Ama's story

October 24, 2001


Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade
By Manu Herbstein
450 pages, US$19.95
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This is the story of Nandzi, renamed Ama, renamed Pamela, cruelly named the "Blind Girl", renamed Ana, but always known to herself as Nandzi. It begins in a small Bekpokpam hamlet of northern Ghana with the rape and capture of young Nandzi as she looks after her sick four year-old brother Nowu, while her mother Tabitsha and her father Tigen attend her grandfather's funeral in a nearby village.

It ends in Bahia, Brazil, with the birth of Nandzi Ama, daughter of Kwame Zumbi, son of Nandzi, renamed Ama, now an old woman whose spirit is waiting in the shadows to fly back across the Atlantic to Africa for a final re-union with her ancestral household.

The story unfolds in several settings: Ama, the victim of inter-ethnic hostility and the greed of the African ruling elite, is taken to the European slave fort on the Gold Coast (Ghana); in the hold of the ill fated slave ship as it crosses the turbulent "Middle Passage"; and in the Americas, where we follow Ama's tribulations and eventual triumph.

Ama's story is also the story of countless others: it is the story of Itsho and Tomba, her two "husbands", each of whom died an unsung tragic hero in the fight against slavery; it is the story of her various companions, especially Minjendo, Esi, Augusta, Nana Esi, Luiza, Jacinta and the old woman Esperanca, Wono and Ayodele, "the women who ... helped her through difficult times"; it is also the story of the countless European enslavers and their various African collaborators.

Above all, Ama is the story of the Atlantic slave trade. Manu Herbstein has written a story that has been told and retold by countless scholars and creative narrators, but almost always in bits and pieces, leaving many gaps and questions.

However, never has it been captured in its total complexity, never have its tragic implications been laid out so fully, with all the scattered details brought together into one magnificent narrative of awesome and humbling imaginative impact.

We may query a number of the details, we may quarrel with the fictional interpretation of certain historical events, but it is difficult to break away from this long and entangling story once you let yourself into its messy, gruesome and occasionally uplifting moments. Ama is perhaps a long story that seems to be barely begun even as your reach the final page.

[Kofi Anyidoho is professor and head of the department of English, University of Ghana.]

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