Selected reviews by Kristel Nana-Mvogo, Victor Mecoamere, Victor Kgomoeswana, Tony Simoes da Silva, Christopher Decorse, Shereen Essof, Kenneth Wilburn, Tamara Wagner, Rayda Jacobs, and India Edghill

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Kristel Nana-Mvogo (in French)


Avec l'histoire d'Ama, toute l'experience des Africains du XVIIIe siecle (esclaves ou non) est ainsi personnifiee d'une maniere realiste est inoubliable. Ce roman explique egalement tres bien les causes et les origines de l'esclavage, ainsi que les consequences du commerce triangulaire, qui furent desastreuses pour la population africaine. Je n'ai trouve Ama qu'en version anglaise. Mais le style litteraire est relativement simple ; des lyceens peuvent donc lire ce roman sans grande difficulte, je pense. C'est en effet un bon complement aux cours d'histoire.

[With the history of Ama, the whole experience of the eighteenth century Africans (slaves or not) is personified as a realistic and unforgettable way. This novel also explains very well the causes and origins of slavery, and the consequences of the triangular trade, which were disastrous for the African population. I have found Ama only in an English version. But the literary style is relatively simple, so high school students can read this novel without much difficulty, I think. It is indeed a good complement to history courses.]

Victor Mecoamere

The Sowetan, Johannesburg, Tuesday March 14 2006

While reading this book and long afterwards, the wonderful description, definition and characteristic of a special person predominates, anchoring this poignant narration of people's inhumanity to their fellows. Her name is Ama. Her original name is Nandzi. Her other name is Pamela. Both her second and third names were given to her by her first and second owners.
She is a slave. Her bittersweet life story - that ends in a triumph - is a stark depiction of the inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade.
While slavery is seen as an evil perpetrated by whites, Ama's eventful journey shows the side of slavery that is initiated, implemented and propagated by blacks, selling off their fellow Africans, carelessly and without remorse.
It is hard to count the number of times Ama has been raped. But it is easy to remember the circumstances before, during and after she was raped. All of them are horrific. All such incidents are degrading to women. This intention of the author is deliberate. The perpetrators are of different societal rank.
But each dominated poor Ama and many other women in similar situations. All of them were as dehumanised as the men, including being forced to sleep amid refuse, urine, faeces and in the humid, tepid air of dungeons in castles, in compounds and in the holds of ships. From one captor to another, and on and on.
It is also easy to recall the one instance in which Ama enjoyed sex with a strange man. She enjoyed the act because she was in charge and because the man was vulnerable. But for this pleasure, Ama was punished with banishment.
Twice, Ama becomes a concubine. Once, it was on her own terms. These pages of the book show the great strength women possess, particularly when survival is paramount. They show it is possible when willpower and one's wits are matched with bottomless courage.
Ama possesses all these qualities. She is portrayed by the Ghana-based South African author, Manu Herbstein, as a living symbol of all the harrowing tales of slavery man's inhumanity to man, exploitation of hapless victims and how Africa was raped during the slavery era.
To summarise, Ama or Nandzi, the secret lover of Itsho and prospective wife of a much older man on account of an arranged marriage, is captured by a rival tribe. Nandzi is renamed Ama when she joins the slaves of an Asante royal household. She seduces the heir apparent.
As punishment, she is sent packing to a white slave trader who renames her Pamela and makes her his concubine. After his death, Ama lands in the hands, and the bed, of another white slaver, but this time on her own terms.
After a mishap at sea that leaves the slave ship badly damaged, she is sold off - together with hundreds of others - to a sugar cane farmer in Brazil.
Throughout her tumultuous journey, Ama loses an eye, gains foresight and strengthened hindsight, questions religion and customary beliefs and gains a strong resolve to live. In the end, she finds her true love, a fierce freedom-loving fighter called Tomba.
Ultimately, the love story has a moral: No matter how much a human being is oppressed and exploited what is paramount is how much you love one another, your freedom, your happiness, your dignity and your pride that will sustain you.
Ama has the potential to be a highly educational bestseller for its honesty, overwhelming boldness and understanding of how memory can be an unceasing weapon.

Victor Kgomoeswana

Book launch of the Picador print edition held at Xarra Books, Johannesburg.


(L to r) Manu Herbstein (author), Victor Kgomoeswana (reviewer), Kays Mguni (Xarra Books), John Matshikiza (chairperson)
- Photo by Xarra

