When a cousin offers Abie her family’s plantation in the West African village of Rofathane in Sierra Leone, she leaves her husband, children, and career in London to reclaim the home she left behind long ago. With the help of her four aunts—Asana, Mariama, Hawa, and Serah—Abie begins a journey to uncover the past of her family and her home country, buried among the neglected coffee plants.
From rivalries between local chiefs and religious leaders to arranged marriages, manipulative unions, traditional desires, and modern advancements, Abie’s aunts weave a tale of a nation’s descent into chaos—and their own individual struggles to claim their destiny.
Hailed by Marie Claire as “a fascinating evocation of the experience of African women, and all that has been gained—and lost—with the passing of old traditions,” Ancestor Stones is a powerful exploration of family, culture, heritage, and hope.
“This is [Forna’s] first novel, but it is too sophisticated to read like one.” —The Guardian
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The Women's Gardens
London, July 2003.
IT BEGAN WITH A LETTER, as stories sometimes do. A letter that arrived one day three winters ago, bearing a stamp with a black and white kingfisher, the damp chill of the outside air, and the postmark of a place from which no letter had arrived for a decade or more. A country that seemed to have disappeared, returned to an earlier time, like the great unfilled spaces on old maps where once map makers drew illustrations of mythical beasts and untold riches. But of course the truth is this story began centuries ago, when horsemen descended to the plains from a lost kingdom called Futa Djallon, long before Europe's map makers turned their minds to the niggling problem of how to fill those blank spaces.
A story comes to mind. A story I have known for years, it seems, though I have no memory now of who it was who told it to me.
Five hundred years ago, a caravel flying the colours of the King of Portugal rounded the curve of the continent. She had become becalmed somewhere around the Cape Verde Islands, and run low on stocks, food and water. When finally the winds took pity on her, they blew her south-east towards the coast, where the captain sighted a series of natural harbours and weighed anchor. The sailors, stooped with hunger, curly haired from scurvy, rowed ashore, dragged themselves through shallow water and on up the sand where they entered the shade of the trees. And there they stood and gazed about themselves in disbelief. Imagine! Dangling in front of their faces: succulent mangoes, bursts of starfruit, avocados the size of a man's head. While from the ends of their elegant stalks pineapples nodded encouragingly, sweet potatoes and yams peeped from the earth, and great hands of bananas reached down to them. The sailors thought they had found no less a place than the Garden of Eden.
And for a time that's what Europeans thought Africa was. Paradise.
The last time I thought about that story was a week after the letter came. By then I had left London — the city I now call home — to retrace the letter's route to the place from where it had come and beyond. I was standing in a forest just like the one the sailors had stumbled into. And I remembered how in the early morning I used to watch my grandmothers, my grandfather's wives, leave their houses and make their way, down the same path upon which I was standing, towards their gardens. One by one each woman parted from her companions and went to her own plot, whose boundaries were marked by an abandoned termite hill, a fallen tree, an upright boulder. There, among the giant irokos, the sapeles and the silkcotton trees of the forest, she tended the guavas, pawpaws and roseapples she had planted there. Then she weeded her yams and cassava where they grew in the soft, dark earth and watered the pineapple plant that marked the centre of her plot.
I thought of the sailors' story. And for a long time, I thought it was just that. A story. About how Europeans discovered us and we stopped being a blank space on a map. But months later, after the letter arrived and I traced its arc and came to land with a soft thud in an enchanted forest, and after I had listened to all the stories contained in this book and written them down for you, that one story came back to me. And I realised the story was really about something else. It was about different ways of seeing. The sailors were blind to the signs, incapable of seeing the pattern or logic, just because it was different to their own. And the African way of seeing: arcane, invisible yet visible, apparent to those who belong.
The sailors saw what they took to be nature's abundance and stole from the women's gardens. They thought they had found Eden, and perhaps they had. But it was an Eden created not by the hand of God, but the hands of women.
