The night Effia is born, a fire is raging through the woods in Fanteland. It moves through the forest for days, wrecking everything in its path. Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, leaves Effia with his first wife, Baaba, to survey his yams, which have been damaged. He is haunted by the sight of the fire, and tells Baaba never to speak of what happened that day.
The villagers say that Effia had been born of that fire, and that was why Baaba had no milk. Effia is nursed by another of Cobbe’s wives, but she bites the woman until the woman is too afraid to feed her. Effia then grows thin and screams all day. Baaba dreams of leaving the baby in the dark forest, but Cobbe commands Baaba to love the girl.
Effia is said to be born of that fire because, as is ultimately revealed, she is actually the daughter of Cobbe’s servant Maame, whom he had raped. Thus, even before Effia and her son become officially involved in the slave trade, she is already a product of a society that allows and perpetuates slavery.
Effia grows older. When Effia is three, Baaba has a son named Fiifi. The first day that Effia holds Fiifi, she accidentally drops him. Fiifi is undisturbed by this, but Baaba beats Effia with her stirring stick, leaving hot stew burning into her flesh. When Baaba finishes, Effia is covered with sores, screaming and crying.
Family is vital to the characters in Homegoing. Baaba’s bad treatment of Effia, in contrast to the tender way she treats Fiifi, highlights the importance of being related by blood, as Effia is not Baaba’s biological daughter.
When Cobbe comes home and discovers what happened, he and Baaba fight into the night, and he beats her for the cruel way she treated Effia. This begins a cycle: Baaba beats Effia; Cobbe beats Baaba.
While Baaba treats Effia poorly, Cobbe protects her because she is in fact biologically related to him. This cycle of beating also demonstrates how women experience violence at the hands of both women and men.
When Effia turns twelve, she begins to blossom into a young woman. The men of the village wait for her to begin her menstrual cycle so that they can ask Cobbe for her hand in marriage. The family starts to receive gifts from the men.
The gifts and attitudes of the men reveal the key role of the women in society and for individual families: to be married off for a good price and to have children.
In 1775, one of the village girls named Adwoa Aidoo becomes the first to receive a proposal from a British soldier. The first time the soldier visits the village, Adwoa’s mother asks Effia’s parents to show him around the village. Effia tags along.
Here, Gyasi introduces the most insidious form of colonization on the part of the British: marrying women from the village so that their political ties to the British become familial ties as well.
When Effia meets the soldier, she hides behind Cobbe’s leg, as she has never seen a white man before. Cobbe and Baaba show him their compound, explaining that each wife has her own hut that she shares with her children. The man’s eyes grow wide, finally understanding that the huts are where they live.
The family structure is extremely male-centric. The men have more freedom in their marriages by being able to move wherever they want within the compound and marry several women, while the women are limited to a single hut and a single man.
A few weeks later, the officer returns to pay his respects to Adwoa’s mother. Effia and the other villagers gather to see the goods that he has brought: fifteen pounds for the bride price, fabric, millet, gold, and iron.
Adwoa’s marriage demonstrates why such arrangements with the British can be economically beneficial for the village. However, the villagers cannot yet see the immediate harms of colonization.
Cobbe then pulls Effia aside, explaining that the white men bring those goods to trade with the village, and that there will be more like him to take away the village’s daughters. Cobbe tells Effia that he has bigger plans for her, however, and that she will not marry a white man. Baaba scowls at this, though Cobbe does not see her.
Cobbe’s statement highlights the importance of marriage as a political tool for the Fantes. Rather than wanting Effia to marry for love or even for money, Cobbe hopes that Effia will marry for power in the village. Baaba’s scowl suggests that she disagrees with this plan, foreshadowing her later involvement in Effia’s marriage.
Effia hopes that she will be married to Abeeku Badu, who is next in line to be the village chief. He had visited their compound four times in the previous month, and later that week, he and Effia are to share a meal together.
Abeeku’s status as chief implies that Effia (and perhaps other young people in the village) recognizes the importance of marrying for power or status.
