Pre-warning: this review has spoilers.
This summer I wanted read more stories written by West African authors about the culture and everyday lives of individuals before and during the trans-atlantic slave-trade. I have in the past read the household authors, Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Chinua Achebe who deal with themes very much in line with this book, set only in different sub-contexts. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed both authors’ works I wanted something more, something different, and to be quite frank, something that wasn’t for once written by a Nigerian author. As the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and so I actually only ended up reading one of the intended books: The Hundred Wells of Salaga. I stumbled across Attah’s work by chance when looking for recommendations on goodreads and all I can say is, thank goodness I did.
Set in what is still quite an obscure part of African history (I say obscure because it is only in the last 60 years really that we have been graced with alternative, non-white accounts of the trans-atlantic slave trade), the novel takes place right before the war in Salaga in 1892, focusing on its downfall and its destruction, caused as much by internal tribalism as by the jostling for power by the British, French, and Germans. In theory, the narrative takes place at a time in which both internal and transatlantic slavery is– or almost is– abolished, nevertheless through the characters’ experiences we are made privy to the parasitic nature of slavery in the region: it has become a proliferate and deep-rooted institutional business.
The novel is disclosed from the alternating viewpoints of Aminah and Wurche, our two female protagonists who share the same space of existence yet live in parallel worlds. Wurche is a princess of the royal blood of Gonja, whilst Aminah, who is captured as a slave, is the eldest daughter of a shoe-trader. Though their lots in life places them in different starting points, it becomes evident as the novel progresses that their experiences and paths will be heavily shaped by the dictation of men and the expectations of their roles as women. It comes as no surprise then that the novel plants the seeds for dialogue on women’s role in society, relationships, female desires and personal hardship within a period characterised by greater persecution. Although Wurche and Aminah’s paths only intersect in the latter part of the book, there is a pervading sense throughout the earlier parts of the novel that these women’s paths are drawing ever closer together.
Despite the brevity of the novel (236 pages), it does not falter in creating and sustaining an ongoing discourse about the conditions of women and the effects of slavery and tribalism on the characters’ everyday lives. Already within the first pages the still very relevant topic of colourism is introduced: ‘Na said that because Issa-Na’s skin was lighter than theirs, she generally got her way. Na said a long time ago something had poisoned people into thinking the lighter you were, the better you were (p11).‘ What I particularly liked about the societal topics that crop up in the novel is that they are presented in quite a neutral, matter-of-fact way. Attah rarely takes a strong stand point, neither through her characters nor in her authority as the author, but rather allows issues which are in their very nature multifold and delicate to be laid out for the reader to observe and to make their own judgements, if they wish. The only exception to this (that I can recall) is when Wurche is deliberating the abolishment of slavery with native-German solider Helmut and arriving a point of complete irreconcilability, Wurche responds the following to Helmut’s remarks about a ‘friendship’ based on exchange: ‘an exchange, I could handle. But what bothers me is you telling us how to live. I’ll give you an example. Before your people arrived, slaves were people caught in war or people whose families couldn’t take care of them. A lot of them married into even royal families. After you came, it became a business. Kidnapping, raiding. Those things were started to meet your needs. Now, all we hear is how you Europeans want slavery to end. In other words, you’re calling us the bad ones’ (p204-5).
Attah equally crafts vibrant and detailed scenic descriptions, conveying through an economy of words the colourful explosion of flavours, smells and taste that are enough to transport any West African reader back to the familiar settings: ‘the oil [shea butter] bubbled and spurted and cast its nuttiness into the air’ (p10). She places such a substantial emphasis on the senses that we too are sucked into the ‘collective noses’ (p.30) of her characters, the sometimes harsh, sometimes melodious sounds of mingling unaccustomed tongues (Hausa, Gurma, Twi), and the juxtaposing textures of silks and wax.
The novel indulges us as much on an undulating cultural, sensory journey as it does invite us to participate in an inconclusive conversation, it does however end on one clear and powerful note: Wurche’s acknowledgement and admonishment for the years of tribalism that has led to the division of brothers: ‘The infighting among our people, this struggle between us and the Europeans. It’s all about finding power, exercising power, holding on to it at all costs. The Europeans are a force bigger than our tiny lines. The only way we will mean anything is if we unite. I’ve been preaching unity for a long time, but I haven’t tried to work with anyone. I’m ready to start talking to the women of Salaga. We’ll rebuild together. Tell the elders. They’ll listen to you. Enough people have died. It’s time to work together’ (p227-8).
This book relives the difficult (and ongoing) history of slavery in a way that is raw and often heartbreaking, however the specks of hopes that never leaves our characters reminds us that although we can never disregard a history which many continue to carry inside of them, even in the hardest of times we have the strength to go on, and so we must:
‘They walked to the market. Laughter, loud conversations, drumbeats, dogs barking, singing, butchers hacking at meat, bells ringing. Everywhere Wurche turned, there was a flurry of activity. It amazed her how resilient human beings were. Things were broken, but life went on’ (p148).