The letter that brought me back to Africa came from my cousin Alpha. I didn't recognise his hand on the envelope: he had never written to me before. Alpha had once been a teacher, but in those changed days he made his living composing letters for other people. People who took their place opposite him one by one, clutching a scrap of paper bearing the address of an overseas relative or else the business card of some European traveller, unwittingly exchanged in a moment of good humour for a lifetime of another person's hopes. Alpha conveyed greetings, prayed for the recipient's health, invoked the memory of the dead, and wrote hereby merely to inform them of the sender's situation, the dislocations and hardships of the war. Sought their help in solving their many difficulties. By God's grace. Thanking them in advance.
And then he swivelled the letter around to face his customer, for their perusal and signature. They nodded, feigning comprehension. And signed with a knitted brow and a wobbling hand the letters of their name learned by heart. Or else they pushed a thumb on to the opened ink pad, and left a purple thumbprint like a flower on the bottom of the page.
My own letter was written on a single side of paper taken from a school exercise book. No crossing out, no misspellings — suggesting it had been drafted beforehand and carefully copied out. Alpha's signature was at the bottom of the page. Alpha Kholifa, plainly executed without flourishes, a simple statement. He used our grandfather's name, the same as mine, so there could be no mistake. The other thing I noticed, only after I had read the letter through, was the absence of a post-office box address. Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeros.
The letter contained not a single request or plea. The sum of it was held within two short sentences.
'The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.'
O yi di. In our language: it is there. Alpha had written to me in English, but the words, the sensibility, was African. In our country a person might enquire of another after the health of a third. And the respondent, wishing to convey that the individual was less than well, requiring the help of God or man, might reply: 'O yi di.' He is there. She is there. The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.
He did not ask me to come back. He willed it.
The letter finished in the conventional manner. Alpha enquired after my husband, whom he had met once, the last time I went back. We had taken the children, to be seen and admired by family and friends, though they — the children, that is — were too small then to have any memory of the visit. I remember my aunts called my husband the Portuguese One, the potho, which has become my people's word for any European. After those sailors who landed and kept coming back. Named the country. Set up trading posts. Bred bronze-coloured Pedros and Marias. And disappeared leaving scattered words as remnants of their stay. Oporto. Porto. Potho. The tip of the tongue pushed against the back of the teeth, a soft sound. Over the years the word had moulded itself to the shape of an African mouth. It did not matter to them — my aunts — that my husband was, in fact, a Scot.
The morning after the letter arrived I woke to a feeling, which I mistook at first for the chill that follows the end of a warm dream. A sense of apprehension, of an undertaking ahead. Every year for years I had told my Aunt Serah I was coming home. But every year Aunt Serah told me to wait. 'Come at Christmas. When things have settled down.' I knew I had left it long enough. A spectator, I had watched on my television screen images of my country bloodied and bruised. The burned out façade of the department store where we bought mango ice cream on Saturdays. Corpses rolling in the surf of the beach where we picnicked on Sundays, where I rolled for hours in those very waves. A father with his two sons dodging sniper bullets on a street I travelled every Monday morning on my way to school. Peace had been declared and yet the war was far from over. It was like witnessing, from a distance, somebody you know being set upon by thieves in the street. And afterwards, seeing them stagger, still punch drunk, hands outstretched as they fumble for their scattered possessions. Or else, shocked into stillness, gazing around themselves as if in wonder, searching for comfort in the faces of strangers.
What would you do? You would go to them.
I sat up and shook my husband's shoulder — my Portuguese Scottish husband — and I told him I was going away for a while.
And so there I was, standing in the forest among the women's gardens, remembering my grandmothers. Beyond the trees their daughters were waiting for me. Four aunts. Asana, daughter of Ya Namina, my grandfather's senior wife: a magnificent hauteur flowed like river water from the mother's veins through the daughter's. Gentle Mary, from whom foolish children ran in fright, but who braided my hair, cared for me like I was her own and talked of the sea and the stars. Hawa, whose face wore the same expression I remembered from my childhood — of disappointment already foretold. Not even a smile to greet me. Enough of her. And Serah, belly sister of my father, who spoke to me in a way no other adult ever had — as though I might one day become her equal.