Abeeku brings a goat for Effia, while his servants bring yams and fish and palm wine. She had prepared herself for the dinner by oiling her body, braiding her hair, and putting gold in her ears.
The rituals of courtship play into gender stereotypes: the men are meant to hunt and provide food, while the women try to make themselves more attractive to the men.
When the dinner begins, Effia asks if Abeeku will work for the British. Her parents glare at her for speaking out of turn, but Abeeku smiles at her. He tells her he will work with the British, facilitating trade between the British and the Asantes.
Abeeku’s answer is dangerously innocuous, considering the fact that he is “trading” human beings. The language he uses is another way in which society makes it easier for people to take part in a morally reprehensible system.
Effia nods and stays quiet, which she notes pleases Baaba. She has come to realize that Baaba prefers to remain silent and wants Effia to do the same.
Here, Baaba again exhibits some of the gender stereotypes in society: that women are meant to be seen and not heard.
Abeeku finishes eating and tells Baaba to let him know when Effia is “ready.” That night, Baaba tells Effia that when her menstrual blood comes, she must hide it and only tell Baaba. Effia sees the desperation in her mother’s eyes and agrees.
Abeeku’s statement reinforces the stereotype of women’s sole purpose being to provide children, because he (and other men in the society) will not marry Effia until they know that she has reached sexual maturity, signified by her first menstrual period.
The next spring, the chief of the village grows ill, and Abeeku marries two women as he prepares to become chief. One of them, named Millicent, is the daughter of a Fante woman and a British soldier. The soldier had died, leaving his wife and two children with a significant amount of wealth. Millicent and her mother visit Effia often, saying that they would soon be part of the same family.
Not only are there expectations on the women to provide men with children, but there are also stereotypical expectations on the men. Abeeku marries two women in preparation for becoming chief, demonstrating that having many wives is an exhibition of power and masculinity.
On one such visit, Baaba asks Millicent’s mother what it is like in the Castle. Millicent’s mother says that they are very well taken care of, and they pay a good bride price. But Millicent’s mother notes that she is glad her daughter married a Fante man, because then she could be close to her and marry the wife of a chief.
Baaba begins to plot against Effia’s marriage to Abeeku so that she will no longer have to deal with her. To Baaba, Effia continues to represent a source of humiliation in that she must take care of a daughter who isn’t hers.
Two days after Effia’s fifteenth birthday, she has her first menstrual period. She tells Baaba, who tells Effia to keep this development a secret. When Effia asks why, Baaba pinches Effia’s tongue with her fingernails and tells her not to question her mother, threatening to make sure that Effia would never speak again.
Baaba’s reaction displays violence against women as she forces Effia to lie in a way that will make Abeeku not want to marry her. Baaba’s harsh scolding also introduces a recurring idea that children should not question their parents.
The following week, the old chief dies and Abeeku is crowned the next chief. Three days later, he gathers up the men of the village in his compound. He feeds them for two days and gets them drunk on palm wine until their laughter can be heard throughout the village.
Here, the dangers of colonization and the atrocities of slavery are overwhelmed by a male desire to participate in a culture that makes them feel powerful and part of a group.
Effia asks Baaba what they’re doing, but Baaba tells her that it does not concern her. Baaba has stopped beating Effia in exchange for keeping the secret about her period.
The withholding of information from the women because trade is supposed to belong to the men also becomes dangerous for Effia, as she only finds out what is happening at the Castle after she has already married a British officer.
Cobbe and Fiifi return from the meeting. Cobbe carries a new machete, and shouts that they will make the village “rich with blood.” That night, Effia crawls over to Fiifi in their hut, and asks what they are planning. Fiifi at first tells her it is the business of men, but then he explains that they are helping the British and Asantes with their trade, helping them sell slaves to the British.
The gender dynamics play a big part in allowing colonization and slavery to happen, as Abeeku makes the men feel wealthy and powerful in order to coerce them into participating in this trade. Fiifi’s enthusiasm here and the results of his participation will leave a stain on Effia’s branch of the family for many generations to come.
