Aluta opens on July 22, 1982 with eighteen-year-old Charlotte Abena Mampomaa Adom being interrogated by a man about her reasons for being in Accra. He suggests Charlotte, who is secretary of her university's Student Representative Council, is attempting to attend a subversive NUGS (National Union of Ghana Students) meeting. Charlotte is slapped and forced to drink water which has likely been drugged and she drifts off. Her memories form the story in Aluta.
It is 1981 and Charlotte is newly arrived in Room 803 at her residence, Africa Hall at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. She is eighteen years old and from Kibi, Eastern Region in Ghana. Her roommate is Mary, a third year student in social sciences. Her neighbors next door in Room 802 are Juaben and Sylvia. Two weeks in, matriculation happens and while trying to avoid being thrown into the lobby fishpond, Charlotte meets a boy named Banahene. Banahene introduces himself as Mary's cousin and Charlotte states it was never her intention to fall in love with him.
Mary has a fiance, William Opoku who is a Kumasi lawyer and of Ashanti ethnicity. Charlotte is impressed by his charm, and the sense of accomplishment he exudes. This is further enhanced by the Mercedes-Benz her drives with its black leather seats and tinted glass. Mary and Mr. Opoku take Charlotte out to dinner and dancing. At a night club in Nhyiaeso, Charlotte meets an older man, Asare who sometimes speaks with an American accent but although she dances with him, she rebuffs him because he is with another woman.
In school Charlotte is studying political science, history and English. She is not really interested in politics but gets drawn in by her political science professor, Dr. Ampem who invites her to his political group. Dr. Ampem is passionate about the late Dr. Nkrumah, Ghana's former first president and he wants Charlotte to become part of the Student Representative Council and the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS). Charlotte is relentlessly pursued by Asare, who invites her to his home and asks her to be his girlfriend. He gives her gifts and money but Charlotte cannot commit to Asare. In the backpack is money, airline tickets from Kumasi to Accra and forms for a passport. Over the Christmas holidays the government of Dr. Limann is overthrown and Jerry Rawlings is once again in power, his government called the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). Back at university, Charlotte finds herself increasingly drawn into politics, especially after the universities are briefly closed and she and the other students forced to harvest cocoa. But as Charlotte's role in resisting the socialist government grows, so does the danger to herself and her fellow students.
Aluta (which means protest march) is a gritty recounting of Ghana's struggle to create a democratic state out of the ruins of British colonial rule. Set in 1981-82, it tells the story of Ghana's university students who are galvanized to protest the brutal suppression of opponents by the new Jerry Rawlings government. The main character, Charlotte Adom has no intention of becoming politically active. Her father has reminded her that she is in university to get a good degree. However Charlotte is drawn in by Dr. Ampem who hopes to influence "a new generation of highly intellectual and capable minds who might lead Mother Ghana to glory someday,..." It is the kidnapping and murder of two judges and a military officer that results in the student organization that results in NUGS attempting "to force the government to return the country to a democratic process." The students, including Charlotte, do this by organizing a country-wide protest march, known as an aluta.Unfortunately, because of her connections to Asare, Charlotte doesn't realize the danger she is in.
The story is narrated by Charlotte whose voice in the novel feels somewhat muted. The novel employs in medias res - that is it opens in the middle of an event, that of Charlotte being interrogated and then fills in the details of how she came to this point. It then picks up after her interrogation and the terrible consequences for her. In her first year of university, Charlotte is transformed from a naive girl who doesn't know about hair straightening and makeup to a young woman eager to voice her opinion. "With each day that I lived on campus, I seemed to grow a little larger in my heart and a little freer from restriction. I was ready to turn into that cool, smart person who lived life with panache." She finds herself pursued by two men, fellow student Banahene and the wealthy, sophisticated Asare who is a middle man in the oil industry. Her friend Banahene shows her that life is more than parties and nightclubs, introducing her to political life. Charlotte discovers she has a flair for political discussion and her passion for the student cause eventually marks her as an enemy of the new government. In dealing with the consequences of her political involvement, Charlotte is both courageous and fragile. Her spirit is broken; Asare is on trial and Banahene is gone.
Badoe provides a portrait of an African country most Canadian readers know little about. Ghana, formerly known as the (British) Gold Coast, was a British colony from 1902 to 1957. Ghana gained independence on March 6, 1957, the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so. It's first president was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah's government was eventually overthrown in February of 1966 as he became increasingly dictatorial. A series of coup d-etats resulted in a very unstable situation in the country until 1981 when Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of the Provisional National Defense Council came to power. Rawlings overthrew President Hilla Limann, who was an elected president. Badoe's novel is set at the time of Rawlings ascension to leader of Ghana.
Aluta offers readers an insight into everyday life in Ghana. Charlotte comes from a working class family, her father is a teacher and so she is able to afford a university education. Badoe's main character, Charlotte is in many ways not much different from young people in Canada in the early 1980's. Like Canadian university students, Charlotte likes to dress up, go out dancing and meeting boys. She wears make-up, and her roommate helps her straighten her hair. Like most young people, Charlotte is enjoying the freedom distance from her parents gives her. And like some young Canadian students, Charlotte is politically engaged, attending meetings What is different is the relationships some of the young women have with older, established men. Charlotte's roommate Mary is engaged to an older, established man and Charlotte is actively pursued by a wealthy man, Asare who takes her to dinner, gives her money and clothing.
Where Ghana differs from Canada is of course in its political instability and the consequences of that instability. Unlike Canada, the student protests are quickly shut down and terrible things happen to some of the student leaders. Banahene is forced to leave the country after learning his life is in danger, while student leaders from Legon and Cape Coast are arrested and released only when they promise to support the government. Civil rights are unilaterally suspended. Unlike Canadian universities, the university Charlotte attends is not in good repair. The elevator in her residence building has been broken for the past eight years and has never been repaired, meaning Charlotte must walk up eight flights of stairs. There's a shortage of hot water.
Adwoa Badoe drew from her own experiences growing up in Ghana and wrote Aluta so she could tell the story of what happened during the years of revolution. At this time the news in Ghana was carefully managed so that its own citizens did not really know what was happening. Badoe experienced the 1981 coup in Ghana and like her protagonist, bagged cocoa. She now lives in Canada. Aluta is Badoe's second novel.
The author includes a glossary of terms and also an Author's Note which provides some background information on the events in the novel. Aluta does not offer a happy ending and its unusual theme might deter some readers. But for those readers interested in exploring a little known part of 20th century history this novel offers that chance.
Aluta by Adwoa Badoe
Toronto: Groundwood Books 2016