Ayesha Harruna Attah: “I write to find out who I am”


PHOTO/Itunu Kuku.

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.

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