They were the ones whose presence filled the background to my childhood. Not my only aunts, by any means, rather my husband-less aunts. Asana, widow. Mary, spinster. Serah, divorcee. The fate of Hawa's husband had never been quite clear, it remained something of a mystery. I had heard some of their stories before, though I didn't remember who had told me or when. As a child I had spent my evenings at home doing schoolwork, or trying to get a picture on the black and white TV, as a teenager I'd lain in my room fiddling with my yellow transistor radio, waiting for my favourite tunes. Without men of their own to occupy them these four aunts had always been frequent visitors to my father's house until he left to take up a series of appointments overseas and I followed in his slipstream to university.
Coming back, I thought about my aunts and all the things that had never been spoken. And I saw them for what they were, the mirror image of the things that go unsaid: all the things that go unasked.
The stories gathered here belong to them, though now they belong to me too, given to me to do with as I wish. Just as they gave me their father's coffee plantation. Stories that started in one place and ended in another. Worn smooth and polished as pebbles from countless retellings. So that afterwards I thought maybe they had been planning it, waiting to tell me for a long time.
That day I walked away from the waiting women, into the trees and towards the water: the same river that further on curled around the houses, so the village lay within its embrace like a woman in the crook of her lover's arm. Either side of the path the shadows huddled. Sharp grasses reached out to scratch my bare ankles. A caterpillar descended on an invisible filament to twirl in front of my face, as if surveying me from every angle before hoisting itself upwards through the air. A sucker smeared my face with something sticky and unknown. I paused to wipe my cheek in front of a tall tree with waxy, elliptical leaves. Along the branches hung sleeping bats, like hundreds of swaddled babies. As I watched, a single bat shifted, unfurled a wing and enfolded its body ever more tightly. For a moment a single eye gleamed at me from within the darkness.
Here and there scarlet berries danced against the green. I reached through the cobwebs, careful of the stinging tree-ants, and plucked a pair. I pressed a fingernail into the flesh of a berry and held it to my nose. Coffee. The lost groves. All this had once been great avenues of trees.
And for a moment I found myself in a place that was neither the past nor the present, neither real nor unreal. Rothoron, my aunts called it. Probably you have been there yourself, whoever you are and wherever in the world you are reading this. Rothoron, the gossamer bridge suspended between sleep and wakefulness.
In that place, for a moment, I heard them. I believe I did. A child's laugh, teasing and triumphant, crowning some moment of glory over a friend. The sound of feet, of bare soles, flat African feet pat-patting the earth. A humming — of women singing as they worked. But then again, perhaps it was just the call of a crane flying overhead, the flapping of wings and the drone of the insects in the forest. I stood still, straining for the sound of their voices, but the layers of years in between us were too many.
I passed through the ruined groves of the coffee plantation that by then was mine. Not in law, not by rights. Customary law would probably deem it to belong to Alpha, Asana's son. But it was mine if I wished, simply because I was the last person with the power to do anything with it.
Down by the water, under the gaze of a solitary kingfisher, a group of boys were bathing. At the sight of me they stopped their play in order better to observe my progress, which they did with solemn expressions, kwashiorkor bellies puffed out in front of them like pompous old men, sniffing airily through snot-encrusted nostrils. I smiled. And when they smiled back, which they did suddenly, they displayed rows of perfect teeth. One boy leaned with his arm across his brother's shoulder, his eyes reclining crescents above his grin, and on the helix of his ear the cartilage formed a small point in exactly the same place as it does on my son's ear. I had bent and kissed that very place as he lay sleeping next to his sister, before I left to catch my early morning flight.
And later, inside my grandfather's house, I pushed open the shutters of a window, finely latticed with woodworm. The plaster of the window sill was flaking, like dried skin. The clay beneath was reddish, tender looking. In the empty room stood the tangled metal wreck of what was once a four-poster bed. I remembered how it was when my grandfather lived and I came here as a child on visits from the city on the coast where my father worked. Then I sat bewildered and terrified before him, until somebody — a grandmother, an aunt — picked me up and carried me away. It was only the fact that my father was the most successful of his sons, though still only the younger son of a junior wife, that made him deign to have me in his presence at all.
