Cassava Republic

The Hundred Wells Of Salaga: An Excerpt

 

An exclusive excerpt from Ayesha Harruna Attah's third novel, The Hundred Wells Of Salaga, published by Cassava Republic Press (May 2018).

In The Hundred Wells Of Salaga, Ayesha Harruna Attah, through the stories of Aminah and Wurche, explores slave trade in pre-colonial Ghana. Encapsulated in this exclusive excerpt provided by Cassava Republic Press is the emotive use of language Attah employs throughout the book, which transposes the reader to Salaga — a town in Northern Ghana doubling, both historically and in this novel, as home to hundred hand-dug wells used to wash slaves prior to their sale. In just 8 pages, Attah mirrors the captives' collective yet futile battle against pain, loss and death.


Aminah


T

hey walked and walked. The horsemen raided villages and led their captives to an unknown destination and, as their numbers grew, bound them around trees in rings like obscene jewellery. The horsemen stole cattle, sheep and goats, and mixed up their captives so they wouldn’t plot escapes. Aminah had managed to hold on to Hassana and Issa, whose skin clung to his bones, but they had lost Husseina. The horsemen had pried her from Hassana’s grip and tied her to another group of people. Every chance she got, Hassana craned forward till she could see her twin, and only then would she relax. Children and women were tied neck to neck, their hands free. The wrists of the men – there weren’t many of them – were bound with cord, and the strongest were restrained with wooden chokeholds. Once, when a horseman was retying the cord around Hassana’s neck, she choked. Her skin almost turned purple, and only then did the horseman relent. Husseina had stuck her head out and didn’t break her gaze until the person behind her tripped over her.

A man tried to run away. Aminah didn’t see the horsemen hang him, but in the bright morning light his slack body swayed from a tree, his feet dangling above the muddy soil. His hairless head, shaped like a cone of shea butter, rested against his right shoulder, his bare body gashed with lines of blood. The horsemen chatted around a fire. The smell of roasted meat wafted the way of the captives, digging into the emptiness in their bellies, into their nausea.

‘I hope they have nightmares,’ Hassana shouted. With sunken eyes, she leered at the horsemen.

‘It’s okay,’ said Aminah, trying to hush her. ‘It will get better.’

Hassana stopped talking but her eyes were fixed on the dead man. Aminah didn’t think it was going to get better. She knew nothing, really. And she was wracked with guilt at possibly having enabled her mother’s death. She should have gone into Na’s hut to wake her up.

One woman – also Gurma like Aminah’s people, but not from Botu – had said they were being sent to a lake with no beginning and no end. An infinite lake. She called it ‘big water’. Her weaver husband had gone south to sell in the markets and had seen these pitiful people chained to the fronts of houses. He was told they would be put in boats controlled by white men and sent on the infinite lake. Her husband was shaken by the whole thing; he stopped asking questions. The woman had gone to visit her mother when the raiders attacked her mother’s village. When they started tying her up, she knew her fate.

At least she’d had some preparation. For the rest of the captives, it was like walking in the forest on a night with no moon. They groped, bumped into things. Wild animals lurked and, sometimes, the animals bit.

A gust of wind sent the lifeless body swinging and wafted the smell of meat in Aminah’s direction. A lump pressed hard against her sternum, from inside her body. The muscles of her belly contracted and convulsed. Up came bitter liquid. She swallowed it, suppressed it. It was horrible. She’d never had to swallow vomit before.

After the horsemen feasted, they poured water to quench their fire. They gave their porters the leftovers, and the porters gave some of their captured the bones and gristle. Issa didn’t eat the tiny morsel of meat Aminah gave him. Then the horsemen split into two groups. A porter ran along the file, counted up to a point and cut the cord. The group ahead of Aminah, Issa, and Hassana went to the left. That group included Husseina. They walked until the tall grass swallowed them. Where were they going? Would the two groups reunite?

