LOSING HASSANA by Ayesha Harruna Attah
A LIST OF NOISY THINGS: lizards, dogs, donkeys, hyenas, chickens and guinea fowl, birds in general, flies and mosquitoes, geckos mating, frogs, Wofa Sarpong during the day, Wofa Sarpong talking to his wives, Wofa Sarpong fighting with his wives, Wofa Sarpong’s wives fighting with each other, Wofa Sarpong’s wives pounding dried leaves or fufu, Hassana having her hair braided (by me), heavy rain patter on our thatch roof, the bracelets clinking up and down Wofa Sarpong’s first wife’s arms, Wofa Sarpong’s second wife’s singing, Wofa Sarpong’s third wife’s children yowling, local drummers stomping in to beg, Wofa Sarpong fitting a cart on his donkey, big pigs, little pigs, the village crier bellowing news from town, my stomach most days.
A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, my heart every morning, the thick forest that surrounds Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since we arrived on the farm, Wofa Sarpong at night when he comes into the room I share with Hassana, Wofa Sarpong’s excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by me, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on what goes on in my room, moonlight.
Wofa Sarpong kept my virginity intact. I don’t know why, but to ask why—even to ask myself—might have invited him to go beyond forcing himself into my mouth. I wanted to hide Hassana from that shameful thing he was doing to me. The thing we were doing. I was involved because I realized how powerful I was, that by just sinking in my teeth a little deeper, I could change my life and Hassana’s. Perhaps even gain our freedom. And, yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but lie still as he clutched at my face and throat until he got excited. I was paralyzed. When he’d get up to leave, my legs felt like a bag of salt, my heart sore. I was always too ashamed to move. I would lie there, a part of me—of all things—grateful. That he didn’t take his act beyond my mouth meant if I ever got back home, I wouldn’t be a completely ruined woman. Home. Did it still exist? I wasn’t even sure how far away we were, but this place was so different, even the rain wasn’t the same. Here, it was saturated, suffocating. Here, it spawned snakes, frogs, and a slimy green on the walls.
Quietness seeped and settled into Hassana when we arrived on the farm after our village was raided, about ten months before. The quiet spread within her like the mold that grew on our clothes, on our sheets, on any and every thing. Whether it was because she realized there was no hope of returning to our old life, to her twin, or because Wofa Sarpong started skulking into our room, I couldn’t tell.
“Your sister is strange,” often remarked Sahada, a girl whose father owed Wofa Sarpong a debt and had pawned her to him until he could pay. I wanted to ask her to leave Hassana alone, but I usually just grunted. She must have thought me strange, too, just a hair more approachable than my sister. The only time glimpses of the old Hassana appeared were the moments when she sat between my knees to get her hair braided. Often, I’d intentionally over-tighten a braid and, forgetting herself, she’d scream and hit my hand. Then just as quickly, she’d slide back into silence, handing me her head with quiet resignation.
Hassana washed Wofa Sarpong and his family’s clothes and their cooking pots. The skin of her poor little hands became like land after the rains: ridged and eroded. I worked on the farm, planting seeds, removing weeds, watering the seedlings, scaring away birds, harvesting millet and sorghum. I also fed the pigs Wofa Sarpong kept in a thatch enclosure. I worked with four girls, three of whom had also been plucked from their villages at night, like Hassana and me.
Sometimes we went into the forest to forage for kola. It wasn’t kola season yet, and according to his first wife, girls weren’t supposed to harvest kola, but Wofa Sarpong was overeager and would insult us every time we came back empty-handed. On the farm, Wofa Sarpong’s first wife and her sons supervised us, making sure we weren’t plotting to escape or steal. She was also the only person who could communicate clearly with us because she spoke some Hausa. In some ways, life wasn’t that different from my routine at home. Only now, I didn’t laugh much. And I had a man I could never love forcing me to do an unspeakable act.
Wofa Sarpong was away often, with his donkey and cart. It was a mixed blessing when he was gone. When Wofa Sarpong was away, it meant his wives burdened us with more work. They made us clean their rooms, Wofa Sarpong’s room, their children’s rooms, and after that they’d barely feed us. But when he was away, Hassana and I could talk at night without worrying that he was going to burst into our room. And, sometimes, the other girls would invite us to their room, separated from ours by a wall of woven palm fronds, and we’d whisper stories to each other. Hassana barely spoke, but smiled when someone said something funny.
Wofa Sarpong’s wives were small women with hair cropped close to their scalps. He, himself, was not tall. The first wife’s face was carved with two sharp scars on either cheek. The other two could have been twins, except for their voices. The second wife sang her words, which made me think she would be sympathetic, but she was vile. And the third wife sounded like a man. I watched Wofa Sarpong argue with them when they told him they’d run out of food; he would yell and rue the day he married them, and sometimes he would let them go without provisions until they got on their knees and begged. My parents’ relationship was nothing like this. If they ever argued, it was because my father had forgotten something. Head in the clouds, my mother always said of him.