In the days following the chief ceremony, Cobbe continues to ask Baaba what is happening with Effia, as he had hoped that she would be Abeeku’s wife by now. Baaba replies that she is not ready. Cobbe sends Baaba and Effia over to Abeeku’s compound once a week so that he can remember how much he likes Effia.
The continued emphasis on Effia’s ability to be Abeeku’s wife and Cobbe’s scheming to get her over to Abeeku’s compound prove that her primary value to Cobbe lies in her marriage prospects.
On one such visit to Abeeku’s compound, Baaba and Effia are there at the same time as British soldiers. When the soldiers tour the compound, Abeeku’s wives tell Effia and Baaba not to speak. When the soldiers enter the hut, Abeeku introduces them as his wives and daughters.
Once again, the women are told to be silent—and that they should not speak particularly in the presence of men that Abeeku is trying to impress.
One of the soldiers, James Collins, says hello to each woman in bad Fante. When he reaches Effia, she giggles. He asks Abeeku if Effia is his wife; Abeeku tells him she is not. James looks at her intently before leaving the compound.
Here, Gyasi demonstrates how much Effia’s fate is controlled by the men around her. This exchange is essentially James asking Abeeku if he can marry Effia or not.
James Collins is the newly appointed governor of the Cape Coast Castle. Within a week, he comes back to ask Baaba for Effia’s hand. Cobbe is outraged because he wants her to marry Abeeku, but Baaba convinces him that Effia should marry James because Effia might not have children, and the soldier is willing to marry her regardless. He’s also offered thirty pounds upfront and twenty-five shillings a month—more than any previous bride price in the village.
Baaba again shows her bias against the child that is not her own, spreading lies about Effia in order to send her to the Castle and away from the village. Baaba also shows herself to be just as resourceful as the men in plotting, as she almost single-handedly arranges Effia’s marriage to a British soldier even against her husband’s wishes.
Cobbe tells Baaba that they must make Abeeku think that it is his own idea for Effia to marry James Collins. To do so, Baaba tells Abeeku that there is evil in Effia’s spirit and that she cannot bear children. Additionally, she says if Effia marries James, he will think fondly of their village and trade will prosper.
Baaba’s point about strengthening trade shows how easy it was for colonization to become widespread, because the Fantes believed that they would benefit equally from this trade. However, as the novel will later show, colonization ultimately destroyed the village’s culture and their autonomy.
Abeeku calls Effia into the room, and tells Baaba and Cobbe that they are right—Effia should marry James Collins. Cobbe weeps openly, but Baaba is happy. When Abeeku leaves, Baaba gives Effia a black stone pendant, which she says is a piece of her mother. Effia notes that Baaba seems relieved as she leaves.
The black stone symbolizes one’s connection to their heritage. Although Effia doesn’t yet know it, her biological mother, Maame (whose name means mother), left her the stone. Effia in turn passes the stone on to her descendants, ending with Marjorie at the end of the novel.
Effia is married in the chapel of the Cape Coast Castle, reciting words she doesn’t understand. Effia’s family does not attend the ceremony, because Baaba convinced them that Effia was a bad omen.
Effia’s wedding serves as an early example in the novel of how Christianity is used as a means of colonization, as Effia is expected to conform to Christianity in order to marry James.
James Collins tries to make Effia comfortable, learning more and more Fante words so that he can tell her how beautiful she is. He leads her on a tour of the Castle: the parade ground, soldiers’ quarters, stockyard, pond, hospital, smithy, kitchen. Effia is in awe.
Although it appears that James is attempting to learn about Effia’s culture because he values it and wants to preserve it, later interactions (like when he sends their son to school in England) imply that James believes his own culture is superior.
Effia notices a breeze coming up from holes in the floor. She asks what’s below, and James Collins says “cargo.” She hears a faint crying sound. She asks if there are people down there. When he says yes, she demands to be taken home and starts screaming. James puts his hand over her mouth, telling her that her home is no better. Effia remembers Baaba’s treatment and realizes that he is right.
This exchange sheds light on how British marriage to Fante women is such a cunning means of colonization, because it makes individual resistance very difficult. Even though Effia knows that the torture in the dungeon is morally wrong, she is completely powerless to stop it and thus becomes complacent.
