“My work is really to find out who we are as Africans and to use that to reconstruct our identities and to help us solve the many, many problems that plague us,” says Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah, as we speak about her third novel, The Hundred Wells of Salaga.
The theme of history is a rich thread through all of her work, with her debut novel, Harmattan Rain, following the lives of three generations of women in a family across 50 years of Ghanaian history, and her second novel, Saturday’s Shadows, set in a fictional African country as it transitions from military dictatorship to civilian rule.
“I think my interests as a writer are in finding out more about who we are as Africans because we’ve suffered erasure, we’ve suffered from pockets [of time] where we were told we were less than human and we’ve sort of swallowed that too. We lost a large chunk of ourselves and I want to find out what those things were and some of those answers lie in the way that we live today because who we are just doesn’t disappear. Yes, we were colonised, we were made to adopt other people’s ways of dress, food and thinking, but there are still things that anchor us, there are still things that didn’t go away. So writing in contemporary times helps me unearth those things, and doing the work of history is to try and find out what was strongest and what seeped through the ages.”
The Hundred Wells of Salaga definitely does the work of history, weaving an engaging narrative around the lives of two very different women living in pre-colonial Ghana. Aminah is a young teenager living a very simple life in her home village of Botu, before she is dragged from her family and forced on a brutal journey into very different circumstances. Wurche is the stubborn daughter of a chief with political ambitions and a rebellious streak who finds her own world threatened by infighting amongst her people and the looming ‘scramble for Africa’. The lives of these two women unexpectedly collide during the height of the West African slave trade, as the reader is taken through a quiet but remarkable story touching on themes of power, love, courage, freedom and morality.
I’m sure I’m not the only person guilty of having a pretty simplistic and idealistic view of pre-colonial Africa. In my mind I’ve always pictured a peaceful and prosperous society, untouched by the evils that came with “the white man”. The Hundred Wells of Salaga delicately complicates that, revealing the tangled threads of history which are much harder to distinguish in the black-and-white terms of good versus bad. In the book the reader encounters ruthless African enslavers, societies that made their wealth off of the slave trade, and different indigenous groups vying for power and influence, using European weapons and armies to further their own imperial aims.
“We like to think about things that way,” Ayesha responds when I confess my tendency to blame colonisation for all ills, “because it’s easier to swallow, but the reality is a lot different and until we acknowledge that we keep lying to ourselves and then when things like Boko Haram happen, we’re like ‘Oh, how does that happen?!’ – but it’s the same thing.”
The inspiration to write her third novel came when Ayesha discovered that one of her own ancestors was enslaved in Salaga.
“Her voice was so loud in my head I knew it was a project I had to work on,” she explains. “I did some calculating and figured out that she was alive probably in the 1890s, which was a rich time in pre-colonial Ghana’s history. Then it forced me to do some more research and then I realised that the scramble for Africa was playing out live in this place. In other parts of Africa you realised that you were suddenly under French or English dominion, but [in Salaga] there were actually Europeans coming and bringing their flags and saying, ‘Accept our treaties of friendship,’ and before you knew it you were colonised. I read a lot and I went out to Salaga as well, so there was field research involved, and there was also my imagination as well.”
Nobody wanted to talk about slavery in the personal because it would force one to think of how was she enslaved here, who did it? And it was us.
Ayesha describes her visit to Salaga as both nostalgic and harrowing. Knowing that a woman related to her was forced to sit in the hot sun for hours on end, shackled and deprived of food and water, yet surviving and persevering through that experience was one thing, but the acknowledging the sheer number of enslaved people who passed through Salaga was something else.
“There was a site where you could see little troughs in the soil where they dug holes and put the slaves to be washed. The wells where the water [for washing the slaves] was taken from still exist, and there was a huge cemetery but the only thing you could see was the big baobab tree growing out of the soil as they were obviously unmarked graves. So it was harrowing, it wasn’t an easy trip to make, and then nobody would really talk to me about the ancestor. They talked about slavery as a concept, but when I wanted the personal story, I faced roadblocks. Nobody wanted to talk about slavery in the personal because it would force one to think of how was she enslaved here, who did it? And it was us. We were raiding other villages and when I say ‘we’, I feel complicit because obviously my ancestor was enslaved, but the man she ended up marrying had enslaved her in a way. That trips me up all the time.”
