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Ancestor Stones
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Festival of African Lit. 2016 > Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna

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Maggie | 177 comments Tomorrow begins our reading of Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna, a very rich story about West Africa, specifically, Sierra Leone. It tells the stories of 5 women and their family from 1926 to 2003, and along the way tells the story of the country during times of peace and upheaval. Please join us in reading this beautiful and moving book.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments I like this story, Maggie. The author Aminatta Forna knows the culture well and she places the women's stories in four different times of their lives.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments The women are interesting in this novel. The four main characters are offspring of Gibril Umaru Kholifa.

He married eleven wives according to the family tree. Asana, Mariama, Hawa, and Serah are his daughters. I liked the physical descriptions of clothing, fabrics, foods, houses, and objects. Each daughter differed from the others in life experiences. Most of them fulfilled the expectation of marriage; while one of them carved an untraditional path through life.


message 4: by Betty (last edited Oct 24, 2016 06:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments A fifth woman is Abie, the niece of Serah. Abie's father is Serah's "belly brother".

In the introductory chapter, she receives a letter about the family's coffee plantation Rofathane from her cousin Alpha. From July-November 2003, she leaves her husband and children in London for her Edenic, childhood home in Sierra Leone.

In the concluding chapter, she's restoring the plantation, planting coffee seedlings.


Maggie | 177 comments Although we get to see very little of Abie, I love her for the way she loves and cares for the others and the plantation because of her love of them. They are the tie that binds her to Africa and the plantation.


message 6: by Betty (last edited Oct 24, 2016 06:44PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Abie remembers some things which an outsider passes over. She notices the same distinct shape of an ear on a Sierra Leonean boy like her own son possesses. She carries memories of people's lives there through oral storytelling and affectionate family ties; whereas an outsider arrives with merely a blank slate and without a feeling of affinity.

An outsider might be disapproving about polygamous marriages, about spiritual beliefs, and about many different things. S/he might be against assimilation into the culture.


Gisela Hafezparast | 3 comments I am nearly through with this book and found it very fascinating as it gives an insight story into women's experiences of a polygamous marriage. I have to say though that it took me quite a while to get the hang of who is who. I have to say even the thought of a polygamous marriage is very difficult for me, especially as wherever in the world it seems to happen, the wives seem to be the last ones who have a say in it. Although here in this book this is not always the case. In this setting and in this family of a wealthy man it clearly works for some of the wives and children, although the further down the pecking order it get's the less good it seems to be for wives and children. My heart broke for the poor girl who was the 11th wife and her children.

I also have a soft spot for Abie, but I also find especially Mariama and Serah's development which seems so linked with Sierra Leone's colonial past and its struggle with independence. I am currently reading the horrific descriptions about the civil war, which is horrendous, but seem very true.

I wonder how we get back to the writer, i.e. the granddaughter, who married a white man and lives in Scotland. I am hoping we hear from her and what her thoughts are about the lives of these ordinary/extraordinary women. It is really good that the writer, who has a family connections, gives a voice to women who usually never have one.


Maggie | 177 comments Gisela, I'm so glad you've enjoyed this book. I've barely begun my second reading of it and am finding more and more things that delight me, many for the first time because I didn't notice them in my initial reading. I agree that, given their customs, the first wives had the better positions in the pecking order. I thought it was interesting that China had a similar pecking order of wives in their multiple marriages.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments While reading the women's stories, I'm noticing that the women are addressing someone. They are shedding light on their pasts for Abie. The latter is listening to them. Mariama (Mary) is telling Abie about the ancestor stones, describing her mother Sakie's tossing the variously shaped and textured stones into the air, catching and counting them, arranging and deciphering them, and softly singing to them. I'm keeping a lookout in the story for the acquisition of any more stones.


message 10: by Maggie (last edited Oct 25, 2016 08:31PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Maggie | 177 comments A. Fedosia wrote: "While reading the women's stories, I'm noticing that the women are addressing someone. They are shedding light on their pasts for Abie. The latter is listening to them. Mariama (Mary) is telling Ab..."

