“Fante and Asante, fellow Akans. Two peoples, two branches split from the same tree.”
Yaa Gyasi weaves an emotive tale originating from the matriarch Maame where the family splits into two: Effia and Esi.
The rest of the book uncovers how the slave trade in Ghana impacts seven generations from these half-sisters spanning over several hundred years through marriages and unions.
The overarching theme and unifying thread throughout the fourteen chapters is the slave trade and slavery but even more powerful is its impact on the Fante and Asante people.
“He had always said that the joining of a man and a woman was also the joining of two families. Ancestors, whole histories, came with the act, but so did sins and curses. The children were the embodiment of that unity, and they bore the brunt of it all.”
Each chapter puts a magnifying glass on the lineage of Effia and Esi and how the generations fare throughout the centuries.
The importance of roots, culture, names and identity is echoed throughout with an infusion of the supernatural, African beliefs vs Christianity and the missionaries.
Yaa Gyasi uses many contrasts throughout the book to highlight important aspects of society’s social challenges that black Africans continue to face today: Africans turning on each other, Black Lives Matter, importance of marriage and the security it signifies, religion and its connotations, but most importantly, the degradation of our African culture as a result of colonisation.
Her use of symbolism is powerful and consistent throughout the book with the most notable being the elements of Fire and Water.
“He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.”
The fire is symbolic of the pain that the lineage went through due to their participation in the slave trade and it is a recurring theme throughout.
“I came to these waters and I could feel the spirit of my ancestors calling out to me from the sand, but some others were trapped deep, deep, deep in the water so that I had to wade out to hear their voices.”
Marcus, who is the last person in Esi’s lineage also grows up afraid of the water as his ancestors were shipped from Cape Castle to America on the slave trade.
The healing comes in the very last chapter where Fire and Water meet with a powerful “Welcome home.”
This is a powerful book depicting the triumph of the human spirit despite the adversities of life.
The story is one of resilience, love, family and the far-reaching consequence of decisions and choices made today on those that come after us.
The book left a lingering question in my mind: 400 years of slavery later, are Africans truly free?