Ghana

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.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Ghana Must Go By Taiye Selasi

BY ASSUMPTA

Guest edited by Ráyò.

Image:  Zaynab .

Image: Zaynab.

I

n Ghana Must Go Taiye Selasi explores the complexities of relationships - familial, amorous and platonic; the devastating effects of breakdowns in such connections; the immigrant hustle; loss; the consequence of shame; and the significance of belonging or feeling as though you do. The novel opens with the death of Kweku Sai in his birthplace - Ghana. The narrative then unfolds through flashbacks that allow the reader experience how each member of the Sai family deals with the news of his death.

Unsurprisingly, it was the title that attracted me to Ghana Must Go. I was curious to know what was being offered by a novel provocatively named after a blue, red and white striped bag that came to prominence in Nigeria in the 80s. The title leads one to expect a story linked to the expulsion of migrants from Nigeria in 1983; this was, however, not in any way related to the plot. Instead, Ghana Must Go tells a story about a family struggling to operate as one and stay together in the face of adversity.

Though the author, Taiye Selasi, uses poetic-prose that is beautifully arresting in parts and original, it often served more as a hurdle rather than a driver of the story; making the first few pages a drag. One sometimes gets distracted by convoluted descriptions and sentences like:

...dewdrops on grass blades like diamonds flung freely from the pouch of some spirit-god who’d just happened by...

Now the whole garden glittering, winking and tittering like schoolgirls who hust themselves, blushing, as their beloveds approach.

 

The Ephemerality Of Home

The concept of home is prevalent throughout Ghana Must Go. Ghanaian doctor Kweku and his Nigerian wife Folasade (Fola), both leave their home countries to study in America, where they meet, fall in love and marry. Kweku and Sade strive to build a home for their four children - Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie - in Massachusetts.

They settle in a “perfectly lovely…red brick” colonial that Taiwo finds lacking compared to the other massive houses on their street. This is a metaphor for the plight of many an immigrant in reality – although the life you craft may be perfectly lovely, it could still fall short when compared to those of indigenes, yet that does not abate the desire to keep trying.

When Kweku deserts his family, and moves back to Ghana to build a new home, the one he had created with Fola falls apart, leaving her and their children devoid of a safe-haven when things get tough. This is evidenced later in the book when Taiwo hears the news of her father’s death while in a taxi “and is thinking to ask [the driver] to drive and keep driving, to wherever, not here, not this house-not-a-home, but to where?”

For many, home has always been where their family is, but when families fracture, it is interesting to consider what becomes of said space. In her TED talk, Selasi speaks for people who do not have a singular concept of home. For the people “who feel at home in the town where they grew up, the city they live now and maybe another place or two." For those whose daily experiences and rituals shape their locality and home.

In Ghana Must Go, Selasi gives the reader insight into the transience of the concept of home through the Sai family. Even when Kweku builds his dream house, the picture is not complete because of the lack of family. Rather tragically for the Sais, it takes his passing and their return ‘home’ to Ghana for his funeral, to unite them after years of partial estrangement.

 

The Consequence Of Shame

When Kweku is dismissed from his job and overcome with embarrassment, he leaves “the life of the man he wishes, to be who he has left to become”. In doing so, he becomes the architect of his family’s misfortunes and the humiliation visits them all in some way, shape or form. The use of Kweku as a scapegoat, after the death of a wealthy patient, could be said to be responsible for what happened to the Sais. Ultimately, he had a choice, and instead of sharing his burden with his family, or at the very least his wife Fola, Kweku chose to leave.

“His children used to… intentionally…test him, to weigh the devotion of his profession against his devotion to them.” When Kweku lost his job, it appears as though he lost his devotion to them. However, Selasi does write that “...his devotion to his profession kept a roof over their heads. It wasn’t comparative, a contest, either/or, job versus family… The hours he worked were an expression of his affection.”

While Selasi’s characters are (mostly) believable, she fell short of fully realising some of their potential. For example, after Kweku leaves, Fola is unable to cope with the financial burden. She is too proud to ask a prep school for scholarships for the gifted twins Taiwo and Kehinde, but not too proud to ask an estranged brother for help. While it is understandable that people reach out to family during emergencies, Fola’s actions, in this instance, were a stretch.

The results of humiliation manifest differently in the twins, yet both of them succeed in managing their shared shame, - the cause of which is the most harrowing part of the book - enough to become well-regarded in their fields. Having said that, all the Sai children are not able to fully integrate in the world and sustain relationships in the way average people do.

Sadie, the baby of the family, who always feels as though she is falling short of her exceptional siblings, develops an eating disorder. She seeks solace by periodically immersing herself in a more (seemingly) functional family that is not her own. When thinking of Sadie, the phrase, “trauma is contagious”, springs to mind. She knew Kweku the least and has no real memories of him but is deeply affected by his absence. Despite getting the affection Taiwo believes their mother withheld, Sadie feels like she is dwelling in the shadow of her siblings – given how academically, creatively or aesthetically stunning they all are.

