Benjamin Kwakye’s latest book, The Other Crucifix, tells the story of Jojo Badu, a young man from Ghana who wins a scholarship to study in the USA at one of the country’s most prestigious universities.
Arriving in the USA , Jojo confronts many challenges as he settles into his new surroundings. Not only must he keep up with a tough academic routine, he must find time to make friends, and do the things that students do, that is, party, drink, go on dates, join various protest campaigns, and work part-time to augment his meager stipend.
As the story unfolds, we see how Jojo evolves – from the naïve, proud and promising Ghanaian boy determined to return home after school to the almost disillusioned young man seeking US residency despite being unable to find a decent job after graduation. However, the evolution is not so linear, and it is the events that happen in between that make this book such an interesting read. Kwakye keeps us engaged with stories about love, friendship, mischief and despair.
Through the character and experiences of Jojo, Kwakye masterfully invites readers to explore several topical themes, including Africa’s disappointing post-colonial legacy, the African immigrant experience, and racial tensions.
As an international student, Jojo confronts prejudice. During his first week at school, an article comes out in The University Review, a student paper that proclaims:
“The University celebrates the admission of a Freshman Class of thirty international students from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. We need not indulge in much imaginative thinking to know that this desire to increase the presence of international students comes, for the most part, at the expense of lowered academic excellence.”
As one of the few Africans at the university, Jojo gets to experience what it is like to live as a minority. Although he makes many friends – white and black, his integration into his new surroundings is, by no means straightforward.
In one incident, the young Jojo still fresh in school is invited to a fraternity party, where there are mostly white students. Reflecting on the experience, he observes:
“For the first time, I saw myself sharply in terms of colour as a contrast to others and became self-aware of it in a native way I’d never known before. For the first time, I sensed what it must feel like to be one of a kind among others, and not just read about it – the nagging sense of separateness that is not proclaimed but finds its place somewhere in the psyche…”
Strangely, at another party the same night, where this time there are mostly African-Americans (blacks like him), he feels even less included.
“There was such discomfort I swore I’d never go to an Afro-Am party again, thinking it was better I go where I expected to feel different than where I didn’t expect it and felt so anyway.”
Given the many similarities between Jojo’s journey and the early part of the writer’s own life story, one is tempted to view The Other Crucifixas a thinly disguised autobiography. Like his main character Jojo, Kwakye studied in the USA, and served as President of the International Students Association. But then again, on many different levels, Jojo’s story speaks to experiences that many African immigrants in the West can relate to.
With The Other Crucifix, Kwakye has give us a book that manages to both entertain and educate, often touching on issues that Africans in the Diaspora have grappled with, as they try to integrate into their adopted countries.