FEBRUARY 14, 2019
“THE CAPTIVES TROOPED single file, and when Aminah looked back, the whole village was engulfed in flames. Above them, the sky was cool and blue and indifferent, the moon haloed by wisps of white cloud.”
This mini-apocalypse, which takes place in a West African village in the late 19th century, is the work of slave raiders, who figure prominently in Ayesha Harruna Attah’s layered and thought-provoking novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga (Other Press, originally published by Nigeria’s Cassava Republic Press). Aminah, all of 15 years old, numbers among their latest human haul.
What has just befallen Aminah is not a prelude to her getting shipped off to the Americas, mind you. For one thing, the transatlantic slave trade would have ended by this time. Moreover, as the story indicates here and there, Britain’s colonial project in Africa now includes efforts to stamp out a local practice it had previously helped to internationalize. At any rate, in foisting slavery on Aminah about a quarter of the way through the novel, author Attah not only injects some action into the hitherto lackluster proceedings, but also sets the stage for the all-important confluence of her two protagonists’ trajectories.
After changing hands a couple of times, Aminah ends up in Salaga, where she is bought by Wurche, the headstrong daughter of a tribal chief and the other character around whom this story revolves. (In alternating chapters, a third-person narrator charts the lives of Aminah and Wurche both before and after they intertwine.) Again, Attah takes too long to engineer this development; by the time Wurche lays eyes on the captive Aminah, approximately two-thirds of the novel is behind us. Yet, as we shall see, the pairing of Aminah and Wurche, though both belated and never fully exploited, allows for the clearest expression of The Hundred Wells of Salaga’s leitmotif.
Salaga, incidentally, is a real-life town in modern-day Ghana (Attah was raised in Ghana and now lives in Senegal), one with a decidedly checkered history. Salaga’s importance in the period during which the story takes place derives in large part from its role in the slave trade. And those wells of the title? “They were built to wash slaves after long journeys,” explains Wurche to Aminah.
Before Aminah is bought by Wurche in Salaga, she and other captive women are made to wash themselves at a pond (not a well, as it happens). A naked Aminah is then dragged to the infamous market. She begs for the chance to clothe herself. Nothing doing — her owner, a veteran slave trader, apparently wants to display his human property in full. With an eye on the ironic, Attah creates a situation in which the humiliated Aminah has reason to feel relief immediately following her sale; one of the first things Wurche does is to buy her new charge a smock.
Of course, the more significant achievement in having Aminah come into Wurche’s possession is that, as mentioned, Attah merges their story lines. Somewhat frustratingly, the narration retains the same format, which at times leadens the pace — instead of inhabiting Aminah’s mind one chapter and Wurche’s the next, the narrator might have flitted back and forth between them, thereby ramping up the tension. But at least the two women are finally thrust together. When master and slave are attracted to the same man, Moro, and he seems to gravitate to the slave despite his recent affair with her master, almost any action on the part of either woman will affect the other.
Attah fails to generate the expected high drama from this turn of events. Wurche, trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man from a powerful neighboring tribe (she consents to the union in order to cement the alliance between her people and his, which in turn will further her father’s political ambitions vis-à-vis his rivals), continues to treat Aminah with decency, and no real rivalry develops between the two. Wisely, however, the author begins to pare down her story, made unwieldy by Wurche’s involvement in the complicated political intrigues of her father’s tribal clan, to its main theme: such is the roiling complexity of human nature that a man can be at once good and evil — and a softie on the lookout for love, to boot.
Moro, you see, is a professional slave raider; at the behest of his tribal chief, he and his brigands go around turning human beings into chattel. True, he didn’t enslave Aminah — but his kind did, and she won’t forget it. (Ironically, Moro himself is a descendant of slaves, and served as a lowly retainer for his chief before attaining a higher status.) Yet he seems to have misgivings about his work, remains upright in his personal dealings, and yearns for female companionship. This is the sort of thing that bedevils psychologists while furnishing fiction writers with the raw material needed to create many-sided and conflicted characters. Attah goes some way toward doing as much with Moro. However, her real interest lies in steering the whole issue of the coexistence of good and evil into Wurche and Aminah’s lives — a maneuver she pulls off with aplomb.
As a woman who owns a female slave on one hand and is angling for an unprecedented leadership role in her patriarchy-based tribe on the other, Wurche herself embodies a contradiction. Yet Attah has more in store for her. Wurche moves on from Moro and embarks on an affair with Helmut, a German military officer. Soon, she must grapple with the realization that, even as Helmut genuinely cares for her and the welfare of her people, he helps facilitate a colonial enterprise for which such matters are important only insofar as they advance or hinder larger political ventures.
Then there’s Moro, in whom a similar dissonance proves yet more pronounced, and the effect this has on Aminah. She asks herself: “If he was as kind as he seemed to be — constantly offering to help — why did he raid villages, split up families, sell people?” This is as likely to stump the reader as it is Aminah. And while the question may remain unanswered, the author deftly harnesses its power. Through Aminah’s affection for Moro, which deepens despite her keen awareness that “men like [him] had broken up her family, had broken her,” Attah gives both shape and immediacy to an insoluble riddle of the human condition.