Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga is the story of two women: Aminah, who grows up in the village of Botu, part of a little community that lives under the fear of slaver raids; and Wurche, the daughter of an ambitious local noble who has designs on the throne of Salaga. When Aminah’s village is destroyed by raiders, she is forced away from her home and her society, and into a long journey that will take her to Salaga, city of a hundred wells. There, her life will intersect with Wurche, who is seeking for a way out of a loveless marriage, forced upon her for political reasons. But soon, something bigger than itinerant slave raids and the internal politics of Salaga will come to shape the women’s lives: the looming inevitability of colonialism.
The story of the Hundred Wells of Salaga – set in (what is now) Ghana, on the eve of colonial conquest – might feel a bit like a cross between Maryse Conde’s Segu (Wurche’s storyline) and Leonora Minamao’s Season of the Shadow (Aminah’s storyline). Indeed, the book does belong in a long traditions of novels set in societies on the verge of being torn apart by colonialism. But what makes The Hundred Wells of Salaga unique is its characters: the people who walk across the novel’s stage are achingly, painfully human, both at their finest, and at their worst. To take just one example: looking for release from a brutal marriage with the Dagbon prince Adnan, Wurche finds it with a man called Moro. This would ideally make Moro a positive, sympathetic character – and from Wurche’s perspective (at least in the beginning), he is; only, there’s one problem: Moro’s a slave trader (albeit one who takes no pleasure in the job). Wurche’s act of rebellion – which would otherwise give the reader a sense of (perhaps unearned) catharsis – is thus laced with the constant, background awareness of Moro’s active participation in an unimaginably brutal enterprise.
At the heart of the novel is undoubtedly Wurche herself, who has got to be one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve come across in recent times. Layered, complex, ambiguous, flawed; sometimes actor and sometimes acted upon; sometimes rebelling against oppression and sometimes being an oppressor; limited – like all of us – and struggling against those limits, sometimes with success but often unsuccessfully (again, like all of us), Wurche elevates this novel to an incandescent pitch. We feel deeply invested in her fate, even as her actions sometimes alienate and sometimes revolt.
Probably the novel’s only unambiguously good character, Aminah is an excellent foil to Wurche. Her seeming passivity may give an initial impression of a character that is non-too-clearly fleshed out – but this would be a mistake. Lacking Wurche’s privileges, Aminah cannot move through the world like an actor; her survival – and eventual freedom – depends on her flattening her personality, and becoming as unremarkable as it is possible to be. But even so, we see enough – a glimpse and a flash – to know that underneath the facade is a personality every bit as full as that of Wurche’s.
Around the two women, there is a galaxy of memorable characters who leave an impression, no matter how short, or how walk-on, their roles are: the fathers, who allow their daughters freedom – until it becomes politic to deny it; the brother who would rather farm than fight; the German soldier who is aware of his country’s crimes, but is complicit nonetheless because the alternative is too difficult to contemplate; Moro, who is similarly aware of the slave trade’s awfulness, but complicit for the same reasons; we get sympathetic – yet unsparing – portraits of each of these characters. Nothing is excused, and nothing is justified – but there is an understanding of what they do what they do, a messy entanglement of institutional pressure and personal agency that leads human beings into deeper and deeper moral quicksand.
I finished the novel in two sitting – it would have been one, had life not intervened. From the first page, the book pulls you in, leaving you painfully, terrifyingly drawn into the fates of the characters, seeing the world through their eyes. And if that were not enough, it has one of the most devastating concluding lines that I’ve ever read.
A magnificent achievement.