Just when you thought you knew enough about slaves and nothing on the topic could shock you more along comes a graphic account of the painful shame that Africans had to endure; and continue to experience. How one human being can be flayed by rape, humiliation, isolation, distortion of identity, desperate loneliness and rejection at the hands of other human beings remains inscrutable. Be warned: this is one the journey you are not meant to enjoy. From West Africa, across the Atlantic through to Brazil, come aboard if you dare.
Ama, Pamela or "One-eye" first wrestles her curiosity as a child questioning her rural African customs. She wants more answers than anyone can offer. She suffers one misfortune after another; being captured by slave traders from her homestead, sold over and over again till she lands on another continent. Starting out as Nandzi, Ama manages to fit in wherever life takes her, succumbing to unwanted sexual attention from her captors and masters along the way. She battles the improbable infatuation of young chiefs and fellow slaves, settles for the most unlikely romantic arrangement with some over-the-hill governor and repeatedly resorts to expedient transactional sex, while longing for the true love she will never have. Survival is the only apparent reason for everything Ama does, and she always ends up paying the price. She learns several languages, dabbles in some foreign religious practices to get by, imbibing as much knowledge as she gives. Ama gets bruised by her lifelong struggle to break the chains of slavery, plotting an escape after another, getting many people into trouble each time with her essential stunts, mostly herself. In time, you learn that her cause is noble.
You will love Ama for her beauty and strong character, pray for her in her constant bid to break free, admire her persistence, courage and inner strength in the face of hostility and danger. Sometimes, you will even scold her idealism and childlike day-dreaming. One thing is certain, you will be with her, and every breath she takes. This is your story too, black or white. Patently well researched, told in living colour and with little pretension, Manu Herrbstein’s novel made my very rare foray into the world of fiction a positively gruelling one.
As a South African, one can only appreciate the fighting spirit of Ama; the age-old seed that grew into the proverbial triumph of good over evil. We are held aloft as a nation for our "miraculous" political transition. Reading this ball-by-ball commentary on the life of a slave, a woman at that, is a cruel reminder that we did not achieve anything miraculous. Rather, we are merely the privileged descendants of ancestors like Ama, Tomba, Olukoya, Esi, Itsho and many other martyrs you will encounter on this epic ride. They spared nothing in their quest for an ideal of a free and democratic world order. You have to meet these giants of African history. I am still undecided as which is more difficult: being Ama or being with her through the pages of this masterpiece. Get ready for a massive thumping. A very emotionally demanding must read for students of economic history, political economics, religion, science, and most of all, for the students of life.
As for slavery, you can only shudder at how the love for money and material wealth is the root of all savagery. To think that it still is a booming business today, centuries after it was supposedly outlawed!

Tony Simoes da Silva

African Review of Books

A map of slavery across the Atlantic: "A work of literature that celebrates the resilience of human beings while denouncing the inscrutable nature of their cruelty"
Anyone who tackles as the topic of his first novel one of the most traumatic events in recent world history reveals a considerable degree of guts and artistic ambition. As a theme, slavery has been explored by some of the greatest names in contemporary writing in English: Toni Morrison in Beloved (1987), Abdulrazak Gurnah in Paradise (1994) and Ayi Kwei Armah in Two Thousand Seasons (1974), for instance. All have sought to examine slavery in a way that makes it a human, rather than simply a historical experience. However, it is the eighteenth-century African writer Olaudah Equiano whom Manu Herbstein might be said to have in mind here, as it were. In his Life of Olaudah Equiano (1989), Equiano set out in vivid detail the long process that took him away from his parents' village, through a number of African owners, and eventually to Barbados, in the Caribbean.
In Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (2001), Manu Herbstein sets himself the challenging task of fictionalising the kind of experiences Equiano spoke of from a personal viewpoint, and as I turned the novel's 456th page, it is one I felt he had met fully. Indeed, insofar as he adopts as his main character a female slave, Herbstein clearly invites the juxtaposition of his novel to Equiano's text. Ama maps slavery from the moment of capture in Africa to the arrival in America, in this instance in Brazil. Substantial chunks of the work are devoted to the dealings in human beings conducted by Europeans and to the long Middle Passage. South African born, but a resident of Ghana since 1970, Herbstein brings to his work the passionate curiosity of the outsider and the objective bias of someone whom Elmina Castle, with its explicit links to slavery, "never fails to move", in the author's own words. Most of all, though, in Ama Herbstein creates a work of literature that celebrates the resilience of human beings while denouncing the inscrutable nature of their cruelty. Like that other great moment of horror in the history of humanity, the Holocaust, the slave trade exists at once as reality and myth, a kind of "unconscious" of contemporary civilisation.
This is story telling on a grand scale, literally and metaphorically. The novel spans a geographical frame that reaches from Africa to America, depicting in closely observed detail also the horrors of the Middle Passage. An epic of the slave trade, Ama offers a carefully imagined examination of the failings of humanity when possessed by greed and a desire for power and influence. Herbstein is especially good at evoking the mood of the time, the mind frame of slaves and slavers, and the political and economic conditions that made slavery possible. Ama echoes the views of writers, historians and philosophers of the African diaspora who have argued that the phenomenon of slavery is inextricable from the deepest foundations of contemporary western civilisation. The blood of Africa, the Antiguan writer, Jamaica Kincaid reminds us, soaks the streets of Bristol, of London, of New York. The foundations of capitalism, the sociologist and historian Paul Gilroy asserts, rest on the sediment of the slave trade. Thus, although Ama does not obscure or excuse Africa's own collusion in the slave trade, European nations such as Britain, Holland and Portugal come in for considerable flak. But Herbstein seems less interested in apportioning blame than he is in understanding the mechanics of the slave trade. This is a painstakingly researched work of imagination, but one in which the fictional draws for its sustenance on a wealth of knowledge gained from anthropology, history and other cultural sources. As the note "About the Author" states, in Ama Herbstein has tried "to understand not only the victims but also the beneficiaries of the evil trade in human beings" (n.p.n.). Thus, at the beginning of Part III, "The Love of Liberty", we read:

