As an African woman, I love reading stories about other African woman who have experienced various challenges and have overcome them. I love it when a women’s story is woven in such a way that reveals something about her heritage, the social hurdles that must be overcome and portrays the specific way in which she is able to embrace her femininity within her culture. That is why I so thoroughly enjoyed reading about the four women who grow up in an ever changing Sierra Leone in Forna’s book, Ancestor Stones.
The story unravels as Abie is requested to travel from Europe to Sierra Leone to see what remains of her grandfather’s coffee plantation. During her visit, her aunts revisit their pasts beginning from childhood. Thus, they are the personas in the novel for the most part. Her aunts are sisters from different mothers in a polygamous family Asana, Hawa, Mariama and Serah.
The readers are introduced to a small community in West Africa that has not yet been tainted by foreign influence. Here, honoring of the ancestors is part of everyday life and the forests are a place of such a familiar safety. However, this superstitious community treads the earth lightly, lest they are forced to appease the spirits. This is because we are taken on a journey through the eyes of villagers who depend on the natural and spiritual world and live in perfect harmony with it.
Eventually we sense the strict fear and reverence that the community adopts as Islam works its way down North Africa and across this little village. The so called worship of idols is condemned and people are stripped off the customs that they used to clothe themselves with. We see how this has negative psychological effects on some people as rituals are changed over night. There are some humorous accounts of how members of the community felt about seeing the white man for the first time. Through Forna’s writing we sense the curiosity, foreboding and reverence that the community upholds towards these new white skinned foreigners. Later the readers see the affects of colonization and the disillusionment thereafter as people’s lives are changed by things like mining, missionary schools and roads.
Forna also highlights how people’s lives were affected by Independence and shows their hopes and fears as they flirt with so called democracy. Though they dance in tune with democracy, it is but for a minute since dictatorship dashes any real hopes of freedom once the country has rid itself off the white man.
Besides the fact that I learnt so much about Sierra Leon’s history, I was happy to learn more about womanhood and what that meant for African women who are part of my mother’s generation. I am by no means trying to say that that their story is exactly like my mother’s story, no. I am however pointing to the fact that many women in Africa were influenced by colonization in similar way, and that one thing out of many that they have in common. For example, Abie’s aunts were literally the bridges between the old traditional, indigenous status quos and western-influenced modernity. They struggled to find themselves as they moved forward in their Christian education and were held back by customs that were considered primitive, yet gave them so much comfort and security.
A couple of the aunts leave Sierra Leone (which they had never thought of as a state) and pursue British education. Later we see that they are empowered and can think critically about politics and life. The aunts that do not leave to pursue their education struggle and live lives of husseling. This is not to say that they cannot think critically or analytically, it’s just to say that they are empowered in a different way.On the surface it also appears as though their lives are harder. Being an international student in the USA and having gone to a mostly all white school, it’s interesting to see how the two aunts felt in their institutions. I cannot imagine having to change my name so that it is easier for a white person to say it. Nor having everything that gave me my sense of self worth defiled. Thank God that we celebrate diversity in American and British schools today.
Cultural norms and men had various effects on Abie’s aunts. It was sad to see how similar their experiences had been despite how educated or in love they were. All of the women in the story experience some type of loss in regards to their relationships with men. All of them explain and compare themselves to their mothers’ relationships with their father. To them, their mothers were beacons of hope. Some buckled under social pressure, some became stronger and more confident in themselves. They all learned to cope and be independent despite what life had handed to them. The lesson I took from this was that no matter what challenges you go through, it’s up to you to come out stronger. After all, women were created with so much resilience.
The book ends with a suggestion that Abie’s child is as in touch with her ancestors as her great grandmother was. I highly recommend this book. Click Here to see what the NY Times thinks.