Preserving and Writing History: A Dialogue With Ayesha Harruna Attah
Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of Harmattan Rain, nominated for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Saturday’s Shadows, shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013; and The Hundred Wells of Salaga. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and NYU. A 2015 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate and Sacatar Fellow, she was the recipient of the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for non-fiction. She currently lives in Senegal.
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in cold Gaborone, Botswana and the seaside village of Popenguine, Senegal via email.
Gaamangwe: I am so excited to talk to you because I couldn’t put your book down. I read it under 6 hours! I had intentions of sleeping early that night but the story calls at you. Every chapter, even before I understood how the two main characters were connected, ended with such a pulling twist, I had to find out what happened next.
I know that the impetus of the book came from finding out your great great grandmother was a slave during the Salaga trade. I want to start there: how and why that knowledge nagged you so much that you had to write the book? And perhaps, also how the idea evolved from there on.
Ayesha: Wow, thank you for this wonderful praise. Under 6 hours is a feat! Yes, I learned my great great grandmother was kidnapped from somewhere in the region of Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger and ended up in the Salaga slave market and it plagued me, for two reasons. The first was that it was so close to home. This was my father’s great grandmother, so she wasn’t some distant ancestor. And the second one was that no one knew much about her. I didn’t even have a name to work with. I heard a quote today that said, after death if someone on earth is still talking about you, then you’re still alive. My project became this: to preserve the memory of my great great grandmother and to have her be remembered with dignity. I calculated that she must have been in Salaga in the 1890s, and it turned out to be a dramatic period in the region’s history. Everyone wanted a piece of the place. And with that, Wurche’s character was born.
Gaamangwe: That is really moving. I agree, preserving the memories of the people who came before us is important because in someway, in many ways, we are an extension of the people and lives gone. Their experiences, what we call histories, are still very much alive, living with us, on a subliminal and in that collective unconscious level as per Carl Jung’s ideology, right? So I understand the urge to want to explore and preserve her story with such dignity. And that is what you did with the book. You showed a wholesome view of what life was like for these two women who were different, living within the two spectrum of the Salaga slave market, but eventually connected.
I resonated with Wurche. She was a warrior, doing things that were rare during her time. And I was in awe and also shattered by Aminah. Her ability to survive such perpetual states of trauma was just phenomenal. What inspired her creation? And how did writing the two women, one so close to you, affect and shift you?
Ayesha: So true that we are extensions of those who came before us. It is a very African world view, isn’t it? We believe in our ancestors. There was a report in the news last week, I believe, that mentioned that the effects of trauma could be passed through blood. The rest of the world is now catching on.
I tried to imagine what a girl—one whom many people found desirable, which is how my great great grandmother was described—would have endured with people who were merciless enough to enslave others. And it wasn’t pretty. I definitely felt for Aminah. But also for Wurche, who also went through her own form of being caged. She did provide me with breathing space when Aminah’s story got too much. She was wild and fearless and willing to try almost anything. Writing their stories made me realize how lucky we are to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about the danger of being kidnapped in our sleep (for the most part). It’s made me not sweat the small stuff. It’s made me realize how fortunate we are, as women, to really be heard these days.
Gaamangwe: Yes, the African world view is so ancient and founded on the idea that we are interconnected.
We are fortunate Ayesha because Aminah’s story is still familiar. A couple of years back I read the experiences of the survivors of Boko Haram’s regime. And many of the women went through the same ordeal as Aminah. It’s so devastating to know that there are still others who are going through this right now.
It took you six years to write the book. Which themes were important that throughout the years stayed? And beyond preserving your great great grandmother’s memory, did you want to explore anything?
Ayesha: Yes, it’s crazy and heartbreaking the parallels between the slave raiders of Aminah’s time and Boko Haram and other terrorist groups of today. It’s the same tactics: burn and destroy. But, honestly, I am fortunate enough to be able to go to bed at night with security as the least of my worries.
When I first started writing, in about 2012, the book was about a girl who fell in a well and ended up in her great great grandmother’s era. Obviously, the well is an image that stayed. I threw out that format and it became more about Aminah’s path. When Wurche came into the picture, at one point I even had an ensemble cast, where it was other people telling Wurche’s story. I went back to the drawing board when my early readers said it was too much. The final version is tighter, I think, and not cluttered with other people’s voices.
