Ama Ata Aidoo

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Ebele Eko (essay date October 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5103

SOURCE: Eko, Ebele. “Beyond the Myth of Confrontation: A Comparative Study of African and African-American Female Protagonists.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 17, no. 4 (October 1986): 139-52.

[In the following essay, Eko examines how Aidoo subverts the traditional role of the African female protagonist in Anowa, comparing the play to several works from African and African American authors.]

Times have changed since the sixties, and a new breed of black women writers in Africa and America are giving creative birth to a new breed of female protagonists. One of their deep concerns, a point which Hoyt Fuller has stressed,1 is to help destroy degrading images and myths and recreate for black women images that liberate and build up self-identity. The myth of black mother-daughter confrontation, to which a whole volume of a scholarly journal has been devoted,2 is one such.

I intend to focus on the creative process of myth destruction and recreation in two works each from Africa and America. By comparing and contrasting the confrontation of daughters and their mothers and “totems” of that tradition—the reactions, the revelation of deep-seated mother-daughter resemblances, and the challenge the daughters become to those around them—I hope to prove a number of things. First that, far from being selfish, spoiled, and pugnacious, these daughters are budding activists, products of the times (all four works are published between 1959 and 1983). Second that their mothers too experienced similar frustrations in their youth but lacked a voice and silently conformed. Third that their conscious choice achieves a double goal: raising the level of their awareness, and challenging others to greater black consciousness. Fourth, these daughters are their writers' mouthpieces, used to address pressing problems in African and African-American communities. In a sentence, I will try to show the crucial importance of female determination to stand for equity and choice.

The characters I discuss—Anowa in Ama Ata Aidoo's play, Anowa; Kiswana Browne in Gloria Naylor's novel, Women of Brewster Place: Margaret Cadmore in Bessie Head's novel, Maru; and Senna Boyce in Paule Marshall's novel, Browngirl Brownstones—reveal many bonds and parallels, despite obvious separations of time, space, and even genre. “You got to take yuh mouth and make a gun,” says Silla Boyce, Selina's mother,3 a statement which finds ironic fulfilment in each of these four daughters under study. There are astonishing resemblances in their defiant utterances, their self-assertion, their committed and courageous opposition to the oppressive status quo. Each struggles to break free, to be herself, to be different from her mother's expectations. Nevertheless, each discovers in herself a mere extension of her mother's personality. They are similarly unified in their expressing and dramatizing what I may call “creative rebellion” against oppressive institutions and traditions. Their capacity for personal sacrifice and the challenges they pose to others demand that they be looked at seriously as catalysts for social, economic, and political changes.

An exciting starting point is the deceptive lull before the dramatic moment of confrontation over cultural and ideological values. A critic has summarized the situation thus:

The conflict is basically between the idealists (the daughters) and the pragmatists (the mothers). … [T]hey are grieved to see their children making choices that they do not understand, turning their backs on the things the mothers have struggled to attain.4

In Anowa, Anowa's mother Badua, a village woman of Ghana, wants her daughter to become a full woman in the village, “happy to see her peppers and onions grow.”5 In Women of Brewster Place, Kiswana's middle-class mother swears to whatever gods will...

(This entire section contains 5103 words.)

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listen to “use everything at her disposal to assure a secure future for her children.”6 In Maru, Margaret's foster mother, the missionary Margaret Cadmore senior, who rescues and nurtures the orphan child of a dying Marsawa woman, raises her with great care to prove her pet theory that “heredity is nothing, environment is everything.”7 Selina's mother, Silla Boyce, an ambitious Badjan immigrant to New York, labours and saves so that she can buy a brownstone house to pass on to her daughters. All of them are well-meaning mothers, who like Janie's grandmother in Their Eyes were Watching God, long for them “to pick from higher bush and a sweeter berry.”8 They wish for their daughters what they missed, because in the words of the poet Tagore, “when you feel sorrow, grief and joy for someone you enlarge yourself, you enrich yourself.”9

Ironically, the daughters refuse to conform. They rebel against their mothers, not as mothers but as representatives of societal authority and expectation. Bell Hooks explains this universal psychological phenomenon in terms of her personal experience with her mother:

She is also always trying to make me what she thinks it is best for me to be. She tells me how to do my hair, what clothes I should wear. She wants to love and control at the same time. … I want so much to please her and yet keep part of me that is my self my own.10

The daughters want to be themselves. Anowa wants to choose her own husband in a conservative society where one's parents do the choosing. Her stubborn independence is nothing short of radical. In a language shockingly disrespectful in context, she declares her stand: “I don't care mother. Have I not told you that this is to be my marriage and not yours” (p. 17). Adding shock to shock, she proceeds to do what she pleases, leaving home with a promise not to return. Anowa's rebellion is a challenge to her entire community and evokes prompt reaction, not only from her parents but also from the elders of the village. Her mother's warning carries the potency of a collective curse:

It's up to you, my mistress who knows everything. But remember, my lady—when I am too old to move, I shall still be sitting by these walls waiting for you to come back with your rags and nakedness.

(p. 17)

Her father, Osam, wants her apprenticed to a priestess to curb her spirit. The village old woman laments that the age of obedience has run out, while the old man blames it all on fate, remarking that Anowa has the “hot eyes and nimble feet of one born to dance for the gods” (p. 20). Regardless of threats and curses, Anowa leaves with her head held high, promising to make somebody out of the husband they had ridiculed as a cassava man or a worthless fellow.

Just as Anowa's haughtiness shocks the entire village community, Kiswana in Gloria Naylor's Women of Brewster Place shocks her middle-class parents with her inflammatory denunciation of their status symbols and values: “‘I'd rather be dead than be like you … a white man's nigger who's ashamed of being black!’” (p. 85). Matching action to words in the vogue of black activists in the sixties, Kiswana chooses an African name (instead of Melanie), blows her hair into an afro, quits college, moves out of her bourgeois neighbourhood to a low-income project, decorates it with African artifacts, and gets a boyfriend in dashiki. The reaction she gets is as sharp as it is forceful. Her mother's lone voice carries with it the moral superiority and confidence of the self-made black middle class, whose hard-earned security has come under fire. She taunts Kiswana about her misguided zeal and mocks her foolishness:

Where is your revolution now Melanie? Where are those black revolutionaries who were shouting and demonstrating and kicking up a lot of dust with you on that campus, Huh? They're sitting in wood-panelled offices with their degrees in mahogany frames.

(p. 84)

She adds, “There was no revolution, Melanie, and there will be no revolution” (p. 84). The battle rages back and forth, each pointing to concrete actions to defend her stance. Denouncing her parents as “terminal cases of middle class amnesia,” Kiswana declares that she is now physically near her people (the poor blacks) and their problems. Mrs. Browne counters by pointing to the solid achievements of NAACP, which she supports, as opposed to the futile dreams of those she calls “hot heads.”

In the remote Botswana village of Dilepe, Margaret Cadmore in Bessie Head's Maru, like Kiswana, has to face a crisis of choice. She is alone, a new teacher in a strange village; her white foster mother has retired and gone back to England. She has been brought up like an English girl, with Western manners and impeccable English. Everyone who meets her assumes she is a coloured, a status not without prejudice in Botswana but certainly much better than that of the Masarwa, who are considered the lowest of the low, condemned to perpetual servitude to Botswana people. Against that background, Margaret Cadmore's firm and cool declaration in answer to her colleague's simple question, and later to the headmaster's inquiry, “I am a Masarwa” (p. 24), sends waves of shock the length and breadth of Dilepe village. With her one-sentence identification, Margaret confronts herself, her past, her upbringing, her future, and her society. She defies all assumptions, bursts out from the walls of her white foster mother's protection, and stands proud, aloof, and vulnerable.

Compared to Anowa and Kiswana, Margaret is like a lamb thrown to ravenous wolves. Pete, the school principal, Morafi, a cattle chief, and Seth, another totem in the community, all band together against the woman whose identification with Masarwa slaves has sent “thrills of fear down their spines” because they all own slaves. Margaret is seen as “a problem”; her statement is “‘a slap in the face’” (p. 44), and their response is therefore a vicious counter-offensive. Pete organizes Margaret's pupils to taunt her into resigning. “‘You are a Bushman’” (p. 46), they chant to their teacher's face. Quiet but resolute, Margaret, with the aid of her friend Dikeledi and Maru, the brother, thwarts all of Pete's attempts to have her disgraced and dismissed.

Unlike Anowa, Kiswana, and Margaret, whom the reader meets at about the same age and comparable maturity, Selina's stubborn spirit grows slowly throughout Paule Marshall's Browngirl Brownstones. Even as a little girl, her mother sees her as “‘her crosses,’” mischievously in league with her day-dreaming father, a disobedient and difficult child. Selina's total indifference to her mother's ambition of acquiring a brownstone house in New York culminates one day in her screaming rejection: “‘I'm not interested in houses.’” But her mother's dreams are only part of a larger community dream. Selina simultaneously deflates and demeans these aspirations by the hammer-blow criticisms she levels against the entire Badjan Association when given a chance to make a few remarks:

It [the Association] stinks … because it's a result of living by the most shameful codes possible—dog eat dog … it's a band of small frightened people. Clanish. Narrow-minded. Selfish. …

(p. 23)

Her dramatic storming out after her speech, like Anowa's precipitous departure from the village and Kiswana's move to a lower-class neighbourhood, leaves her mother shaken. Her announcement of her imminent departure for Barbados, the land her mother and the Badjan community had fled for New York, is a final slap in their faces. Unlike Badua and Mrs. Browne, Silla is drained by the confrontation. She pouts about her two daughters:

Gone so! They ain got no more uses for me and they gone. Oh God, is this what you does get for the nine months and the pain and the long years putting bread in their mouth … ?

(p. 306)

Unlike Badua, who sends Anowa away with a curse, or Mrs. Browne, who fights back, Silla resigns herself to the inevitable with some dignity and impatience:

“G'long,” she said finally with a brusque motion.

“G'long! You was always too much woman for me anyway, soul. And my own mother did say two head-bulls can't reign in a flock. G'long!” Her hand sketched a sign that was both a dismissal and a benediction. “If I din dead yet, you and your foolishness can't kill muh now!”

(p. 307)

And yet, despite what appears on the surface as the open rebellion of daughters against their mothers, each mother, like Silla Boyce, somehow glimpses in her daughter “the girl she had once been.” The daughters in turn discover that they are not “way out” after all, but extensions of their mothers, the “bridges over which they have crossed.” Mary Washington has suggested that all blacks must find a way to their true identity through the community, and she believes that “for Black women, the mother is often the key to that unity.”11 Anowa's boldness is clearly inherited from her mother Badua, who argues with her husband and gets her way most of the time. In obvious reference to her mother's strong powers, Anowa asks Badua to remove her “witches” mouth from her marriage. Ironically, her husband and the village old woman later accuse her of “witchcraft” to explain her extraordinary strength of character. The tragedy of Anowa is her husband's weakness. Where Anowa's father argues with and respects his wife, Kofi Ako feels threatened by Anowa's boldness and sound advice. His moral weakness is their undoing, bringing about the double suicide that more than fulfils Badua's curse.

Kiswana no doubt believes herself the epitome of radicalism until she listens to her mother's theatrical recounting of her proud heritage and commitment to the black cause. Suddenly, she comes to understand and appreciate the source of her own dynamism, idealism, and dedication: her mother. The generation gap is finally bridged when Kiswana notices her mother's red painted toenails and realizes that they share similar tastes. It dawns on her that she is indeed a part of her mother:

She looked at the blushing woman on the couch and realized that her mother had trod through the same universe that she herself was now travelling. Kiswana was breaking no new trails and would eventually end up just two feet away on the couch. She stared at the woman she had been and was to become.

(p. 87)

To an even greater extent, Margaret Cadmore can be seen as her foster mother's programmed alter ego. The missionary gives the orphan her own name and proceeds systematically to fill her mind with “a little bit of everything.” Much of her personality—her common sense, logic, resourcefulness, and resilience—filters into Margaret, enabling her to survive in the closed and prejudiced environment of Dilepe, much like the one the missionary had worked in. Her charm, her education, and her talent are all a heritage from her mother. Even their artistic abilities are similar:

The styles of both artists were almost identical, almost near that of a comic-strip artist in their simplicity, except that the younger disciple appeared greater than the master.

(p. 87)

Despite the success of Margaret's environmental upbringing, she does not lose her identity as a Masarwa. It is this that gives originality to her art and upholds her commitment to common people. In a startling and ironic way, Margaret, whose mother has prepared her to help her people, fulfils that destiny not only through her symbolic paintings but also by her marriage to Maru, heir to the Dilepe chiefdom.

Even Selina, whose alienation from her mother starts early in Browngirl Brownstones and is underlined through her addressing Silla as “the mother” and associating her with winter colours, comes to acknowledge a union with Silla. She confesses that despite her love for her father, “there was a part of her that always wanted the mother to win, that loved her strength and the tenacious life of her body” (p. 133). Slowly but certainly, through exposure and some bitter experiences, the young rebel comes to understand, in Gloria Gayle's words, that “in the world of racism the mother is a fellow victim rather than a natural enemy.”12 It is not till the end of the novel, however, that Selina identifies with her mother instead of her father as her source of inspiration, strength, and idealism:

Everybody used to call me Deighton's Selina, but they were wrong. Because you see I'm truly your child. Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman? I used to love hearing that. And that's what I want. I want it!

(p. 307)

The mother's anger fizzles out because for her too it is a moment of truth. She has come to glimpse in Selina the girl that she once was.

Beyond the confrontations with and resemblances to their mothers, these daughters are seen by others as abnormal. They are ahead of their time, and they act as catalysts for changes that affect not only those around them, but the larger society. They are, in Kofi Ako's words of complaint against Anowa, “looking for the common pain and the general good,” issues he believes should not concern any normal woman. But these are not ordinary women. Anowa's uniqueness is underlined throughout. Her father declares categorically: “Anowa is not every woman.” Kofi Ako repeatedly echoes him: “You are a strange woman, Anowa. Too strange” (p. 36). In despair he asks if she cannot be like other women. Like a stone in a pond, Anowa sends ripples around her. She is a stumbling stone to many. Her parents often quarrel over her, taking sides with her in turns. The magic that seems to permeate everything she touches and, above all, her adamant moral and ideological stance against any form of slavery, shows her as a revolutionary, championing the cause of the common man, pleading for freedom and justice for the oppressed everywhere. She continues in the independent tradition that makes her reject an arranged marriage and with it other restrictions and oppressive traditions and taboos. She must be free to be herself. In a sense, Anowa is a political activist. She upsets her family, shakes the community out of its sleepy complacency, and the women especially out of their stupor of resignation. Her courageous, lonely stance reveals the spiritual dimension of her character. The village old man's comments (after her open accusation of impotence precipitates Kofi Ako to shoot himself and Anowa to drown herself) sum up her true significance and the importance of the self-criticism her life provokes in others: “She was true to herself. She refused to come back here to Yebi, to our gossiping and our judgements” (p. 64). From indignation to self-justification to self-criticism, Anowa's village community is forced to initiate significant adjustments to its whole system of thought.

That cycle repeats itself in case after case. Mrs. Browne would never have narrated the highlights of her life to Kiswana had she not been frightened by the degree of determination and commitment she senses in her. She knows that despite her taunts, the Black Arts Movement of the sixties did give birth to a new breed of black men and women, “strange,” zealous and, like Kiswana, concerned with the “common pain and the general good.” Because of her choices and theirs, things can never be the same again in Kiswana's family, nor among middle-class blacks. The movement represented here by Kiswana has forced her parents and others like them to re-evaluate their lives, to see what they have lost and gained, to come to grips with crucial issues of unity and co-operation in the black community. Her actions are a direct challenge to her parents, telling them that there is much more than just making it in a white world. She challenges them to bridge the schisms along class lines. She calls for what W. E. B. Du Bois and other Pan Africanists have called for, a moral responsibility that blacks prevent their leadership from becoming as oppressive as that of whites. The cultural symbols of Kiswana's African name, hairdo, dress, and artifacts are her way of warning the upward-moving blacks not to forget their roots nor the bridge over which they have passed, that human bond and link to mother Africa that makes them a people. Nothing could be more political.

For African Totems of Botswana, who know their roots but cling selfishly to oppressive traditions and prejudices, Margaret Cadmore's embarrassing defiance causes an even greater political upheaval and challenge. Her quiet and placid surface hides a resilient and creative woman who is able to withdraw within herself from the fierce storm of love that she unleashes. Her strong influence on all the characters in the novel is decisive. The scheming Totems, Pete, Seth, and Morafi, who oppose her vehemently, are hounded out of town because of her. Maru, the heir, and Moleka, his powerful and sensuous friend, both fall in love with her at first sight, despite near-surgical implications for their status in society. Margaret turns two best friends into fierce rivals, vying for her sake to outdo each other in their generosity towards their Masarwa slaves, forced for the first time to come to grips with issues like Masarwa humanity, social responsibility, and the future of their community.

The sudden change in Moleka, that untamed human energy associated with solar images, may better illustrate the significance of Margaret's influence. At their very first meeting, the reader is told that:

Something in the tone, those soft fluctuations of sound … had abruptly arrested his life. … He had communicated directly with her heart. It was that which was a new experience and which had so unbalanced him.

(p. 32)

He thinks, “‘I have come to the end of one road and I am taking another’” (p. 33). For Moleka, as for Margaret, the result of their meeting is psychologically crucial. Margaret secretly falls in love with Moleka, and this love, which tames Moleka, unleashes and feeds her creative embers, giving life to her artistic vision in a vital and lasting manner. Through her canvas, Margaret reaches out to common people and things, touching them with her art. Women engaged in their daily common chores, a white goat and her black kid, the makorba tree, the village huts and scenery: these are the subjects of Margaret's paintings. The desire to please the one she loves is the driving force that puts an authentic stamp on her art.

Ironically, it is her influence on Maru, the man with a vision of a new world order, that proves socially and politically far-reaching. Maru, who, like Moleka, had blatantly exploited the young women of Dilepe, quickly comes to a new beginning upon meeting Margaret. For the sake of her love, he readily renounces his chiefdom, abandoning “the highway of life” for the dusty and lonely footpath that leads to a horizon of possibilities. Just as Margaret infuses life and vitality into the women she paints, symbolically freeing them from all bondage and exploitation, even so Maru dreams of a possible world with freedom and equity. Just as art recreates for Margaret her fragmented sense of self, even so Maru sees in Margaret's love a potent force for recreating his dissipated energy and the fragmented vision of his life. The beauty and possibility of these dreams are symbolized by the sunny daisies Maru envisions lining the footpath of the home he has prepared for his Masarwa bride. The disturbing fact that Maru's dream kingdom is physically far from Dilepe may be explained as part of the dream-like quality of his vision, a quality that their dramatic departure and wedding share. As the heartbroken Margaret lies dying emotionally from the shock of her friend Dikeledi's marriage to Moleka, Maru appears and carries his bride away to his “magic kingdom,” transforming her melancholy into love and joy. Fortunately, her occasional tears convince both the reader and Maru that her love for Moleka has not simply evaporated.

Nonetheless, Margaret's marriage to Maru, like a climax to a musical performance, ushers in a quiet revolution of its own, the political awakening of the Masarwa:

When people of Masarwa tribe heard about Maru's marriage to one of their own, a door silently opened on the small, dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time. … As they breathed in the fresh, clear air their humanity awakened. … They started to run out into the sunlight, then they turned and looked at the dark, small room. They said: “We are not going back there.”

(pp. 126-27)

Margaret Cadmore's resourcefulness and personal achievements help to destroy the myth of Masarwa inferiority. Her cultural pride gives identity to her people, and challenges the myth of racial superiority. Her calm defiance forces those around her into self-examination. Above all, her symbolic marriage suggests the unlimited potential of love even in the most racist and oppressive of societies. It offers her people a choice.

Even Selina, a loner through much of Browngirl Brownstones, comes to understand, through her experiences, the bane of racism, and to identify with the pains of her mother, her community, and all oppressed peoples. The racist and condescending comments of her white friend's mother about her and her people revolt and radicalize her, finally sealing a bond between her and “Miss Thompson, the whores, the flashy young men and the blues, the Association, her mother, the Badjan women, all of them. She feels their pain and their rage at this illusion” (p. 291). This sudden growth in awareness is a double-edged challenge, for herself and for those around her. On her part, she repents of her dishonest plans to exploit the Association and refuses the scholarship she has won. She makes an attempt to evaluate the past honestly. She purges herself of her contempt for her mother over her father's deportation and suicide, lays his memory to rest, and frees herself at last from the bondage of memory in readiness for her departure to Barbados in search of what she calls the “centre of life.” Her choice of values and her search for her roots and identity are like challenges thrown to her community, symbolized by the bangle she throws to them before her departure. In her Afterword to Browngirl Brownstones, Mary Washington captures her significance to her community in the following words:

In making her choice to return to Barbados, to begin with, Selina symbolizes the community's need to reorder itself, to recognize the destruction of human values in the community devoted to money, ownership and power. … It assigns even to an oppressed people the power of conscious political choice. They are not victims.

(p. 322)

Selina's spiritual and intellectual values challenge the narrowness, exclusiveness, and selfishness of a Badjan community consumed by its passion for possession, despising all other blacks who are not of their stock. Young Selina becomes larger than life, acting as a historical, cultural, and political bridge between Badjans and other blacks of African descent. With one bracelet thrown to her people and one on her arm, the link remains unbroken as she starts on a quest that will take her through other books and in the guise of other protagonists to England, the Caribbean, South America, and finally back to Africa, connecting all blacks in the Diaspora, linking them all, with myriads of thin strong threads, to the navel of Mother Africa.

I have come to the conclusion that there have been Anowas and Kiswanas in every generation. However, like their mothers, whom they resemble (at least before society moulded them into acceptable patterns), they have generally been treated very lightly in literature, denied an authentic or serious voice until the emergence and rediscovery, in the 1970's, of black women writers. What is superficially interpreted as daughter/mother confrontation only camouflages deep-seated frustrations that occasionally explode against those who are closest—the mothers.

Despite differences in milieu and circumstance, the four protagonists I discuss are fearlessly dynamic in articulating their concerns. Together they lift the veil on female experience, denouncing and rejecting those unquestioned ideas and assumptions that bind and oppress the weaker elements in society. They use their “mouths as guns” to confront forces and face issues regarded as taboo for them. Their courage is an example for others trapped in similar situations. Their decisions to speak, act, move, work, or paint—aspects of their creativity and resourcefulness—transform them. In helping others, these women find their lives enlarged and enriched.

This study reveals greatest affinity between the two African protagonists, Anowa and Margaret Cadmore. Both face strong traditional prejudices and taboos. Since necessity is the mother of invention, one is not surprised to see in them comparatively more resourcefulness and resilience than in their American counterparts. The fact that Anowa dies does not diminish her dynamism or moral strength. If anything, she seems the strongest of all the characters. On the other hand, Selina and Kiswana are faced with the subtle racism of the United States and the devastating effects of eroded cultural values and lack of identity for blacks. Naturally, these two characters emphasize more the need for awareness, selfhood, and cultural roots. These women demonstrate a high degree of sensitivity, a deep awareness of the critical need for psychological wholeness as a prerequisite for successful survival in a dominating Western culture.

Finally, each protagonist scores her marks on the political chart in direct proportion to her commitment, resilience, and creativity. In this regard, Margaret Cadmore, the least loud and articulate of the four, probably achieves the most, thanks to the enduring quality of her artistic talent. Of greater significance, however, is the new collective voice of dynamic young women who are not circumscribed in their vision nor limited in their commitment and who have used their mouths as well as their guts effectively. Their sacrificial engagement to a vision of a better world order is, in the final analysis, the only valid measuring rod of their effectiveness as social, cultural, and political missiles within fiction.


  1. “The New Black Literature: Protest or Affirmation,” The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1972), p. 348.

  2. SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, 1, No. 2 (Fall 1984).

  3. Paule Marshall, Browngirl Brownstones (New York: Random House, 1959); subsequent references are to this edition.

  4. Mary Helen Washington, Black Eyed Susan: Classic Stories by and about Black Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1975), p. 24.

  5. Ama Ata Aidoo, Anowa (London: Longman Group, 1970), p. 20; subsequent references are to this edition.

  6. Gloria Naylor, Women of Brewster Place (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 86; subsequent references are to this edition.

  7. Bessie Head, Maru (London: Heinemann, 1972); subsequent references are to this edition.

  8. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God (1937; rpt. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 28.

  9. Quoted in Chabani Manganyi, Looking through the Keyhole (Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1981), p. 9.

  10. “Reflections of a ‘Good’ Daughter from Black Is a Woman's Color,SAGE, 1, No. 2 (Fall 1984), 28-29.

  11. Mary H. Washington, “I Sign My Mother's Name,” in Mothering the Mind, ed. Ruth Perry and Martin Watson (New York: Holmes and Meir, 1984), p. 157.

  12. “The Truth of Our Mothers' Lives: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Black Women's Fiction,” SAGE, 1, No. 2 (Fall 1984), 10.

Chimalum Nwankwo (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3493

SOURCE: Nwankwo, Chimalum. “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism in Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.” In Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, pp. 151-59. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Nwankwo explores how the reality of African feminism is portrayed in No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.]

Feminism challenges, with justification, the secondary status of women in all societies. Some such challenges in African literature are suspiciously autobiographical and irredeemably subjective. Many are successful in presenting the universal dilemma of heterosexual relationships. Whether we are in the moribund traditional world of Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta or wrapped in the earthy reminiscences of Charity Waciuma, certain crucial questions remain unavoidable. How does one translate individual subjective experience into legitimate questions for social redress? How does the African woman accommodate that individual experience within the stream of history—rapidly changing cultural and socioeconomic circumstances and consequently altered social relations?

If those questions are avoided, we can only read feminist literature in which suffering characters win only our empathy without our sympathy because there are no logical matrices to support the weight of feeling. It seems to me that no social issue successfully arrests attention without the kind of simultaneous involvement and detachment which one finds in this candid passage from Waciuma's Daughter of Mumbi:

For myself, I have decided against polygamy but its rights and wrongs are still being argued furiously in our schools and colleges and debating clubs. There seems to have been a time in our society when there were many more women than men, possibly as a result of raidings. Under these circumstances polygamy may be socially good. Even today our women like to get someone to help them with the hard work of the farm and the house. Polygamy is clearly second nature to most Gikuyu men. I hate it because it hurts the position and dignity of women and exaggerates the selfishness of men.1

Here, Waciuma's indignation is subjective but historical and social circumstances are used in such a way that individual preference or predilection is validated.

Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana's fine female writer perfects Waciuma's approach in her collection of short stories No Sweetness Here and novel, Our Sister Killjoy. In those works, the problems of the African woman are expressed as integral parts of the problems of colonial and post-colonial Africa. Aidoo's feminist concerns are not treated in isolation from Africa's political instability, the new master complex of the so-called elite, the atavistic problems of the rural African at the cross-roads of history, the fury and impotence of the radical African, the lure of the Western world, and so forth. Such problems are all neatly slotted into a cultural matrix often evoked successfully by the writer's rich personal experience.

There are eleven stories in the No Sweetness Here collection. Despite the diversity in themes, all the stories are products of an intense involvement not just in the problem of women but the problem of the Black race as a whole. Aidoo herself justifies her involvement in these words: “I cannot see myself as a writer writing about lovers in Accra because, you see, there are so many problems.”2

Aidoo's plethora of problems is projected by various narrative voices in shifting perspectives. What this approach accomplishes is to make us accept the author as a detached and neutral observer advancing cases for all the underprivileged in society instead of being a solicitor for any special interests. Consequently we are compelled to suspend our own partisan prejudices and look at all the problems from a fresh and correspondingly neutral vantage point. We trust the “unseen” author and concentrate and rely on her created mouthpieces. The limitations of space will permit a few examples from a variety of impressively crafted situations in the short stories.

In “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” the searing irony of independence comes alive in this exchange between a new African master and his African house servant:

‘Massa, God knows I know my job.’

‘Of course! As a man of the land and your wife's husband you are a man and therefore you do not cook. As a black man facing a white man, his servant, you are a black, not a man, therefore you can cook.’

‘Massa, Massa. You call me woman? I swear, by God, Massa, this na tough. I no be woman. God forbid!’

‘Ah, Zirigu. I am only thinking something out. Ah … God is above, I no call you woman. Soon I go talk all for you.’

‘But Massa, you no know. Don't call me woman.’

‘No, I will not.’

When a black man is with his wife who cooks and chores for him, he is a man. When he is with white folks for whom he cooks and chores, he is a woman. Dear Lord, what then is a black man who cooks and chores for black men?3

Eloquently, the colonial and neo-colonial mentality in the minds of both big and small in society is intelligently tied up with the status of women in society. A strategic and apt authorial intrusion hones up the irony. Africans accept inferior status as a result of colonialism. That acceptance is a dangerous social habit like female passivity which lingers despite independence. This affects a national beauty contest in the first story, “Everything Counts,” a contest won by a long-haired mulatto. That contest and its preference points at the same problem at the root of the exchange between master and servant in “For Whom Things Did Not Change.”

“In the Cutting of a Drink” male chauvinism is illustrated in the city life of a girl called Mansa. Her brother is sent from the village to the city to bring her back. Shocked by the fast-paced and sensual city life, Mansa's brother is convinced that since the women of the city were smoking and drinking, they must all be ‘bad’ women. His own drinking habit is taken for granted. Such myopic vision of evil also ignores the sociological impetus behind the city lifestyles led by both men and women.

Several social attitudes in “The Message” leave women at the short end of the stick. They are blamed for being fat or thin, for being unable to have normal child deliveries, or for failing to arouse traditional support during emotional emergencies.

“Certain Winds from the South” counterpoints the situation in “In the Cutting of a Drink.” This time, men are attracted to the Southern cities in Ghana. Even though no dreams are fulfilled, they keep on going. Their destruction passes blamelessly. M'ma Ansa, the seeing maternal eye of the story knows why. Tradition cannot be broken:

Is his family noted for men that rot? No. Certainly not. It is us who are noted for our unlucky females. There must be something wrong with them …

(p. 51)

In the story “No Sweetness Here” from which Aidoo's collection takes its title, everything is, as usual, wrong with women. Circumspect traditional narrators play down the injustices in polygamy. So are the abuses and ill-usage which women suffer in marriage. Even women have been socialized into accepting their inferior status happily. An age old traditional value asserts that “a woman must sometimes be a fool” (p. 61). We are not shown instances where men must sometimes be fools to accommodate their female counterparts. Women are the witches nonetheless, and the tragedy is not mitigated by mandatory maternal responsibilities and the value placed on the accidental ability to have male issues. Death strikes the only son of a lonely woman in “No Sweetness Here” and threatens another child of another lonely woman in “A Gift from Somewhere” to accent the enormity of the problems which women have to grapple with in their daily lives.

Collectively, what these stories successfully reveal is that neither choice is a good choice for the African woman. Neither the woman who espouses traditional and conservative wifely values nor the woman who pursues her social pleasures liberally find life rewarding. “Two Sisters” especially confirms that dilemma. No matter how the characters turn out in these stories, Aidoo always succeeds in remaining reasonably detached. When an innocent girl is unfairly punished by her mother in “The Late Bud,” we see how this relates to the author's nonjudgmental posture. Individuals always suffer when their worth is based on whether their behaviors fit or do not fit conventional behavior patterns that are by no means permanent. “The Late Bud” is therefore an indirect reference to the way women are socialized into traditional lifestyles and expectations which ultimately contribute to their inferior status in many societies.

The penultimate story in the collection is one of the most circumspect in its method of addressing the underprivileged status of women. “Something to Talk about on the Way to the Funeral” sums up one unspoken contention, that is, whichever way we look at society women cannot escape the vicious cycle of oppression. There are good men and good women, bad women and bad men, but eventually the bad men appear to escape socially unscathed. Not the women. Twice in that story women become premaritally pregnant and twice the men neither accept responsibility nor any punishment. The unfair assumption is that it is ‘normal’ for a ‘bad girl’ to become pregnant in that way. Of course, the profligate male is also meant to be just that.

“Other Versions,” the final story in the collection depicts other versions of oppression. Capitalism, racism and sexism are shown to be identical in their modus operandi. The scenes shift from Africa to America but the human drama is enacted in the same way. In Africa, man and woman, husband and wife labor together to raise a child. The mother is shown to have a selfless interest in the progress of the child while the father expects material compensation. At dinner even in America, the woman is busy serving and the men eat enthusiastically.

This story suggests implicitly that any kind of power is dangerous because the wielder is without the human feeling necessary for good fellowship. The Merrows, who host Kofi, are so condescending to him that he feels, not without justification, that he is being devoured like a dinner.

The final lesson is that feeling, or intuition, a distinctive attribute of women will always triumph over that kind of power which makes men able to oppress women or the rich oppress the poor. Hence the lone woman Kofi meets in the subway ride awakens in Kofi the same kind of love he reserved for his mother.

All of Aidoo's stories share one thing in common. Even though they appear to touch many problems, their focus is the concern for women in society, but the feminist impulse is balanced in such a way that “Aidoo does not allow her criticism of this to become obsessive.”4

Our Sister Killjoy, like Aidoo's short stories, deals with so many problems. Once again, its success depends largely on the ability of the author to lend all the problems equal spikes. In that regard Ngugi and Sembène come to mind—writers who are fully aware in their works that a campaign for social justice is meaningful only when all disadvantaged people in human society receive undiscriminating attention. It is that same principle which makes Aidoo's works feminist literature with a difference.

Our Sister Killjoy directs its opening barbs at a foe whose national origin or nature ceases to matter as soon as he/she is fully described:

Nanabanyin Tandoh
Who knows how to build
lives …(5)

We can guess immediately that the writer has no sympathy for any form of traditional structure when such structures are used for inhibiting people or artistic expression. Structurally, the work then proceeds to adopt a defiant artistic form in which prose and poetry freely blend with each other. That posture takes care of the feminist campaign for women's freedom but that is only part of the numerous problems in society, hence a quick shift to the doorsteps of the Black race.

We are brought face to face with an unfair social system within which among other things women are unnecessarily placed upon pedestals for sympathy which becomes irreverent because of the special attention involved. Consider, for instance, the opening vignette in Our Sister Killjoy. The ‘heroine’ is attending a send-off party or orientation session in Ghana before leaving for Europe on some form of Government sponsorship. The authorities “had pulled strings for her to obtain her passport in a week instead of three months” (p. 8). One of the men, Sammy, reflects a negative national image in his conduct at the party. Sammy “was very anxious to get her to realize one big fact. That she was unbelievably lucky to have been chosen for the trip. And that somehow, going to Europe was altogether more like a dress rehearsal for a journey to paradise” (p. 9). In Sammy, we are dealing with a situation in which an individual conceives an inferior spot for himself relative to others. We could blame or not blame Sammy depending on what we consider responsible for his diffidence and lack of self-worth. Sammy is a product of colonial intimidation and its conscious process of socialization.

In the relationship between men and women in society, identical power complexes emerge. Many women accept inferiority, many men accept mastery as the norm. Also, the distinction which Sammy makes between Africa and Europe is the same kind of distinction which enables one race to oppress the other, rich people to oppress poor people, and men to oppress women. Such relationships, no matter where they begin eventually undercut the supposedly egalitarian aspiration of all societies. This conclusion emerges easily from the end of the first part of Our Sister Killjoy where a reference to Sissie in German as a “black girl” (p. 12) activates a negative epiphany in which white people's skins are “the colour of pickled pig parts that used to come from foreign places” (p. 12).

Such deft linkages of feminist concerns with wider social issues opens the second section of Our Sister Killjoy. Here, impressions of Germany include the vision of castles superimposed on present realities indicating how long oppression has been with human nature:

And you wondered
Looking at the river
How many
Virgins had
Our sovereign Lord and Master
Unvirgined on their nuptial nights
For their
Husbands in
Agony, their
Hurting …
But ‘all the days are not equal’, said the old village wall.

(p. 19; my emphasis)

Of course, the major concern of the author is inequality, so there are discussions of the pitiful and peripatetic Black people from Africa to the diaspora. Their social and economic problems are fitted into the collage of oppression. A few ‘Sammys’ also reappear as pseudointellectuals who either dream of successful lives or pretend to live successful lives within the intimidating circumstances of Western technological society. Ironically, it is from the pediatric practice of one such medic that we find the root of sexism:

‘500 for a boy
400 for a girl’
Why should it surprise
That it costs a little more
To make a boy?

(p. 31)

Such measure of worth is universal as we find out from the discussions between Sissie and her lonely German friend, Marija.

Marija is a female prototype of Sammy in her meek acceptance of a subservient role in her society. She speaks of her only child with unconcealed delight. She “was very happy that he was a boy” (p. 51).

Throughout the rest of this second part, other sensitive issues weave in and out of feminist concerns: oppression in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), cultural and socio-economic problems in Nigeria, Ghana, Upper Volta and so forth. The high point of this section is Marija's display of lesbian affection for Sissie from which the latter recoils with revulsion. Sissie's act is probably in keeping with Aidoo's. It symbolizes the gap between the European female and African female's response. Problems are not solved by running away from them, rather new ones are created as the depicted vagrant Africans in Europe and America may be aware.

Aidoo's “vision of the past and present is essentially tragic,”6 observes Adelugba on Aidoo's short stories. That tragedy finds full expression when the writer's critical eyes show us Africans in Europe—male and female. In fact the females receive more criticism. Generally the problems of all are traced back to colonialism and its psychological aftermath. We find sarcastic references to Man in this section. There is intelligent linkage again. Man is the Christian Doctor of heart transplant fame but the feat hailed by a Nigerian psuedo-intellectual as scientific triumph is almost debunked as a product of the demonic alter ego of colonialism. Colonialism in turn is seen as Man's expression of an undying love to dehumanize his fellow man. Where Aidoo's logic appears to falter, verve is restored with poetic shots like this:

to live in peace in man's world
The virgin Birth
Is not the only mystery
Simply has to take
By faith.

(p. 100)

However uncanny such reductionist approaches may sound, the implied relationship between Christianity, colonialism, capitalism, sexism and oppression appear to hold on well.

The three major sections of Our Sister Killjoy merge into each other in whorls. The concerns are the same and the examples used to support those concerns are similar as we shift from one geographical focus to the other. In the final major section, there is greater introspection because of the literary approach—a confrontational “love letter” from Sissie to an imaginary male partner. The letter suggests a way out of the morass—communication between man and woman. The same kind of self search and dialogue is endorsed for similar problems in Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat. Such dialogue based on a mutually comprehensible language would then form the secret springboard for the solution of all the spiritual and material problems bedeviling the Black world.

Aidoo has dealt with women's problems with arresting wisdom and grace. The conservative dissenter and the radical sympathiser will probably find her approach stimulating. Aidoo's forte is her tremendous feeling and honesty of sentiment in expressing those issues. Her works ring like the unimpugnable scold of a justly aggravated parent. “Although writers of both sexes have written about Mother” assesses McCaffrey “the woman writer naturally identifies with her female characters.”7 Aidoo's identification extends beyond “underprivileged womanhood and the arrogance of manhood”8 to include a variety of social problems across geographical boundaries. Without doubt, like her feminist mouthpiece in her play, Anowa, Aidoo has learnt and heard that “in other lands a woman is nothing.”9 Despite that knowledge, “everything counts” in the way she assembles her materials in her short stories and novel, Our Sister Killjoy, to register a feminism reasonably in tune with social realities.

Certain problems remain apparent in spite of Aidoo's strengths. It is still difficult to avoid some degree of prejudice and presumption when dealing with issues concerning men and women especially in African societies. We still have to deal with psychological and cultural questions many of which do not appear within the scope of Aidoo's discourse. It is not enough to indicate that if human beings have values placed on their heads, ‘boys’ are always more ‘costly’ than girls. We must be willing to deal with certain root fears and desires. For instance, the predominantly African assumption that women eventually marry and leave their birth families to assist in building their husbands' families. That cultural attitude and the African love for large families still make polygamy possible in so-called modern African societies. We have to deal with the desocialization of traditional African males who still cling to the chauvinistic guns of the past despite changed and changing social relations. We must also extend our attention to certain rural circumstances where social relations remain affected by taxing agrarian occupations which restrict women to specific economic and social positions. Finally, the past is a valid reference point for understanding present reality and projecting future directions. The key to a means for resolving our problems is a reasonable degree of honesty in facing all of those problems. This is where Aidoo takes the lead among other African women in search for social justice through creative literature.


  1. Charity Waciuma. Daughter of Mumbi (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1962), p. 11

  2. Dennis Duerden & Cosmo Pieterse ed. African Writers Talking (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1972), p. 19.

  3. Ama Ata Aidoo. No Sweetness Here (London: Longman Group Ltd., 1970), p. 17. All page references onward are to same text.

  4. Dapo Adelugba. “Literature as Social Criticism.” Ba Shiru, 6, 1 (1974), 16.

  5. Ama Ata Aidoo. Our Sister Killjoy (New York: Nok Publishers International Ltd., 1979), Dedication. Further page references to same text.

  6. Adelugba, p. 16.

  7. Kathleen McCaffrey. “Images of the Mother in the Stories of Ama Ata Aidoo” Africa Woman, 23 (1979), 40.

  8. Ezekiel Mphahlele's Introduction to No Sweetness Here (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. x.

  9. Ama Ata Aidoo. Anowa (London: Longman Group Ltd., 1970), p. 52.

Kofi Owusu (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10240

SOURCE: Owusu, Kofi. “Canons under Siege: Blackness, Femaleness, and Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.Callaloo 13, no. 2 (spring 1990): 341-63.

[In the following essay, Owusu considers the impact of racial and gender issues on Our Sister Killjoy, commenting that the novel “seems to defy easy categorization, and one soon gets the impression that it defines itself by this very fact.”]

[T]here is a Eurocentric view that the movement for women's liberation is not indigenous to Asia or Africa, but has been a purely West European and North American phenomenon, and that where movements for women's emancipation … have arisen in the Third World, they have been merely imitative of Western models.

—Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World

The process of correcting the portrayal of Black women has involved both the creative writer and the scholar-critic, and oftentimes one person serves both functions.

—Stephen Henderson, Introduction to Black Women Writers (1950-80)


Definitions [belong] to the definers—not the defined.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved

Gender and race provide a linkage which sponsors my emphasis on “womanism” rather than “feminism” and underwrites the resulting preference for femaleness at the expense of femininity. It is not assumed that there is a preexisting, monolithic entity called “African or Black ‘womanism,’” on the one hand, and “Western ‘feminism,’” on the other. Indeed, it becomes apparent later on in this essay that the “feminist perspective that is, at the same time, humanistic and interdisciplinary, unlimited in scope and universal in application” (Rigney 81) is not at odds with Alice Walker's “[t]raditionally universalist” (xi) womanist perspective. Both perspectives transcend the limitations of radical, feminist-separatist ideology. What is often described as “Black/African feminism” will be referred to in the ensuing pages as “womanism.” “Radical” or “extremist” will be used to premodify “womanism” and “feminism” wherever appropriate. The term “womanist-feminist” or “womanist/feminist” will signify the merger of womanist and feminist perspectives.

There are certainly some gender-oriented and historically-sanctioned problems with which women of all races have had, and continue, to contend. It is also clear that there isn't much hard evidence to support the contention that “where movements for women's emancipation … have arisen in the Third World, they have been merely imitative of Western models” (Jayawardena 2). The broad sweep of Kumari Jayawardena's “study … [of] the rise of early feminism … in selected [African and Asian] countries … in the late 19th and early 20th centuries” (1) and the particularity of Adelaide Cromwell's biography of Adelaide Casely Hayford, An African Victorian Feminist, provide a couple of apposite examples which complement each other in challenging the view that “the movement for women's liberation is not indigenous to Asia or Africa” (Jayawardena 2). It is true, however, that less than adequate attention has been paid to “women's emancipation” in African writing.

In an interview with Anna Rutherford following the publication of Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe looks back at his own writing, in particular, and African writing, in general, and notes:

we have been ambivalent, we have been deceitful even, about the role of the woman. We have … said all kinds of grandiloquent things about womanhood, but in our practical life the place of the woman has not been adequate. At the same time I'm not saying ‘This is how it is going to be from now on’ because I am aware of my own limitations. In mapping out in detail what woman's role is going to be, I am aware that radical new thinking is required. … We have created all kinds of myths to support the suppression of the woman, and … the time has come to put an end to that. [And] … the woman herself will be in the forefront in designing what her new role is going to be, with the humble co-operation of men.


It is easy and, perhaps, convenient for the African male writer to apostrophize the voiceless female principle, abstraction or essence like Mother Africa, Motherland, Mother Earth, and Earth Goddess. With the possible exception of Sembene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and the Achebe of Anthills of the Savannah, African male novelists tend to be notoriously deficient in creating credible fictional versions of the women who gave birth to and nursed them, the girls they played and went to school with, and the young women they befriend, court, marry and call wives.

Somewhere between “the demented woman” (like Wole Soyinka's Mama Biye), the prostitute (the Jagua Nana syndrome popularized by Cyprian Ekwensi), and the “grandiloquent things” said about the faceless, voiceless “female principle,” the self-supporting, decision-making woman—the cornerstone of African family life—is missing. It is this void which African women writers have been trying to fill. This essay is devoted to Ama Aidoo's contribution to ongoing attempts to rescue the African woman from the fringes of African literature and restore flesh, blood, voice and credibility to her. The following segment on gender and the ones on the discontinuities as well as continuities between womanist-feminist perspectives, on the one hand, and African literature, on the other, are intended to provide a broad enough framework for the discussion of the rather unusually eclectic Our Sister Killjoy.


In writing … the gender of the page remains to be determined, and so too does the pen that cleaves its virgin surface.

—Maud Ellmann, “Blanche”

Maud Ellmann's essay “Blanche” offers “a psychoanalytic reading” of The Book of the Duchess (101). Chaucer's “Book” is a dream-poem about “the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse,” and Ellmann's Freudian interpretation of the text allows her to suggest that “Blanche stands for the whiteness of the page, [while] the Black Knight represents the ink with which it is deflowered” (106-97). “White” and “Black,” in this context, are shot through with the mutability evident in the sponsoring chess conceit:

The signifiers ‘black’ and ‘white’ shuffle back and forth between the genders in the same way that black and white change places in a game of chess.


Ellmann makes the point that “chess is a game of places and displacements,” and implies that in the gender game woman-as-Blanche is “blanched out in the very word that brings her into being” (110). Her Freudian interpretation of Chaucer's book provides a backdrop for the reminder that what “Chaucer calls ‘White’ Freud calls darkness, as in the phrase ‘dark continent’ of femininity. Both signify erasure, a whiting or a blacking out” (109). Thus, Chaucer's “white” and Freud's “dark”/“black” may change places in the gender game without changing anything substantially. Such a game “commemorates the … [white or black woman's] erasure” (109).

The significance of Ellmann's notion of woman as “third person” to my purpose becomes clearer later on in this essay. For the moment, we note her contention that

[d]ialogue is always haunted by a third person. 1 + 1 = 3: such is the logic … to dismantle opposition.

… … … … … … … … …

Neither absent nor present, neither dead nor alive, woman ‘is’ the laughter of such oppositions at themselves, at their own labour to reduce 3 into 2, and 2 into 1. The law of gender is the law of the third person, the law of one too many.

(108, 109)

“The law of … the third person,” according to Ellmann, denies woman a place of her own. “Woman the evasion of ‘is’” (109): she is dis-placed, re-placed, and, eventually, blacked out. While Maud Ellmann's specific focus is on (Chaucer's) “white” woman, it is nonetheless intimated that the implications of her discourse hold good for women in general. But how, we ask, does the woman in African literature fit into all this?


Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.

—Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens

The study of women in African literature received a big boost in 1986 with the publication of Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (eds. Carole Davies and Anne Graves). A year later, in 1987, the long overdue fifteenth volume of the African Literature Today series, Women in African Literature Today (ed. Eldred Jones), was published. The emphasis on “Women in African Literature” in Jones's volume and in the anthology of Davies and Graves is appropriate, because the term “feminism” is a problematic one in African literature. A closer look at representative essays in Women in African Literature Today reveals the ambiguous responses of critics and creative writers alike to “(Western) feminism.”

The collection of essays in Eldred Jones's volume attempts to indicate the range and variety of interpretations of women in African literature.1 In “The Female Writer and Her Commitment,” for example, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie suggests that “the notion of ‘femininity’ (to be distinguished from ‘femaleness’ …) is a fiction invented by men” (9). More to the point, after discussing select African female writers from a “feminist” perspective, the critic concedes with obvious irritation that

many … African female writers like to declare that they are not feminists. … These denials come from unlikely writers such as Bessie Head, Buchi Emecheta, even Mariama Bâ. … Yet, nothing could be more feminist than the writings of these women writers, in their concern for and deep understanding of the experiences and fates of women in society.


Ogundipe-Leslie's irritation is shared by Katherine Frank. The latter, in fact, quotes the former in her essay “Women without Men”:

Most surprising is the fact that Emecheta and Nwapa … deny that they are feminists at all, flying in the face of the patently clear orientation of their fiction. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie ascribes such denials ‘to the successful intimidation of African women by men.’


In the end, Katherine Frank herself “ascribes” to the view that “it is to the fiction that we must continue to turn. Imagined worlds are more potent than real ones” (33).

Frank seems to be aware of the contradictions in her “radical feminist-separatist” (22) reading of Flora Nwapa's One Is Enough and Buchi Emecheta's Destination Biafra. According to Frank, Emecheta's heroine, Debbie, is “an unabashed feminist” (26), “[c]ertainly … the most liberated and militant,” and “perhaps the apotheosis of the African New Woman” (25), but she is also “so completely Europeanized that one may ask whether she is … still an African woman” (26). Katherine Frank's problem is not new. It came up for review at the Sixth Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) held at the University of Guelph, Canada, in August 1983. Segun Oyekunle reports that the session on “feminism in Buchi Emecheta and the works of other African writers”

drew particular attention because of one major flaw, the attempt to analyse feminist movements in Africa in the light of Western standards. As a result such crucial factors as African history and culture, the old and the new economic order, corporate and governmental perspectives and policies, the state of women and the nature of their expression in Africa today, were ignored.