African slaves were sold in Lisbon as early as 1441. The European discovery and colonisation of the Americas set the scene for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted from early in the sixteenth century until the second half of the nineteenth. The slaves were all African. So too were many of those who sold them. The buyers and shippers were almost all Europeans. In the course of three hundred years, upward of ten million black men, women and children arrived in the Americas as unwilling migrants. Millions more died on the journey to the Atlantic coast, and at sea. (245).

Ama tells a story of Nandzi, a young Bekpokpam girl in West Africa who is captured by a rival ethnic group at a very young age and then repeatedly sold, given away and exchanged indiscriminately by a number of men to many other men; first in Africa, subsequently on board the ship to Barbados, and eventually in Brazil, where the ironically named The Love of Liberty has to put to land after a particularly bad storm. In her life time Nandzi will be named Ama, then Pamela, then Ama again, "One-Eyed", Ana das Minas and, as the novel concludes, Ama. Raped variously but with brutal regularity initially by Asante warriors, members of a rival ethnic group, then by English and Dutch seamen, by assorted members of the ship taking her away from Africa, eventually by her Brazilian owner and his manager, Amas' body becomes a graphic and disturbing emblem of the destruction of Africa - literally, of the rape of Africa. Not surprisingly, the novel concludes with the reflection that "[T]he end of this story is yet to be written" (456).
Indeed, there is a sense in which Ama's character is Africa itself; like the continent, Ama is explored, exploited, lied to, and abandoned. Like Africa, Ama is strong but often much too naive; deeply moral but unsure about how to deal with the deceit of those who surround her; finally, Ama and Africa share in common an enormous capacity to adapt, to survive, to forgive, if not to forget. Speaking to some of the many slaves she meets on the way out of Africa, she remarks at one stage: "Oh, Edinas and Fantis and Asantes, we are all the same family" (161). Like Ama, Africa has been desired, sexualised and turned into a commodity. It has also at times been complicit in its own destiny. At one stage in the novel, Ama considers her own involvement in the slave trade in ways that resonate with a broader cri de coeur that has since characterised the work of many African intellectuals and artists. But the symbolism carries throughout the novel in different ways: when, during the long voyage out to the Americas we read that "Ama came out on deck, starved, dehydrated, filthy" (343), it is not Ama whom we watch but every slave who has ever undertaken the Middle Passage. Ama's suffering, and its imprint on her body and face become visible reminders of the hidden trauma of slavery. After initially meeting her in Africa, during the time she was his uncle's partner, the slave trader Williams, "William Williams, the nephew was shocked at her appearance. During his year at Anomabu he had learned to distinguish one black face from another. He rather fancied himself as a connoisseur of African beauty. This girl had been quite pretty. Now her appearance was grotesque" (334). By focusing on the brutalisation of Ama's beautiful body, and on the psychological scars of her experiences, Herbstein dramatises the collective trauma of slavery through the story of a single African woman.
The novel is divided in four main parts, entitled "Africa", "Europeans", "The Love of Liberty" and &"America". Structurally, the symbolism here too is reasonably obvious: Ama is, before anything else, an epic of the African Diaspora. Part 1, "Africa", describes the daily lives of the sort of people whom we will later meet on board "The Love of Liberty", on their way out of Africa. It depicts a world of complex and sophisticated cultural rituals, and heated political conflicts. Hersbtein is judicious but unsparing in his portrait of 15th century Africa; we are presented with a continent as rich in blessings as it is afflicted by internal disputes. This is at once an idyllic world and one constantly threatened by the risks brought about by change in its broader sense. Ama begins in a small village in a remote part of Africa. It is here that we are introduced to the young girl left behind when her family and the people in her village attend a burial elsewhere. Ama, the narrator informs us, and "[l]ike all Bekpokpam girls, has been betrothed at birth" (2) to a man 20 years her senior. Soon we will learn about other customs and traditions, since one of the most salient aspects of the novel is an overt emphasis on the recreation of an Africa that stands up as a direct challenge to the colonial historical inscriptions of the continent as an empty place.
This section is followed by another, entitled "Europeans", in which Nandzi, now known as Ama first comes in contact with European slave traders. Her treatment at their hands is at once brutal and perplexing, for while raping her and generally abusing her, some of the men she meets here will be instrumental in helping her fulfil her intellectual potential. Some European men are nasty and uncaring, but others adopt towards Ama a more humane attitude, in some cases actually falling in love with her. They are seduced by her physical beauty and mesmerised by her intelligence. It is here that she becomes known as Pamela, a name bestowed on her by a Dutchman in love with the classics of English literature. Ama's endless interactions with Europeans are never one-sided, and in that way Herbstein seems to reflect also on Africa's encounter with Europe. Often the relationship is cruel, dangerous, brutal and destructive; but almost just as frequently it is a dense and rewarding one. Its characteristics are typical of European colonialism's contact with Africa, a mixture of benevolence and wrongdoing, kindness and pillaging.
