The first thing that struck me about this novel was the beautiful storytelling. The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a beguiling tale of two very different women whose destinies become entwined in late nineteenth century Ghana. Some passages of the novel have the feel of stories handed down through the generations, or told by a storyteller thrilling and delighting an audience around a camp fire. This is a novel rooted deeply in the traditions and culture of the region but the story has very modern sensibilities. Attah’s style is very natural, straightforward, in different hands this would be a longer more complex novel, but this laconic tale speaks to the experience of Aminah and Wurche perfectly. The Hundred Wells of Salaga widened my appreciation of the importance of verbal history too, full of truth, nuance and subtlety.
Avoiding the temptation to describe the period in which this story is set as pre-colonial, defining it by what is to come and not what is, would diminish it’s richness and variety. The region, not a country but several kingdoms, has a history of warring, trading and co-existing, empires and cultures stretching back over the centuries (all long before it became the British Gold Coast, and finally regained its independence as Ghana in 1957). The history that brings us to the period of the novel, 1880/90s, is brutal and beautiful, vibrant and stagnant and every bit as complex as European and American history, Africans know this but maybe we still need to reminded in the west. In The Hundred Wells of Salaga, this history is ingrained in the story of Aminah and Wurche.
As the novel opens the Ashanti empire, which has dominated this region of West Africa, partly due to slavery and control of the Kola nut trade, has been pushed back by the Gonji people, with British help, this does not signal peace. The Gonji people cannot stand alone in the coming war, and must decide on their alliances if they are to survive. The Germans and the British are in the midst of a vicious land grab for the control of Africa.
Aminah is a beautiful young girl: “But you can’t eat beauty”. She has a romantic soul and dreams of following the caravansary one day, plying her father’s trade, shoemaking. Everyone is awaiting the Sokoto caravan, the largest, it arrives amid much excitement. The madugu, astride a giant horse and resplendent in his fine robes, towers over the gathering crowd, he is said to have twenty wives. Aminah wonders what it would be like to be the twenty-first. But then she is scolded by Issa-Na, her father’s wife, and remembers the bitterness of being a second wife. The talk is of horsemen, slavers, stealing away the people, wreaking havoc, razing villages – they slaughter everyone they do not take. Botu is vulnerable, it is a small place and there are only a few hundred people. Aminah’s inchoate sexuality leads her into a dangerous situation but she realises the intention of the traveller just in time. As the caravan moves on her father leaves for Salaga to sell his shoes; he never returns. The horsemen come, Aminah is taken, her life is now one of survival, terrible loss and hardship.
Wurche, is a royal Gonja Princess, the daughter of a minor king, she lives in the royal enclosure of Kpembe, part of Salaga. The city is cosmopolitan: Mossis, Yorubas, Hausas, Dioulas and Dagombas live and work together. There are also the slaves drawn from the interior, the wells are used to wash them before market. Wurche attends the races with her grandmother but would rather be at the emergency council with her father and brothers. She could lead a battalion into battle, she admires Queen Aminah of Zazzau, who killed her lovers so that no one would usurp her throne. Shaibu always wins the races because he is the son of Kpembewura, the king of kings. Only this day Moro, a commoner, a slave trader, wins. Wurche dreams of this commoner, he is an attractive man. However, war is coming, the Kola nut that used to come from the Ashanti lands no longer passes through Salaga’s markets because they no longer send slaves as tribute (Wurche’s family has benefited from the slave trade internally and overseas). The Gonji forge an alliance with the Dagbon, Wurche, is forced to marry as part of the treaty. She does her duty but is unhappy with her lot.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga opens as a rites of passage for two young women, they have hopes and dreams for their future. In both cases the illusion that they can determine their own lives is shattered but their independent spirits are not cowed. This becomes a dark tale of two women caught up in a turbulent period of history, the iniquitous trade in slaves and victim to the role of women within society. Still both are determined to make their own marks on the world, they refuse to accept their fate and fight for the things they believe in, for their personal freedom. These are two fascinating women, I am struck by their force of will. They are destined to meet, mistress and slave, but come to grudgingly understand each other and the things they have in common rather than what separates them.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a very personal tale of two young women but it is also a story of the devastating impact of slavery, war and colonialism on the region and the kingdoms. The Hundred Wells of Salaga will appeal to the heart and the head.
Attah grew up in Accra and now lives in Senegal, she was educated at Columbia and NYU. This is her third novel, per previous novel, Harmattan Rain, was nominated for a Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
Other Press 9781590519950 pbk Feb 2019