(WA [West Africa], 1983: 2168)

Barely three years later, in April 1986, Buchi Emecheta attended the Second African Writers' Conference in Stockholm. The second of the four-day conference was devoted to women's literature. And Kirsten Petersen notes that on that day the “word feminism was not mentioned for a long time even though its ghost evidently stalked the room.” When the word did finally come out “the women, with the possible exception of Ama Ata Aidoo, quickly dissociated themselves from it” (WA, 1986: 1212).

It is hardly surprising that the Egyptian “feminist” writer, Nawal el Sa'adawi, for example, does not share Katherine Frank's separatist philosophy. In an interview with Rosemary Clunie, the Egyptian writer left the interviewer with the impression that “[s]he does not believe in taking the easy path as a feminist of rejecting men, nor as a socialist of rejecting religion. … It is the easiest thing in the world to rejecting men and say they are the enemy.” The writer speaks for herself:

It is more difficult to live with men [and] transform them into human[e] beings. It is more difficult to live with a religion and transform it into a humanist philosophy.

(WA, 1986: 1736)

For el Sa'adawi, it is ultimately a matter of experiences deeply felt by a woman as a person and writer.

“Imagined worlds,” according to Katherine Frank, “are more potent than real ones.” But what if one's place in the “real” world is stranger than fiction? Bessie Head's life provides a case in point. The signifiers “black” and “white,” the blanching out of woman as Chaucerian Blanche-figure, and the blacking out of woman as Freudian “dark continent”—issues, we recall, that pervade Maud Ellmann's essay “Blanche”—are the very ingredients of Head's life as documented by Charles Sarvan in his ALT [African Literature Studies] 15 essay “Bessie Head”:

Bessie … was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1937. Her Scottish mother … fell in love with the African groom and shortly after was committed by the family to an institution. Bessie Head was born in the asylum's hospital and was first given to an Afrikaner family to foster, but they soon rejected her because she was not sufficiently white. She was then handed over to a Coloured family but, after a while, her Coloured foster mother was considered unsuitable … and Bessie Head was moved to a mission orphanage. …

Bessie … left South Africa on an exit permit. (An exit permit allows a citizen to leave South Africa but not to return.) From then until her death … she lived and worked in Serowe, Botswana, a stateless person.


If you had lived a life like Bessie Head's you might, like Elizabeth, the protagonist in the autobiographical A Question of Power, come to the conclusion that “[s]he who suffered exclusion will not, in her turn, exclude anyone” (Sarvan 88). The humanism of Bessie Head and el Sa'adawi comes through in spite of formidable odds.

“Awesome odds” and a woman's “affirmative attitude toward life” characterize Mbye Cham's “Study of the Novels of Mariama Bâ”:

Abandonment in the novels of Mariama Bâ is predominantly a female condition. It is both physical and psychological, and it transcends race, class, ethnicity and caste. Hence the universality of this cry of the woman subjected to this condition.

… … … … … … … … … … 

In spite of awesome odds, [Mariama Bâ's] heroines are champions of change and justice and they inspire other women and people to live and carry on.

(ALT 15: 89, 100)

Sensitivity, vision and courage inform the foci of Mariama Bâ, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Ama Aidoo and Nawal el Sa'adawi on woman. It is this type of courage infused with humanism that Chinua Achebe's very masculine, wife-beating protagonist, Okonkwo, is sent to his “motherland” to acquire to make him wholly human. In “Women and Resistance in Ngugi's Devil on the Cross,” Jennifer Evans identifies the sort of courage I am referring to with Jacinta Wariinga and Wangari, the women through whom “Ngugi sees the essence of his own struggle and the communal struggle of the people of Kenya” (ALT 15: 138).

The ambiguous responses of Nwapa, Emecheta, Head and el Sa'adawi, for example, to the feminist label defined in European and/or American terms amount, in effect, to discomfort with the self-effacing, identity-obliterating Euro-American blanching in. That discomfort does not, in any way, compromise these writers' commitment in both art and life to femaleness. Thus, Charlotte Bruner's observation that Bessie Head “says she is not a joiner, but she publishes in Ms” (218-19) provides, for me at least, no contradiction. The internationalist cause of women is furthered, not hampered, by Ms. Head's contribution to Ms.

Mariama Bâ died in August 1981. Bessie Head passed away in April 1986. These two distinguished representatives of Simone de Beauvoir's “second sex” and Maud Ellmann's category of “third person[s]” bore their “double yoke” with dignity in the so-called Third World. They spoke and wrote against oppression in all its forms with the passion they alone could muster from the depths of their living experiences. The artist in them almost always succeeded in controlling and harnessing those experiences, the better to awaken readers to the hitherto “untold truth” with power and empathetic conviction. In “‘A Wreath upon the Grave,’” Barbara Rigney reminds us of Virginia Woolf's observation that “‘Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney.’” The critic, in turn, suggests that feminists “gratefully bestow on Virginia Woolf a similar honour” (81). Bessie Head and Mariama Bâ deserve a womanist gesture of this kind from their compatriots. Those two writers sought to link female aspirations to both humanism and the immediate African environment. And that linkage defines a legacy worth preserving. African writers, in general, and womanists like Emecheta, Ama Aidoo and el Sa'adawi, in particular, should deck Bessie's head with garlands and lay a wreath upon Mariama's grave.2


I hope … that you will come to view this exchange as an act of, shall we say, “antagonistic co-operation”?

—Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug”

The diversity, even contradictoriness, of the distinctive voices that comprise “womanism” or “feminism,” on the one hand, and the equally diverse discourses that are lumped together under the rubric “African literature,” on the other, are too obvious to warrant reiteration. The particulars of race and gender make attempts to find common ground between Euro-American feminism and African literature problematic. Beyond that concession, however, one can identify a brand of “feminist perspective” which is “humanistic,” “interdisciplinary,” “unlimited in scope,” “universal in application” (Rigney 81) and therefore implicitly not at odds with either “African” or “womanist” perspectives on literature studies.

Comparisons could be, and indeed have been, drawn between woman as “third person” and persons of the “Third World.”3 Freud's “dark continent” recalls the colonizer's “dark,” warm “continent” invitingly open to the white man's jouissance. The inference that “dark continent” is a kind of Freudian bitch in heat—in much the same way in which woman is said (by sexists) to be “bitch”—paves the way for a discussion of the dog image and its application to both woman and black person.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf, quoting from Cecil Gray's Survey of Contemporary Music, notes that

[t]he woman composer stands where the actress stood in the time of Shakespeare. Nick Greene, … remembering the story I had made about Shakespeare's sister, said that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Johnson repeated the phrase two hundred years later of women preaching. And here, … opening a book about music, we have the very words used again in … 1928, of women who try to write music. ‘Of Mlle. Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr. Johnson's dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed into terms of music. “Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs.

(53; emphasis added)

And in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's Marlow

had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; … to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches … walking on his hind legs.

(37; emphasis added)

Those “very words”—“a dog … walking on his hind legs”—link sexist and racist attitudes to woman and black person respectively. A dog, “the carnivorous quadruped” of “many breeds wild and domesticated,” turns out to be an appealing image for the woman who “breeds” and the black person who is conveniently consigned to a “‘wild’ breed.” Apparently, both the woman and the black person have to be safely “domesticated”—taught, that is, to get used to existence on all fours. It is when these “domesticated ‘breeds’” embark upon the unnatural act of standing up on their own and for themselves that they invite comparison with “a dog … walking on his hind legs”!

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own provides additional material on the “strange meeting” of Woman and Black person. One of the (sub-)themes running through Woolf's book is the “convention … that publicity in women is detestable.” As a result, “anonymity runs in [women's] blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them” (49). Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man provides a paradigm for the blacking out of Black. And Ayi Kwei Armah's protagonist in The Beautyful Ones is “invisible,” anonymous and marginalized: he is “the invisible man of the shadows” (37). One could say that “anonymity runs in [the] blood” of Ellison's and Armah's “invisible m[e]n.”

Ngugi wa Thiong'o provides an instructive perspective on the foregoing. When he was arrested and confined to a prison cell, Ngugi answered to “a mere number.” The writer records with irony his gratitude for “a room of [his] own”:

I was in cell 16 at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison as a political detainee answering to a mere number, K677. Cell 16 would become for me what Virginia Woolf had called A Room of One's Own.

(1988: 64)

For the writer-turned-anonymous-detainee, “a room of one's own” was “absolutely necessary” (ibid). What is true of the Black male is doubly true of the Black female: his marginality usually translates into her double marginality.

In her ironic, tongue-in-cheek manner, Virginia Woolf suggests that “women's books … be shorter … than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be” (74). In Mother Is Gold, Adrian Roscoe provides an “African” twist to such a suggestion:

Africa has been brought up on much shorter narratives. … It … means that, for the moment, the African reader is a short distance performer. And curiously enough, so, too, are many of the writers. Notice the brevity of many of their texts, whether they are traditionalists like Tutuola or moderns like Soyinka and Clark.

(75, 76)

To Roscoe, traditional, generic, and genetic coding stand in the way of the African in her attempt to read or write “masculine,” multiple-decker, duly serialized Victorian delights like Dombey and Son. And that, to the modern day connoisseur of megatexts, is bad news!

Post-Woolf feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism of African literature have benefited from the “purgative effects of … rage vented upon … tradition and institutions” (Rigney 75). Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women (1968), Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), and Mary Daly's “philosophy of women's liberation” as expressed in Beyond God the Father (1973), for example, are as explicitly polemical and overtly critical of male authors and “phallic criticism” as the essays by Chinweizu, Ihechukwu Madubuike, and Onwuchekwa Jemie, which culminated in their Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1980), are unashamedly polemical and avowedly critical of colonial authors and “Eurocentric criticism.” The relative calm after the purgative storm has been characterized, in the main, by the movement from merely apportioning blame to a desire to create and nurture new traditions. The elusive quest for an African, womanist, or feminist aesthetic is motivated by the comparable need to secure a room of one's own in the palace of art.

Womanists, feminists, and African writers have always been concerned about the function of language. Adrienne Rich's discomfort with “the language that has lied about us” (Lies 13) is the feminist's variation on Ngugi's irritation over “colonial” languages. The African who uses English, French, or Portuguese as her medium of expression writes with what Andrea Dworkin describes as “a broken tool” (26). Dworkin's own attempt at “re-inventing” language reminds one of Achebe's interest in “fashioning out an English … able to carry his peculiar experience” (1975: 100). For Rich, Ngugi, Dworkin and Achebe, the reassessment of the very lifeblood of literature, language, translates into what Armah describes in Why are We So Blest? as “that most important first act of creation, that rearrangement without which all attempts at creation are doomed” (231). And this “rearrangement” is a function of the revisionist thrust of Womanist, Feminist, and African literatures. There is a marked tendency in each body of literature toward willful misreading. She who has been consistently displaced and mis-placed now reads and writes “in a way which revises, displaces and recasts the precursor [canon] … so that [she] can clear a space for [her] own imaginative originality” (Eagleton, 183).

It would appear to be the case, then, that while the particulars of race and/or gender inhibit hasty generalizations, there are, upon closer examination, some significant points of convergence—particularly in the areas of the function of language and the contextual approach to criticism—between womanism or feminism, on the one hand, and African literature studies, on the other. But a specific question remains to be asked: how does the African female writer define herself in relation to the male-dominated “tradition” of African literature, at one extreme, and womanism or Euro-American-inspired feminism, at the other? Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy, whose protagonist embarks on a journey from Africa to Europe and back to Africa, provides, among other things, “reflections” on the question posed. It is to this text that we now turn.


The ubiquitous reading of the female body in terms of hunger, fever, and availability is the staple of literary and historical narratives, in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

—Lemuel Johnson, “Sisters of Anarcha”

One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy is difficult to characterize. The text seems to defy easy categorization, and one soon gets the impression that it defines itself by this very fact. Our Sister Killjoy shares with Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother … unusual typography and odd structure. Both authors alternate poetic impressionism with expository prose, but while the typography of Aidoo's text is deliberately choppy, Awoonor tries to standardize his typography somewhat by confining his poeticizing to the prologue and chapter-fragments “1a” to “12a” and ensuring that the fifteen main chapters read like “normal” prose. Gareth Griffiths observes, in this connection, that

[Wole] Soyinka's later plays and novels and Awoonor's novel This Earth, My Brother … may be seen to exist by virtue of undoing themselves as forms, forcing the socio-cultural constraints of the patronage system which sustain them to betray their limitations.


That observation holds good for Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.

Griffiths's statement that some identifiable African texts “may be seen to exist by virtue of undoing themselves as forms” echoes Vladimir Nabokov's reminder that “one of the functions of … [his] novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist” (SO [Strong Opinions], 115). Nabokov's own Pale Fire, for example, combines poetry with prose commentary and “exist[s] by virtue of undoing [itself] as [a form].” And so do, for instance, James Joyce's collagist Ulysses and Ishmael Reed's pastiche, Mumbo Jumbo. Walter Allen's bewilderment at Joyce's unconventionality provides an interesting perspective on our discussion:

For my own part, to limit the discussion to Ulysses, after repeated readings I am still unable to see the novel as a whole. Whether it is a whole or a magnificent ruin I do not yet know.


The more critics come to terms with the postmodernist sensibility, the less odd “magnificent ruin[s]” like Ulysses become. A combination of something akin to the post-modernist sensibility and an anomic state of affairs accounts for this observation in Wole Soyinka's Season of Anomy:

I always thought …, what a pity if the bridge was ever completed. It was perfect as it was, dangling … nowhere. Those painters and musicians who left some works unfinished, I suspect they did it deliberately.


For Soyinka, an incomplete bridge left dangling in the void is as appropriate a structural analog as any for his fictional account of a “season of anomy.” The novelist's bridge that was never completed, “perfect as it was, dangling … nowhere,” is a variation on the critic's “magnificent ruin.” Against this background, we can better appreciate Ama Aidoo's assumption that Joyce, Nabokov, Reed, Awoonor and Soyinka had already made “the structure of oddity” that defines Our Sister Killjoy less “odd.”

I begin my discussion of Aidoo's text at the beginning. The text's full title, Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, tells a story that anticipates the story. The take-your-pick stance intimated by “Or,” the destruction of complacency signalled by “Killjoy,” and the ambiguity which “Black-Eyed Squint” signifies, all point to textual strategies central to the text's concerns. The protagonist is “black-eyed” because she is “black”/“brown.” What we have here is an example of epithet-transference that turns a brown-eyed black woman into a black-eyed brown woman. There is also the suggestion that the brown woman has been literally and metaphorically “beaten”: “she has suffered, the African [woman]. Allah, how she has suffered.”4 The sufferer's “squint” is both paradoxical and ambiguous since she is neither necessarily “cross-eyed” nor “spiteful.” Having been closeted for so long, “Our Sister” has, out of necessity, developed the ability to “see with half an eye”—she sees things or understands situations with ease because they are so obvious to her. Ultimately, the “Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint” are meant to be as curious as they are paradoxical and as unnerving as they are ambiguous.

Aidoo's text is anything but univocal. A close examination of the text's four-part structure, for example, reveals the range of critical languages that are echoed in, and may be brought to bear on, the text. Our Sister Killjoy traces Sissie's trip from her native Africa to Europe and back to Africa. This trip bears the marks of an archetypal journey: neither Sissie, who embarks on the journey, the Europe she visits and leaves behind, nor the Africa she departs from and returns to remains the same. And, already, there is enough in the figure of the journey to whet the archetypal critic's appetite. The first leg of Sissie's journey corresponds to the first section of the text, entitled “Into a Bad Dream.” The conjunction of the journey and dream motifs resounds with psychoanalytic implications and invites a Freudian interpretation in particular. Is this an internalized “journey” from innocence to experience? Is Sissie involved in a quest for self or identity? Why “bad” dream? Is there a feeling of guilt—caused by what?—in all this? Terry Eagleton reminds us that “[e]very human being has to undergo [the] repression of what Freud named the ‘pleasure principle’ by the ‘reality principle,’ but … the repression may become excessive and make us ill” (151). Does this explain the “bad dream” that marks the transition from Africa to Europe? These are questions that engage the particular attention of psychoanalytic critics, and Ama Aidoo gives them food for thought.

The title of the second section of Our Sister Killjoy is the sensuously suggestive and eminently symbolic “The Plums.” Helen Chasin's poem “The Word Plum” offers some insight into the choice of “plums” as section-title:

The word plum is delicious
pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur
full in the mouth and falling
like fruit
taut skin
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh
and reply, lip and tongue
of pleasure.

The editors of the Norton Introduction to Literature provide accompanying commentary that rivals the poem in its suggestiveness:

The poem savors the sounds of the word as well as the taste and feel of the fruit. … The tight, clipped sounds of “taut skin / pierced” suggest the sharp breaking of the skin and solid flesh, and as the tartness is described, the words (“provoked,” “question”) force the mouth to pucker as it would if it were savoring a tart fruit.

(1986: 668)

Aidoo's protagonist, Sissie, turns out to be the “plum” of Marija's eye(s). The German housewife feeds her African female acquaintance with the juicy fruit, plum, and, on occasion, with other “plump” delicacies:

So she sat, Our Sister, her tongue caressing the plump berries with skin-colour almost like her own, while Marija told her how she had selected them specifically for her, off the single tree in the garden.


Marija's intentions would be as clear to speakers of Aidoo's native language as they would be to those familiar with either Chasin's poem or the biblical “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the garden of Eden. The Akan word di means both “eat” and “make love to.”

In his essay, “Sisters of Anarcha,” Lemuel Johnson writes about “[t]he ubiquitous reading of the female body in terms of hunger … and availability” (241). Ama Aidoo's protagonist, Sissie, is available. And Marija is hungry. The activating circumstances are in place; but there will be neither rising action nor climax, because Marija and Sissie are both female. Lesbianism may be a possibility in the future, but for now Sissie is wholly unprepared for it. She beats a hasty retreat emotionally, quite content, it seems, to eat “literal” plums and leave the symbolism and lesbianism to her “sisters” overseas. If, as Katherine Frank puts it in her ALT 15 essay, “Women without Men,” the “logical outcome” of “feminist separatism … [is] lesbianism” (15), then Ama Aidoo's “sister” makes it clear that she is not ready to second that (e)motion yet. Whatever meanings others may read into this section of Our Sister Killjoy, it—the section—seems to have been dressed down to provide symbolist and imagist critics, in particular, some measure of textual bliss.

Aidoo's protagonist comes into her own in the third section of the text. The reader, like Sissie's “brothers” in London, is made to listen to her. The section is appropriately entitled “From Our Sister Killjoy.” Feminist or womanist scholars put woman at center stage, and this is what Aidoo, in retrospect, does in this section. Indeed, woman as “she” (134) has the last word in Our Sister Killjoy. The fourth section, “A Love Letter,” marks the structural and stylistic affirmation of the female coming into her own. The first-person format of Sissie's letter puts woman—Simone de Beauvoir's “second sex” and Maud Ellmann's “third person”—first. It is instructive to recall, at this juncture, that earlier first-person slave narratives like those of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass share with recent reworkings of the epistolary mode by womanists like Alice Walker (in The Color Purple) and Mariama Bâ (in So Long a Letter) the insistence of the enslaved that they be heard as each tells, relates or writes his/her histoire himself/herself. In his introduction to Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, Henry Gates, Jr., observes in a related context how “the speaking black subject [as distinct from ‘black-as-object’] emerge[s] on the printed page to declare himself or herself to be a human being of capacities equal to [anybody's]. Writing, for [such] black authors, [is] a mode of being, of self-creation with words” (lii).

It is clear, then, that Our Sister Killjoy does not just anticipate its criticism in a general sort of way: it actually intimates the specific critical languages—like the archetypal, psychoanalytic, symbolist/imagist, and womanist/feminist—that may be brought to bear on its interpretation. These critical language systems are different, yet related. Thus, the very process that emphasizes multiplicity also foregrounds simultaneity. One result of all this is to make it rather exasperating to read Our Sister Killjoy for the “usual ‘African’ story.” The text, in fact, warns the reader that it is not for “those for whom things were only what they seemed” (OS [Our Sister Killjoy] 79).

In “Ama Ata Aidoo and the Oral Tradition,” Arlene Elder observes that Our Sister Killjoy's “unusual typography … suggests” Aidoo's interest in “something other than the conventional novel.” In spite of this awareness, the critic's impatience with the text's unconventionality is apparent:

The narrative proper does not begin until page 8. Preceding the story are several pages of curiously spaced, conversational observations. … Page 6 is only three-quarters filled with prose; pages 5 and 7 are shaped like poems; and pages 3 and 4 consist of only one line apiece.

(ALT 15: 110)

There is really no “narrative proper” as such: Aidoo's text defines itself as “improper.” Where does the critic think “the narrative proper” begins in novels as far apart as A Sentimental Journey,Pale Fire or Mumbo Jumbo, for example? Given the nature of the text under discussion, it is hardly surprising to note that the blank spaces on those pages Elder refers to speak volumes. Aidoo mixes verse-forms with prose in her text partly because she has some very prosaic things to say about silences, but it so happens that it is verse, not prose, that is appropriately “full of sounds and silences” (Bain 667).

If a “woman's place is to be out of place, perpetually displaced by a discourse that depends on her effacement,” then blank space represents “the vagrant gap where woman does not appear, does not take place” (Ellmann 100). Maud Ellmann's “Blanche” signifies blank space. She is entombed in silence. Dead. It is against this background that Tillie Olsen, for example, gives voice to silence in Silences (1978). Like Olsen's silence, silences in Our Sister Killjoy are meant to be heard. Recalling “a speech” she made to her “brothers” in London, Sissie informs the reader that “when [she] paused, the silence made itself heard” (130; emphasis added). In her speech, Sissie had referred to the “silence” of a mother that presaged “‘a blessing of the womb that bore you’” (130). There is also “the language of love [that] does not have to be audible. It is beyond Akan or Ewe, English or French” (113; emphasis added). Blank space, silence and inaudibility speak volumes in Aidoo's text.

Lemuel Johnson brings a Caribbean perspective to bear on our discussion. “Caribbean Female Ancients,” writes Johnson, “represent not continuity as such …, but rupture; they mark the gaps, discontinuities, indeed, the ambiguity of bridges in the Caribbean experience of the past” (233). The desire to find for Aidoo's blank spaces “equivalent[s]” that “serve as a bridge in the narrative” (Elder 112-13) is motivated by the critic's own need for a comforting, main-streaming “bridge” where its absence is the point being made by Ama Aidoo in Our Sister Killjoy. “Rupture” and “discontinuities” are a function of Aidoo's language. And “the ambiguity of [formal] bridges” is reflected in her play with truncated versions of fictional modes—like the epistolary tradition, which is dogged by “gaps” between letters, the potentially episodic picaresque narrative, and the stream of consciousness technique, which is marked by random association.5

The language of Our Sister Killjoy consists of the broad categories of prose and forms of verse. Poeticizing is an important part of Aidoo's style. It is used effectively, for instance, to suggest that woman is the eternal unknown, a question mark:

Why wish a curse on your child
Desiring her to be female


What is covered by the term “prose” in Our Sister Killjoy is so multifarious that one really has to address oneself to a mixed register. Germanic-English (“‘Ah ja, ja, ja that is ze country zey have ze President Nukurumah, ja?’” [24]) is forced into an uneasy alliance with East Putney cockneyism (“‘Deeah, Jayn's been awai all dai’” [42]) and Africanized English (“Oga, ‘this big Africa man go sit down te-e-ey, look at this Onyibo man wey e talk, wey e moutgo ya, ya, ya’” [94]). Extrapolations from Dr. Christian Barnard's first heart transplant are couched in neologistic prose with a touch of biting irony:

Cleaning the Baas's chest of its rotten heart and plugging in a brand-new, palpitatingly warm kaffirheart, is the surest way to usher in the kaffirmillennium.


And journalese is the medium of choice for polemical commentary:

What is frustrating … in arguing with a nigger who is a ‘moderate’ is that since the interests he is so busy defending are not even his own, he can regurgitate only what he has learnt from his bosses.


The narrator's frustration with the black person who defends “interests” that are “not … his own” mirrors the author's frustration with a language not her own, but which she is compelled to use (a language whose “interests [she] is so busy defending” in spite of herself?):

First of all, there is this language. … I cannot give voice to my soul and still have her heard. … [s]ince so far, I have only been able to use a language that enslaved me, and therefore, the messengers of my mind always come shackled.


Aidoo's text in its entirety suggests that language is as much an indicator of the mood of a fictional character or an individual in the real world (“the worse Marija felt, the more Germanic was her English” [77]) as it is an indicator of the stance of an author on both art and life (“we have to have our own secret language. We must create this language. … So that we [can] make love with words” [116]). For now, however, this “common heritage,” language, carries the burden of “rupture” and “discontinuities”; it is politicized and historicized:

A common heritage. A
Dubious bargain that left us
Plundered of
Our gold
Our tongue
Our life—while our
Dead fingers clutch
Doubtful weapon fashioned
Elsewhere to give might to a
Soul that [has] already


In Aidoo's fictional world, the histoire of language is the ultimate tragedy. The dialectical thrust of Our Sister Killjoy's language is a means to this ultimate end.

Ama Aidoo suggests that for a better appreciation of African literature, one must note that what is “modern” or “new” need not (and does not) necessarily repudiate what is “old.” “The Elders,” for example, “declared a long time ago that the unsavory innards of the possum may be a delicacy for somebody else somewhere” (OS 120). What was “declared a long time ago,” it is implied, needs reiteration in a world fragmented into East and West, North and South, Old and New. Equally important to Aidoo is the reiteration of what is “traditional” in “modern” African literature. This explains why, for all its “modernism,” Our Sister Killjoy is firmly rooted in tradition: African oral tradition. Ama Aidoo, like Toni Morrison in a different but related context, is “an inheritor as well as an innovator” (Skerrett 193).

The coexistence of prose and verse-forms in the world of fiction, for instance, is both new (as in Awoonor and Ngugi)6 and old (as in traditional African stories). Okechukwu Mezu reminds us that “when children gather to listen to stories, yarns and fairy-tales from their grandparents, they listen to pieces interspersed with rhymes, lyrics and choruses. … One of the interesting aspects of traditional African civilization is the unity of the art forms” (92-93). “It seems,” continues Mezu,

that there is fully realized the … unity and association of music, poetry, dance and painting in the process of which the sounds of music, the rhythms, … the allegories and analogies of poetry, the steps [and] movements … of dance and finally the colours of painting are unified in a symbolic world where religion provides a solid and firm structure. Side by side with this unity of the art forms is the element of repetition which incidentally is found also in black American music especially in jazz and blues. … The same repetition is … found in cha-cha, the samba, the pachanga, rhumba, maringa and the popular West African high-life. This repetitive approach to most African art forms, a litany that says the same things in various ways, describ[es] the attributes of the object of praise in an unfathomable way.


In Our Sister Killjoy, Aidoo intersperses her prose narrative with “the sounds, … rhythms, … and analogies of poetry.” Complementing the coexistence of prose and poetry “is the element of repetition.” The deliberate repetition of “from knowledge gained since” at dramatic or climactic moments in the narrative is the author's way of marking her heroine's growth and disillusionment with the scheme of things. Since knowledge, in Aidoo's text, is power, gaining knowledge of self in relation to one's (mental and physical) environment is considered necessary preparation for self-empowerment. As an African writer, Ama Aidoo sees the future of African literature in a judicious return to an African tradition that has always underscored the fundamental “unity” of the vast continuum of verbal discourses. And as a woman, the Ghanaian writer is committed to the empowerment of women “from knowledge gained. …”

Empowerment, whether it relates to the so-called Third World or “the Second Sex,” entails a measure of politics. Indeed, one of the major theoretical and philosophical differences between mainstream Euro-American literature and African (written and oral) literatures revolves round politics' role in art. Chinua Achebe underlined this difference at the Fourth International Book Fair held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in August 1987. A West Africa correspondent reports on

Achebe's … call to African writers to challenge the … view, prominent in some quarters, that ‘art and politics mix no more easily than water with oil,’ a view, he continued, which ‘does not find any support in the vast corpus of African traditional stories.’

(1987: 1741)

Aidoo shares Achebe's views. And, significantly, womanists and feminists alike have, for good reason, not shied away from “political factors”:

[Virginia] Woolf's most fundamental contribution to modern feminist theory … is her insistence that literary critical analysis must take social and political factors into consideration, must recognize that women's peculiar relationship to that social order in which they remain outsiders determines their experience as well as their perceptions. The very essence of modern feminist theory, and that factor which unifies modern feminist critics despite other disagreements as to the proper scope and function of their craft, is the insistence that art must be viewed contextually and therefore politically.

(Rigney 74)

Ama Aidoo views her art “contextually and therefore politically.” In this, as in other instances, Aidoo is in tune with the “old” (Achebe's “vast corpus of African traditional stories”) and the “new” (“modern [womanist-]feminist theory”). Indeed, we can gauge Our Sister Killjoy's contextual depth by examining the text's specific response to and relationship with African literature, womanism and feminism.

Aidoo's protagonist meets and “compare[s] notes” (80) with her black “brothers” in a composite gesture that corresponds to the author's intertextual dialogue with her male counterparts like Camara Laye (the author of The African Child) and William Conton (author of The African). Laye's “African child” goes through strenuous initiation ceremonies that prepare him for manhood, while Conton's “African,” also male, travels to England, returns home to assume the high office of prime minister, but leaves home again for the Union of South Africa to avenge a white South African woman's death. Through her protagonist, who is variously referred to as “the African girl” (43), “the black girl” and “the African” (44), Ama Aidoo recalls Laye's and Conton's texts and, in the process, initiates a dialogue between “the African [male] child” and “the African [male],” on the one hand, and “Sister Killjoy” on the other. It is implied that the story of the African is not the exclusive preserve of males. Nor is the story of the wretched and the oppressed dominated by the black male rather than by “men, women, [and] children” (85). In fact, from Sissie's point of view, the African woman represents the wretchedness of Frantz Fanon's “wretched of the earth”:

Here under the sun,
Being a woman …
Never will be a
Child's game …
So why wish a curse on your child
Desiring her to be female
Besides, my sister,
The ranks of the wretched are


It is important to appreciate this point of view because it sponsors the suggestive image of the black female as “A dog among the masters, the / Most masterly of the / Dogs” (42). If woman reminds Virginia Woolf's Nick Greene of a dog and Joseph Conrad's Marlow associates a black person with a dog, then a person who is both black and female is, with a touch of Aidoo's irony, “the / Most masterly of the / Dogs,” slave to the slave.

Aidoo's text brings history and race to bear on her commitment to femaleness. The unique position of the black female, doubly enslaved by race and gender, comes out in Sissie's attitude to her “sisters” abroad.7 “The Welsh maid from East Putney” (92), the Scottish “Lady-on-the-bus” (91), the German Marija, the English Jane, the Swedish Ingrid, and the French Michelle (24-25) are all sisters by gender, but Sissie does not consider them “soul sisters.” Each of them

could have passed for a soul sister,
But for her colour
—and our history.

(93; emphasis added)

Race (“colour”) and “history” are identified explicitly as the two main factors informing Sissie's attitude. But both Sissie and the narrator also identify and spell out a problem—“LONELINESS”—that pre- and postdates a “‘soul’ sister” like Aretha Franklin's call for R-E-S-P-E-C-T:

Forever falling like a tear out of a woman's eye.

(OS 65)

Critics like Sunday Anozie, who see a place for “mathematical axiomatics” (31) in criticism and critical theory, may subscribe to the observation that the “L” of “LONELINESS” creates an interesting angle on things through the meeting of two straight lines—those of androgynous “loneliness” and the “tear out of a woman's eye”—perpendicular to each other. Ama Aidoo, for her part, suggests that once respect for women is firmly in place, the burden of being a woman will be lessened considerably; but for the modern person—female or male—loneliness is a condition of being. A healthier relationship between human beings than has been possible so far may well be the implied and preferred antidote to loneliness. Aidoo's “womanist” philosophy commits her, in Alice Walker's words, “to [the] survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (In Search … xi). That philosophy is infused with enough humanism to make it possible for Aidoo to write from a black woman's point of view and still keep her eyes on the connectedness of things. Her text provides “a place— / Another junction to meet a / Brother and compare notes” (80). The point is made, however, that things are not connected in a vacuum; that, indeed, the contexts of gender, race, and history are inextricably linked to a person's—any person's—identity. The “brother” in Our Sister Killjoy may himself be his sister's oppressor, but, in the wider scheme of things, this oppressor is himself oppressed. He is, in effect, the ultimate “brother” in a relationship that is akin to the sisterhood of the wretched.

Far from shying away from references to sexism, racism, history and politics, Aidoo's text indicates how these ideas constitute a polemical matrix at once dramatic and inevitable in life as in the illusion of life. The polemics that characterize a students' union meeting seem like “a well-planned drama” (125) to Sissie. And the drama of “life” yields this observation:

After inflicting pain,
We try to be funny …,
Unaware that for
The sufferer,
The Comedy is
… Tragedy.


The author deliberately blurs the distinction between art and life. “Tragedy” feeds on the real or imagined “pain” of a “sufferer” in much the same way in which those who “try to be funny” provide raw material for “Comedy.” It is apparent that Our Sister Killjoy insists on being read and interpreted contextually. Ama Aidoo ensures that the contextual imperative is situated in an updated mimetic theory that guarantees validity to seeing art “imitating” life.


Writing is power: it gives you power, by being known, by communicating with people.

—Nawal el Sa'adawi, Interview with Rosemary Clunie

El Sa'adawi knows about the balance of power between the Arab female and her male counterpart. She experienced the brutality of naked power when she was detained in Anwar Sadat's Egypt in 1981. “Writing,” to her, “is power” of a different kind. It is also therapy:” ‘I feel oppression, the injustices in life … so I become furious and want to fight back … by writing’” (WA, 1986: 1735). Writing serves similar functions for Aidoo's protagonist. To Sissie, writing fulfills the “great … need to communicate”; it also functions as therapy since it takes “some of the pain away” (133). For both Ama Aidoo and el Sa'adawi, writing as therapy amounts to putting one's own house in order as the basis for harnessing the “power” of writing to communicate with the Other.

Within the context of African literature, putting the African literary house in order after disruptive influences and communicating with the Other are commitments shared by a “sister” like Ama Aidoo and “brothers” like Kofi Awoonor, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah. Attention has been drawn to correspondences between Our Sister Killjoy and This Earth, My Brother … earlier on in this essay. Those correspondences are, in any case, obvious enough. Less obvious, but by no means less important, are Our Sister Killjoy's affinities with Achebe's first two novels (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease), Soyinka's two novels (The Interpreters and Season of Anomy) and Armah's first couple of novels (The Beautyful Ones and Fragments). Before the publication of Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Aidoo had taken the title of her collection of short stories, No Sweetness Here, from Armah's first novel: “[t]he listening mind is disturbed by memories from the past. So much time has gone by, and still there is no sweetness here” (The Beautyful Ones 67). Aidoo's gesture pays tribute to a compatriot and, in the process, reminds us that African writers do read, respond to, and echo each other. In Our Sister Killjoy, Aidoo implicitly acknowledges, and builds upon, the contribution of fellow-writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Armah and Awoonor to African fiction.

Rupture, disintegration and discontinuities characterize the fictional world evoked by Chinua Achebe in his first two novels as they do in the world of Soyinka's two novels. The latter novelist shares the former's sense of things falling apart and, as a consequence, individuals and communities feeling no longer at ease. In The Interpreters, Wole Soyinka's fragmented world is rooted in the timeless past of Yoruba mythology and the present of postcolonial Nigeria. Kola's painting of a pantheon of Yoruba deities is based on the

myth [which] informs us that a jealous slave [Atunda] rolled a stone down the back of the first and only deity [Orisa-nla] and shattered him in a thousand and one fragments. From this … act … was born the Yoruba pantheon.

(Myth, Literature & the African World 152)

The myth is given contemporary validity: Kola's models for the Yoruba deities are his fellow postcolonial “interpreters.” In Soyinka's second novel, Season of Anomy, physical and societal fragmentation are institutionalized. Armah, in turn, seeks the ancestral and modern roots of postcolonial malaise in The Beautyful Ones. The second novel, Fragments, returns to the image of “shattered … in a thousand and one fragments” which undergirds Soyinka's narrative in The Interpreters and informs Achebe's in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease.

The intertextual “plot” thickens. Achebe's Okeke, the interpreter in Things Fall Apart, foreshadows Soyinka's postcolonial interpreters (in The Interpreters). And Obi, the graduate in English who feels no longer at ease in Achebe's second novel, prefigures Baako Onipa, the writer in Armah's Fragments who feels so ill at ease that he goes “mad.” Fragmentation is, thus, internalized. Following Achebe, Soyinka and Armah, Ama Aidoo, for her part, translates fragmentation into a structural imperative. The structural and stylistic implications of the “mere anarchy” that Things Fall Apart hints at are finally “loosed upon the [fictional] world” of Our Sister Killjoy.

The choppy typography, the fluidity of modes, and the multiplicity of registers which characterize Our Sister Killjoy give a sense of structural and linguistic anarchy that is functional. The author's “sound and fury” signify a couple of things: the need for, and the very process of, revamping. Rereading, willful misreading, and de- and re-coding are tools used in African literature and womanist or feminist discourse to challenge “canonized ‘literature’” that tends to black out Black and blanch out Woman. Womanists' or feminists' attempts to seek recognition of the “power” of women's writing in canon-(re)formation is comparable to the efforts of African writers toward an identical goal. The matter with Ama Ata Aidoo is that as a writer, a woman committed to femaleness, and as an African proud of her heritage, she is, by definition, a revisionist. To Ama Aidoo, as to her heroine, “No city is sacred, / No spot is holy. / Not Rome, / Not Paris, / Not London” (OS 79). The precursor canon (emblematized by “Rome”), literary institution (embodied in “Paris”), and great tradition (symbolized by “London”) are under siege. They have to be if Ama Aidoo, the African female writer, is to succeed in “clear[ing] a space for [her] own imaginative originality” (Eagleton 183). It is, in the final analysis, a question of power.


  1. Author, essay title, and page references to this volume, preceded by “ALT 15” where appropriate, are incorporated into the text.

  2. It is gratifying to note that ALT 15 pays tribute to Bessie Head, and Ngambika is dedicated to Mariama Bâ.

  3. See, for example, Bernard Braxton, Women, Sex and Race (1973), and cf. Mineke Schipper, “Mother Africa on a Pedestal,” ALT 15: 35-54. The notion that “women's studies are (like Third World Studies) a ‘fad’” has been documented by Adrienne Rich in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979: 136). Also apposite to our general discussion is Rich's essay in the same text, “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia (1978),” 275-310.

  4. Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy (1977: 123). Subsequent page references, preceded by OS where appropriate, are incorporated into the text.

  5. Sissie's adventures in Africa and Europe make up, and impinge upon the structure of, Aidoo's text. The protagonist's reflections transfer the sequence of experiences and episodes in Europe and Africa to the steady flow of her mental life, the seascape within. Much of the novel's poetic impressionism is fed by the stream of Sissie's consciousness. The focus is on her point of view when she commits her thoughts to writing in the “Love Letter” which concludes Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint.

  6. Kofi Awoonor says of his novel This Earth, My Brother … that it marks “an attempt at a new form which I see in folkloristic ritual, [in] poetic terms” (144). Awoonor's “new form” is rooted in the old, the “folkloristic.” In his latest novels Devil on the Cross and Matigari—both originally published in Gikuyu—Ngugi wa Thiong'o borrows “heavily from forms of oral narrative, particularly the conversational tone, the fable, proverbs, songs and the whole tradition of poetic self-praise or praise of others” (Ngugi, 1988: 77-78).

  7. When Alice Walker links “Blackness” or “Color” to “feminism” she comes out with “womanism,” the term most appropriate to my discussion of Our Sister Killjoy. Carole Davies adds that “questions about whether ‘gender or race is the most significant defining characteristic of a writer’ [are] already answered. For Black/African feminists never make that distinction. It is not a question of either/or, but one of acceptance of BOTH and the balances and conflicts that go with that twin acceptance” (Ngambika, 13).

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Interview with Anna Rutherford. Kunapipi 9.2 (1987): 1-7.

———. Morning Yet on Creation Day. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1975.

———. No Longer at Ease. London: Heinemann, 1960.

———. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy. London: Longman, 1977.

Allen, Walter. The English Novel. 1954; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Anozie, Sunday O. Structural Models and African Poetics. London: Routledge, 1981.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born. Boston, 1968; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1977.

———. Fragments. Boston: Houghton, 1970.

———. Why are We So Blest? New York, 1972; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1974.

Awoonor, Kofi. “Tradition and Continuity in African Literature.” In In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka. … Ed. Karen L. Morell. Seattle: U of Washington, 1975. 133-45.

———. This Earth, My Brother. … New York, 1971; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Bain, Carl E. et al., eds. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1986. 667, 668-69.

Bruner, Charlotte H. “A Decade for Women Writers.” In African Literature Studies: The Present State. Ed. Stephen Arnold. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1985. 217-27.

Chasin, Helen. “The Word Plum.” In The Norton Introduction to Literature. 4th ed. Ed. Bain et al. New York: Norton, 1986. 667-68.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1963.

Cromwell, Adelaide M. An African Victorian Feminist: The Life and Times of Adelaide Smith Casely Hayford, 1868-1960. London: Cass, 1986.

Davies, Carole B. and Anne A. Graves, eds. Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Trenton, NJ: AWP, 1986.

Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: Dutton, 1974.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

el Sa'adawi, Nawal. “Writing Is Power”: Interview with Rosemary Clunie. West Africa 18 Aug. 1986: 1735-36.

Ellison, Ralph. “The World and the Jug.” In Shadow and Act. New York: Signet, 1966. 115-47.

Ellmann, Maud. “Blanche.” In Criticism and Critical Theory. Ed. J. Hawthorn. London: Arnold, 1984. 99-110.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Introduction to Our Nig. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1983, xi-lv.

Griffiths, Gareth. “Chinua Achebe: When Did You Last See Your Father?” WLWE 27.1 (1987): 18-27.

Henderson, Stephen E. Introduction to Black Women Writers (1950-1980). Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984. xxiii-xxviii.

Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London & New Jersey: Zed, 1986.

Johnson, Lemuel A. “Sisters of Anarcha: … Caribbean Literature and a Feminist Hermeneutic.” In African Literature Studies. Ed. S. Arnold. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1985. 229-44.

Jones, Eldred D., Eustace Palmer & Marjorie Jones, eds. Women in African Literature Today: A Review, 15. London: Currey; Trenton, NJ: AWP, 1987.

Mezu, S. Okechukwu. “Poetry and Revolution in Modern Africa.” In African Writers on African Writing. Ed. G. D. Killam. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 91-108.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987; rpt. New York: Plume, 1988.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. London: Weidenfeld, 1974.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind. London: Currey/Heinemann, 1988.

Oyekunle, Segun. “Beyond Nationalism.” West Africa 19 Sept. 1983: 2168-69.

Petersen, Kirsten H. “Four Days in Sweden.” WA 9 June 1986: 1212.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: Norton, 1979.

Rigney, Barbara H. “‘A Wreath upon the Grave.’” In Criticism and Critical Theory. Ed. J. Hawthorn. London: Arnold, 1984. 73-81.

Roscoe, Adrian A. Mother Is Gold: A Study in West African Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.

Skerrett, Joseph T. Jr. “Recitation to the Griot: Storytelling and Learning in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.” In Conjuring. Ed. M. Pryse & H. J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 192-202.

Soyinka, Wole. The Interpreters. London: Deutsch, 1965.

———. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

———. Season of Anomy. 1973; rpt. New York: Third Press, 1974.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1929; rpt. London: Grafton, 1985.

“Zimbabwe Book Fair.” WA 7 Sept. 1987: 1740-41.

Gay Wilentz (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Wilentz, Gay. “The Politics of Exile: Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15, no. 1 (winter 1991): 159-74.

[In the following essay, Wilentz asserts that Our Sister Killjoy deconstructs traditional “prescribed theories of exile” and presents an original narrative from the perspective of a female African expatriate.]

The term “politics of exile” calls to mind those sufferers who must leave their homeland for political reasons. But there is another aspect of the politics associated with exile—that of the so-called third world colonial who seeks the benefits and opportunities in a European country, perceived as culturally superior, thus avoiding the socio-political situation at home. Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (1979) is a relentless attack on the notions of exile as relief from the societal constraints of national development and freedom to live in a cultural environment suitable for creativity. In this work, Aidoo questions certain prescribed theories of exile including the reasons for exile—particularly among African men. The novel exposes a rarely heard viewpoint in literature in English—that of the African woman exile; Aidoo's protagonist Sissie, as the “eye” of her people, is a sojourner in the “civilized” world of the colonizers. Our Sister Killjoy, which reflects Aidoo's own travels abroad, was written partially in the United States. Moreover, although it was published in 1979, first editions carry a 1966 copyright, closer to the time in which she was traveling. Although Aidoo experienced the supposed freedom of exile herself, her personalized prose-poem-novel illustrates her commitment to rebuild her former colonized home and confront those who have forgotten their duty to their native land.

Most critical reactions to the novel have ranged, predictably, from negative responses to silence and non-recognition.1 What has disturbed Aidoo most is not the negative criticism but the “unreception” of the novel—the refusal of many African critics to discuss it at all. In a speech, “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves,” Aidoo refers to the attitude of her male colleagues towards her involvement in political issues, expressed at a meeting on national development: “[Some professors] shouted that I am not fit to speak on public matters. That I should leave politics and such to those [men] most qualified to handle it” (23). Later in this speech, she comments: “I am convinced that if Killjoy or anything like it had been written by a man, as we say in these parts, no one would have been able to sleep a wink these couple of years” (38). Clearly, the fact that Aidoo is a woman has made this novel unacceptable to the predominantly male and/or eurocentric critical community, but because she rejects male-oriented theories of exile and synthesizes feminist and afrocentric perspectives, Our Sister Killjoy could hardly have been written by a man. Here I examine Aidoo's challenge to prevailing theories of exile, her questioning of the supposed superiority of European culture for the colonial subject, and her expose of the politics of exile for African self-exile. Through a combination of prose, poetry, oral voicing and letter writing Aidoo's Sissie reports back to her home community what she sees in the land of the colonizers and responds to those exiles who have chosen, as Frantz Fanon says, to stand with the white world (perceived as the “real world”) in opposition to their own world, the black world of the colonized (37).

A discussion of some relevant theories of exile may be of use here. Although I am not going to explore the distinction between exile and expatriation, I do exclude from this discussion those who were forced to leave as banishment (on penalty of prison or possibly death); rather, I focus on those who seek exile for personal and/or cultural reasons. Many of the theories concerning these self-exiles (as I call them) entertain the notion that the exile chooses to escape limitations at home. Whether seeking freedom from the small town in the metropolis or from the colonial province in the colonizer's capital, the exile, particularly the exiled writer, sees himself—and I use this term advisedly—as freed from the constraints at home and open to a world of cultural expression and diversity (Gurr 13-17). In Exiles and Emigrés, Terry Eagleton clearly confirms this view in relation to the writers Henry James and Joseph Conrad: “James and Conrad chose England [for] its order, its manners, its settled, varied and traditionalist status. … [They] settled in England in flight from a lack of established order and civilized manners elsewhere” (14). For the white American James, as for other colonials, there exists the cultural inferiority of the colony, and they are forced to go into exile “as a means of compensating for that sense of cultural subservience” (Gurr 8). For colonial exiles of the non-industrialized “third world,” both the difference of color and the lack of so-called development augment these feelings of cultural inferiority. The Caribbean writer George Lamming suggests that for colonial exiles, especially those living in the “country which has colonized [their] history,” the exiles' sense of culture is intricately related to the self-interpretation of the dominant culture. In fact, for those educated in the colonial language, “their whole introduction to something called culture, all of it, in the form of words, came from outside” (27). Although generally stated, most theories of exile and its political implications are based on male experience and are therefore male-oriented in approach. This male-oriented approach ignores women sojourners like Sissie, who are not fooled by the neo-colonial lie, but see the land of exile as it is. In giving voice to Sissie's viewpoint, Aidoo not only overturns the assumptions of cultural superiority that the self-exiles bring with them in expatriation; she also exposes the sham behind the self-exile's reason for leaving from a polemically female perspective. The African men Sissie meets fit these theories of colonial exile, but Sissie does not. She is the “squint” who, rather than being isolated from her home, becomes the eye of her community in the land of the exiles.

Sissie's reflections open with a section, “Into a Bad Dream,” which prepares us for her shamanistic journey to the land of the colonizers. Before we are even introduced to our squint, Aidoo deconstructs the structure of the novel by opening it with a four-page poem/political statement, an attack on the world into which Sissie will descend:

Yes, my brother
The worst of them
these days supply local
statistics for those population studies, and
toy with
genocidal formulations.
                    That's where the latest crumbs
are being thrown!


In fact, it is hard to call this compilation of poetic anger, political commentary, journal entries, oral voicings and letter writings a “novel” in the traditional sense. Rather, it appears to be a formulation of an African prose poem which reverberates with sounds of the orature in the written language and personal dialogue—illustrating Aidoo's comment that “we don't always have to write for readers, we can write for listeners” (Lautré 24). Furthermore, Aidoo's breakdown of the novelistic structure exemplifies one aspect of exile that Lamming suggests affects most writers from colonized lands—the problem of writing in the colonial language. For the anglophone African author, writing in English, “home is in a different language. It is a double exile, in culture and in the tongue” the author feels compelled to use (Gurr 28). In wrestling with this conflict, Aidoo manages to inject the colonial language with the substance and structure of her own Akan. Linguistically, she challenges the sense of double exile that comes with the colonial experience.

