Faceless by Ghanian author Amma Darko, is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. I discovered it via Celestine’s review at Reading Pleasure but even so I was unprepared for the bleak world it represents with such chilling authenticity.
It is a story of street children in the chaotic slums of Accra (the capital of Ghana) and although it ends with a hopeful resolution for one child, the novel leaves an indelible impression that there is no future for thousands of others. It’s a story of exploitation and neglect replicated in rapidly growing cities in many developing countries from India to Mexico, made more distressing because these children have families.
Faceless begins in a slum cynically christened Sodom and Gomorrah with 14-year-old Fofo narrowly escaping rape by Poison, a Street Lord and local thug. She flees to her friend Odarley where we learn that Poison controls even the shared toilets and that Fofo is constipated because all she’s had to eat is bread. The scene then shifts abruptly to the middle-class life of Kabria, a good-hearted researcher for MUTE, an NGO which is a repository for alternate stories not found in books. Kabria is harassed by her demanding children and a bone-idle husband who expects his wife to wait on him even though she is in full time work as well. (Gender relations has been a theme in many of the recent African novels I’ve read).
When Kabria and Fofo cross paths, the young girl’s back story is gradually revealed. Like her older sister Baby T., she is cast out to fend for herself by her feckless mother Maa Tsuro, and like Baby T. she becomes a prostitute. Baby T. was found brutally murdered in the marketplace in another Accra slum called Agbogbloshie, and would have become just another forgotten casualty of slum life were it not for Kabria and her friend Dina at MUTE. They enlist the help of Sylv from a community radio station, and together they confront the shocking truth about Baby T.’s short life.
Part of the achievement of this book is the insight into the complexities underlying street life. Maa Tsuro is a victim of her own fecundity and the widespread belief that women are better off with a bad man than the shame of not being wanted. She is illiterate and unemployed and she falls for sweet-talking men who hint at regular income but tragically for her children these men turn out to be more than just losers taking advantage of her. Kpakpo sexually abuses Baby T. and when she turns for help to an old family friend called Onko, he rapes her. When Fofo finds out and Maa Tsuro is confronted by what’s happened, Kpakpo wangles the child into a ‘domestic help agency’ which is of course a brothel.
Superstition plays a part in what happens next, but it’s poverty, ignorance, gender relations and hopelessness that underlie the tragedy of these lives. Darko doesn’t dwell on it, but even as Fofo enters rehabilitation under the auspices of MUTE there is still the unresolved question of whether she has AIDS or not. And she is just one child of many.
There are light-hearted moments in the novel, especially through the motif of ‘Creamy’ – Kabria’s capricious old VW Beetle, and Fofo is a spirited and intelligent girl whose sassy chat with Odarley is funny and wise. Kabria’s rebellious thoughts about her household situation are droll and show the author’s sense of humour about the battle that lies ahead if women are to achieve anything like equality in the home or anywhere else. These contrasts lighten the mood and make reading the book a bearable experience. Faceless is Darko’s third novel and I shall be looking out for the others.
I have a suggestion provoked by this book: let’s use the power of our blogs to help spread the idea that limiting Christmas gift-giving to a special few, enables a gift via Oxfam Unwrapped or any of the other NGOs or charities that support aid and development. My favourite gift is this one, and since I stopped giving those ‘obligatory’ gifts at work I’ve bought lots of them over the years, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Author: Amma Darko
Publisher: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2014
ASIN: B006VY3BZ0 (Kindle)
Source: Personal library
Print copies are horribly expensive at Fishpond and similar online stores (Faceless) so although I hate supporting That Big Behemoth I bought this one for the Kindle.