In the corner a stack of chests once stood, of ascending size from top to bottom. Gone now. Fleetingly I imagined the treasures I might have found inside. Pieces of faded indigo fabric. Embroidered gowns crackling with ancient starch. Letters on onion-skin parchment. Leather-bound journals. Memories rendered into words. But, no. For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person's history is captured in the shape of an ear, and thosemost precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from fire or floods or war. In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told. Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.
And it is women's work, this guarding of stories, like the tending of gardens. And as I go out to them, my aunts, silhouetted where they sit in the silver light of early dusk, I remember the women returning home at nightfall from their plots among the trees.
And I wonder what they would think if they came here now, those hapless port drinkers. Of all the glorious gifts the forest had to offer — fresh coffee.CHAPTER 2
Shadows of the Moon
HALI! WHAT STORY SHALL I tell? The story of how it really was, or the one you want to hear? I shall start with my name, but that is not so easy as you think. I have been known by many names. Not the way you are thinking. You people change your name the way you change your hairstyle. One day braids. Next day hot-comb. You marry and take a stranger's family name in place of your own. A potho name, no less. But us, we never change the names that tell the world who we are. The names we are called by, yes. These ones may change.
I had another name once, before I had even seen the light of this world. My name was Yankay, the firstborn.
Sakoma: the month of emptiness. The women were making ready, whitewashing their houses, plastering façades streaked by the rain and stained with mould. Soon the doors of every home would be thrown open. Soft, new rice to eat instead of bulgur and mangoes. The hungry season was nearly over.
My mother's hands were dipped in white, her face and arms flecked. That was how she was always able to remember I was born the week of the last rainfall before the dry season began. I had an appetite, she used to say, such an appetite because I was born at the start of the feast. That day she worked and felt her insides convulse. Pain seeped into her limbs, trickling out of her centre like juice from a lemon. With her right hand she went on smoothing the plaster in arcs like rainbows. The fingers of her left hand she began to click.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ancestor Stones"
Copyright © 2006 Aminatta Forna.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Abie, 2003 The Women's Gardens,
2. Asana, 1926 Shadows of the Moon,
3. Mariama, 1931 Stones,
4. Hawa, 1939 Fish,
5. Serah, 1950 Woman Palava,
6. Asana, 1941 Bitter Kola,
7. Mariama, 1942 Kassila the Sea God,
8. Hawa, 1955 Josephine Baker,
9. Serah, 1956 Red Shoes,
10. Hawa, 1965 The Music of Flutes,
11. Mariama, 1970 Other Side of the Road,
12. Serah, 1978 The Dream,
13. Asana, 1985 Mambore,
14. Hawa, 1991 Sugar,
15. Serah, 1996 The Storm,
16. Asana, 1998 The Box,
17. Mariama, 1999 Twelfth Night,
18. Abie, 2003 The Women's Gardens II,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can compare it to The Red Tent for Africa. Abbie, living in present day London, is called back to her home country Sierra Leone by guilt. Four of her 11 aunts, who all shared the same husband tell the stories of their lives. A very interesting look at the globalization / colonization. It spanned from 1920's to the 1990's told through stories by the aunts. The Igbo faith, the coming of 'the white man' and with him their Muslim faith (different experiences from the Christian colonization) and modernization. I thought it most interesting that although women were still incredibly oppressed, some still were able to leave their husbands if their circumstances became unbearable. A little unknown fact, Sierra Leone created the self-adhesive stamp.