Days, weeks, months went on like that. Hassana said nothing. I worked on the farm, allowed Wofa Sarpong to use my body to excite himself, and on festive occasions we inherited clothes from the first wife. Skirts that dragged on the floor as she walked, came up to my shins and sometimes didn’t even get past my hips, despite my malnourished body. Hassana fared better with the hand-me-downs.
Wofa Sarpong brought more girls to work on the farm and two girls moved into the room with Hassana and me. It didn’t stop Wofa Sarpong from coming in for his nightly visit.
There were days when the sameness of it all got to me. I’d cry and wonder what the point of staying alive was. But I’d see Hassana sitting by me, her shoulders slowly rising up and down with each breath, then I’d chide myself for thinking only of my happiness.
One morning, Hassana woke up drenched in sweat.
“It was bright where I was,” she began. “We were in a boat on a big lake surrounded by tiny hills and the water was two different kinds of blue. In front, the water was light blue like the sky and in the back it was a deep blue, a blue I hadn’t seen before. There was a line between the blues. And then, as we got off and stepped onto wet soil, we saw that right next to the water was a thick forest. It looks like here, but because of the lake it was brighter. The sun shone through. There were palm-like trees, but they were really tall. There were many of us getting off the boat. I couldn’t see faces, but there was a lot of confusion. And that’s where the dream ended.” She couldn’t stop the words pouring out. “I’ve never seen a place like this before. Even the boat. It was big and had white cloths on top of it that blew in the wind. It can only mean one thing: these are her dreams. Husseina is alive!”
She looked drained when she was done talking. I had never seen a boat with white cloths, either. And just by being older, I’d seen more of the world than Hassana had. I didn’t know what to believe. But she’d always had a connection with her twin that I couldn’t crack.
The village crier came from town, yelled something and was off with the speed of a mouse. At first I would ask Sahada to translate, but it was never anything interesting—sometimes it was about a new provision from the coast; other times, it was to announce a new church that was opening up that promised to save our souls—so I’d stopped asking. Also, I’d started understanding bits and pieces of Twi. That afternoon, we were taking a break after a particularly hot and grueling day, and after the village crier left Wofa Sarpong called and lined us up in order of height. His wives shuffled out of their rooms to watch. He pointed at Hassana.
“You Adwoa,” he said. Hassana looked confused. “You understand? You Adwoa.”
He pointed at the next girl and said she was Abena. That’s when I understood that he was changing our names. The third girl was Akua, my name was Yaa, and he went on like that, assigning names that corresponded with days of the week. Yaa. Thursday born. Then he said our last name was to be Sarpong, his name. Yaa Sarpong. I said it a few times in my head. Thursday born. I didn’t want my name changed—I was born on a Tuesday—but I had always been a person who did what she was told.
Wofa Sarpong turned to those of us who hadn’t understood him. “Inspector coming. You behave fine, understand? You don’t talk. You use the name I give you.”
I’d picked up Twi words at a speed that surprised me. Sometimes words were similar to ours, like “di,” the word for eat. I could even eavesdrop on simple conversations between Wofa Sarpong and his wives. I learned we lived near a town called Kintampo, and that this Kintampo was within another place called the Gold Coast, which was governed by white men. But complex sentences were harder to understand, so when we went back to the abrofo nkatie tree we’d been lounging under I asked Sahada to explain.
“People can’t buy, sell, or own slaves here,” she said, picking up a red abrofo nkatie fruit and biting into it greedily. “If the inspector finds out that Wofa Sarpong has slaves he’ll be fined heavily. Maybe even be imprisoned. Of course, a lot of people still have slaves, but they just pretend the slaves are their children.”
“But me and Hassana look nothing like him,” I said. “And they are much, much taller than he is.” I pointed to the new girls.
Sahada shrugged and slurped on what was left of the flesh of the fruit and then spat the seed onto her palm. She searched under the tree and found a rock. She laid the woody seed on its side on top of the abrofo nkatie’s exposed root and whacked at the seed until it cracked. She sucked her teeth in annoyance as she split open the mushed nut.
The girls and I were winnowing bowls of millet when we heard Wofa Sarpong’s voice grow squeaky as he squealed and chased after a man in a round hard hat, a light brown shirt, mid-thigh-length shorts, and dusty feet. The man walked the walk of someone who’d been given a small spoon of power and treated it as if it were a barrel. Wofa Sarpong’s wives and children trooped out. I didn’t understand all of the words the two men exchanged, so Sahada translated.
“He’s saying he knows Wofa Sarpong has slaves,” she said. “Sarpong just said, ‘But this is my family. What slaves?’” Wofa Sarpong took furtive glances at us. “He said the inspector should ask us himself.”
Wofa Sarpong went to his first wife and asked her to mention her name and the name of her children. Next was the second wife and her brood. The third and her children. Then the inspector, who at first seemed uninterested in the whole naming ceremony, looked straight at us.
“My nieces, my children,” said Wofa Sarpong. We weren’t standing in order of height this time. I went first. I said my name was Yaa Sarpong, the other girls mentioned their new names.
“Hassana,” said Hassana. She said it crisply and intentionally and the silence that followed, although brief, could be sliced.