Aminah wanted to chase after them to get Husseina back, and just as she thought this, a shriek cut all the noises around to silence. It came from Hassana. Her scream froze blood. She doubled over, folded her arms over her belly, and wouldn’t stop. A horseman trotted over and yelled something at her. She was now curling into a ball on the ground, her nails digging into the red soil. The horseman dismounted and walloped her with his riding whip. She didn’t stop screaming. He kicked her ribs, but still she screamed. Only when a patch of red stained her dress, did Aminah break out of her trance. She fell to the ground and wrapped her little sister with her body and tried to stop the shrill scream by covering her mouth. The man’s riding whip whacked Aminah’s body until Hassana quieted down. Hassana whimpered all afternoon. Aminah had lied; it wasn’t getting better.

The captives tried to function as one. They urinated and emptied their bowels at the same time, under watchful eyes. When they were given food, they made sure every one got at least a small piece. But it was impossible to stay united in such conditions. Some of them were in more pain than others.

Issa struggled to walk, slowing down everyone behind him. Aminah begged one of the porters to let her carry him even though she herself had very little strength. He now weighed next to nothing.

After walking for what must have been a week, like they were never going to stop, they arrived at a place unlike any other they had crossed. Rocks jutted up from the ground and trees grew everywhere. Okra-green grass carpeted the land, and even in her despair, Aminah found the green fresh and beautiful, the rocks mesmerising. Not far off, vultures flew in circles.

The horsemen dismounted, trussed up their stolen sheep and goats, and led the captives towards clusters of large rocks and trees with gnarly crowns. On a large boulder, people were gathered, eating. Aminah’s heart pinched itself in what must have been excitement – the first time in a long time she had felt any hope. Perhaps that was the group that had left first. They could be reunited with Husseina after all. Aminah watched Hassana, but said nothing. Her reddened eyes stared ahead, focused on nothing in particular, as if she were sleepwalking.

If they died, would they become spirit walkers? She had to stop herself from thinking like that. She pressed Hassana’s hand – to transmit that something good might be on its way, but also to convince herself.

Up on the boulder, Aminah searched for faces from Botu. The group was unfamiliar. Suddenly, their captors whipped them and shouted at them to move. Aminah didn’t understand the language, but the word ‘Babatu’ was repeated. It was a name she’d heard in Botu, a man who was feared by the people of the caravans. If these ruthless horsemen were also afraid of him, he had to be a terrifying person. As that group left, any hope she had harboured dwindled.

Their horsemen led them to a patch of bald rock and one of them approached three women sitting behind large pots. Aminah couldn’t see what was in them, but she had sat behind enough pots to know the thick, gurgling sound of boiling porridge. The horseman returned and, with his accomplices, divided the captives into smaller groups and sat them before oval troughs smeared with the muddy dregs of the previous group’s leftover porridge. The women slopped the thick porridge into the troughs and the hollows steamed. Aminah cupped her hand to scoop the scalding gruel, blew on it, and led it to Issa’s lips. He shook his head and pinched his lips shut tight. No matter how much she begged him, he wouldn’t eat.

The sight of the skin puckering above his lips began to annoy her. She felt a strong urge to slap him. Hassana swallowed a handful of porridge and twisted her face but kept eating. Finally, Aminah ate what Issa rejected. The millet porridge was sour, with no sweetness. After eating, they were led to larger holes, where water had collected, and from that they quenched their thirst. For the first time, Aminah’s mind and body had pause. Something about having a full stomach calmed her.

She thought of Baba and Na, wondering what had become of them. She had left things incomplete with her mother. And then she hadn’t called her out of the room. How would she ever right that?

When the horsemen said it was time to go, Aminah got up, feeling full. Not satisfied, like after a good meal, but her body had more energy to keep going. Then down the hill they went.

Below them spread groves of trees nestled in lush green grass. It was never this green in Botu, where Aminah wished she could return, and strangely, the sentiment of loss and nostalgia made her hope the big water would come soon. She didn’t know what future it held, but she just wanted to stop walking.

Issa fell. He didn’t trip or stumble. His body was sucked down, as if called by the earth. His skeletal form stacked itself against the grey metallic sheen of the rock. Aminah stared at the way his bony legs had crisscrossed, as if someone had delicately arranged him into a neat pile. It was Hassana who got down and tried to revive him. When they realised Aminah and Hassana were stalling, a horseman and porter raced over, shouting. As they drew closer, they saw what had happened.