James Collins leads Effia up to his quarters on the top floor. She can see out onto the ocean, and the cargo ships get smaller and smaller in the distance. She wants to ask him what the ship is carrying, but she is tired of trying to decipher his poor Fante.
The language barrier between Effia and James also allows for a convenient excuse not to know what is happening in the dungeon or what is to become of the captured slaves.
James Collins leads her to the bed, and he and Effia consummate their marriage. Baaba had told Effia what was expected of her, but James seems very unsure, and so Effia takes the lead.
Even though Effia thinks James is unsure about how to consummate the marriage, it is later revealed that James has two children back in England—in other words, he has had sex before. With this detail in mind, it seems that James is hesitant to have sex with Effia because she is Fante.
After a few weeks, Effia feels very comfortable in her new routine. She likes the attention that James Collins pays to her and the fact that she doesn’t have to compete with any other wives. However, she knows she is not supposed to care for James, because her father had wanted her to marry a Fante chief rather than a white man. But instead, Baaba had cast Effia out of the village entirely.
Even after marrying James, Effia understands that she has in some way disappointed her father because she did not elevate the family status in the village, as she would have by marrying Abeeku.
Effia has also heard the Englishmen call her and other Fante women “wenches” instead of wives, in order to keep their conscience clean with their god. However, Effia and James Collins continue to be more and more affectionate: they teach each other their language, and James tells Effia that he loves her every day.
The British men maintain this language difference (“wenches” rather than “wives”) despite the fact that they were married in the church. This is deeply racist, as these men believe that their Fante wives are lesser than their British wives.
One day, Effia asks about James Collins’s British wife. He explains that her name is Anne. They married ten years ago, but he’s barely seen her since. He had two children with her, but they’ve spent very little time together. Effia has a hard time understanding how James can be satisfied with having so few children, when chiefs can have nearly a hundred. James occasionally receives a letter from Anne, and when he does, he lies very far away from Effia in bed.
This revelation illuminates how the British continue to believe their culture is superior. Even though having multiple wives is normal in Effia’s culture, James clearly believes he is betraying Anne by marrying another woman. Additionally, when he receives letters from Anne, he often feels more loyal to her—presumably, because she is white.
On this night, however, James Collins tells Effia that he wants children with her. Effia cringes in worry. First, she thinks she may be a bad mother, because she had such a bad mother herself. Furthermore, even though Baaba’s insistence that Effia could not have children had been a ruse, Effia worries that she may not actually be able to have children because months have passed since the night of their wedding, and she still hasn’t gotten pregnant. She wonders if she is cursed.
Effia’s worry stems again from the gender stereotypes in her society, which asserts that she is not of value if she cannot have a child. There is also a recurring concern throughout the novel that certain qualities are passed down even if they are not genetic (like Effia’s ability to be a good mother), almost like another form of familial heritage.
Effia recalls a story that the villagers used to tell in which a young girl had accidentally spilled hot oil on her sleeping father, disfiguring his face badly. She was then banished from the house and wandered the Gold Coast for years. When she returned at seventeen, a boy offered to marry her even though she was destitute. She became pregnant, but when the baby came out it was half-caste, with light skin and blue eyes, and died within four days. She lived under a palm tree for the rest of her life.
The anxiety that Effia feels over the “half-caste child” is echoed by several characters later, including her son Quey. Quey and characters like Robert Clifton and Marjorie struggle because they are not white, but they feel that they are not entirely black either. They experience both systemic oppression and a feeling that they lack a true sense of identity.
Effia knows that the village tells the story to warn children about hot oil, but she wonders about the half-caste child, which was an evil powerful enough to force the woman to live under a palm tree. She thinks that even Cobbe had disapproved of her union with the white soldier.
The story that the village tells even implies that these biracial children are evil, which adds to the discomfort that characters feel over being biracial, and the discomfort that Effia feels in being married to a British man.
Effia and Adwoa, the other girl from her village who had married a British soldier, become friends at the Castle. Adwoa tells Effia that she needs to become pregnant in order to stay, and offers her a root to put under her bed as they have sex. She tells Effia to make sure that James does not see the root, and helps prepare her for the evening.
This interaction demonstrates how heritage can provide both a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. Effia feels comforted by Adwoa’s advice, knowing that the two women share a cultural background and can speak freely with each other.
When James Collins arrives home that evening, Effia pounces on him. He grows excited by her seduction, but when the two finish, he notices the root under the bed. She tells him Adwoa gave her the root for fertility. James tells her that he can’t have any voodoo or black magic—that it’s “not Christian.”
Christianity as a form of colonization returns here, as James Collins uses the phrase “not Christian” to mean “not good,” implying that his religion is superior, and Effia’s “voodoo” and “black magic” is evil.
The next day, Effia tells Adwoa what had happened. Adwoa grows frustrated that the British men don’t understand the truth about what is good and what is evil. She tells Effia that the root may not work now.
Soon after, Dutch officers visit the Castle. That afternoon, Effia and other Fante women at the Castle sit in the shade of a tree. One woman who arrived at the Castle relatively recently, Eccoah, complains that her husband cannot pronounce her name. Adwoa says that it’s better to use an English name so that one’s own name doesn’t have to be butchered all the time.
Names are an important recurring motif, relating to a sense of identity. In making the women use English names, the British are inherently robbing them of their cultural heritage and a sense of self.
Eccoah also says that her husband comes up from the dungeons smelling like feces. She says there are women down there who are just like them. The other women grow quiet, as they never speak about the dungeons. Effia realizes that even though she knows that there are slaves in the dungeon, she had never thought that they would look like her—that James Collins would return in the evening haunted by seeing women who reminded him of her.
Gyasi again relays how easy it is for the women to ignore the people in the dungeons, because they are essentially powerless to stop it. Additionally, by centering her story on two sisters, Gyasi effectively shows how easy it might have been for their fates to have been exchanged, and how only by chance did they have such radically different experiences.
In the spring, Effia realizes she is pregnant. James Collins is thrilled at the news. But soon after, they receive word from Effia’s village that Cobbe has fallen ill. Effia wants to travel back to the village, as she has not been back to her village since her wedding two years prior and has not heard from anyone in her family since then.
James’s excitement at hearing that Effia is pregnant does imply that the two share a relatively affectionate relationship, and that he does not share the same fears about having a biracial child that she does—perhaps because their child represents an even stronger alliance between the two cultures.
Effia and a house girl travel to Effia’s village. Baaba stands in the entranceway when she arrives, scowling. Baaba leads Effia to Cobbe. No one knows why Cobbe is ill, and Fiifi explains that Cobbe cannot speak. Fiifi says that he was the one who sent for Effia, even though Baaba did not want her to come. Effia thanks him.
Even in Cobbe’s final moments, Baaba still cannot bring herself to love the girl that she raised because Effia was not biologically hers. Baaba continues to pit the town against Effia instead.
Fiifi then reveals that Baaba is not Effia’s mother. Effia is actually the child of Cobbe and a house girl (Maame) who ran away into the fire the night Effia was born. The stone that Effia wears belonged to Maame, not Baaba.
This revelation finally explains some of Baaba’s cruelty towards Effia, as blood relations are vital in this society.
Fiifi steps outside, and Cobbe takes his last breath. Effia thinks that Fiifi’s revelation allowed Cobbe to pass on his unrest to her so that he could die. Effia wipes her tears and walks out of the compound.
The unrest that Cobbe passes on to Effia is then passed on from generation to generation, as a form of inheritance of the pain that Cobbe had caused Maame, and that Effia and Quey cause Esi and her descendants.
As Effia leaves, she starts to apologize to Baaba for the burden that Cobbe made her carry for so many years, but before she can speak, Baaba says: “You are nothing from nowhere.” Pointing at Effia’s stomach, she asks, “What can grow from nothing?”
With the reveal of Effia’s true parentage, Baaba’s internalized sexism rears its head. Instead of blaming her husband for his infidelity and his violation of another woman, she blames the victim and the product of her husband’s crimes.