The themes have stayed consistent, however. I wanted to talk about liberty, power, choice, and love – not just as we think of it, but also between an enslaved person and her master, between parents and their children. I think the book is a plea for unity, the idea that Wurche’s people could have worked together to prevent outside forces from invading them; that when Wurche and Aminah worked together, magic happened.
Gaamangwe: Your first draft reminds me of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. In the series, a woman also finds herself in a different era and learns how to navigate her new world. I love time-travel stories, I would have loved your first draft. I hope one day you explore such a fantastic, historic epic!
Yes, magic and healing happened when the women worked together. Wurche saw it but her voice was disregarded then. It’s such a pity. I love the idea of unity. Even today, there is a need for unity. Although we must be careful in negotiating how and why we are uniting.
Is there any reason why the image of the well stayed? I know that a lot of research was involved but how much was the story based on real places and events?
Ayesha: The Gabaldon book sounds fantastic. I am currently reading Imraan Coovadia’s A Spy in Time, which has a time-bending secret agent. One of these days, I’ll write that fantasy book.
The well stayed because it was such an interesting symbol. A well normally evokes plenty, nourishment, slaking of thirst; a well is usually a good thing. In Salaga, however, wells were dug to get water to wash slaves before putting them on display. That shocked me. They still exist in Salaga, even in people’s homes. My father remembers that his grandmother’s grandmother had a well right in her courtyard, and that’s what inspired the initial idea for the book. This also segues nicely to your question about how much of the book was inspired by reality. A lot of it was. I went up to Salaga to get a feel for the place and to meet my family who still lived there. The war in Salaga was also a real event, which I had to deeply research.
Gaamangwe: Currently, I am attending a virtual Healing Trauma Summit and today’s session is titled ‘Understanding and Transforming the Legacy of Inter-generational Trauma.’ It makes me wonder what the legacy of the war in Salaga is like on the generation that live there now. And on you. How did it impact your sense of person-hood and understanding of your journey as a Ghanaian? And generally, on state of things in Ghana. Is the war common knowledge? It’s important that you wrote this book. Sometimes fiction is a truer witness than historic accounts.
Ayesha: Not that many people, at least in my generation, know of the war. I myself found out about it in 2012, so not that long ago. That said, it’s not just the legacy of the war that has had an effect on Salaga, which is now almost a ghost-town, but it’s that of slavery. Not only did slave-raiding lead to depopulation of most of the north, but it has also affected north-south relations in Ghana. People from the north are generally looked down upon and are often expected to take on menial jobs. On a personal note, having a parent from the north, who I think is the most brilliant man on earth, I’ve always wanted to understand why the stereotype (obviously false) existed.
But even more serious, I think, is the fact that in Ghana we don’t talk about our role in the slave trade and how some of the biggest ethnic groups were slave-owning and actively raided their neighbors. We started this conversation with connections from our past. This is a clear example of how trauma from the past could be rearing its head in our current lives; why stability on the continent seems elusive. Ghana, which is considered one of the most peaceful countries in Africa, every so often suffers from bouts of violence… guess where? In the north. And it’s usually between two ethnic groups. The way I see it, it’s because of the fear of one’s neighbors, a fear with deep, deep roots.
Gaamangwe: It’s so true, the traumas of our forefathers are alive within us. We can’t uproot what was never talked about, affirmed, healed and integrated. Its sad that many don’t know about the war and the slave trade. It means that many do not know the origin of that deep seated fear they have for their neighbors. How can real change happen when the origin is unknown? I agree that the state of affairs in Africa is so deeply connected with our past, of what happened and the role of our forefathers in what happened then. Its important that we revisit our history.
Do you feel you’ve come a full circle with the questions you had before you started writing? And finally, what words would you say to the young, historical writer who wants to explore this genre?
Ayesha: Not sure if I’ve come full circle, but I do feel like I have been able to explore some of what happened to my ancestor. I know this is just scratching the surface, because this focuses on a short time in her life. There was also the violence of becoming a colonized people that followed in the wake of this book. I learned that there’s so much about West Africa, about the continent that I don’t know about yet and it fills me with excitement, because there are many more stories to tell.
For a young person in the genre, it’s the same advice I’d give to any writer. Read as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to write a bad first draft.
Thank you so much for your time, for reading so closely, and for this lively discussion, Gaamangwe!
Gaamangwe: Thank you Ayesha for joining me here. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker, interviewer and founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.