Yes, they are trying to educate her in their lives and customs, something that would have happened naturally if she hadn't followed her father and been educated in the West.

I think, too, that Asana's story of all the superstitions practiced on her to protect her from the ghost of her brother is indicative of the closed society of the women who had no other explanation for those things they didn't understand.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments I recall the commotion about Alusani's connection with his alive twin Asana.

Also, after the townspeople's obligatory spiritual conversion, they blended ancestral superstition into the new practices. Or otherwise the discontinuity of lineage turned into estrangement from community. When Kholifa stipulated that Mary's mother Ya Sakie discontinue her communion with ancestor stones, she turned into a detached madwoman. Those stones, which Kholifa hurled away, meant thus:
"Each stone chosen and given in memory of a woman to her daughter. So that their spirits would be recalled each time the stone was held, warmed by a human hand, and cast on the ground to ask for help. And as the names emerged from the shadows, I saw how my father had destroyed my mother" (chapter, 'Stones').
In the next chapter 'Fish' about Hawa, the re-educated inhabitants and the bygone diviner in spite of that believed that Hawa's dying mother Ya Tenkamu caused the ravages by the driver ants because the diviner got a confession from Tenkamu at the last minute before her death. Hawa demonstrated differently (to herself) the fictitiousness of their old wives' tale when she broke up the dam and set free the fish unbeknownst to anyone else. That calamity for the fish harvest the locals imputed to the ghost of deceased Tenkamu. The superstitions privately continued to exist.


Gisela Hafezparast | 3 comments I really loved the idea of these stones representing all these women and there their daughters, grand-daughters and others after them having a connection with them. I recently lost my mother and sister and whilst I obviously remember them both and probably my daughter will, one can't help thinking that ordinary women like us will be forgotten very quickly. It is a lovely idea to keep them in their descendents memory even though of course after a while they will only be a name.

For the husband to through these stones away because of his own religious "conviction" was an incredibly cruel thing to do to a women who was a minor wife. He must have known what he was doing to her. She had so little and these stones, apart from her daughter, were in my mind "her self-worth". But I guess, in this culture, like in so many, a powerful man like this has not been brought up to consider the feelings of a minor wife or women. Not sure, but I can't see him having done this to his first wife, but I might be wrong.


message 13: by Betty (last edited Oct 28, 2016 06:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Wife #1 Namina came with a high status and with previous children when she chose Kholifa.

Namina was the chooser. Her first husband was an older brother of Kholifa and was a chief during his life. By comparison, wife #10 Saffie was a a child when she was chosen by Namina for later marriage to Kholifa. Saffie wasn't from an important court family. She was carrying a water pot, as was her mother, when she was noticed by Namina.

Kholifa probably is older at the time of his marriage to Saffie. He is not amorous and is attracted to other diversions like diverting games during his calls.

After a night's rest, I see that the prior paragraph comments about the 10th wife Saffie instead of to the 3rd wife Sakie! Sakie makes use of the ancestor stones for problem-solving and encounters criticism; Saffie encounters the wooing of the Cement Man and suppresses her impulses. Both women suffer oppression from Kholifa.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Maggie wrote: "Asana's story of all the superstitions practiced on her to protect her from the ghost of her brother..."

In the childbearing episode of her life, it dawns on Asana after her break with Osman and her chat with Ngadie's daughter that Ngadie's surreptitious addition of bitter kola to Osman's food alters the course of his lovemaking with Asana.
"Maybe there was a reason things happened the way they did with Osman on those three nights."
Her rational insight brings out clarity, relief, and laughter.

Asana originally thought that Osman's unresponsiveness fell on the chemistry between them. That amorphous explanation bore resemblance to a superstition. I also thought that a superstitious explanation, such as the dead woman's ghost which caved in the dam, put an acceptable face on what actually happened (the young girl tore it down).