Although there was little room for in depth exploration, given the overwhelming characters, it would have been interesting to see Sadie’s eating disorder further explored. Sadie’s desire to change physically seemed like an attempt to renounce her heritage in order to be more like her best friend's family, deep rooted and weighted in history. This starkly contrasts with her family: “It is that they are weightless, the Sais, scattered fivesome, a family without gravity, completely unbound”. The hint at Sadie’s ambiguous sexual orientation was also glazed over.

 

Life Is A Losing Game

According to Kweku, “frustration is self-pity by another name”. Ghana Must Go is beset with frustration and, more notably, loss. Whether it is the loss of youth, as evidenced by Fola and Kweku’s decision to have their son Olu and become a family. There is also the loss of a dream, as demonstrated by Fola giving up her growing legal career to support Kweku’s ambitions of becoming a surgeon – and a top one at that.

It was frustrating to read Kweku tell Fola that one dream was enough for both of them. One would have hoped she would challenge him, to fight for her right to be a woman who ‘had it all’ – a thriving career and a family. Instead, Selasi chooses to highlight what is sadly still a reality for many women – such regressive rhetoric – particularly in Africa. It brought to mind what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her TedX talk, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”

Taiwo’s aspirations, very much like her mother, are eventually derailed by a man. Her losses are grave – loss of a father, her innocence, her best friend, and perhaps a promising career she had worked so hard to build. Selasi leaves Taiwo’s future career prospects fairly open so all is not lost. Her twin, Kehinde, almost loses something far more irreplaceable but is saved by his assistant.

It is as though Olu, the eldest of the Sais, loses his capacity to feel when Kweku leaves. Everything in his life becomes clinical and practical. Even his long-standing relationship with his wife comes across as being devoid of passion and merely functional – save for their lusty moment in Ghana. I personally found Olu the least interesting of Selasi’s characters, yet well drawn in the sense that it is perfectly plausible for someone to turn out the way he does, given what his family goes through.

Overall, Ghana Must Go is a sound debut for Taiye Selasi. The movement between space and time was both ingenious and confusing at points but told well enough for one to invest in the characters and appreciate the story. Selasi has an innate ability to bring subtle observations or character traits to life but this beautiful gift can also hinder the narrative.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi outdid all my expectations of a novel. Through the distilled and poignant stories of 9 families across 9 generations, it charts the course of history from 18th Century Ghana to present-day USA in two branches, rooted in Maame, and belonging to half sisters Effia Otcher and Esi Asare. Effia’s branch goes through the estate of the Cape Coast Castle to the years of Transatlantic Slave trade, the Asante-Fante and the Anglo-Asante wars, the introduction of Christianity to West Africa by the British, British colonisation, and African migration to the US in the late 20th century.

Esi’s branch of the story goes from the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle to the plantations of the South, the American Civil War, the Great Migration, the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama; to the jazz clubs and dope houses of late 20th century Harlem. A concise family tree is included at the beginning of the novel which makes it easy to follow this saga.

Storytelling As Travel

One of the fears with which I approached the novel was the fear that the storyteller would erase the agency of her characters and would, instead, impose her assumptions on the characters. When I approach such stories, I always wonder: “How do you know though? Are you just here to tell us what they looked like to you, as opposed to what they actually were, particularly to themselves?”.

It is a version of the mistrust that Willie, an African American cleaner working at a white men’s club in the novel, felt when she saw what was meant to be portrayal of the South, and could tell that none of the white men had ever stepped a foot in the South. However, in the case of Homegoing, the characters were so generously clothed in dignity that it made it hard for me, at any point, to doubt the integrity of Gyasi’s storytelling.

There were parts of the book that felt so real due to the depth and comprehensiveness of the storytelling. The narrator’s assertiveness made me wonder how the author could possibly have known the particulars of 15-year-old Fante women’s sexual desires in 1862. Are these facts archived or is she so in tune with her craft that her imagination could brilliantly break through centuries that existed before her?

I found myself in instances where I lived with and beside the characters in a way that felt so natural and showed me that one does not have to experience a certain thing to feel it: that good storytelling is effectively travel. This book, unlike most other books I have read, allowed me to connect with the pre-colonial African as human, and not an Other. The historical insight from it was deeply grounding as it echoed that famous quote by Terence: “I am human, nothing human is alien to me” - be it kindness, brutishness, genius or hubris.

Freedom, Bondage; Repeat

This multifaceted business of living and being as a human was explored in various ways with each story in the novel. On their own, each of them stands as a complete short story on blackness and relationships on all levels of human interaction. Collectively, they form a cohesive body of work that explore the cycles of freedom and bondage in both blackness and relationships simultaneously.

