Set in the 1770s in West Africa, Manu Herbstein’s first novel does an amazing job of recreating the experience of enslavement and resistance through the voice of a young female slave. The literary style of the novel reflects the painstaking lengths the author goes to in order to accurately offer a historical background and vivid detail of the atrocities of the slave trade.
Ama tells the story of the splendidly spirited Bekpokpam girl Nandzi, its heroine. The novel opens with Nandzi’s abduction by a party of slave raiders assembling the annual tribute due to the Asante Confederacy. Left alone to care for her baby brother while her family buries her grandfather, Manu Herbstein successfully uses the moments before the abduction to draw the reader to Nandzi’scharacter and creates empathy for the young girl and her contemplative nature as she day dreams about her life and future. The boldness with which Nandzi questions the customs of her people even in her personal thoughts quickly establishes to the reader that this is a character set to defy social norms and driven to survive. The depth of description and anguish fashioned by the author as she is captured, raped and enslaved sends a cold chill through the reader as one remembers that although this novel is fictitious, the events were all too real for many women of the time.
From the moment when she loses her freedom, her life moves between resistance to her successive owners and a resignation to the power they wield over her. Herbstein however, is successful at using the character to portray a resistance of the mind. Although her attempt to escape in Yendi fails, the reader is privy to Nandzi’s thoughts and as such, knows that the spirit of the girl will never be enslaved.
For her spirit and the courage she shows in her Yendi attempt to escape, she is selected as a personal present to the Queen Mother of the Asante and is given an Asante name, Ama Donko, which she is to hold on to despite various name-changes. After the old king’s death, however, his adolescent successor falls in love with this voluptuous new slave, who is consequently transported to the coast “for reasons of state”.
Despite her struggles, the fire within her continues to burn even on board an English slave ship, when she instigates a rebellion; and suffers a terrible retribution when it fails. In Brazil, where eighteen-hour work shifts send slaves to an early death, she attempts to build a new life. Sustained by ancient beliefs, Ama’s spirit never wavers. Enslaved she might have been, but to herself she is never a slave.
While this novel does not shirk away from shining the spot light on the human atrocities and the personal hostilities borne of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Herbstein frequently alludes to a less noticeable cause of human suffering – the greed of capitalism and politics. Herbstein’s introduction of a wide range of non-African and African beneficiaries of the slave trade portrays the complexities of the slave trade.
In a time where the globalisation and DNA testing have created a return of the children of those lost long ago, Ama is a must read for those who are interested in the issues of racism, repatriations and “home-comings”. This novel offers useful insight into the possible motivations of those who buy or sell slaves as well as into the minds of their victims.
Although the tans-Atlantic slave trade is over, our generation faces new aspects of slavery and as such, the themes of this novel will forever be relevant.