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Gisela wrote: "...I have to say though that it took me quite a while to get the hang of who is who..."

The illustration of the Kholifa Family Tree at the beginning is often referred to during my reading of the mother-daughter stories.


Maggie | 177 comments A. Fedosia wrote: "Gisela wrote: "...I have to say though that it took me quite a while to get the hang of who is who..."

The illustration of the Kholifa Family Tree at the beginning is often referred to during my r..."


It's strange, but I didn't have any problems keeping track of anyone either time I've read this book. Apparently the explanations given by the characters (i.e., my grandfather's sixth wife), were sufficient for me to figure things out or, perhaps, I just went with the flow until I could definitively identify the characters. In other books I've struggled with character placement within the family or who was speaking, but this book does not present that problem for me.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Maggie wrote: "...the explanations given by the characters...were sufficient for me to figure things out or, perhaps, I just went with the flow..."

I'm fascinated by puzzles.

An ornamental diagram like the Kholifa family tree entrances me.


message 18: by Betty (last edited Oct 31, 2016 09:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments The following reading guide is from the author's website: http://www.aminattaforna.com/assets/f... . There are so many details from the women's life stories told from memory. The work is fiction according to Forna's comment in the video on TWL's homepage.

In this story, the brushstrokes of catastrophes spotlight the impact on their lives but do not probe the historical events of Sierra Leonean history -- Hut tax war of 1898, the river ferry accident (1955?), the civil war (1991-2002), mining, educational provision and advancement, and others.

The personal stories couldn't have been told without the memory of those even as the women couldn't have known their underlying causes.


message 19: by Betty (last edited Nov 02, 2016 06:06AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments The world's first self-adhesive postage stamps, Sierra Leone, 1964

https://mangosalute.com/magazine/maki...

"At the post office I bought stamps with the same man's face on them. The world's first self-adhesive postage stamp was invented in this country. Did you know that? [...] We had flower stamps. Bird stamps. Stamps in the shape of diamonds. Country-shaped stamps. Stamps in the shape of the continent. One with a small hippopotamus who lived only in our swamps. Stamps that required no licking. Stamps with the President's face [likely Siaka Probyn Stevens, President 1971-1985] on them. Yes, we would be remembered for our stamps." [Serah, The Dream 1978]

Some earlier adhesive (not self-adhesive) postage stamps of 1956 with insets of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II:

Sierra Leone stamps

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postage...


message 20: by Missy J (last edited Nov 04, 2016 07:00AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Missy J (missyj333) | 62 comments I have only gotten to the first part of the book "Seeds." So far, I find it interesting how each character relates to their mother and how their mothers coped with Kholifa and the other co-wives. I find that this type of book requires careful reading and probably multiple readings too.

Speaking of superstitions, one thing that stands out for me is the habit of name-giving and/or name-swapping.
Right at the beginning of Asana's first story, Asana already mentions that her "name was Yankay, the firstborn", but then "My brother slid into this world [...] [t]hat was when she (Namina) took my name away from me and gave it to him." (p. 17) Did she lose her name because she was female?
The sixth wife Tenkamu's name was given by Kholifa, which resulted when another man had his eye on her. Literally her name means "Look for your own."
Kholifa also leads his family to a new home, which he names "Rofathane, resting place."
Even time is named ("The Year the River Rose and Snatched Away Houses in Old Rofathane", "The Year of the Locust Disaster"...), because the whole notion of dividing time into years, months, days and hours is still incomprehensible.

I have a question, in the "Stones" chapter (p. 35), Mariama talks about books that were written about them by a Very Famous Author and which the nuns didn't approve of. That author even lived in the country for awhile. Who was that author? Or is it just fiction?


message 21: by Betty (last edited Nov 04, 2016 11:16AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments I also delightfully noticed that the characters assigned names instead of numbers. The preference for words supported their traditions of oral storytelling and of transferring memory.

