An Uncomfortable Truth: Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga

Two women’s struggle for agency in precolonial Ghana

The Gurma word “licabili” “was the belief that whatever path you took in life, it would take you where it was supposed to take you.” Aminah and Wurche are from very different social backgrounds – the former a slave, the latter a royal princess – but both face challenges to find their path through life and their agency as women. The Hundred Wells of Salaga (Other, 2019) by Ayesha Harruna Attah is a highly evocative novel set during the period immediately before and during the war in Salaga in 1892 and its subjugation to the German forces in 1897. It was a time that saw civil war between the three royal families of Salaga, a notorious slave-trading centre in Ghana, but also the growing influence of the British, French, and Germans colonisers, particularly after the British defeated the Asante and exiled the Asantehene in 1896.

Attah was inspired to write the story when her father mentioned that “his grandmother’s mother was called the slave. He only knew that she could have come from the region of Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger, and that she was beautiful. Writing this book was a chance for her to finally speak through me.” The internal slave trade of Salaga is well documented, but it is “an aspect of African history that I think is not talked about enough. Even as a child in school in Ghana, I learned mostly about transatlantic slavery, less so about trans-Saharan slavery, but not a word on internal slavery.” Attah writes: “I first visited Salaga in 2012. A late uncle of mine guided me through its slave market, now turned into a lorry station; we visited its ponds where slaves were washed before they were sent to be auctioned off in the market.” Internal slavery had begun “centuries before the first Europeans set foot on African shores and continues today.” By the late 1880s, “slavery – both internal and transatlantic – had been legally abolished; however, as the book shows, it was still a thriving business. In my research, I kept coming across the word ‘benign’ used with respect to slavery in Africa.” Yet, Aminah’s family and her home village are destroyed by slavery, and although Wurche is troubled by the concept of owning another human being, other reasons prompt her to buy Aminah in the market at Salaga. The relationship between the two women is complex and multifaceted, an exploration of bondage, their roles in the societies they live in, physical attraction and forgiveness.

One of the many things that makes this book fascinating for readers is the variety of languages and cultures. Salaga was multilingual and multicultural. “Everybody else was welcome to stay in Salaga. But to Wurche, Salaga was like the soups her grandmother often cooked, bubbling with meat and fish of all types. It was home to Mossis, Yorubas, Hausas, Dioulas, Dagombas.” Hausa was the lingua franca, the language of the caravans that wound their way across the desert. Aminah speaks Gurma but also learns a little Twi, the language of the Asante, from her first captor, Wofa Sarpong; Wurche is Gonja. The challenge of recreating these linguistic rhythms in English is one that Attah succeeds in accomplishing, while, she says, “trying not to sound like a textbook.”

Sounds are accompanied by tastes and smells, and the range of foods described in the novel is another highlight. Being from diverse backgrounds, Wurche and Aminah are accustomed to very different foods. Aminah and her sisters prepare tuo, a porridge made from millet and sour cow’s milk, occasionally sweetened with honey, which they sell to the caravan traders: “The family secret was to sprinkle rice flour into the millet paste.” This is better than the green plantain tuo Aminah has to eat with Wofa Sarpong. Local spices also feature, like dawadawa or locust bean, and salt is a precious commodity, used to pay for slaves and even gifted to the chiefs by the British, together with guns and alcohol. Attah says that “A lot of the meals and snacks mentioned in traveller’s accounts of Salaga were names or descriptions I’d encountered visiting my grandmother in the north of Ghana, and in Senegal, where I currently live. It was a refreshing find, because unlike African religions and other ways of living, these foods seemed to have survived the colonial treatment.”

Nature is also central to the book and the different habitats are evocatively described: the “towering Asante forests” around Wofa Sarpong’s house, the plains of Salaga, and the terrifying rivers the slaves are forced to cross, which also act as trade routes to the coast. The shea trees, the baobabs and the inherited knowledge of many other plants and herbs, also for medicinal purposes, add fascinating detail to this rich picture of the West African landscape.

Asked about other writers, Attah told me that one of her “biggest influences for writing historical fiction was my professor, E. L. Doctorow. Ragtime [1975] was inventive and showed just the breadth of what could be done with historical material. I also loved the way he brought disparate worlds into a credible whole.” She has certainly “caught the historical fiction bug” and admits that she is especially drawn to Mali, not to focus on the Mali emperors, “but instead on the everyday people. What did a 20-year-old woman in the Mali Empire dream about?” There are other projects in the pipeline too, including a book on the fascinating kola nut. “As I was writing The Hundred Wells of Salaga, the kola nut kept coming up. I’d always known it simply as a small bitter nut. Turns out it was the Cola in Coca Cola!” Kola was a valuable trading commodity, as well as being symbolic and used in rituals all over West Africa. In this novel, Ayesha Harruna Attah has achieved the writer’s goal of melding research and narrative into a compelling and credible whole that will introduce many readers to an unfamiliar world, but also to an uncomfortable truth: slavery was, and is, never “benign.”

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is HNR Features Editor. She teaches history and translation at the University of Edinburgh.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 87 (February 2019)

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