The horseman muttered and dismounted. He peeled Hassana off Issa and picked him up as if he were a bird. They carried him, then flung him over the rock. Above the rock, the circling vultures. Vultures were attracted to death. Aminah imagined below them was a cemetery of people like Issa who hadn’t found the strength to go on. She pictured skeletons stacked on skeletons or flesh on skeletons, in Issa’s case. Suddenly cold and afraid, she took Hassana’s hand, small and dry, and tried to think of to say something to comfort her sister, but more to comfort herself. She felt the heaviness of her tongue. She swallowed several times, before words could come out.

‘Maybe this is better for him,’ she said. ‘He was so weak.’

‘I hope he comes back as spirit walker to haunt these people,’ said Hassana, snatching her hand away to wipe her face, wet with tears.

When they left the rocky place, dying began to seem an attractive option. Running away was too costly; Aminah was so disoriented she didn’t know which way home was, and she could fall into a worse situation. The name Babatu was frightening, if even these horsemen were afraid. And how would she do it? Die? Swallow a poisonous bark? But she looked at Hassana and blocked her thoughts. They needed each other.

 

The Hundred Wells Of Salaga was published by Cassava Republic Press (UK) in May 2018.

 
 

ABOUT AYESHA

Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of three novels: Harmattan Rain, nominated for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Saturday's Shadows, shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013; and The Hundred Wells of Salaga Cassava Republic Press, UK. A 2015 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate and Sacatar Fellow, she is the recipient of the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for non-fiction.

 

Return To Leopard Knocks

By Niki

A review of Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi by Nnedi Okorafor.

Guest edited by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

Image: Cassava Republic; Cover Design: Anna Morrison; Illustration: Greg Ruth.

Image: Cassava Republic; Cover Design: Anna Morrison; Illustration: Greg Ruth.

It was with a giddiness that I settled into reading Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi, returning to Leopard Knocks to see how Sunny is faring a year-and-a-half into discovery of her Leopard identity and defeating Black Hat Okoto. There is no ease into this story: The reader is thrust back into the Leopard world as Sunny, at midnight, goes searching for tainted peppers to make the special Leopard Knocks pepper soup. She finds a great deal more than peppers; barely escaping with her life, after being attacked by a mystery lake creature.

The mystical takes centre stage in this book as Sunny is haunted both by the fearsome attack that opens the novel but also by vivid inexplicable dreams she fails to share with her fellow Oha Covena or mentor, Sugar Cream. The opening incident and the dreams are central to the journey Sunny will take in this novel as they point the way both to her nemesis, Ekwensu, and her destiny in Osisi.

The journey to Osisi — a place beyond succinct description — leads Sunny to further encounters with the weird and wonderful of her mystical world; the good and the downright terrifying. Okorafor also takes time out in this narrative to distinguish between the cruelty of human ideas of magic and the complex reality of mystical realms. This is done by exploring the bastardisation of confraternities in Nigerian Universitiesb by people who believe magic can only be tapped into through cruelty.

 

Nightmare Or Reality?

From the outset, Sunny is thrust into dangerous experiences. Okorafor is ruthless in her choices of the incidents the still-young Sunny faces in Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries, especially as many of these mystic creatures she comes up against are older and experienced. This tends to leave both Sunny and the reader fretting over her survival.

The description in this novel is captivating to the point that scenes described are capable of encroachment and becoming one's dreams/nightmares. Whilst initially sure that this was a book I would gobble up in one sitting, I was forced to spread it over two days; needing breaks to catch my breath and escape the terrifying encounters its characters kept coming up against. The world Okorafor creates for Sunny and co. is obsessive, enthralling and fearsome - so much so that I am baffled that this is a Young Adult (YA) novel.

To have Okorafor’s work exist today for the younger generation, especially African, is a call for celebration. Her perspective on the mystical is very separate from the Nollywood theatrics around representation of Native Doctors and the fear and cruelty with which certain communities treat children deemed supernatural. Okorafor writes about a world in which magic and mysticism are not sinful but cultural. Leopard Knocks is also a place where tribal conflict — a major Nigerian issue — is not much of a problem. Leopard individuals all speak a range of traditional languages as it better enables communication and learning.