The issue with the exchange of names might refer to the administration of land. According to the section 'Obstacles to access to property', http://www.wikigender.org/wiki/africa... , a woman might only 'access' land through a man rather than through inheritance. You might come across an example of that custom at the very end of this story.

The 'Very Famous Author' possibly was a British novelist, a convert to Catholicism, as well as a freethinker about the precepts of his faith. He was in Sierra Leone during World War II.

(view spoiler)


message 22: by Jalilah (last edited Nov 06, 2016 04:49PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jalilah | 12 comments Up to now I did not read the comments on this thread just to avoid any potential spoilers. I am only about 2/3 of the way through, however this book is so thought provoking I just could not resist having a look!
As much as I found all the different view points fascinating in first half of the book, I also found the stories very fragmented.
It seemed hard to believe all these women could even come from the same family, let alone have the same father!
As I read on everything is starting to come together and the lives of the women more interrelated.
The parts about Sakie going mad after she loses her stones and
Saffie being accused of adultery and having to survive on her own are heartbreaking!
In both cases I asked myself where the father was in relationship to his children and if he knew or cared that they were suffering.
I think his seeming indifference might come from him losing all he had twice. I am hoping this will be addressed more later...

Gisela wrote: " "In this setting and in this family of a wealthy man it clearly works for some of the wives and children, although the further down the pecking order it get's the less good it seems to be for wives and ""

I had to chuckle to myself in one of the stories ( I forget which one now) a shopkeepers wife is described as being less fortunate because her husband did not have any other wives, so she had to do all the work all by herself!

Maggie wrote: "A. Fedosia wrote: "I think, too, that Asana's story of all the superstitions practiced on her to protect her from the ghost of her brother is indicative of the closed society of the women who had no other explanation for those things they didn't understand"

It's my understanding that in many African cultures ( and possibly many others of the world) it's believed that if a twin dies it will haunt the one that is still living.
I recently read an interesting take of this in The Icarus Girl by Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi

A. Fedosia wrote:" In the childbearing episode of her life, it dawns on Asana after her break with Osman and her chat with Ngadie's daughter that Ngadie's surreptitious addition of bitter kola to Osman's food alters the course of his lovemaking with Asana.
"Maybe there was a reason things happened the way they did with Osman on those three nights."
Her rational insight brings out clarity, relief, and laughter"


Honestly I did not really understand that part, what Ngadie was doing and what the Kola did. I have not yet gotten to the chapter told from Asana's pov where she has left Osman yet.

I am also waiting for some explaination as to why of all the grandchildren, Abie, a female, daughter of son of one of the lesser wives and at that has live abroad inherits the plantation.
I have some ideas already, but will have to read on!


message 23: by Betty (last edited Nov 06, 2016 06:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Lila (formerly Jalilah) wrote: "...where the father was in relationship to his children and if he knew or cared that they were suffering..."

The father probably carried his first children on his shoulders (I thought of Asana on the jungle trail to the coffee plantation), played with his granddaughter Kadie, and inwardly sympathized with the situations of his older children. For instance, though he felt the necessity of protocol when, after two years of childbirth in her family's village, the young wife Asana received presents from Osman before she returned to Osman's village, the father realized and sympathized with his daughter's bad situation in marriage. Yet, he acted in accordance with custom; she and the child Kadie left her family home (at least for the time being).


message 24: by Betty (last edited Nov 06, 2016 07:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Lila (formerly Jalilah) wrote: "...I did not really understand...what Ngadie was doing and what the Kola did..."

I returned to the chapter 'Asana, Bitter Kola'. Something related to kola or bitter kola [Garcinia] found its way into Ngadie's cooking for Asana and Osman. Many internet articles mentioned bitter kola's beneficial effect on male libido, occasionally on extended sleep, and on health as a whole.

