“Sankofa”: A memorable novel that leaves you with a feeling of emptiness and loss – Olukorede S. Yishau
Sankofa, the third novel of Chibundu Onuzo, the author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos, is one of those memorable books that leave you with a feeling of emptiness and loss when the last line is read and digested. The novel’s tempting beginning, tricky in-between, and mythical-cum-astounding end give the sense that Onuzo’s latest novel is over qualified to trounce her other works.
This novel named after a bird that flies forward with its head facing back reminds us that we must continue to move forward as we remember our past. The key characters in this book refuse to jettison the past in their quest for a better future.
In exquisite writing, not very-linear plot, and many a head-grabbing moment, Sankofa tells the story of Francis Aggrey, Bronwen Bain, Anna, Robert and Rose. It also tells the story of Africa and the many challenges it is battling with crude implements.
Like a lot of great novels, there is a death and the death triggers a chain of events, so chaotic that predicting them or envisaging them is a task that must not be attempted.
In a nutshell, this is the story: Francis Aggrey finds himself in late 60s London. His mother finances his stay in the UK from her earnings from selling fish. The Bains, a Welsh family, soon become his host. He has had a dalliance with a daughter of the family, but not one that he is proud of. After moving in with this family, he develops affection with another daughter of the family: 19-year-old Bronwen, who will discover she is pregnant with Anna at a time Francis has returned home to a small African nation called Bamana. Anna has black features, a big challenge of the time she is born in England. A time when a child can be pinched to see if he or she will be bruised or a child is asked if her blackness can be scrubbed off.
Francis is unaware of his love child while he returns home to lead a resistance movement against the British colonial administration in his nation also known as Diamond Coast because of its vast diamond deposits, which, unfortunately, are controlled by foreigners, even decades after independence. This reminds us of South Africa of yore, whose shadows are still visible in the Rainbow Country and it is not a surprise that years after Nelson Mandela’s era, the soul of the country (the economy) is still in the firm grip of the white population.
Anna, the product of the relationship between Francis and Bronwen, marries Robert and together they have Rose, a daughter. After Bronwen dies, Anna finds herself opening a trunk in her mother’s room and she finds a diary kept by Francis Aggrey and from it, she learns about her father, her mother and the contents also lead her to Bamana in search of her father, who has transformed from Francis Aggrey to Kofi Adjei. At the time of her discovery, Kofi has just stepped down from power after decades of leading his people— a development, which has won him admirers and thousands of traducers home and abroad.
Set in London, Edinburg, and this fictitious African country with a lot of resemblance to Ghana and key characters with Ghanaian names, this novel is about race issues in the 60s, it is about dictatorship in Africa, it is about so many things wrong with our world.
So many parts of the novel take jabs at Western hypocrisy, how similar events in Africa and the West are given different interpretations. When it happens in the West, it is interpreted mildly and when it happens in Africa, it is given the worst interpretation possible. This reminds me of a quote in Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ where a character says: ‘A Muslim man blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same and he’s called a madman.’
Onuzo’s Kofi has so much in common with Zimbabwe’s late Robert Mugabe who tried unsuccessfully to become late president and not ex-president. Kofi started out as a freedom fighter, but in no time saw no one else that could rule his country and even when he was eased out, he is still plotting a return. His conversations with Anna show that he sees nothing wrong with amassing wealth at the expense of the people; and when he sees that Anna does not buy his argument, he points out the fact that the Queen of England is not poor. Of course, the Queen is stingingly rich. So, Anna abandons the argument.
The novel also touches on the slave trade and the slave fort Anna visits in Bamana has so much in common with the one in Ghana, the country which Onuzo obviously models her fictitious Diamond Coast after.
A church scene takes a subtle jab at people’s love for miracles for which they are willing to dance madly, scream like someone whose hands are hit by a car’s door, and obey any other instruction they believe can bring the much-sought succour.
Banama, the place where a chunk of the novel is set, is not only a setting; it is also a character on its own: dark, mysterious, and vivacious. In it, you struggle to look for saints, almost everyone is flawed. We see an uncle who chains a girl to the ground after accusing her of witchcraft and the destruction of his business. This is a major challenge in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria, which government after government has been unable to get the people to abandon. Teenagers are regularly brandished witches and wizards and tortured by relatives whose pastors or native doctors have identified these children as the source of their woes. We the poor state of cells in Africa. It also tells the story of the corruption at the heart of the African society. And we see so many other anomalies in this Banama.
The themes Onuzo examines in this amazing work include a daughter’s quest for her father, freedom, prejudice, inheritance, deceit, heartbreak, and death, failure of leadership, dictatorship, and abuse of power.
Written in first person and in a blend of the present and past tenses, Onuzo skillfully uses Anna’s discovery of a diary to tell a story of past and present in an absorbing, stirring manner. She switches between Anna’s narration and Francis’ diary entries to tell a story that not only hums but screams harmoniously. She manages the shift between the diary entries and Anna’s narration with a deft touch and this gives the book the candour of an exceptional work of art. It is as good as having two narrators telling the story on two different planes and montages—the contemporary setting of today’s London, Edinburg and Banama, and the less bubbly setting of early 70s London. In the end, the author creates lucidity and authority and she builds imageries and metaphors with exclusive power and ultimately delivers a narration that leaves the reader salivating.
–Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of Vaults of Secrets and In The Name of Our Father