 

Confratheatrics

Sunny’s uniqueness, her albino skin aside, is the fact that she alone in her immediate family is a Leopard person. Unlike Orlu, Sasha and Chichi, she has no one at home with whom to speak about the weird and wonderful journey she is on. Her only saving grace is her deceased maternal grandmother, who also was a Leopard person. This means that her parents are aware of her Otherness but also know that it is a discussion they can never have, further adding to Sunny’s sense of isolation in the real world.

Her older brothers, Chukwu and Ugonna, are too wrapped up in the business of being young men to notice their pubescent sister, that is until Chukwu goes to University and falls into the hands of cultists. Okorafor uses Chukwu’s university experience to highlight an important difference between the way Nigerian society thinks the magical works — cult abuse of power — against the ways the Oha Coven experiences the mystical.

Cults — as they stand today — are much different from their initial purpose. Their most famous originator Wole Soyinka in 1952, along with 6 other men, formed the Pyrate Confraternity while at the University of Ibadan. This group was to fight the power the elite had over the direction their Higher Education institution was going. Today, however, killings, abduction and lecturer intimidation are reportedly the legacy of University confraternities. They are also present in all Universitiesc in Nigeria.

Chukwu finds himself scouted by the Great Red Sharks, — a cult comprised of students and lecturers — where he is forced to begin an inhumane indoctrination process. The first, a thorough beating by all cult members — which one only passes if they live — is only an example of the depths of depravity Chukwu is being asked to descend to. To further drive the point, the land on which Chukwu receives this beating and is expected to endure further debasement holds the corpses of former unlucky initiates. His surviving the beating is due to the help of a friend, Adebayo, a recent successful initiate to the fraternity.

The cult leader, Capo, described by Sunny as “a lamb version of Black Hat;” the Leopard villain she defeats in the first book of the series — leads the Sharks in their meetings which consists of heavy drinking and calling on the devil in Yoruba. Sunny, along with Chichi, accosts them from the shadows as revenge for their cruelty to Chukwu. They introduce the cultists to real mysticism that leaves them all shaken. Where Capo and crew have used physical cruelty to re-inforce ideas of their magical abilities, Sunny and Chichi are able to terrorize from a safe distance without causing lasting damage.

This addition to the novel is important, not only as a discussion about a huge problem on University campuses in Nigeria, but also a chance to explore the place of human cruelty in our understanding of other supernatural ideas. Leopard Knocks and all its characters are multi-dimensional in their representation of the mystical, which is in direct opposition to the one-dimensionality of cult mysticism.

 

Creepie Crawlie City

Undeniably present in Okorafor’s series are a myriad of imagined insects: so well detailed, sometimes loveable, and other times terrifying. The insects contribute to the mysticism of the novel while also giving, in a way only Okorafor can, a credibility to the world she creates. In this installment of the series, there is careful determination that the reader meets and engages with these creatures both great and small. Anyone who follows this YA author on Twitter will be familiar with her proclivity to post unique insects that do exist in the real world, and as such, will not be shocked by their prominence in her writing.

These creatures are additionally fascinating owing to their functionality, history and presence. Nothing in Okorafor’s world exists without purpose or deep roots in Leopard history. A reader will come across the wise Ogwu and her many legged children, the terrifying, crafty Udide, and the mischievous Grashcoatah, amongst a bevy of interesting creatures as the Oha Coven journey to find Osisi. Sceptical about the possibility of being enchanted by creepy crawlies? Be rest-assured that the personalities Okorafor endows these creatures with will have a lasting effect on your feelings towards them.

 

Book Three? Yes Please!

Rather than say that the writing of Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi is consistent with its prequel, What Sunny Saw In The Flames, I will say that Okorafor has grown as a writer. The places, people, insects, battles, history and culture were better fleshed out. Though the focus is more on Sunny and Leopard Knocks, Okorafor delves into issues in the real world, bringing up such an important and often ignored conversation on confraternaties. The reader feels more grounded in the mystical world and, like Sunny, is no longer a newbie to Leopard Knocks.

