Gold of Our Fathers illuminates illegal mining in Ghana

GoldofourFathers

My knowledge of the precious minerals trade extends only as far as the American commonplace Cash 4 Gold merchants. While these buyers mislead unwitting consumers by devaluing gold prices in a fluctuating market, Kwei Quartey’s Gold of Our Fathers (Soho Crime, 2016) addresses a much more insidious aspect of the gold trade by illustrating the devastation caused by the influx of illegal Chinese mining operations to Ghana, Africa’s largest gold exporter.

Quartey’s fourth Darko Dawson novel finds the protagonist promoted to detective chief inspector, but as a pawn of departmental politics Dawson receives a subsequent transfer from Ghana’s capital to the rural Ashanti region. On his second day in Obuasi, Dawson is assigned to investigate the murder of Bao Liu, a Chinese mine owner buried alive in his gold pits. Dawson initially suspects one of the disgruntled galamsey boys, the small-scale miners employed by Liu, until he learns of grievances against Liu from both a local farming family and a larger American-run mining operation. While pursuing these leads, Dawson progresses from solving a simple murder case to exposing government corruption that profits from illegal mining practices.

Because the scope of the novel contracts and expands as Dawson shifts between the single murder and a complex conspiracy, Gold of Our Fathers struggles, at times, with an imbalanced narrative and erratic pacing. With both the identity of Bao’s killer and the bureaucratic malfeasance evident from the start, reader interest hinges on Quartey’s vivid depiction of Ghanaian life rather than intrigue. Further inhibiting the construction of the novel is the attempt to include the Dawson family’s relocation and adjustment to Obuasi, as their undeveloped story line intrudes on the more engaging discourse of Ghanaian politics. The minimal inclusion of these peripheral characters is reflective of serialized literature, though, since dedicated readers will expect an appearance, and therefore excuse a certain level of neglect, of figures that have been introduced through the three previous installments.

What Gold of Our Fathers lacks in suspense, however, it makes up for in setting. Quartey, a physician by trade, takes a diagnostic approach to the poor economic conditions that have produced the Ashanti region’s dependence on gold mining. In comparison to Accra, Dawson’s new appointment is in an office made inefficient by lack of financial resources and careless personnel. In conjunction, these two factors permeate the political structures of Obuasi to create varying degrees of government complicity in illegal mining activities. Whether in the form of police officers who receive kickbacks for alerting miners to imminent raids or in tribal chiefs who negotiate land holdings with the miners, often by seizing land from cocoa farmers, Quartey details the sanctions, both implicit and explicit, that allow these practices to continue. To offset the severity of these issues, Quartey appraises them through Dawson’s ironic reflections, which add levity to an otherwise dark subject.

While Gold of Our Fathers is best read in succession with the first three Darko Dawson books instead of as a standalone novel, its particular merit lies in the compelling representation of the relationship, at turns symbiotic and antagonistic, between two non-Western countries. By exposing U.S. readers to hitherto marginalized geopolitics, Gold of Our Fathers highlights the complexities of the commodities market and educates the reader through an insightful perspective on both African and Chinese foreign affairs.

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