the Ghanian sections, Oforiatta-Ayim builds upon the complex process of identity and nation-building that other writers with African roots, like Yaa Gyasi, Chigozie Obioma and Teju Cole, have also depicted. But she never underestimates the kind of pain that comes from post-colonial ruptures and mistakes either, the sort that Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o have also addressed.
Oforiatta-Ayim complements all of this with a heathy anger and the willingness to get stuck in herself. It is in these moments of revelation and agitation, that the novel is at its strongest.
It is time to tell our own stories, The God Child argues. The novel's author is an example of a new creative African class that wants to take their own work, and their history and identity, into their own hands, and in their own museums.
The God Child, by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim. Published in English by Bloomsbury in 2019.
German language version, Wir Gotteskinder. Published by Penguin, Munich, in 2021.
Translated by Cathrin Schaer