“Our Sister” does not choose exile but is picked as a promising student and is given a scholarship to attend an international work-study program in Germany and to visit her colonial “capital”—London. As in a bad dream, Sissie boards a plane to Germany. In a mixture of prose and poetry, Sissie reports her feelings of being seen as an “exotic” by the people of Germany, her experiences with an unhappy German housewife, and her questions concerning the cultural superiority of Europe and its corresponding cruelty. Then, in journal entry form, she recounts her encounter with the colonial power that changed the history of her Ghanaian home—England. While in London, she faces Ghanaian and other African self-exiles, confronts them for deserting their homelands, and in a final “love letter” she berates a lover who has decided to remain in exile as she returns home.

Aidoo comments that her protagonist Sissie sees everything “through the filter of her memories of Africa” (Vincent 2). Moreover, as “Our Sister,” Sissie is rooted in her African communal society and all her responses are oriented toward decolonization and the education of this community. Unlike other exiles who have lost that sense of identity that comes from belonging to a community, Sissie becomes the eyes of her community, reporting on those lost ones who have forgotten maternal, familial and community ties, and squinting at these men—young and old—who refuse to return home to face national realities and rebuild their countries. It is no mistake that Sissie is female; she is the representative of all the mothers and sisters and daughters who have been left behind on this illusive search for artistic, political, cultural and perhaps even sexual freedom.

In the statement on Conrad and James quoted above, Terry Eagleton focuses on their belief that culture and order existed only in Western Europe, most specifically in England, and by going there one could be freed from the lack of civilization elsewhere—most often, in the colonies. Sissie rejects these notions of civilization in her scathing attack on Western culture and in what she sees and contemplates in Germany. Critic Anita Kern, in a fairly negative review of Our Sister Killjoy, comments that Aidoo “seems to ‘have it out for the west’” (57), but clearly Sissie's angry language and shocked thoughts reflect a young woman who has expected to find a cultural paradise yet sees something far different. Sissie's first encounter with the Germans on the street reminds me of Frantz Fanon's remembrances of the little boy on a train from Paris who shouted “Look, a Negro” a few times, and then finally, “Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened” (111-12). For Sissie, response to her blackness is not as extreme, but certainly as disconcerting:

Suddenly, she realized a woman was telling a young girl who must have been her daughter: ‘Ja, das Schwartze Mächen’. … [sic] And it hit her. That all the crowd of people going and coming in all sorts of directions had the colour of pickled pig parts. …

(Killjoy 12)

Visibly, through her own crude description, Sissie is striking back at the Europeans who see her skin as unnatural, and she is later ashamed of her mocking words; but it is also evident that being black and female makes her an oddity for the Germans who are fascinated by this show-piece, this “African Miss” (43).

Ironically, the one person who sees beyond Sissie's blackness is Marija, the unhappy housewife, and through their friendship Sissie is exposed to what she sees not as cultural superiority, but as an example of the West's societal degeneration—the breakdown of the family. Marija, who befriends Sissie, lives in a cold, stone house with her son and a husband who never comes home. And lest we miss the point, both father and son are named “Adolf”—albeit a common German name, but certainly a loaded one. Sissie feels compassion as well as affection for this lonely, frail woman, yet at the same time, she is suspicious, uncomfortable, and angry at their mutual historicity. In her thought poems, Sissie spills out these feelings “Who was Marija Sommer?”:

A daughter of mankind's
Self-appointed most royal line,
The House of Aryan—
An heiress to some
Legacy that would make you
Your head in
Shame and


This section of the novel called “The Plums”—a European delicacy not available in Ghana—reflects Sissie's, and perhaps Aidoo's, conflicting feelings for the women of this dominant culture. On one hand, they are intricately connected to the values and privileges of this society, retaining many of the culture's prejudices towards the “other”—male or female—yet, on the other hand, they are also victims of this society. For Sissie, her comprehension of the emptiness of this isolated woman's life is exacerbated by Marija's attempt to reach out for her sexually. And, although this section may be problematic for some feminist scholars, it is evident that Aidoo—however sympathetically—sees this attempt at a lesbian relationship as a perversion of womanlove and part of the degeneration of European family life:

Sissie thought of home. To the time when she was a child in the village. … Oo, to be wrapped up in mother's cloth while it rained. Every time it rained.

And now where was she? How did she get there … where now a young Aryan housewife kisses a young black woman with such desperation, right in the middle of her own nuptial chamber. …


Through Sissie's perceptions, we witness this sexual affection arising from the despair of a western-style, isolated, loveless family life. However, it is also clear that Marija is seen as a fellow sufferer, and her home situation is one that many women deal with in some way or another throughout the world. For Sissie sees Marija's weeping not only as personal loneliness but also as part of a larger political discourse—the “collective loss” (67) that women within the context of an aggressive patriarchy must endure. Moreover, as she watches older “Bavarian ladies” in black dresses walking through town, she envisions them as war widows, “The blood of their young men was / Needed to mix the concrete for / Building the walls of / The Third Reich” (36).

If our squint Sissie sees the plight of the German woman sympathetically for the most part, she has very little compassion for German culture as a whole. She sees the notion of Aryan superiority as symptomatic of Europe's mandate to colonize and oppress, and she connects the attempted genocide of the Jews to the murder of oppressed people everywhere. When Marija tells Sissie she must see Munich, Sissie thinks in her poetic/polemical voice that Munich is the home of the “Original Adolf” and then her thoughts jump from images of “freshly widowed Yiddisher Mamas” to the Rhodesian concentration camp-like system of apartheid after the country's 1965 so-called independence (81). The workings of Sissie's mind on the colonizer and the colonized filter through her experiences in this supposed paradise for the exile; her thoughts strike back while her words remain polite. The division between the polite exchange student and the angry woman inside is revealed in Sissie's meeting with the German-born American professor. He tells her that the one thing Germans and Africans have in common is that they have both been oppressed. Amazed, she is unable to respond:

Yes, so frozen was her mind with this icy brilliance of this master discovery, she could not ask him whether after the Germans, the Irish and Africans—indisputably in that order—there are or could have been some other oppressed people on the earth, like Afro-Americans or Amerindians or Jews.


But she also realizes that “the world is not filled with folks who shared our sister's black-eyed squint at things” (93).

If our black-eyed squint mentally reprimands the colonizers because of their history of domination, she looks equally askance at the African self-exiles who have bought the colonial line. In Germany, our sojourner reacts to the various Europeans she meets and plays off her memories of home against this alien environment. But it is her trip to England that conjures up a personal response to colonialism and compels her to issue a direct attack on her countrymen who have considered it politically expedient to remain in exile. She comments in the opening of this diary-like section “From Our Sister Killjoy”: “If anyone had told her that she would want to pass through England because it was her colonial home, she would have laughed. … But to London she had gone anyway” (85). This section, compiled like so many journal entries, is a report to family and community (those mothers left behind) on the state of the self-exiles who have not only forgotten to return to help with the process of decolonization, but who forget even to answer the letters pleading to learn of their health and whereabouts.

For the African self-exiles in England, Our Sister really is a killjoy. She confronts the life she sees there, not the one which has been paraded before the folks back home. For many exiles, “the desire to lose oneself in the [European] world was understandable: a naive faith that this is the way to escape the feeling of exile” (Dorsinville 63). But Sissie does not become caught up in the exiles' dream; she sees the life they lead with clarity. Her piercing look exposes the lies that have been sent back to the provinces. Her amazement at finding so many black people in London is painfully accentuated by her acknowledgment of their poverty:

Above all, what hurt Our Sister as she … watched her people was how badly dressed they were. They were all poorly clothed. The women especially were pitiful. She saw women who at home would have been dignified matrons as well as young, attractive girls. … She wondered why they never told the truth of their travels at home.


Although Sissie focuses on the women when she looks at the poor people in the street, she centers on the men when she explores the psychological poverty of those who feel there is nothing left for them in the colonial provinces, that life in London is where all “culture” begins.

In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon explains the delusion of cultural superiority that the exile in the colonial “mother country” suffers from: “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle” (18). As I have mentioned earlier, many of the theories of exile focus on a sort of freedom felt by separating oneself from the constraints of the home country; this feeling of freedom is linked with a distorted sense of importance for the colonial exile. Furthermore, for the third world exile, as Fanon points out, this freedom also involves a rejection of both racial and cultural identification. Again, although this example may extend to women self-exiles, Fanon appears to be using the term “he” not as gender inclusive, but as a specific aspect of the psychological disturbances of these male self-exiles. Aidoo underscores this point in her discussion of a Ghanaian self-exile, Kunle, who believes that the problems of apartheid will be solved by Western technology. He illustrates his point by citing the fact that a “good Christian” white South African doctor used the heart of a young black man for a transplant to keep an old white man alive. When confronted by the confused Sissie and her friend on which hearts were used in earlier attempts at transplants, he answers eagerly, “He must have experimented on the hearts of dogs and cats” (97). Kunle, caught up in his identification with the dominant culture's “advances,” has no comprehension of the irony of his own comments. For Sissie, Kunle not only represents the self-exile who values the colonizers' world more than his own, he also represents the “been-to” who comes home with an exile's consciousness to complain and exploit rather than help build the nation. His identification with the culture of his exile makes him unable to confront the political realities at home. Although he returns to his native land, as Aimé Césaire calls it, he is not willing to sacrifice and utilize his skills to improve conditions. Instead:

Kunle, like so many of us, wished he had had the courage to be coward enough to stay forever in England. Though life ‘home’ has its compensations. The aura of having been overseas at all. Belonging to the elite, whatever that is. The sweet pain of getting a fairly big income which can never half support one's own style of living. …


Kunle's death, his chauffeur-driven car “burnt to its original skeleton,” illustrates the wastefulness of the African elite, both materially and spiritually. But Kunle's attitude also clarifies, for Sissie, the reasons why many others are “coward enough” to remain in England.

Some of the early novels of Africans in exile (Peter Abraham's A Wreath for Udomo comes to mind) examine the conflicting feelings even the forced exiles faced in terms of their life in England versus what they had to confront at home. For the self-exiles who can return, remaining in Europe represents another political decision—to deny the needs of their homeland and ignore the hardships faced by those left at home. Our Sister Killjoy forces us to look not only at what happens to those who are cowardly enough to remain isolated from their community, but what happens to the mothers and other family members who await their return. Perhaps it is because more men have experienced exile—unhampered by children and often chosen by community leaders—that Aidoo focuses on them as examples, but with the exception of Sissie's comments about the poverty of the women's clothes, Aidoo does not critique the role of the African women exiled overseas. Sissie, although a student-exile herself, is clearly attached to her homeland, especially the women who are waiting for some word from their errant men. As she remembers these women left behind, Sissie's thought-poems construct the mostly unanswered letters from home, asking the sons Kofi, Bragou, Obi and others when they are coming home. The letters—“for which we died expecting and / Which / Buried us when they came”—underscore the financial and emotional hardship the families face when most of their resources have gone into the training of the “One Scholar.” However, the letters also emphasize the love and confusion of these women who have lost their children to false dreams of the dominant culture's ideology:

There is nothing bad here
… except our family is
drowning in debts. …
it is me,
Your Own Mother
There is nothing bad here
And I am not complaining
My Child.
You also know
we are proud
you are Overseas.


The pathos of these letters interspersed with the insensitivity of the exiles themselves illustrates the socio-political effects of the exile experience on those at home. Moreover, the letters critique those feelings of freedom and notions of cultural superiority for the self-exiles who have forgotten their duty to their emerging nations.

In the final section of this prose-poem-novel, Aidoo jumps from the snatches of letters cited above to what Chimalum Nwankwo has rightly called a “confrontational” love letter. Sissie writes this letter to her lover who has decided to remain in exile. Although I am unable to agree that this love letter necessarily indicates “communication between man and woman” as “a way out of this morass” as Nwankwo suggests (58), we can see that Sissie clearly speaks her mind. The irony of this section's title is that Sissie's epistle ends up more a political statement than a traditional love letter. To her lover and the other African self-exiles, Sissie is the killjoy who refuses to allow them to live in their delusions and forces them to acknowledge the duties they have ignored towards their native land and families. “A Love Letter” is less angry than the earlier sections of this work. Rather, it is filled with remorse for a relationship that cannot last and for a world that has profoundly lost its way. She softens her language in writing to this lover, yet the use of colonial language as her medium exiles her from her deepest speech: “[How can I] give voice to my soul and still have her heard? Since so far, I have only been able to use a language that enslaved me, and therefore, the messengers of my mind always come shackled?” (112). Sissie's resistance to the language she writes in mirrors the concerns of many writing in the colonial language—a “language which sought to deny” them.3 Moreover, the realization that Sissie cannot speak to her lover in anything but the colonial language, distancing her from him, is exacerbated by the fact that he does not see this as a problem. What he considers a problem is that she is too aggressive, too outspoken, “too serious” (112). This love letter is composed of her polemical voicings—possibly rearguing points with this unseen lover. She compels him to address the problems colonial rule has left these countries with and the frightening loss of perspective and lack of leadership at home. At the same time, the letter is full of her wishing that she could stop confronting him, that he would hold her once again. For Sissie, her desire for this man comes in direct opposition to her strength as an African woman as she states:

They say that any female in my position would have thrown away everything to be with you, and remain with you: first her opinions, and then her own plans. But … what did I rather do but daily and loudly criticize you and your friends for wanting to stay forever in alien places. … Maybe I regret that I could not shut up and meekly look up to you … but you see, no one ever taught me such meekness.


In a further incorporation of the dominant culture's values, the self-exiled men demand what Sissie calls “hashed-up Victorian notions” for their women, in spite of the fact that they should understand that African women were not brought up to be like the “dolls of the colonizers” (117). In her other works, Aidoo has concentrated on the strength of the African woman as well as the domination—both male and colonial—over her. In Killjoy, she confronts the colonized male's notion of the ideal African woman (all softness and meekness) when these men have forgotten the real African women at home.

In this love letter, Sissie recounts her most direct confrontation with the African self-exiles. Sissie speaks out at an African student union meeting. They spend hours discussing the political situation in the home countries but do not see the denial of their services as part of the problem. Tired of the “beautiful radical analyses of the situation at home,” Sissie asks these exiles why they just don't hurry back and do something about it (121). She examines each of their reasons for exile and calls them excuses. Her greatest distress, however, is directed at a doctor who stays in exile because he feels that his sophisticated medical skills would be wasted in his country. Rather than dealing with the reality that many doctors are needed in Africa, he is proud that he can remain to educate the Europeans to “recognize our worth” (129). This, of course, is what Fanon indicates as the final stage of internal colonization—to isolate oneself from one's own society and identify totally with the colonizer. Only in this world are one's skills valuable; the self-exile “congratulates himself” on the fact that “his race no longer understands him” or appreciates his skills (Fanon 14). To Sissie, this “brilliant” doctor becomes the symbol of everything “distasteful about all the folks who have decided to stay overseas” (126). He and others like him, who consider their only duty to the country is to send some money home to their mothers, deny a deeper commitment to their family and land of their birth; they squander their talents on the colonizers, who would rather see them “run, jump and sing” (129).

In the final line of Sissie's love letter, she recalls what her lover asked her when they met: “I know everyone calls you Sissie, but what is your name?” (131). We, as readers, do not find out her name (nor the name of her lover), but as Our Sister she is the messenger of the people, her kin, to the land of exiles. For Sissie, “the tale is not done being told” and, as the eyes of her community, she will return home to tell this tale to the mothers and other family members (121). Here is where the self-exiles are most nakedly exposed: they are afraid to go home. Sissie's tale, as a sister, is for the community as a whole but especially for the African mother who, as both the self-exiles and Sissie agree, has suffered. But she cannot be appeased—nor can “Mother Africa”—by a paltry sum. She needs to see her children face-to-face, bringing their skills for national development that she “scrimped and saved and mortgaged her dignity for” back home (123). Sissie ends her letter as her plane starts to descend to the West African coast. She decides not to send it. Writing it was all that was necessary—and later telling the tale to those at home: “Besides, she was back in Africa. And that felt like fresh wild honey on the tongue: a mixture of complete sweetness and smoky roughage. Below was home with its unavoidable warmth and even after all these thousands of years, its uncertainties” (133). Although Sissie's lover does not learn from her experience, those who read her thoughts do. This collective novel of political thought, poems and personal perceptions ends on a positive note; happy to be back from her shamanistic journey, Sissie is ready to tell her tale, dispel the myth, and go to work for her nation.

In an interview, Nigerian critic Theo Vincent questions Aidoo's use of an African woman as the protagonist of Killjoy, one as politically astute as Our Sister. Aidoo responds: “But will this kind of vision be part of any African man's awareness of Europe? … What makes you think that our men are more politically aware than our women?” (3). Certainly, in this novel, it is the protagonist's social vision that differs from her male counterpart's; she discerns exactly what the politics of self-exile is. And like her protagonist, Aidoo saw through the false paradise of the exile during her stays in the United States and Europe, and she has remained, for the most part, in Ghana to be part of its national development. As an African woman writer, Aidoo questions the freedom of the exile who denies both familial and community ties; furthermore, she—as well as other African women writers such as Flora Nwapa, Efua Sutherland, 'Zulu Sofola, and Aminata Sow Fall—is committed to her homeland, in spite of the “uncertainties” that exist there, because of her ties to the land and its people. Aidoo and other women writers like her feel bonded to their larger national communities, as they do to their extended families. In Killjoy, she presents an African woman who does not flee the constraints imposed on her by her society, but instead takes the responsibility to be the “eyes” of her community and exposes the world of the self-exiles who have forsaken their familial land.


  1. Critics like Vincent and Kern, cited in this article, discount the importance of this work because of its attack on both the exile and the land of exile; it is unfortunate that there have been few critical studies done on this important work. For a more positive, albeit cursory review, see John Ngara: 65-66.

  2. In her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965) and her collection of short stories, No Sweetness Here (1970), Aidoo explores the relation of the Afro-American to Africa and Africans. In her second play, Anowa (1970), Aidoo examines African complicity in the slave trade.

  3. This phrase is taken from the introduction to an unpublished manuscript by the Trinidadian poet, Marlene Nourbese Phillip, She Tried Her Tongue, Her Silence Breaks Slowly (1988). See also, George Lamming, “A Monster, a Child, a Slave,” in The Pleasures of Exile: 95-117.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Peter. A Wreath for Udomo. London: Faber and Faber, 1956.

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Anowa. London: Longman, 1970.

———. The Dilemma of a Ghost. London: Longman, 1965.

———. No Sweetness Here. London: Longman, 1970.

———. Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. Lagos and New York: Nok Pub, 1979.

———. “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves.” Medium and Message. Proc. of the International Conference on African Literature and the English Language, U of Calabar, Nigeria, 1980.

Dorsinville, Max. “Senghor and the Song of Exile.” In Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. Ed. Rowland Smith, New York: Africana Publishing, 1976, 62-73.

Eagleton, Terry. Exiles and Emigrés. New York: Schocken Books, 1970.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove P, 1967.

Gurr, Andrew. Writers in Exile. Sussex and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Harvester/Humanities P, 1981.

Kern, Anita. “Review of Our Sister Killjoy.World Literature Written in English 17.1 (1978): 56-57.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. London: Allison & Busby, 1984.

Lautré, Maxine. “Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” In African Writers Talking. Eds. Dennis Duerden and Cosmos Pieterse. New York: Africana Pub, 1972.

Ngara, John. “Review of Our Sister Killjoy.Africa Woman 12 (1977): 65-66.

Nwankwo, Chimalum. “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism in Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.” In Ngambika. Eds. Carole Boyce Davies and Ann Adams Graves. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 1986.

Vincent, Theo. Seventeen Black and African Writers on Literature and Life. Lagos: Cross Continent P, 1981.

Gay Wilentz (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8234

SOURCE: Wilentz, Gay. “Ama Ata Aidoo: The Dilemma of a Ghost.” In Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora, pp. 38-57. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Wilentz evaluates the “dilemma” of traditional African versus Western values that Aidoo constructs in The Dilemma of a Ghost.]

If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.1

Kwegyir Aggrey

Ama Ata Aidoo, like her sister Ghanian Efua Sutherland, has been extremely active in promoting her culture's traditions through her writing and productions, and her post as Ghana's Minister of Culture and Education. She is one of Africa's most outspoken writers, especially in regard to the position of women, and is author to literary works in all genres: poetry, short stories, plays, and a novel, Our Sister Killjoy (1979). All of Aidoo's work conveys her social vision, her commitment to write oraliterature, and her belief in reworking the traditions to create a more integrated African society; but unlike Sutherland's soft touch, her criticisms of the unfair use of traditional values and imported Western culture are extremely harsh. Her outspokenness toward male dominance in African countries has earned her a rather antagonistic response from some male critics; her writings aim toward the betterment of women's position as well as a global concern for the liberation of Black peoples everywhere. Aidoo's social vision includes all of the children of the African diaspora; her position as a storyteller and cultural advisor is expanded to the acceptance and understanding of all the descendents of Africa. In this last chapter in the African section, my discussion extends beyond the examination of women-specific retention of African cultural values to include the conflicts and continuity of those of African descent throughout the diaspora. To this end, I examine Aidoo's first published play, The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965), including pertinent references to a later play, Anowa (1970), and her novel. I focus on Aidoo's debt to the orature of her foremothers, the role of the two community women as narrators, generational continuity in the African kinswomen, and the problems of the reunion of those of the diaspora illustrated by the antagonism toward and later compassion for the lost daughter of the diaspora, the African-American Eulalie.

Aidoo was very young (twenty-two) when she wrote The Dilemma of a Ghost. Nonetheless, even then she saw the plight of the Black person in a global sense. In a mostly antagonistic interview by Nigerian critic Theo Vincent, Aidoo manages to express her views on the diaspora:

I don't know how people react when they leave Africa and go to places outside where there are concentrations of other Black peoples, but for me it was incredible. I just couldn't believe that I could cross the whole of the Atlantic and go and find all of these people who are like people at home. … But definitely this is the reason I keep coming back to this because I think it is part of what is eating us up. You can't cover up history. … It is time we faced the question of what happened that so many of us are in Harlem and so many in the West Indies. … You see, grief accepted is grief overcome.


In both plays examined, Aidoo tries to come to terms with the fact of the African diaspora. In Anowa, she explores African complicity in the slave trade. In The Dilemma of a Ghost, she looks at the repercussions of the slave trade on a personal level, the marriage of an African-American woman to a Ghanaian man. The story is a simple one: Ata Yawson, a Ghanaian studying in the United States, meets Eulalie Rush, another student, and they fall in love. After deciding that they will “wait” to have children, they marry and return to his home—Ato with his pumped up sense of himself and his Western education and Eulalie with her typical American misconceptions of Africa mixed with a real desire to “belong” somewhere. The major conflict of the play stems from Eulalie's inability to adapt to the society she has entered, Ato's family members' expectations of the returning “scholar,” and Ato's total amnesia concerning the values and traditions of his culture.

In “The Image of the Afro-American in African Literature,” Bernth Lindfors comments, “This is a drama not only of marital discord but of cultural conflict” (20). Indeed, but since the conflict is between two cultures with similar ancestry, the encounter takes on more significance than if Eulalie has been a white American. Precisely because Eulalie is a Black American, the play explores more than marital discord and cultural conflicts by examining what Aidoo feels has been covered up by a denial of history—Africa's relationship to its descendents in the Americas. And in this play as in the works of other writers in this study, it is the women who work to reconcile what appears to be a conflict of cultures but what may in fact be a family quarrel.

Critical response to Dilemma of a Ghost has focused mainly on Ato's “dilemma” and Eulalie's disagreeableness, with some attention to Aidoo's language style and her use of the oral tradition. Unfortunately, the attention accorded to the “hero” Ato and, therefore, the anti-hero Eulalie in isolation has denied a holistic interpretation of the play. What is left out is the role of the women—Ato's mother, Esi Kom, the grandmother, Nana, and the two women storytellers—who structure and restructure the play and, for Esi Kom in particular, move toward reconciliation. So if Aidoo has chosen to write a play not merely about a young man's “dilemma” but about a group of women, their conflicts, their capacity for understanding and education, a critic may ignore them to find a hero of his own. For although Ato is integral to the story, his actions hardly make him a hero, and he is no more the main protagonist than either Esi Kom or Eulalie. I make this crucial point because I hope to examine this play in light of the position of the women, the Africans who have been reduced to silence, and the Black American whose character has been distorted by the overemphasis on the African man's point of view. It is through a community of characters that the open moral of the dilemma tale works. Like the other African women writers discussed here, Aidoo uses her skill as a storyteller to create modern folk art as performance oraliterature. The play is a dilemma tale, not only the dilemma of the “been-to” but more importantly the dilemma of the Africans in facing the history which has made a diaspora and the dilemma of these women of how to pass down the values of the culture to the child of African descent.

In the first two chapters in the African section, I focused on the writers' debt to the orature of their foremothers; Aidoo is no exception. In her short stories and plays, Aidoo has expanded the role of the domestic storyteller by utilizing her culture's orature in the structure of her writings; moreover, she emphasizes the way in which women pass on and maintain, defend, and sometimes confront the traditional values and customs of their society. Aidoo is committed to a total vision of African women's history and herstory as she states in “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves”:

Unless a particular writer commits his or her energies, actively, to exposing the sexist tragedy of women's history; protesting the ongoing degradation of women; celebrating their physical and intellectual capabilities, and above all, unfolding a revolutionary vision of the role of women tomorrow, as dreamers thinkers and doers; they cannot be described as feminist writers. …

In the meantime, women are half of humanity. Our lives too are simple songs that can be sung simply and ordinary tales that can be told ordinarily.

(32; 33; emphasis added)

Aidoo's discourse is part of this revolutionary struggle because she envisions a role for women that blends traditional culture with a global perspective; through the ordinary tales and simple songs, there may be a way of bridging gaps, reconciliation. Aidoo sees her work as not only reflecting her culture and society but reforming it, and since she understands that it is the orature which has done this in the past, she, like Sutherland, structures her drama on this vibrant art:

I think any discussion of African drama has to start with the so-called oral traditions, because if African theatre is really going to gain any strength, some of it has to come from there. Everybody needs a backbone. If we do not refer to the old traditions, it is almost like operating with amnesia. You wake up one morning, you can't remember yesterday, and you intend to go on today and plan for tomorrow. That worries me.

(Issue 124)

Aidoo is clearly aware of the dialectical relationship of orature and literature—and emphasizes the connections between them. In her collection of short stories, No Sweetness Here, Aidoo attempts to write tales that can be told, recited to an audience. The short story, seen as an evolution of the tale, is envisioned by Aidoo as a partnership of these two forms, oral and written, and can be appreciated on both levels: “I believe that when a writer writes a short story, it should be possible for the writer to sit before an audience and tell them the story. … We don't always have to write for readers, we can write for listeners” (Lautré 24). Aidoo creates oraliterature, using her work as a politically functional tool to confront the conflicts of modern African society in the manner her ancestors faced the conflicts of their own generations. Her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, reflects further exploration into a blending of oral and written traditions by its extensive use of dialogue, song, and poetry, in addition to the communal, female perspective of “our sister.” In all of her works, Aidoo's concern focuses on the position and plight of women because, as anthropologist Marion Kilson suggests about traditional African storytellers, there is a “relevance of the narrator's sex to characters in the tale, for invariably the protagonists of the tale include one with whom the narrator can identify” (“Women and African Literature,” 163). Aidoo, as the authorial “narrator” of her works, reflects the tradition of women storytellers and cultural advisors and takes that role into the modern political and social arena.

In Anowa and The Dilemma of a Ghost, Aidoo actively incorporates the oral tradition by the retelling of an African folk tale in the first play and by the use of a dilemma tale as the structure for the second. Furthermore, since drama is a performed art, her plays are received by listeners as in oral dramas of village folk art. Commenting on the creation of Anowa, Aidoo states that the idea for the play came from a legend that she originally heard from her mother: “The original story, which in a way was in the form of a song … is more or less my own rendering of a kind of … legend, because, according to my mother, who told me the story, it is supposed to have happened” (Lautré 23). The transformation of a legend told by mother to daughter is a further example of the way in which tales are passed down through generations of women. Aidoo's reworking of this legend also evokes the folk tale discussed earlier—that of the beautiful young girl who picks her husband in opposition to her family's choices—and, in this case, the marriage ends in suicide for them both. The old woman storyteller, who recounts much of the story, exclaims: “That Anowa is something else! Like all the beautiful maidens in the tales, she has refused to marry any of the sturdy men who have asked for her hand in marriage. No one knows what is wrong with her” (9). Like Nwapa and Sutherland, Aidoo is captivated by this folk tale which has characterized such an important aspect of the African woman's life, and as a creative storyteller, she has turned the tale around to fit her own telling. Yet in some ways, her reworking of the folk tale is closer to the original tale than the others since Nwapa's version is solely an underpinning to the plot of the novel and Sutherland's version changes the ending. Aidoo's tale is by far the most tragic of the three and follows the lines of the folk tale completely. Yet, ironically, it is Aidoo who questions in a most overt manner the basic premise of the tale itself and what women's position in the society is to be.

Anowa, the main figure in the play, is not the proud, self-centered beauty of the folk tale; her apparent contrariness comes from a different source. She not only chooses her husband according to another set of values than her parents', she is also motivated by a higher moral order than those around her. She rebels against her mother's guidance in this instance, but as Ebele Eko notes, the rebellion is not against her as “mother” but as representative of “societal authority and expectation” (141). Later, the community is pleased, since she and her husband are successful traders. They become very wealthy because her husband turns their trade to that of human cargo, but she refuses any of the benefits from what she considers, and we know, to be the most devastating of occupations—the slave trade. Anowa is condemned for her stance rather than praised for it by her community; the greed of the people outweighs the good moral judgments encoded in the culture, and as in present times, the conventions are suited to fit the greed. Anowa, who is childless, at first feels that she has lost her right to children by her involvement in this inhuman occupation. As I noted in the chapter on Efuru, childlessness is rarely seen as an accident of nature. Finally, Anowa realizes that it is her husband, Kofi Ako, who has exhausted his “masculinity acquiring slaves and wealth” (61). The old woman storyteller ends the play by stating: “This is the type of happening out of which we get stories and legends” (63). As part of her modern interpretation of this legend and the African folk tale, Aidoo bears upon the oral tradition and women's role in it to question the values and history of her culture as well as explore the impact of their collective past on hers and future generations.

Maryse Condé, in an article on Nwapa and Aidoo, comments that their works illustrate that “the African woman has an important role to play in the future of Africa and in the past it was the same. But for all this faith, there remains a doubt, a doubt on the value of their world nurtured by the daily sight of their complex and contradictory society torn between different ideals and poisoned by self-distrust” (143). Condé's point is well taken in terms of the gloom that surrounds the play Anowa, but it is unfortunate that she so quickly dismisses The Dilemma of a Ghost as a “flimsy comedy,” since it is in this play, as well as in her later novel Our Sister Killjoy, that Aidoo's questioning of values and moral issues concerning traditional and modern African society is explored with a more positive and assured vision.

Although The Dilemma of a Ghost is more contemporary and less closely aligned to any one folk tale than Anowa, the structure of the play is deeply rooted in the orature. As I have mentioned and others have noted, the play itself is in the form of an African dilemma tale. Roger Abrahams refers to this type of folk tale in the introduction to African Folktales:

[These dilemma tales are] often explored in conversations, especially among adults and children. … These African versions throw the floor open to debate, demonstrating yet again that in the African context the function of story telling is to initiate as much as to instruct. … Even when such a moral “last word” does arise, it commonly is at once so divisive and open-ended in its implications that it calls for further discussion.


One major aspect of the dilemma tale is that the ending does not leave one with a strict or simple moral; the questions posed in the tale are left open for further discussion and thought. “Dilemma tales of [this] type, which are more often resolved by the narrator, involve moral and ethical judgement and are considerably more interesting because of the light they throw on cultural norms and values” (Bascom 14).

The questions concerning the culture's norms and values that Aidoo raises in The Dilemma of a Ghost are indeed difficult ones without easy solutions, and the issues are ones that confront modern-day Ghanaian society. But Aidoo's use of a dilemma tale to tell her story also reflects her position as a woman in the society: As cultural advisor and maintainer/reformer of traditions, Aidoo uses the play to “initiate and instruct” the young on the conflicts of modern African life and the diaspora (this play is taught and performed in secondary schools throughout West Africa). Furthermore, the use of the dilemma tale to explore conflicts in modern life gives the play a sense of structural continuity for its audience and insures the growth of this traditional folk art.

Aidoo utilizes this oral art form in two ways in The Dilemma of a Ghost. First, there is the obvious dilemma of Ato, the “been-to.” The title of the play is a reference to a children's folk tale/song about a wretched ghost seen at a crossroads, wandering up and down, wondering whether to go to Cape Coast or Elmina.2 The ghost seems immobilized and, rather than coming to any decision, keeps repeating “I don't know, I can't tell” (23). Two children, a girl and a boy who look just like Ato did at that age, sing the song that awakens Ato. He runs on to the empty stage—the children have disappeared—and he can't decide whether he actually heard the song or was dreaming. In his confusion, Ato exclaims: “Damn this ghost at the junction. … I used to wonder what the ghost was doing there. … But why should I dream about all these things now?” (24).

Ato's preoccupation with the ghost's dilemma mirrors his inability to come to terms with his own situation. He appears to be the human representation of the ghost because he is unable to deal with the dilemma in his life—how to reconcile his wife and Western education to the traditions and cultural practices of his family. Like the ghost, he manages mostly to say “I don't know, I can't say” in his own way. For example, his family comes to see him because they are concerned that, after over a year of marriage, there is no sign of Eulalie's pregnancy. Since having children is integral to traditional marriage, the family wonders what is wrong. But when they ask him, he answers “nothing” rather than explaining to them that he and Eulalie are using birth control (39-41). Ato does not confront the problems in his life but is left in a quandary which he is incapable of solving; hence, the dilemma of the ghost.

The second dilemma of the play is less overt and more difficult to resolve: This dilemma is one that both the Africans and Eulalie, the Black American, face in relationship to the diaspora and each other. For Eulalie, the dilemma arises in her desire to finally “belong somewhere” where she is not treated as part of an oppressed minority counterposed by her American upbringing and its prejudicial attitudes about Africa. Her conflicting emotions about Africa mirror the concerns examined in the second section of this study. For the Africans, their dilemma comes from an insistence to ignore a violently negative aspect of their past and, therefore, a conflict in how to relate to the daughter of African descent, a daughter of slaves. Aidoo speaks about this surprising lack of historicity in an oral tradition which spans centuries: “The oral traditions can tell you about the migrations that happened about a thousand years ago, and yet events that happened two to three hundred years ago are completely blanketed over” (Vincent 7). Aidoo's compulsion to address this subject which has been silenced in the culture is apparent; in The Dilemma of a Ghost, this theme holds great potential for dialogue and thought on the community and continental level. The play becomes a vehicle for more than an exploration of the marital/cultural conflict of Ato and Eulalie; it directs itself to a dilemma which has had deep repercussions for Africa and its diaspora.

As part of her creative aim to recount both the silenced past and the traditional culture, Aidoo has adapted English—a language of domination—to fit her tale. Although Aidoo is very insistent about English being a dead end as an African literary language, she has managed to cope with the conflict by injecting this colonial language with her own.3 Her ability to capture the flavor of Akan within the construct of English sentences underscores her oraliterary style. Her forte is in reproducing the voices of rural Ghanaians, especially the women. In The Dilemma of a Ghost, the voice of the community, as well as the voice of the storyteller, always comes through the mouths of women. The language of Aidoo's African women, from the prelude's Bird of the Wayside to the two women narrators, from Esi Kom and Monka to Nana, is extremely poetic and lyrical, illustrating once again the domestic basis for much folk art and orature in African culture.

The conflict of the play is introduced to us in the prelude by the Bird of the Wayside, an “asthmatic old hag” (1). She is not a particularly attractive old woman, but she appears wise. She is perhaps an ancestor, but certainly an outsider, as her name implies. There are many reverberations in the play's imagery concerning the Bird of the Wayside—both Ato and Eulalie seem to be hanging their nest by the wayside (9)—but what is most relevant to this study is her role as storyteller. It is the old woman who sets the stage for this dilemma tale. She speaks to the audience in verse, with a powerful, omniscient voice; she questions the audience in the style of these tales, on the explanation of the bizarre happenings in the home of Ato's family, the Odumna Clan: “I can furnish you with reasons why / This and that and other things / Happened. But stranger, / What would you have me say / About the Odumna Clan?” (1). She sets up the cultural environment as well as the dilemma. This home, which has been known throughout generations as revered, wealthy, and full of children, has lost much in the making of the “One Scholar,” but what have they gained? She refuses to tell us what happens but opens the play with her question.

The Bird of the Wayside remains in the play only during the prelude, but within the main body of the play there are two other women, called 1st Woman and 2nd Woman, who narrate this dilemma tale. With the use of tales within tales, proverbs and parables, the two women pass on the tenets of the oral tradition as part of their duty to future generations, and in this case, to the audience. In the course of the play they act as neighbors, respond to the various goings-on that they narrate, and express the community's opinion on events and issues, even when they themselves may not agree with it. Although in the prelude the Bird of the Wayside introduces Ato and Eulalie (in America) to the audience, the two women open the first act on Ghanaian soil. Unlike the isolation of Eulalie and Ato in the prelude, the first act prepares us for a communal perspective on the events to happen. Since the two women are participants in the play as well as storytellers, they are involved with the actions of the other characters and constantly muse over incidents as they tell us the story. Their stance is usually apart from the main protagonists, commenting on the action of the play while going to fetch water, to farm, or to market. Aidoo's placement of the two village women in the design of the play emphasizes their role as community voice. As storytellers, they work as a framing device in most of the acts, and when they appear in the middle of an act, it is usually at a traumatic break. Their discussions open and close Act One, they open Act Two and Act Four, and they play an important role at the climax of Act Five. Interestingly, the beginning of Act Three does not begin with any of the main protagonists either; the boy and girl open it with their song. The song of the ghost's dilemma also ends the play, leaving the audience to address the open-ended moral of this dilemma tale. With the use of the Bird of the Wayside, the two women, and the children with their song, Aidoo is clearly structuring the play as a village tale. The multiple narrators are constantly commenting, judging, and questioning as part of their relationship with the audience, who is being enticed to do the same.

Act One opens with the two women returning home from fetching water at the riverside. Their first discussion illustrates a major issue in the play as well as one which is of great significance to the African woman—children and childlessness. In Efuru, we saw that childlessness was the main conflict of the novel; in this play, it appears to be a secondary concern but is actually a major motif. Their discussion on the merits of children/childlessness exposes the subordinate status of women in the village as well as introduces the plight of Esi Kom and her son Ato to the audience. The two women, as I noted earlier, speak in a versified English:

1ST Woman:
Ah! And yet I thought I was alone in this …
The lonely woman who must toil
From morn till eve,
Before a morsel hits her teeth
Or a drop of water cools her throat.
2ND Woman:
My sister, you are not alone.
But who would have thought that I,
Whose house is teeming with children.
My own, my husband's, my sister's …
But this is my curse. …
I am telling you, my sister,
Sometimes we feel you are luckier
Who are childless.
1ST Woman:
But at the very last
You are the luckiest who have them.
Take Esi Kom, I say.


There is great irony in this passage because on one hand, it is a curse in traditional African culture to be childless, so it is hard to believe the 2nd Woman's statement that the childless woman is luckier; yet, on the other hand, Esi Kom, who exemplifies the statement that women with children are luckier, is to suffer the consequences of an ungrateful child. The conversation of these two women sets up a communal perspective on the events they are to narrate by bringing the audience into the argument of “who is luckier” and by focusing on what the community expects of its female citizens.

As storytellers, the two women are constantly acting as the liaisons between the audience and the players. Not only do they express (as ethical advisors) the community's demands on women even when these demands are in opposition to their own individual desires, but as the tellers of the tale, they also guide the audience, so that the audience will focus on the major issues to be discussed later. The two women are constantly directing the audience's attention to important moral and social issues. In the middle of Act Five, for example, the two women have been wakened by strange sounds and meet each other in the path between the houses. The 1st Woman comments, “Is this noise not enough to wake the dead? / Why so much noise at midnight?” The 2nd Woman answers, “It is very dark. / I cannot make out the figure at the door, / It looks like a … ghost” (46). Of course, it is Ato who has been hysterically looking for his wife who has run away after a quarrel. But our narrators, besides making sure that the audience responds to the social issues being presented, are also there to insure we make another connection, already hinted at in the play—Ato's own dilemma is symbolized by the ghost's.

The two women have different points of view toward the action of the play, mostly because of their ability to have children—one barren, one fertile. Dapo Adelugba suggests that “their two different perspectives are again the playwright's way of ensuring audience interest and involvement” (77). Indeed, that is part of their role as storytellers. But the fact that their different perspectives revolve around the issue of childlessness also reflects Aidoo's intention to focus on the position of women in the society. As the community voice, they—like the women in Efuru's village—maintain and pass on traditions which are often not to their own advantage. At the beginning of Act Two, the two women address Esi Kom's predicament and whether or not Ato is helping his family to pay back for all the expense of his education (he is not). The 1st Woman, who is childless and suffers from this misfortune, still reinforces the values of “child wealth”: “Child bearing is always profitable / For were not our fathers wise / Who looked upon the motion of your lives / And said, / They ask for the people of the house / and not the money in it?” (16). As I mentioned in the chapter on Efuru, what the “fathers” have said has been passed on from mother to daughter, emphasizing the necessity for children in opposition to women's rights and happiness because “even from bad marriages / Are born good sons and daughters” (17).

Their discussion of Eulalie's supposed childlessness also illustrates this dialectic and how some women can maintain the position of the community while personally sympathizing with those who cannot fit into the prescribed patterns. Their conversation at the beginning of Act Four is, for the most part, comic, expressing disbelief and disgust at the fact that Eulalie (the stranger girl) has to use “machines” for everything, and therefore, the young marrieds cannot help support their family. This scorn for Western gadgetry is exaggerated until the 1st Woman (barren) asks if Eulalie is “pregnant with a machine child?” (35). The 2nd Woman, who knows everything because she has “born eleven from her womb,” pronounces that Eulalie is as barren “as an orange which has been scooped of all fruit.” Up until this point, Eulalie has been seen as a subject of ridicule, and the coldness of the women as authorities on community standards is evident. But after the 2nd Woman, who is secure within the culture's expectations, leaves, the 1st Woman gives one of the most poignant speeches in the play, empathizing with what she thinks is Eulalie's plight:

If it is real barrenness
Then, oh stranger girl …
I weep for you
For I know what it is
To start a marriage with barrenness. …
Your machines, my stranger-girl
Cannot go on an errand
They have no hands to dress you when you are dead …
But you have one machine to buy now
That which will weep for you, stranger girl
You need that most.
For my world
Which you have run to enter
Is most unkind to the barren.


The 1st Woman's painful speech prepares us for the climax of the play, where the family members want to “wash” Eulalie's stomach to cure her barrenness; but more importantly, the 1st Woman's sympathy for Eulalie also prepares us for the eventual acceptance of Eulalie, the lost daughter, into the house of Esi Kom. Some critics have seen the final reconciliation between Esi Kom and Eulalie as “unconvincing,” but there are incidents in the play, like the speech quoted above, which show the solidarity of women as well as Aidoo's specific concern for the reconciliation of all the children of the diaspora.4

Akan culture, as part of Black African culture in general, is one “in which the most bonding ties [are] with kin rather than with spouses. … Heterosexual conflicts in Ghana, then, reflect more than just the battle of the sexes” (Vellenga 145). Although, as the African-American section of this study illustrates, extended kinship bonds are generally greater among Black Americans than in mainstream white America, there is clearly a conflict between Eulalie's sense of privacy and the Africans' belief that marriage is a communal affair. In the Odumna family, many people made the decision concerning Ato's education, so they never imagined that they would not be involved with his marriage choice. At this point, however, I am not going to focus on Ato's problems but on the generations of women whose advice and response he seems to ignore.

The major kinswomen involved in the marital/cultural conflict between Ato, Eulalie, and his family are Esi Kom, Monka, her daughter, and the grandmother, Nana. In addition, the aunts and uncles are active in the dialogue and decision making. Just as Eulalie has preconceived ideas about her African inlaws, this new family suffers under misconceptions about their new daughter-in-law; moreover, they exhibit a sort of amnesia concerning the effects of the slave trade. But in each situation, Ato, rather than helping them understand, thwarts their efforts. Nana represents the oldest generation and is the voice of wisdom, in tune with the ancestors, even if her voice is a little befuddled with age. Her place in the family is a microcosm of the role of the older woman in Akan society: “Among older women, the child rearing period of their lives being almost over, marriage has become less important, and once again, they orient themselves towards the matrilineage and their roles as grandmothers and maternal aunts” (Abu 159). Nana is well past child-bearing age, so her concerns are on imparting the traditions to the family. The fact that Ato is unable to converse with her shows his disinterest in the language and culture of his forebears (7). She is one of the venerable women storytellers who “pass on the family history and who know who is kin to whom” (Hill-Lubin 263). On hearing that Eulalie is Black but has no tribe, Nana responds questioningly: “Since I was born, I have not heard of a human being born out from the womb of a woman who has no tribe. Are there trees which never have any roots?” (11; emphasis added). The issue of the loss of “roots” and reidentification of culture is paramount for the writers in the African-American section of this study. For Nana, who has never known that kind of separation, not having a tribe is like not having a mother, family, life.

In trying to explain, Ato tells her and the rest of the family that Eulalie's antecedents were the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. When he tries to amend what he has said to stop the family uproar, he makes it worse by saying that only her grandparents were slaves. In a culture which believes that the ancestors are always close at hand, his comment does not reassure them. Nana stops him with, “Ato, do not talk with the foolishness of your generation” (130). Her reaction to Ato shows her and the other family members' inability to deal with the memory of the slave trade, but it also illustrates her fear of losing the lines that tie her to her own ancestors and descendants. Her invocation at the end of Act One reflects this fear of the tradition breaking down as it raises a question for the audience to ponder: “My spirit Mother ought to have come for me earlier. / Now what shall I tell them who are gone? The daughter / of slaves who came from the white man's land. / Someone should advise me on how to tell my story” (14). Nana is a link between the ancestors and future generations; her inability to tell the story correctly to her ancestors because of Ato's silence endangers her role as ethical advisor to the children and as spokeswoman to the ancestors. But her own culture's refusal to face up to the facts of the slave trade also limits her voice.

Esi Kom, the mother, and her daughter Monka are the other important women characters, and it is they who come in direct confrontation with Eulalie. Although the focus of the following discussion will be on Esi Kom, Monka is closely bound not only to the generation of women in her family but also to the oral voicings of her foremothers. When Eulalie throws away the delicacies—snails—that Esi Kom has brought them, Monka sings a folk song to express her anger at her sister-in-law: “She is strange, / She is unusual. / She would have done murder / Had she been a man. / But to prevent / Such an outrage / They made her a woman!” (29). Esi Kom, who has suffered slights from her son and insults from her daughter-in-law, understands Monka's anger but holds her peace until the climax. Esi Kom is the most significant person in the play because she spans oceans and generations to bring about a reconciliation with her Black American daughter-in-law. As I noted in the introduction, the mother is the central link in both African and African-American family systems; this may be even more pronounced in a matrilineal system such as the Akan. This is evident in The Dilemma of a Ghost since Esi Kom is the primary moving force in the play. In the course of the play, Esi Kom puts up with a lot from her son and daughter-in-law, and the plight of the family, narrated by the two women, always centers on Esi Kom's distress (very much like the children in Efuru's compound who center on the “mother” of the proud girl in the folk tale). It is Esi Kom who has to live in the clan house because her son has not built her one (6); she is the one who suffers because her son has not helped her to repay the debts incurred in his schooling. Furthermore, neither Ato nor Eulalie will accept her role as ethical advisor to the new daughter-in-law so that she can teach Eulalie the customs and traditions of the culture. When she and Monka visited them in Accra, the two kinswomen were not welcomed: “I had thought I would do as other women do—spend one or two days with my daughter-in-law, teach her how to cook your favorite meals. But as if I was not noticing it, neither you nor your wife bothered to give us seats to sit on or water to cool our parched throats” (30). It is easier to understand Eulalie's breach of hospitality than Ato's. Eulalie is a stranger to the society and, throughout the play, has been rather coolly received by her in-laws. Furthermore, she has received no support whatsoever from her husband in understanding what is expected of her, so she becomes more and more frustrated. But Ato is not ignorant of his culture, although at times during the play, he acts so; rather, he appears ashamed of his cultural traditions as well as his family members, and this adds to Eulalie's own misconceptions.

Eulalie is the one character most misinterpreted by critics of the play.5 She takes the blame for all the cultural insensitivity in the play and is seen as arrogant, alcoholic, and obtuse, in spite of the fact that the other characters have their own prejudices and add to hers. Aidoo herself comments that “this play sparked off a whole lot of controversy because people always cling to it looking for something negative about the Black American girl” (Vincent 4). She goes on to say that she is “harsh” on all the characters involved—educated Africans, traditional Africans, and Black Americans—but if one looks closely, it is really Ato who receives the harshest criticism, since he is the one character excluded from the final reconciliation. Aidoo's portrayal of Eulalie is not a negative one, in spite of Eulalie's obvious breaches of cultural sensitivity; rather it is a sympathetic portrait of the “double-self” image of the Black American, explored by W. E. B. Du Bois, being both/neither “American” and “African.”6 Ato is hardly being candid with Eulalie when he states that there is no reason for them to have children right away: “Lalie, don't you believe me when I tell you it's O.K. … Children, who wants them? In fact, they will make me jealous. I couldn't bear seeing you love someone else better than you do me” (4). Besides being totally dishonest to Eulalie about what is going to be expected of her when she arrives in Ghana, Ato ignores a family system which believes that “a woman's role as wife is secondary to her role as mother” (Kilson, “Women and African Literature” 165). Eulalie expresses the same concern later, but Ato responds once again with false platitudes so that the situation ends up exploding in the climax of the play.

