In Ghana, at the end of the 19th century, the fates of two young women from very different places intertwine: Aminah, who lives with her family in a small village and thinks about becoming a shoemaker like her father, is captured by raiders who sell her into slavery, while Wurche, daughter of an important chief, tries to break the mould of what a woman is supposed to be by striving to become involved in politics.
Although the two protagonists have completely different backgrounds, they have one important thing in common: They are not satisfied with the place women occupy in society, but dream of something more. Although the story quickly takes a dark turn when war, violence, and death are introduced into their lives, I like that it manages to end on a positive note, as it would have been all too easy to bring it to a more conventional and depressing end. The book is also educational about this period of history in Ghana, when internal and transatlantic slave trade have been abolished, but villages are still razed by local slave raiders. The British, French, and Germans interfere heavily in internal conflicts, and African princes try to form alliances with them in order to triumph over their rivals. Wurche is the one who recognizes the danger in infighting between the tribes, and that it will ultimately lead to their downfall. Cooperation is offered as the cure for adversity, not only in politics, but also for the advancement of women themselves.
On the downside, the two protagonists never really come to life because they are underdeveloped as characters, while most of the others are just one-dimensional or implausible, like the slaver Moro, for example, in whom both Aminah and Wurche are interested in. The ambiguity of this character, who is apparently a very attractive person that unfortunately happens to sell people, is not handled well because the nuanced approach he requires to make him realistic as the target of Aminah’s affections is just not present. As it is, Aminah, a slave herself, falling in love with a slave trader feels like a far-fetched development, although the author does at least attempt to make it believable by making Aminah wonder about it herself. To me, however, this still does not make it work.
Although I of course rooted for Aminah and Wurche, I was in fact not overly invested in their fate because of this lack of depth and emotional involvement. I am also unconvinced that the heavy topics that are tackled in this book, like the complicity of local tribes in the slave trade, the conflicts between different tribes, the role of the Europeans, or the role of women are given the space that they need. The overall picture of the goings-on is rather fragmentary because the details provided on some of these subjects are sparse, and I would have enjoyed some more background information. Still, this is a mostly engaging story with an intriguing setup, even though I feel that the final product is not quite as compelling as it could have been.