Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publishers: Penguin Books/Knopf
Year of publication: 2016
Number of pages: 320 pages
It never made sense to me this obsession South Africans had with race in their country. Many conversations I have with nationals from the South African country were peppered with the white and black discussion. As a Kenyan, I was more familiar with the battles we have with the confusion of identity with politics and the spectre of tribe as a marker.
When I went to the Apartheid Museum in Soweto in South Africa in July 2011 I had a shift in mind set as I saw what South Africans had to go through at the hands of the invading colonizing Europeans in their country for centuries. The funny thing is that unlike in other parts of the continent where the colonizers had given up official political power a generation ago, in South Africa it was still raw as the events were only decades old. Since then, I have tried to understand the “obsession with race” that confounded me so much.
This was a very similar experience that I went through when I read Ghanaian American Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing where the African slavery in the Americas and the invasion to our continent are concerned.
Gyasi tells us the story of two sisters; Effia and Esi who were alive in West Africa’s Gold Coast and whose lives couldn’t be further apart in the 17th century. One is sold into slavery and the other becomes the wife of a slave trader. The family tree at the start of the novel is a valuable tool as we see the characters come and go. Seven generations of the two branches of the family on the two continents endure a lot as they navigate life in Gold Coast of Africa from missionary schools to village life and beyond on the African side. In the American side we see life for Africans during and after slavery as we get a quick history lesson from the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi, to mining town Pratt City and the dive bars of Harlem.
Colonisation and its brutalization is shown in all its ugly variants. The more well-known tale is of the prisoners of war who were taken on the middle passage and who were then subjected to brutalization when they finally crossed to the other side. If you have read Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, you will be on familiar ground as the indoctrination of Africans happens. You meet a Kunta Kinte like character called Sam who refuses to follow rules until love forces him to get with the program. Eventually the slaves are freed but more awaits them as free men as the town makes their lives hell both in work in towns that aren’t as free as they could be. As the generations come and go, we see that they are carrying a curse that had been prophesied at the very beginning of the book. It could be the curse of the family or just one of being African.
Those who were in Africa weren’t spared either. At the beginning, the Africans trade slaves with Europeans until the latter decide to take over the land. No one was safe from the Europeans as the British subjugate the warrior kingdom of the Ashante and take over the whole area part of which would be called Ghana at one point.
This is a very painful book to read. It portrays in graphic detail the horrors that Africans were subjected to until the abolition of slavery. When you read this book, you realise that the struggle of Africans in the US has been going on for a long time and it isn’t over just yet what with stories of what they go through in many cities.
In spite of the pain, this book’s prose is so good that you are compelled to plow through the anguish these people are going through all their lives.
There are things that will bother the reader. The material in this book can fill ten novels with the amount of content that one has to go through. Because of this, characters weren’t as well developed as they leave the scene to give way to the next generation in the book. While sitcoms will have characters wrapped in twenty two minutes every week, this book leaves the reader hankering to know more about these rapidly changing faces.