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1 An unsolicited reaction from Chantal-Nina Kouoh
Zurich, 18 August 2001
Dear Mr Herbstein,
Prof. T..... B..... was kind enough to give me your e-mail address. But the best think he did actually was to offer me a copy of your remarkable book “Ama”, one of the best book I have ever read, believe me. I will always thank him for letting me discover such a treasure…
I am a Cameroonian (born and grown up in Douala) living in Switzerland since 1981 where I came at the age of 17. I studied translation at the Interpreters and Translators School in Zurich. Presently, I work as an Assistant in an International Organisation in Zurich and as a free-lance French translator as well. I am keen on African modern Art and I dedicate my leisure hours to it (I have created a small private African Art Gallery in my neighbourhood, as a modest contribution to the promotion of African culture in Switzerland). This makes me travel to Africa quite often. I am also a great fan of African movies and always take part in “Cinemafrica”, an African film festival which takes place in Zurich every two years, for a decade now.
I visited “L’Ile de Gorée” in Senegal 15 years ago and couldn’t stop crying a night long, after having heard in details how the slaves were stored in the dungeons and deported to America.
When I started reading your book last November, I didn’t imagine that it would have such a tremendous impact on me. I am very impressed by this approach of our history, which is, indeed, part of world History and still has consequences worldwide today.
The neatness of your writing, the clarity of the language, the choice of the words, the historical elements (at times unbearable), the great sense of suspense, the colourful descriptions of the customs and daily life in the villages and towns etc., all those ingredients contribute to make a masterpiece of your version of the story of the Slave Trade. With Ama, the reader is plunged in history, romance, culture, wisdom etc., all in one.
The incredible declarations of Augusta when explaining and excusing Slave Trade (on page 215), speaking harshly to Ama who had dared to say “Maame, is it not wicked to treat human beings like that? I mean to chain them as if they were animals and then sell them to the Europeans? Are they not our people, our own brothers and sisters?” “(…) I don’t need you to tell me that they are human beings even though I would not go so far to call them my brothers and sisters (…) in Edina we depend on this trade for our livelihood. Where do you think I get the gold dust to buy these clothes, these ornaments (…)
On a large scale, Ama is a book full of wisdom, intelligence, delicacy, subtlety, vision. You are a wonderful “metteur en scene”. You can put yourself in the shoes of your characters and describe their feelings and actions as if you were the person itself, be they male or female (e.i. the way you narrate Ama’s feelings in her very intimate moments). This illustrates your incredibly sharp knowledge of women, and of human psychology in general. (… the love sequences between Ama and Itsho, Ama and Kwame, Ama and Mijn Heer etc. are only a few examples).
Who pretends that women are not clever? Look at the intelligent tactic Augusta is teaching Ama on how to get what she wants from Mijn Heer and bring him to grant her her freedom: “ (…) you must nurture his passion for you. You must pander to his every wish. You must flatter his male pride. You must be diligent in learning his language and ways (…) you must do all this to gain power over him, to make him feel that he cannot live without you. When you have achieved this, and only then, you must ask him to grant you your freedom…” (on pages 184/185). Ama followed the lesson and was about to succeed when things took another course.
Sexual abuse is omnipresent in the book. The cynicism of the men as on page 204 (…) you are too sensitive. We did not bring this custom from Amsterdam, you know: it was the Fanti kings who taught it to us. This is the renowned Gold Coast hospitality of which they are so proud.(…) I haven’t told you before, the female slaves enjoy a night out (…) and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sleep in a real bed with mattress; and with a white man too (…) some of them haven’t had men in months (..)
It is amazing how, when it comes to sex, any social discrimination vanishes, any racism disappears. An Asantehene, Mijn Heer, any “Abdulai” or “Jensen” would just “help himself”. It seems that all vaginas are equal before the men’s animal needs. Isn’t it amazing!
This also reminds me of the men in Africa who still sexually abuse their housemaids.
Above all, I really appreciated your narrative style. You tell the story without agressivity (the situation is harsh enough, isn’t it?), in an apparently neutral way and let enough room for the reader to catch the depth of it (provided that he is attentive). You have such a wonderful and tactful skill of saying things (the ideas and remarks you put all over your book through Ama’s thoughts in italic.)
When Damba found Nandzi who had tried to escape (page 59) “This commerce of human beings is a bad practice (…) when the Ya Na put me in charge of the caravan, I felt honoured. Now all my ambition has gone sour: all I want to do is to go home and purge my memory of these bitter days, as I might scour my dusty body with caustic soap”. Page 297: “Strange that beneath our black skins, we are pink, almost the colour of the white man.” And not to mention the wonderful end, the entire chapter 36, what a testimony!
Ama is a vivid example of the power and freedom of human intelligence. She is always observing, thinking and making up her mind in her own terms. This proves once again that the spirit, the intelligence can never be enslaved, no matter how enslaved a person is.
