Many novels have focused on the transatlantic slave trade, but few have tackled the issue of internal slavery within Africa. The Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah decided to confront this head-on after learning that her great-great-grandmother had wound up in the slave market in Salaga, a key hub for buyers and a last port-of-call for slaves bound for the coast and export abroad.
Attah sets her third novel, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, in pre-colonial, late 19th-century Ghana, and introduces two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum. In alternating chapters, she describes the shifting fortunes of each woman, one wielding power and influence, the other buffeted by brutal forces beyond her control. We follow their separate journeys and individual ordeals, waiting to see how and when their lives intersect. Will their paths converge or will their worlds collide?
The book opens with Aminah, who lives with her family in the village of Botu. She is different from her friends, harbouring dreams of making shoes and travelling far to selling them like her father, rather than becoming another wife to the village leader and working the land. But a worse fate presents itself through dark rumours: horsemen who steal people are in the area and are closing in.
Attah leaves us with this ominous fear and cuts to Wurche, a Gonja princess of the twin kingdoms of Salaga-Kpembe. She is as independent-minded as Aminah (her body, according to her grandmother, is “filled with a man’s spirit”) and would prefer to lead her people than settle down as a dutiful wife. If the threat of marauding horsemen cloud Aminah’s horizon then Wurche’s immediate future is darkened by the prospect of war and a husband.
Disaster strikes for both women when grim forecasts come true. Before Aminah can be married off to her stepmother’s uncle, slave raiders torch her village and take everyone captive. So begins a gruelling overland trek punctuated with violence and sorrow. Instead of being sent west to that “big water” or “infinite lake”, Aminah is sold to a farmer and turned into his workhorse and his plaything.
Meanwhile, Wurche finds solace away from her odious husband, both in the classroom teaching women and in the arms of a slave raider called Moro. She gives birth to a baby boy, and when she finds Aminah for sale in Salaga, Wurche buys her and appoints her nurse. A new chapter beckons for both women, one marked with relative calm and that rarest of things: hope. But matters are soon complicated by Wurche’s growing interest in a German man and Moro’s feelings for Aminah.
This is a busy novel that is propelled not so much by a streamlined plot but a series of disorderly events – violent ruptures and emotional upheavals. And yet the book is all the better for that. From the queasy dread at the prospect of advancing horsemen in that enticing opening chapter to the riotous passions, jealousies and ultimate cathartic release from the closing pages, this is fiction fuelled by chaos, in thrall to mayhem, and packed with messy, dirty, gritty acts and consequences.
Wurche endures a bumpy ride, being trapped in a loveless marriage and rocked by regional infighting. “It’s all about control,” her father tells her while explaining the tension between local factions and European imperialists. “Whoever has control of Salaga is most powerful.”
Of course, Aminah suffers more, and the novel is at its most hard-hitting when focusing upon her and all that she withstands – in particular, the separation from her family and the cruelty inflicted by those who “own” her.
And then there are her discoveries: Aminah learns that some girls have been sold by their own fathers to pay off debts; or that her sister was traded for bales of cloth, a bag of salt, farm tools and two chickens; or that those titular wells were built to wash slaves before their sale. Aminah’s strands make for the most painful reading but they are also far and away the most compelling.
There are occasional missteps in the form of anachronisms (“morphed” jars in this historical novel) and over-egged descriptions (“grass beeped and bubbled and chirped and croaked”). But these faults are eclipsed by the novel’s many considerable strengths.
Salaga comes vividly alive as both a seething melting pot and a place where destinies are dictated. Attah’s characters are fascinating because they are morally complex, which results in ambiguous motives and few cut-and-dried answers. Two captivating women steer the whole proceedings, and when they talk or speak out they demand to be heard.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga is about the manipulation of power and the cost of freedom. It might be a tough story to read, but it is brilliantly and movingly told.