Akua is frying yams in palm oil. She had grown up in missionary school, where they were taught to go to God with their worries and problems. But when she sees a white man being swallowed by fire, she cannot let go of her nightmares. In her dreams, the fire is shaped like a woman holding two babies to her heart.
That night, Akua has another nightmare, and her husband Asamoah wakes up and comforts her. She tells him that he should not have burned the white man, even though she knows they had done this because the Asante king had been arrested and exiled.
The retribution for the exile of the Asante King reveals how the conflicts between British attempts to colonize Ghana and the Asante assertion of independence are coming to a head.
Akua spends her days in her compound with her mother-in-law, Nana Serwah, and her children, Abee and Ama Serwah. She starts each morning by sweeping. After she sweeps, she helps the women do the cooking. Nana Serwah believes that she coddles her daughters because she was raised by white men.
Even as the chapters stretch into more modern times, the women still largely conform to the same rigid gender roles in the home: cooking, cleaning, and raising children.
Akua walks to the market, stopping at the spot where the townsmen had burned the white man. He had been sitting under a tree when a small child named Kofi Poku had pointed and said “obroni.” The first time she heard this word, she thought it simply meant white man. But the fetish priest in her village had explained that the word had started as two words: “abro ni,” meaning “wicked man.”
The evolution of the word obroni illustrates how culture can be affected by previous generations, sometimes without a younger generation even being aware of their influence—similar to the way that each generation on the family tree is affected by the one before it, even if they did not know their parents.
Akua had made friends with the fetish man, against the wishes of the Missionary. They called him a fetish man because he prayed to the ancestors and collected things to make offerings. Despite this, she knew that he was not wicked. The fetish priest had then told her that one could only judge wickedness by a person’s actions, and that the white man had earned his name.
Akua’s chapter also explores the new influence of Christianity on the Gold Coast. Althought the Missionary attempts to instill Akua with negative attitudes toward her own culture, she tries to fight these attitudes throughout her youth.
Akua remembered this incident as the white man sleeping under the tree had been picked up by the crowd, tied to a tree and burned. He had been shouting in English that he was only a traveler, and not from the government. Akua was not the only person in the crowd who understood English, and she was not the only person who did nothing to help.
Akua’s actions here echo the actions of some of her forbears who lived in the Gold Coast and who were involved in slavery: it is easy to feign ignorance of injustice, particularly when there are other people doing the same thing. But this willful ignorance also haunts her.
Akua returns from her walk. Nana Serwah tells her to help with the cooking. The men are shouting outside. Nana Serwah explains that the British governor had been in Kumasi today, refusing to return the king from exile, and asking for the Golden School for himself or his queen. By the next week, the men set out to fight. Akua watches as Asamoah leaves.
The British governor’s request demonstrates how the aim of the British is not only to gain land and power, but also to usurp the culture in Ghana as he asks for the Asante’s most precious cultural possession and heirloom.
The Missionary had kept a long, thin switch on his desk. One day, he told Akua that she would not go to class with the other students, but instead take lessons alone with him. He called her a sinner and a heathen, telling her that all people must give up their heathenism and turn to God. He told her to be thankful the British are there. He then gave her five lashes, commanding her to repent her sins and repeat “God bless the queen.”
The Missionary’s actions reveal the way in which Christianity is being used as an extension of colonization. While he does use religious language regarding sins, most of his language has to do with race and culture. Here he demonstrates his prejudicial beliefs that the British have come to save the “heathens.”
Every day Akua wakes her daughters before sunrise, and they walk out singing in support of their warriors. The rest of the day they cook for the men in shifts. At night, Akua continues to dream of fire.
Although Akua believes that she dreams of fire because she saw the white man being burned, it is also thematically relevant that the relationship with the British is turning sour during this time as her family reaps what had been sown generations earlier.
Akua and Asamoah have been married for five years. He had seen her one day at the missionary school and had stopped to talk to her. Two weeks later, he asked her to marry him. The Missionary had forbidden it, but she had left the orphanage as he yelled at her futilely to repent. She had begun to question God and the Missionary and why her mother, Abena, had gone to them. But she is unable to find the answers.
The prospect of family and love allows Akua to make a change in her life and escape the abusive situation she deals with at the orphanage. The same is true for many other characters in the novel, including Akua’s own mother, Abena.
As the war rages on, Akua’s dreams become worse. In the midst of her turmoil, she discovers she is pregnant. One day while Akua is boiling yams, she finds herself staring at the fire. Nana Serwah catches her and shakes her out of her stupor. However, the same thing happens each day for three days. Nana Serwah decides that Akua is sick and must stay in her hut away from her daughters.
Akua’s hypnotic obsession with the fire foreshadows some of her later actions when she burns her family’s hut. Akua is bearing the brunt of the guilt and the actions of the family tree.
