Slavery in West Africa: Review of Abina and the Important Men

Parker Beemer, Wilfrid Laurier University

Historiography has been dominated by researchers gathering information on a particular topic, critically analyzing the material and then presenting their arguments in the form of an article or book. In the past few decades, however, this approach to presenting history has undergone significant evolution, with new methods becoming noticeably more frequent. One of these limited but nonetheless powerful new forms of historical scholarship is the ‘graphic history,’ based on the popular graphic novel format, which combines dialogue and illustrations to recount historical events.

An excellent example of this new genre is Abina and the Important Men by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Set in Africa’s Gold Coast (present day Ghana) in 1876, the book follows the story of the wrongfully enslaved young woman Abina Mansah and her battle with the court system to convict her master, Quamina Eddoo. The term ‘Important Men’ refers to Eddo as well as other slave owners and lawyers, but it is not meant to imply that they are superior to Abina. Quite the contrary, as I explain below, Getz and Clarke sympathize with Abina and they want to share the story of her courage – even though she ultimately loses the court battle (she does, however, remains in the capital as a free woman).

By providing a graphic history followed by a second section that presents the actual historical court transcript, readers are given a unique reading experience. The authors’ skills shine particularly in the graphic portion of the text, which provides readers with a visual representation of the individuals, discussion, and questioning that would have taken place in the courtroom. The value of this is twofold: readers can more easily understand the complex court transcript, while simultaneously being entertained. The second part of the text solidifies this understanding further. By providing the actual document, readers can reference and compare the graphic history to the historical framework which it is based on, furthering their understanding of Abina’s story while increasing their ability to understand more complex primary documents like court transcripts.

The books’ strength as a resource also stems from its alternative look at slavery and the slave trade. During the 18th century, roughly 74,000 slaves were exported from the Gold Coast each year. A standard historical analysis of this phenomenon would provide the key facts, but it might fail to develop a deep connection with most readers because the slaves would be reduced to mere statistics. By focusing on a particular individual, Abina and the Important Men develops a personal connection between the reader and Abina. Furthermore, by focusing on a lowly slave girl whose voice was not heard in court, Getz and Clarke provide a grassroots perspective rarely seen in the historiography. Rather than hearing about the important individuals responsible for the slave trade and slavery, readers are introduced to a character who had to suffer through it. In the grand scope of history, Abina Mansah is nothing more than a microscopic watermark. But perhaps that is why her perspective is so valuable. By allowing access into the life of an average person from that time period, readers are able to gain a more thorough understanding of what slavery was like and how it affected society in the Gold Coast. It is also quite likely that the name of the text is meant as an ironic gesture. Perhaps the frequent encounters with ‘important men’ throughout the text and the authors’ choice to portray them as relatively insignificant and bland individuals in comparison with Abina is a poke at other historiographies that view history from only the ‘great men’ approach.

In conclusion, Abina and the Important Men is an immensely valuable resource. Its ability to present an accurate and enjoyable narrative, to provide an alternative look at slavery and its nature in West Africa, and to take a new approach to historiography makes this graphic history very successful. Despite a few minor problems stemming from a slight lack of historical context and bias, on the whole Getz and Clarke’s book makes an important contribution to historiography. As historical methods continue to advance, so will the methods of writing about it. One can only hope that others will take the example set out by Abina and the Important Men and continue to expand on the way in which humans understand their histories.

Human Rights and Disability in Africa: A Case Study from Ghana, 2008-2014

By Jeff Grischow

My phone rang at 3:00 a.m. on a January morning in 2008. ‘I’m in the hospital,’ said a familiar voice, ‘I’ve had an accident.’ It was Kwesi, a friend from Ghana who worked as a carpenter at a government-run training centre. For the next hour, I listened as Kwesi shared his story.

On January 13, Kwesi left home on his motorcycle to check on a maintenance job at his worksite. On the outskirts of town an oncoming bus swerved into his path, tore into his left leg, and knocked him down. An ambulance took Kwesi to the nearest public hospital where a surgeon decided to amputate his leg below the knee. As we talked on the phone that January morning, he already had two clear goals: to obtain a settlement for his injury, and to reintegrate into his job at the training centre. Over the next four years, Kwesi embarked on a quest to claim his rights as a newly disabled Ghanaian. It was not easy, and it depended on a combination of personal determination, chance encounters and help from people who championed his cause.

Kwesi’s journey began with his discharge from the hospital on February 10, 2008. To be released, the hospital demanded that he pay the full bill of 900 cedis (equivalent to USD$900, or four months’ net earnings). Otherwise he would be left the condemned ward without food or water. Faced with this prospect, I helped him to pay the bill and he returned home. For the first four months Kwesi relied on crutches, which made it impossible for him to return to work fully because his job required heavy lifting and roofing. Yet his supervisor insisted he return to work and threatened to fire him if he didn’t.

Kwesi needed his job, so he hired a trainee to do the harder physical work. This ate up half of Kwesi’s take-home pay, but at least it prevented him from being sacked. After June, 2008, Kwesi was able to move more freely with a prosthetic leg supplied by an American NGO called Standing with Hope. But he still struggled with some tasks and continued to employ the trainee at his own expense. Several years later a new manager (the third since the accident) took up Kwesi’s cause and encouraged him to apply to the position of Head Artisan, which would allow him to supervise contractors rather than perform heavy work himself. Kwesi accepted the offer and holds this position as of today.

While he recovered, Kwesi pursued a claim against the bus driver’s insurance company, the State Insurance Corporation (SIC). For this to happen the driver had to be convicted of dangerous driving, which happened after Kwesi built his case using a paralegal (who charged 500 cedis), and obtaining a police report (for which the police officer demaned 300 cedis). Along with the conviction, Kwesi also had to submit a medical report to SIC assessing the extent of the injury, which the doctor provided for a ‘fee’ of 200 cedis. As Kwesi said, ‘you give them some bribe, to just make things quick for you.’

Kwesi’s claim sat with SIC for three years, despite repeated meetings with claims officers. Finally, the claim only succeeded, but only after a chance encounter with a friend’s brother – who worked at SIC and overheard one of Kwesi’s frustrating conversations – referred Kwesi to a lawyer. In 2011, with the lawyer’s help, Kwesi finally received his settlement – 15,000 cedis less a 10% lawyers’ fee. Kwesi has invested some of the settlement in two plots of land, on which he hopes to build a house large enough for his family and several rented rooms. This could not be done for 13,500 cedis, but Kwesi is still trying to fund the project through his earnings at work.

Kwesi’s story sheds much light on disability rights in countries like Ghana. In 2008, the Government of Ghana passed a Disability Act based loosely on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). On paper the Act mandates economic reintegration and affordable healthcare for disabled Ghanaians. The CRPD goes further, providing for equal access to justice and a reasonable standard of living. Many scholars believe that legal instruments in themselves will produce disability rights. But Kwesi’s case shows that chance encounters with powerful patrons might be more significant. And not only in Ghana or the developing world. The American disability activist Marta Russell shows that this can be true in the West as well. For me, Kwesi’s story indicates that, despite the existence of disability rights on paper, disabled individuals in non-Western societies will face significant challenges in claiming those rights in practice. Their stories need to be heard.

You can read more about Kwesi’s story in my article, “’I nearly lost my work’: chance encounters, legal empowerment and the struggle for disability rights in Ghana,” Disability & Society, 30(1)(2015).

Jeff Grischow is an Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Associate Director of the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa