How did I start writing Ama?

Manu Herbstein

How did I start writing Ama? In 1994 gangs of young Konkomba men were rampaging through Dagomba and Nanumba villages, killing and burning. No one could explain their behaviour to me.

"Oh, the northerners, they are like that," I was told.

I felt ashamed of my own ignorance. In a library I found David Tait's book The Konkomba of Northern Ghana. The story it told suggested to me that the roots of the violence might lie deeply embedded in past history. The Konkomba were here first, living without kings or chiefs, ruled by elders and priests. The Dagomba, originally from Lake Chad, arrived on their horses, conquered the natives and took their land (that's really potted history for you.) Asante conquered the Dagomba about 1773 and exacted an annual tribute of slaves. Every year Dagomba warriors set out to hunt for Konkomba to deliver to Kumase.

I asked myself what it must have been like to be a Konkomba girl, so captured. I read everything relevant which I could lay hands on in Accra, much of it published before 1970. As I did so, I created Ama and she wrote the book for me.

Ama is about the Black Atlantic but when I wrote it I hadn't heard of Paul Kilroy or John Thornton and had only read some earlier work of Paul Lovejoy's.

Ama is an important book (even if I say so myself.) It tells a story which needs to be told and has hardly ever been told before. It fills in some of the gaps upon which historians are only permitted to speculate. Even if it were badly written it should merit publication. (So much rubbish rolls off the western presses every day.) Yet no U.S. trade publisher would touch it. Only the revolution in the publishing industry has allowed it to survive. Published only electronically and in print-on-demand format, it won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize, the first African book to do so in the fourteen years this prize has been awarded.

One potential publisher suggested that Ama might be more marketable if Ama's destination were Virginia rather than Brazil. I refused to consider the change. Yet Ama is indeed about the U.S.A. Until the full story of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath becomes firmly embedded in the curriculum of all American schools, until it becomes part of the heritage and consciousness and conscience of all citizens, not only those of African descent, until that time black and white Americans will continue to find it difficult to talk to one another. I hope that this book will help to start that conversation.

Reading my book some time after publication, I find that it may also be read as a parable for the power relationships in the globalized world of today. Much has changed, but much is little changed.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ghana OV Manu Herbstein

Last modified 19 August 2002