Book title: Sankofa
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Press: Virago (UK)
Publication date: June 2021
Reviewer: Nzube Nlebedim
The central preoccupation of the black man in racist America—as well as every human being placed by historical, religious, or social norms in boxes of oppression or bondage—has always been that of reclamation. Humans are programmed to set themselves back, away from the ties that hold them, to reorganise and situate themselves properly and by their constitution in the normative realm of things. History will remind us that marginalisation has bred, eventually, a great deal of dissatisfaction in the marginalised. From the black to white race experience in America and Europe, to the gender, and queer experiences in Africa and Asia, history has always repeated itself. There is always the fight, whether by violent means or through peaceful measures, to return to normalcy, to reclaim a stolen or hitherto veiled identity. This practice is evident in the philosophy of the Akan sankofa, in the idea of returning to reclaim what may have been forgotten or lost.
When I published my review of Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter (2016) in October 2021, I decided, and I implied, towards the end of the review, that I was no longer interested in reading anything from the author. Earlier, I had read and reviewed her first novel, Welcome to Lagos (2012). And so, I did not read her third novel, Sankofa, even when it was released shortly after then. It was her third book, and to me, then, another path I did not want to go through.
When a friend sent me the book to read, I ignored it until last week when I decided to pick it up. It wasn’t so much of a sin if thunder struck thrice in one spot, was it? I wouldn’t be held to any scorn if I allowed myself be hit for the third time.
I started with hesitation, and into the first pages, developed interest. One thing was sure from those preliminary pages: Onuzo’s language had changed tremendously. Her style of telling stories in her novels had developed in the six years since The Spider King’s Daughter. It was a happy moment watching this improvement happen. I eventually sat into the book, and it proved to be a most gorgeous read.
Kofi says towards the end of the novel, “There is a mythical bird we have here, Anna. We call it the sankofa. It flies forwards with its head facing back. It’s a poetic image but it cannot work in real life.” Sankofa, a Twi word, means, literally, “to retrieve.” The concept is represented, aptly, by a bird standing upright with its neck bent towards its rear. The word encapsulates the general idea of the novel, of the protagonist, Anna, and her need to sojourn back home to retrieve the template of her heritage. The work is set in the fictional West African country of Bamana, formerly Diamond Coast, a place that bears very close similarity to the real-time Republic of Ghana.
Chibundu Onuzo’s third book is a rich, profoundly evocative, and thrilling story of Anna Bain’s journey to find her long-estranged father. She uncovers new, startling secrets in the process.
Onuzo’s style of narration is properly done, in her situation of the past and the present. She presents both time frames at the best moments, unwrapping the world of the work, and the characters to us. There is an assuredness with which Onuzo holds her readers. It is spell-binding.
Sankofa does not lend itself so much to literary interpretations, but it excels most for its language and hyper-theme. It is rich in its depiction of the history, cultural complexity and depth of the African people. Her style is riveting, and her language is delicate and fluid. She reveals truths from two divides, but, to a great extent, balances them evenly.
Onuzo paints the blueprint for Africans to hold on to their heritage, or at least, to find it. Kofi Adjei and Anna Bain are pointers to this in the novel. A Segu-born student in London, Kofi returns home to fight for the independence of Diamond Coast, becoming its first Prime Minister, and then its first President. Kofi does not in any way feel that London is the place for his children to grow. He believes they would be “lost” if they grow there. And so when the opportunity calls, he returns home and joins a guerilla army to reclaim his home. Anna Bain, our protagonist, finds out Kofi’s existence from a diary he leaves her mother before he departs from London. Anna begins to feel displaced and grows dissatisfied with her existence. She heads to Bamana to uncover the truth. The book ends with Anna’s ritual initiation into womanhood, her rechristening, and her formal tethering to her paternal homeland. It is symbolic.
I particularly enjoyed Onuzo’s use of polarisms and dualities in her representation of race and racial relations. Prominent is in the Bronwen-Francis, and Anna-Robert pairs. She also uses it in her juxtaposition of the European society in London which she paints as civil and decent, with that of Bamana which is immediately introduced as rustic and savage. It is instructive to point out that asides the incidence of officials in the Bamana airport soliciting bribes (a practice Onuzo decides to ignore as also existent, although to a less brazen degree, in American and European institutions), Onuzo’s first showing of the difference between Europe and Bamana is in the latter’s predilection for eating pets. The narration notes thus:
The man thrust the puppy at my window. Its eyes were closed but its back legs twitched in its sleep. ‘Who’d buy a pet in traffic?’ ‘It’s for eating,’ the driver said. ‘They’re not allowed to do it. They only come out in the night.’
From these juxtapositions, Onuzo makes the case for race relations obvious in her book. She makes it known that, truly, the world is a word which has syllables all unequal to each other. There would always be a “lesser” nation. The perspectives of the citizens of these nations towards themselves is ultimately the unifying factor.
It is also interesting to point out that Anna is decidedly against the people in Bamana calling her obroni, and she once mentions to one of them that she is not an obroni. She is more uncomfortable with the title of “half-caste,” a term that denotes — more to her than most of her addressers — an incompleteness, a figure straddling between two places but denizen of none.
Anna narrates that, “I was pleased that there was something evidently Bamanaian about me although annoyed by her use of the term ‘half-caste’. It was archaic at best; offensive at worst.”
The extent, then, to which Anna accepts to use wholly the term “half” to describe her siblings from Kofi’s wife shows in great detail the extent to which she appropriates the importance and functionality of race in the wider sense and family in the narrower sense. It shows to us what Anna (and, possibly, Onuzo) perceives as top priority in the grander scheme of things.
With the book coming to a close, I had begun to appreciate much of what Onuzo did with it, the sheer work and intentionality that followed her prose. The book shows Onuzo as a more refined artist in both her style and her overall authorial message.
With Sankofa, Onuzo retells African history, reinvestigates its traditions, and reappropriates the stereotypical notion of Africa as a wasteland. She paints dictatorship in the light of humanity, too. Chibundu Onuzo has crafted here a fine book.