Ayesha Haruna Attah’s 'A Hundred Wells of Salaga' and Historical Fiction in Northern Ghana: A Review
It is clear that a lot of research went into the writing of Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. This novel is a very good entry into historical fiction set in the northern part of Ghana, a place that has not had enough attention in fiction. Whatever your take on the novel ends up being, Ayesha deserves a lot of credit for taking the plunge and being a pioneer in this endeavor. My hope is that there will be more Ghanaian writers taking the opportunity to set fiction in the northern part of Ghana. The place has much to offer by way of courtly intrigue, princely shenanigans, and cross national and inter-ethnic rivalries so useful in fiction across the world. The courtly and familial intrigue manifest in The Hundred Wells of Salaga is comparable to that of Game of Thrones and War of the Roses. Indeed, the rich and tense history of Dagbon-Gonja relations alone, could be ample fodder for fiction writers.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a very accessible novel. I read it in two days. For anyone from Ghana and particularly northern Ghana, the cultural and linguistic peculiarities make it even more enjoyable and relatable. The major point-of-view characters in the novel are two women who could not be more vastly different. Aminah is from the Gurma ethnic group whose family is destroyed, and her village plundered by slave raiders. She is then sold into slavery and through various intrigues ends up in the Salaga slave market and then bought by Wurche. Wurche is the second point-of-view character in the novel. She is a strong-willed, rebellious princess of the Gonja Kpembe-Salaga chieftaincy. Wurche is forced to marry a man she does not desire or feel attracted to.
The other major characters in the novel are Hassana (Aminah’s younger twin sister), Wofa Sarpong (Aminah’s Asante slave owner), Adnan (Wurche’s husband), Jaji (Aminah’s teacher), Moro (Wurche and Aminah’s lover), Etuto (Wurche’s father and Kpember chief), and Helmut (Wuceh’s German lover). Three of these characters have heavy flaws that weigh down the novel’s brilliance.
Wurche is perhaps my least favorite of these characters. On the level of believability, I think some of Wurche’s shenanigans are quite unlikely and implausible. There is absolutely no way the plot device of Wurche living in Kpembe after her marriage is plausible in northern Ghana, especially relating to the Dagomba. For all of the novel’s strengths as a historical fiction, this is one of the few places Ayesha would have needed more research. Dagomba men, let alone princes, will hardly live in the home of their families, let alone for over a year. The idea that Wurche would shout to her husband that she slept with another man and be left to ride into the sunset is unbelievable. Sister Ayesha needed a reader better versed in the cultures of northern Ghana to help here. If Wurche had a horse to ride, didn’t Adnan, a prince also have one? Will he or the Kpembewura just allow their princess to ride into the sunset into their enemies’ arms? The plot involving Wurche is the weakest of the novel. In this characterization, Wurche becomes forgettable; she made the novel less enjoyable partly because she seems very unrealistic, her actions inexplicable.
My love for the novel is also mediated by Ayesha’s flat characterization of Adnan and sympathetic characterization of Helmut. For a postcolonial writer, Ayesha’s portrayal makes these two characters icky. The Germans literally divided Dagbon between them and the British. The German officers including Helmut were killers on a colonial mission. In the novel, three major power bases come into focus: the Germans, the British, and the Dagomba. The British are tangential, the Germans and the Dagomba are active in the novel. Even though the Dagomba help our protagonist and her family, the titular Dagomba character is perhaps the worst man in the novel. Fat-skinned, cowardly, and brutish, Adnan sounds nothing like a Dagomba prince. Dagomba princes are notorious for leading their own armies. Adnan could have been far removed from the Dagomba.
Because the novel is very domestic in its focus, the portrayal of Adnan as a wife-beating brute as opposed to Helmut who seems thoughtful and sweet is unbelievable a narrative choice. I definitely could not get over this. Not her father, nor Moro, or Adnan, her black suiters and male figures are portrayed as sympathetically as Helmut is. That is, in my opinion, a terrible choice to make in characterization. It feeds into the narrative of African male brutes versus sensual, thoughtful white male lovers. I just can’t buy into that. To me, this Adnan-Helmut split takes away a lot of my praise for this book especially when you are dealing with internal slavery on the continent. It just seems like you are saying the nice white men are trying to stop black slavery. Sister Ayesha’s Q&A at the end of the novel adds to my unease about how she treated this issue. You can be nuanced about internal slavery on the continent but to pair that up with your main white character in the novel being the most sympathetic man, just leaves a sour taste in the mouth. All of this said, this is fiction and I accept that the author can take some creative liberties.
Ayesha’s strong characterization of Aminah makes up for the flaws in the portrayal of Wurche. She is more sensitive and multifaceted. Even though she surviving slavery till age nineteen without getting her virginity taken is extremely unlikely, she is still a far better character than Wurche. Her relationships with her sisters, her mother, and her father are extremely believable. Her ambivalent feelings towards Moro is very well crafted. As fellow former slaves, their romance to me seems the best this novel has to offer.
To end on a more positive note, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It proves the value of setting fiction in the northern part of Ghana. Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a great entry into that fertile field. The author did a lot of good with her research, especially on the internal slavery. Fun fact: I have read a lot of the works she mentions like the Salaga Papers in the Q&A. She is diligent and her future works deserve more attention. Give her a read. She is an amazing talent. And this her third novel, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, is a good entry into her oeuvre. I recommend this. You can find Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga on Amazon for $9.89 or in Ghana from Ehanom books.