“Her late father was my brother,” offered Wofa Sarpong. “He married a Northern woman. Very beautiful. You know how they are tall. She’s Hassana Sarpong.”
The inspector regarded her and called her forward.
“Where’s your father?” he asked her. Hassana looked at her feet. I couldn’t tell if she had understood or if she were being defiant.
Wofa Sarpong rattled a string of words, then said, pointing at the side of his head, “She’s not correct.”
The inspector removed a card from his front pocket and handed it to Wofa Sarpong. “Your first warning. I’ll be back.”
“Yessir,” groveled Wofa Sarpong.
As the inspector left the farm, Wofa Sarpong followed him, offering all sorts of praises on his good nature, praying for him to be blessed with many children. I looked at Hassana, whose fingers were back in the bowl of millet, looking for stones to remove. I could feel something terrible coming her way and wanted to hide her.
When Wofa Sarpong beat his children, he beat them. You could hear the heavy thwacks as he raised his arms to the heavens and landed his special whip on his children’s flesh. He didn’t stop until all the anger had drained out of him. Hassana and I had been lucky so far. At most, we’d been knocked on the head or screamed at to work harder, but we’d never tasted Wofa Sarpong’s lashes.
Loud footsteps approached. Wofa Sarpong was coming back. Hassana didn’t bat an eye as she worked on her millet. His children squeezed out of their rooms, their faces cracked into wicked smiles of anticipation.
Hassana didn’t look up at him, which must have angered him even more. He grabbed her ear and used it to lift her up from the ground. Her bowl of millet came crashing down and the tiny grey seeds spread on the red soil, forming the image of a fan, upon which I fixed my eyes as he whacked his cane against Hassana’s body over and over and over. The image of the spilled millet grew blurry. Hassana was screaming.
I should get up and protect her, I kept thinking. But I couldn’t move. What is wrong with you? Do something! a voice in my head said. I forced myself up and ran forward, sandwiching myself between Hassana and Wofa Sarpong. The silence that followed was thick and pregnant. He hesitated before unleashing the next lash. But before it landed on me, Hassana shoved me out of the way, so it hit her. I watched motionless as Wofa Sarpong continued to whack Hassana. When, finally, he stopped, he was drenched in sweat, his cloth bunched at his feet. Gruffly, he pulled up the cloth and returned to his room with his whip. I went to Hassana, coiled on the ground, blood soaking through her dress. Sahada came over, and we carried Hassana to our room.
“Get leaves from the abrofo nkatie tree,” said Sahada, and I rushed to the tree and broke off a thin branch. I was walking back to the hut, when Wofa Sarpong burst out of his room, trailed by his second wife. She seemed to be singing him instructions.
“Bring her,” he ordered. I dropped the branch and Sahada, and I carried Hassana out. “Put her there.” He was pointing at the donkey cart.
“Please,” I started, trying to delay whatever was going to happen next.
“Fast, fast!” he barked.
“Please, take us together,” I attempted.
Wofa Sarpong glared at me with bulging, veined eyes. I stood with arms at my sides as Sahada and Wofa Sarpong hoisted Hassana onto the back of the cart. Wofa Sarpong climbed up the cart, didn’t say another word, and hit the creature to get it moving. Sahada grabbed the branch from the soil and threw it at Hassana, telling her to chew the leaves to rub on her skin. I chased after the donkey till my chest was ready to explode.
I went back into my room and everything that happened sank in. I began to understand why she’d done it, why she’d defied Wofa Sarpong, why she’d wanted to be beaten. Now that she’d connected with her twin, she wasn’t going to stay on the farm. She did everything so Wofa Sarpong would get rid of her.
When Wofa Sarpong’s donkey clip-clopped back a few hours later, I rushed out, praying he’d had a change of heart, but Hassana had been traded for bales of cloth, a bag of salt, farm tools, and two chickens.
Then I began to blame myself. What was wrong with me? I looked up at the roof, Wofa Sarpong’s heavy exhalations floating above me. I couldn’t act when I needed to. I didn’t protect Hassana enough. I didn’t hold on to her. I wasn’t in physical chains: there were days after working on the farm, I’d spend hours with no one monitoring me. The land beyond the farm was thick with forest, and probably bursting with wild animals, but I was sure no one would come after me. And yet I stayed. I could bite Wofa Sarpong. But I didn’t.
He grunted as he approached his point of fullness.
“She get good buyer,” he said, scrambling up and covered his nakedness with his cloth. “An obroni.”
A white man. I didn’t even know what a white man looked like—people said paler than shea butter—so I couldn’t understand what that meant for Hassana and where her path would take her. All I could hope for was that Hassana and Husseina would someday find each other.
AYESHA HARRUNA ATTAH is a Ghanaian writer and the author of three novels: Harmattan Rain (Per ANKH), nominated for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010; Saturday's Shadows (World Editions), shortlisted for the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project, and The Hundred Wells of Salaga (Cassava Republic Press), forthcoming May 2018.
Educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and NYU, Attah was a 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate and Instituto Sacatar Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Asymptote Magazine, and the Caine Prize Writers’ 2010 Anthology. She was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for nonfiction.
She currently lives in Senegal.