By Anote Ajeluorou
There are very few historical fictions on the African continent, especially Nigeria. There is now a gradual or total loss of the stimulating ambience of folk or oral narratives in which young ones get firsthand historical re-enactment of the founding of their race. This is further compounded in Nigeria with government’s anti-intellectual stance with the non-teaching of history in schools. Indeed, all the great empires and kingdoms stand to be forgotten with the general populace none the wise for it.
But U.S.-based Nigerian, Nike Cambell-Fatoki has in part rescued from the ashes of forgetfulness the history of one of Africa’s great kingdoms with her new novel Threads of Gold Beads (The Three Magi Publishing, U.S.; 2012). Her restoration effort on the kingdom of Danhome, with its famous Abomey capital, is a worthy literary enterprise that traces the Republic of Benin back to its ancient roots before and during the French invasion that routed the kingdom and left it in ruins.
But it is not all about the ancient history of Danhome that she has recounted. Campbell-Fatoki has also told love stories, of a king’s love for Amelia, his precious daughter, which endangers her life; how an entire kingdom also falls in love with its princess and how she becomes the army general’s wife. It’s also the story of a mother’s love for her only daughter, who soon inherits the burden of a falling kingdom and her personal odyssey through thick and thin to survive and how she reincarnates into her own mother’s former existence and then finds what she had lost to war and the vagaries of life.
Campbell-Fatoki’s Threads of Gold Beads, relates the life of the last great king of Danhome, Gbenhazin. Soon to-be-king, but he must remain on the outskirts of the capital and must not live in the same palace as the reigning king. At the death of Glele, an elaborate coronation ceremony is held to install King Gbehanzin, who is secretly taken away at night from his palace on the outskirts of Abomey. With the support of Kamlin, the Kpojito, one of the former wives of the late king, Gbehanzin is able to ascend his father’s throne in spite of opposition against him from other princes.
He proves a great king like his ancestors but the advancing French did not please Gbehanzin; it eventually led to war that was to ruin a great African kingdom just like many others in the hands of European encroachers.
Largely from oral accounts, historical records and creative ingenuity, Campbell-Fatoki is able to fictionally reconstruct the kingdom of Danhome, the only kingdom that had a standing a female army in the world; called ‘mothers’, they functioned as the secret service that protected the king, his household and other high-ranking officials.
Amelia, the king’s favourite princess, is a young woman whose destiny is closely intertwined with that of Danhome kingdom. Her mother, Ajoke, was abducted from Abeokuta in one of Danhome’s wars of conquests. She is adopted by Gbehanzin’s mother, a woman who must suffer pariah from the kingdom she gives an heir out of a custom that forbids the heir-apparent’s mother to live once she has discharged her fateful duty of siring the king-to-be. Having survived her ordeal, she surfaces to claim a place in the king’s heart and ensures Gbehanzin marries Ajoke.
Eventually, the army general Dossou, marries Amelia, the love of his life from childhood. But by then, the forces of disintegration have set in. Danhome is at the verge of collapse. While Dossou is gone to war, Amelia’s mother and grandmother, the king’s mother, summon her and task her to leave the kingdom at once with the king’s recade, his symbol of power, to neighbouring Abeokuta to seek refuge at the court of Alake of Agbaland. Gbehanzin and his entire palace officials, wives, children and army flee into the forest to wage a gorilla war against the French. Not even having to sacrifice his own mother to the gods is able to save Danhome from collapse.
The journey through the unknown jungle proves a test of great proportion for the newly married woman. She arrives with her brother, Dare, the son of the woman with whom Ajoke was carried off into captivity years back. A combination of incidences and Amelia unknowingly finds self in the care of her mother’s sister, Madam Titilayo. From here, life takes a new turn; she gives birth to Dossou’s son but forces around her connive to deny her the joy of motherhood until much later when she reunites with Dossou, again at the verge of marrying another man.
Indeed, Campbell-Fatoki’s Threads of Gold Beads is a great historical account of a kingdom at its twilight, a kingdom with a great culture, a kingdom that celebrated Africa’s quintessential virtues and vices. In telling Danhome’s story, Campbell-Fatoki has told the story of old Africa and its glorious and sometimes inglorious ways. Essentially, it’s also a story of Africa’s collision with the West and how the continent emerged worst off and broken under superior firepower. It’s also the story of the regular intrigues in a typical palace, how a favoured child falls on the wrong side of things. It’s also a story of redemption or reuniting of blood relations previously violently separated – Ajoke’s daughter, Amelia, reunites with her lost aunts, Madam Tilayo and Jumoke, Ajoke’s half-sisters.
But Campbell’s story reads false in a particular respect. Dossou and Amelia’s love seems too modern; their courtship and even after is not exactly reflective of love relationship in old Africa, with its strictness and non-contact of the sexes, even when betrothed. It’s a love that is acknowledged rather than expressed. Theirs is too expressive and not particularly true of the timeline being recounted.
Also, the first person narrative format is suspect for a non-literate person like Amelia. Campbell-Fatoki could have chosen to write the story otherwise. But overall, Threads of Gold Beads is a great creative effort for which the author is to be commended.