I was also impressed by the way you dare to point out the moot points of religion, Christianity in particular (it still needs some courage today to criticise any religion or, to put it differently, what some people make of it). Its crusades and its cruel contradictions. For example in pages 224/225 “Her intelligence rejected Van Schalkwyk’s claim that the European god was the only one there was (…) It seems natural and proper to her that different people should each have their own gods. That applied to the Europeans as well. It would be strange if the whites were to worship Fanti gods. By the same token, she could not see why (…) she should abandon the ancestor of the Bekpokpam for the god the whites called God or for the ancestor they called Jesus.” The innovative comparisons you are showing, for example on page 369 “This business of eating the body and drinking the blood intrigued her. There is some mystery in it (…) The Asante’s custom is similar (…) As for the priest’s constant harping on sin, that is just so much hypocrisy. It is the whites who are the greatest sinners; yet the priest is always accusing us (…).”
Sociology is very present in “Ama”. You managed to illustrate how a human being is lost when taken out of his or her social environment. How little it takes to change the social status of a person (from a free person to a slave, for one reason or another) and which big damages are caused by doing so. The various descriptions of the slaves’ behaviour in many situations show it well.
The image and “glamour” the whites had at that time (and still have today to some extent) is also very well presented in your book.
Esi telling Ama about her father on page 93 “Now where was I? Ah, Papa and the white men. As I was saying, to him the white man is next to God. Then come the Fantis. We Asante follow a poor third. As for the northerners…”
The Rev. Philip Quaque, the Cape Coast Chaplain who had an English wife, is a wonderful example of Africans who are ashamed of their origins and fully reject their African identity. His attitude towards Ama (on pages 225/226 “Speak to me in English, child. I neither speak nor understand that heathenish tongue” (…) “What is your name?” (…) “The white calls me Pamela” (…) “That does not sound like a Christian name to me. (…) But Pamela has the virtue at least to be an English name. To have an English name is an honour and to have acquired a command of the language is a blessing, especially for a pagan”.(…) This has unfortunately become a “normal” attitude of a “modern African”.
Another remarkable feature of the book is its sensitivity towards the social position of women. De Bruyn's interesting discussion with Williams (on pages 210/211) shows two different opinions on how to treat and educate a woman. “Teaching Pamela to read has certainly changed her; but it has also been a rewarding experience for me. Think of her as my Galatea and of me as her Pygmalion. You know the Greek legend, of course? She has become a better companion to me, better intellectual company, than any man in this castle. Your ideas on this issue are old fashioned, Williams. The times are changing, even in England; or especially in England. I get the sense of that from the novels you bring me. Think of Moll Flanders”. (…) Williams’s reply “…But books are not life, you know. They are not even a poor reflection of life. Books are designed for the simple purpose of earning a profit for their authors. It is a dangerous delusion to imagine that you can mine books for lessons on life”. (Sorry Mr Herbstein, don’t mind Williams. I’m sure that he was not including your book when he said this…).
Human cruelty is very present in the novel. The ocean of blood accompanying an Asantehene ‘s death. It reaches the summit on pages 320 to 325 on “Love of Liberty” during the trip to America, with some slaves shot dead and the rebels obliged to kiss their dead heads and eat their bloody excisions. With incredible barbary, Williams managed to shake the slaves and kill any remaining desire for rebellion in them. Who can easily recover from such an atrocity? It cuts one’s breath to go through it. Ama loosing her right eye at the end of the “performance” almost seems a small loss compared to what had happened.
“ (…) I have had two husbands in my life. Both were good men and brave. Itsho died trying to rescue me from the Bedagbam. Tomba killed our manager, Senhor Jesus, to punish him for what he did to me. Then he gave himself up to save the slaves at the engenho. Both my husbands were heroes.(…)” Ama, old and blind, remembering her life.
Yes, they were heroes indeed. Tomba’s charisma is one of the major elements of the book. On page 253 “It is not enough that you have been freed. Every day more slaves are being brought down to the coast to be sold. The people who live by the sea have grown fat on the suffering of others. It is time for this to stop.” (I could not help having some thoughts for Patrice Lumumba, and, in another register for Fela Ramsone Kuti.) And his abortive attempt to escape from the “Love of Liberty”, partly because of a problem of language.
The importance of linguistic difference is well noticed in the story. Ama understood it very early and undertook to learn any language she met on her way. Anyone who was able to speak several languages was used as an interpreter and was better treated, be he a slave.
On page 354, we meet Luiza who sells her body to buy her freedom. Here in Switzerland, our Brazilian sisters and brothers, in their large majority, sell their bodies and drogues to buy a better life for their families and relatives back home. Not to mention the ones who marry the first man they encounter just to run away from misery. Slave Trade is still writing history in present days.
With the light of your detailed description of the slaves' life in Brazil, I am now able to see the “entire tragedy” with other eyes. More, I am beginning to understand African Americans much better.