Eulalie's misconceptions as well as her strong desire to finally “belong” are understandable. Before she meets Ato's family, she hopes not only to be part of his family but of his people, asking if she can adopt them as her own (3-4). Eulalie's lament reflects her feelings of isolation as a second-class American citizen and her desire for a real family, and it also illustrates Eulalie's notion of extended family, which possibly stems from her African heritage. Eulalie's identification with her African heritage is further illustrated in her monologue at the beginning of Act Two. Although this speech is full of ill-conceived prejudices carried over from American films and television, it exposes some of the similarities she shares with her African family in contradistinction to many of her white American counterparts. At first she states flippantly that she finds all this “rather cute.” But her tone becomes increasingly serious when she remembers the hardships faced at home and the death of all those close to her. She is enheartened by the thought of her dead mother's presence; she speaks to her mother of her accomplishments, keeping the lines between generations, living and dead, alive: “Ma, I've come to the very source. I've come to Africa and I hope that where'er you are, you sort of know and approve” (19). Because of her belief in returning to the “source,” her understanding of an extended family, and her communication with her dead mother, Eulalie might have blended in more easily with her new family and culture, had she any help from her husband. Since Ato is the only one to have lived on both sides of the Atlantic, he should be the one to smooth over the problems, but instead he exacerbates them. With his lack of initiative, the animosity between Eulalie and Esi Kom's family moves toward open hostility in the climax of the play.

The climax comes when the family—aunts and uncles, Monka, Esi Kom, and Nana—comes to Ato to find out what is preventing him from giving his grandmother “a great-grandchild before she leaves us” (40). They have brought medicine to wash Eulalie's stomach so that she can become fertile. Ato not only refuses their help but fails to explain to the family that he and Eulalie have been using birth control. The elders' belief in the traditional values is shaken as Esi Kom tells them that “these days, one's son's marriage affair cannot be always one's affair” (39). But Nana, the mainstay of the tradition, knocks her stick on the ground and states: “It may be so in many homes. Things have not changed here.” Eulalie, who asks Ato why he doesn't tell them the truth, realizes that she, too, has been duped by him, she comments bitterly: “You knew all this, didn't you, my gallant Black knight? Now you dare not confess it before them …” (42). In this argument, she finally directs a question to Ato, which should have been broached long before and which has a broad meaning for the audience: “Who married me, you or your goddamn people?” (44).

Ironically, it is precisely because Eulalie has married a family as well as a person that there can be any reconciliation in this play. Even though major aspects of traditional life in African communities have changed because of the influx of Western culture, much has survived; moreover, it is the women who have attempted to keep aspects of the traditional world alive in daily life, a world with strong family ties and community resources. And even for Eulalie, this world will protect her since, with the family's growing awareness of Ato's duplicity, she is no longer seen as a villain but as a lost child. “In the end, or so the play implies, [Eulalie] may find a truer freedom and womanhood within African collectivity. African ways are envisioned as life-giving” (Chapman 33). In the final confrontation between Esi Kom and her son Ato, the play makes a stand for African womanhood, the lost children of the diaspora, and the importance of familial ties and community traditions. It also questions an education which appears to be learned out of context, learned only to deny the knowledge of generations. Esi Kom attacks her son because he seems to “never know anything” in spite of his education. When he starts speaking about the new inventions in “these days of civilization,” she exclaims, “In these days of civilization, what? Now I know you have been teaching your wife to insult us. … No stranger ever breaks the law … my son. You have not dealt with us well. And you have not dealt with your wife well in this” (49). At this point Eulalie, hurt and exhausted, stumbles in, and Esi Kom, rather than Ato, rushes to support her. The symbolism is unmistakable; Esi Kom reaches out not only to her daughter-in-law but to Eulalie's dead mother, oceans and generations away, who is watching:

And we must be careful with your wife
You tell us her mother is dead.
If she had any tenderness,
Her ghost must be keeping watch over
All which happens to her …
[There is short silence, then clearly to Eulalie,]
Come, my child.


The reconciliation of Esi Kom and Eulalie reflects, on a personal level, a coming home for those in the diaspora as well as a move toward recognition of a “grief accepted and overcome” for those in Africa. Esi Kom's acceptance of Eulalie also implies the acceptance of the entire Yawson family, and probably of the community (illustrated, at least, by the sympathies of the 1st Woman narrator). At the end of the play, Ato, alienated, is alone on the stage, hearing nothing but the echo of the song which repeats his dilemma.

As in all dilemma tales, the problems exposed in The Dilemma of a Ghost are not solved, although the play does give us a moral “last word” on the dilemma of traditional versus Western values and the acceptance of the total past of a people, the positive and negative aspects. The play does not neatly resolve the issue of how modern Africans are to synthesize their Western learning with the traditional wisdom of the past generations, nor does it attempt to reconcile the fact of a diaspora with the millions of disinherited peoples who have evolved into other cultures; furthermore, it does not solve the problem women face in passing on cultural traditions which often limit their own roles as members of the community. But the play does give some personal answers to the questions raised; moreover, its ending leaves open these questions and ethical judgments so that the audience, reader, and listener can debate, discuss, and come to conclusions for themselves.


  1. Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey made this statement concerning women's important tole in the development of Ghana. Ama Ata Aidoo cites him in the notes to her speech “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves,” Medium and Message 35. [Medium and Message. Proc. of the International Conference on African Literature and the English Language, U of Calabar, Nigeria, 1980. 17-37.]

  2. Revealingly, Ghanaian critic Abena Busia remarks that Cape Coast and Elmina were both active slave ports during the trade.

  3. See Aidoo's interview with Theo Vincent as well as her commentary at the first meeting of the African Literature Association Conference at Northwestern University. The issue of whether to write in an African or colonial language is discussed at length in the publication of this conference. [Vincent, Theo. Seventeen Black and African Writers on Literature and Life. Largos: Cross Continent Press, 1981, and Aidoo, Ama Ata. “Roundtable Discussion.” First African Literature Association Conference, Northwestern University. Issue 6.1 (1976): 124-27.]

  4. See, for example, John Nagenda, “Generations in Conflict,” Protest and Conflict in African Literature, ed. Monro and Pieterse (New York: Africana Publishing Corp., 1969), especially p. 107.

  5. There has been quite a bit of negative criticism on Eulalie as a realistic character, particularly Aidoo's inability to capture Eulalie's accent realistically. Although I agree that Eulalie's Black English is stilted, I am not sure that this discredits her as a realistic character, as critics such as Maryse Condé and Brenda Berrian suggest.

  6. W. E. B. Du Bois examines this conflict in “On Spiritual Striving,” in The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1953).

Ama Ata Aidoo, Rosemary Marangoly George, and Helen Scott (interview date fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5823

SOURCE: Aidoo, Ama Ata, Rosemary Marangoly George, and Helen Scott. “A New Tail to an Old Tale: An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 26, no. 3 (spring 1993): 297-308.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in Fall 1991, Aidoo discusses her role as an African writer, African immigration to the West, and elements of feminism in her work.]


Ama Ata Aidoo is an internationally recognized and acclaimed literary and intellectual figure. She has published many plays, novels, collections of short stories and poems since her first play The Dilemma of a Ghost in 19651. She was born in 1945, into the family of a chief in the Fanti town of Abeadzi Kyiakor, in the central region of Ghana (then called by its colonial name “The Gold Coast”), and grew up in the royal household. Her privileged origins are reflected in her education and career: she attended the Wesley Girls High School in Cape Coast, and was at the University of Ghana in Legon from 1961-1964. During this time Aidoo worked in the University's school of drama and writers' workshop and produced her first two plays and a collection of short stories. She has continued to write professionally, and also has pursued a career teaching, reading and lecturing at universities in West and East Africa and the United States. At times she has also held influential educational and political positions, such as Minister of Education in Ghana under Jerry Rawlings' Government in the early 1980s, and consulting professor to the Washington bureau of the Phelps-Stokes fund's Ethnic Studies Program from 1974 to 1975.2

Aidoo's fictional works are to varying degrees explicitly critical of the colonial history of Ghana, and of what she refers to as its “neocolonial” past and present. Ghana was formally colonized by Britain in the late nineteenth century and was exploited for its resources and labor under this political colonial regime until Independence in 1957. The hope for liberation under Nkrumah's Convention People's Party, a vocal force in the struggle against the British and for “self-government,” was short lived, however, as the majority of people suffered the same poverty and repression as before, and the wealthy Ghanaian elite as a class threw in their lot with the ruling classes of the departing powers, rather than with “the people.” The economic instability and dependence of Ghana (under formal colonialism and after Ghana developed an economy heavily reliant on one export, cocoa, and thus dependent on imports for most consumer goods) caused the government to rely on foreign aid, increasingly from the US, which inevitably came with stringent requirements for preferential terms of trade and domestic austerity measures. In turn the poverty and dramatic social inequalities within Ghana have been “managed” by a succession of repressive military regimes, the most infamous in terms of brutality and corruption being in the 1970s, a period that saw the incarceration of many intellectuals.

In fictional and non-fictional works Aidoo has described and criticized oppression and inequality, though frequently in generalized terms. The gap in publishing between No Sweetness Here3 in 1970 and Our Sister Killjoy4 in 1977 is not unrelated to the level of persecution of even mildly critical writers during this period. The focus of Aidoo's critique is the colonial history that produced Ghana's problems: Anowa5 contains an attack on slavery and Africa's early colonial history; No Sweetness Here describes the devastating impact of Western consumerism after Independence; Our Sister Killjoy presents an angry exploration of the psychological bondage of colonial ideology even after Independence; all target colonialism and implicitly deny the term “postcolonial.” As Aidoo says in this interview; “post-what? because it isn't over yet.”

Maybe because of her own wealthy background and relative insulation from material hardship and political persecution, Aidoo spends less time addressing the material co-ordinates of Ghana and more frequently focuses on the cultural dynamics of neocolonialism. Many of her works attack the continuing weight of colonial ideology in devaluing things African. The women in No Sweetness Here, for example, have to battle with “Western ideals of femininity” and the lure of largely inaccessible American consumer goods. Our Sister Killjoy is concerned primarily with the alienation of the African educated class; Sissy, the main character, has to resist the dominant ideological currents that devalue Africa and African people.

In interviews and essays Aidoo has stressed the importance of artists and intellectuals being accountable, and calls for writers to retain their integrity by being politically relevant and addressing the lives of ordinary African people. Aidoo's frustration with the pressures that mitigate against this desire is clear in this interview: both in terms of the forces that lead African professionals to settle in Europe or America; and in terms of the barriers created by the constraints of international publishing and dramatic social inequalities that separate a privileged minority of writers and intellectuals from the majority of people.

Aidoo is known as an important feminist writer. Her stories, novels and plays feature strong female protagonists who encounter institutionalized and personal sexism on a day to day level. In her non-fictional writings Aidoo also explicitly combats rigid and oppressive social constructions of gender and their consequences for ordinary women. In a recent article in Dissent6 Aidoo presents a history of women's oppression in Africa and shows how the sexual divisions that became dominant with the colonial era were absent in previous historical moments in many regions that had matriarchal social systems or other relatively egalitarian gender relations. Sexism is not inherent to African cultures, she argues, despite the accusations of racist and colonialist ideology that target African men as the culprits. Rather colonialism imported a fully developed sexist system, which has been adapted, maintained and exacerbated as it has been integrated into different aspects of African culture. In Anowa Aidoo focuses on the centrality of the privatized family to the oppression of women. In The Dilemma of a Ghost7 she contrasts individualist values to communal ones, suggesting that the nuclear family requires the oppression of women in a way that extended families and collective domestic organization wouldn't. The eleven stories in the collection No Sweetness Here address many different manifestations of sexism—economic, cultural, interpersonal—as they are faced by a range or ordinary working- and middle-class women over a four-to-five year period.

Ama Ata Aidoo met with Rosemary George and myself for a couple of hours during the African Writers Festival held at Brown University in the Fall of 1991 to talk about a range of subjects and especially her literary works, including her recent novel Changes.8 What follows is taken from this interview.9


[George and Scott]: One aspect of this conference that has drawn some criticism is the way that different writers have been presented as “representatives” of their countries. Why do you think this happens and what is your response?

[Aidoo]: It is really inevitable in a situation like this that writers become “representatives” of their countries. In a world in which everything was equal writers would not represent anything other than themselves. But in 1991 everything is far from equal in this world, and those inequalities are particularly heightened in the African world. Most Africans are not in a position to write or speak of their lives, and we few writers who do have that chance become “representatives.” On one level some of us will play this role partly because there is a key awareness that, for example, people on this campus do not know much about Africa and the different countries that we “represent.” More generally there is an onus to write of a larger group of people than ourselves so this becomes the best that can be done—“here is a Ghanaian, here is a Nigerian, here is a Zimbabwean”—and so on and so on. We are here to tell you about our world, our environment. But to what extent can any of us writers talk on the behalf of the people? There is no reason that we would be qualified to do so. If we are not clear sighted, or clear thinking and we show our confusions, there is a danger of misrepresentation. Then of course an environment like Brown is privileged, which is why it can afford to host multicultural events like these. But there is no reciprocity of benefits. You bring us to Brown but our institutions do not have the money to bring international academics to Africa, or to build our institutions to a level where many students can study. So it is a one-way traffic.

You have written about the way that European capitals become the meeting ground for African intellectuals:

Munich is just another place
Another junction to meet a
Brother and compare notes
She said “hi brother”
He said “hi sister”
“I am from Surinam.”
“I am from Ghana.”

How do you regard this festival in the light of this quote from Our Sister Killjoy?

Given the way things are, it is better for us that there is this much communication. We would be locked in our own worlds without this circuit. We writers pick our meeting and we work in it. Should a writer just sit in a room churning out novels to be sold in the United States, or become a wandering minstrel? None of these cities are sacred to us, they cannot be—New York, Paris, London, Lisbon—they are other peoples' cities, so when we as African writers look at them they are all primarily colonial centers, and now they are also places for us to meet. Look at us three here; Rosemary is from India, Helen is from England, and I am from Africa. We are part of this intellectual international circuit. Part of the colonial environment was an incredible reverence for going abroad. There was so much meaning attached to going abroad, especially to England. Going to England, and these days going to America, is equivalent to going to heaven!

Successive waves of immigrants were lured by the promise of heaven, but the reality for most immigrants has been far from heavenly …

But do you think those who return tell them what it was like? Do we tell of the dingy, dirty, crowded urban areas or the poverty and inequality? No! the mystique has been maintained for a century. As if being a janitor in England were a great thing! It is an idiom in our environment, for excellence.

Is this what Sissy (the central character of Our Sister Killjoy who leaves Ghana to receive a European education) means when she says “he is a liar who tells you his witness is in Europe?”

Actually this is a proverb that has a very specific meaning that comes from the colonial era. It stems from the period when my country, now Ghana, was called the Gold Coast and was still a formal European colony. You see for the people of that area of the world, West Africa, Europe seemed very far away, although it was also a real presence. There is the whole of the Atlantic ocean between Western Africa and Western Europe where England is. Now back to the question of witnesses. Take, for example, a situation where somebody who owes you money says “oh I swear I gave you the money! My witness is in Europe.” I know that person is lying because there is no way I can call this witness from Europe. This and similar proverbs sprung up in the colonial period in the last decades of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries. Even for the more mobile wealthy Europeans transportation was not as good as today, and the distance between the continents was greater. Sissy's comment also spoke to how far from our environment were the Europeans who colonized us, socially and culturally as well as geographically. They were strangers, they were foreigners, they came from far away places where you could not call them to witness to anything.

At one of the panels of the Festival the critic Bernth Lindfors argued that the only way people in “the West” can write about African culture is to go to Africa to “experience it first hand.” Subsequent criticisms pointed out that this relied on an experiential, empirical notion of knowledge, as though seeing first hand was a guarantee of authentic understanding. Furthermore the critic was relying on cultural nationalist categories, as if experience neatly breaks down into national divisions whereby all Africans (regardless of class divisions, regional differences etc.) know Africa and all Westerners (again regardless of social divisions that outweigh national categories) share a set of assumptions that separate them from this knowledge. What did you think of this exchange?

Well yes it reduces Africa to a single unit that can be known by “the West.” Then of course we cannot ignore the consequences of all the “witnessing” on the lives of ordinary Africans there has been historically by Western colonial powers. Africans of course have wondered how much the foreign powers “know” us. Under colonialism Africans could not defend ourselves from the colonizers' occupations and their way of handling things. Then there are the “Experts” who come to Africa for two weeks and then leave and produce the information that affects peoples' lives. It seems rather unthinking to call for more scholars to go to Africa to learn about the culture in order to write about the literature.


Your early collection of short stories No Sweetness Here focuses on the function of bourgeois ideologies within colonial elites and examines the neocolonial regime of post-independence Ghana. In many respects your version of Ghana in the 1970s mirrors that expressed by writers such as Ayi Kwei Armah; the formation of a new domestic ruling class, the continuation of the main axes of imperialism and the continuity of conditions for the majority of Ghanaians. Unlike Armah, however, your stories concentrate on the minutia of everyday life. What were you trying to achieve with these stories?

These stories are part of the many discourses about culture in the “postcolonial” context, that are about what has been lost in the process of colonization, and what is being lost in the process of “Westernization.” Clothes for example, are part of the minutia of culturalization; they can symbolize cultural loss and cultural gain. Such things are pointedly illustrated in terms of women: women are the ones who wear the traditional clothes, the saris in India the slits in Ghana. Women are expected to be African or Indian or Pakistani, by the way that we dress. Men talk about it whilst wearing their Western suits. At a conference elite men will stand up in three piece suits and hold forth about the need to be culturally authentic. We women have to wear the clothes, keep our hair. I focus on wigs in No Sweetness Here because the way the cultural question is worked out in terms of hair is very much to do with women. Of course whether or not this amounts to a difference of concerns in terms of men and women writers is a difficult question. Killjoy has been described as “masculine” which gets me raving mad. The implication is that when a woman's writing moves away from the record of minutia, like our clothes and our wigs and so on, and discusses more obviously political issues, she is being masculine, which is mad.

Your recent novel Changes is hard to locate ideologically, as is apparent in the dissimilarities between different commentators' interpretations, especially regarding what the book says about the position of women in contemporary Ghana. Essy the central character is very much the professional woman with specifically middle class feminist concerns. In contrast her friend Opokuya confronts the conditions faced by most working women in the urban situation. Then Fusena is the patient wife who seems to fit with a more stereotypical notion of female passivity. Which character do you identify with most?

In writing this novel I did not want to do a biography or present a conference paper, both places where my voice would be prominent. Changes as a novel has a duty to present as clearly as possible the different voices that the central figure Essy has, and has to confront. The novel is not about me but about Essy and Essy's world. The title Changes addresses the issue of a woman's life, her loves, career and so on and how they change. It would be impossible within the pages of one novel to synthesize the different opinions that are circulating about women. Nonetheless the different voices represent different sorts of possibilities for different women in the society. The situation is volatile and at root I see it as slightly more honest for me to lay out different positions without pulling everything together. The way the novel ends means that the story is not finished, as the issue is not resolved. What happens to a woman who wants to have a career, who also wants to have love? It is not an issue, as we are aware, that is being confronted by most Ghanaian or African women, but it is nonetheless an issue of our times for women.

The novel is primarily about the “postcolonial” international bourgeoisie, with contemporary urban characters who are mobile and economically secure. Ali for example manages a travel agency and is at ease with his environment. Essy supposedly has the same privileges and social advantages but is nowhere near as mobile or at ease. Why is this?

That has everything to do with being a woman in that society. Economically most women are at a disadvantage. But for those like Essy who have more financial independence they still confront the continuity of the fundamental law that the man is the hunter and woman the hunted. This way of thinking about men and women is true of many cultures, even the most technologically advanced. It is an important story, one that keeps the woman sitting at the back. Ideas like “it is the man who waits for the woman” simply hide the reality. How can a woman be confident in the face of such ideas that deny her independence? I was interested in presenting one woman who is willing and able to challenge this a little bit. What makes the novel positive is the thesis from beginning to end that this is a woman who is not willing to just sit. If she is unhappy in her marriage she will just get out. It is important for writers to be truthful to some visions that they can put to the service of their social and political commitments. But at the same time it would have been false for me to end the novel on some blissful idealistic note. Life's search for happiness and fulfillment is not a two day enterprise.

In contrast to Essy, Fusena does just sit and wait. She eventually gets Ali back. Is this all she wants?

She and Essy want different things. A woman like Fusena does not have that many options. Is she going to leave Ali for the Essys of the world? No, she doesn't even have that energy, because for her the journey to Ali had already taken place. In retrospect, the background I give to the relationship between Ali and Fusena should explain why Fusena elects to stay. She hasn't known that many men; this is a man she has known a long time and known as a friend and rather liked. Maybe subconsciously she took Ali as her friend as much as a husband. And when they are married Ali doesn't unnecessarily brutalize her—it is not a bad choice. And on the other hand the whole business of leaving the marriage and going out into society on her own with children is not a real option. She has the security of a marriage that wasn't about to break up. It wasn't just that Fusena sits and waits for Ali to come back. In a way Ali never left. Essy's flat was a place for Ali to hang loose and hang out, home was always with Fusena.

The question of home seems particularly interesting. Essy never seems to have a home and more generally it seems that although women are always in the home they are never at home.

This changes culturally, the question of whether women have homes. For these women it is hard to have a home of their own. Fusena has a home with Ali and she is not about to leave it. At the same time she is not content because there is always the possibility that it can be taken away; that is the instability of dependence. Fusena has a clear vision in that she wants to enter the world in a different role than that of “wife” but she makes a conscious decision that she doesn't want to enter in to the kind of difficulties that Essy lives with all the time, being outside the social norms of the family. Fusena as wife has a certain security that she is loathe to let go of, and she retains a sense of her lack of options if she left. Yet that security remains contingent on the man. Opokuya straddles the two positions. She admires Essy's independence but sees it as too much work, especially on top of all the actual hard work she has to do to earn extra income and look after her family on insufficient funds. In writing the book it was actually an effort for me to insist that this was Essy's story, because there was always the threat that Opokuya would take over. Opokuya, the midwife, is much closer to the typical working-class woman than Essy who is more of a professional. If anyone is close to being a typical, fairly educated, struggling woman in an Urban environment, it is Opokuya. As a nurse, a hospital administrator, as a mother of four, as a wife, she struggles everyday and she has hardly any time for herself. It seems to me in the course of writing the book that she would have a whole lot more to say about the life she leads. I put her on hold but if I had let her flower this would have been a much bigger book.

At an earlier point in your career you wrote that every writer had the responsibility to write with a political commitment and message. What changes led you to write about the life and loves of one middle-class professional woman?

I don't believe that Ghanaian or any writing is beyond the concerns or the preoccupations of my earlier work at all. At the same time love was always more important to me than I was willing to admit twenty years or so ago in an interview of that sort. It was the result of allowing myself to relax in a certain area where I hadn't been willing to before. The changes were not conscious, it was more an aspect of me, myself, begging to be let out rather than my suppressing an aspect of my artistic self.


The subtitle of Changes (A Love Story) is somewhat misleading, because although the romance is central, certainly the narrative is far from the conventional love story of “boy meets girl” and “happily ever after.”

While I worked on this novel the main title Changes was a provisional one. I thought by the time it was ready to submit to the publishers I would have got the real title, but in fact it stayed the same. I had an original subtitle though, “a new tail to an old tale.” which did get changed. For some reason the publishers didn't like my subtitle and so it became “a love story” just before it was published. It was a compromise between me and my publishers. It is one of the compromises I've made that I'm not too proud of. It's a long story.

How much are writers limited by publishing constraints?

The extent to which people are pressured into doing and writing things other than they would have wanted to is a field worth investigating. I would hope that less established, less well known writers, aren't put in a straightjacket of publishing constraints but it is very possible.

There is an infamous story of one Indian African writer who was not published because the publishing industry saw her work as too experimental, not obviously based on her experiences, and therefore not “authentic” enough to fit into the Heinemann African writers series.

This is not an exceptional story. It has to do with the limitations of publishing opportunities and also this straightjacket to be a “third world woman.” The publishing world has a lot of negative control in the West, not only over “third world women” writers. The marketing side of publishing seems to be taking over other considerations entirely. The publishing houses want to make their money and they think they know what will sell, you know? This is what it's about and I think it affects all writing. Maybe with us the pressures are heavier because there are fewer publishing possibilities for “third world” writers. Someone can declare that your manuscript doesn't read like a manuscript from a third world person. I mean that's the trick! It seems incredible that one can encounter such reactions.

The possibilities for struggling third world writers are presented as having improved tremendously with the development of specific publishing houses. How do you see the situation?

Well I think it has worsened because the publishing field in our own environment isn't expanding fast enough to take in the growth in terms of the numbers of people who are writing. The publishers are the ones who select, and as in the wealthy countries the publishers are more ready to bet on an already published somebody because they think they will get their money faster. It all has to do with recouping their losses. It is depressing.


You used to be minister for education in Ghana. What were your goals when you played this role and did you manage to achieve much success?

Even before I was a minister, in Ghana a certain amount of money is voted for education which goes to “educate” (even education goes in quotation marks) fewer young people than could be imagined. One of the areas I was concerned with was to democratize and expand educational structures. People erect barriers to extending education by invoking “standards” (if you do this and that you will lower standards) and then they use this as an excuse to withhold education from large sections of our population which I consider rather dangerous. I was also concerned with the content of education. Although we are supposed to be independent the content of education is pretty much what it was during colonialism. We really should say “neocolonial” rather than “post-colonial.” The content and system of education has not been decolonized. I thought that we had to nationalize the content of education so that at least it reflected our history, our needs, our preoccupations. Young people have to be prepared to deal with the burning issues of our environment. Education has to be available to everyone, and it has to teach us to know ourselves and our environment. If you are learning more about a specific version of “England” rather than about the real Ghana or Africa, then how can you understand or be prepared to deal with the problems at hand?

In India at least through the 1980s I know that in literature studies English was the dominant literature. Practically no Indian (or any other) literature was made available in schools. What is the situation like in Ghana?

The whole area of literary studies is really antediluvian as it stands right now. There is much talk about challenging the Western canon in the West but in the colonies those canons have not been challenged at all. Shakespeare may no longer be compulsory for English O levels, but it is still requisite in India and Ghana, which is an interesting thing. The study of even local literatures in the neocolonial countries has a question mark over it. With literature the teaching presupposes that the student is blank. You are there to study the works already produced, and there is no attempt to find out if students can produce literature: creative writing is not an integral part of the study of literature. If we are schooled to create we may not all end up as novelists, poets and so on, but we will have been put through the processes of creating something of our own. The only skill that is taught in the arena of literature is the skill of how to appreciate “art.” Shakespeare is venerated, but how about giving the student the idea of how to create a play, to go through the process of production?

In Masks of Conquest the theorist Gauri Viswanathan argues that the “British canon” was actually created in the colonies because the Empire needed a national literature. Far from being devised by Oxbridge scholars and literary experts on aesthetic criteria it was created to bolster the imperialist project, then imported back to England.

It is an interesting thesis, that as the English confronted their colonies they needed something to shore up their national self image culturally and the literary canon was employed to this end. Maybe that is also why challenges to the canon happen in the colonial centers before they reach the ex-colonies.

It would be a mistake to overemphasize the extent of those “challenges to the Western canon.” In this country even moderate attempts to make education more “multicultural” have met with right-wing attacks that criticize “political correctness.”

Yes I have been surprised to hear about this call for a return to the so-called traditional canon. I heard there was some debate about a course in African drumming here at Brown that was attacked for not being a serious academic pursuit or some such thing.

For all the talk that “traditional education” has been under siege, at the level of curricula it simply isn't true that the dead white men have been replaced by an anti-racist anti-sexist agenda. But also there is the question whether calls for counter canonicity are in themselves able to redress inequalities in the educational system. How significant is it that the best schools have “multi-cultural” syllabi when most people don't have access to decent schools?

It is like what I was saying about Ghana; Neocolonialism functions at the level of the content of education, but also the education system itself has not been decolonized in any way. Sometimes changes in the content of education presuppose equal access to education without working toward increasing that access.


Professional migration out of Africa has been a documented problem in the 1980s and in the absence of an end to the economic and political crisis that is hitting the continent hard, it is one that seems likely to continue.

It often begins with education and training. I am critical of this whole business of we foreigners coming to “the West” to study and work. It is really about lending ourselves, it is like an incipient kind of brain drain. Every country needs all the minds of all of its people, all they can get. But realistically our institutions are not good enough, often the money isn't there in poorer countries for a good general education system or quality higher education. So we end up with some of our best minds and talents coming here or to Europe to study, and half of the time these people don't return. Then there is the gap between ordinary Africans who are not able to leave anywhere, and these lucky few who are mobile and talented and are picked off. In Our Sister Killjoy Sissy is saying that having our top students study and then live abroad is not only draining off our most valuable resources, but it exposes our peoples' minds to be picked.

This is what Sissy means when she refers to the Graduate and Postgraduate awards given to African students as part of a “Most merciless / Most formalized / Open, / Thorough / Spy system of all time.” Is this how she (or you) would regard the field of “postcolonial” literary studies too?

To me it seems different because the novels become the material that is out there. Writers cannot go around legislating who uses their novels or how they use them. In any case in the end a novel, like any piece of art, like music, is a product, and the more people consume it, the better for the producer. So individual writers benefit from their books having a market. Of course, whether or not you get paid for it is a different story. The distinction is that peoples' brains are raw material, novels are products, they do not fall into the same category.

The work you're referring to, often categorized as “third world” or “postcolonial” literature has a primary circulation in Euro-American literary and academic markets. Most of the publishing houses and printing presses are large international companies who make profits from these burgeoning literary fields. How does the production and distribution of your work fit into this pattern.

There is a kind of artistic drain. Look at me. I am from Ghana, Africa and I'm published in the West. There is something that makes you very uncomfortable about that. The people among whom you lived and grew up have no access to your products. And art at its best should be a communication medium: you take from the people and you give back. So it haunts the African writer, whether he or she is mad enough to express it or not. The question is what is happening right now is that the African writer, or cultural worker as some of us would prefer to say, really takes from the environment without giving back, because there is really no communication. At the same time often the big publishing houses are taking from the writers without giving much back. This inequality is a direct product of our colonial situation, which is why the term “postcolonial” makes me uncomfortable. Post what? because it has not gone yet.


  1. Anowa. Harlow, U.K.: Longmans, 1970.

  2. Naana Baniywa Horne entry on Ama Ata Aidoo in Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sanders. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: Twentieth Century Caribbean and Black African Writers 1992.

  3. No Sweetness Here. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1970.

  4. Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint. London: Longmans, 1977.

  5. Anowa. Harlow, U.K.: Longmans, 1970.

  6. “African Women Today” Dissent Summer 1992. 319-325.

  7. The Dilemma of a Ghost. London and Accra: Longmans, 1965.

  8. Changes: A Love Story. London: Women's Press, 1991.

  9. Ama Ata Aidoo's other works include: Someone Talking to Sometime. Harare, Zimbabwe: College Press, 1985; The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories. Enugu, Nigeria: Tana, 1986; Birds and Other Poems. Harare, Zimbabwe: College Press, 1987.

Ama Ata Aidoo and Anuradha Dingwaney Needham (interview date 29 January 1992)

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SOURCE: Aidoo, Ama Ata, and Anuradha Dingwaney Needham. “An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 1 (spring 1995): 123-33.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on January 29, 1992, Aidoo discusses her feminist perspective, African nationalism, and the portrayal of African immigrants in her work.]

Ama Ata Aidoo has occupied, and continues to occupy, many roles: former Minister of Education for Ghana, University Teacher, Critic, Writer of poetry, plays, novels and short stories. The brutal legacy of European colonialism in Africa, a gender politics that marginalizes women and locks them into unacceptable traditional roles, the persistence of neo-colonialism evident especially in the economic control of Africa by the very powers that colonized Africa are some of the concerns that dominate her work. They reappear in this interview, which was conducted at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, on January 29, 1992. Aidoo spent 1991-1992 at Hamilton College as a Visiting Professor in the Department of English.

[Dingwaney]: Now I guess what I would like us to begin talking about is: When you don't have a narrative that only speaks about how women are oppressed by men then that is not seen as a narrative which could come from a feminist. Clearly your work does not do that because you are so concerned with issues of nationalism, neo-colonialism, Africans in the diaspora and so on, in which women clearly figure but are not the only ones oppressed.

[Aidoo]: No, I do not think that women's oppression by men is my singular concern. I am a woman and an African, or rather, I am an African and a woman and, I think, that places me on an explosive junction of contemporary political history. The thing, Anu, is that when I was writing these things, I didn't think this is what I was doing. What I found interesting was discovering that this is what I was doing without being so consciously aware of it because these are my concerns. I think I have addressed some of these ideas in my more polemical pieces.

For example?

I did a piece for a keynote address to the FACT (Forum for African Concerns in Toronto) Conference in Toronto. Since then, I have expanded the piece. Recently, I was commissioned to do an article on African women, an overview for Dissent magazine in New York, their summer 1992 issue, in which I stated that you cannot even be a feminist if you are African without also being an African nationalist; do you see? Or that you cannot be both without also being a socialist. Of course, we are aware that recently socialism has almost become like a dirty word. But I think that the collapse of Eastern Europe and Soviet Union does not abolish socialism as a principal interrogative stance on class issues. So I feel all these issues are related. I mean, how are you going to be able to say as an African that you are a feminist if you are not a nationalist? Or how can you claim to be aware of Pan Africanism if you are not aware of our concerns as women? Or how are you going to be able to say that you are an African nationalist if you are not a feminist? Not just because Africa has over 250 million people who are female, but because all those women are needed to help. You are not going to be able to do without women and do much. As far as I am concerned, the process, that is, the fast decay, not process, the decay of Africa's social, political, and economic systems is directly related to the complete marginalization of women from developmental discourses.

How? But first, I have a question about nationalism. When you look at the case of Indian nationalism, the current consensus among several reputed scholars seems to be that women were written out of the script of nationalism. You are surely familiar with the argument with respect to other nationalisms you know, what you call the “complete marginalization of women.” In which case, to say that one is a nationalist requires one to either rewrite the history of that nationalism or to say, if nationalism has no place for us, then we are not interested in it, we will have to find another way for defining our role, which will have to be an active role. Why is it that nationalism figures so positively in your … ?

Well, the thing is that we are talking about all areas of human endeavor. I mean women have been written and talked out of all the principal areas of discourse, of activity, of thought. However, I have a problem with going in search of new definitions because there is no end to that kind of search. O.K., nationalism has been compromised by its marginalization of women, and, therefore, we are told, we have to go looking for a new term. But then you avoid the fact that this has happened with other terms and the experiences they describe. For example, so many people, so many women from the so-called Third World complain that feminism has been ruined by western bourgeois women, and their notions of feminism; hence, we must find another term. We are always being called upon to go in search of alternative terms—to nationalism, to feminism, to socialism. So many African leaders tried to do that. In the end they only exposed their own unclarity when the call for alternative terms was really exposed as an excuse for not facing the absolute reality of a certain measure of political bankruptcy. I am a bit reluctant about going to look for alternative terminology. I am all for rescuing these terms. It's not a revolutionary enterprise, but you interrogate these terms as they are being applied at a given time and you clear them of all the garbage, of unclarities and so on.1 That's how I see it. I mean, I may be wrong. But one has no prerogative at being right. We have to go on talking, we have to go on writing.

Actually, this fits in very well with something I am currently working on—namely, enactments of discursive resistance mapped out by immigrant writers from Africa and the Indian sub-continent in the metropole. I particularly like your use of the word rescuing or what I have called the reform of terms, whereby these writers (re)use or (re)interpret certain terms to reveal their “original” or “appropriate” use, as it were, to reveal how these words or terms have and can be misused, and this process, I believe, captures well what you have described as rescuing words/terms from their unclarities. Let's go back, though, to the question of nationalism. Why is nationalism such a powerful idea for you in order, as you say, to set out what you are rescuing?

Well, nationalism is such a powerful term for us (Africans) because of what we have been through as a people and are still going through. Over the last five hundred years African people have been under all kinds of onslaught—physical, mental, emotional. It seems to me that whatever was left for us to recoup cannot be done unless we see ourselves as a people, as a nation. When I say African nationalism, I am also using the term to embrace the global African world—African-America, African-Caribbean, and so on. When one looks at the contemporary world, one can only be clear by being honest. We African people are at the bottom of the human pile. We have to rescue ourselves as our own people. We are not threatening anybody but we need us. Of course, I also admit that when the term nationalism is invoked, there is always a shudder because people think of Germany, German nationalism, Nazism, that sort of thing.

Or consider the way in which nationalism is being mobilized in India currently, where it has increasingly come to be defined in very exclusionary ways to embody a strictly delineated and restrictive “Hindu” identity, culture, experience. It's really quite frightening.

Maybe then the better term for me to use is Pan Africanism rather than African nationalism. I am aware that sometimes there is only a thin line between nationalism and neo-fascism. But there has to be a way for us to live, and survive, and prosper, as a people. So that's what I mean when I say we need the term. We need a kind of rallying point around which we can cohere to stop this endless exploitation of ourselves, our resources, our environment.

Would it be correct to point out that the nationalism you are espousing is the nationalism that was forged in terms of the anti-colonial struggle, which you see as still continuing. In which case, if you take Fanon and others who say that nationalism is very important because it serves a function, but you can't just stay there, you have to move ahead, elsewhere. Whereas your point is that Africans are not in a position to move on because they are still fighting old battles in the guise of neocolonialism?

Of course, part of the reason nationalism is inadequate is because women were excluded from its definition, its scope.

So what do we do then?

I would prefer, if nationalism has proved inadequate, that we jettison what it connotes, as long as there is an alternative which possesses the capability of forging the kind of identification I have mentioned with regard to nationalism.

What you seem to have in mind has to do with affiliation, conscious affiliation on the basis of which people identify with one another, with different causes or causes not necessarily their own and so on. But, nowadays nationalism in all parts of the globe—be it India or you mentioned Nigeria—seems to be rooted in what is best described as a filiative impulse, along with an insistence on purity of blood, of blood relationships—something given as opposed to something consciously sought and forged via identification and understanding. This latter view of nationalism is what you have identified as neo-fascist.

Yes, I think it's amazing how one can acquire clarity through conversation. As I sit opposite you and hear you say “look at India,” “look at …” I am beginning to look at the term all over again. If this is what nationalism means, or has come to mean, then I realize I cannot touch this term. And yet I still think we need an African identification for there surely are an African people.

Can we change the focus a bit? It seems to me that, especially in some of the stories in No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy, you are very critical, through your narrators or however you present your views, of Africans who go abroad, who don't come back home, and yet are the ones to take on nationalist postures, as also you are very critical of the neocolonial leaders at home who don the mantle of nationalism. How would you distinguish between these posturings of nationalist sentiments from what you imply is a valuable, healthy nationalism?

Well, I think that that form of nationalism as evident in the posturings of Africans in the diaspora becomes an excuse, a kind of smokescreen behind which these people lead their lives uninterrupted and still manage to convince themselves that they are still very much in tune with what's going on at home. I consider it dangerous. On the other hand, we are caught in a kind of almost no-win situation. Although I don't believe one should believe in no-win situations; there is nearly always a way out. Against the loud, abrasive, and really empty postures of our people abroad, you can counter or you can sort of look at it against the neo-colonial situation at home which has compelled people to compromise in order to survive. So it's really very difficult. The contemporary situation in Africa is terrifyingly dangerous because we can't see our way through either the issue of living in economic exile, even political exile, and the compromises those who live at home have to make in order to survive, in order not to be considered a threat by those who operate the power machines. Because those of us who are forced to survive outside have to admit that despite exile, we live better—at least in terms of the material trappings of life. It's all very confusing.

So you are saying you understand it but you cannot forgive … ?

Yes, I understand, but how can you forgive?

Unless they can (i.e., those of us who live abroad, away from our “homes”) demonstrate that they can make a difference which is very hard … ?

It's hard, it's terrifying and that is why I feel a certain special effort has to be made. Now, if you ask what kind of special effort, I don't even know. I don't know because although there is a lot of pleasure in being involved in political action, when I stand back, then my feminism comes to the fore and I say—“look at you guys.” I have been aware that, as a woman, I am automatically rendered ineffective because people don't even hear a woman. For instance, you are in a cabinet, in a council, at a conference, and when you open your mouth to speak people look at you in a way that tells you that they never expected to hear from you because you are a woman, what you say is not considered important. But as soon as a man opens his mouth, no matter what he says, people listen.

You describe experiences of this kind in Killjoy too. Can we change the focus a bit? One of the ways in which we talk about Sissie [from Killjoy] in my class is by defining and interrogating her fundamental investment in nationalism—Africa vs. the West and so on. Now last night when I was talking with you, you said “I'm not Sissie,” as I've never believed you were because of the way you've titled the book. But given what I hear you saying about nationalism, you sound very much like her sometimes. Would you say that you identify with some of her positions?

Yes, I do—but she is a fictional character. Well, since I created her, it's inevitable that a certain part of me will be reflected in her. But it is not an autobiographical work. She has a perspective of her own, just as there are many situations in which I might take even more “extreme” positions than she does in the book. I reject the position that Sissie and I are the same because if I don't then everything stops there and I don't want it to stop there. When I really want to do an autobiography I'll identify it as such. But I have to also admit that there are several issues on which I agree with her.

This is about the form of the book. My students and I discuss how Killjoy is a rewriting of the classic colonial travel narrative, but in this case it is a Black woman, an African woman from the peripheries travelling to the center, constituting the center under her gaze and not the other way round. … The third point has to do with the love letter Sissie writes near the end which my students want to read as a letter to her beloved, whereas I see it as a letter to all her “brothers,” “lovers,” all those African men who have opted to stay behind in the West whereas Sissie is going home. In which case the audience for the book is not western readers necessarily, but that group of people you want to rouse?

Yeah, I think you are right. Sissie uses her boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend actually, as the conduit through which she is speaking with a communal voice, a kind of collective voice and her address really was to everybody because in the long run what hurt her most was not what happened between her boyfriend and herself—“I” and “I”—but between “them” and “them,” between “We,” between “us” as an African people. It's a love letter to everybody and also to herself. I didn't say “let her write a letter to herself,” but in effect that is what it is, a letter to herself in an effort to clarify her own views, to state her case, and examine it to see if she agrees with the conceptions of her own mind, her thoughts. So I think that is why she tears the letter up after writing it. It becomes irrelevant once she has clarified herself to herself and realized “We'll be OK.” So it's larger than herself. It is a message to her, to him, to both of them, to the whole of the African world.

You said something earlier about how you don't know what you can suggest that we should do. And it strikes me that virtually all your stories, including Killjoy end with a moment of crisis; end with—this is what we have to get rid of, this is what we must realize is wrong with us. But where do we go from there?

This is something I have thought about, thought through. I think part of our responsibility or our commitment as writers is to unfold or open for ourselves and our communities what exists, what is wrong, the problems. Right? To state our case in such a way that we would entertain, we would inform and perhaps, if we are lucky to be that good, to inspire others. I genuinely think that it is so arrogant for one writer—man, woman. African, Indian, whoever—to state solutions to what are collective problems. You can't do that. Collective problems cannot be solved by individuals. I think we have to be very clear about this. This has been part of the debilitating nature of our African so-called Third World leadership. That is, when somebody gets into power either because we put them there or they make a coup and put themselves there, they think “Ha! I'm going to solve everything” and they end up simply pocketing our national wealth, putting it away in their banks. To solve our problems you need all of us. And I genuinely think that's how I see my work. If somebody says you have put your finger on the problem I feel so good because that, I think, is part of the responsibility of being writers and artists—that we point out some of these things. Of course, as I keep saying I'm so happy that one can apply one's self, one's mind this way. But I am perhaps relieved that I wrote Killjoy and other things when I did because now I am so conscious of the gravity of these issues that I wonder if I would still be able to put them through the medium of an imaginative work. I can do articles, polemical pieces, but I think in a way a book like Killjoy I may not be able to write now because I think I am too clear about people's objections to this form of writing. On the one hand, although I'm still aware of what the problems are, I'm also a little more aware of people not wanting to really hear about them. And I am conscious of inhibitions. I am a little more inhibited than when I wrote Killjoy. I'm glad I wrote it when I did. Perhaps I'm not being fair to myself because I'm still writing. I have just written a short story about a woman being President of Africa, a United Africa, in the twenty-first century. So perhaps my commitment is still there.

When did you write Killjoy?

I started working on it in '72, but I was teaching full time at the University and my daughter had just been born, and I had other areas of my life that were demanding time. I wasn't working on it as often as I would have liked. In fact, a trip here to the United States when I came as a Consultant Professor for an ethnic program, a consortium based in New York and Washington, D.C. It was during that time that I was able to work on it properly. This was '74-'75. By the time I was leaving to go back to Ghana, the book had taken shape. So I think I left the manuscript with Longman before I left for Ghana. The Longman edition was published in 1977.

I am very interested in the fact that you finished, or the book took final shape, while you were in the U.S. because the rubric under which I am mapping strategies of discursive resistance focuses on the work of writers who are immigrants from Africa, India and the Caribbean residing in or frequent visitors to U.K. and the U.S. You were here at the time and have been back; meanwhile you have been engaged with debates on this side as well as that.

I am usually here half of the year and the other half at home. There are, of course, some years when I don't come to the U.S. But those years have almost disappeared. Since 1968, I have been here every year either for a conference, to see my daughter who was studying at Smith College, or on teaching assignments.

What about the collection No Sweetness Here?

Oh well, putting it together took a long time. If I think back to the fact that the title story “No Sweetness Here” itself was the story I entered in a competition in 1962, but the collection came out in 1970, then it was written over a range of eight years. I do have an alibi. I think as a woman, as a sometime mother, as a sometime university teacher, it has been difficult to be as prolific as I would have liked to be. Killjoy took at least three years to get worked out. Someone Talking to Sometime was my first poetry collection—I remember writing the first poem in the sixties. Yet the collection got published in Zimbabwe in 1985—nearly twenty years later. Changes didn't take as long to write as Killjoy, but it took long enough.

In “Everything Counts,” you have a protagonist, also named Sissie, who has been educated abroad, who is constantly travelling, and gets married away from home to a fellow African because she doesn't want to deal with family pressures and politics. She comes back home, of course. Now both she and her husband protest how the nationalists abroad want to define African identity at home: “don't straighten your hair” and so on. What are we to make of her initial dismissal and then subsequent embrace of a perspective that concedes the rightness of the perspective of nationalists abroad, but of course, the “brothers” are not at home, they have settled abroad? You know, how she says “it's convenient to wear wigs” and asks “what do wigs have to do with the revolution?” But then she goes to the beauty contest, is appalled at the judge's selection, comes home and is sick and finally concedes how the “brothers” were right. What did you want to demonstrate via this drastic change in Sissie's attitude?

Well, she had to go through this metamorphosis. She goes through a trauma, and realizes that those “brothers” abroad had put their finger on something crucial. The fact that as a people we have had to unmake ourselves, due to the colonial intervention, in order to seem acceptable in our own eyes. She comes to grips with, in this case, the singular issue of our hair texture—woolly haired, kinky, our hair. Now when you wear a wig, and mind you, she wasn't referring to an Afro wig. When I wrote “Everything Counts,” Afro wigs were not part of the discourse. She means straight hair. So what she had come to realize—a kind of epiphany—when she says the “brothers” were right she is stating her realization that we (educated?) Africans do not like ourselves as we are. If we had not been conquered and colonized we wouldn't have had the need to remake ourselves in the image of the colonizer, their corn-silk hair. And then when she says but you are not even here she means, I can now express these opinions because I have worked these things out—but what about you? When she goes to the beauty contest and sees the judges selecting a light-skinned, straight-haired woman, she realizes the extent of their colonization because the judges select on the basis of what the majority of Africans are not—in this case light-skinned and straight-haired. We have to begin to define our own sense of beauty—beauty that has been handed to us.

Except, if you remember, after she had had this epiphany, the last lines of the story almost undercut it when they say “But nearly all of them were still abroad.” But, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that these lines do not qualify the epiphany. Instead, what they indicate is that Sissie has earned the right to have the epiphany, whereas the brother's protests against the wigs are mere empty posturings of nationalist sentiment.

She's also saying, well, I can go through my motions, but you don't even know what you are saying. You couldn't even have perceived what I have perceived. Because if that story is continued, we would eventually confront the whole contradiction of men who say you must wear your natural hair but then go out with straight-haired women. Sissie is calling that hypocrisy into question as well.

It's significant that, despite all sorts of flaws, the more clear-eyed persons in your narratives tend to be women, which is instructive because you seem to be suggesting that people who are left out of the socially sanctioned spaces of power are the ones who possess the ability to see most clearly.

Yes. And some of the clearer statements I have come across have been made by women. Look at my mother; when she speaks about political matters, you are absolutely taken by the clarity of her formulations. Yet she is a woman who lives in a village. But she has a way of diagnosing and summarizing issues in a way unmatched by any politician I know. That's the source of my growth and instruction. I would also like to say that simply writing about women doesn't make anyone a feminist writer. Feminism requires attending to and offering a very clear perception of gender, class and power relationships.


  1. Since the interview Aidoo has informed me that she has changed her position and now finds that going actively in search of “new terms” is an integral part of our struggles.

Susan Gardner (review date November 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2360

SOURCE: Gardner, Susan. “Culture Clashes.” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 2 (November 1994): 22-3.