At first Akua is grateful for the break, but when she sleeps, she continues to see the firewoman, who asks where her children are. The next day Akua tries to leave her hut, but Nana Serwah has placed a man at her door to lock Akua in. Akua begs to see her children, but Nana Serwah says that she can see them when she is no longer sick. By nightfall, Akua prays to every god she knows. She stays for a week in the hut, chanting: fire, fire, fire.
Nana Serwah’s response to Akua’s “sickness” has some ties to sexist diagnoses of hysteria around this time period, as women were made to rest when in fact it was restlessness that caused their anxiety in the first place. While Akua simply wants to see her children, she is instead forced to spend a week alone with her nightmares.
The Missionary would not let Akua leave the orphanage to marry Asamoah. She had asked the Missionary if he would beat her to try to make her stay. The Missionary instead offered to tell her about her mother, Abena. He said that Abena would not repent; she didn’t regret her sins.
In finally telling Akua the story of her mother, Akua gains a sense of her identity back and realizes that her mother did not in fact accept Christianity, as the Missionary had led her to believe.
The Missionary went on to say that after Akua was born, he took Abena to the water to be baptized. She thrashed in the water as he lowered her down, until she was still. He said that he only wanted her to repent. Akua asked where her body was; the Missionary said that he burned it. The Missionary had then fallen to the ground. Akua walked over his body to leave.
The Missionary’s explanation shows some of the deadly consequences of colonization. In an attempt to get Abena to adopt his culture, the Missionary kills her instead. He continues to show disregard for Abena and her culture by burning her body and raising her daughter in a religion that led to her death.
Asamoah returns at the end of Akua’s week of imprisonment. Upon seeing the man at the door, he roars at Nana Serwah. Asamoah enters the hut, and Akua sees that he now has only one leg. Akua looks at him in a daze, not having slept in a week. Asamoah then brings their daughters to her. Akua finally stands up.
Asamoah’s ability to return home and instantly free Akua from her forced imprisonment makes clear that Akua could only have been punished in this way because of her mother-in-law’s bias and because of her gender.
The war ends in September. Crops have died and food is limited, but they still have freedom. Akua and Asamoah try to acclimate to the loss of his leg. Akua also no longer sleeps through the night, though she pretends to. The day Akua had left the house after her week of exile, the townspeople had looked away, ashamed at what they had let Nana Serwah do. But one child, Kofi Poku, whispered “Crazy Woman.”
In the same way that Akua herself had been a bystander to injustice when the white man had been burned, the townspeople also shared guilt for allowing Akua’s poor treatment to go on. Yet the child’s name calling serves as a reminder of the ease with which society assumes women are crazy.
In the beginning, Akua and Asamoah had not wanted to touch each other, but one night he begins to make love to her. Afterwards, Akua is able to sleep without dreaming of fire. She thinks that she’ll be alright, and when her son Yaw is born, she knows he will be alright, too.
When Akua is able to return to a more normal life with her husband, her daughters, and her newborn son, she is able to regain some amount of hope in the future.
Akua begins to speak more and more, and she wanders as she sleeps. The only people who bring her any joy are her children. She goes on long walks with her daughters, slinging Yaw in a wrapper. But one day, Abee mentions that the villagers call her Crazy Woman raised by white men. Akua wants to be angry, but she doesn’t have the energy.
Akua’s daughters and her son continue to be the only things that bring her joy, but she is still scarred by her history, both in being raised by the white missionary and also being born of the alliance between the Fantes and the slave trade.
At home, Asamoah greets Akua and his daughters. They eat dinner together before going to sleep. Akua closes her eyes, imagining that she is lying on the beach of Cape Coast. She had only visited a beach once, but she had been mesmerized by it. In her dream, the ocean catches fire, and the firewoman beckons her into the ocean, holding the two fire children. She feels calm and happy.
Akua’s dream of the Gold Coast also involves the two primary symbols of the destruction and separation of slavery: fire and water. This dream confirms that Akua is plagued by her family’s early participation in the slave trade, even though she never knew her family and has no knowledge of that history.
Akua then hears chants of “the Crazy Woman!” as her eyes begin to open. Ten men lift her above their heads. Her hands and feet are burned. They bring her out to a crowd of people, who call her wicked and evil and begin to wrap ropes around her wrists. She wonders what is going on.
Akua’s treatment here is not unlike the treatment of the white man who had been burned, creating a parallel that demonstrates how the legacy of slavery and colonization had become detrimental to all people.
Asamoah comes to the front of the crowd, begging them to stop. They ask how he could be on Akua’s side when she killed their children. Asamoah begins to weep; Akua thinks that she must still be asleep. He says that he rescued Yaw, and his son will need Akua. When he asks if he has not lost enough flesh, the people cut Akua down. Back in the hut, Nana Serwah and the doctor tend to Yaw’s wounds. They will not tell Akua where Abee and Ama Serwah are.
That Akua’s family history causes her to kill her children serves as an allegory of the way in which colonization and slavery has hindered future generations, both on the Gold Coast and in America. Yet, there is still hope for the future: even though he is scarred for life, Yaw still provides a path for the two sides of the family tree to make amends.