In the third part of the novel Herbstein attempts to bring to life the experience of the Middle Passage, a particularly daunting prospect. To imagine Africa prior to the arrival of the white man is a task well supported by a wealth of historical evidence; likewise, the encounter between Africa and Europe has been well documented, if at times such coverage is quite unreliable. The Middle Passage, however, is different; its horror, like that of the Holocaust, almost insists that witness be borne only by those who suffered the trauma of transportation to America, and in smaller numbers also to Europe and elsewhere. Yet Herbstein is particularly successful at conceiving and fleshing out the essence of the journey in which so many Africans perished. By having Ama "stand in" for the many millions who left Africa in the cargo holds of countless ships, the novel is able to put a human face to a phenomenon known primarily through cold statistics and historical narratives.
Finally, in its concluding part Ama tells the story of Ama's arrival in Brazil, in the ironically named Salvador da Bahia [the Bay of the Saviour, or more literally the Bay's Saviour], the cradle of cultural hybridity if ever there was one. I realise that my reading of Ama as the same as Africa becomes somewhat less plausible in this section. For if Ama symbolises all slaves, giving the many the face of the one, then her survival and disembarkation in Brazil risks underestimating the sheer horror of the numbers of those who never made it there, the hundreds of thousands, or millions thrown overboard into the deep Atlantic Ocean. It is important, then, that we acknowledge this aspect; perhaps equally useful here it is to note that the Ama who comes ashore in Brazil is a very different woman from the young, beautiful girl who left Africa.
This Ama is now half blind, and as "One-Eyed", the name she is given by her new Portuguese owner, she embodies in full the duality of each African's experience of the Middle Passage. Ama arrives in Salvador alive, but a part of her died in the journey. The loss of one eye, combined with an increasingly scarred and spectral body stand as apt signs of this experience. In Brazil Ama soon begins to do what she does best, deftly adapting to place and people, learning the ways and the language, translating the world around for those who accompanied her, translating herself into the New World. At the conclusion of the novel as at its opening, Ama functions as a bridge between worlds real and imaginary, a link between the culturally familiar and foreign. In the course of Herbsteinapos;s dense and unpredictable narrative, Ama becomes the epitome of the outsider as insider, of the migrant as a work in (of) translation. <
Told partly through the perspective of an omniscient narrator, the story often relies on Ama's own interpretation of her experiences and those of the people with whom she interacts. Ama's narrative voice is central to the storytelling, and it constitutes at once one of the novel's most successful aspects and one of its less stable narrative devices. In part, I am conscious that my occasional discomfort with Ama as a narrator stems from the fact that the views she expresses much too often seem to betray those of the narrator (author?). Ama, one might suggest, if somewhat unkindly, is invested with far too much meaning for any one single person, much more for a simple village woman to carry. As noted earlier, Herbstein seems to "intendquot; Ama as a celebration of the heroism of all the millions who made the crossing, and the many more who did not.
It is understandable in this context that Ama should be such an extraordinary woman. She is possessed of enormous intelligence, insatiable curiosity, a courage without limits and the most generous and selfless personality. She learns languages with the ease of the born polyglot, masters chess in a couple of hours, and has a grasp of the machiavellian world of colonial politics that would the envy of many a United Nations diplomat. Yet, half of these achievements would still have made her a fascinating character and an outstanding individual. For my money, this is the one glaring flaw in a novel that otherwise combines a good yarn, an intricate and seductive plot and a writing style that holds the reader in thrall until the end. Herbstein has attempted to create in his novel what might be read as a "partner voice&qot; to Equiano's, and once we get over the difficulties that a "gendering" of his narrative raises, this is an extremely engaging work of fiction. Long, perhaps a little too long; a less keen emphasis on the anthropological recreation of Africa in the first part of the work, and a more sparse account of the Middle Passage would only have strengthened this very accomplished piece of writing. But then Manu Herbstein is in august company here, as anyone who has read A.S. Byatt's Possession (1991) or Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings (2004) will attest. Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade deserves a wide readership, and I hope that it will succeed in gaining it.

