Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo | Contemporary Fiction | Virago Books | 294 pages | Review by Jenn Augustine
Sankofa is the latest novel by Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo. In Sankofa, the reader follows Anna, a middle-aged, mixed-race woman from London. Anna was raised by her white mother, knowing nothing about her African father except for his name, Francis Aggrey. After her mother’s passing, Anna discovers a diary left by Francis from when he attended university in 1960’s London. Anna reads about her father’s experiences with racism as well as his relationship with her mother. In time, Anna discovers her father now goes by the name Kofi Adjei and was a revolutionary that helped liberate the fictional West African country of Bamana. Kofi not only helped free Bamana from colonial rule but was the country’s first president and was a ruthless dictator. In the midst of a separation from her unfaithful husband and a complicated relationship with her adult daughter, Anna decides to travel to Bamana to meet her father.
Race, Belonging, and Identity
Central to Sankofa are the themes of race and belonging. Anna feels as though she doesn’t belong anywhere, neither the UK nor Bamana, because she is mixed-race. Growing up in London, Anna is ostracized and targeted for racial abuse. When Anna attempts to share how she feels with her white mother, she invalidates Anna’s experiences, telling Anna to be less sensitive, and insists that they are “just the same.” It is not until Anna reads Francis’ journal that her experiences are validated and affirmed. In his diary, Francis recounts the racism he endured while studying at university. Anna relates to Francis, having been subjected to the same treatment only decades later. Anna and Francis are both too Black for London.
Anna hopes to find a greater sense of belonging when she travels to Bamana; these hopes, however, are ultimately dashed. While in Bamana, Anna is repeatedly referred to as an obroni, which means white person or foreigner. Despite being the daughter of the country’s first president, Anna is too white for Bamana.
Anna’s inability to find a place she belongs and thus a lack of sense of self is mirrored in her personal relationships. In her relationships with her husband, her daughter, her neighbor, and even her divorce lawyer, Anna is unable to assert herself and take definitive stances. Anna shrinks herself in order to accommodate others around her without taking her own feelings into account. It appears that deciding to travel to Bamana is Anna’s first time acting on her own desires and choosing to do something solely for herself.
Idealism, Reality, and Legacy
Through his diary, Anna and the reader see Francis introduced to political ideologies like communism, socialism, and pan-Africanism. While he is skeptical at first, it is clear that he ultimately buys into these ideals; Francis continues to engage with members of the British Left and ends up joining other Africans in London in their marches against imperial and colonial rule.
After playing an instrumental role in liberating Bamana, there is hope that Francis, now going by Kofi Adjei, will bring prosperity and stability to the country. One scholar at the time goes as far as to declare that Bamana, under Kofi, will eventually become “Switzerland in Africa.” This free and promising version of Bamana, however, does not materialize. Instead, Kofi remains in power for 30 years and is given the nickname “The Crocodile” due to his brutality. Assuming that Kofi did, in fact, intend to liberate Bamana with the hopes of bettering conditions for its citizens, this shift suggests that issues of politics and power in theory are very different from politics and power in reality. Furthermore, it suggests that one’s intentions are irrelevant to the consequences of their actions and, ultimately, their legacy. Despite what appear to be Francis’ well-meaning convictions, Kofi’s cruelty is well-known, and he is considered a despot internationally.
Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo is a captivating story sprinkled with humor about self-discovery and becoming oneself. Through the journeys of both Anna and Francis/Kofi, Onuzo highlights the themes of identity and belonging as well as idealism versus reality and legacy. Onuzo demonstrates the necessity of how an understanding or lack of understanding of our past impacts both our present and future.