Ayesha Harruna Attah’s newest novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga follows the story of two protagonists: Aminah, a slave, and Wurche, the daughter of a chief. Although they are from different castes, Aminah and Wurche are women living in the patriarchal world of late nineteenth-century Ghana, and in this sense, they are both unfree.
Aminah, who is from Botu, a small village of a few hundred people, is kidnapped by slave raiders. She is then brought to Salaga-Kpembe, home of Wurche and her family. Wurche aspires to lead her people through an internecine conflict, but is discouraged on account of being a woman. Meanwhile, her relationship with Aminah, which begins as that of master and slave, evolves into much more—friends and then co-conspirators in their search for freedom.
Attah was born in Accra, Ghana, and sets her latest novel in her motherland on the cusp of colonization by Europeans. In addition to tackling the subject of women’s subjugation, she tells the story of slavery from a perspective that’s unfamiliar to most readers in the US: that of African complicity in the transatlantic and European slave trade. She told me that her book “doesn’t diminish or excuse European and American involvement in slavery,” and that what she wanted “was for us as Africans to pause and consider the role we played in the machine of the slave trade, to stop blaming others, and to begin to find ways of healing the trauma that we also faced on the continent.”
Attah studied biochemistry, journalism, and fiction in the US, and The Hundred Wells of Salaga is her third novel. We recently corresponded by email from her home in Senegal about this unique tale, and its universal relevance—especially to women.
“The factors that unite Wurche and Aminah,” Attah explained, “are the same issues that women across the world face: trying to survive and thrive, making our voices heard, having our dreams be held as valid, keeping our families together, and not being written out of history.”
—Arvind Dilawar for Guernica
Guernica: What inspired you to write this book?
Attah: The project began as a look into my own family, when I tried to understand why there was a woman in the family called “the slave” and whose name no one knew. Quite quickly, as I began to situate the time in which she’d lived, a bigger story emerged, which was a goldmine for a storyteller. Not only did she overlap with the advent of the British colonization—a Game of Thrones-esque struggle for power in the region—but she also lived in a time when domestic slavery was big business and was being debated and slowly eliminated. I wrote The Hundred Wells of Salaga to give my ancestor a name and a story, and to examine a part of West African history I didn’t know about myself.
Guernica: Was it difficult to write about the participation of some Ghanaians in the slave trade?
Attah: From the moment I met silence when interrogating my extended family about this woman, I realized the weight of the topic I was handling. I also had to be vocal about people such as the Ashanti being slave owners. Truth is, one doesn’t have to dig deep to confront these facts, and that’s what gave me the courage to write the novel.
Guernica: How do the stories of Aminah and Wurche reflect the factors that both divide and unite women in Ghana?
Attah: Class is the obvious dividing factor. On the surface, one woman is free and the other is not. Aminah has been kidnapped and sold as a slave, while Wurche is supposed to be the freest woman in her society, and even though we learn that she is in her own way caged, she is ultimately able to take risks that Aminah doesn’t even dare try. Wurche has the weight of power behind her—her father is a chief.
Yet Wurche is a woman who wants to be taken seriously in her father’s court, but every time she speaks, is told to shut up. Her voice and opinion are often the last her father considers. She also lives in a society that expects her to be a wife and mother, and even though it’s not what she wants, she succumbs to the traditions, holding her own dreams at bay. Aminah, like Wurche, also has dreams snatched away by slavery, the terrible reality of her day, and that completely robs her of agency. She can’t even decide what her path in life should be. For both of them, for a while, their goal is simply to survive.
Guernica: Religion also divides the two women: Aminah the animist, and Wurche the Muslim.
Attah: Even though most people today [in Ghana] identify as Muslim or Christian, in almost every West African country I’ve visited it’s not surprising to hear talk of going to see marabouts or traditional healers. Syncretism is the way most people live and it cuts across all strata of society. Wurche would therefore have been tolerant of Aminah’s beliefs. The religious clashes in some places in West Africa today are usually between Christians and Muslims. In Ghana, the two groups have managed to keep the peace. In my own family, for example, my father is Muslim and my mother is Christian.
Guernica: Some of the dangers that confront Aminah and Wurche, such as enslavement and war, also affect men in their society, though in different ways. As women, what are their particular fears?
Attah: As an enslaved person, Aminah knows that anything can happen to her body. She is filled with the fear of being violated, the fear of returning home as a broken woman, the fear of having a child by one of her kidnappers or owners. Even a look from a man like Wurche’s father is enough to send her cowering. Wurche is scared of being thought of as her mother—a woman whose main purpose was to please her father—and because of that, she tries to avoid roles that are typically the domain of women: caretaker, provider of meals, etc. She wants to be and do more than most women in her society.
Guernica: Your novel takes place at the birth of Ghana as a nation-state, something imposed by European colonizers. Yet you describe many different Ghanaian cultures and communities in your novel. Is this something that you intended to illustrate—that Ghana, while being one country, is not made up of one homogenous people?
Attah: The African landscape [of the nineteenth century] was fascinating. There were kingdoms and nations, people who decided they didn’t need kings or queens, and nomadic people. The diversity was incredible. Today’s Ghana is [based on] the same European concept that drew lines around different groups of people and, many times, cut off families from each other.
Also, looking at that period helps deconstruct Ghana today. The south is where the colonial government concentrated everything —schools, hospitals, etc.— and the north became a recruiting ground for the army and the domestic sphere. This north-south divide persists in the national psyche; and the north, in the eyes of some in the south, is seen as a violent backwater. For young girls from the north, there is a tragic example of being forced to leave their homes in search for better opportunities in the south. Many end up in markets as porters known as “kayayo girls.” Stories abound about the kind of maltreatment these girls receive.
Guernica: Readers in the US will likely be unfamiliar with Ghana’s history. Do you feel some responsibility in bringing this story to us?
Attah: On responsibility, the late Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean writer, said, “The writer has no duty, no responsibilities, other than to his art.” I’m not sure I wholly agree with this—we are humans, after all, and with that comes great responsibility. I used to think of my job as painting a nuanced picture of Ghana, because there were too many misrepresentations and untruths about Africa in general, but working and living like that was exhausting. Now, I write to find out who I am and to unearth the stories about my ancestors.
Guernica: Do you believe that something has changed in world culture, which is helping stories like yours to reach a wider audience?
Attah: I am immensely grateful that my book is reaching far and wide. As a reader and writer of African fiction, I really can’t complain about the diversity and number of stories sprouting from the continent. I’d like to think that the world is growing more open-minded, but what the reality may be is that these things happen in waves and Africa is trending now. Tomorrow, it may very well be another region.
Guernica: What is one of the misrepresentations or untruths about Africa that you hope to dispel through your work?
Attah: That everything that happened on the continent before Europeans came was oral. Africa has a long tradition and history of writing, and having chosen to be a writer, this is one misrepresentation I am always seeking to correct.