However, one scientific study I ran across ( http://www.ajol.info/index.php/tjmr/a... ), disageed with bitter kola's reputed effect of increased libido. The study concluded that bitter kola decreased male libido. If Ngadie added bitter cola to the food preparation over three nights, then Osman underwent its sedative aftereffect. Ironically and sadly, Asana and Mbinty felt more amorous towards Osman. After Ngadie died, Asana hammered out an explanation from a couple of related occurrences.

So that's that with my interpretation of Ngadie's cooking and Asana's tacit memory of it.

I cannot vouch on the correctness of the study. I can state that the book is fiction.


message 25: by Maggie (last edited Nov 06, 2016 07:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Maggie | 177 comments I'm constantly aware of how beautifully Aminatta Forna writes. With a few words she tells me so much about the character, the times, the culture, etc. For instance:

Hawa: "Silence was my weapon. Not a blustering gun, but an invisible spider's web."

Serah (in describing the British granting electoral power): "They gave us the cow but kept hold of the tether."

Serah: "Talking to him felt like chasing butterflies. The words were beautiful, but their meaning was sometimes hard to catch."

Hawa: "The elders keep the head of the last chief to bury with the body of the next. So the lines goes on unbroken" [Thus each chief is buried headless, but with another's head added to their burial place.]

Mary: "Once I went to live among strangers and I learned what it was like to lose yourself. To feel the fragments flying off you. As if your soul has unhitched itself from your body and is flying away on a piece of string like a balloon. Lost in the clouds."

Mary: "Outside the sun shown brightly, invigorating me with hope. But by the time I stepped into the street the sky was suffocated by clouds and the sun was gone, like a promise broken every day."


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Lila (formerly Jalilah) wrote: "...why of all the grandchildren, Abie, a female, daughter of son of one of the lesser wives and at that has live abroad inherits the plantation..."

When I first read the novel, like yourself, I too thought that the sentences,
"The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there." [Prologue]
suggested Abie's inheritance. Two things reshaped my opinion. I mentioned the first one in Message 21. Customary law limited a woman's rights in the matter of inheritance. I found the second one also in the Prologue:
"I passed through the ruined groves of the coffee plantation that by then was mine. Not in law, not by right. Customary law would probably deem it to belong to Alpha, Asana's son. But it was mine if I wished, simply because I was the last person with the power to do anything with it."
As a result of both things, I interpreted Alpha's letter to Abie as his bestowal of Rofathane on Abie.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Maggie wrote: "I'm constantly aware of how beautifully Aminatta Forna writes..."

I admire her talent, too.


Gisela Hafezparast | 3 comments A. Fedosia wrote: "Lila (formerly Jalilah) wrote: "...why of all the grandchildren, Abie, a female, daughter of son of one of the lesser wives and at that has live abroad inherits the plantation..."

When I first rea..."


Yes I thought so too. It also seemed a way of getting her back to her home town.


message 29: by Betty (last edited Nov 07, 2016 07:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Gisela wrote: "...a way of getting her back to her home town."

When Abie went to Rofathane, she went to a place in ruins.

Civil disturbances had quietened; inhabitants had returned to burnt fields. Abie and Alpha had begun the restoration of the previously productive estate, transplanting coffee seedlings.

At this time, the Aunties were survivors advanced in years. Each of them was revitalized by remembrances of her eventful life through her storytelling to Abie. Former rivalries between some of them were presently transformed into camaraderie. Their stories were the continued links to the generations to come.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Our discussion of this novel is drawing to a close today, though the topic is staying open. We are traveling -- on the move -- to Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" in the former Belgian Congo.

Thanks to Maggie for the recommendation and the conversational thread.


Jalilah | 12 comments A. Fedosia wrote: "Our discussion of this novel is drawing to a close today, though the topic is staying open. We are traveling -- on the move -- to Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" in the former Belgian C..."

Thank you so much A. Fedosia and Maggie for introducing this novel to me! I absolutely loved it and would never have found out about it were it not for this group!


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments You are welcome, Lila. "Ancestor Stones" is likewise brand new to me. In videos, its author's genial personality and pleasant voice is in evidence.


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