[In the following review, Gardner compares and contrasts Changes: A Love Story with Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta's Kehinde.]

Ama Ata Aidoo and Buchi Emecheta, despite their different nationalities (Aidoo is from Ghana, Emecheta from Nigeria) have much in common. Emecheta, born in 1946, divorced, has four living children; Aidoo, a few years older, widowed with one daughter. Both are among the first African women writers to publish in English and gain a worldwide audience. Each lives in exile—Emecheta in London and Aidoo in Zimbabwe. Emecheta's exile is personal and professional: she has stated that she could never publish her books—numbering, in US editions, more than a dozen novels, one autobiography and several children's stories—in Nigeria, not only because of technological difficulties but because men dominate the Nigerian literary establishment.

For Aidoo—playwright, poet and novelist, justly famed for a dazzling, syncretic, innovative style—exile is more straightforwardly political. After leading a coup d'état in 1979, Flight Lieutenant J. J. Rawlings ceded power to an elected civilian head of state, but in December 1981 he seized power again by force in a “revolution” which has since become an autocracy. Aidoo was appointed Ghana's Secretary for Education in 1981, but in 1982 she was forced to resign and leave the country. According to literary critics Jane Bryce and Kari Darko in a 1981 essay in Wasafiri, a London-based journal, “she was deemed too radical for a revolutionary socialist regime. Word of mouth has it that the Ghanaian leadership was not ready for an outspoken, irrepressible woman in its ranks.”

In addition to distinguished visiting academic positions in the West, Aidoo has taught and worked with the Zimbabwean Women's Writers' Union and the Ministry of Education. Both writers are enthusiastically taught in US and British universities. Both endure calumny by African and other male literary critics. Each acknowledges the profound influence of oral traditions transmitted by generations of women in her extended family.

Changes, as its subtitle indicates, is a “love story” that in 1992 won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Africa Division. Politically committed writers have often avoided mixing romance and revolution, believing the two pursuits to be incompatible. In her foreword—called an “apology”—Aidoo justifies her theme:

Several years ago when I was a little older than I am now, I said in a published interview that I could never write about lovers in Accra [Ghana's capital]. Because surely in our environment there are more important things to write about? Working on this story then was an exercise in words-eating! Because it is a slice from the life and loves of a somewhat privileged young woman. … It is not meant to be a contribution to any debate, however current.

(p. vii)

For my own part, I read Changes as a contradiction of Aidoo's assertion, a path-breaking exploration: which values are indigenous to Africa? Which are imports? Are any equitable to women? The protagonist, Esi, a government statistician, by far prefers her career to her husband or their daughter. No wonder, given the brute her husband is: his habit is to force sex on her, and she gives the act a Western label: marital rape. She imagines herself giving a conference paper on the topic “to a packed audience of academics. Overwhelmingly male, of course. A few women. As the presentation progresses, there are boos from the men, and uncomfortable titters from the women. At the end of it, there is predictable hostile outrage” as her imagined audience concludes: “What is burying us now are all these imported feminists [sic] ideas. …” For a moment, the “booklong” (i.e., overeducated) Esi doubts her own perception:

But marital rape? No. The society could not possible [sic] have an indigenous word or phrase for it. Sex is something a husband claims from his wife as his right. … And here she was, not feeling academic or intellectual at all, but angry, and sore … And even after a good bath … still dirty … Dirty! Ah-h-h-h, the word was out.

(p. 12)

The conflict between Esi's family life and her career explodes: she falls in love with Ali Kondey, an extremely attractive, cosmopolitan and wealthy Muslim who is already married. But when she divorces Oko to become Ali's legal second wife, the polygynous second marriage doesn't lead to happiness. By the novel's end, Ali has taken to womanizing and she to tranquilizers: both are attempts to blot out interpersonal conflict and pain.

In Emecheta's novel, Kehinde, her husband Albert and their two children have prospered in London for some years, but Albert dreams of a triumphant return to Nigeria. Just as this seems possible, Kehinde becomes pregnant, largely because of her husband's sexual insensitivity and selfish haste: “You grip my breasts from behind as if you're going to force yourself on me, and before I know what you're about, you're done. I don't even know if you're using any protection or not.” He wasn't, and he insists she have an abortion so they can afford to relocate. In retaliation Kehinde also has her tubes tied: “I can no longer rely on you to take the proper precautions. And I don't want to go through this again, ever.”

Her reluctant return to Nigeria—she must resign a job in a bank where she has just been promoted—turns to catastrophe as she discovers that in her absence Albert has taken a second wife who has borne him a son. Ultimately, with the financial assistance of a Nigerian woman friend in London, Kehinde returns, completes a university degree, supports herself and takes a Caribbean lover, all to her only son's consternation: “Most Igbo women liked taking on the whole family's burden, so that they would be needed. His mother no longer cared. How could you deal with a rebel who happened to be your mother?” But Kehinde vindicates her rebellion: “Claiming my right does not make me less of a mother, not less of a woman. If anything, it makes me more human …”

The two novels are very different in style. Ama Ata Aidoo mixes European realism, in which an omniscient author carries the burden of the narrative, with frequent interpolations of another sort of voice—a communal or choral commentator. Take, for instance, a passage early in the book in which Ali Kondey's background is being described. First comes the observation by the omniscient author, then a chorus of women's voices as if in a marketplace:

Ali was a son of the world. He had dropped out of his mother's womb absolutely determined to come and live this life. As his other mothers on both sides of his family would later let him know whenever they had the chance, the burden of bringing him into this world had been too much for his mother. Poor Fatimatu.

“Was she not fifteen when Ali was born?”

“That was all she was.”

“Then how could she have lived?”

“She could not live. She did not live. I saw it all. She looked at the baby Ali very well. You would have thought she just wanted to be sure that everything was fine with him.”

“Then what happened?”

“Ah my sister, may Allah preserve us. She sat quietly and bled to death.”

(pp. 22-23)

We learn much in this brief span of print. First we understand some facts of Ali's upbringing—that he is the product of a polygynous marriage; that he has not just one, but several mothers; that he has, from infancy, a certain stubborn nature, that he's destined to be not just of the village, but of the world. But we also divine, even if we know nothing about the Gulf of Guinea of Ali's birth, something about women's social circumstances, health conditions, relationships. In addition to her “choral” passages, Aidoo also habitually indents certain passages of commentary in short lines that are semi-poetic, a device that arrests the eye as it travels over the page.

By contrast, Emecheta, who prides herself on domestic realism, permits herself only that common African fiction device, a second consciousness—often one's chi or “personal god”—who interrupts the omniscient author's narrative. For all their stylistic differences, the books present strikingly similar conflicts. Kehinde and Esi are middle-class, educated, earn more than their husbands and own their own houses, much to their respective spouses' discomfiture. Each loses her children to her husband's natal family of mothers and sisters. Each finds in female friendship far more emotional nurturance than men can give. (In Kehinde that nurturing is expressed in the literally different language the women speak when they're together: West African Pidgin.) Each is entangled in a marriage where any significant discussion is a potential minefield. Seeking to exercise reproductive self-assertion, each confronts male hostility toward contraception, and preference for boys. Both are threatened by rape once they have left their marriages: Esi is nearly overpowered by her best friend's husband, while Kehinde, initially reduced to a hotel housekeeping job upon her return to London, is accosted by a wealthy Arab businessman virtually before his young wife's eyes.

Above all, both protagonists are stretched on a rack between traditional and modern demands on educated African women. Of the two characters, Kehinde, initially shown as complacent within marriage and favoring her son, emerges the more victorious. In the end Esi incarnates her grandmother's (originally ironic) prescription for women within traditional marriage:

[R]emember, my lady, the best husband you can ever have is he who demands all of you and all of your time. What is a good man if not the one who eats his wife completely, and pushes her down with a good gulp of alcohol? … Men were the first gods in the universe, and they were devouring gods. The only way they could yield their best—and sometimes their worst too—was if their egos were sacrificed to: regularly.

(pp. 109, 110)

Of the two authors, Emecheta is the less explicit feminist. In her essay “Feminism with a Small ‘f’!”, from Criticism and Ideology, a volume of papers from the 1986 Second African Writers' Conference in Stockholm (Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988), she notes:

Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman's eyes. … I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist than I am an African feminist with a small f. … I write about women who try very hard to hold their family together until it becomes absolutely impossible. …

(p. 175)

At the same conference where Emecheta took this stand, a Ugandan male poet, Taban lo Liyong, expressed a fear that “feminism may destroy that which up to now has enabled Africa to withstand all the buffeting from other cultures” (by which he meant mothers and sisters raising sons). Aidoo retorted:

Anytime it is suggested that somehow one is important we hear that feminism is something that has been imported into Africa to ruin nice relationships between African women and African men. To try to remind ourselves and our brothers and lovers and husbands and colleagues that we also exist should not be taken as something foreign, as something bad. African women struggling both on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the wider community is very much a part of our heritage. It is not new and I really refuse to be told I am learning feminism from abroad.

(p. 183)

In her own essay from Criticism and Ideology, “To Be an African Woman Writer—An Overview and a Detail,” Aidoo refers to both African and Western male critics. Nothing that her life as a woman writer has been infinitely more difficult than being a university teacher, she castigates African literary establishments:

I have heard of editors of some well-known journals on African literature who routinely refuse good studies on the work of women writers on the pretext that they “are not ready with our special issue on the work of women writers,” … especially as these supposed special issues never come about at all, or once in a half-decade? … [I]n the discussion of modern African writing, even when women are vouchsafed any mention, it is often absent-minded at the best, and at the worst, full of veiled ridicule and resentment. When commentary on African women in literature is none of the above, it is certain to be disorganized … and choked full of condescension.

(pp. 162, 165)

Is “African feminism” a contradiction in terms? Some of the popularity of African women writers in the West is surely due to the reception academic feminists have given them. Yet for some years I have been sceptical about that reception: the largely white, mainstream feminist academy in the US and Britain seems to have appropriated—more bluntly, colonized—those works which seem to echo or confirm their own preoccupations (“madness,” eating disorders, alienation), as well as “demonstrating” women's worldwide “oppression.”

But I have also been dismayed by many African women writers' rejection of a feminist label: Western feminism is stereotyped and distrusted as middle-class, obsessed with sex and romance, unwomanly in its repudiation of motherhood, strident, lesbian, separatist. In addition, as Nigerian poet and critic Molara Ogundipe-Leslie observes in an essay from Women in African Literature Today (James Currey, 1987), there has been a “successful intimidation of African women by men over the issues of women's liberation and feminism. Male ridicule, aggression and backlash have given the term ‘feminist’ a bad name. Yet, nothing could be more feminist than the writings of these women writers …” African male critics, moreover—almost invariably ignorant of the central writings of Western feminism, particularly in its self-criticism and multicultural diversity—savagely brand their female compatriots writing a mere derivative of Western neuroses.

In their concern for Black women's contradictory positions both within and outside post-colonial societies, Aidoo and Emecheta have far surpassed the narrow, nationalistic focus of their male counterparts. Changes and Kehinde challenge readers to refine their definitions of “feminism” within an African middle-class context. The two novels portray the ways race, nation, culture, class and gender crisscross and clash; and their protagonists' evolution embodies a feminism capable of transcending both Eurocentric appropriations and sexist attacks on their works.

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: MacKenzie, Clayton G. “The Discourse of Sweetness in Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here.Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 161-70.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie examines Aidoo's generally optimistic portrayal of postcolonial African culture in No Sweetness Here, arguing that the collection employs “a narrative technique of closely juxtaposed binary oppositions that attest to glimmers of benignity in the midst of social decay.”]

In “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” the second story in Ama Ata Aidoo's collection No Sweetness Here, a young man recounts the tale of a bad yam. In it he tells how Nanaa cuts a slice of a large yam; it is rotten. Then she cuts another slice, and another, and another. All are rotten. Finally, she gouges out the head of the yam. It is brown and soft. Rotten. The young man, Kobina, draws from the childhood parable a significance for the corrupt social context of modern Ghana:

What was it that ate it up so completely? And yet, here I go again, old yam has to rot in order that new yam can grow. Where is the earth? Who is going to do the planting? Certainly not us—too full with drink, eyes clouded in smoke and heads full of women.

(Aidoo 22)

The image of soil and regrowth, here stated emphatically and then rejected as implausible, goes to the heart of a good deal of Africa's writing. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, a depiction of the unhappy confluence of tribal mores and colonial dictates, puts forward land, the soil, and the possession thereof, as one of the indices of defeat and victory. Wilson Katiyo's A Son of the Soil articulates that powerful bond between the African sensibility and the fruitful earth that has nurtured life and has been loved for countless generations. Ngugi's Weep Not Child places the ownership and farming of land firmly at the center of debate as it characterizes the fate of an individual swept onward, bewildered, toward the certainty of majority-rule independence.

But the agrarian attachments of the so called “first generation” of African writers are not shared by Aidoo. Her preoccupation with “land” and “growth” is not primarily linked to a postcolonial discourse on agricultural, or cultural, or religious usurpation—though these issues certainly inform the background of her perceptions. She makes relatively little of the image of “earth” and “planting” in No Sweetness Here. It is a minor issue in the collection's title story (61); there is only occasional mention elsewhere. More directly, she is concerned with what Homi Bhabha has described as “the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world … as the paradigmatic place of departure” (Bhabha 21). It is the immediate predicament of Ghana's cultural and political hegemony that defines the context of her discussion, and her narrative affinity is with a present-future nexus rather than with retracing an indigene-colonial hypothesis. In effect, she shifts the emphasis of her discourse away from explication of why things came to be as they are toward speculation as to how things may be altered. In Bhabha's terms. Aidoo takes as her paradigmatic starting point the experience of the present, without in any way disavowing the past as the informer of present consciousness, and strives to re-evaluate and re-define the aspirations of the future in relation to a present, dystopian actuality.

Aidoo's commitment to the issues and problems of the present has always been determined. In an interview she gave in the early 1970s she insisted that “I cannot see myself as a writer, writing about lovers in Accra because you see, there are so many other problems” (McGregor 19). More than 20 years later she is still asserting contemporary issues as the pre-eminent focus of her writing: “It's like suffering from a permanent migraine. … Meanwhile everyone expects us, and we expect ourselves, to solve all our problems instantly. Whew!” (Chew and Rutherford 4) The Nigerian poet, Tanure Ojaide, has argued that “for us Africans literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass, and fight corruption and authoritarianism. … It is understandable why the African artist is utilitarian” (Ojaide 17). Certainly, the idea of constructive participation and debate is vibrant in the first wave of African writers, like Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, and Camara Laye; but it is equally apparent in the work of the “second generation” (Larson 245) of authors, like Ayi Kwei Armah and Wole Soyinka.

Clearly, Aidoo too feels obligated to this sense of “utilitarianism,” to the notion of making things better, of solving problems. The sterile rot of the yam, it seems, is an unmitigable and foreboding omen shadowing Aidoo's Ghana. But this paper will argue that there are mitigating factors, that Aidoo's perception of the Ghanaian future in No Sweetness Here is considerably more optimistic than some commentators, and even Aidoo herself, have conceded. It will suggest that Aidoo deploys, on a surface level, a narrative technique of closely juxtaposed binary oppositions that attest to glimmers of benignity in the midst of social decay—though it does not and cannot persuasively defray the sense of hopelessness that is flagged by the conspicuous pessimism of the collection's title. It will further argue that, on a more subtle level, Aidoo's story philosophy moves beyond the statement or restatement of binate structures into a new narrative domain of what this paper will term a “continuum of female experience,” in which female characters are perceived not in moral antagonism but on a single continuum of behavior, their moral location factored by the harsh contingencies of the world about them.

The definitiveness of Aidoo's “Certainly not us” in the yam allegory carries the caustic import of her compatriot Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born—the suggestion that the present means to remedy present circumstances simply do not exist. The conundrum of hopelessness in the present, but hopefulness in the future (those who are as yet unborn), is one shared by both writers. In the case of Armah, the unnamed hero of The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, simply referred to as “the man,” struggles vainly against a miasma of social malignancy and putrescent physical decay. Life, for him, is a relentless struggle against a corrupt and corruptive order that has inverted all worthy values and seeks to deny the validity of integrity and humanity. It is a brutal landscape, but not without some signs of encouragement. After all, “the man” exists. Some force, however covert or discreet or obscure, must have shaped his goodness, must have safeguarded him from the moral depravity that envelops his world. And as the mammy-wagon pulls out at the novel's close, and he sees the slogan “THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN” scrawled on the back of it, could he not help but feel that he was not alone, that at least someone else shared with him a comprehension of a society in ruinous decline?

Ama Ata Aidoo's Ghana, like that of Ayi Kwei Armah, is a place of unenviable suffering, a world without sweetness or even the prospect of it. A number of critics have attested to Aidoo's inherent literary gloom. Adeola James has spoken of a “certain sombreness” (James 17) in her writing; Arlene Elder has written of her “pessimism” (Elder 117); Femi Ojo-Ade has suggested, of Aidoo's writing, that if Africa is home, then “home is hell” (Ojo-Ade 174). In No Sweetness Here, there is much that may be identified as sufficient warrant for like opinion. The unnamed heroine of “Everything Counts” despairs, in her internal monologue, “O, there just are too many problems” (2). In “Two Sisters,” the narrator concludes woefully that “People are worms, and even the God who created them is immensely bored with their antics” (96). M'ma Asana, in “Certain Winds from the South,” expresses a nihilistic longing for the end of the world: “Pregnancy and birth and death and pain; and death again … When there are no more pregnancies, there are no more births and therefore, no more deaths. But there is only one death and only one pain …” (47).

In fact, Aidoo has regretted titling the collection No Sweetness Here, and has admitted that she seriously considered changing the name for the most recent reprint of the work (James 17). It is interesting that she views a change of the collective title of the anthology as a possible remedy to the charge of “pessimism.” This could be construed as misguided, since accusations of pessimism have emerged from textual rather than titular perspectives. On the other hand, the line she may be taking implicitly is that the title tends to lay a false trail of gloom—one that critics have been all too willing to follow. The truth is that just as Armah's title of The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is illusory in its suggestion of the absolute barrenness of current human worth, so No Sweetness Here is misleading in its insinuation of an absolute lack of sweetness.

The point is well illustrated in the fable of the bad yam. The diction is absolute and inflexible: “ate it up so completely”; “Certainly not us”; “too full with drink …” And yet the fact that Kobina, the young man who tells the yam parable, even exists is surely a signal of hope? He demonstrates by his very being that it is possible to nurture values of integrity and egalitarianism even within an all-pervading context of greed, dishonesty and elitism. Further, both before and after the yam parable, Kobina shows himself to be more than a decorative ornament of goodness. He acts upon his goodness. Immediately before, he requests that the servants, Zirigu and Setu, call him “Kobina, not Master” (20); immediately after, we are reminded of the excitement at the Rest House because of his insistence that he should eat with the servants (22). Kobina's internalized question “Who is going to do the planting?” is sandwiched between its obvious answer: people like Kobina.

This is an intriguing narrative technique—the juxtaposition of antithetical statements of promise and despair. The polarities are not, however, balanced in emphasis, and this may well lead to undue distortions in critical judgments about Aidoo's pessimism as a writer. Aidoo tends to articulate the absolute of hopelessness more forthrightly than she does the recurrent indicators of the benign. In the tale of the yam, we tend rather to listen to what the storyteller says than to weigh the worth and import of the man who is saying it.

Of course, it is one thing to avow that there are signs of sweetness in No Sweetness Here, but quite another to argue that they are meaningful or that they temper the overwhelming bitterness ranged against them. So what if Kobina is a nice young man who likes to treat people equally? The facts are that colonial Ghana has simply become neocolonial Ghana. Kobina may be different from the typical run of well-to-do young men, but most are not. And those whom he would wish to treat differently have become so attuned to the normative social structuring of things that they themselves demonstrate a manifest conservatism to change, even when Kobina, and perhaps the reader, would identify change as beneficial to them. There may be the isolated Kobina, the occasional M'ma Asana of “Certain Winds from the South,” the rare Connie of “Two Sisters”—but these are solitary exemplars of perception and virtue, locked apparently helplessly in the maelstrom of decay and decadence that envelops their world. Good they may be, but what chance have they of changing things?

Aidoo's paradox of subtle virtue amidst obvious despair may demand a more accurate reformulation of the issues critics have raised about Aidoo's authorial pessimism, but it does not necessarily demand hope. The binary duality established in “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” the tension between institutionalized decay and individualized purity, stands as an untenable modus operandi for the amelioration of society. The author herself has been troubled by the prospect of progress from a position of debilitating social stagnancy.

One has to go on. If one refuses to survive, if one refuses to ‘manage’, one has given in to despair. And I don't think anybody has a right to despair, because it is not possible for any one person to have all the variables to give an answer to a particular situation [emphasis added]. So we do the best we can and move on from day to day.

(James 10)

But what is the purpose of “going on”? Individual perseverance and goodness may be a hopeful sign, but a hopeful sign of what? Pitting a few disparate, pure individuals against what Barbara Harlow, with reference to The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, has described as “a society which is portrayed as surviving on nothing but the offal of its own corruption” (Harlow 156) is hardly an encouraging harbinger of change.

A partial solution may lie in a movement beyond the moral/immoral binary configuration that a story like “For Whom Things Did Not Change” establishes, for this kind of thesis constantly formulates the issue of changing society on win/lose terms. Human affairs are rarely so clear-cut or amenable. In fact, several of the stories in No Sweetness Here offer a philosophic structuring that is more subtle than a simple opposition of ethical polarities, and seek to locate issues of societal worth within a different, and possibly more pragmatic, argumentative framework.

In “Two Sisters” the author recounts an eventful period in the lives and relationships of two sisters. The elder sister, Connie, is happily settled, married and expecting her second child, though she has some doubts about the fidelity of her husband. The younger, Mercy, hankers for the good things in life and has become the mistress of Mensar-Arthur (one of the so-called “big men”), a corrupt and aging politician who spices married life with a surfeit of mistresses and affairs.

The moral gulf between the two sisters at first seems chasmic. To Connie is ostensibly given the role of righteous standard bearer—a part articulated, sarcastically, by her husband James, whose main source of regret is that the imprisonment of Mensar-Arthur after a coup d'état means that his prospect of obtaining a car through the big man's intercession has evaporated.

‘All I know is that Mensar-Arthur is in jail. No use. And I am not getting my car. Rough deal.’

‘I never took you seriously on that car business.’

‘Honestly, if this were in the ancient days, I could brand you a witch. You don't want me, your husband, to prosper?’

‘Not out of my sister's ruin.’

‘Ruin, ruin, ruin! Christ! See Connie, the funny thing is that I am sure you are the only person who thought it was a disaster to have a sister who was the girl-friend of a big man.’


James's attitude is intriguing. His accusation of witchery stems not from moral turpitude on Connie's part but from the opposite—a failure to endorse corruption. A similar sense emerges in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, in which the unfortunate hero, already long-suffering by page 31, is accused of social degeneracy for refusing to take a bribe (Armah 31-32). In both cases, the advocacy of inverted propriety emerges as a well-honed instrument of public execration.

In “Two Sisters” there is a surface temptation, as in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, to look at the story in the binary Vice and Virtue terms. Kenneth Little, in fact, has seen Mercy as an identifiable “type” in Aidoo's writing: she is, he says, one of those characters that has “an in-built psychological mechanism that helps them to cope without undue emotional stress” (Little 124-25). Aidoo's narrative is surely more subtle than this. A clue to its intricacy comes from the episode near the end of the story in which Mercy presents her sister with a much-wished-for sewing machine motor. A bewildered Connie is overjoyed. But the source of the gift soon becomes clear to her. The machine has been obtained by Mensar-Arthur on one of his trips to London, at the behest of Mercy—a case of poisoned fruits if ever there was one.

She had wanted this thing for a long time and it would make everything so much easier, like the clothes for the new baby. And yet one side of her said that accepting it was a betrayal. Of what, she wasn't even sure … She took the motor with thanks and sold even her right to dissent.


By accepting the sewing machine, is Connie, the hitherto responsible exemplar of the story, really any better than James who sought material advantage (the car) or Mercy who has prospered from sexual leverage? Intuitively, the reader feels the answer must be yes. Connie does not solicit the gift; her acquisition of the motor has not been calculated or premeditated. Nonetheless, as a gift derived from corruptive issuance, it is tainted, certainly. But Connie would have needed the constitution of a saint not to have accepted it—and that is not what Aidoo demands of her figures of worth. The perfections of sainthood are nowhere evidenced in No Sweetness Here. The unnamed heroine in “Everything Counts” admits to having “a jealousy so big, she did not know what to do with it” (5). M'ma Asana, a woman with the vision, as Karla Holloway has noted, to “articulate the story thesis of dislocation” (Holloway 164) in “Certain Winds from the South,” concedes judgmental fallibility in her preference for male offspring (55). Even Kofi, the epitome of the dutiful son in “Other Versions,” broods uncharitably over what he perceives as his father's meanness.

Connie, like all people, has her threshold of temptation. There is nothing wrong with that. It is human. The point that Aidoo makes is that Connie's threshold is markedly more admirable than that of those around her. This says much about the story's notion of a value system. Aidoo does not present a dichotomous order of Saints and Sinners. Ghanaian salvation, like any human salvation, would have to wait an eternity for fulfillment if those were the parameters of success and failure. There is presented not a choice between Vice and Virtue, but rather a continuum of female experience, with ethical locations dictated by the contingencies of life in a fractured, masculinized society. The fact that it is a continuum is a source of much of the story's “sweetness,” for it implies that the moral difference between Connie and Mercy is not a generic dislocation but a difference of degree, of needs and obligations, brought about by a varied concatenation circumstances. Though one may be more vulnerable to temptation than the other, both sisters are part of a wider conference of female vulnerability in a patriarchally controlled environment. And circumstances and environments can and do change. Like Mansa in “In the Cutting of a Drink,” who, we are told, “will come home this Christmas” (37), Mercy's prospect of release from the domain of debilitating moral compromise remains alive if only because her sister keeps her in touch with the possibilities of life within other parameters of compromise. The two sisters are neither damned nor angelic, merely distanced.

In interview Aidoo has tended to play down the female dimension of her writing:

I have central characters that are women because I am a woman. I think that is natural. When a man wakes up in the morning, he sees a man when he looks in the mirror. So if it is natural for male writers to create male central characters, then it should be natural for me, a woman writer, to create female central characters.

(James 14)

Even so, it is intriguing that in “Two Sisters” she chooses to use a well rehearsed and documented patriarchal dualism of Virtue/Vice (variously replicated as virgin/whore, wife/mistress, angel/she-devil, etc.) to deconstruct the notion of moral antitheses and to recast it in terms of a feminist continuum. On the occasions when she allows men to articulate patriarchal world views, such as “In the Cutting of a Drink,” her narrative is heavy with irony:

When I thought of my own sister, who was lost, I became a little happy because I felt that although I had not found her, she was nevertheless married to a big man and all was well with her.


The binate opposition of loss/salvation is used both to scorn and typify the young man's misapprehension of his sister's predicament. When he finds her to be a hostess in a seedy bar, the dual dichotomy (village-maiden/money-seeking-wife) is simply readjusted to accommodate the modified expediency (village-maiden/money-seeking-whore). In fact, Mansa is Mansa—the same person acting, moving on the same continuum of female experience but adjusting behavior to meet the varying and harsh imperatives of survival.

This sense of continuum is auspicious. Aidoo further seeks to dismantle traditional male-female relationships and responsibilities in order to explore more fully the feminist dimension of societal optimism. The disavowal and deconstruction of the conventional social exchange between men and women find statement in the title story “No Sweetness Here,” in “Other Versions,” and, more particularly, in “The Late Bud.”

The action of “The Late Bud” occurs in a quintessential female world. It is women who give orders and make decisions; women who effect punishments and reprimands; women who determine the arbiters of acceptable behavior. Theirs is, of course, only a microcosmic control, for they cultivate their powers in one corner, “the women's apartments” (103), of what is the macrocosm of a male-dominated world. Even so, they have at least a corner of their own. Men do appear but Aidoo pointedly deprives them of the traditional accoutrements of power. When they arrive in the final pages of the story, it is to provide medical attention and succor for the injured young girl, Yaaba (111). Men have come to serve the needs of women; to render servility; to care for them within a matriarchal encomium. Their duty of tenderness completed, Aidoo quickly exits almost all of them.

In fact, Aidoo allows men not a single moral judgment or comment in the entire story—and this is a story full of moral judgments and comments. In this way, Aidoo is able to present the image of a female society running itself, as it were. It is by no means a flawless environment: Maami's beating of Yaaba is brutal and unwarranted. There is no suggestion here of perfection—but there is an indication of there being in place a process of accountability, also female, which monitors and regulates the kinds of excesses that Maami was somehow driven to wreak upon the unfortunate Yaaba. This is Maami's rebuke at the hands of one of the other women folk:

‘As usual, she had not had a wash, so I just held her …’

‘You held her what? Had she met with death you would have been the one that pushed her into it—beating a child in the night!’

‘But Yaaba is too troublesome!’

‘And so you think every child will be good?’


It is a reprimand well deserved, and one offered explicitly by a woman. Aidoo has vested not only the power of wrongful abuse but also the power of rightful censure within the tenure of women, and in so doing explores the potential, and the failings, of women in an authoritarian context.

“The Late Bud” offers a coherent step forward in the discourse of “the continuum of female experience.” If one accepts that female experience and action are largely dictated by the expectations and demands established in a masculinized society, then it seems logical to explore the notion of a continuum of female experience functioning outside the constraints and obligations of patriarchal control. The story is an important “experiment,” not only as a piece of writing but as an invocation of the consequences of social justice. Those consequences, as Aidoo is at some pains to point out, are not utopian but, for women, they constitute at the very least a plausible alternative to a dystopian Ghana in which women lie victim at the bottom of a sordid social pile, compelled to move this way or that along their common continuum of life experience.

Tanure Ojaide has said of his aspirations as an African writer:

I have been a witness to and a chronicler of my time. … I want to be an oracle, a knower of hidden things, the knower of the other side of things; not a conventional oracle who foresees doom, but the oracle of good tidings, the oracle who alerts his people against taking a course that leads to doom.

(Ojaide 21)

There is certainly an oracular quality to the writing of Ama Ata Aidoo. Like Ayi Kwei Armah, she feels a compulsion to express her distaste for aspects of Ghanaian society in the most absolute terms. The rhetorical extravagance is a response to the level of societal malaise she perceives—an invective born of the imperative need to make people listen and take note.

It is not, however, the invective of hopelessness. That benign, principled characters walk her Ghanaian streets is in itself encouraging. For all of society's pervasive decay, the inherent goodness of some individuals remains unsilted by its irksome flow. But the ability of their goodness, of itself, to change things significantly is not evidenced in Armah's narrative nor does it seem plausible in the face of such a mortifying literary portraiture of Ghanaian societal decay. In her depiction of the continuum of female experience, there seems greater cause for optimism. By identifying the commonalities of female experience in a degrading context of patriarchal behavioral imperatives, Aidoo moves beyond the possibility of individual goodness toward the speculative realms of a collective female moral entrenchment against the decadence of a given, masculinized world.

Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. No Sweetness Here. Harlow: Longman Drumbeat, 1970.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Chew, Shirley and Anna Rutherford, eds. Unbecoming Daughters of the Empire. Sydney, Australia: Dangaroo, 1993.

Elder, Arlene. “Ama Ata Aidoo and the Oral Tradition: A Paradox of Form and Substance.” Women in African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.

James, Adeola. Interview with Aidoo. In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990. 9-27.

Larson, Charles R. The Emergence of African Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Little, Kenneth. The Sociology of Urban Women's Image in African Literature. London: Macmillan, 1980.

McGregor, Maxine. Interview with Aidoo. African Writers Talking: A Collection of Interviews. Ed. Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse. London: Heinemann, 1972. 19-27.

Ojaide, Tanure. “I Want to Be an Oracle: My Poetry and My Generation.” World Literature Today 68 (1994): 15-21.

Ojo-Ade, Femi. “Female Writers, Male Critics.” African Literature Today: Recent Trends in the Novel. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.

Ranu Samantrai (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Samantrai, Ranu. “Caught at the Confluence of History: Ama Ata Aidoo's Necessary Nationalism.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 2 (summer 1995): 140-57.

[In the following essay, Samantrai asserts that African nationalism is a major recurring motif in Aidoo's oeuvre, noting that works such as Our Sister Killjoy function as “example[s] of how a non-racialist, non-foundational African identity might lead to Pan-African solidarity.”]


Is it possible to generate Pan-Africanist nationalism from a non-racialist impulse? This is the strategy for Pan-African solidarity advocated by Anthony Appiah in his recent work on African politics and philosophy. But the progressive articulation of such solidarity depends upon its break with its old basis, which Appiah terms “racialized Negro nationalism” (180). A new Pan-Africanism might be based on the contingencies and urgencies of a shared situation, but it must necessarily remain aware that “being African is, for its bearers, one among other salient modes of being, all of which have to be constantly fought for and rethought” (177).

Ama Ata Aidoo's acclaimed novel, Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, provides an example of how a non-racialist, non-foundational African identity might lead to Pan-African solidarity. There appears to be general consensus among literary scholars that this novel is an example of a reactionary, racist nationalism. Even essays not specifically about the politics of nationalism proceed on this reading. In an aside in his investigation of homosexuality in African literature, for example, Chris Dunton comments that Our Sister Killjoy closes as Aidoo's protagonist “returns from Europe to Ghana, confident in her anti-Western nationalism” (431). Aidoo herself, in an interview with Adeola James, has stressed the priority Pan-Africanist nationalism:

Adeola: Would you agree with Molara Ogundipe-Leslie's statement, that: “The female (African) writer should be committed in three ways: as a writer, as a woman and as a Third World person”? …

Ama: Molara is a critic and she can make the assertion, but my own addition, or rather a slight suggestion, in terms of that formula, is in connection with what we should be committed to as Third World people. I wish that at some point it would have been possible for Molara to mention “African.” I don't deny that we belong to a larger non-northern world and the dynamics that operate in a situation like that, but find my commitment as an African, the need for me to be an African nationalist, to be a little more pressing. It seems that there are things relating to our world, as African people, which are of a more throbbing nature in an immediate sense.

(James 14-15)

Aidoo's nationalism is clearly metaphoric, invoking the African continent as its referent.1 Moreover, in Our Sister Killjoy, race seems to provide the basis for transnational African unity: all Africans are assumed to be black, and all Europeans white. Over the course of the novel, Sissie, protagonist and sister killjoy of the title, encounters a number of characters who demand her allegiance and offer her a variety of bases for group identification. The trajectory of her narrative reflects Aidoo's concern for the priority of allegiance to Africa: Sissie travels to Europe as a student; she considers what Europe has to offer—private wealth and access to consumer goods—and meets a group of African immigrants who have succumbed the lure of that offer; she chooses to return to Africa, and the novel closes with her plea to all immigrants to do the same. Apparently, then, Aidoo's text advocates a conservative nationalism which is based on an African racial essence, and which condemns the nation-defying identifications of immigrants and diaspora dwellers.

But not all nationalisms are alike. In a comparative study of the Nonaligned Movement and the European Community, Akhil Gupta points out that First and Third World nationalisms occupy “vastly dissimilar structural positions … with respect to late capitalism and to the postcolonial world order” (63).2 Given the political and economic relations between nations that are the legacy of colonialism, loyalty to a former European colony can carry very different implications than the patriotism of former colonizers. Particularly in our era of multinational capitalism and transnational media, Gupta argues, the distribution of goods and images from Euro-America can compromise the efforts of Third World nations to maintain the economic autonomy necessary for national sovereignty:

It is significant that the agenda of successive meetings of nonaligned nations moved from an initial emphasis on the Cold War and colonialism to questions of imperialism, unequal trading relationships, and the new information order. It was realized that economic dependence, indebtedness, and cultural imperialism were as great, if not greater, dangers to sovereignty as was military invasion.


Furthermore, assertions of unity on the part of the Third World can be calculated and strategic, and need not be read as simple expressions of a belief in essential sameness. As the following passage from Spivak suggests, such a reading misses the point of the mobilization of unity:

If the “third world” is used as a sort of mobilizing slogan for … call it non-aligned nations or whatever, I think it's fine, but that is rather different from essentialism. If you look at the conferences, etcetera, where this language is seriously used, you will see that each one of the countries has come asserting its difference. … That is a strategy that changes moment to moment, and they in fact come asserting their differences as they use the mobilized unity to do some specific thing. And that's where you see the strategy at work. That has nothing to do with essences.


Exposing the extension of colonialism that makes a farce of African independence is a primary aim of Our Sister Killjoy. Aidoo has argued that conditions of life in contemporary Africa demonstrate the extent to which the present continues to be shaped by forces that can be traced to the European colonization of Africa:

But let us look at the average African in the rural areas of the continent or urban shantytowns, with no shelter, no education for her children, malnourished, and aged beyond her years. She has not experienced an end but a continuation of colonial oppression. Furthermore, the plunder of Africa's mineral and other natural resources by multinational corporations and multilateral agencies continues unabated. And need we go into the devastation caused by foreign debt servicing? Again, in terms of bilateral and multilateral grants and loans, the whole “aid” system has been analyzed to show that colonialism has not been “post”-ed anywhere. At the end of the day, the poor countries pay lots more than they borrowed to the rich (and former colonial) powers. So-called.

(Conference presentation 152-53)

This is the context in which Aidoo insists on loyalty to Africa, and considers the implications of African emigration to Europe. The decision to emigrate is not made in a vacuum, and its meaning is not exhausted at the level of the individual psyche. The economic conditions that make emigration an attractive option for middle-class Africans must be read in the larger context of international politics and trade. If Aidoo's novel goes against the grain of more recent celebrations of trans-nationalism, a look back at her text suggests that such celebrations may overlook the powerfully seductive call of the overdeveloped nations.

In Our Sister Killjoy Aidoo problematizes the contemporary movement of professionals from poor to rich nations. To reverse the call that lures them, she appeals unabashedly to their sense of loyalty and obligation to Africa. Despite this appeal, however, Aidoo's nationalism is not anti-Western. Nor does it ask for the kind of allegiance likely to lead to the distrust of dissent for the sake of solidarity. If, through Sissie, Aidoo does privilege an “African” identity over other possible lines of identification, she does so fully aware of the unstable, inadequate, but nevertheless urgently necessary nature of that identity.3 Within moments of her arrival in Germany, Sissie overhears a white German woman informing her daughter, “‘Ja, das Schwartze Madchen’” (12). Much of the rest of the novel is a reflection upon the significance of this moment when Sissie learns the significance of “differences in human colouring” (13). During her travels in Europe she repeatedly questions the use of race as a measure of sameness and difference, sometimes complicating it by introducing other measures, at other times reinforcing it by dismissing competing claims for her allegiance. The nationalism she proposes, though particular to black Africans, is not built upon the simple proclamation of a racial essence. On the contrary, race as a foundational identity is undermined by the equally compelling categories of gender and class. Aidoo accomplishes her nonracialist nationalism by juxtaposing African identity to these other salient modes of being, acknowledging the demands of each, and refusing to fix them in a naturalized hierarchy. Her protagonist's return to Africa (specifically, to Ghana) signals a racial solidarity that is grounded on her knowledge of the history of colonialism and race relations. It is a solidarity capable of embracing internal differences and even conflicts, and it is permeated with lines of identification which lead outward to cross-racial, global alliances. Our Sister Killjoy thus provides a model for a nationalism that is not essentialist or reactionary, but rather is provisional, historically conscious, and pragmatic.

The first moment of racial interpellation is also Sissie's first lesson that racial identification is too socially charged to be accepted or rejected wholly. In this encounter with white Germans, Sissie becomes aware of difference not by recognizing her own “blackness,” but by noticing the oddity of “whiteness”: “all that crowd of people coming in all sorts of directions had the colour of pickled pig parts that used to come from foreign places to the market at home” (12). Sissie is not the other for the European self; on the contrary, Europeans are the other for her firmly centered, African self. Sissie's position of subjective centrality affirms the particular perspective of her “black-eyed squint” against the claims of the “universal” (93, 121). Invoking this latter term often and always with contempt, the narrative exposes the universal as partial and aligned with Europe, as evidenced by the spectacle of Africans who “hurry to lose [their] identity in order to join the great family of man” (121). Sissie's early centering, then, suggests that her claim to an African identity is not a position of defensive retreat, grounded upon a sense of one's own exclusion and otherness. Rather, her eventual nationalism affirms the particularity of African experiences and the critical perspectives they provide. This is the certainty Aidoo advocates for all Africans, suggesting it especially to those who have delivered themselves into “self-exile” in the great family of man (121).

Yet this centering of the African woman (the boy's interpellation of Sissie as “black girl” is not insignificant) simultaneously undermines race as an appropriate measure of identity and difference. While Europeans consider it her most significant characteristic, the narrator informs us that Sissie knows that difference in human coloring is not inherently important.

No matter where she went, what anyone said, what they did. She knew it never mattered.

But what she also came to know was that someone somewhere would always see in any kind of difference, an excuse to be mean.


The first insight gained from the black-eyed squint, then, is that the affirmation of the identity that follows from racial interpellation must be coupled with the destabilization of the very idea of race. The significance of the concept of race lies in its deployment by particular groups for particular purposes. Sissie's final plea to African emigrants to return home does not dismiss this early insight in favor of a simplistic affirmation of a fundamental racial identity. On the contrary, throughout her sojourn in Europe she considers the histories that have resulted from the use of the idea of race. As racial identity is destabilized, the category of experience provides another measure of sameness and difference. But experience makes strange companions: while it reinforces predictable links between people, it also reveals some unpredictable grounds for affiliation and distancing. Thus, Sissie often finds herself considering histories which undermine the unity of any African experience. Aidoo's centering of the African woman and her advocacy of nationalism are not based on the certainty of an essential African identity or experience. Though she maintains the concept of a collective entity called “African,” she does so only as a political necessity, and with the acknowledgement of considerable doubts.


The coherence of race or, more specifically, the historical and experiential basis for a sense of affiliation between black Africans is undermined most obviously by Aidoo's representation of similarities in the experiences of women of all races. During her stay in Germany, Sissie is befriended by Marija, a young and lonely German housewife. Over the course of their rather awkward acquaintance, Sissie notes the ways in which women are undervalued the world over. She knows that in Ghana misogyny begins at birth, when birthing fees run “‘500 for a boy, / 400 for a girl’”:

Why should it surprise
That it costs a little more
To make a baby boy?


She discovers that in Germany, too, baby boys are worth more than baby girls, when Marija tells her “that since Adolf [her son] was going to be an only child, she was very happy he was a boy” (51). In both nations a lifetime of enduring such misogyny teaches women to value men more than themselves, a process that results in their own desire for sons.

Women also share the constraints of the institution of motherhood, which demands a devotion to the child so consuming that any hint of maternal independence is regarded as a betrayal. When Marija expresses a desire to be alone, “[e]ven from the child one loves so much,” both she and Sissie are aware of her transgression:

She finished uncertainly, looking up to Sissie who did not have a child, as if for confirmation. A reassurance. That she was not speaking blasphemy.

It is
This is
Not a statement to come from a
Good mother's lips—
Touch wood.


The institution of wife similarly crosses racial and national lines, again demanding a devotion from women that denies their value independent of their relationships with men. Sissie jokes with Marija that even cooking must be done only as a service to men, if it is not to fall into the realm of betrayal or abnormality:

Besides, it is not sound for a woman to enjoy cooking for another woman. Not under any circumstances. It is not done. It is not possible. Special meals are for men. They are the only sex to whom the Maker gave a mouth with which to enjoy eating. And woman the eternal cook is never so pleased as seeing a man enjoying what she has cooked; eh, Marija?


Finally, her connections with Marija, however tenuous, lead Sissie to link all women, regardless of possible differences, as fellow sufferers in the “ranks of the wretched”4:

Here under the sun,
Being a woman
Has not
Is not
Never will be a
Child's game.


Evidence of potentially universal connections between women does not, however, mean that gender can replace race as the fundamental and unified identity. Aidoo holds out such a possibility only to withdraw it, and in the withdrawal, to display the reasons for its failure. For despite all the similarities Sissie notes between women the world over, there are too many differences between herself and Marija in particular to make their acquaintance easy. Marija befriends Sissie because the Ghanaian woman is an exotic rarity in Germany, like Indians or Eskimos (20, 24). And Sissie, in turn, cannot forget that Marija is “A daughter of mankind's / Self-appointed most royal line, / The House of Aryan” (48). The two face each other as representatives of their races, each loaded with the baggage of the historical encounter between Europe and Africa.

We are tantalized, for example, by the fact that the two share the same name: Marija prefers the English version of her name. Mary; Sissie's baptismal name is also Mary (24). Translated into English, the two women could be versions of each other. And English, though not the properly “native” language of either speaker (though it may well be one of Sissie's first languages), is nevertheless the language in which the two can communicate. It provides for them the common ground of internationalism, the medium in which their similarities are revealed.

If accomplished, the two women's mutual recognition on international territory would render nationalist impulses obsolete. But again, Aidoo holds out the possibility of such a convergence in order to demonstrate the persistent effects of the conditions which prevent the completion of the women's embrace. For while Marija chooses to be called Mary, for Sissie the baptismal name is a reminder of colonialism: the Christian naming marks her place in a history of forced conversions and the systematic devaluing of African traditions. The legacy of this history is evident in the contemporary practice of privileging of things European, even in Africa. “It is the name they gave me when they baptised me,” she tells Marija. “It is also good for school and work and being a lady” (24). By rejecting the name. Sissie refuses the privileged status that results from association with Europe. By rejecting Mary as her representative, she also disputes the universality of European Christianity. Thus, once again she exposes the European underpinnings of a universal, neutral internationalism.

Moreover, the English language is far from an innocently enabling meeting ground. Again, while Marija uses it at will, with no apparent anxieties about its relation to German or its influence on herself, Sissie regards it as her jailer: “I have only been able to use a language that enslaved me, and therefore, the messengers of my mind always come shackled” (112). For Sissie, the use of English instead of Akan is neither a choice nor innocent. Significantly, then, although it is Sissie who initially holds out the possibility of their common naming, she does not ask to be called Mary. Nor does she honor Marija's request to be called by that name. After their initial introduction, the name remains unspoken between the two women. While they may have significant similarities, Aidoo's narrative suggests that there is no neutral ground, no place untainted by history, where women from opposite sides of the colonial divide can meet to develop the bonds that could result from the recognition of shared experience.

A further obstacle to gender solidarity arises when the narrative disrupts the very postulation of shared experience. If Sissie recognizes a certain level of common gender oppression, she also recognizes that some women suffer because of their sex more than others. Listening to German officials boast of their country's foreign aid, Sissie

wonders if their
Buxom wives had ever been
Guinea pigs to test
The pill and other
As they say
Happens to
Miners' wives to
Farmers' wives in
Remote corners of
Banana republics and other
So-called-developing countries?


Some women suffer and other women gain the benefit: the drugs tested on Third World women are those that have broadened the options, specifically the sexual options, for women of the West.5 Even at the level of the body, women cannot be said to be a coherent group. The division of the world into rich and poor, here again the legacy of colonial empires, means that female bodies have different meanings in different contexts. Hence there is very little that women can be said to share, even, or perhaps especially, in their experience of their sexed bodies.

Finally, Sissie claims that the encounter between the West and the Rest has resulted in the misapplication of the norms of nineteenth-century European bourgeois femininity. Admitting that the African woman, indeed “woman everywhere—most of the time” knew her position in a world of men, Sissie nevertheless suggests that “her position among our people [was] a little more complicated than that of the dolls the colonisers brought along with them” (117). Though the formation of femininity may be generally unpleasant “here under the sun,” she argues that the specific demands imposed upon her by African men in the name of the virtuous, precolonial “African female” are Eurocentric. Rebelling against the expectations of her lover, Sissie declares, “No, My Darling: it seems as if so much of the softness and meekness you and all the brothers expect of me and all the sisters is that which is really western. Some kind of hashed up Victorian notions, hmm?” (117).

The historical perspective Sissie introduces here opens up a deep abyss between African women—descendants of the colonized—and European women—descendants of colonizers. Her argument suggests that though the conditions suffered by the two groups of women produce similar characteristics, they have different histories and thus demand separate theorization. The oppression against which Sissie rebels does not mirror the oppression experienced by Marija. She cannot, therefore, follow European feminism's path toward liberation. Her struggle must address the formation of femininity not only within an indigenous patriarchy, but also within the response of that patriarchy to the colonial encounter. Even if experience drives subjects toward affiliation and solidarity, there can be no easy collective named “women.” That group identity is permeated by the different gendering of individual women through their positions in histories of race and colonialism.

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi places Aidoo in the company of African and African American women writers whose work demonstrates their belief that “‘[r]acism is a more urgent matter than sexism’” (Ogunyemi, quoting Beata Lipman, 67). Ogunyemi further believes that “hunger, poverty, or backwardness,” issues that have to do with “humanity” rather than “femaleness,” are all more important than sexism for women of the Third World (67-68). Hence the “intelligent black woman writer” (emphasis added) eschews white or radical feminism (the two seem to be synonymous) in favor of solidarity with black men:

conscious of black impotence in the context of white patriarchal culture, [she] empowers the black man. She believes in him; hence her books end in integrative images of the male and female worlds. Given this commitment, she can hardly become a strong ally of the white feminist until (perhaps) the political and economic fortunes of the black race improve.


Certainly Aidoo's representation of the ruptures between Sissie and Marija suggest that there is little likelihood that African women can set aside their ties to African men in order to privilege connections to European women. Though the novel does provide a basis for a strategic, though incomplete solidarity, it recognizes that we do not yet live in a world in which African and European women can meet on neutral ground, stripped of the forces of race relations. While gender does complicate the unity of a racial experience, it does not provide a substitute coherent experience on which to ground an identity. Rather, the two processes of identity formation permeate and create each other, so that gender is raced, as Sissie argues, in the structure of femininity and in the experience of the female body.

