Faceless, Amma Darko’s third novel after Beyond the Horizon and The Housemaid, is the tragic story of street children in Accra, Ghana told through a chaotic urban fabric where pressing social issues like the gap between rich and poor, HIV/AIDS, broken families and the role of women in society are all-pervasive.
The story is an investigation of the death of Baby T, a child prostitute whose body is found dumped behind a marketplace, naked, beaten and mutilated. Darko skilfully reveals details about Baby T during the progression of the novel through her younger sister Fofo, herself a street child who comes into contact with group of women who run a documentation NGO called MUTE.
Baby T’s story is heartbreaking and entirely believable, not only in relation to Accra, but also in a global context. She is the third child of Ma Tsumu, born after a brutal beating intended to fulfil the ambitions of an abortion because the father believes that Ma Tsumu is “too fertile”. Kwei, the father, disappears after fathering Fofo, leaving Ma Tsumu to fend for herself with four children. The family manage alone with the two sons bringing home money from fish-related activities. But Faceless is a novel where things only go very wrong when men are involved and when Ma Tsumu takes a lover into her bed in the form of Kpakpo, who earns his keep by “dubious” means, the stage is set for tragedy.
The first consequence of the new lover is that the brothers, unable to stand the new nightly sounds of the shared bedroom, pack their bags and disappear. This leaves Baby T at the mercy of Kpakpo, who sexually abuses her. Hurt and confused, she confides in a family friend, Onko, who brutally rapes her. Ma Tsumu, a tragic figure destroyed by the men in her life, is unable to do anything but take money from Onko, who then continues to live in the same compound as Baby T. Clearly the situation is untenable and Kpakpo has the answer. Baby T can be sent away to a distant relative of his who is actually a Madame – in reality Baby T is sold into prostitution.
Discrimination against women is a constant theme of the novel and symbolically Baby T is representative of the sins visited upon all women in a society where from birth women are discriminated against and made responsible not only for their sins, but for those of men in society. As mentioned earlier, nothing goes right when men are involved and many of the male characters in the novel are murderers, child abuses, rapists – or simply good for nothings.
Even those not presented in this light are trapped in their perceptions of women as caregivers and housewives, such as NGO worker Kabria’s husband, who expects her to be waiting at the door to take his briefcase when he returns from work. Despite the fact that Kabria works a long day, she is still expected to manage the household, cook and take care of the children. Darko is keen to highlight this hypocrisy.
The response of women to their experience at the hands of men varies from Ma Tsumu’s “Because they are animals, They know no mercy…” to the positive engagement of the NGO MUTE, which is made up entirely of women as if to suggest that it is women who must be in control of their response to a warped male world.
But if the fate of women in society is a major theme of the novel, it plays itself out through a street children narrative which allows Darko the scope for powerful social commentary that demonstrates the personal tragedy of each and every child that ends up on the streets. As one of the characters says in quoting assassinated US president John F. Kennedy: “The future promise of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth.” What is the hope, Darko seems to be asking, if societies can allow the conditions that result in the fate of Baby T?
Darko’s landscape is not entirely bleak: she does offer hope in the form of Fofo, who by the end of the novel looks set on the right road, and in the form of MUTE, whose members are the positive role models of the novel.
It might be said that the solutions offered by the novel are too simple, but Darko does leave enough in the air to suggest that nothing is certain. Indeed, the story is told with just enough skill to keep the reader guessing. While it is true that some of the characters sometimes feel a bit stereotyped, Darko is also capable of demonstrating some character complexity and contradictions, as in the case of the pimp Poison, who is also shown to be a victim through is own abuse as a child, but who now “no longer suffered the pain, he inflicted it.”
These criticisms aside, Darko succeeds in hammering home a powerful message that it is children and the way they are treated that are the true measure of how societies are judged. It is through their eyes that the answers to the myriad moral predicaments that society finds itself in, are to be found.
* Reviewed by Patrick Burnett, Fahamu
* Publisher: Sub-Saharan Publishers