“I was never sure exactly what I wanted. I guess I wanted to be popular, and beautiful, and smart, and in love,” Charlotte observes.
She comes from Kibi, Eastern Region, Ghana, where some believe the women to be beautiful but cantankerous. Now Charlotte is eighteen years old, at school, and encountering a wider, more complex world.
“I was particularly thrilled to get into Achimota. All my life I had seen students pass back and forth along the pathways of the school, and I couldn’t wait to be one of them. I wanted to escape my home and my parents’ tyranny to reside with other girls. I wanted to experience those adventures I had read about in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series.”
What kind of adventures? “Books, degrees, clothes, boys and now religion. Everything was competing for our attention.”
(I was more of a Famous Five reader than a Malory Towers gal, but I understand their popularity. And, well beyond Blyton: who doesn’t love boarding school stories? Other than actual boarding school students, apparently.)
Adwoa Badoe succinctly situates readers in the dorm life in Achimota School, but she also captures Kumasi city night life.
Charlotte covers her insecurities and quietly marvels at the rapid accumulation of new experiences. “I marveled at how he could use the word fuck like a sort of garnish on his frustrations.”
She is easily impressed and flattered, particulary by Dr. Ampem, who teaches politics and invites her to attend a select group for evening political discussions.
“He reminded me of the Nigerian novelist, Wole Soyinka – brilliant and handsome. His best features were his bright eyes which crinkled easily with humor. Laughing eyes.”
Charlotte does inhabit a politicized world, having grown up with her father’s commentary about everything from queues to a schoolmate’s abuse by government representatives in the workplace.
She has lived through four coup d’états, the most recent a particularly violent one, which brought Jerry Rawlings and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to power.
(Previously Dr. Nkrumah’s government was ousted on February 24, 1966 ; Colonel Acheampong booted Dr Busia’s Progress Party on January 13, 1972; General Acheampong and General Utuka were executed on June 4, 1979.)
But in 1981, Charlotte becomes wholly immersed in politics: from manifestos to megaphones, from protest marches to half-burnt bodies and executions.
As readers consider Ghana’s political spectrum alongside Charlotte, big questions arise. Is a leader a messiah or a tyrant? (Or, both, depending on one’s personal status in the wake of the chaos.) Is grassroots politics a force for positive change? Or are people simply stirring up the working-class to manipulate them and hijack their power? (Or, both.)
“The revolution had come home to me.” Conflicts intensify and relationships which appeared to be tinged with political significance become embroiled in political change and they adopt life-and-death importance.
Given the history of unrest, members of different generations and different levels of privilege have different perspectives on the events which Charlotte experiences.
“’NkwaseasƐ – nonsense!’ said my dad. ‘To think your studies have been halted so you can sweep around places for which people have been hired to clean. Imagine a stupid claim that we are unable to move our most important cash crop to the ports. Tweaa! So much foolishness in one country! We might as well bring back the colonizers!’
This passage illustrates the natural inclusion of Ghanaian vocabulary, and also the context offered, so that the glossary at the end of the novel is a bonus rather than a necessity (as was the case with her previous novel, Between Sisters).
The sensory detail provided does root readers in time and place, and allows readers to fully visualize some scenes: the plaintain chips, peppers and yam, BBC’s “Voice of Africa”, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie “Endless Love”, rubber tire shoes, a red and yellow and green necktie, Haua koko (corn porridge spiced with chili and sweetened with sugar), a yellow rose worn behind one ear, and a purring BMW.
Like Between Sisters, Aluta is rooted in the experience of a young woman, against a background of instability, forced to gather internal strength and conviction in challenging times.
Charlotte is strong-willed and spirited, forward-looking and inspired: her next chapter would be just as interesting as Aluta.