However, this mutual constitution also means that African women cannot forget that they are women. If they cannot celebrate the solidarity of women, neither can they disregard the gender politics which effect their lives. Indeed, Sissie breaks with her male lover over her refusal to be appropriately feminine. For Sissie, solidarity with African men does not take precedence over the right to disagree with them. She does not prove the “womanliness” expected of her by pursuing her lover and deferring to his opinions (119). Though their disagreement is as much about neo-colonialism as it is about the dictates of femininity, Sissie refuses to allow him or any other African man she meets to define the necessary conditions for their “group survival” (114). It does not occur to her to suppress her dissenting opinion for the good of the group, even when that group is African and the dissenting opinion that of a woman.

In response to arguments that women should set aside their concerns for the greater good of the race, Aidoo has remarked:

I think part of the resentment which our brothers feel about any discussion on women is because they feel it diverts from the “main issues.” On the contrary, I feel the revolutionizing of our continent hinges on the woman question. It might be the catalyst for development.

(James 26)

Because the men she encounters attempt to silence Sissie, they lose the opportunity to practice an effective nationalism. In this case, Pan-Africanist nationalism means respect for the black-eyed squint of a young woman, and acceptance of her leadership. The nationalism Aidoo offers, then, is not that advocated by Ogunyemi: one that suppresses women's dissent and counsels silence in the name of solidarity. On the contrary, Aidoo advocates a nationalism that cannot do without dissent, one that recognizes internal contradictions and even thrives on the resulting complexity. So adamant is Aidoo that African nationalism not privilege race over gender that she ends the novel with Sissie choosing to leave her lover. Far from the “integrative images of the male and female worlds” that Ogunyemi espouses, Aidoo's harsher vision proposes a nationalism which can acknowledge the fact that the needs and priorities of men and women can differ and even conflict.6


Nationalism's internal contradictions and the ensuing necessity of dissent are further emphasized by the politics of class. For though nations are broadly divided into rich and poor, within the poor nations there are further class divisions which intersect and disrupt a collective national identity. Poor women share with their men and with the poor the world over the curse of “Ignorance/Disease/Poverty” (70). But as she does with gender, Aidoo extends the possibility of an international class alliance only to delineate its inadequacy as a foundational unity.

Though the problem of poverty exists in the rich nations of the world as well as in the poor, in this text Aidoo is concerned with the poverty that results from the unequal distribution of the world's resources across national lines. Poverty may be globally similar in its effects, but it has differing local causes. According to Sissie's analysis, the continuing domination of poor, once colonized countries by rich, formerly imperial nations is a primary cause of African poverty. Once military occupation guaranteed the mass transfer of resources from colonies to European metropoles; now too many African leaders continue the deliberate underdevelopment of Africa. Though Sissie notes that it was the French who built inadequate roads in Upper Volta, for her the pertinent question now is “why the country permitted its international road to remain in such condition after independence” (55). While acknowledging the magnitude of the problems inherited by Africa's elite, Sissie nevertheless insists that they must shoulder the blame for the current situation. They are responsible for governing Africa for the benefit of Europe, for which service they are handsomely paid:

Asleep to all things at
All times—
Conscious only of
Riches, which they gather in a
So that
You wouldn't know they were
Feeding if it was not for the
Tell-tale trickle somewhere
Around the mouth.


Class politics mirror gender politics: both categories of identification reinforce the primacy of the struggle against neo-colonialism and complicate the subjects, Africans, who must join together in that struggle. Were it not for her sharp exposition of class politics within Africa, Aidoo's rejection of cross-racial class affiliations would have the effect of consolidating Africans as a monolithic group. Indeed, in a compelling condemnation of Aidoo's nationalism, Brenda Cooper has said that the author proposes a “right-wing black exclusivist position, one which … comes into contradiction with a materialist one” (27). The latter position, she continues, must be based on “an understanding of social class which would cut across race” (29). Cooper argues that Aidoo's imagination is paralyzed by “classical and unadapted dependency theory,” which focuses her attention on the activity of foreign capital to the exclusion of “some comprehension regarding the local, changing and dynamic class relations” (41). She objects to “the use of the relative dependence or otherwise of the local capitalists on foreign capital as the gauge of the [contemporary African] situation,” arguing that this frame of reference

places enormous emphasis on foreigners, and implies that the expulsion of such will lead automatically to the liberation of the oppressed. In other words it downplays the complexity of local class alignments and struggles.


As Cooper reads it, Aidoo's nationalism is based on an appeal to a reactionary African identity which is undifferentiated by class and unified only because it is “anti-foreigner to the point of being racist” (42).

It is accurate to say that Aidoo is interested in exploring the colonial history of the present moment. The plot of her novel makes this clear: a journey to Europe serves as the ideal occasion for her character's reflections on the long and ongoing relationship between Europe and Africa. But Aidoo does not lead Sissie to an anti-western nationalism blind to the politics of class in Africa. On the contrary, she exposes the complicity of the African elite in the current underdevelopment of Africa and parallel overdevelopment of Europe. The problem is not that class does not cut across race; it does, but the wrong class makes this move. The behavior of the African bourgeoisie suggests that their loyalty to their European counterparts may supersede, however inadvertently, their loyalty to their fellow Africans. The wealth of African rulers is all too often gained at the expense of other Africans, in an attempt to emulate and please European rulers. These are the cross-racial class alliances Aidoo criticizes. She hopes that the knowledge of the deep roots of Africa's poverty will provide a critical distance between the African and the Euro-American bourgeoisie. Her denial of a trans-national class alliance is strategic, meant to persuade the African bourgeoisie against an anti-national class alliance.

If a desired result of this strategy is a consolidated African identity, that effect is countered partially by Aidoo's insistence upon class divisions between Africans. As Sissie repeatedly notes, not all Africans have the same interests. Indeed, like women, poor Africans are exploited for the greater good of the nation and the race:

Nor do we mind
… when they [African students in Europe] come back here
Having mortgaged the country for a
Thousand and a year
To maintain themselves on our backs
With capitalist ships and fascist planes.
… … … … … … … … … …
There is ecstasy
In dying from the hands of a


The nationalism that emerges from the global “politics of the wealth of this earth” is not one that dismisses class in favor of race (Conference presentation 153); instead, it opposes rulers and ruled across races.8 Insofar as colonialism and the resulting impoverishment of vast regions of the world have made race into a marker of class, Aidoo quite appropriately locates Africa's best interest in the class interests of the poor. But this move renders dubious the “African-ness” of those who act in other interests. “African,” then, cannot have the plenitude and stability required to form the basis for the kind of nationalism Cooper accuses Aidoo of advocating.

Rather, Aidoo proposes precisely the kind of nationalism needed to address the conditions that Cooper herself delineates. “It seems to me,” Cooper writes:

that with neo-colonialism and the continued foreign presence becoming entrenched with time, a kind of second struggle for independence has been set in motion, creating conditions somewhat similar to but also different from those out of which the Negritude movement arose in the first place. The situation is complicated by the fact that internal class distinctions have become much sharper. The class situation as a whole, however, appears more opaque given that, by definition of neo-colonialism, the role of European capitalists is concealed or obscured in various ways.


Cooper focuses on the class struggles that constitute the second independence movement. But in this aim she does not disagree with the Aidoo of Our Sister Killjoy, though the two perhaps differ in their strategies. Aidoo aims to persuade members of the African bourgeoisie to join the struggles of the African poor and abandon their unintended allegiance to Europe. She pursues this end by exposing what Cooper describes as “concealed or obscured” neo-colonial politics, and by undermining beliefs and values that make it possible for Africans to prefer Europe to Africa. These latter include, most devastatingly, a belief in the superiority of Europe as evidenced by its standard of living, the subsequent elevated status of things European, and the devaluation of Africa and things African. To combat these beliefs Aidoo draws on strategies for the transformation of consciousness used by Fanon and the negritude writers. Cooper makes this point about Aidoo's writing in order to condemn it as outdated in post-independence Africa (30-31). But Aidoo's analysis of the farce of independence suggests that the time for “confidence and self-respect” on the part of Africans has not yet passed (Cooper 30).


As evidence for my claims, I turn to the most ubiquitous of the text's symbols: food. The text is preoccupied with descriptions of food, the details of its exchange, and reflections on its value and meaning. As early as the opening passages, before she leaves Africa for Germany, Sissie wonders what she and her journey could mean to German diplomats who go to some trouble to honor her with a dinner party. Their food is foreign to her, but not unpleasant. Her inability to enjoy it signals not its inherent lack, but its obvious function as mediation between herself and those who wish to impress upon her the wonders of Europe (8-9). Food is a sign of wealth, and therefore evidence of a global imbalance of resources. Food manifests the values of a culture, marks distinctions between cultures, and calls those distinctions into question. Aidoo uses food as a metaphor for selfhood and otherness in such a way that the self-other binary, be it at the level of the individual or the race, is both profoundly undermined and acknowledged as crucial. Finally, the product of nature is shown to be embedded in systems of meaning determined by economics and international politics, suggesting that meaning itself is to be found in context, not in essence.

The wealth of Germany is signalled by the abundance of food available there, huge portions of which are served to the visiting students. But this generosity turns out to be a curiously twisted reason for the presence of international students in Germany: Aidoo's narrator informs us that “Sissie and her companions were required to be there, eating, laughing, singing, sleeping and eating. Above all eating” (35). Their feeding parallels the “Sweet foreign aid” fed intravenously, secretly, to otherwise comatose African rulers. These students represent the next generation of the “Diplomats/Visiting Professors/Local experts in sensitive areas” of their countries. Their over-feeding is both drugging and bribe, an attempt to create another dependent generation convinced of the inevitability and appropriateness of Europe's self-appointed role as wealthy benefactor to the world.

The strategy, as Sissie discovers and Aidoo's imagery confirms, is generally successful and self-perpetuating. Africans who accept Europe's self-representation as the land of plenty come to earn their degrees and make their fortunes. In England Sissie finds large numbers of Africans who pursue their idealized Europe. To her surprise, she finds them living all too often in poor and demeaning circumstances, obviously out of place and ostracized by the natives. But despite the conditions of their lives, their encounters with British racism, and the disappointment of their hopes, these Africans continue to espouse the myth of Europe, particularly when they return to Africa:

So when they eventually went back home as ‘been-tos’, the ghosts of the humans that they used to be, spoke of the wonders of being overseas, pretending their tongues craved for tasteless foods which they would have vomited to eat where they were prepared best.

Fish and Chips
They lied.
They lied.
They lied.
The Been-tos lied.

And another generation got itself ready to rush out.


These self-exiles, the primary target of Our Sister Killjoy, are roundly condemned by Sissie for their lies and for what she considers their betrayal of Africa.10 The narrator, in one of the few moments when she is distinguished from Sissie, tempers the character's condemnation by informing us that “such migrations are part of the general illusion of how well an unfree population think they can do for themselves” (89). Yet her understanding of the conditions the self-exiles struggle to escape only strengthens the contempt she shares with Sissie for people who, for their pride or for the sake of their illusions, perpetuate a myth of European superiority. The migrants become the intravenous conduit, transmitting a desire for association with Europe to other Africans, and thus helping to perpetuate the cycles of African poverty.

Aidoo does not allow any of these emigrants to become individuated, psychologically rounded characters; instead they are deliberately flattened to function as a chorus of voices which articulate reasons for preferring Europe to Africa. Her narrative is not interested in particular circumstances that might shape the direction of an individual life. Nor is it interested in the fact that migration has been a constant feature of African life, and that its causes extend beyond the only one diagnosed here: Europhilia. It is concerned only with contemporary emigration by members of the professional middle class. These doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs have training and skills that Sissie believes could benefit other Africans. In other words, these characters represent people who have options; they do not represent those for whom emigration may be an economic or political necessity. The high degree of abstraction in their representation furthers their novelistic function as the foil against which Sissie works out her own allegiances. Their migrancy becomes emblematic of the wrong response to the seductive call of the overdeveloped nations. Rejection of the values articulated by their chorus allows Sissie to articulate alternative responses.

Aidoo's use of food to describe the impact these “been-tos” have on other Africans illustrates the perverse nature of a belief in the superiority of things European. A taste for fish and chips develops not because the foods are inherently superior to African cuisine, but because a certain status accrues to people who consume them: the status of having been overseas. Food itself is a signifier in a system of meaning that continually refers to a colonial past. Its meaning also helps develop and maintain an acceptance of the neo-colonial present. Because their food is a mundane yet crucial element of life, Africans' rejection of it signifies the depth of their devaluing of things African. Sissie understands that the self-exiles are motivated by greed when she recalls that in their anger “they nearly ate [her] up” (121). Use of food as a symbol signals Aidoo's intention to expose the creation of powerful, basic desires, uncover the links between individual tastes and global politics, and finally reverse the compelling “invitation [that] was sent” from Europe (35).

Sissie exemplifies the process of the reversal of the call to Europe. Initially enchanted by the food offered to her in Germany, she slowly begins to feel uncomfortable with its excess. Eventually, in response to Marija's offer of a freshly baked cake, Sissie can only pretend pleasure:

“M-m-m.” Our Sister cooed; pretending to be more delighted at the news than she actually felt.

Indeed she was feeling uncomfortable.

She had already added about ten pounds to her weight, since she arrived in that country. Therefore, she was no longer capable of feeling ecstasy at the news that any type of cake had been baked in her honour.


In the end, the breakdown of the relationship between the two women is signalled by Sissie's refusal of Marija's benevolence and the failure of the food transaction between them (62, 69).

It is important to note that the fault lies not in Marija's generosity, but in the strangely excessive availability of the food itself. The excess leads Sissie to reflect upon the reason for Europe's abundance and Africa's meagerness. Hence she condemns the importing, by “Champagne sipping / Ministers,” of “Yellow wheat which / The people can't eat,” while “good yams rot / For lack of transportation” or are sent “for / paltry cents— / To foreign places as / Pretty decorations / On luxury tables” (57). Conflicting definitions of what counts not only as good food but as food at all again demonstrate the deception involved in claims of universality. African leaders, concerned only for their own standard of living, accept as universal Eurocentric definitions of what constitutes acceptable nourishment for human beings, waste Africa's products and resources, and add to Europe's wealth. Marija's generosity, then, is made possible by Europe's abundance, which is maintained at the cost of Africa's scarcity. Though sincerely intended, her generosity is extended in the context of Europe's role as benefactor of Africa. Aidoo exposes the hypocrisy of this self-appointed role by pointing out the irony of the economic agreements that keep Europe wealthy and Africa poor. Even when an exchange of goods appears equal, Aidoo notes that valuable African resources are traded for the rubbish Europe wishes to discard. Sissie's own country, Ghana, does not simply receive food aid. Rather, its role as receiver of Europe's hypocritical philanthropy reduces it to picking “tiny bits of / Undigested food from the / Offal of the industrial world” (53).

The greed that allows such disparity to exist between nations corrupts a society from the inside out. Sissie repeatedly notes the coldness and artificiality of the food she is served, as though its entanglement in politics has drained it of its value as nourishment. Food in Europe is about money: it is coated with chemicals, swollen with water, and packaged in tins and plastic, all to make it “look bigger and give the sellers more money” (119). It has been made obsolete as a substance that meets a basic human need. Instead, it has become a commodity that can be squandered, a sign of the corruption of a society built on the pursuit of private wealth, blind to the needs of others:

I have been to a cold strange land where dogs and cats eat better than many many children;

Where men would sit at table and eat with animals, and yet would rather die then [sic] shake the hands of other men.

Where women who say they have no time to bear children and spoil their lives would sit for many hours and feed baby dogs delicate food with spoons. …


In contrast, Sissie reminisces about an Africa in which “people was all people had,” and in which some people clung to an ethic of communal well-being (28). From “feeder road[s]” linking together various parts of the land, to people sharing “Hardly sufficient— / Meatless / Jolof rice,” Sissie calls up a series of images which create the possibility of an alternative economy and a positive social meaning for food (34).

However, Aidoo does not allow such reminiscences to develop into a theory of racial characteristics that would explain European greed and African generosity. Cooper accuses Aidoo of offering a “revived ethnic Negritude” which reverses the Europe-Africa hierarchy by exalting a myth of a national culture while creating a racist stereotype of Europe (39). But Aidoo's concern is with the conditions that drive Africans to emigrate, conditions which include a belief in the superiority of Europe. Since the evidence for this supposed superiority is access to resources and a high standard of living, she points out the source and consequences of Europe's overdevelopment: the underdevelopment of Africa and the corruption of both societies. Indeed, she is careful to consider the greed that develops out of conditions of scarcity as well as those of excess: both force a preoccupation with individual survival, and a quest for the accumulation of private wealth without regard for the consequences others may suffer.

It is possible for the Africans in Our Sister Killjoy to be uncaring and self-absorbed. It is also possible for Europeans to be sincerely generous. If entire societies have characteristics, they do so because of the behavior and mores considered appropriate in each. The mores Aidoo condemns are not the result of mythic cultural essences, but have a solid grounding in a history of unequal access to resources. Her critics' position, that Aidoo's nationalism may be a racist consolidation of an exclusionary African identity itself based on the claim of African superiority, is one which must be taken seriously. However, I suggest that though Aidoo centers and empowers Sissie and, through her, other Africans, she does so without encouraging an identity consolidated as a simplistic reaction against a monolithic European enemy.11

Again, evidence for my claim can be found in Aidoo's food imagery. The section of the narrative which describes Sissie's sojourn in Germany and her relationship with Marija is titled, “The Plums.” The plums in question are grown by Marija, who presents them to Sissie each night as they part. Sissie sees plums for the first time in Germany and is “fascinated” by their “size, sheen and succulence” (39, 40). Most obviously, the fruit manifests the abundance and wealth of Germany. It also carries the taint of the artificiality that marks the land: Marija rids the plums of their “fresh tangy taste” by softening them in polythene bags (40-41). Predictably, too, they become a symbol for whiteness through their association with Marija, whose easily flushed skin makes Sissie regard her as strangely unfinished:

It seemed as if according to the notion of her emotions Marija's skin kept switching on and switching off like a two-colour neon sign. So that watching her against the light of the dying summer sun, Sissie could not help thinking that it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something. As though the Maker had fashioned the body of a human, stuffed it into a polythene bag instead of the regular protective covering, and turned it loose into the world.


But surprisingly, Aidoo makes the plums a symbol for Sissie as well. Her protagonist loves Marija's German plums because they share many of her own qualities:

Peace of mind
Feeling free:
Knowing you are a rare article,


Finally, the plums also share with Sissie a “skin-colour almost like her own,” a color produced by “that beautiful and black Bavarian soil” (40).

A complex, multifacted symbol, the plums undermine neat binaries of good-bad, white-black, African-European. By assigning the fruit a position between two terms, Aidoo uses the plums to collapse binary oppositions, forcing attention to similarities and bridges for which binary thinking cannot account. The plums link Sissie and Marija; through them Aidoo asks the reader to consider the factors which unite and divide her characters. They reinforce the lesson learned from the intersections and mutual constructions of categories of identity formation: that no category is fundamental, unmediated by other factors, and that all identification is both strategic and split.12 Sissie cannot be a reactionary nationalist who focuses on race alone if “blackness” is not unique to Africa. Cooper accuses Aidoo of collapsing class distinctions within a “‘black-is beautiful’ catch all” (32). In fact, the only time black is explicitly beautiful in this text is as a description of Bavarian soil. The color's link to nature is not insignificant, for that connection preempts the attempt to carry differences between races to the level of the natural or the biological. At that level, black belongs anywhere and everywhere. As Sissie learns upon her arrival in Germany, it is a color which does not carry any inherent significance. It is given value, as is white, in meaning generating systems: systems of racial classification, contemporary racism, even negritude and reactionary nationalisms. Sissie's own skin, though called black, is actually the color of plums.

With race so thoroughly undermined as a natural marker of identity and difference. Our Sister Killjoy's paradoxical appeal for a black African solidarity has to be based instead on the experience of the fact that race has served as “an excuse” for injustice (12). But experience, in this text, does not replace race as the ground for “an undifferentiated and comforting black brotherhood” (Cooper 32). The text recognizes compelling differences of experience within racial groupings and equally compelling similarities across racial lines. These shifting and permeating experiences prevent the concept of experience from becoming a unifying foundation for group differentiation. Rather than provide an explanation for identities and alliances, experience itself requires historicization and explanation.13 Far from being natural or self-evident, a nationalism based on the experience of being African is necessarily coalitional.

Assessing the needs of African nations and peoples. Aidoo's character nevertheless concludes that the urgent need to oppose neo-colonialism makes some kind of nationalism necessary. Sissie expresses this through a spatial metaphor that recalls the emblematic migrancy she has rejected:

An enemy has thrown a huge boulder across our path. We have been scattered. We wander too far. We are in danger of getting completely lost. We must not allow this to happen.


Given this urgency, Aidoo represents Sissie choosing an intelligent, creative, Pan-Africanist nationalism, one that embraces contradictions and is aware of its own contingent and strategic nature. Thus Sissie acknowledges to her lover that her allegiance to Africa, while necessary, does have its limitations. One of these may be the temporary setting aside of potentially global alliances:

You, with your ecumenical sympathies have always tried to get me to realise that whatever other people eat and live on is good for all human beings. … All I wanted to say is that sometimes, I missed plain palm-oil on boiled greens.


There is no claim here that palm oil on boiled greens is inherently superior or inferior to any other food. Nor does Sissie refute her lover's trans-racial gesture. The nationalism she proposes is not based on the reversal of European racial hierarchies, the unity of a native people, the glories of a native culture, or any of the other devices which are the standard fare of reactionary nationalisms. It carries an obligation that requires sacrifice from the “self-exiles” and the “been-tos.” And from all Africans it requires a perhaps taxing combination of passionate commitment and auto-critique. Perhaps that is why Sissie's return home is “like fresh honey on the tongue: a mixture of complete sweetness and smoky roughage” (133).

My thanks to Leyla Ezdinli, Ann Rosalind Jones, and Lisa Majaj, as always, and to the readers for Research in African Literatures.


  1. For the sake of brevity, I shall follow Aidoo's metaphoric use of “nationalism,” and drop the adjectival “Pan-Africanist” that should precede it.

  2. I also follow Gupta's use of “Third World,” despite its potential for abuse, as a phrase that has “become a positive tool of solidarity in the postcolonial world system,” for example in the Nonaligned Movement (63).

  3. Though Sissie should not be confused with Aidoo, in this case the character does articulate the moral of the author's story. Sissie is never undermined as the reader's guide: the third person narrator of the text follows her sympathetically, supports her opinions, and approves her choices. Indeed the two can be so close that the distinction or movement between them is often unclear. The verse pieces, for example, are not spoken by Sissie. Perhaps they are thought by her, or perhaps they are provided by the narrator, or perhaps both. Additionally, Sissie's analyses are confirmed by the symbols and imagery of the text, which she obviously does not control.

  4. Note that Aidoo rewrites Frantz Fanon's naming of the oppressed: now, after the end of direct colonization, the wretched of this earth are women from both sides of what was once the colonial divide.

  5. This is not a claim that the birth control pill has been good for the health of Euro-American women. It has, however, played an important role in enabling women to control reproduction and hence their sexual practices.

  6. Aidoo has argued that while the oppression of women in Africa may be partly the legacy of European colonialism, “we [African women] must lay the blame for our present predicament squarely on the doorsteps of African men.” Recounting a conference in which African women writers were pressured to choose between white feminist women and anti-feminist African men, Aidoo refuses to align herself with either: “In the end, out of sheer exasperation, we told both the European feminists and the African men resident in Europe that, strange as it may seem, we African women are perfectly capable of making up our own minds and speaking for ourselves.” Declaring her independence, Aidoo indicates that Ogunyemi's vision of race solidarity through the empowerment of men is possible only through the disempowerment of women (Conference presentation, 153, 154).

  7. I am grateful to Cathy Jackman for pointing out to me that the rulers do not gain energy from this intravenous feeding. It saps whatever strength they may once have had, and their coma indicates their disregard for the suffering endured by their citizens. My thanks to her for her insights about food imagery in Our Sister Killjoy.

  8. Aidoo defines the “politics of wealth” succinctly as “who grabbed it and who held it.”

  9. My thanks to Ann Jones for this phrase.

  10. For a further discussion of self-exile, see Wilentz.

  11. Given abundant evidence of the perniciousness of nationalism in the closing years of this century, I stress my sympathy with Cooper's project. I cite her essay frequently not because I disagree with her discussion of the excesses of national/racial solidarity, but because she provides a compelling indictment of such excesses. My disagreement with Cooper has only to do with her reading of Aidoo. As I have suggested, I believe Aidoo shares many of Cooper's concerns.

  12. I have not examined two other possible divisions of people into groups in this novel: colonizer-colonized, and a very general oppressors-oppressed. Their examination would reveal a negotiation of sameness and difference that mirrors those accomplished through race, gender, and class.

  13. My argument here is informed by Joan Scott's discussion of the concept of experience.

Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Conference presentation to the Dia Center for the Arts. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Ed. Philomena Mariani. Seattle: Bay P, 1991. 151-54.

———. Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. London: Longman, 1977.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Cooper, Brenda. “Chaiba the Algerian versus Our Sister Killjoy: The Case for a Materialist Black Aesthetic.” English in Africa 12.2 (1985): 21-51.

Dunton, Chris. “‘Wheyting Be Dat?’: The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature.” Research in African Literatures 20.3 (1989): 422-48.

Gupta, Akhil. “The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism.” Cultural Anthropology 7.1 (1992): 63-79.

James, Adeola, ed. “Ama Ata Aidoo.” In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk. London: James Currey, 1990. 9-27.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs 11.1 (1985): 63-80.

Scott, Joan. “Experience.” Feminists Theorize the Political. Ed. Judith Butler and Joan Scott. New York: Routledge. 1992. 22-40.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, with Ellen Rooney. “In a Word: Interview.” differences 1.2 (1989): 124-56.

Wilentz, Gay. “The Politics of Exile: Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15.1 (1991): 159-73.

C. L. Innes (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7372

SOURCE: Innes, C. L. “Conspicuous Consumption: Corruption and the Body Politic in the Writing of Ayi Kewi Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo.” In Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, pp. 1-18. Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995.

[In the following essay, Innes discusses how political and cultural corruption relates to and influences the work of Aidoo and Ghanaian author Ayi Kewi Armah.]

At the close of A Man of the People, Chinua Achebe's novel depicting the rise and fall of a corrupt Nigerian politician, the narrator, Odili, declares:

For I do honestly believe that in the fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime just ended—a regime which inspired the common saying that a man could only be sure of what he had put away safely in his gut or, in language evermore suited to the times: ‘you chop, me self I chop, palaver finish’; a regime in which you saw a fellow cursed in the morning for stealing a blind man's stick and later in the evening saw him again mounting the altar of the new shrine in the presence of all the people to whisper into the ear of the chief celebrant—in such a regime, I say, you died a good death if your life had inspired someone to come forward and shoot your murderer in the chest—without asking to be paid.1

This passage encapsulates themes and metaphors that are common to a number of novels emanating from West Africa in the late 1960's and early 1970's. In many of these novels, a preoccupation with political corruption and consumer capitalism is mediated through images of the consumption of food, eating, bodily decay, and defecation. To these images are linked metaphors of pollution, which may be imaged as natural or cultural or linguistic, ‘a language evermore suited to the times’. As in Odili's flight of rhetoric, the association between political and cultural corruption or pollution is assumed and so powerfully interwoven as to pass easily unquestioned by the reader. Frequently disgust at political corruption is also linked to a disgust for the body and its processes. (An earlier and fairly lighthearted example can be found in Sagoe's satiric philosophy of ‘Voidancy’ read at length to his patient underlings in Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters.2) It is this intertwining of metaphors and attitudes I wish to try and untangle in this essay, so that we can begin to follow the political and psychological implications inherent in that collapsing of different meanings of consumption and corruption—as moral and political temptation or wrongdoing, as natural decay, and as pollution. Although other writers will be mentioned in passing, my focus will be on the responses of two contemporaneous Ghanaian writers, Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo, to the later years of Nkrumah's regime and to Nkrumah's political manifestos.

The 1960's African novel with the most intense concentration and intermingling of such images is surely Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born,3 first published two years after A Man of the People. In the first chapter of this novel, the reader and the nameless protagonist alike are unceasingly assaulted with the smells, sights, and feel of physical decay and corruption. The bus conductor breathes in happily ‘the rotten stench’ of an illicitly withheld cedi note; the protagonist sleeps in a pool of drool trickling from his own mouth; he passes filthy litter bins piled high with rubbish and oozing with waste. The chapter ends with the Man's disgusted recoil from the feel of the wooden banisters in his place of work, the Railway and Harbours Administration Block: ‘The touch of the banister on the balls of his fingertips had something uncomfortably organic about it. … The sight was like that of a very long piece of diseased skin.’ Although parts of the following passage have been cited and discussed by many critics before, including Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo, I quote these two paragraphs in full below, because they manifest so potently several features of Armah's writing in this novel:

The wood underneath would win and win till the end of time. Of that there was no doubt possible, only the pain of hope perennially doomed to disappointment. It was so clear. Of course it was in the nature of the wood to rot with age. The polish, it was supposed, would catch the rot. But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight, being was enough. In the natural course of things it would always take the newness of the different kinds of polish and the vaunted cleansing power of the chemicals in them, and it would convert all to victorious filth, awaiting yet more polish again and again and again. And the wood was not alone.

Apart from the wood itself there were, of course, people themselves, just so many hands and fingers bringing help to the wood in its course toward putrefaction. Left-hand fingers in their careless journey from a hasty anus sliding all the way up the banister as their owners made the return trip from the lavatory downstairs to the offices above. Right-hand fingers still dripping with the after-piss and the stale sweat from fat crotches. The callused palms of messengers after they had blown their clogged noses reaching for a convenient place to leave the well-rubbed moisture. Afternoon hands not entirely licked clean of palm soup and remnants of kenkey. The wood would always win.

(The Beautyful Ones, pp. 14-15)

The preoccupation with decay and corruption, reiterated persistently through the novel, is imaged as a natural and inevitable process intrinsic to the wood, but which is hastened by external, human corruption, or by the addition of human waste matter and decay. There is, as in A Man of the People, but here even more intensely and rebarbatively, the mounting disgust and piling-up of images of bodily repulsiveness. But while Odili's disgust turns to celebrating, however naively and romantically, a moment of ‘pure’ heroism and human intervention, the Man's imagination turns in the second paragraph to an increasingly excremental, repelled and repellant vision of human interaction. What is also striking and typical of Armah's style in this, his first novel, is the seemingly incongruous jump from a meditation on a not very clean wooden banister to abstract and absolute philosophical conclusions, to ‘only the pain of hope perennially doomed to disappointment’. So much hope and despair invested in one wooden banister! It is the accumulation of images in the sentences following this which overwhelms the reader, and perhaps the meditator, and prevents either from stopping and questioning the equivalence, and indeed the logic, between the natural image and the philosophical assertion. Armah's critics have not escaped this difficulty in mediating between the concrete and the visionary, and on the whole have wavered between ascribing Armah's attitudes to those of a man overwhelmed by existential excrementalism or the more Platonic vision of the Teacher, who has removed himself from the squalor and the struggle.4 Robert Fraser responded to such critics by arguing that the novel depicts accurately and forcefully the situation of the typical working-class Ghanaian, ‘not like Sartre's characters … a free agent [but] in common with all the other characters … an expression of his society’.5 More recently, detailed explorations of Armah's debts to Akan myth and to the work of Fanon have modified and questioned these earlier reactions and read the novel in dialectical terms. Derek Wright persuasively argues that the novel counterpoints two kinds of time, cyclical time related to communal values and ritual, and linear, chronological time, tied to Western concepts of individual progress.6 But ‘traditional’ African time has been robbed of meaning, and has become mere repetition in neo-colonial Ghana. Wright perceptively describes the differing experiences of time for the poor and the wealthy:

There is a bitter inverse proportion between the small precious time which the leaders have at their disposal to rush through vast amounts of leisure consumption, and the heavily redundant hours over which the office clerks have to stretch out their tiny amounts of unproductive work. The two categories of experience are mutually determinative. The rich who cram their time with frivolities and novelties are seen to create a vacuum of time for the poor to live and work in, since the government's corrupt neglect of production and services leads to stopped trains, uncollected refuse and bureaucratic boredom in jobs without work. Time ‘consumed’ by the big men thus generates a residue of time as ‘waste’ for poor men, time spent inactive in enforced boredom.

(Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa, pp. 90-1)

All that is produced in the Railway office is time, timesheets, overtime slips, graphic time recording cancellations and stoppages. At the end of the novel, the two kinds of time collapse into one another, as Koomson runs out of time, plunges through a parodic version of expulsion which is both excrement and rebirth, and the Man returns to begin the whole weary repetition of work and family demand again, his mind ‘consumed with thoughts of everything he was going back to—Oyo, the eyes of the children after six o'clock, the office and every day, and above all the never-ending knowledge that this aching emptiness would be all that the remainder of his own life could offer him’ (The Beautyful Ones, p. 215 [my italics]).

For Neil Lazarus the novel should be read as a dialectic between the real and the visionary, and he would have Armah's readers give far more weight to the hope invested in the Man's heroic resistance to corruption.7 Both Wright and Lazarus also emphasise the influence of Fanon, especially of The Wretched of the Earth and the chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’, on Armah's portrayal of Ghana's elite, the new leaders who merely ape the colonisers, and thus betray the masses.8

But the novel is not so much a testament to ‘the fatal legacy of Western time values for modern Africa when they become the exclusive possession of a privileged minority’ (Wright, Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa, p. 92), as to the fatal legacy of Western capitalism and consumerism, which distorts time and communal values marked by seasonal and cyclical ritual. In the modern Ghana portrayed by Armah, nothing is produced; there is only consumption and waste. In his first two novels, the emphasis on European and American imports, such as Toyotas, whisky, beer, and refrigerators, or the representation of Estella Koomson as a woman who despises all things African, can be read not only as a satire on the mimicry by black men of white men, as in Achebe's A Man of the People or Soyinka's early play The Lion and the Jewel; it can also be read as part of an economic analysis. Thus, on the one hand, Armah's novel takes from Fanon the argument that dependency is the psychopathology of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The novel draws as well on a Marxist analysis of capitalism which might have found favour with Nkrumah in the first stages of his regime before it adopted the romantic versions of ‘African Socialism’ which Armah condemned in an essay written at about the same time he was working on his first novel. Armah's essay, ‘African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific’, published in 1967, offers a scornful critique of what he terms the ‘myth’ of African Socialism, or communalism, promulgated by Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere, not least for the contradictions implicit in their elevation of the pomp and grandeur of past African kings and kingdoms simultaneously with their insistence on essentialist African spirituality which values the welfare of the community above individual wealth and fulfilment.9 Armah quotes from Nkrumah's 1964 manifesto, Consciencism, which argues that pre-colonial African societies represented an original and pure form of socialism, where ‘if one seeks the social political ancestor of Socialism one must go to Communalism. Socialism stands to Communalism as Capitalism stands to Slavery.’10 The myth of an Edenic Africa, Armah argues, allows African leaders to pretend that the mere dispersal of colonialism will allow Eden to be restored. Romantic African Socialism thus bypasses the necessary ‘purgatorial stages’, the class struggle which according to ‘Scientific Socialism’ must precede the establishment of an egalitarian order. Armah comments further:

It is important to note that Socialism is here conceived of as a projection into the present and the future of certain moral qualities that are supposed to have been characteristic of pre-colonial Africa. As to the location and time and space of this virtuous old Africa, the available formulae are vague and at times unhistorical tales of kings dressed in scintillating robes, possessing countless slaves and spending gold with grand insouciance. These fables defeat the purpose of African Socialism, for though they might warm the cockles of spectacle hungry bourgeois nationalist hearts, they leave any informed socialist quite unimpressed. Conspicuous waste of resources in conditions of scarcity is not one of the tenets of Socialism.

(‘African Socialism’, p. 24)

Armah concludes his essay by directing his readers to the study of Frantz Fanon's analysis of the ‘mystification’ practised by African leaders.

The particular emphasis in Armah's first two novels on consumption and waste as a continuing metaphor for the impact of consumer capitalism on Ghanaian society and its values may also be linked to another aspect of Fanon's writing, the chapter on ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorders’ in The Wretched of the Earth. In several of the cases, the symptoms of mental distress include eating disorders, difficulty eating or swallowing, accompanied often by distaste for all physical contact. Fanon links the ‘mental anorexia’ in these cases to the denial of humanity and the sense of prevailing injustice experienced under the rule of the colonisers. Of one Algerian prisoner sent to his hospital for treatment, Fanon writes:

What we saw in front of us was a thoughtful, depressed man, suffering from a loss of appetite, who kept to his bed. He avoided political discussion and showed a marked lack of interest in everything to do with the national struggle. He avoided listening to any news which had a bearing on the war of liberation.

(The Wretched of the Earth, p. 256; but see also pp. 274, 276, 282)

Although Armah is writing about the period after independence, his portrayal of Teacher might well be summarised in Fanon's description of this Algerian's symptoms. The similarity between these two cases might lead us to be wary of the supposition that Teacher speaks on behalf of Armah. Rather, his withdrawal may be seen as a pathological response, not to colonial, but to neo-colonial Ghana, and Armah may be read as leading us to conclude that the effects are similar.

A more pronounced but comparable response to the discovery that the ‘revolution’ promised by African leaders such as Nkrumah had been betrayed and corrupted is delineated in Armah's third novel, Why are We So Blest?, when Solo describes his reaction to the discovery that the Angolan independence leaders are contributing to the inequality their rhetoric denounces:

The initiation was a quick death of the hopeful spirit. For days my body shook with the realization. Refusing to renew itself, rejecting sustenance, it threw out life already stored in it. All my apertures ran with fluid, living and dead, escaping a body unwilling to hold them; blood, urine, vomit, tears, diarrhea, pus.11

Teacher's response is less extreme than Solo's and less self-destructive than Kofi Billy's suicide, or Manaan's madness, or Rama Krishnan's refusal of food, but it derives from the same ‘nervous condition’ and provides no solution to the problem.12 Indeed, as Rama Krishna's death from consumption and fasting reveals, it may only hasten the process of corruption.

Nevertheless, denial of food can bring momentary relief, as it does for Armah's protagonist in The Beautyful Ones:

The sourness that had been gathering in his mouth went imperceptibly away until quite suddenly all he was aware of was the exceedingly sharp clarity of vision and the clean taste that comes with the successful defiance of hunger. … Nothing oppressed him as he walked along now, and even the slight giddiness accompanying the clarity of his starved vision was buried way beneath the unaccustomed happy lightness.

(p. 26)

For perhaps an hour or two, the refusal of food allows release from cycle of desire, consumption, waste. The ‘clarity of his starved vision’ also highlights for the Man the symbolism of the clear water which escapes momentarily from the banked-up dirt, to appreciate briefly the ‘purity and peace’ of that ‘clearness before the inevitable muddying’, and to contrast it with the ‘ambiguous disturbing tumult within awakened by the gleam’. Now he is emptied of desire, and the thought of food brings ‘a picture of its eating and its spewing out, of its beginning and endings, so that no desire arose asking to be controlled’ (p. 28). This moment of vision and relief presages and encapsulates the longer moment of escape and relief which ends the book, the expulsion of Koomson, the long cleansing swim in the sea, before the Man's slow return to the demands of ‘the loved ones’ and the new regime with its old corruption.

The recurring analogy between eating, temptation, desire and corruption, of necessity implies the inevitability of corruption, since man must eat, food must be digested, and finally evacuated. Nowhere is there pleasure in eating: food can never be an end in itself, but is always a mere necessity for the poor, and a sign of status for the wealthy. It is a world, as Teacher declares, where there are ‘No saviours. Only the hungry and the fed. Deceivers all’ (p. 106). Bribery and eating are frequently equated, as is wealth and food. Thus, as in Ngũgĩ's Devil on the Cross, the corrupt and the wealthy are not merely well-fed, but grotesquely fat and flabby.13 Armah's description of Koomson's double chin, his chubbiness, his inability to fit comfortably in the chair provided by the man, his flabby hands, all connect him to the nation's rulers before and after colonisation. As Armah comments: ‘And vet these were the socialists of Africa, fat, perfumed, soft with the ancestral softness of chiefs who have sold their people and are celestially happy with the fruits of the trade’ (pp. 153-4). The sentence might well be read as a direct rebuttal of Nkrumah's celebration of an original and essential socialist Africa, innocent of class division. The ‘fruits’ mentioned here recall an earlier point in the novel associating celestial happiness with the collaboration between black and white men in depriving Africans of ‘fruits’ which rightfully belong to them, when the Man remembers the incident of the stolen mangoes from the white man's garden (pp. 78-80). Here the mangoes become a forbidden fruit in a paradisal enclosure. The boys steal the fruits, but before they can eat them are forced to run and, in an image which foreshadows Koomson's escape at the end of the novel, squeeze through a tiny hole at the bottom of the wall, and run away from the paradisal white garden, which, however, encloses not European apple trees, but African mangoes and almonds.

The analogy here with the biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of man for eating the forbidden fruit, reminds us how widespread and fundamental is this association of eating with desire for greater power and knowledge, the desire to be godlike. It also reminds us of the widespread association between such temptations and the role of women as temptresses. Throughout the novel, Oyo is portrayed as a kind of Eve, urging the Man to eat of the forbidden fruit, and so become godlike. Certainly the Man believes that she provides the main source or pressure of temptation to sin, to lose his purity, and Teacher endorses this reiterated view of the dangerous seduction of ‘the loved ones’:

But you know that the loved ones are dead even when they walk around the earth like the living, and you know that all they want is that you throw away the thing in your mind that makes you think you are still alive, and their embrace will be a welcome unto death.

(pp. 64-5)

Here, ‘the loved ones’ have become like those so named in Evelyn Waugh's novel, the living dead; they are vampire figures, who will suck the life and goodness from those who fall into their embrace.14 Oyo envies and would like to emulate Estella Koomson, who is also scathingly satirised as more desperate to disassociate herself from all things African than her husband, able to consume only Western drinks, and shrinking from the contamination of poverty in the man's house.

In West Africa, the figure of Mammy Water provides an indigenous myth of the dangerously seductive female. She features in Achebe's story, ‘Uncle Ben's Choice’, recurs in many of Soyinka's plays and in his novels, perhaps most potently as Simi in The Interpreters, and, as both Sarah Chetin and Derek Wright have demonstrated, her myth plays a significant role in Armah's first two novels and in his fellow Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor's novel, This Earth, My Brother15 Like the mermaid in Western mythologies, the role of Mammy Water is an ambiguous one. In ‘Uncle Ben's Choice’, she offers the seductions of wealth in return for renunciation of family attachments, and Uncle Ben feels his choice of ‘loved ones’ has been a wise one. In The Beautyful Ones, however, Teacher seems to have rejected Manaan (as Wright points out, her association with the sea and her promise of unworldly knowledge and power through wine and ‘wee’ marks her as a Mammy Water figure), and in so doing has rejected wealth and family as well.

For Armah and Awoonor, the Mammy Water figure seems to signify not merely the dangers of seduction and false knowledge, but also an Africa which has been despoiled and calls for redemption. This is how Awoonor speaks of Dede and Adisa, respectively the cousin and mistress of his protagonist Amamu:

Adisa is a warm womanly woman, the essence of womanhood, the essence of Africa in a way: or one aspect of Africa. Adisa is like Africa, like the little girl who is raped and dies before she has even been initiated into the puberty rites. All that lives on is her tiny mite of woman's wisdom. And so we see her again as the mermaid, the woman of the sea. … I was trying to incorporate the imagery of that myth into another symbol of Africa. Somewhere she does exist as the final repository of wisdom. … She knows what I must do, what Amamu must do, what we all must do. And I must go with her in order to acquire this knowledge and survive the truncation of the soul that society imposes. Unless we follow this path to wisdom, the Dance of Death will continue, onward and onward.16

Armah's novel, like Awoonor's, also includes in contrast to the seductive Dede/Adisa/Manaan figure, a demanding and dangerous Oyo figure. Amamu's wife, like Oyo and Estella Koomson, seeks all the consumer goods and accoutrements of the West. Her Anglo-African name, Alice Johnson, contrasts with Adisa's wholly African one. She is associated not with the sea, fields of butterflies and almond trees, but with the airport (where she is first introduced). Her teeth, unlike the gapped teeth of Adisa and Dede, are ‘pure and artificial, products of one of those little factories in Europe that specialise in articles that could be stuck into any receptacle on the human body’ (This Earth, My Brother …, p. 124). Oyo's deviation from African naturalness is figured in the Caesarian scar which inhibits the man's rare moment of desire for her. But whether ‘vampire’ or ‘mermaid’, cold and demanding or ‘warm, womanly woman’, each figure is in some sense a cause of Africa's corruption—Dede and Manaan by their very vulnerability, their innocent eagerness to offer themselves to others, and ultimately the prostitution of their bodies; Oyo and Alice by their failure to recognise the worth of the protagonist who can be their true redeemer, and their prostitution of ‘African values’ for European ones.

Like Armah's Man, Awoonor's protagonist escapes from the artificial and empty ‘gleam’ promised by upper-middle-class suburbia and chatter to the sea. His escape also involves a journey through the ‘dungheap’ of the city to save another human being, through the shanty towns huddled around two huge latrines and circumvented by gutters which carry the city's filth. But while Armah's protagonist returns, reluctantly, to ‘the loved ones’, Amamu escapes into madness and his vision of the woman of the sea, as Manaan also sinks into madness.

Although Ama Ata Aidoo's two plays offer a different perspective on the roles of African men and women in contributing to the desertion of traditional African values and contemporary corruption, there are correspondences with Armah's portrayal of Ghana during Nkrumah's regime. Her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost, interestingly foreshadows Armah's second novel in its dramatisation of the search of an African-American woman for wholeness in Africa with her been-to lover.17 Eulalie's demand for refrigerators and Coca-Cola, her refusal to have children, her alienation from African foods and family expectations are all traits which make her comparable to Oyo, Estella, Efua (Baako's mother in Armah's second novel, Fragments18), and Alice. But the play ends with her recognising and being recognised by her mother-in-law, and her movement towards African communal values while Kofi, her been-to husband, remains alienated. Aidoo's second play reviews the role of women in urging Westernisation, however. Written in the final years of Nkrumah's increasingly disreputable reign, and completed the year before Armah's first novel was published (although not performed until 1969), Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa also takes up the theme of corruption and heroic resistance by refusal. Like Armah, Aidoo links the inroads of capitalism and a consumer-oriented society to Africa's internal history of slavery and class division. Like Awoonor's Amamu and Armah's Baako (in Fragments) her protagonist disintegrates into madness at the end. But unlike the central figures in those two novels, her protagonist is a woman and, as the title signifies, she is a heroine in her own right, not as a symbol of ‘the essence of womanhood, the essence of Africa’ who awaits a male redeemer. In Aidoo's second play, it is not Anowa but her husband who presses for consumer goods, and who seeks to turn Anowa herself into an ornament, a status symbol.

It is possible to see Anowa as a rewriting of two dominant versions of African history proposed by two fathers, Chinua Achebe as literary father and Kwame Nkrumah as political father. Aidoo has expressed her admiration for Achebe, and indeed declares that he inspired her to write.19Anowa, like Aidoo's earlier play, is characterised by its use of an Africanised English idiom reminiscent of Achebe's, drawing on proverb, folk tale, and the imagery of rural village life. Like Things Fall Apart it is set first in a rural village untouched by the impact of European mores and customs, and ends with the figurative presence of Queen Victoria and the suicide of the hero whose shame is linked to loss of manhood. Denied poetry and music, Nwoye rebels against his conservative father, leaves his community, and seeks fulfilment in Christianity; denied a career as priestess or dancer, Anowa rebels against her conservative mother, leaves her community and seeks fulfilment in what is often claimed to be another European ideal, romance. But whereas the main sources of corruption of traditional African values in Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God are religious, Aidoo emphasises economic causes, and links them to the fate of the marginalised characters in Achebe's works, women and slaves.

In her foregrounding of the issue of slavery and its acceptance by Ghanaians for the creation of their own wealth in the nineteenth century, Aidoo's rebuttal of Nkrumah's portrayal of traditional African society is even more emphatic than Armah's. Her play rejects the idealisation of traditional Africa as devoid of class divisions, and at the same time brings to the fore the issue of gender divisions. Its plot also parallels Nkrumah's rise and fall, reiterating the charismatic appeal of its male protagonist, Kofi Ako, who appears at first in working clothes and seems to promise Anowa a life of comradeship and shared productivity, but ends in sterile and ostentatious display, having as Anowa declares, ‘exhausted [his] masculinity acquiring slaves and wealth’ (p. 61).

Anowa takes as one of its main themes the link between the objectification of women and economic structures which demand slave labour or a division between producers and consumers. In becoming a mere consumer, Kofi Ako becomes sterile; he ‘eats up’ his own manhood, and is incapable of producing children. As in Armah's Railway Administration Block, work also becomes meaningless; everything is for show, and the ultimate dramatisation of waste labour is surely the slave children fanning Kofi Ako's empty chair. The slave children, who call Kofi and Anowa ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’, represent the distortion of meaningful family ties in a society which no longer provides models of productive activity. No longer permitted to participate in the work of trading, Anowa drifts aimlessly around the opulent house. Like Armah's protagonists she becomes an object of scorn and contempt because of her refusal to deny her convictions. Her insistence on remaining true to her own vision that slavery is wrong and that men and women must live by the fruits of their own labour involves also her refusal to be merely a status symbol, the elegantly adorned wife of a rich man. Thus for Anowa, what she is and what she wears are inextricably connected, and she refuses to change her apparel from the old cloth she wore as co-labourer and partner to Kofi. In contrast, Kofi's changing apparel, from work clothes to leisure clothes to opulent gold cloth and jewelry, represents not only his loss of authenticity but his ‘feminisation’. In turning himself into a mere status symbol, Kofi becomes a ‘woman’. As Anowa blurts out, ‘My husband is a woman now … he is a corpse. He is dead wood. But less than dead wood because at least, that sometimes grows mushrooms’ (p. 62). But in betraying himself, Kofi has also betrayed Anowa, who despite the energy and vision which allowed her to ‘make something’ of Kofi, can find no significant role of her own except implicitly as one who speaks truths and reveals what is hidden. Anowa and Baako, the protagonist of Armah's second novel, both seek to demystify, to remind the community of Africa's true past, involving slavery, and its present betrayal of the vision of a just and egalitarian society which was promised with independence. Both are cast out as a result, and branded as madman and witch.