Okorafor is brilliant because she leaves spaces in this book from which the narrative can, and will, be continued. On finishing this novel, I engaged in a twitter conversation with author where she confirmed that though not yet written, a third installation is in the plans. Patience is a virtue I have long sought to acquire. Now is a good time to start practicing. Whenever she chooses to deliver, my very un-young adult self will be first in line to revisit Sunny’s universe.

 

An Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Cassava Republic, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Niki. Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries will be released March 26, 2018.



Notes

a The Oha Coven comprises of Sunny, Sasha, Orlu and Chichi - all adolescents connected to the magical world otherwise referred to as Leopard Knocks. Meet the squad in our review of the prequel here.

b An article by Wellington (2007) on the emergence of student cult groups in Nigeria and their rampant menancing/criminal activties.

c A research article by Arhedo, Aluede and Adomeh on the 'Predictive Factors in Undergraduates' Involvement in Campus Secret Cults in Public Universities in Edo State of Nigeria.'

 

Fiery Rebirth

By Niki

A review of What Sunny Saw In The Flames by Nnedi Okorafor.

Image:  Niki  for  The Book Banque .

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames is more than just a title; it is also the foundation of the story centred on Sunny. The prologue shows Sunny looking into the flame of a candle during a much too frequent power cut in her family home in Aba, Nigeria. Written in first person, the reader experiences all the choices she makes in getting closer to the flame, and is drawn by the shock and horror of the scene unfolding before her eyes. Much like Sunny, the reader is surprised by the flame that catches her long blonde hair; burns 75 percent of it and shrinks it to a short afro.

The burning of her hair and its transition from “lovely, long” to an afro is metaphorical of the development that occurs in Sunny’s life following the fiery revelation. Admittedly, being American born, an only daughter and an albino, she is already othered in her everyday life. When at school, her skin and accent set her apart from schoolmates. At home, she is isolated by the fact that she is the only girl. Her skin, being sensitive to sunlight, prevents her from gaining camaraderie with her boisterous brothers who enjoy football. Distinction, to Sunny, is thus nothing new.

 

The Age Of Responsibility

At age twelve, the discovery in the flame causes a great shift Sunny’s developing adolescent psyche. Sunny’s eventual pack of friends, The Oha Coven - Sasha, Orlu and Chichi - are also adolescents connected to the magical world otherwise referred to as Leopard Knocks. Sasha, like Sunny, is an Akátáa whereas Orlu and Chichi are born and bred Aba children. The other three, unlike Sunny, have however had knowledge of their Leopard identity from birth. As such, they are a stable community in which Sunny can navigate the mental upheaval that learning to have a dual life brings.

Otherwise publishedb as Akata Witch, Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames is often dubbed by some critics as the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” Whilst I grimace at this comparison, there are indeed some parallels between the two fantasy fiction series. Sunny, much like Rowling’s Harry Potter, is young and vulnerable at the point of discovering her supernaturalism. Where Harry is bullied at home and finds respite at school, home and school are, however, both places of tension for Sunny. It takes her initiation into the Leopard Knocks to discover the possibility of fitting in.

The shared age bracket between the coven also means that the stresses of adolescence — bullying, puberty, first crushes — are also shared. The coven is destined to fight an evil force wreaking havoc in the human world. Their youthfulness is presented as a war tactic rather than a disadvantage. It is used to distract the enemy so he is blindsided when they unleash their true strength. Magic, in this Young Adult novel, is not trifled with but rather, is presented as a huge responsibility.

 

Money Makes All World Go Round

"Chittim is the currency of Leopard people. Chittim is always made of metal (copper, bronze, silver and gold) and always shaped like curved roads. The most valuable are the large copper ones, which are about the size of an orange and thick as an adult’s thumb. The smallest ones are the size of a dove’s egg. Least valuable are chittim made of gold. When chittim fall, they never do harm. So one can stand in a rain of chittim, and never get hit. There is only one way to earn chittm: by gaining knowledge and wisdom. The smarter you become, the better you process knowledge into wisdom, the more chittim will fall and thus the richer you will be.

— Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong"

What Sunny Saw In The Flames, p. 44

Something intriguing — or arguably confusing — about fantasy is the author’s ability to “open strange doors” and craft mystical worlds and words. Crafting mystical worlds could be relatively tricky as the author tries to create the extraordinary without leaving the reader feeling like they are reading something ridiculous. The author also tends to fight against moulding stereotypes; in order to present the world in a balanced manner - one with the good, bad and in betweens. If in no other way, Okorafor creates a realistic society in Leopard Knocks by creating a currency system.

From the excerpt alone, the reader can see differences in how currency is gained and in what is deemed valuable. In What Sunny Saw In The Flames, currency is gained through wisdom. This allows for Sunny and friends, in their young age, to acquire currency to navigate the scholastic and daily Leopard Knocks needs. This is also a system that gives all the citizens the ability to earn from the moment of coming into full Leopard identity.

By simply passing the initial Leopard test, you are rewarded with chittim. This then allows you to purchase books and transport services that aid one’s understanding and navigation of the new world. Knowledge, as a foundation for wealth acquisition, takes away the role of luck and inheritance that non-mystical humans sometimes rely on. However, as with all societies, mystical or not, there are individuals within Leopard Knocks who attempt to bypass the process of learning; instead stealing chittim from unsuspecting Leopard People.

 

Crafting Magical Masterpieces

With wisdom as an important trait for all Leopard people to possess, the Obi Library is situated at the centre of Leopard Knocks. Leopard Knocks is, however, just one of many hidden worlds of magic that exist around the world. The second created is on Zuma Rock in Abuja, Nigeria. Whilst Leopard Knocks is mostly inhabited by residents and natives of the region, Zuma Rock is the meeting ground of all Leopard People across Nigeria. It is the capital of the Nigerian Leopard country.

In the Leopard community, there are four levels before one attains full magical autonomy. Sunny and friends are at the beginning and are trained and individually mentored in Anatov - fourth level Leopards’ huts rather than in a school structure. This means that rather than get lost within larger classrooms, Leopard children are closely monitored throughout their education, working in small groups or one-on-one with mentors. With this system, there is a good level of accountability.

Additionally, Leopard children are intentionally exposed to violence. The choosing of their ‘Juju Knife’ — perhaps an equivalent of the western magic wand — comes with a degree of pain. Despite the unconventional nature of Leopard living, there remains a gender bias which Sunny combats when she takes to the field as a footballer in a historically all-boys match at Zuma Rock. Sunny, despite being one of the better players across both teams on the field, has to fight to play a sport she so dearly loves. Here, ability transcending gender is a micro-theme, and the cultural sexisms of Nigeria are reflected.

 

What Dissatisfaction Is This?

What Sunny Saw In The Flames is crafted in the minute details. Okorafor pays so much attention to how the normal and mystical worlds are formed; differentiating them without taking out the cultural identities of Nigeria that make this narrative Nigerian-specific. A reader of this Young Adult novel will walk into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. By the end of the read, the unfamiliar is bound to become something one can navigate. It may still fall outside your purview but will sure not feel so alien. This, here, is the magic of Okorafor’s writing.

The only problem, I find, lies in the last few pages where the incident of fighting the evil the Oha Coven has been groomed for occurs. These pages feel rushed, almost like a blur. It is a departure from the detailed narrative that makes up the majority of the book. It feels like a blink is all it might take to miss the end. Nevertheless, my much older self thoroughly enjoyed falling into this read — though it has been marketed as a book for 12-16 year olds. What Sunny Saw In The Flames has a certain freshness and a Nigerian aspect to it that is endearing.

 

Have you read Nnedi Okorafor's What Sunny Saw In The Flames or any of her other books? How did you find it/them? Is fantasy ficiton your thing? Tell us!



Notes

a A Yoruba term used to define African Americans. It is also sometimes used derogatorily to define African Americans as “bush animals.”

b What Sunny Saw In The Flames was published in Nigeria and the UK by Cassava Republic Press in 2013. It was also published in the US as Akata Witch by Speak.