“I am staring painfully at an image. My image? No! – what is left of what once used to be my image. And from my left and right, all about me, I keep hearing chuckles and pantings, wild bedspring creaks, screaming oohs and yelling aahs. They are coming from rooms that are the same as mine, rooms where the same things are done as they are in mine. And in all of them there are pretty women like myself, one in each room waiting to be used and abused by strange men… I am just in brief silky red underpants… I’ve used myself and I have allowed myself to be too used to care any longer. But that doesn’t render me emotionless. I’ve still got a lot of feelings in me, though I’m not sure if they aren’t the wrong ones… I shiver at the sight of my sore cracked lip… This gaudy pink rouge I’ve plastered on my ebony black face looks horrid too, I know, but I wear it because it’s a trademark of my profession.”
With this beginning, Mara recounts her transformative journey from a naive Ghanaian village girl to a defiant, financially independent but drugged-out prostitute in Munich, Germany. Mara’s story in Beyond the Horizon (1991) is sadly not unique. There are thousands of African women prostitutes in Europe. The use of the prostitute motif is also not new in African literature. However, it is the subversive, the unsilencing, the harrowing, the shattering of long-held ideas and the uncompromising telling of Mara’s story that makes Beyond the Horizon a compelling and provocative novel. The author, Amma Darko, holds nothing back, nothing.
Mara’s journey begins in the farming village of Naka. Her mother tells her,
“your life is your road, Mara. God puts you at the start of this road and propels you to walk on, and only He knows where your road will end, but it is the road He choose for you and you must walk it with gratefulness because it’s the best for you”
At the same time, her father gives her away to the son of the village undertaker for “two white cows, four healthy goats, four lengths of cloth, beads, gold jewelry and two bottles of London Dry Gin”. Mara is then taken by her husband, Akobi, to the city. In time, Akobi, a clerk in a government office, bribes and pays dearly for a visa to Europe. He later sends for Mara to join him in Europe. Through a series of betrayals by those nearest to her, Mara is forced into prostitution and pornography.
As an uneducated African village girl, Mara has very few options in life. She accepts and never questions her father’s decision to marry her to Akobi without seeking her consent. She also endures the neglect and abuse that Akobi heaps on her because she believes (and has observed) that it is a wife’s duty to suffer her husband. However, she is not one to accept her role as victim and she grabs any opportunity to assert and improve upon her status. In her husband’s absence, she transformed herself from a naïve ‘greenhorn’ village girl into a typical working class woman of an urban city. Here, Darko subverts the much-used urban migration as a harbinger of evil theme in African literature and instead deploys it as an empowering motif. But Mara’s power and movement are once again curtailed when she arrives in Europe as an illegal immigrant. Various characters drop hints about her future employment, one suggests that Mara needs “coaching”, she is forced to watch, to her horror, her first porn film and she is taken to areas where African prostitutes work. She also witnesses firsthand the kinds of living arrangements and relationships that African men enter into to attain legal status. Darko is superb at allowing Mara to slowly come to an understanding about her husband’s new living situation and also the activities of his other African friends. It was painful to read and watch the deception, the coercion and finally the blackmail. She is devastated when she realizes that she has been pimped out; she works tirelessly but receives none of her earnings. But again, this is Mara, and given an opportunity she exacts her act of vengeance on her abusers and her prisoners. Free of them at last, Mara says
“I have decided to stop thinking about ever going home. I just don’t belong there any longer”
Through it all, I wanted Mara to pack her bags and return to the love and bosom of her family, return to her Ghanaian village. How naïve of me! Darko, the scathing realist, dismisses any idea of a return to the motherland.
What a story, what a book! Amma Darko exposes so many myths and ridicules so many ideas. She questions the truths behind the lives lived as been-tos (people who’ve been to the West). She condemns the practice of families in Africa accepting money from their relatives abroad without questioning and, in some cases, actually condoning the work (be it prostitution or drug trafficking) that garnered the transferred monies. Unrelenting in her portrayal of abusive African men, she exposes the myth that African men treat their European partners better than their African ones. Darko takes aim at the notion of culturally accepted modes of male dominance. She also reveals that, paradoxically, it is women in similar positions like Mara, who help to ease her initiation into prostitution. Sisterhood, it seems is everywhere. Darko conveys all these issues against the background of an anti-immigration Europe and all that it means for the illegal African immigrant. But Darko’s greatest triumph is in her depiction of Mara; her journey, her growing voice, her sense of agency and her humanity. This short novel is not an “all’s well that end’s well’. One can imagine that it will end quite badly for Mara. In the meantime, Mara, the survivor, asserts her right to work as a prostitute on her own behalf. Beyond the Horizon is a deeply disturbing and a powerful book. I highly recommend it.