Olukoya was somehow a visionary “… One day, this country will be ours. Orunmila tells me so and my own intelligence confirms it. We are many, they are few. In the course of time our number will tell. In the meantime, we must prepare. We must get to know one another, to build up trust amongst us. We must learn what ever there is to learn from whites. I mean useful things, like reading and writing, making sugar, building ships. We must make plans. But above us, we must preserve ourselves, our owns beliefs and customs. We must restore our self-respect. If we begin to believe that Africans are natural slaves, the first battle will be lost and we might never recover. Do you understand what I am saying? What we do hear is part of this.(…)”
The land may not belong to them yet. But all the African kings &Co who have participated in the Slave Trade would not believe theirs eyes if they were alive today. Some descendants of the Africans who had been deported to America are now extremely famous and powerful (Aimé Césaire; Louis Amstrong, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Babara Hendricks, Michael Jakson; Mohamed Ali, Carl Lewis, Michel Jordan, Serena and Venus Williams etc). There are so many of them in various areas that I could not mention them all. As you know yourself, their fame has certainly contributed to restore some respect toward black people all over the World.
“Ama is a story of the Slave Trade, a story of Africans who were carried across the Atlantic against their will. The end of this story has yet to be written.” The last sentence of your “Epilogue” resounded like a bell in my mind. Yes, I agree with you, “the end of this story has yet to be written”.
I have made several marks in each chapter of my Ama, for me to get back to it and meditate. Ama covers a large variety of crucial aspects of human life. It is a book to read and discuss. I have already bought some copies on my turn to give them as gift to friends. I think your novel deserves to be spread and read worldwide. And the best thing would be to have it translated in the major world languages in order to increase the chances of this outstanding story to become known. This is a heritage to leave to the generation to come. I sincerely hope that, one day, a film-maker would make a memorable movie out of your book.
Dear Mr Herbstein, I sincerely wish to congratulate you for Ama. I can imagine how much courage and self-control it took you to put your feelings in words, in harmony with the story you were telling, reminding us of the History, of the “Holocaust” the majority of us seemed to have forgotten. I can imagine how much time and energy consuming effort it meant to you. Thanks for having undertaken such a tremendous work.
One has to know the past very well and have it present in memory to be able to deal with the present in an appropriate way. By using a young girl taken away from her peaceful little village and having her end up in Brazil, you really achieved to personify the Slave Trade story in a memorable way. In a way that allows everyone to face the past and act today. For the sake of the future.
I have the feeling that Ama will one day be a “reference book” at schools and Universities (at least in Africa and America). It is just a matter of time.
In Switzerland, there is enough work for a French translator. I am not looking for an activity to earn a living. If I were to translate Ama (which I dare to consider as a pearl of literature) into French, this would be a real pleasure and honour to me. I would do it with my professionalism; with my soul (I am really fond of your book, I have hardly ever read a book in English or German and had such a strong wish to translate it); and as faithful as possible. This would give me a great opportunity to participate, in a humble way, in the development of my beloved continent.
Regardless of the issue of the French translation, I would love to meet you this year and discuss your amazing Ama. Although I have marked several passages in every chapter, I am sure that there are still some aspects which can be well explained only by you. I would love to hear from you how you yourself define the purpose of your novel. I have visited Ghana several times. I could meet you wherever you wish (in Africa or in Europe).
I am a member of an association called “Women of Black Heritage”. I think that we could consider organising an African literature event with you here in Switzerland one day.
Provided that this idea is convenient to you.
First of all, I would like my friends (the few who speak English) to discover Ama.
In the mean time, I wish you and your family luck and prosperity and every success in life.
Many thanks for having taken your precious time to read me.
2 Kofi Anyidoho, Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Ghana.
This is the story of Nandzi, renamed Ama,
renamed Pamela, cruelly named The Blind Girl, renamed Ana (Ana das
Minas), but always known to herself as Nandzi and to those who share her
ill fate with her as Ama.
The story 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 near-by 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 covers four broad sweeps of narrative setting: Africa, or Ama as a victim of inter-ethnic hostility and the greed of the African ruling elite; Europeans, Ama as a tragic heroine in the European Slave Fort on the Gold Coast; The Love of Liberty, or Ama in the hold of the ill-fated slave ship across the turbulent Middle Passage; and America, or Ama's tribulations and eventual triumph in the New World.
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, especially Abdulai and the slave-raiding gang of the Bedagbam warriors; Koranten Pete, King Osei Kwadwo and Kwame Pianin or King Osei Kwame and the Asante ruling house; the story of the Governor of the slave fort, Mijn Heer, who loved her and would have given her back her freedom, of Jensen who hated her and threw her back into the dungeon, about the priest Van Schalkwyk who preached Christian love and pardon even as he ensured that the African captives accept their enslavement, of “the Fanti Christian priest Philip Quaque who couldn't decide whether he was African or English.”
Above all, Ama is the story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. This is 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. Never has it been so 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.
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4 Denis Herbstein, author ('White Man I want to talk to you,' 'The Porthole Murder' ) and veteran journalist; also my first cousin.
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