Tony Simoes da Silva teaches at the University of Exeter, UK

Christopher Decorse

International Journal of African Historic Studies Volume 37 Number 1 (2004) 165

Ama:A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. By Manu Herbstein. First E-Reads publication, 2001 [self‑published; available through], Pp. 456. $21.95 paper. 
Ama is a sweeping story of Africans caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. Crafted by Manu Herbstein, a native South African who has been a long‑time resident of Ghana, the book is more carefully researched than some more widely acclaimed novels dealing with Africans in the Diaspora. Set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the book tells the story of Ama. a girl from what is now northern Ghana who is kidnapped by a Dagomba raiding party and taken to the Asante capital of Kumasi, then to Elmina Castle on the coast and, eventually, to a slave plantation in Brazil. In her travels she is taken as a lover by a young Asantehene and, later by the Dutch director general of Elmina Castle. During the middle passage, Ama's story intersects with that of Tomba, whose adopted father was a great general of the Jalonke in the Futa Jalon who was defeated in battle and consequently fled to live his life as a hermit in the forest. Living a solitary existence, Tomba raids slave caravans for food and weapons. In time he gathers a group of escaped slaves around him and establishes his own settlement. A threat to the local Africans who thrived on the slave trade and to the European traders, he is captured and enslaved.
This book is fast- paced and moving from Ghana and the Futa Jalon to the European coastal forts and the plantations of the Americas, it captures both the horror and complexity of slave trade, which uprooted Africans from many cultures and diverse backgrounds. There are occasional inaccuracies: The figurative weights used by gold traders were actually not made until the late nineteenth century. Similarly, some details are drawn from late nineteenth or twentieth century ethnographies and they may not reflect earlier periods. Yet, on the whole, these particulars add rather than detract from the story's telling. However, the story is, at times, too fast-paced. This is especially true of the chapters dealing with Tomba and his life before his capture. This is a tale that could easily have been made into a separate novel. Ama's own adventures, the violence she experiences (she is raped several times). and her motivations are sometimes glossed over, becoming almost trite. For this reason, some readers will find the Ama's story unsatisfactory.
Christopher Decorse Syracuse University

Shereen Essof

African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town,South Africa

first published at The Voice of the Turtle, November, 2003.

Adinkra e-reeds (2001)

Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade is Herbstein’s first novel. In it, he transforms himself from civil engineer to griot, charged with reciting history and weaving tales. Herbstein’s historical “faction” successfully blends extensive and meticulous research with abundant imagination to transport the reader into the violent world of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It tells the herstory of a young woman who is enslaved and who, through the twists and turns of her life, learns to “adopt various strategies in her struggle against bondage striking a balance between escape and resistance and, accommodating the realities of the power of her oppressors”.
By casting a female protagonist, Herbstein invites the reader to ‘see’ the particular nature of women’s oppression. Ama’s experience shows that gender, race and class are not distinct realms of experience, existing in isolation from each other. Rather they come into existence in and through relation to each other as overlapping discourses and interlocking systems that determine the degree to which male domination and privilege can be asserted. In this configuration, women’s bodies often become the discursive terrains on which these discourses play out and, in this grid of oppression, women’s sexuality is seen as currency, its vigorous trade often directing the plot.
Ama is heard through four narrative frames. We begin in eighteenth century Africa where we witness the capture and rape of Nandzi by a band of Dagomba slave raiders assembling the annual slave tribute due to the Asante confederacy. It is a world of opulence and greed, where the ruling elite maintaining their power ruthlessly. Nandzi is in the service of the Queen mother and is given an Asante name – Ama. But when the adolescent king falls in love with her, the love poses a “threat to the sovereignty of the state” and Ama is made to disappear.
Transported to Europe, ironically set in Elmina on the Gold Coast, Ama’s beauty is a disruption. She is signalled out and becomes the concubine to Mijn Heer, the Dutch governor of Elmina. She is renamed Pamela and recast into an image of a ‘lady’ – a straight satiation of white male fantasy. Pamela’s “good behaviour” is rewarded with the promise of freedom, but her position as mistress or slave is tenuous for it rests on the fulcrum of patronage. The Love of Liberty, the name of the ill-fated slave ship lends its name to the third section of the novel, recounts the horrors of the middle passage. The ship transports us to the Americas, where Ama now known as “one-eye”, must make a new life for herself on a sugar cane plantation. Here, women: slaves, agricultural workers, house servants, mothers, have to negotiate not only the imbalances of their relations with their own men but also the violent array of hierarchical rules, restrictions and liberties that structure their new relations with their new masters in the “casa grande”. Ama finds love in the form of a rebellious warrior whose spirit matches her own in the desire to be free, a man who reacts violently to her rape by the plantation manager, forcing them to flee.
Ama is as much about the violence of colonialism, patriarchy, female sexuality or gendered reproduction, economic production and the site of imperial contest, racial difference, as it is about resistance. Ama’s journey allows us to read the complexities and contradictions of the time, where all classes, free and slave, women and men, black, white and mulatto are in some way interrelated in a dynamic that results from relations of power. These power networks form a dense web. They pass through official institutions, the machinery of economic production and familial relations without being localised in any one of these sites. This means that there is both complicity with the dominant systems as well as diverse points of resistance.
Ama becomes proficient at reading the maps of power in order to manipulate them. But she is not alone in this. Itsho, Dama, Suba, Esi, Minjendo, Tombo, Olukoya, … Herbstein suggests embody the spirit of countless thousands who resisted; through care and laughter, song, dance, the invocation of ancestral spirits, planned insurrection and countless acts of subterfuge. Ultimately this resistance testifies, successfully, to the indomitable will of the human spirit, beaconed by Ama's strength and determination in the quest for freedom and dignity. “I am a human being; I am a woman; I am a black woman; I am an African. Once I was free; then I was captured and became a slave; but inside me, I have never been a slave, inside me here and here, I am still a free woman.”
Herbstein, in the tradition of Hailie Gerimas’ Sankofa, (re) claims and (re) surfaces a version of the past and this too is an act of resistance, a struggle for the politicisation of memory that serves to illuminate and transform the present. Elmina, the slave fort on the Cape Coast, has become a site of pilgrimage for Ghanaians, Africans, and others still from around the world. Converging in the space of the fort are the contested memories of the significance of the place, different perspectives on which histories should be most emphasized, and which group lays claim to them. In other words, the site becomes an important battleground for representation of the past.
We remain with multifarious forms of oppression deriving from the same motivations that underpinned the slave trade of the 18th century: Capitalist free trade. Like Ama, we know that we are not being served by “the master” who is intent on grinding futures into dust for the sake of capital. If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against women, black people, gays and lesbians, the poor, Muslims, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the dominant systems at work.
The novel and its supporting website go a long way in sparking reflection and debate. The dynamics of “knowledge production” do not always support such activity. Ama was refused publication by numerous publishers, forcing Herbstein to self publish through It is an ironic twist that after being published by e-reads, Herbstein went on the win the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. An irony well deserved.
Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade is available print on demand. For further information see
The supporting web-site [now transferred to to include more recent publications and awards. MH] has many primary and secondary texts covering the time and geographical spread of the novel and both compliments the novel and serves as a valuable teaching resource.
Note: The symbol at the top of this review is the Asante Adinkra symbol Nkyinkyin, signifying toughness, adaptability, determination and service to others. The corresponding Akan proverb, Obra, kwan ye nkyinkyin yimiie, means the path of life is full of twists and turns.