One of the things that challenged me personally reading The Hundred Wells of Salaga, was how easy it is to pass judgement on history with the benefit of hindsight. What seems so obvious with the distance of a century, turns out to be incredibly nuanced and complex on closer reading, and the novel provides an opportunity for this type of reflection with Ayesha’s masterful crafting of the narrative.
Ayesha explains her approach further: “When I was writing I wanted people to feel what it would be like; I wanted people to be immersed in it; I wanted it to be a close third person narrative. The goal was for it to be experiential – for people to be in the skins of these people and experience things. I think in my life, most things come to me; when things happen it’s usually not on a grand scale, it happens quietly and I wanted the book to read that way. I know life can be dramatic, but I think most of the time things happen and you don’t even realise what’s going on. It’s with hindsight that you say, ‘Oh, that’s what that was.’”
Doing the research that would enable such a rich and textured depiction of the life of women in 19th Century West Africa was quite a task. While seminal literary texts associated with the time period often centre male narratives, much of the historical material available does similar. But Ayesha sees this as another opportunity for the writer to do the work of history, finding the female narratives hidden in the male-dominated texts and using research and imagination to fill in the gaps. This is another thing that sets The Hundred Wells of Salaga apart, and Ayesha sees this as going back to customs that came before colonisation, and even pre-Islam that was in the some places before that: the centering of the woman in the life of the family and the community.
Seeing as it’s obvious that as humans we have a hard time learning from our collective history, I asked Ayesha if there was anything that she came across in her research that held particular resonance for the time that we’re currently living through. “Yes, there’s a big one right now – the idea of immigration,” she answers.
“When I say immigration most people think of people moving from countries in Africa to the West, but also within the Continent right now there’s a huge fear of the stranger outside of and also within Africa. As I did my research I realised that that was one of the things that was brought in with European colonisation. Before that the stranger was accepted and a lot of our cities and towns started out because somebody moved from another part of the Continent, settled in one place and then relatives would start moving in, then another person would come and they’d settle right next to each other and slowly, slowly towns grew and there wasn’t that fear. There’s a lot of xenophobia that exists within African countries today and there are words used for strangers that are all pejorative and they all make the stranger seem like someone who has to be feared, who has to be pushed out and who is not welcome, but that wasn’t the case in pre-colonial Africa.”
There is often the rallying cry for us to unearth our history as black people. There is a lot that has been said about how Western countries cover up their historical sins and paint one dimensional portraits of themselves as conquering, benevolent world powers, but in a knee-jerk response to such ahistorical narratives, could we as modern day people of African descent be guilty of not owning the totality of our own complex and contradictory histories?
We were taught we had these kingdoms before European contact and we were kings and queens and there is a lot of that narrative now which disturbs me, because if we were all kings and queens, who was serving?
Ayesha grew up in Ghana and says that none of what she learned during her research for the novel ever cropped up in her history lessons. Instead she was taught about African powers, like the majesty of the Mali and Ghana empires. “[We were taught] we had these kingdoms before European contact”, she explains, “and we were kings and queens and there is a lot of that narrative now which disturbs me, because if we were all kings and queens, who was serving?”
The Hundred Wells of Salaga begins to answer this question of who was serving, but no doubt there is much more to uncovered. “For those of us in education [how we research and dig up this information] is key because it is not taught in schools – not in the Continent, not outside. Those of us who are filmmakers can get this in visual form because I think that’s a way of reaching a lot more people. We can keep asking questions. My mum is Ashanti and the Ashanti were huge slave owners and I’m sure if I go back a few generations they’ll have some stories for me, so we can start asking the elders to open up. It’s going to be a hard thing because it’s a thing nobody likes talking about, but there are ways of getting information out of people.”
For anyone wanting to begin a deep dive into this topic, Ayesha recommends reading Salaga: The Struggle for Power and a collection of letters between missionaries, their governments and the organisations that they worked for called The Salaga Papers. And of course, there is The Hundred Wells of Salaga, a book that is beautifully intimate, yet illuminating and ambitious in its scope: it’s the uncomfortable history lesson that you will want to read over and over again.