Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
In many ways Aluta is what a YA novel should be—an experience of the transition from the naïveté of youth to the realities of adulthood. The book begins in an interrogation room in July 1982, where a frightened Charlotte Adom is unsure what will happen next. How Charlotte got there is what the book is about.
A year earlier Charlotte is seventeen and a first year student at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, a long way from her hometown of Accra and the stern rules of her parents. Her interests are those of any female freshman at any university in the world: she wants to fit in, meet new friends, and adjust to her newfound freedom. She is concerned about doing well, but also about her appearance and, of course, boys. She studies hard, lets her older roommate relax her kinky hair for the first time, and manages to attract the interest of not just one, but three men. All in her first semester!
Although author Adwoa Badoe is writing about her native land of Ghana, the first few chapters of Aluta, apart from some specific references to recent Ghanian history, could take place almost anywhere. Student life for Charlotte is a not-always-artful attempt to balance studies and social life. So much is new and needs to be explored. The hope, naïveté, anxieties, and outright silliness of the age are all there, as Charlotte tries to adapt to university life, to figure out what major to choose, to get to know her roommate, Mary, and the other women in her dorm. Mary has an older man as a beau and through him, Charlotte meets Asare, a rich oil trader who is smitten with her. Then there is Dr. Ampem, her political science professor, who is so impressed with her intellect that he invites her into an after-hours political discussion group. Finally there is Banahene, a fellow student with wit and good looks, who seems to know just what to say.
Writing in the first person, Badoe at the start uses the language of adolescence effectively to show us Charlotte’s mind working in the confusion and enthusiasm of her age. It is standard YA stuff—teenage yearnings and all. But then real events interfere, and the book’s language and mood change with it. Charlotte’s world is turned upside down. On New Year’s Eve 1981, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings leads the army in his second bloody coup d’etat. (Rawlings would head the government for the next 18 years.) The universities are closed, and students are sent first home, then forced to go out into the countryside to load cocoa onto trucks for export. When the universities reopen, Charlotte begins to become involved with student government, getting herself elected to the Student Representative Council. After three high court judges and a high-ranking military officer are murdered, most likely by Rawlings’s followers, Charlotte becomes involved in organizing a student demonstration, an “aluta,” and in the process gets noticed by the authorities. From there on, things get dangerous.
Adwoa Badoe has done a masterful job of leading the young reader from superficiality to depth, from innocence to harsh reality. Her use of language allows her to illustrate intimately Charlotte’s maturation under difficult conditions that deteriorate from difficult all the way to frightening. This is a rewarding book. And for the reader not familiar with African history, it is a window on a distant place where people’s circumstances may be different, but their humanity is the same as our own.
Aluta is published by House of Anansi.