Kenneth Wilburn

Reproduced here with the permission of the author and the African Studies Review. The printed version differs slightly from the original text, which follows.

"Teaching About the Atlantic Slave Trade and Reparations.">
"Who are you homo?" blusters through history colored by cruelty.  Can your collective past be pulled into my personal experience? "> Does humanity's African origin alter the meaning of the fourth Judeo-Christian commandment, "Honor thy Father and thy Mother"?  Where is that honor in the Atlantic slave trade?  Does it emerge later in the reparations movement?  Is there a debt?  Are there beneficiaries?  How can we decide?     
If historians formulate human activity, what is the prescription for the Atlantic slave trade?  Millions died in Africa and at sea during those 35,000 voyages; 300-600 shackled humans were crammed into the stinking bowels of slave ships; numbers numb.  How can historians quantify even a single life, then describe the ineffable pathos?   How can historians describe the mysterious loss of a daughter, son, father, or mother who took my child?   How can historians convince students to   bear this overwhelming sadness beyond a course?  Historical fiction may help.  This book review chronicles the result of a project on the Atlantic slave trade and reparations in a semester-length History of Africa class for advanced undergraduates.
Amawho is the eponymous heroine acting among historical characters and events, introduced 13 male and 17 female students from ethnically diverse backgrounds to difficult issues raised in the project.  Supplementing Ama in this project were primary sources, film, and an article.  They included David Dennard�s �Historiography of Reparations� (SERSAS Fall 2001 Conference, 13 October 2001); The Middle Passage (an HBO, Kreol, and Raphia film); Ali A. Mazrui�s �Global Africa: From Abolitionists to Reparationists" (African Studies Review: Volume 37, Number 3, December 1994); selected speeches from the �Millions for Reparations� rally (N�COBRA, Washington, DC, 17 August 2002); and Congressman John Conyers� proposed legislation to investigate federal government involvement in slavery (101st Congress, lst Session, H.R. 3745 [often referred to as H.R. 40 to recall �40 Acres and a Mule�]).
All students agreed: Ama riveted them to the mind and heart of a courageous female slave.  She became their sister, their universal family member�we are all Africans; she touched them.  Ama convincingly chronicles the tribulations of Nandzi, whose late eighteenth-century saga begins as a young girl in what is now northern Ghana.   She is enslaved by Africans, renamed Ama (Saturday) by her Asante masters, sold to Europeans, endures the Middle Passage, and dies a slave in Bahia, Brazil.  Ama�s struggle to survive the violence surrounding her life is divided into four parts:  Africa (slavery among the Asante, 139 pages), Elmina (European coastal slave fort, 100 pages), The Love of Liberty (the Middle Passage, 94 pages) and America (slavery in Brazil, 107 pages).  The author added well-researched historical characters, imagination, and universal experience.  
The paperback in its print-on-demand form does not include a glossary, bibliography of historical sources, or maps.  The web site at [now transferred to to include more recent publications and awards. MH] has been created to archive these missing components.   To assist students, hardcopies of a word glossary, character list, and several maps were distributed.  The latter were created using Rand McNally�s splendid New Millennium World Atlas Deluxe software.
In contrast, the book did contain provocative issues of �race,� gender, and literary device which were discussed by students and which Africanists will carefully consider:  Can an African white male write convincingly about an African black female?  How could Ama have led such a �privileged� life that included a lengthy liaison with the slave fort�s director-general?  Why was the ending so abrupt?  What would you have done had you been one of the pro-slavery characters?  The author�s responses to questions from students via an email, which was almost an interview, clarified much.
In class discussions and summary/reaction journal entries,  students came away shocked and transformed.  �Why was I not told about this in public school?� was a refrain.  Concerned with the realistic violence and rapes, soon-to-be public school teachers asked, �Can the author write another work more appropriate for younger students?�  Others noted, �The graphic depictions of the rapes of Ama reminded me of the Western rape of Africa�s peoples and mineral resources.�
Almost every student agreed to support reparations for African American education and for minority entrepreneurship.   None were enthusiastic about direct financial compensation from the federal government to a single generation of descendents.  As the students refined their ideas, they broadened the healing to include Native Americans and poor whites.  US corporate involvement in slavery aside (to be resolved separately in courts), Congress must pass H.R. 3745.  If government complicity is discovered, the United States must apologize.  Funding reparations would be voluntary and provided by a tick box on one�s income tax return: �Contribute $1 to the fund for reparations�.�
  Solicitation would last as long as the program�for the next 400 years�however many years number from the year of implementation back to 1619, when slaves first entered Jamestown.  The program of educational and entrepreneurial benefactions would be directed by private and government officials initially chosen by those involved in the research project of H.R. 3745, including input from the African Studies Association.  After some four centuries of funding from interest earned, the principle would revert to the federal government to help relieve the public debt. 
So, by the project�s end Ama had begun a new journey; she had convinced almost all students that reparations is not about whether or not, but rather in what inclusive form. 
Who are you homo?
Kenneth Wilburn, Department of History, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA 27858

Tamara Wagner

African Postcolonial Literature in English pages in the Postcolonial Web

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Manu Herbsteinapos;s first novel, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is a meticulously researched historical novel that offers a vividly rendered picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. Its ethnographic realism with its emphasis on historical detail and ethnic mapping of alterity links it more to the early postcolonial fiction of the mid-twentieth century than to the postmodern experiments that have been widely used in the new historical novel of the last two decades. While throwing the development of the genre of the postmodern historical novel back twenty years, it also constitutes a reminder of what postcolonial literature was originally about.
Set in late-eighteenth-century West Africa, Ama tells the story of the Bekpokpam girl Nandzi, its admirably resilient heroine. The novel opens with Nandzi's abduction by a party of slave raiders assembling the annual tribute due to the Asante Confederacy. She is later selected as a personal present to the Queen Mother of the Asante. Given an Asante name, Ama Donko, which she is to retain despite various further "similarly enforced" name-changes, she resiliently settles down to her new life. After the old king's death, however, his adolescent successor falls in love with this voluptuous new slave, who is consequently transported to the coast "for reasons of state" (ch.11) and sold to the Dutch. It is once again her extraordinary beauty that singles her out. De Bruyn, the Director-General of Elmina, which the Dutch had taken from the Portuguese in 1637, takes a fancy to her. He names her Pamela and decides to teach her to read and write in English, so that she can read out novels to him. Among the books they read together is A History of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, an abridged version of Samuel Richardson's mid-eighteenth-century bestseller. The plot of Pamela&"s eventually rewarded good behaviour seems to be re-enacted and its promises fulfilled when De Bruyn grants Ama/Pamela her freedom in his last will, but the document is burnt by his temporary replacement and Ama sent to Barbados on a slave ship, The Love of Liberty. The rest of novel maps the transatlantic slave-trade, evoking the conditions on board ship in lurid detail. Eventually a storm blows the ship off course, forcing the captain to sell the slaves in Brazil to pay for the repair of the ship. Ama is set to work on a sugar cane plantation, works as a maid, and marries Tomba, a rebellious slave whom she already tried to help on the slave ship. When Ama is raped, Tomba guts the rapist, and they have to flee. The epilogue records Ama�s plans to tell her son her story. The glimpse of hope that is invested in this child prefigures the fight for the abolition of the slave trade in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century.
While there is no lack of atrocious villains and personal hostilities in the novel, it repeatedly hints at a less tangible cause of human suffering. It is the economic order of capitalist free trade and the political as well as financial decisions underlying slavery and the slave trade with their securely remote beneficiaries that directly and indirectly inflict the injustices suffered by their victims. The wide range of non-African characters in the novel emphasises the complexities and international involvement of the transatlantic slave trade. The novel offers insight into the possible motivations of those who buy or sell slaves as well as into the minds of their victims.