They explored a cocktail of issues on mental health (Akua), racism (Marjorie and Marcus), religion (Willie, Akua), homosexuality (Quey), migration and immigration (all characters, Yaw and Marjorie especially), colonialism and post-colonialism (all characters after Abena), - and my favourites to follow - beauty and the Other (both explored intricately in all the stories). For the first time ever, I encountered pre-colonial black West African girls that I could admire, respect and even envy.

It was not an envy born of a romantic view of their lives but from the realisation that this was an entire world with its own ideologies and culture that I have - until now - had no access to. I also loved following how different groups in different societies have othered each other, and used this othering as justification for dehumanising treatment.

This calls to home how easy it has always been for people to legitimise discrimination and oppression on grounds of race, wealth, gender, religion and nationality. Particularly in countries like Nigeria that have very little regard for its citizens - especially its poorer, female, non-heterosexual and uneducated citizens - the novel illustrates how systems of violence reproduce a culture of violence across generations, and continue to affect us individually and communally.

Slavery As Collective Responsibility

While my favourite themes in the novel were beauty and the Other, I found the exploration of mental illnesses and their intersection with colonialism and Christianity the most fascinating. Drawing from conversations recently had, most readers attest that the story of Akua, which encompasses these themes, is one that leaves the reader most entangled. I cried, cursed and screamed while reading her story in a coffee shop!

The lines come back to me: “She used to tell him that the more she learned about God from the missionary, the more questions she had.” It seems like an innocuous and even encouraging comment until we see what these questions did to Akua, and how the biblical metaphor of putting new wine in old wineskin came alive in West Africa’s colonial history.

In its political and intellectual endeavours, I found Homegoing to be ambitious, nuanced and deeply insightful. One of the characters remarked “Everyone was responsible. We all were, we all are…” and this summarises how the novel does not excuse the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. It also speaks to the collective responsibility I believe we always owe to humanity, and to the earth.

This duty we owe to our community and culture (used here to mean the product of all our social and artistic efforts) was exemplified when a character cried that “war was what they knew but if a white man took the Golden Stool, the spirit of the Asante would surely die, and that, they could not bear.” Reading that sentence in context opened my eyes even more to just how monumental and deeply violent diminishing of a people’s culture must have felt for those who experienced slavery and colonisation.

It is things like this that the book does to you the whole time you are reading it. It shows you how significant - and significantly connected - a lot of themes and events are, especially in the modern history of black people. By situating the novel around the transatlantic slavery, Gyasi showed how consequential slave trade has been in the lives of black people in the Americas and on the continent.

History: Dead Or Alive?

Telling the stories from the two branches alternately was very useful in contrasting the aftermath of that monumental period between West Africa and the diaspora. The most striking contrast was how significant slavery was to the African American while for the African there was a wide gap of ignorance. This gap is still seen today in how the common narrative of slavery absolves black people and denies their agency, if at all the History is even taught.

While she was at Daunt Books during her UK book tour in January 2017, Yaa Gyasi talked about how the novel was as much a learning process for her as it was for her mother who had grown up in Ghana. Today, for a young Nigerian like me with ties abroad (be it where I am schooling or what other passports I have), it appears that across the Atlantic, pandora’s box was just let open.

In the West (particularly the USA), it looks like a rise of ‘alternative facts’, fascism and political hyper-polarisation. In Nigeria, it looks like a bad recession and a series of unreliable leaders. On either side, the narratives appear grim and because there is only so much of our history and humanity we see regularly, it feels like it has never been grimmer. Homegoing reminded me that the world has been depressing all this while and I am just a little more woke.

It was a subtle reminder that amid the chaos of living, love (in its many forms) can and has always been found to help us deal with these harsh realities of life. That love is, in fact, the node from which all growth stems from. I mean, why else would the narrator choose to anchor this saga on the definitive points in generations where love gave birth to something new? Incidentally, the novel’s handling of romantic love was my least favourite part.

LIVING LESSON

Though some of the romantic relationships rang true (like Crazy Woman and Unlucky, H and Ethe), I found myself doubting the authenticity of few others (like Willie and Robert, Quey and Nana Yaa). This was mostly due to the fact that the characters themselves were not given as much space and time as I would have liked. I like to think that in this miracle of a novel, some things had to be brushed over, and this collateral damage happened to be on the individual level.

I left with the same feeling which must have motivated Rilke to write his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ which he ended with “You must change your life.” You know, that baptism-like feeling you get when you have been ushered into a new world, illuminated, and you must do something, about something - about anything.

It is one of those novels from which you get more intelligent just by looking at the page. As a compilation of stories, Homegoing takes you through an experience of carrying a living lesson on the vastness of life, history and humanity. This book is so brilliant that I am positive it will take a canonical position in literary studies of black history, and studies of the development of black identity across continents.