I discovered Aminatta Forna when I read her memoir of her childhood in Sierra Leone as the daughter of a Temne doctor and a Scottish mother as well as the search for what happened to her father, who went into politics but refused to be corrupted and who subsequently disappeared. After the civil war which nearly destroyed the country, Forna went back to Sierra Leone to visit her family and research her father¿s fate. It was getting to know the women in her father¿s family that inspired her to write this book, which, though not set specifically in Sierra Leone, clearly chronicles the experiences of four aunts (sisters with different mothers) of Abie, an African woman who lives in London married to a white man but returning to her native country to revitalize the family farming business. The body of the book consists of 16 sections, four each in the voices of the four sisters as they tell their stories to Abie. The earliest story is dated 1926 and the latest 1999. The earlier stories chronicle life in a tribal village that¿s relatively untouched by the contemporary world; the later ones chronicle terrifying experiences during the civil war.The novel does have some problems, primarily with the structure that holds it together. It¿s difficult keeping the sisters straight. There¿s a family tree printed at the beginning of the book and I found myself referring to it often to see how the various characters were related. I also found myself flipping back again and again to remind myself of the past of the sister I was reading. It was also sometimes difficult to recognize that each of the sisters is talking to Abie. I¿d run into a ¿you¿ and wonder who she was talking to until I remembered the frame of the novel. That said, by the second set of stories, I found myself hooked on the characters, anxious to know what would happen to them, looking forward to seeing how they would survive the war years. Nothing I have ever read has brought me closer to understanding the lives of African women. When Serah chronicles her loneliness and isolation at a teacher's training college in London, I feel her frustration, not only with the cold and dark but with the lack of color and of human interaction: no one looks at her as she walks through a bigger city than she's ever known, with more people than she has ever seen before at one time, all avoiding eye contact.The experience of these women is rich and full, and the process of reading their stories is the process of living an African life and coming to problems of the modern world from a cultural experience totally unlike that of women raised in the US. It gave me more insights into African life than two years living in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. Incidentally it clarified for me why African-Americans were even more ¿at sea¿ than I was in that culture. I at least did not expect to ¿belong¿. The main character, Abie, and her counterpart, the author, Aminatta Forna, had to pay cultural dues in order to belong. We see it in how the sisters view Abie, in how their attitudes toward her change, and in how she herself in the end gives up indoor showers in favor of bathing in the river. A bit of an awkward symbol but significant nonetheless.
Abie is an African woman married to a Scotsman and living in London. One day she receives a letter telling her that her grandfather's West African coffee plantation is hers if she wishes it. Abie goes to Africa where she is reunited with four elderly aunts, who gradually share their life stories with Abie over the course of her stay.Abie's aunts were raised in a polygamous, nominally Muslim family. All of the women share the same father, but each one has a different mother. Each aunt's story is told in four parts, with the first three installments telling in turn of their childhood and memories of their mothers, their young adulthood and hopes for the future, and their adult years and the realities of their lives. In the book's final section, each woman recounts her perspective of the country's civil war.Aside from the brief introduction and epilogue, we learn very little about Abie in the book, nor do we view anything from the perspective of any of the men who play a part in these women's lives -- their father, brothers, husbands, and sons. This is a story of the generation of West African women who weathered the societal upheavals of the 20th century. All four women are survivors. At the end of their lives, they find, if not exactly happiness, at least peace in their childhood home, and in passing their memories on to the next generation.I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy novels about women, family, and/or Africa and its 20th century history. This novel would be a good selection for a women's book group.
The book tells the life stories of women in the Kholifa family, across multiple generations and 70+ years. While the book includes a family tree diagram in the opening, the book can be read without it, or in any order, such is its lyrical, poetic and connected nature. Unlike 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez, Ancestor Stones almost never explains the relations between the characters, including the matriarchs, daughters, aunts who, as the story progresses proceed through each of those roles. The book is set in Sierra Leone, and the reader is exposed to the admixture of tribal, Muslim, and missionary Christian cultures. At times poignant and sad, the book drives forward with matter-of-fact life-changing events such as war, regime change, independence, fire, betrayal, marriage, but without these events overshadowing or corrupting the sophisticated and subtle maturation of the women.
Ultimately, not a memorable book. I enjoyed the idea behind the plot, but the execution left much to be desired. As a previous reviewer has stated, the machinations of the government are essentially glossed over, which is naturally frustrating.