Manu Herbstein, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. E-Reads, 2001.
Tamara S. Wagner completed her Ph.D. at the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge in June 2002 and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore. She has published articles on nineteenth-century literature and culture as well as on postcolonial fiction. Her Ph.D. thesis on nostalgia in the British novel served as the basis for her forthcoming book, Longing: Narratives of Nostalgia in the British Novel, 1740-1890.
Wagner's research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and the historical novel. Her latest project is a study of the postcolonial historical novel with its main focus on the representation of Singapore and Malaysia in fiction. A book chapter on nineteenth- and twentieth-century sequels to Jane Austen's novels is forthcoming.
As a Fellow of the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore, Tamara S. Wagner has contributed both to the Victorian and the Postcolonial Web. Tamara S. Wagner may be contacted via email:

Rayda Jacobs

Rapport (South Africa) 29/06/02

(Translated from Afrikaans by Manu Herbstein)

Well-deserved international attention for South African debut
Electronic novel published by E-reads
Manu Herbstein, a South African who lives in Ghana, was recently awarded the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best debut novel (the overall winner is the Australian Richard Flanagan, for Gould's Book of Fish).
Herbstein makes history with his award since it is the first time that an electronic novel has won a major literary prize. The book is available on request in electronic or printed format (for further information see
Herbstein spent four years on the research for his story of a young Ghanaian slave girl in the eighteenth century and the background material connects in places with that of Dan Sleigh's Eilande (Tafelberg, 2001) and Dalene Matthee&apo;s Pieternella van die Kaap (Tafelberg, 2000).
The story begins with a puff of dust on the horizon. The fifteen year old Nandzi is alone at home while her family attends a burial. She has already been committed in marriage to Satila, an older man but is really in love with her young lover, Itsho. While she day-dreams over her fate, brigands attack the homestead and she is raped and abducted.
This is the beginning of many displacements and humiliations. After her capture by the Dagomba raiders, she lands in Kumase in Ghana, where the queen mother of Asante renames her Ama. The Asante sell her to the Dutch and she spends time shut up with other slaves.
In a particularly disturbing scene she is bought by an Amsterdam official after his bodyguard has first made absolutely sure that she is free of venereal disease. After he has brutally examined her in front of other slaves and slave buyers, she is taken to the quarters of the elderly official. He again changes her name and she is now called Pamela. At the same time he becomes infatuated with her and arranges for her to learn to read and write: "He taught me the language of the English and to read and write. He taught me that the world is like an orange floating in space; that there are six continents and that one of them is Africa."
For her part, Ama is serious about their relationship, but the marriage that he proposes and envisages, never happens. He is taken ill and dies and Ama is sold again. She is loaded on a ship and after a terrible journey over the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, she is sold to a new owner. This is the beginning of a new chapter in her life which in the end, in a surprising turn of events, leads to her freedom. Ama is a story of struggle, resistance and inner strength. Great attention is paid to detail and the descriptions are atmospheric and sensual. The book would benefit from the strong hand of a capable editor; some cutting might be in order. The extensive use of italics to indicate the thoughts of the characters is also disturbing.
All the same this is a notable debut which amply deserves its recognition, in particular because of the deep research which underlies the text.
Rayda Jacobs� published works include The Slave Book (Kwela, 1998) and Sachs Street (Kwela, 2001).

India Edghill

Historical Novels Review May 2002

Eighteenth-century Africa is a land of many tribes and kingdoms -- and many enmities between them. While tending her young brother one day, young Nandzi is captured by slavers of another tribe. Through humiliation and rape, she endures, eventually being sold to the Queen Mother of the Asante, who renames her Ama. Ama makes a pleasant life for herself among the Asante, until the new king falls in love with her and Ama is framed for a theft and sold again; this time to slave dealers who sell her to the Dutch slave traders on the coast. There the Director-General, Pieter De Bruyn, takes her as his mistress; becoming fond of her, he also teaches her to read and write. Once again Ama has a peaceful life -- until De Bruyn dies, and she is sent across the Atlantic to the slave market of Brazil. There she must begin again to carve a new life for herself, this time as a plantation slave. And there she meets and falls in love with Tomba, a rebellious warrior whose spirit matches her own; a love doomed by their desire to be free. . An engrossing and powerful story of a woman of courage, intelligence, and strength, AMA is not for children, for the squeamish, or for those who demand political correctness in their history. AMA's author tries to depict the Atlantic slave trade as it was, making no concession to modern revisionism; readers will look in vain for stereotypes in AMA's pages. Herbstein does an admirable job of bringing a strange, harsh world to life; AMA is a book that deserves a much larger audience than it will probably get.

India Edghill

I'm very glad to have had the chance to read and review AMA; it's a fine book and Ama is a wonderful character who reminds me of another strong, enduring woman in fiction, Scarlett O'Hara (Hamilton Kennedy Butler). NOTHING stops either one; if Ama had been Scarlett's Mammy, Sherman never would have burned Atlanta!
Sincerely yours,
Jennara Wenk (aka India Edghill)
The Historical Novel Society' web site is