Aidoo's plays eschew the squalor and exrementalism which dominate the early novels of Armah and Awoonor, although like Soyinka's Sagoe she notes, in her story ‘For Whom Things Do Not Change’, that in newly independent Africa it is not skin colour but the lavatory which most clearly marks class distinctions. Ama Ata Aidoo's very favourable review of The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, particularly endorsing its unrelenting castigation of Nkrumah and contemporary Ghana, indicates that she shared Armah's assessment of the condition of Ghana, and it is interesting to note that Armah's second novel is dedicated to Ama Ata.20 Both authors end their second major work ambiguously. Aidoo's stage directions state that for the producer ‘the choice is open’ whether to end the play with Anowa's final exit, or with the epilogue in which the Old Man and Old Woman explicitly tell the audience that Anowa has also committed suicide (Anowa, p. 3). It is not clear from the final pages of Fragments whether Baako will be ‘healed’ in the psychiatric hospital under Juana's care, whether he will sink into permanent ‘madness’, or whether he will be forced to take the drugs which curtail his vision. The later works of Armah and Aidoo diverge, however. Armah's African protagonists in Why are We So Blest? (1972) find only disillusionment and death when they return to Africa from the West, while Two Thousand Seasons seems in many ways to endorse the very analysis Armah had condemned so forcefully in his essay on ‘African Socialism’. Although here, and in his later novel The Healers (1978) he is consistent in his contempt of the ostentation, show and inequality of African royalty, he also seems to promulgate Nkrumah's ‘myth’ of an essential African communalism to be found in ‘the way’ and among ‘the Healers,’ an African communalism which can only come into being when all foreign influences have been dispersed.

In the decade after Nkrumah's fall, Armah's writing moves towards myth and historical romance, where good and evil are clearly distinguished, the corrupt are bloated and ugly while the good are lithe, beautiful and good at games. Aidoo's writing after Anowa, on the other hand, is set firmly in the present, and discards any suggestion of the allegorical. Whereas Anowa, like Armah's protagonists, is able at great cost to maintain her integrity, her separateness, Aidoo's men and women in her stories and later novels find the borders between good and evil much more blurred. The well-intentioned teacher of the title story in No Sweetness Here fails to come to terms with her own responsibility for the well-being of her pupils and is unable to offer comfort to the mother of one who is bitten by a snake.21 The disapproving and concerned older sister in ‘Two Sisters’ benefits from the gifts brought by a corrupt politician for the sister who is his mistress. Our Sister Killjoy fragments the narrative voice to dissipate the illusion of a unified self grounded in a sure sense of moral certainty.22 Such fragmentation is also linked to the ways in which different languages and audiences may influence self-images and relations to others. Sissie's overhearing of herself named ‘das Schwartze Madchen’ in Germany forces her for the first time to become aware not only of herself but others in terms of skin colour (pp. 39-40). Her visit to Europe also makes her aware of her body as consuming and consumable, and the long section titled ‘Plums’ which recounts this visit is replete with imagery of food, eating and desire. Sissie's first encounter with fresh plums also occurs in Europe and is redolent of her changing awareness of self as seen in the mirror of European eyes:

So she had good reason to feel fascinated by the character of Marija's plums. They were of a size, sheen and succulence she had not encountered anywhere else in those foreign lands. … What she was not aware of, though, was that those Bavarian plums owed their glory in her eyes and on her tongue not only to that beautiful and black Bavarian soil, but also to other qualities that she herself possessed at that material time:

Peace of mind
Feeling free:
Knowing you are a rare article,

So she sat, Our Sister, her tongue caressing the plump berries with skin-colour almost like her own, while Marija told her how she had selected them specially for her, off the single tree in the garden.

(Our Sister Killjoy, pp. 39-40)

Like the mangoes and the ‘celestial fruits’ fenced off in the European gardens recalled in Armah's novel, the plums ‘selected specially for her, off the single tree in the garden’, may tempt and seduce the innocent African protagonist. Marija attempts to seduce Sissie, and the desire to be admired and loved by this quite appealing young German woman is indeed enticing. Nor are the plums deceptive in their appearance, as were the mangoes which in the end tasted green and sour. For Sissie and her compatriots, the attraction of Europe and the United States has much to do with the abundance of good foods they offer for the appreciative consumer, and the resulting sense of well-being. Here Sissie is what she consumes, ‘her tongue caressing the plump berries with skin-colour almost like her own’. The ‘almost’ is significant, however. Marija offers Sissie a flattering and lovable self-image, but Sissie realises that she herself is in danger of being consumed, and rejects Marija's advances. However, in her refusal of Marija there is also complexity and blurring of motives. As Caroline Rooney points out, Sissie

ultimately cannot allow herself to be seduced: she will not respond to the demand for love that the working husband, the wage slave, fails to supply. In refusing to take the German husband's place, she reduplicates it in not meeting Marija's, the wife's demand, as Sissie realises. She realises that she comes to occupy the place of ungiving white male, empowered by the vulnerability of another person.23

And for a moment Sissie also feels the pleasure of that power.

What I particularly want to draw attention to in this episode is the blurring of roles; the distinctions between male and female, black and white, self and other, consumer and consumed, moral and immoral, are repeatedly constructed and deconstructed. The heroine's selves are multiple; there is no single authentic self to whom she can remain true by refusing the impositions of others. Whereas in Armah's fiction and in Aidoo's drama, language is transparent and categories remain distinct, in Aidoo's later fiction, the sense of a problematic identity is linked to the sense of language as a confused and blurring medium which obscures political and personal relationships: ‘Since so far I have only been able to use a language that enslaved me, and therefore, the messengers of my mind always come shackled’ (Our Sister Killjoy, p. 112). Paradoxically, however, the realisation of the lack of clear boundaries, the urgent internal debate and self-questioning as well as the external debate which constitutes the novel, leads not to despair and withdrawal, or the stoical endurance of endlessly reiterated cycles of consumption and waste, but a positive re-identification with the African continent and return to rejoice in its sensual qualities: ‘Besides she was back in Africa. And that felt like fresh honey on the tongue: a mixture of complete sweetness and smoky roughage. Below was home with its unavoidable warmth and even after these thousands of years, its uncertainties’ (p. 133).

Almost two decades after the publication of Aidoo's and Armah's earliest works, another African country with a Socialist programme has produced two writers whose visions and imagery bear comparison with those of Armah and Aidoo, and both of whom have to some extent drawn on Fanon. Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger and Black Sunlight plunge the reader into squalor and disorder far more surreal than the world portrayed by Armah, but equally repellent and full of disgust for the body, especially the female body. Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions has two young female protagonists who resist mental and material corruption by refusing. Images of eating, digesting and excretion recur throughout the novel. Tambudzai, the narrator, tells how her brother hated riding on the bus because ‘the women smelt of unhealthy reproductive odours, the children were inclined to relieve their upset bowels on the floor, and the men gave off strong aromas of productive labour.’24 Like Aidoo's Kofi, Tambudzai's brother resists ‘productive labour’, including work on the farm, and aspires to the status of privileged and educated male, marked by having others work for him and carry his bags. As did the Ghanaian writers of an earlier generation, Marechera and Dangarembga express the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism in terms of an assault on the body, a condition which is internalised, and becomes indistinguishable from the daily cycle of consumption, digestion and evacuation. Like so many of Armah's and Aidoo's protagonists, the majority succumb to temptation; they take of the fruit and eat, in their desire to emulate the powerful and the wealthy. But a few defy the temptation, by violent rejection—oral, anal and sexual, as in Marechera's fiction, or by refusal to allow the food to become part of the system, as in the case of Nyasha, Tambudzai's cousin, who consumes and then secretly vomits up her food, or refuses to eat. In all cases, there seems to be a choice only between welcoming insidious destruction by others and self-destruction by refusal, through anorexia or madness. Only Aidoo's later fiction envisions the possibility of a less harmful process of consumption, of welcoming and becoming part of an Africa which feels ‘like fresh honey on the tongue.’ But the optimism of this ending, with its invocation of natural foods and rejection of European consumer goods, is qualified by its abandonment of hope for those African men who, is Sissie's narrative, have so succumbed to its seductions that they can no longer detach themselves from the West and have been consumed by it.


  1. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People, London: Heinemann, 1966, p. 167.

  2. Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters, London: André Deustch, 1965; published in Heinemann African Writers Series in 1970.

  3. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968; published in Heinemann African Writers Series in 1969. Further references will be to the Heinemann edition and will be included in the text.

  4. See, for example, ‘Africa and Her Writers’, Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: Heinemann, 1975, pp. 19-29.

  5. Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, London: Heinemann, 1980, pp. 15-29.

  6. Derek Wright, Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa, London: Hans Zell, 1989, pp. 90-1.

  7. Neil Lazarus, Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 46-79.

  8. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1965; New York: Grove Press, 1968; first published in French in 1961. Page references will be to the Grove Press edition.

  9. Ayi Kwei Armah, ‘African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific’, Présence Africaine, No. 64, 1967), pp. 6-30.

  10. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism, London: Heinemann, 1964, p. 20.

  11. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why are We So Blest?, London: Heinemann, 1974, p. 114.

  12. ‘Nervous conditions’ borrows Sartre's description of ‘native’: ‘The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent’, ‘Introduction’, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 20. The phrase is taken as the title of her first novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, London: The Women's Press, 1988.

  13. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Devil on the Cross, London: Heinemann, 1982; first published in Gikuyu 1980.

  14. Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One, London: Chapman & Hall, 1948.

  15. See Sara Chetin, ‘Armah's Women’, Kunapipi, Vol. 6 No. 3 (1984), pp. 47-56. Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother …, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1972. In a seminar discussion at the University of Nice in 1993, Professor Jacqueline Bardolph commented that certain features of Mammy Water as she is depicted in African art and folk legend may derive from the figureheads on European ships, including slave ships, which visited West Africa.

  16. Interview with John Goldblatt, Transition, No. 41 (1972), p. 44. Regarding his poetry and his first novel, Kofi Awoonor has commented: ‘My concern is not … to provide a picture of a particular society at a particular time, but rather to provide through a series of selected images, the idea of a continuous process of corruptibility which the human society without strength and vision can be locked in’. Personal letter to Richard Priebe, quoted R. Priebe, Myth, Realism and the West African Writer, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1988, p. 65.

  17. Ama Ata Aidoo, Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa, London: Longman, 1987. Dilemma of a Ghost was first published in 1965, while Anowa was first published in 1970.

  18. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969; London: Heinemann, 1970.

  19. See Maxine McGregor, Interview with Aidoo in African Writers Talking, ed. Duerden and Piertese, London: Heinemann, 1972, pp. 19-27, in which Aidoo discusses Anowa.

  20. In ‘No Saviours’, African Writers on African Writing, ed. G. D. Killam, London: Heinemann, 1973, pp. 14-18. See also Aidoo's review of Oginga Odinga's Not Yet Uhuru in the same 1967 issue of Présence Africaine as Armah's essay on African Socialism. Reading Odinga's book, she concludes, ‘any non-East African would come to understand why in certain quarters [Kenyatta] is the most hated African politician next to Kwame Nkrumah’, Présence Africaine, No. 64, p. 181).

  21. Ama Ata Aidoo, No Sweetness Here, London: Longman, 1970.

  22. Ama Ata Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy, London: Longman, 1981. Page references will be to this edition and will be included in the text.

  23. C. L. Innes and Caroline Rooney, ‘African Writing and Gender’, in Writing and Africa, ed. Paul Hyland and M. H. Msiska. To be published by Longman, 1995.

  24. Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, London: The Women's Press, 1988, p. 1.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan (review date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Review of No Sweetness Here and Other Stories, by Ama Ata Aidoo. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 205-06.

[In the following review, Afzal-Khan comments on No Sweetness Here on the occasion of its reprinting over twenty-five years after its original publication.]

The republishing of this 1970 collection of short stories by one of Africa's leading ladies of letters is indeed a welcome event for all readers of African fiction, but especially for teachers eager to include works by African women in a variety of courses. As Ketu Katrak points out in a readable and informative afterword, “One key manifestation of rendering women writers insignificant is to render them out of print, as in Aidoo's case.” Well, thanks to the Feminist Press, at least that obstacle to the recognition of women's literary work is being overcome to some degree. We can, in Aidoo's case, now turn to the task of assessing the merits of this particular collection, for as she herself has written in an essay quoted in the afterword, “The only important question is the critical recognition of a book's existence—not necessarily approbation.”

Certainly there is much to recognize and approve of in the stories collected in No Sweetness Here. Aidoo uses her dramatist's skills to create an immediacy of environment and experience into which the reader is drawn, almost as participant rather than observer. The emotional lives of characters are conveyed palpably, making us share in their confusions and sorrows born of repeated failures and defeats as well as occasional joys and triumphs. Huge themes of personal and political betrayal, modernity versus tradition, changing gender roles and the impact of colonialism on African (Ghanaian) culture, relationships between women and between women and the men in their lives, as well as intergenerational conflicts and resolutions—all these figure prominently in the eleven stories. Yet, for all of their complexity, there is nothing heavy-handed about the stories. Rather, these are tales that deliberately evoke the so-called simplicity of an oral culture, but do so with an irony aimed at the smugly sophisticated (read: western/ized) reader as well as at many of the characters and conventions represented in the stories. Thus, Setu's repeated refrain to her husband—“I do not know, Zirigu, I do not know, my husband”—whenever she is about to contradict him sets the stage for the multiple ironies being explored in the story “For Whom Things Did Not Change.” In her case, she knows only too well that her husband is wrong in his resigned attitude toward the fate of poor people like himself in the wake of Ghana's supposed “independence.” Yet, aware of the subservient role she is supposed to play as wife, she must be careful how she couches her opinions. The rest of the story explores the ironies of postcolonialism, in which corrupt native elites have replaced the former colonial masters. The capping irony—and emblematic of the tone set by the rest of the collection—is that when Zirigu finally exhibits some spark of rebellion against the ruling order that can't see fit to provide folks like him with even a proper toilet, it is Setu who counsels resignation, accepting defeat.

In the title story a woman who decides to challenge the patriarchal codes and sue for divorce, even if it means giving up her beloved son to the boy's father, ends up broken by the sudden death of this son, killed by the bite of a poisonous snake. It seems that even nature will punish a woman who tries to be strong and fly in the face of convention. The majority of stories in this collection tell similar tales, where women learn to be strong in response to men's fickleness and abuse. The men are portrayed as generally weak of character, most often as corrupt “big men” of the cities or aspiring to that status. The women who succumb to their lust are not simplistically portrayed as innocent victims, yet in their collusion with the (anti)values of avarice and consumption, they become part of the generalized landscape of moral decay, corruption, and increasing inequity of life which Aidoo portrays. No one seems capable of voicing a challenge to such a system. It is therefore difficult, at least for me, to agree with Katrak's assessment that “even as she honestly faces the many sociocultural situations where ‘sweetness’ has vanished, Aidoo finds a way to retain a sympathetic and loving concern for the people who inhabit her world.” For some of those belonging to a vanishing past, perhaps; for most of those representing Ghana's (and, by extension, Africa's) present and future, no.

Pamela J. Olubunmi Smith (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Smith, Pamela J. Olubunmi. Review of The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, by Ama Ata Aidoo. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 342.

[In the following review, Smith praises the stories in The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, complimenting Aidoo's examination of gender disparity in postcolonial Africa.]

Writing in several genres—drama, the novel, poetry, the short story—Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana's leading female writer, has secured a place for herself in the Ghanaian literary canon. Here is a voice to be reckoned with, not only as a modern African creative writer but also as an African female/feminist writer. Indeed, her voice, like that of fellow Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah, could be described as the voice of conscience and protest, exposing the social ills of postindependence Ghanaian society, especially in its treatment of women. As she has done in her many essays, she chronicles women's struggles for intellectual, educational, professional independence and recognition in her creative works.

Aptly titled and written in a “women who could and did” fashion, her second book of short fiction, The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, contains eleven short stories ranging from the anecdotal to the political and the philosophical. Seven of these had been previously published in magazines and journals between 1974 and 1995. The stories, mostly ruminations on various subjects—the merging of Old World wisdom with the modern, the value of tradition, woman-to-woman dynamics, frustrated and realized dreams—examine, generally, the issues of womanhood and being a woman in a modern, male-dominated, postindependence African world. The picture certainly is neither pretty nor healthy, because, ironically, modernization has not truly liberated women, their intellectual capacity, educational ability, and professional skills notwithstanding.

Instead, as in “Lice,” modern woman-being is shrouded in unfulfilledness, as in the story of a modern wife-mother-professional who must expend her fizzled energy in contemplating suicide while delousing her daughter and herself. Or perhaps modernization has some explaining to do about woman-to-woman dynamics in “Payments,” where the issue of economic disparity empowers women of means to ill-treat their less fortunate sisters. Then there is the heart-warming tribute to the three women who dared to join the Ghana Air Force, breaking barriers women had never thought of assailing.

The Girl Who Can consists of credible stories about actual characters and everyday living. Its language is vivid, lively, conversational, particularly in Aidoo's use of anecdotes to contextualize some of the stories about current national and international events. The mixture of culture-specific referents and expressions authenticates the voices of the characters, especially in stories like “Payments,” in which a fishmonger manages a one-person “dialogue” with her fellow fishmongers. Likewise memorable is the humor in the ludicrousness of an entire town's populace, setting about “the business of Europeanizing themselves with panache” with the men wearing “three-piece woolen suits, complete with top hats” and the women wearing long evening gowns, hats, stockings, and gloves in eighty-eight degrees sun. Equally, humor is not lost in the serious yet ludicrous christianizing of Kojo, who, in “Male-ing Names in the Sun,” was forcibly baptized as George Kojo Shillingson at the whim of an officious, Europeanized local priest.

As some writers have confided, facility with the novel genre does not necessarily translate to facility with the short story. Aidoo is equally at home in both, successfully traversing the various genres, as evidenced by this her latest collection of short stories.

Assimina Karavanta (essay date December 2001)

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SOURCE: Karavanta, Assimina. “Rethinking the Specter: Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa.Mosaic 34, no. 4 (December 2001): 107-22.

[In the following essay, Karavanta discusses Anowa from a global perspective, commenting that the play's most significant attribute is “the multiple voices that it engages in addressing the problematic of colonialism and the beginning of the flow of white capital in the region of the Gold Coast.”]

Il faut parler du fantôme, voire au fantôme et avec lui, des lors qu'aucune éthique, aucune politique, revolutionnaire ou non, ne paraît possible et pensable et juste, qui ne reconnaisse à son principe le respect sur ces autres qui ne sont plus ou pur ces autres qui ne sont pas encore là, présentement vivants, qu'ils soient déjà morts ou qu'ils ne soient pas encore nés.

Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx

The contemporary momentum is informed by the celebrated prophecy of a “global coming” that ensures peace in the world—with a few “necessary” interruptions of violence against the barbarian “others,” who must be “corrected” for not abiding by the requirements of the global market. The paradox of global peace relying upon regional wars (the events in Kosovo and Bosnia constitute one of the most recent examples) demands that we, both the people living in “safe” territories as well as the ones living in “fragile areas,” listen to the spectral silence becoming painfully audible in the thousands of the refugees, exiles, and displaced “others” who are proliferating out of the merciless fulfillment of capitalist and imperialist logic. These “others,” presently absent and absently present, escaping representation at the same time that they are represented, repeat the problematic of belonging at a global moment that calls itself “post” (i.e., after the violence of the colonial mechanisms), revealing that this “post,” this after, is an illusion. Thus, the “absent presence” of these “radical others” haunts the politics of our global “post” moment by unconcealing the failures of its unfulfilled prophecies with their spectral silence.

What is important in all the theoretical attempts to think the potential dynamics of the specter and to listen to its deluging silence is the impossibility of escaping the language of the centre, which sets the standards for the processes of representation and identification. To speak about the specter, therefore, is an impossible task. For the specter is “the marginal—the radical Other—that is either accommodated to or banished from the totalizing circle articulated by the concentering logos of Imperial metaphysics” (Spanos, Anatomy 195); it is what escapes representation (even when it appears to be fully represented) and is the performance of silence; it is the body of the unwanted “other,” the body of the “unanswerable” one, who haunts the logic of the centre, demanding a rethinking of thinking, a rethinking of difference. Therefore, forgetting the silence of the specter means forgetting the “other,” forgetting being itself. This forgetting implies the tendency to relax in the comfort that our “post” so euphorically promises and not contemplate the “other,” whose exclusion, accommodation, or even violation feeds the illusion of this comfort.

But how does silence speak, and how can “we,” the represented ones, listen to the “residue” of language, to what is not spoken but haunts the speaking in this age, which strives to portray the “all” in the “one”? The contemporary Western “post,” manifested in the international liaisons of political, like the Economic Community, or strictly economic goals, like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is so ubiquitous and the politics of portraying so pervasive that one wonders how a peripheral constituency—which does not belong but oscillates between presence and absence, not always acknowledged even when used as a tool by the centre—can continue to tiptoe on the fragile borders of being in the world. The question of silence cannot be answered but must be engaged with care, for an all-embracing answer can reduce the term “peripheral constituency” to another “umbrella” discourse for the non-represented.

In this essay, I contemplate the present global, postcolonial occasion in view of Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa, and I do so in order to rethink the question of belonging, representation, and silence that the haunting politics of the specter provokes. By no means is the essay a conclusive statement about Aidoo's work. It is, rather, a focus on certain aspects of Aidoo's Anowa, which, unlike Our Sister Killjoy and probably Changes: A Love Story, is not widely discussed. Written in the 1970s by Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian woman writer and scholar, Anowa has been neglected by critics, even by those interested in black women's writings on postcolonial theory. Carole Boyce Davies is one of the first female critics to draw attention to this polyvocal play in Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. At the beginning of her chapter on Anowa, she points out that Aidoo's play has been marginalized by what she calls the “politics of exclusion” that prevails in the constructed binaries of “masculinity/femininity, sanity/insanity, home/exile, center/margin, witch/priestess” (Boyce Davies 59). Notwithstanding this “politics of exclusion,” it is not easy to defy the gravity of Aidoo's work, which, as Gay Wilentz, another of Aidoo's important critics, points out, “conveys her social vision, her commitment to write oral literature, and her belief in reworking the traditions to create a more integrated African society.” She adds, “Her outspokenness toward male dominance in African countries has earned her a rather antagonistic response from some male critics” (38), which explains Aidoo's exclusion to a certain degree.

The importance of Aidoo's Anowa lies in the multiple voices that it engages in addressing the problematic of colonialism and the beginning of the flow of white capital in the region of the Gold Coast. The plot freezes that moment in time and juxtaposes it with Anowa's mobility, which challenges her community's unconditional “surrender” to the insidious interference of the white slavers, slowly but surely enforcing a slave market. The story of Anowa, therefore, is the story of a “woman-in-becoming” at a moment when her community is invaded by colonialism. From the very beginning of the play, Anowa is presented as “something else,” “a child of several incarnations,” who “listens to her own tales, / Laughs at her own jokes and / Follows her own advice” (7). Her eye is difficult to please, as Osam, her father, remarks (11), but Badua, her mother, wants to marry her well and not make her a priestess. Badua wants her daughter to be “a human woman / Marry a man / Tend a farm” and have “her place at meetings / Among the men and women of the clan” (12). But Anowa “retires into sullenness” and “scrapes her teeth noisily” (15) as a protest against the carved life paths that her parents and, by extension, her community are offering to her. Against all odds, Anowa tries to resist her predetermined position as a daughter, a potential priestess, and a wife by marrying the “wrong man,” Kofi Ako, and departing from the “safe territory” of her community. She wants to choose her husband at the risk of making an unsafe choice. For her, Kofi Ako represents the potential of helping him do something with his life (18). Thus, she leaves Yebi, her community, determined to “walk so well” that she “will not find her feet back in Yebi again” (19). While on the highway, she discovers her strength and becomes the agent of her actions; not only does she manage to survive the hardships of not belonging to a community but she also helps Kofi Ako carve his own path and discover his strength. Together they build a monkey-skin trade that provides them with money and a home. However, Kofi Ako's materialistic ideology inscribes them in colonialism as he begins to trade his “own brothers and sisters” by doing business with the “white lobsters” (46), the white slave traders. His financial success earns him his community's respect and Anowa's rejection, for she is the only one who sees her community and Kofi Ako's complicity in the whites' slavery machine, which transforms their community into a turf of bodies, a plantation of slaves. At the end of the play, in the Big House at Oguaa, decorated with the ostentatious articles that Kofi Ako's money has bought them, Anowa is driven to complete isolation and silence, suffering an ontological death, roaming the house barefoot and hopeless. Kofi Ako—paralyzed by the violence that his slave trade has perpetrated and by Anowa's restless critique of his murderous complicity in the colonial machine—shoots himself, while Anowa drowns herself in a last attempt to banish herself from the impasse of a person who is a “seer” in a self-blinded community.

Thus, the story of Anowa is the story of an entire community, which Aidoo historically and politically grounds by opening her play with a reference to the Bond of 1844:

But here is Anowa
And also Kofi Ako.
It is now little less than thirty years
When the lords of our Houses
Signed that piece of paper—
The Bond of 1844 they call it—
Binding us to the white men
Who came from beyond the horizon.


The Bond signifies the official beginning of the era of British imperialism in the area of the Gold Coast. It was a complex network of contracts that the British signed with the African communities of the Gold Coast area after being asked by the Fanti to help them oppose the Ashanti financial and military power in the region (the Fanti and the Ashanti being two of the most powerful communities in the area). Due to its richer resources, the Gold Coast was always a space of commercial competition and warfare among the different African communities, competing with each other at the same time that each of them was competing and trading with the Europeans (Portuguese and so on). The Ashanti was the African community that would often gain more power over the others and try to control states like the Fanti, which were located on the coast, for the Ashanti was an inland region that needed access to the coast to trade (Ward 142). After the Ashanti gained the upper hand over the Fanti in 1816, “the British government or, more correctly, the British Company of Merchants (BCM) […] took control of the castles and European-African trading contracts along the Fanti coast” (Odamtten 46), a control which finally led to the Bond of 1844, “a number of separate but interconnected treaties with the chiefs of the nineteen Fanti states” (48). Although British rule had already been established in 1571, long before its formal commencement in 1844, when the English became more interested in slaves than in gold (Ward 75), that Bond basically superseded the command of the BCM by formalizing and solidifying the presence of the British government.

Among the African communities, a well-established system determined the number and the identity of slaves. Debtors that could not pay their debts would be sold as slaves. Although the African communities were engaged in a slave trade among themselves, this slave trade was not ideologically informed by the identity politics with which the Europeans branded the slaves. After the slaves were torn from their land and thrust into the expanding plantation system of the growing colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, they became part of the ideology of white supremacy that would represent the slaves as inferior human beings. The following historical account is a telling example: “Abominable as the slave trade has been, […] there is an underlying sense of justice. The White and Yellow peoples have been the unconscious agents of the Power behind Nature in punishing the negro for his lazy backwardness” (qtd. in Kimble 539).

Although domestic slavery existed among the African states, it was after the British government became the negotiating force among local communities (Ward 171) that the slave trade was systematized and identified with the ideological baggage of the Western powers. When the European demand for slaves grew, the context of domestic slavery already existing in the African communities—in which “domestic slaves were regarded to a very considerable extent members of their master's family”—changed (Ward 103). Another factor that contributed to the expansion of the slave trade, despite the difference of the role of slavery among the African communities, was the accessibility of the slave trade even to the “small man” (Ward 160), the “small man” usually being a poor and insignificant individual like Kofi Ako. This explains how easy it was for the British administration to assimilate that “small man” in its highly sophisticated network of treaties (Kimble 129), for it made “easy wealth” accessible to the many. By the time the African representatives became aware of the system of Western values and the power the British were acquiring by these written documents, the language of the treaties had already captivated the “small man” by carefully orchestrating the complex network of local slave trade and ensuring the increasing supply of slaves to the growing plantation system of the Western colonies.

Aidoo is attuned to the insidious contamination of the values of the African community by the materialistic ideology of the “small man,” an ideology that she highly criticizes in The Dilemma of a Ghost, when Eulalie and Ato—whose materialistic drives blind them to the local community's values and tradition, which Ato's family represents—bar themselves from that community behind the Western gadgets that Ato buys for Eulalie in his attempt to recreate her American environment. Wilentz calls Ato's self-imposed blindness and detachment from his community “total amnesia” (39), an “amnesia” that results in the reification of the individual into his or her absolute identification in the commodities that predetermine his or her living. This identification and consequent reification leads Kofi Ako to his suicide.

Aidoo, highly critical of the Westernization and commercialization of African societies, also highlights the sexual aspect of the theme of the “small man” ideology in Changes, in which her heroine, Esi, allows her lover Ali to shower her with expensive gifts that blind her to the incommensurable differences that stand between them, vis-à-vis his Muslim identity and his first wedlock. Esi, despite her independent and assertive character, marries Ali and enters the system of polygamy without understanding her action as a facile surrender to the position of a sexual object that Ali acquires by giving Esi all the materials that she needs, from decorative gifts to a car. The critique of this materialistic ideology, which Aidoo explores in Our Sister Killjoy as well, when her narrator rigorously reprimands her countrymen who stay in the West by allowing themselves to be lured by what appears to be progress but what is nothing more than blunt materialism, is an important theme in Aidoo's work, a theme that Anowa's suicide acutely emphasizes as it reveals her awareness of the insidious colonial mechanisms that the ideology of the “small man” exemplifies. This theme is also notable because it can function as a response to the criticism that Aidoo has received on the grounds of an essentialist Pan-African nationalism that she is accused of advocating. A recent example is the case of Anuradha Dingwaney Needham's Using the Master's Tools, in which Needham states that, unlike Frantz Fanon, for whom anti-colonialism is a “liberation, anti-imperialist, nationalist internationalism” (75), Aidoo often inverts her anti-imperialist, anti-Western critique to the celebration of an essentialist Africa. He calls her technique “inversion” (77), which he sees as an “opposition […] not uncontaminated by what it resists” (84). However, a closer look at Anowa sheds a different light on the treatment of Aidoo's other works, like Our Sister Killjoy, that Needham criticizes for carrying the seed of essentialism. Anowa's “contemplative performance”—the term I use to illuminate the possibilities of Aidoo's technique that Needham names “inversion”—on the highway, for instance, reveals that every statement with which Aidoo launches out to combat colonialism is not a self-invested, and thus essentialist, politics but a strategy that constantly challenges itself. Needham, too, implicitly recognizes this when he states that Aidoo's essentialism is a strategy and not an ontological category (89-90).

What constitutes Anowa's “contemplative performance”? Anowa emerges behind “those forts standing at the door” (6). The forts were the symbols of Western colonialism and also of the complicity of the African communities, which, despite the local differences of the slave trade, were also responsible in the trafficking of black flesh. Aidoo purposefully ends the prologue with this historical placement of Anowa. She wants her heroine to oppose the efforts of the Old Woman to accommodate her difference by interpreting it according to the tradition of the disobedient daughter, who, “like all beautiful maidens in the tales, she has refused to marry any of the sturdy men who have asked for her hand in marriage” (28). Such an interpretation of Anowa's difference implies that she may finally obey or in some way be tamed within the framework of her community, the same way her community is assimilated by colonialism. The Old Woman tries to equate Anowa with the disobedient daughter in the folk tales by enframing her difference and resistance to the traditional values of the community. Against all the accommodating interpretations provided by the community members, Aidoo presents Anowa as a historical subject rather than the repetition of an archetypal figure and opens up the narrative space where Anowa's talking back to the community will be performed. Like the atenteben, the drum that symbolizes Anowa's voice, her voice will echo differently even when heard within the boundaries of the community.

Throughout the play, Anowa confronts her community's insistence upon a set of principles and values that need to be re-questioned in the light of the colonization that her fellow citizens and husband are very willing to blind themselves to. She likes “being on the roads” (28), where she identifies the space with her work. Her physical mobility and manual work activate her thinking and steel her self-confidence to the degree that she does not hesitate to chastise Kofi Ako for thinking of hiring “help,” meaning “slaves.” But, at the same time that she contests his logos with a tone that is like a mother's (29) and does not befit the model of the obedient wife, Anowa also invokes the traditional role of the wife by suggesting that Kofi should get one more wife. She uses that specific aspect of the role of the traditional wife and encourages polygamy in order to undermine the invasion of the colonial factor reinforcing the slave trade. Marrying another wife can provide them with some help in their work so that they can resist the fruits of the slave trade. Hence, Anowa, like Ato in The Dilemma of a Ghost, stands in an in-between topos—a space of contemplative action—that emerges not only from her resistance to her community's old beliefs and customs and her self-imposed banishment. It also emerges from her rereading the tradition of her community in such a way that she is entitled to ways of protecting it against the imminent danger of the colonial powers. Thus, she rereads her role in that tradition as a woman and a wife. What makes this rereading possible is both her belonging to and detachment from her community, for, in belonging, she knows what she resists and, in being detached, she discovers what to protect. It is not accidental that it is on the highway, where she works, that she activates her thinking and performs that rereading. The highway provides her with the opportunity not only to project her small but swift and resilient composure—“But I am so little, I can escape things” (23) against Kofi Ako's “great chest” (22)—but also to activate her contemplative powers as she encounters the change that her community undergoes, for Kofi Ako's deliberation as to whether Anowa and he should hire more help is a symptom of that change. The “market” sells slaves as commodities following the invasion of the colonial powers and the radical changes in the economy of their community. By making use of a certain reading of her traditional role as a wife and offering polygamy as a solution to their problem, Anowa repeats and re-inscribes her community's tradition in their present momentum in order to oppose the overwhelming and assimilating power of the colonizers' values. Her contemplative powers are, thus, embedded in action pregnant with the possibility of rereading and repeating the past to change the present. Anowa's errant thinking, which resembles what Edouard Glissant so intensely names the “thought of errantry” (20), reveals that Kofi Ako's participation in the slave trade that commodifies his brothers and sisters' bodies is an evil repetition of the enslavement that the “white lobsters” have imposed with their interference in the politics and economy of their community. Cloaked under the name of success, Kofi Ako's actions are not different from those of the colonizers. For he, too, “markets” bodies in order to augment his profit of the monkey-skin trade and to keep slaves at home. Anowa's humble presence, as she roams Kofi Ako's Big House barefoot, exposes the unnecessary extravagance of his riches for which the bodies of his own people are marketed. Hence, the horror does not simply lie in the enslavement of Kofi Ako's brothers and sisters but also in the further commodification that Kofi and the community's principle of success impose on them. The “true” evil is exactly the absence of the question of responsibility toward the “other” that is abused in the name of material success.

Anowa stays beyond the reach of her community, outside the discourse of the colonists, outside language itself. Boyce Davies justifiably recognizes Anowa's detachment as a “failure,” for as soon as she is located completely outside the logos of her community, she resides in the realm of silence. By keeping the complexity of her difference away from the logos of comprehension as imposed by her community and appropriated by the white colonists, Anowa resists. Anowa ousts herself from her community and finds herself in a topos that is open to her errant and provocative contemplative performance, which like Glissant's “thought of errantry” is neither “apolitical nor is it inconsistent with the will to identity,” a will that is, “after all, nothing other than the search for a freedom within particular surroundings” (Glissant 20). Hence, her apartness (being a/part from her community) writes her story and, consequently, her identity by manifesting the power of silence, even when her silence is overwhelmed by the presence of logos. At the end of the play, the Old Man invokes Anowa's identification with the not, that is, with the power of silence: “They used to say around here that Anowa behaved as though she were a heroine in a story. Some of us wish she had been happier and that her life had not had so much of the familiar human scent in it. She was true to herself. She refused to come back here to Yebi, to our gossiping and our judgements. […] Ow, if there is life after death, Anowa's spirit will certainly have something to say about it” (64).

However, Anowa's silence is not the silence of a ghost that can be exorcised upon its return to the village, for Anowa's difference is always already there in the music of the atenteben ‘wailing in loneliness,’ haunting her community, even when—especially when—she is absent. In that sense, she will “certainly have to say something about that” (64); for she has already spoken the unspeakable, releasing silence in a disruptive way that does not let her community be comfortable in its forgetfulness. She thus always already returns as a specter, as the eternal revenant. She dies in loneliness, having lived in loneliness, the price that “difference” pays when speaking its “truth,” when voicing what the “same” does not want to hear, for Anowa's wailing is meant to disturb and dislocate the “same” from its words of comfort. She haunts Kofi Ako's Big House with her loneliness, which her community perceives as madness, a loneliness that is driven out of the “wilderness of her silence” and is performed in the form of “cries, shrieks, screams, and […] impassioned dances of desire” (Cixous and Clement ix): What the others name as madness, however, is a potentially disruptive and creative force rather than an illness. Although it cannot be disregarded that madness—in many cases—is an illness with physical repercussions, Anowa's “madness,” as performed within the boundaries of the Big House, is the performance of her “spectral” energy that marks her difference. Her “spectral” energy enables Anowa to “see” what the others do not. And, once she expresses her vision, not only with words but also with chuckles, shrieks, and a body language that is incomprehensible to others, she is defined as a “mad woman” who speaks what the others cannot hear and “sees” what the others are blind to. For this knowledge, she is doomed to be alone, doomed to be a specter. And, like all specters, she pays the price of loneliness, for in silence she is alone.

Anowa's end is marked by a hypothesis, “what if,” a hypothesis contemplated by the community after Anowa's suicide: “Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman, a better person if we had not been what we are?” (64). Is this what is left of her silence? Or is it that once Anowa's silence is performed, it never abandons its performative space, even after her biological death, but remains there to haunt the living, with the breath of the one who is neither present nor absent? In that sense, Anowa is not a ghost, a spirit, but a specter, a persistent revenant. In Spectres de Marx, Jacques Derrida explains the difference between the spirit and the specter by defining the specter as the “return to a corps, a corps more abstract than ever” (202), but still a “corps” and not merely its idea or thought, which would be the definition of a spirit. In the case of the specter, there is a body, which implies a lived experience at stake, even if the body is dead and not present before our eyes. Yet, in “trying to live with the specters and think with them” (15), one must engage with the silenced pain of their bodies, for the specter, Anowa's specter, cannot be assimilated in the context of a transcendental idea or an archetypal discourse. On the contrary, the specter is the panting breath of a historical subject that suffers in performing a certain kind of logos, which, even when apparently silent, is a speaking silence. By belonging to nowhere—while alive, the silenced is always already a/part—Anowa's death cannot mark an end, for there is no beginning to suffering. Thus, the specter is always a revenant, a wayfarer striking from nowhere, going back to nowhere. The silence released from the body, once it is dead, reclaims its existence, its being eccentric, outside the centre. The pain becomes the addition to that silence once the biological body is dead. In other words, pain gives silence a prosthetic body; it becomes the new body, the body of the specter, which never ceases to demand representation, to demand a new language. In learning to live with specters, one learns to live with the other, neither before nor in relation to, but with. It will be a reliving of what emanates from the events that mark the silence of the silenced, the pain of the oppressed. This encounter with the specter is a risk-taking process, in which our conditions of identity will be rethought from the perspective of difference, from the perspective of the “radical other.”

Within the boundaries of the Big House, Anowa becomes not the “mouth” or vehicle of a divine logos but the “seer” of the present. Her spectral energy manifests itself in her prophecies about the community's present: not, according to the received understanding of “prophecy,” a telling about what is to happen to them, about their “post,” but a penetrating reading of what is happening, a telling that unfolds the “post” of that community, and of the very spectators and readers of the play. In other words, Anowa “is propelled into the future/our present/the space of the postmodern”; she is the “dislocated figure, who has rejected all the possibilities for containment or power within her society […] but [who] nevertheless becomes ‘wiser than they’” (Boyce Davies 78), for future telling is the ability to see through the present with a gaze informed by the what-is-not of the narrative context. Anowa's dream about the “giant lobsters” rushing to “tear her apart,” “stamping upon” her men and women (46), is not a symbol of what has happened to her community but a past event whose telling disturbs the present. Anowa's body language is a constant repetition of that telling, of the “cries and murmurs” (46) that were never heard. Her ability to read her community's present is informed by this daemonic energy that is fed by a topos of contemplation not contained in the realm that her community occupies with its interpretation of what is happening to them, an interpretation that labels Anowa mad after not being able to channel her energy into the furrow of priesthood.

Before telling her dream to Nana (44-45), Anowa, consumed by her spectral energy, cannot stop asking her grandmother questions. Her drive to question the unquestionable and speak its silence overcomes Nana's attempts to silence Anowa: “Shut up child. […] You are frightening my child” (46). She is also subdued by Anowa's compulsive questioning, which speaks another silence, as suggested in her symbolic dream:

I dreamt that I was a big, big woman. And from my insides were huge holes out of which poured men, women and children. And the sea was boiling hot and steaming. And as it boiled, it threw out many, many giant lobsters, boiled lobsters, each of whom as it fell turned into a man or woman, but keeping its lobster head and claws. And they rushed to where I sat and seized the men and women as they poured out of me, and they tore them apart, and dashed them to the ground and stamped upon them. […] But there was never a cry or a murmur. […] And everything went on and on.


In that dream, Anowa envisions the silence of the “men and women and children” seized by the “giant lobsters,” the silence of the repetition of the violent act—“and everything went on and on” (46)—the silence of the cries or murmurs that were never heard. Her dream is also a symbol of the topos of her questioning, which is an incessant departure without ever reaching a safe space where the questions are happily resolved. And it is that incessant tempo that seduces her grandmother to feed Anowa's questioning with her short-cut answers instead of completely shutting her up.

Hence, Anowa's specter constantly disrupts the centre-periphery relationship. Anowa's eccentric, errant position, outside the centre but still part of its dynamics, un-conceals Aidoo's writing space, a space where Aidoo, as a black woman writer, constantly questions the “centre,” namely the “master narratives” that make an attempt to objectify her discourse as the “discourse of the victimized” by expunging it to the margins of a “high literature.” It is exactly in that marginal space where Aidoo attacks our “post” momentum with a “polyvocality,” a multiplicity of voices and discourses rising from the past of the community encountering the complexities of the present momentum, with the old meeting the new, not yet fully realized. Anowa's nomadic movement as she is entering and departing from two centres, the Yebi village and Kofi Ako's Big House, addresses a complex network of socio-political and gender problems, as well as the question of home and origins. Therefore, Anowa's silence repeatedly haunts the postcolonial world, where issues of origin and home are constantly discussed. Anowa's resistance, manifested in either her silence or her contemplative action, is actually her own way of claiming a space where the relationship between the members and the community can be reconceptualized from the perspective of a non-accommodated difference. Thus, Anowa's specter demands that her community rethink its identity within its contemporary momentum, a momentum tainted by the principles of the colonizers.

It is this rethinking that the “ghost at the junction” invokes in The Dilemma of a Ghost, when Ato tries to understand the nature of the dilemma as the ghost stands between Cape Coast and Elmina. Ato cannot initially realize that whether it is Elmina or the Cape Coast (both of them being ports from where hordes of slaves were deported), the past of slavery, the present complexities of the black diaspora, and the complication of blackness, as his American wife comes to experience it in an African community, cannot be easily resolved or erased. Ato's predicament, as he envisions the ghost at the junction, reflects the epistemological closure of Kofi, Anowa, and their community's predicament, namely, the reification of their brothers and sisters, which is ultimately intertwined with the reification of the self. Anowa's courageous stepping out of that self-destructive closure radically marginalizes her until she dies and she becomes the specter that will always haunt the community's destructive choice, which takes the final form of the inescapable predicament of the journey into slavery, into the diaspora, into the “post.”

In that light, Aidoo's notion of the “post” in Anowa is a demand for a questioning of our “now,” a questioning that Aidoo introduces in The Dilemma of a Ghost and sustains in Our Sister Killjoy,No Sweetness Here, and Changes. The “post” is often thought as a “now” open to all interpretations, to all “others,” to “happy nomads” (Brinker-Gabler 265), to “fluid signifiers”; it is a “post” that tends to forget the necessity of a position, as limited as that may be, with its equivalent responsibilities for the “then” and the “now.” Aidoo invokes Anowa's haunting to demand that the position of the “post” should not be experienced as a comfortable “after” but as a challenging and threatening “in-between topos.” By “challenging,” I mean that it connects the time frames of the past and the present as well as the future by functioning as an interstice, a crossroads. In this in-between topos, what is exposed is the mechanism of the foundation of the colonial momentum. India, for instance, may have claimed its independence from Britain by officially putting an end to its era as an English colony, but the administrative and, to a certain degree, the political structures responsible for the economic condition of the country did not leave with the British army. On the contrary, the imperial structure is more rigid in the postcolonial momentum than ever.

Forsaking the specter means that postcolonialism can become a celebration of an “after,” namely, the experience of a “now” that has assumedly overcome what made colonialism possible in the first place: the construction of a rigid binary system according to which everything is measured; the rigid formation of national identities born out of the myth of “purity”; industrialization and the exploitation of the richness of the colonies, of both its primary sources and its people; the birth of an international market that has regulated life in the colonies from the distance of a centre that defines and fulfills its materialistic interests; the need for cheap labour in the metropolis; the fear of “others” and their treatment as the homogeneous group of slaves and colonial subjects; the intricate system of knowledge—with the boost of a technological development—that has endowed the West with the power to impose it on the others and turn the fear of the “other” into the science of making the “others” useful for its own purposes; and, last but not least, the further repression and marginalization of the colonized women who, having been asked to postpone their demands for equality until after the “post” is established and the colonizers are driven out of their land, suffer under the colonizers and the patriarchy of the (post) colonized. Yet, the specters proliferated by the culmination of the logic of colonialism demand that colonialism be read within this intricate system of power and knowledge, within the system of discipline and details that produce the specters. One, therefore, has to probe into the mechanisms of colonialism, if one wants to understand the complexity of the “post.” In other words, one needs to be attentive to “the small acts of cunning endowed with a greater power of diffusion; subtle arrangements, apparently innocent, but profoundly suspicious, mechanisms that obeyed economies too shameful to be acknowledged.” (Foucault 183). Otherwise, postcolonialism is liable to become another totalitarian discipline, a marketable discourse, which, though it assumes the position against the colonial momentum, at the same time promulgates its structure and practices without questioning the complexity of the “post,” that intricate network of racial, social, political and, most importantly, gender issues.

Such a delusive reading of the “post” is comforting to the contemporary Western memory as constructed in the process of the colonial projects and is also politically expedient in view of the subtle colonizing tactics that were hidden in the cloak of the global politics practised by such agencies as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The network of these agencies is actually the stage within and against which the “post” needs to be rethought, if a serious attempt to estimate the real intentions and hidden meanings of their global politics is to be made. Gayatri Spivak's astounding remark emphasizes the preponderance of such a need: “When we first began using the term ‘postcolonial’ we used it ironically […] it was the exact beginning of recolonization. […] It is very frightening to me, this celebration of globalization in a world where non-alignment is no longer possible and the divisions are becoming exacerbated” (qtd. in Bulbeck 189). Anne McClintock expresses the same fear when, at the end of Imperial Leather, she states that the soothing reading of the “post” as a kind of humanitarian “beyond” fulfilled in the apocalyptic and promising global discourse can lead to the “prospect of being becalmed in a historically empty space in which our sole direction is found by gazing back spellbound at the epoch behind us, in a perpetual present marked only as ‘post’” (396).

However, the incessant haunting of the specter reveals the weakness of the “post,” “global” world: the exclusion of the “other.” Although the notion of a diffused, almost absent, centre replaced by many centres around the world aims at the annulment of resistance, the periphery that was once more ostentatiously oppressed breaks its silence from the edges of the world. Anowa's specter shows that if there is no centre any more, there is periphery. It desires representation and speaks a disturbing silence, the kind of silence that is a pause during a conversation full of meaning and pregnant with possibilities. Thus, what initially appears to steel the global structures of the Western, comfortable “post,” namely the assimilation of the “other” or her expulsion to an outside that is not threatening to the centre, proliferates a spectral silence that disturbs with its present absence. It is spectral, for it invokes the eliding of the “other” in an encounter in which the “other” is oppressed and bereaved of the opportunity to speak. Nevertheless, the encounter itself has created a topos that continues to exist even after the oppressor has taken off its mask to wear another one. This topos makes forgetting impossible and haunts the language that has attempted to mute the “other” by framing its difference in a portrait. Anowa's specter, therefore, like the “ghost at the junction,” never leaves. It is always already there and requests that we rethink thinking by being caring and graceful not only to what is there (the same, the comfortable) but first and foremost to what is not there: the difference, the “other.”

Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Anowa. London: Longman, 1985.

———. The Dilemma of a Ghost. London: Longman, 1987.

———. Changes: A Love Story. New York: Feminist P, 1993.

———. No Sweetness Here. New York: Feminist P, 1995.

———. Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. London: Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Boyce Davies, Carole. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Brinker-Gabler, Gisela, and Sidonie Smith, eds. Writing New Identities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Bulbeck, Chilla. Re-orienting Western Feminisms. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. Spectres de Marx. Paris: Galilee, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory and Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Sherry Simon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1992.

Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.

Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana, 1805-1928. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. Using the Master's Tools. New York: St. Martins, 2000.

Odamtten, Vincent O. The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading against Neocolonialism. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1994.

Spanos, William V. America's Shadow: The Anatomy of an Empire. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1999.

Ward, W. E. F. A History of Ghana. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Maria Olaussen (essay date summer 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10469

SOURCE: Olaussen, Maria. “‘About Lovers in Accra’—Urban Intimacy in Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes: A Love Story.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 61-80.

[In the following essay, Olaussen argues that Changes: A Love Story presents an “utopian” vision of the deconstruction of traditional sexual roles in postcolonial Africa.]

“What does a woman want?” If Sigmund Freud did not have an answer to that question, that is not the case with the mothers in Ama Ata Aidoo's novel Changes: A Love Story. The fact that their daughter is an educated woman in a lucrative job with great prospects for her future has a profound influence on how these rural women see her “real” needs and desires. But their advice and admonitions are based on the reality of women's lives in a male dominated world. According to the mothers, an educated woman expects “something better,” she deserves “something better,” but even in a society where women's financial independence is both expected and highly valued, the necessity for a woman to have a husband is never questioned. What she deserves is a “better” husband, certainly a husband of her own—in any case she deserves to be the first wife. According to the mothers, what a woman wants is to be desired by her husband and defined exclusively in relation to that desire.

Aidoo's novel is both a continuation of and a challenge to the well-known theme in African women's writing of women's suffering and confusion due to changing ideas of marriage and motherhood. These texts are written in different contexts, but they deal with a postcolonial reality where both customary and common law rules of marriage apply. In these texts one can discern a polarization of female characters into either the trope of the “suffering good wife” and that of the “cynical modern woman.” Although Changes also employs what Florence Stratton terms “the convention of the paired women” (97), it introduces a new element into the discussion of different varieties of socially sanctioned or enforced intimate relations, that of their function in creating and perpetuating social and political structures.1 The issue of marriage is thus taken beyond a concern with individual choice or morality to the question of how subjects are shaped and changed in changing societies.

The love story as myth and narration is crucially linked to the process of subject constitution and needs to be studied as one of the most central forms through which the individual comes into existence. The definition of self through frustrated desire is thus expressed in the form of a story that creates an identity and a life. This story of love, frustration, bewilderment, and betrayal is in itself part of changing power structures.

One of the most urgent issues in the world today—the spread of HIV—has now given a new dimension to this question of what it is a woman really wants. When the fastest growing group of AIDS victims are married women with no other sexual partners than their husband, the issue of women's sexual self-determination gains a new urgency. That a dependent wife is at high risk regardless of the social status of her husband is due to the fact that her sexuality is seen as a commodity that is controlled by her husband. As Brooke Grundfest Schoepf argues:

Those who have reduced their risk most are women with negotiating strengths based on their capacity to support themselves and their dependents without resort to sex within or outside of marriage. Although the poor are at highest risk, the experience of married women dependent on wealthy husbands shows how ephemeral and transitory women's class position can be.


In Ama Ata Aidoo's novel, the protagonist Esi Sekyi is raped by her husband. She makes a conscious decision to actually define the incident as “marital rape,” knowing well that her act of naming totally redefines the idea of marriage to which most people around her adhere. In this common sense view, sex is one of the services that a husband demands from a wife. Esi Sekyi's process of redefinition is further complicated by the fact that she cannot think of an African language that would include the expression “marital rape.” This she knows will be taken as an indication of foreign influence. But—as she concludes—history is often turned “on its head” (12). This rather vague formulation refers to the fact that the domestication of African women cannot be separated from the concerted efforts on the part of colonial authorities to control the population through the introduction of specifically European hierarchies such as the nuclear family. Amina Mama argues:

The confinement of women to the economically dependent role of housewife is a condition that has made it difficult for many women to leave otherwise unbearably violent situations. In other words, the domestication of women is a precondition for the crime we define as domestic violence.


This process of domestication needs to be studied in its historical and political context of colonial oppression of African societies. Aidoo's focus is aptly summarized by Sally McWilliams:

International exploitation, neo-colonial ideology, and patriarchal gender oppression shape the material lives of African women. Implicit in these various enterprises is the image of African women as sexual beings who need to be controlled for the productivity of the local and global economies, for the strength of the nation, and for the support and well-being of their male counterparts. The intersecting and often competing discourses of economics, motherhood, and racial solidarity shape the options available for African women's sexual politics.


The argument of “foreign influence” is of course a compelling one for those who profit from the inequality between men and women. One of the most successful strategies of colonial rule was to divide people against each other, making some groups profit from certain aspects of the colonial process even if they stood to lose in the long run. The argument is ahistorical also in the sense that it assumes a version of societies and languages as unchanging and separate. It ignores the long and difficult but ultimately successful struggles of women in different parts of the world, struggles that introduced the concept “marital rape” into languages where it was previously unheard of. The idea that some languages would “naturally” have this and other concepts and that it would be foreign to others is a weapon used against all forms of resistance, against the possibility of change, against all visions for a different life.

All struggles and all definitions and attempts at analyzing oppression need to be placed within their particular historical and social situation. This also applies to the contradictory idea, originating in nineteenth-century Europe, of the “West” as a unified entity somehow naturally more suited to feminist concerns while at the same time constituting a threat to “true womanhood” and “traditional values” in other parts of the world—“traditional values” that on closer analysis turn out to be “some kind of hashed-up Victorian notions” (Our Sister Killjoy 117). As Anannya Bhattacharjee (1997) shows, this idea is part of a neocolonial definition of the world as comprising of separate and essentially different cultures where certain “cultural practises” are supported and encouraged and others are not. She takes as an example the way in which US immigration authorities and development agencies tend to see the oppressive treatment of women as an inherent and valuable part of these “traditions,” whereas elements that challenge workplace policies or the global economic order are less acceptable.

It is with this awareness that we need to scrutinize arguments about what it is that makes up different forms of socially sanctioned or enforced intimate relations. Changes: A Love Story attempts to come to grips with the question of how these definitions of women's wishes, needs, and desires interact with dominant political structures. The question of women's sexual self-determination is central. It takes a protagonist who “has everything” to bring up the issue of the meaning of sexuality within marriage against the overwhelming common sense “knowledge” that the essence of marriage is sexual fulfillment on demand for the husband. As Annette Lawson documents in her book Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal. European marriage, building as it does on patrilinear property rights, is per definition an institution that both enforces sexual relations between the spouses and prohibits extramarital sex. This prohibition has until recently been legally enforced for women, who in a very literal sense were part of the husband's property. There is nothing specifically or exclusively African about the notion that men are somehow naturally entitled to sexual relations with several women, whereas a similar sense of entitlement in women is severely punished and curtailed. These notions exist everywhere and they are also being challenged in different forms in different societies. The form of the challenge and the politics of resistance are closely linked to other power structures and are therefore in need of close scrutiny but this does not mean that resistance per se must be rejected.

Discussions that individualize these issues and focus on intimate relations as lifestyle choices disregard the power relations between men and women as well as those between children and adults. In Pauline Onwubiko Uwakweh's analysis, for instance, Changes is seen as a discussion of personal lifestyle choices and its main achievement thus lies in the portrayal of Esi's choice of polygyny as a “new portrayal of the female whose assertion need not lie in separateness nor tagged with immorality. […] Ironically, this modern female chooses a traditional institution to resolve the conflicts of time and space in the monogamous relationship” (366). This observation takes for granted marriage as an institution where the emotional, sexual, social, procreative, and reproductive needs of men are being met by his wife or wives. Morality defined as a simple adherence to institutionalized forms removes the concept from deeper discussions of right and wrong, not to mention power structures and the gendered nature of dominant ideas concerning sexual morality.

Ama Ata Aidoo's novel develops many of the central concerns in African women's writing, the changing expectations surrounding marriage, motherhood, and wifely obligations. But whereas many writers describe women's survival strategies in a man's world where sexuality and motherhood are revealed and finally accepted as commodities, Aidoo insists on a vision that tries to express the possibilities of female empowerment without succumbing to cynicism and manipulation. This may be one of the reasons that the success or failure of the protagonist's efforts cannot be clearly determined. Her wishes are based on ideals, which cannot be tested; they can only serve as a utopian vision, an idea that might become reality one day.

Before looking at Aidoo's contribution in relation to the representation of female sexuality and female empowerment in African women's writing, I will suggest a reading inspired by an article by Laura Kipnis on “adultery” that considers social arrangements of enforced intimacy in the light of labor theory. This approach could serve to develop the critique of the “Mother Africa” trope in a new direction where instead of individualizing the issues, we could create connections between different forms of resistance and different utopian visions of human life.

Kipnis's argument builds on the idea that adultery can be read as an expression of social discontent that, if framed in a context other than the ideal of monogamy, could form part of a larger “story” of resistance to all commoditization of human interaction. Kipnis coins the expression surplus monogamy to describe the adherence to contractual organization of desire beyond what is necessary for the smooth functioning of the “reproduction machinery”:

When monogamy becomes work, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of a rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands of the world choke-chained to the reproduction machinery—this is a somewhat different state of affairs than Happy Marriage.


This expression can be extended to other forms of instrumental relations between men and women as long as they are socially enforced and work to stabilize oppressive structures. In Changes, the changes referred to are precisely the evolving and contradictory forms that these enforced intimacies take in a context where both common law and customary practices intersect in monogamous and polygynous marriages. Different forms of structural transgressions of these organizations, like adultery, are part of the mechanism. But adultery in Kipnis's theory also represents “a form of social articulation, a way of organizing grievances about existing conditions into a collectively imagined form” (294). What Kipnis suggests is a way of reading adultery and monogamy within theories of everyday life that do not focus on issues of individual psychology or morality but rather on the utopian possibilities existing within the refusal of the “prevailing ethos of conformity and renunciation” (295).

Given the treatment of adultery in African women's writing as a cynical male prerogative, this might seem a rather unusual point of departure for an exploration of the possibilities of a noncommodified female sexuality. Seen in the light of the HIV epidemic, the common sense reaction of moral condemnation of anything but monogamy or celibacy might seem much more appropriate. But what Changes is offering is a vision of human life and sexuality existing beyond a system of exchange or a contractual organization of desire, to paraphrase Kipnis. The importance of this vision today is that it points to the fact that in societies where women and children do not control their own bodies and their own sexuality and are forced to exchange them for their own survival, HIV cannot be stopped by appealing to individual choice and morality.

The most challenging idea in Changes revolves around the idea of female sexual self determination. What does a woman want? Maybe this isn't the question Esi's mothers are attempting to answer after all. How much can a woman possibly expect in this world? And doesn't Esi have it all? Not even an educated woman should expect more. The mothers are rural women and they want their educated urban daughter to have “a better life.” But when Esi leaves her perfectly good husband and agrees to become the second wife of her lover Ali, they literally scream at her for her stupidity. It is not that they are entirely blind to Esi's vision or that they wouldn't see that her demands are based on a perfectly reasonable sense of entitlement—if she were a man. The problem is that she is a woman and that she chooses to behave as if this didn't matter. The “wisdom” of the mothers—for, of course it turns out that they are right in the end—is important here. They are not presented as outdated and out of touch with the possibilities of the modern urban woman but neither is their contribution idealized. They are simply seen as women who have learned to survive and their wisdom is presented as the successful strategies of survival of the powerless. Their strength lies in their resignation and their power in their cynicism that makes it possible for them to pay lip service to high ideals while gaining what they may from any form of double morality and duplicity.

Despite its clear and somewhat pessimistic view of the real possibilities for change, Changes can still be read as an expression of resistance to a utilitarian view of life. Here the urban African environment is central because it represents—perhaps paradoxically—the possibilities of a different “moral and affective universe” (Kipnis 296) through the absence of social structures that demand a particular form of intimate relations. The city here becomes linked to utopia precisely through its connection with absence, it is a nonplace where individual freedom, lack of accountability reign.2

Women's place in cities have always been represented as problematic and complex. Kathleen Sheldon argues that although African women have always had central functions within urban economies, their contributions have been ignored since they do not easily “fit into existing ideas about workers and developing classes” (5). Another challenge is to be found within the sphere of reproduction since family formations were bound to take new forms in cities either due to women's changing work patterns and increasing financial independence, or to the European values concerning motherhood, marriage, and the family that were imparted among the elite. The city opens up possibilities for women to create new arrangements and to challenge male authority. For the majority of women, however, the lack of established structures often means increased financial responsibility without clear ideas of where conjugal or lineage support is due.3

In diverse literary traditions, the city functions as a trope connoting freedom. As a necessary background and opposition to the city, the countryside and the village are invested with a great deal of nostalgia and come to stand for lost innocence, tradition, and a more people-oriented way of life. Literary representations of women in an urban environment often function symbolically as lost innocence—the pure daughter and mother of the village is reduced to a prostitute.

By describing city life from a woman's point of view, Changes moves into this territory claiming subjectivity for women. The creation of a female subject inevitably brings about confrontations with the female ghosts of the male literary tradition—those female characters who already inhabit the city. This project also entails a rewriting of the rural-urban opposition and constitutes a challenge to the idea of the village as the proper place for women as well as of the idea of village women as fundamentally unchanging and traditional. In the modern European and American novel the city as trope has also had the effect of undermining “the existence of the private individual in the traditional home, and to create new cultural spaces of various mergers of the individual self and the cityscape” (Wirth-Nesher 21).

The utopian quality of Changes is further developed through the link between adulterous or polygynous relationships and travel and movement. Esi and Ali meet in his travel agency and Ali very often travels abroad. This is seen as a modern continuation of his father's lifestyle: the father was a traveler who disregarded place and distance, national and ethnic boundaries in his combined pursuit of trade and young wives. His wives are kept apart, each in her own geographical location, something that reinforces the definition of womanhood as identified with place and masculinity with traversing or conquering the place. What the man has to do is to keep off other intruding males, something vividly portrayed in the scene where Esi's ex-husband returns to her house and finds Esi and Ali in bed. Ali manages to secure this place as his territory even though it is in fact Esi's house—he has already married her with a ring with the expressed purpose of marking her as “occupied territory” (91). The immense importance of cars for women in tales of urban adultery is naturally linked to the problems of public transport in African cities. Access to cars for women in most cases indicates a connection to a wealthy man, whereas for men, ownership of expensive, new cars equals access to attractive and sophisticated young women. Sexuality and mobility are thus connected: the men in control of the cars are usually also the ones who control the women's sexuality. This is most evident in the narrative patterns of the sugar daddy-girlfriend stories. The successful and attractive girls are those who do not have to travel home in a bus. In Changes, the “happy couple” Opokuya and Kubi fight regularly over the car, the solution comes with Esi selling her used car to Opokuya when Ali gives her a new one. Ali is described as reflecting on the condition of Esi's car after their first encounter, an indication that although she is mobile, thus able to move away from her husband and take control of her own sexuality, this mobility is still limited, something expressed by the dilapidated condition of her car.

By recreating this female subject within the sphere of heterosexual relations the novel moves beyond the simple reappropriation of male subjectivity by the female. It is precisely by connecting the love theme with that of urbanity that the most fundamental questions about the possibilities of a new female subjectivity are asked. Romantic love is connected to the development of the ethos of a modern bourgeois subject where the issue of individual freedom and fulfillment is utilized selectively in opposition to an idea of traditional and oppressive marriage rituals. Changes exposes the ideology as yet another form of imposed and enforced intimacy and seems to advance the idea that a new form of polygyny could be a possible challenge to the alienation and oppression in a monogamous marriage. Initially, however, Esi's relation to Ali is based on her sense of entitlement—and on the experimental possibilities of adultery before it is incorporated into existing systems and institutionalized. What remains unchanged, however, is the entire sphere of reproduction. Esi gives up her daughter, a decision that in many cultural contexts would be unthinkable, and although she stays in her own house, she is now condemned to a life in total isolation. Neither her ex-husband not her husband gives up his right to a home and family and to full service within that sphere. “Home” for Ali is where his first wife is—a woman who has given up her professional career in order to run a home according to Ali's wishes and demands. She now finds herself in the position of having to accept the inevitable—the educated second wife. What starts out as Esi's project ends up as yet another instance of male power coming out on top. Ali chooses among the available traditions and customs to create his own idea of marriage. This is why it is the state of adultery rather than the polygynous marriage that contains the possibilities for change in this text.

Most critics have focused on issues of individual life style choices for women and they subsequently see Esi's and Ali's relationship as another instance of male oppression of women. But it is not until the relationship is formalized that Esi realizes in a discussion with her friend that the issue is not whether a woman is part of a monogamous or a polygynous marriage, but that the process and form turning a relationship into an institution is formed around power relations between women and men. So deeply entrenched is the idea of female subservience in marriage that the arrangements that women make in order to find time also for their professional lives or other interests are discussed as improvements on the status of women in marriage. As Esi and Opokuya point out in one of their discussions, this situation is of course only possible within an ideological and social context that has no place for a single woman:

‘It is even more frightening to think that our societies do not admit that single women exist. Yet …’

‘Yet what?’

‘Single women have always existed here too,’ she said with some wonder.

‘Oh yes. And all over the continent …’

‘Women who never managed to marry early enough.’

‘Or at all. Widows, divorcees’.


The novel is thus not primarily concerned with depicting the suffering of the good wife within a dysfunctional marriage but with analysing the possibilities of female subjectivity in modern urban society. An important part of this analysis deals with different forms of social and financial dependence on men that determines the lives of the majority of women. Esi is financially independent and she lives in a marriage that according to her mothers and friends is what every woman dreams of. She is thus in the position of entering sexual relations without other motives than that of gaining emotional and sexual satisfaction. Adultery, for Esi, is the ultimate possibility of exploring a relation free from utilitarian aspects. This dream comes to an end when Ali wants to formalize the relationship and add her to his possessions. At the point in the relationship when Ali starts bringing her expensive gifts he has already started withdrawing, replacing himself with the gifts. When he finally brings her a valuable new car, Esi knows that he has moved on to other women. Social and financial “reward” thus instrumentalizes the relationship and ultimately frustrates Esi's wishes and intention—a sexual life free from the idea of female sexuality as commodity.

That a married woman would be in need of sexual and emotional satisfaction is a new approach to the well-known theme of marriage, motherhood, and adultery in African women's writing. The theme of “the good wife” as victim usually springs from the opposite end of the spectrum, namely, that the good wife has a right to a marriage simply because she is the one who serves the husband. Her victimization is not due to the inherent inequality of the relationship but rather to the fact that her husband does not honor his part of the deal or that he goes to excess when it comes to treating his wife as a servant. These texts thus seem to stress the moral superiority of the woman who is willing to do her share within an institution that does not serve her needs. Paradoxically, she is considered a victim when the institution is threatened and she is abandoned or “replaced” by a second wife.4 The social and economic realities that shape women's identities as wives are generally not scrutinized in these texts and when they are, the move is generally towards a complete instrumentalization of sexual relations.

Most typical are heroines like Flora Nwapa's Efuru who remain true to their ideal of the duties of a good wife, despite the irresponsible behavior of their husbands. Adultery on the part of husbands is generally seen in terms of a moral failure. It is only one among many other ways in which husbands behave irresponsibly, upsetting the contractual relation in which the wife has invested. The marriage relation is seen as something fundamentally positive, or as a given, also in descriptions that stress the inequality between the spouses. Adultery is certainly not seen as a wish for a more egalitarian relationship away from the mechanisms of social control, prestige, and financial calculation but rather as another aspect of these. In gerontocratic societies, polygyny either in a contractual form or as a transgression is an expression of male power over women. These relations are therefore also fundamentally instrumental. Where women are in the position to enter into these relations with some degree of self determination, they make sure that there are financial and social rewards.

Philippe Antoine's and Jeanne Nanitelamio's study of urban polygyny among professionals carried out in Dakar in 1989 and 1990 shows that “despite the hostile structure of the urban environment, which includes housing difficulties, legal discrimination, respectability associated with monogamy, and the interdiction of Judeo-Christian religions,” polygyny is not disappearing in the cities (129-30). The authors question explanations that focus on some kind of inherent cultural or religious predisposition that would disappear with a higher educational or professional status.5 On the contrary, polygyny is part of the ostentation and prestige of privileged and affluent men. Islam “lends polygyny a sacred context” but levels of polygyny are considerably lower in Islamic countries than in West Africa (131-32). For men, polygyny seems to be a proof of success and a method of control and subordination. The most important reason for the prevalence of polygyny seems to be the fact that a life as a single woman is not considered a viable option. Since wealth is generally concentrated in the hands of men, a woman needs a husband in order to have a chance at a decent standard of living. Women tend to have a negative view of polygyny, but for most women life in a polygynous marriage is far preferable to the social ostracism that they would have to face as unmarried women. Not surprisingly, women who have already secured a husband have the most negative attitudes towards polygyny since a second wife means a downward social move from the more prestigious situation of being a wife in a monogamous marriage.

The issues of adultery and polygyny are often treated as part of the “awakening” of women to the realities of life. In Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter the protagonist and narrator Ramatoulaye tells her own story as well as that of her friend Aïssatou. Both women were ideal wives who believed in the institution of marriage. They do not make a distinction between the “traditional” or “formal” duties of a wife and their love for their husbands. At no point in the narrative is the institution of marriage itself seen as unfair or problematic, although it is quite clear that the function of the wife is to serve her husband: “You can testify to the fact that, mobilized day and night in his service, I anticipated his slightest desire” (56). The problem here is of course that despite being ideal wives and mothers, morally superior, expert housewives and hardworking professional women, these women are deserted by their husbands for younger women.

What is interesting here is that the younger women and their mothers have a much more instrumental view of marriage. In Aissatou's case it is the husband's mother who felt slighted when her son married beneath his station. She manipulates him into accepting the daughter of a relative as a second wife. There is no estrangement between husband and wife but the willingness on the part of the husband to agree to this arrangement makes Aissatou take her children and leave him. Ramatoulaye's husband, on the other hand, first becomes a sugar daddy for her daughter's friend and later marries her. Here it is quite clear that from the point of view of the young girl and especially the girl's mother, the marriage is a way of stepping into a hitherto undreamed-of world of riches and comfort. In both cases, there is an older woman behind the scheme—someone who sees marriage in instrumental terms and who uses both the men and the young girls in order to achieve her own goals. The wives are described as committed to a higher ideal of love and companionship instead of the rude commercialism personified by the young girls “sold” into marriage. In Changes, Esi's husband accepts the present of a young girl from his mother after he has been abandoned by Esi. Despite his astonishment at the fact that young girls are still treated in this way, he agrees to let the girl stay and thus enters into an arrangement whereby young girls are sold into marriage.

In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye decides to stay with her husband in a polygynous marriage, but even here the husband is unable to keep his part of the deal. His new wife simply refuses to let him fulfill his obligations to his first wife: “He never came again; his new found happiness gradually swallowed up his memory of us. He forgot about us” (So Long a Letter 46). The “letter” is written after the death of Ramatoulaye's husband and the last chapters deal with her refusal to marry a former suitor, now a distinguished physician with only one wife. This decision to remain single is motivated by her high ideals of true love when it comes to marriage, as well as by an unwillingness to impose herself on another woman.

What we have then in Bâ's novel is not a critique of polygyny or any other particular form of marriage but rather of the actions of husbands who are free to manipulate different institutions to fit their own needs. As Obioma Nnaemeka points out in her discussion of the novel, “What is at issue in Bâ's novels, particularly Une si longue lettre, is the transformation of traditional African institutions by ‘modernity’ and the manipulation of these transformatory stages by men to their own advantage thereby creating the pain of their female partners” (170). Nnaemeka stresses the difference between the institution of polygyny in Islamic and African culture and the way it is “practiced in African urban areas particularly by affluent, middle and upper-middle classes” (170). According to Nnaemeka, this new form of polygyny that she terms “monogamized polygamy” (175) has intensified the masculinization of the African tradition, thereby deepening the marginalization of women and creating instances (for the women in particular) where tradition is progressive and modernity reactionary” (171). These are important points to be raised especially in relation to Mariama Bâ's text, where the issue of women's vulnerability in heterosexual romantic relationships is often seen as a specifically African or Islamic problem.6 What Nnaemeka leaves untouched, however, is the text's insistence on the importance of marriage for women and the assumed happiness of a dutiful wife in cases where the husband keeps to the arrangement. It is central to the idealization of the role of the wife in this text that the husband doesn't leave a marriage that has turned into a mere formality for a more emotionally fulfilling but socially and economically less prestigious relationship. In both cases, the husband leaves “true love” for superficial sexual pleasure that he ultimately ends up “buying” at no little cost to himself and his dignity. The text builds on a division of women into morally unreproachable wives, on the one hand, who marry for love and whose instinct and character make them unable to use marriage for any ulterior purpose, and superficial and calculating women, on the other hand, mothers and young girls who use men's sexual weakness—their “polygamic instincts” (So Long a Letter 34)—for their own economic and social advancement.

Uzo Esonwanne offers a reading of Bâ's novel that focuses on the subject constitution of the female protagonist through the ideology of romantic love, and links it to the project of building a nation-state within which the monogamous unit functions as a microcosm. Esonwanne shows that the ethics employed in making the monogamous unit seem more egalitarian than the polygynous ones build on selectively chosen attributes that depict “polygynous forms of reproductive association as instinctual and regressive and […] contrasts these attributes with those supposedly belonging to monogamous associations—love, fidelity, individuality, lifetime commitment to one's mate” (93). The depiction of the men in Bâ's novel is therefore necessarily reductionist; they are simply helpless victims of their polygamic instincts—willing and able to give up a lifetime of commitment to ideals of love and fidelity for superficial sexual pleasure. By failing to place the issue of sexual morality within a wider framework of its function in the process of subject constitution, the text simply has to build on a dichotomy between monogamy and polygyny as that between body and heart. But as Esonwanne points out, Mawdo's “failure to sustain his commitment to Aïssatou must […] not be understood as revealing anything about the relationship of body to heart in polygyny as such. Rather, it discloses much about the tensions in the social and sexual life of African nobility and bourgeoisie in the post-independence era” (93). What Bâ's novel does in terms of the subject constitution of the urban African elite, has been expressed by Tony Tanner in relation to the European novel of the evolving bourgeois society as an ideal belief in “a harmonious interrelationship of patterns of property and patterns of passion and feeling.” But, as Tanner goes on to say, the problematical relationship between the novelistic form and these patterns of social stability emerged when it became clear that the narrative patterns were in fact part of a “self-created, self-stabilizing, and self-mythologizing society” (52).

It is within this context that Aidoo's text must be seen as a totally new departure in its questioning of the happiness of the good wife. The text does not build on a division between “good” and “bad” wives or depict the callousness of older women as individual shortcomings due to poverty or bitterness. Instead, in Aidoo's text, marriage is seen as an institution created for the benefit of men, and all women are placed in a position of powerlessness due to the fact that there are no viable alternatives to marriage for women. The actions of the older women in this text are clearly described as detrimental to the younger women and their aspirations, but within the context of the reality that the novel stresses, the powerlessness of women, they turn out to be the only sensible alternatives. This view of marriage as necessary for women is also shared by the mothers in Aidoo's Changes. When Esi informs them about her decision to leave her husband, they immediately ask her for the reason, assuming that the conflicts involve other women. Their approach would doubtlessly have been similar to that given to Ali's wife Fusena when she was asked to consent to the second wife, a lesson in how to accept the inevitable:

As she sat in front of the group of older women trying so diligently to listen to them, she knew that all was lost. Besides, what could she say to the good women, when some of them were themselves second, third and fourth wives? And those who had been first wives looked dignified, but clearly also so battle-weary? She decided to make their job easier for them.

‘Yes, Mma. Yes, Auntie. Yes … yes … yes,’ was all she said to every suggestion that was made. The older women felt bad. So an understanding that had never existed between them was now born. It was a man's world. You only survived if you knew how to live in it as a woman. What shocked the older women though, was how little had changed for their daughters—school and all!


This understanding that women have to adapt to their subordination in order to survive constitutes the basis of the older women's response to Esi's situation. The choice is finally not between monogamy or polygamy, “Western,” “traditional,” or Islamic marriages, but between oppressive, exploitative, and alienating arrangements that serve to further social control (and these can be found within any form of relation) versus those that are life-affirming and egalitarian. Esi's dream ends with her accepting Ali's ring and becoming “occupied territory” while Ali continues with new conquests. In this sense the plot does not offer a solution to an individual moral dilemma. The contribution of the novel must thus be seen in a larger context. Before discussing the significance of the departure from the “good wife” trope, I will look at the other alternative available—that of the revengeful wife or the cynical “good time girl.”

In Flora Nwapa's One Is Enough we find a protagonist who takes the opportunity of financial self-reliance that the big city offers. Like Esi Sekyi, Amaka then makes unusual choices regarding her family arrangements. These choices are made possible by her financial independence as well as by the anonymity and lack of traditional restraints in the city. Unlike Esi, however, Amaka is not acting out of a sense of disillusionment with the institution of marriage: “Amaka had always wanted to be married. She envied married people” (1). What prompts Amaka's decision to lead a different kind of life is her childlessness and the unkindness of her mother-in-law. She listens to the advice of her aunt, who has a pragmatic view of marriage—she married in order to have children and then married a sixteen-year-old girl for her husband and concentrated on her children and her business. Amaka's mother similarly encourages her to seek her own fortune and to continue seeing men but without the idea of marriage in mind. Amaka develops the same cynical attitude, represented as the result of her disappointment with the traditional notions of marriage and romantic love of which she had held such high hopes. The alternative to the hollow promises of happiness through marriage and motherhood is thus presented as a cynical and manipulative but independent way of life for women. Here the city functions as the enabling locus but it is partly a reiteration of the traditional idea of the city as a site of corruption, sex as commodity. According to the mother-in-law, any woman living in Lagos is a harlot.

In the city Amaka prospers through her involvement in corrupt dealings. Her work does not constitute a contribution to the economy but must rather be considered a drain. She learns from her new friends, the cash madams, who do not hesitate to use their sexuality in order to secure business deals. It is significant that the urban woman who claims the right to her own sexuality is not seen as developing a new ethics through transvaluation, but rather takes the old corrupt dealings for what they are and decides to profit from them. This is a theme that has also been developed by Grace Ogot in her short story “The Honourable Minister,” where the wife of a school teacher finds herself unable to compete with a friend in terms of wealth and social prestige. She subsequently decides to take up with successful businesswomen and learns that they resort to sexual favors in order to secure corrupt business deals. The protagonist agrees to accompany a government minister on a business trip. Due to chance, she never has a sexual relation with him but manages nevertheless to get a guarantee for a house loan. This view of urban women as desperately dissatisfied with the standard of living provided for them by their idealistic hardworking husbands is a common one in the literature by male writers. The wives and mothers in Ayi Kwei Armah's novel The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is one such example.

The importance of motherhood for social prestige is an additional challenge for the urban woman. Amaka decides to take the advice of her mothers. She meets a priest, seduces him, and subsequently has twins. The priest is, significantly, a man without family. He was born a twin at a time when twins were considered bad luck. He was adopted by missionaries and grew up within the church; his relation to the community takes the form of an interest in the anthropological study of custom and tradition. As in the case of Esi, the man without family is preferably to someone who owes allegiance to other people and whose decisions will be influenced by them. Family here is seen as something that works in the interests of established power structures of men over women and it is something that women benefit from only through their sons when they can wield power over younger women.

Another novel that deals with a similar sense of alienation among women regarding the meaning of marriage is Beyond the Horizon by the Ghanaian author Amma Darko. It was originally published in German as Der Verkaufte Traum and extends the rural-urban division in the direction of the European city, in this case Hamburg and Munich in Germany. The novel enlarges the issue of domestic violence and marital rape to include the situation of immigrant women in Europe forced to work as prostitutes in dangerous and extremely exploitative situations. The narrator/protagonist is a Ghanaian woman working as a prostitute in Germany. This becomes clear from the very first page of the novel—the text that follows gives an explanation and follows a standard autobiographical technique of creating a narrator who, older and wiser, comments on the ideas and decisions of her once youthful and innocent self. This technique is developed within the rural-urban opposition and extended to include that of Africa versus Europe. It further includes misguided ideas that African villagers have about life in Europe as well as European idealized or derogatory notions of “Africa.” The narrator is clearly addressing a European audience but it is not always clear whether her descriptions of the innocence and foolishness of the young protagonist constitute a parody of European ideas of African villages, like the expression “my poor mother back home in black Africa” (2). An important part of what is presented as the youthful ignorance of the protagonist has to do with her ideas of marriage and lack of knowledge about sexual matters. This ignorance is identified with the African village. Increased maturity is connected to a movement first to the African city and later to Europe. She realizes that marriage is an arrangement through which men use and abuse women, but also that there are limits to how much of this abuse is considered acceptable. She learns that her sexuality is a commodity that she herself can profit from.

In all three novels the protagonists are faced with the dilemma of having to maneuver within changing systems of sexual relations accommodating the contradictory and at times senseless expectations of kin. The focal point often turns out to be the incorporation of ideas about romantic love and personal fulfillment into clearly oppressive structures of utilitarian control. But whereas Esi and Amaka are successful professional women in charge of their own financial situation, Mara is the prototype of the innocent and vulnerable village woman forced to move to the city. Mara is both socially and economically dependent on her abusive husband, Abiko. The reason for the husband's behavior is to be found in the expectations that the villagers nurture about him as someone who has moved to the city. A central aspect of the social prestige he tries to achieve is to be able to attract and keep a sophisticated city woman, Comfort, who keeps to her old “sugar daddies” until Abiko is in a position to offer her something better.

In her article “Sugar Daddies and Gold-Diggers,” Carmel Dinan discusses white-collar single women in Accra. According to Dinan, “Even when women attain economic independence and self-sufficiency, they are still expected to have husbands” (344). Despite strong social pressure to marry there is an emerging number of women of different ages who choose to remain unmarried. In Dinan's study, one of the reasons for women to remain single is their sense of disillusionment with the institution of marriage, or rather the discrepancy they see between the ideas of romantic love and the reality of married women's lives. Part of this reality has to do with the “institution” of sugar daddies, married men who seek social prestige through their sponsorship of unmarried young sophisticated women. Through this institution, young single women learn that men marry in order to have children and a well-run household, but that they look for emotional companionship, romantic and sexual relations outside the marriage. These women often develop a cynical attitude towards marriage, and those who are involved with sugar daddies make sure they profit financially from the arrangement. This cynicism is also extended to their own prospective marriages—a relation to a sugar daddy enables them to continue their education and add to their financial assets as well as keep up an expensive lifestyle, all assets on the marriage market. Wambui wa Karanja's study of “inside wives” and “outside wives” in Nigeria and Christine Obbo's research into elite marriages in East Africa point similarly to a situation where the boundaries between different kinds of marriages and that between marriage and other relationships become blurred. Sugar daddies and girlfriends seem to be able to negotiate and come to an agreement as long as the relationship is built on the understanding that female sexuality is for sale. The situation of the wives is much more contradictory since many marriages are built on mutually irreconcilable demands of social and economic security and prestige, romantic love, female chastity before marriage, as well as guaranteed fertility.

In Beyond the Horizon, Obiko is obsessed with the prestige that a lasting relationship with Comfort would bring him. His marriage to Mara, the journey to Europe, and his marriage to a German woman, Mara's forced prostitution—all serve the purpose of financing Comfort's demands. Mara's vulnerable position does not derive from the fact that her husband does not provide for her; as a West African woman she is expected to work and take care of her own finances. Abiko's extension of financial obligations to matrikin and girlfriends would not be out of order. What fundamentally alters these relations is that Mara's income does not stay in her own hands but is used to finance the project of constructing a house for Comfort in her home village. The income of the German wife is also used for this purpose. This novel thus introduces a complex situation of racial and gender oppression intertwined with the politics of immigration and racist ideologies. It shows how different forms of exploitation are made possible within these structures of power relations.

Mara's move to Germany represents a symbolic crossing of all borders of decency—there are no longer any set rules and she cannot possibly know what to expect or what can be expected of her as a wife. Significantly enough, to the German wife, Mara is introduced as a sister, whereas Comfort is passed off as a female cousin. But neither do the traditional obligations within a matrilinear system apply, or they are all invested in “cousin” Comfort. This conflict between different definitions of marriage and between the obligations towards matrikin and the obligations through marriage is nothing new. All colonized societies were faced with the imposition of European notions of marriage and family. According to Dorothy Dee Vellenga, the Akan “were more sophisticated and subtle than the Europeans in their explicit recognition of the variety of forms that heterosexual relations could take” (145). The introduction of a social elite who were expected to adhere to European norms inevitably created conflicts and confusion and also the possibility of manipulation, on the part of individuals as well as the administrative authorities.

In Beyond the Horizon as in Changes, the issue of reproduction or who takes care of the children and the household is solved by having the children move to be with the rural grandmother. In the end Mara finds that she has to make the system work for her. She relies on her income as a prostitute but exposes her husband, who ends up serving a jail sentence. The German wife divorces him—the only survivor is Comfort, who finds herself a new sugar daddy in Nigeria.

In the short story “Two Sisters,” Aidoo gives voice to the survivor, or rather she uses the convention of the paired women to express two positions in relation to the commodification of female sexuality. Mercy is living with her younger sister Connie and her husband Joe. Whereas Connie is a faithful wife made deeply unhappy by her husband's numerous affairs, Mercy decides to use her good looks for maximum material benefits. She takes up with a prominent politician who then begins using his influence to provide not only for her but also for her sister and the husband. Connie finds herself unable to refuse these gifts and is thus implicated in a system of which she disapproves strongly. When the politican is imprisoned due to a military coup, Mercy simply takes up with a powerful man in the new regime. Here, as in Beyond the Horizon, the girlfriend is the one who always lands on her feet. She is unattached and free in the sense that her sexuality is valuable merchandise and available to those who are in a position to provide. By stressing the “happy ending” for the girl friends, these texts challenge the view of the sympathetic and suffering wife whose view of the romantic love marriage the reader is assumed to share.

What Changes is offering, finally, is a utopian vision of something wished for but still unattainable—the possibility of an expression of sexuality beyond the constraints of social relations feeding into different machineries of control and subordination. Luce Irigaray has expressed this possibility through a warning: “in order for woman to arrive at the point where she can enjoy her pleasure as a woman, a long detour by the analysis of the various systems of oppression which affect her is certainly necessary. By claiming to resort to pleasure alone as the solution to her problem, she runs the risk of missing the reconsideration of a social practice upon which her pleasure depends” (105). According to Irigaray, the most important issue in female subject formation has to do with the commodification of female sexuality and the system of exchange within which all desire will ultimately find its own place as goods on the market. The “good wife” is someone whose subjectivity is identified with male pleasure and who has developed a position of “quasi-monopoly of masochistic pleasure, housework, and reproduction. The power of slaves?” (105). The options for women are either to cling to this ideal or to acknowledge the commercial basis of femininity and affirm that in a manner that brings them the benefits in a more open and direct way. Neither of these options will fundamentally threaten the established order since they both reinscribe women's subjectivity as femininity. Irigaray's question is rather: “How can this object of transaction assert a right to pleasure without extricating itself from the established commercial system?” (105) This is also Aidoo's question and the basis for Esi's utopian quest. It is a fundamentally different project than the one often pursued by female characters in African women's texts where the question has frequently been how to profit from the transaction once the mechanisms have been revealed and acknowledged.

Vincent Odamtten finds the key to this novel of impossible options in the suffering of Ali's first wife: “Fusena, it seems, endures the most; yet her quiet suffering is somewhat mollified by Ali's loyalty to her as his first wife” (171). That reading places the novel within the limitations of a system where women's prescribed roles as wives constitute their entire sphere of action. Their actions, needs, and desires can thus be understood only in relation to wifehood and so paradoxically turning those who benefit most from their oppression, their husbands, into their only benefactors. By claiming subjectivity for women, the novel moves beyond this discussion of the individual dilemma to what we could see as a critique of the Mother Africa trope. According to Florence Stratton, the Mother Africa trope turns female characters in novels by African male writers into symbols of the nation. The subject position, the citizenry, is male and the entire political analysis is thus gendered in the sense that women are excluded from the nation as both citizens and subjects. Stratton's point here is that regardless of how progressive the vision, women are only metaphorically implicated and thus excluded in practice.

What Aidoo's novel does, on the contrary, is to reintroduce the citizen in the form of a woman and a wife. As has been seen, the situation of the insecure wife is a theme that greatly preoccupies African women writers. The coexistence of common law and customary law, the financial dependence of women, and the subsequent use of female sexuality as commodity—all these issues can be read symbolically to express the relation between the citizenry and the state. If we return to Kipnis's article on adultery we find an expression of the link between the situation of the insecure wife and that of the citizenry in relation to the ever changing demands of a global economic order and the hollow promises of democratic institutions:

But lacking agency, or assertiveness, or dignity, schooled as wives so often are in passivity and pragmatism, we know we're better off just keeping up appearances, and so grow colder and deader with each passing year and each new humiliation.


But Kipnis goes on to ask:

What ensures such meek submission to indifferent institutions, even when crisis, transition, or pervasive discontent could, conceivably, prompt enlarged rather than diminished expectations, more rather than fewer social demands? What impedes alternative kinds of knowledge about social and affective unions from acceding to consciousness?


Kipnis suggests that this submission to authority in the form of the state is linked to the acceptance of enforced intimacy and its structural transgressions. A utopian vision of change is inherent in all forms of transgression, all refusal to adhere to alienating social structures. Where renunciation is seen as the most important characteristic of human life, these dreams do not get organized into a common story allowing the vision to take the form of political opposition.

Esi's grandmother—after all her warnings and admonitions and ridicule of Esi's aspirations of personal and sexual fulfillment and happiness in a man's world—finally also points to the possibility of change. She links exploitative marital arrangements to the continued economic exploitation of Africa by Europeans. But she ends on a hopeful note: Do I think that it must always be so? Certainly not. It can be changed. It can be better. Life on this earth need not always be some humans being gods and others being sacrificial animals. Indeed, that can be changed. But it would take so much. No, not time. There has always been enough time for anything anyone ever really wanted to do. What it would take is a lot of thinking and a great deal of doing. But one wonders whether we are prepared to tire our minds and our bodies that much. Are we human beings even prepared to try?

Otherwise, it is very possible for life on this earth to be good for us all. (111)


  1. Florence Stratton defines “the convention of the paired women” as “the familial or social juxtaposition of two female characters (sisters, cousins, co-wives, best friends) who, in their response to male domination, are the antithesis of each other, one passively submitting, the other actively resisting” (97). According to Stratton, this is a literary convention introduced by Flora Nwapa and subsequently used by several other African women writers. It also marks a departure from male representations of women in African literature where women tend to be identified with “tradition” and village life.

  2. Etymologically “utopia” means nonplace.

  3. Gwendolyn Mikell discusses this aspect of urbanization where female heads of households find themselves in situations where neither conjugal nor lineage connections seem to apply.

  4. Very few texts stress the “freedom” of the abandoned wife. Examples are the autobiography To My Children's Children and Forced to Grow by the South African author Sindiwe Magona. In these texts, the protagonist identifies the position of wife and mother with that of financial dependence and develops a subject position through identification with a father/provider role.

  5. This kind of view is very clear in John C. Caldwell's discussion of polygyny in Population Growth and Family Change in Africa: The New Urban Elite in Ghana. Caldwell also implies that the nuclear family is a family form that entails an improvement of the status of the wife and children, and that this family form will prevail with increasing urbanization and “Westernization.”

  6. The text on the back cover of the 1982 Virago paperback edition describes the novel as a “cry from the heart of a Muslim woman,” thereby implying that the novel deals with a situation that is specific only for an Islamic context.

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Ogot, Grace. “The Honourable Minister.” The Other Woman. Nairobi: Transafrica, 1976. 79-118.

Schoepf, Brooke Grundfest. “Health, Gender Relations, and Poverty in the AIDS Era.” Sheldon 153-68.

Sheldon, Kathleen. “Urban African Women: Courtyards, Markets, City Streets.” Courtyards, Markets, City Streets: Urban Women in Africa. Ed. Kathleen Sheldon. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 3-27.

Stratton, Florence. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 1994.

Tanner, Tony. Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Uwakweh, Pauline Onwubiko. “Free but Lost: Variations in the Militant's Song.” Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo. Ed. Asa Uzoamaka Azodo and Gay Wilentz. Asmara, Eritrea and Trenton: Africa World P, 1999. 365-75.

Vellenga, Dorothy Dee. “Who Is a Wife? Legal Expressions of Heterosexual Conflicts in Ghana.” Female and Male in West Africa. Ed. Christine Oppong. London: Allen and Unwin, 1983. 144-57.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Modupe Olaogun (essay date summer 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11014

SOURCE: Olaogun, Modupe. “Slavery and Etiological Discourse in the Writing of Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Buchi Emecheta.” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 172-93.

[In the following essay, Olaogun explores the recurring theme of slavery in Anowa, Bessie Head's Maru, and Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl, asserting that the slavery motif “suggests a deeper structural analysis of historical time than a focus on the immediate independence period as a privileged moment through which the postindependence morass in Africa could be understood.”]

Slavery—human bondage for labor exploitation in domestic or market contexts—is a theme that has been explored by the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, the Nigerian Buchi Emecheta, and the South African-born, Botswana-naturalized Bessie Head—all women writers whose writing is contemporaneous. In addition to their interest in chattel slavery, the writers look at states that share some characteristics with slavery, notably oppression across class, ethnicity and gender, servility, and dependency. An effect of the explorations is a consideration of the metaphorical status of slavery.1

Appearing at a time when the tendency in African literature was toward a close reflection of the current social and political developments, these writers' depictions of slavery are remarkable. In quantitative terms, the thematic emphases of the literary and critical literature in Africa from the mid 1960s through the 1970s was not slavery but a re-evaluation of the meaning of political independence for the African societies that in the preceding eight to ten decades had been European colonies. No sooner than many African societies, already politically altered through the contact with Europeans, regained political autonomy, there arose a feeling in those societies that they were still trapped in a subservient position within a recalcitrant imperialist European economic sphere. The feeling as articulated in much of the literature was of betrayal by an independence that had brought many of the new African countries a myriad of political, economic, and social problems. The congruence of the theme of slavery in Aidoo's Anowa (1970), Head's Maru (1971), and Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1971) is, therefore, not a simple reflection of the temper of the post-independence period. But the congruence is also not a mere coincidence.

The interest in the theme of slavery in the work of Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta suggests a deeper structural analysis of historical time than a focus on the immediate independence period as a privileged moment through which the postindependence morass in Africa could be understood. Head additionally suggests in Maru that racial and ethnic bigotry comes from a universally expressed desires by one individual to dominate another. This article argues that the three writers together trace a trajectory in cultural interpretation different from a tendency to focus on Africa's immediate political realities. It suggests that the writers' representations of slavery are explorations of more remote or submerged causes of the problems frequently configured as neocolonial. Furthermore, it suggests that the writers' depictions of gender relations in the chosen texts are not the texts' exclusive destinations—as has tended to be assumed by much of the critical focus on these texts' gender discourse. The depictions of gender relations, and of the position of women in particular, serve a broader etiological purpose of accounting for “the state of things.” Reading Aidoo's play and Emecheta's novel—both set in West Africa—in tandem with Head's novel, set in Botswana, also challenges a traditional historiography that tends to separate these regions in the discussion of slavery.2 Thus this reading draws attention to a crosscultural dialogue in which the writers implicitly participate. Lastly, it tests a possible anxiety about the chosen texts' etiological discourse—that it might mask a fixation with origins. Although this reading focuses on Aidoo's Anowa, Head's Maru, and Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1977), it makes references to other relevant work by the writers.

The most prominent political events of Africa in the 1960s included political independence—the regaining of the rights to self-governance by African societies that had been colonized in the nineteenth century by Europeans. These events also included the consequences of the independence, and the continued struggles for freedom by African societies still in the throes of foreign domination. But prominent on the international scene in the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement, whose goal was equality, initiated by blacks in the United States of America. The significance of the Civil Rights Movement for Africans would include the historical connection emanating from the dispersal of African populations to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, which was primarily though not exclusively through the transatlantic slave trade covering the same period. Although the transatlantic slave trade had been prohibited by the middle of the nineteenth century by virtually all the Western countries implicated in it, its unsettling vestiges remained into the mid-twentieth century (and beyond). One of these vestiges was the segregation and persecution of blacks in the United States by whites who were opposed to the prohibition of slavery and to a full integration of blacks into the American society. The segregation and persecution of the American blacks provoked the Civil Rights Movement, which resonated with the heightened struggles in the 1960s by South African blacks to combat apartheid—a system of racial segregation through which South African blacks had been politically and often economically disenfranchised. Apartheid had been formally adopted in 1948 by the politically ascendant forces within the white settler population in South Africa to keep the country's blacks in a dominated position. A common denominator of the political struggles involving Africans and the American blacks in the 1960s was a rejection of second-class status and other reminders or activators of enslavement. In their respective writing, Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta recall slavery and enslavement, conceived of as the ultimate antithesis of independence and of the rights to personal liberty, and through this thematic choice these writers reflect a sensitivity to a long view of the history of causes, or to an etiology that is simultaneously introspective and prospective. This long view of history or etiology looks for correlates in events across time and space and highlights causal relationships within and between these realms. The outcome of the long view of history is a suggestion of cultural interpretations that are historical and that at the same time analyze the metaphorical potential of events.

The three writers' description of their respective work gives evidence of their interest in the exploration of slavery as a means to understanding the causes of some of the quandaries associated with Africa's postcolonial era. The analysis that follows relates the writers' declared interests to the texts' actual representations.

Aidoo has stated that Anowa developed from a story that her mother had told her and which Aidoo had transformed (James 19). In reflecting on her work, Aidoo has also said, “I think that the whole question of how it was that so many of our people could be enslaved and sold is very important. I've always thought that it is an area that must be probed. It probably holds the keys to our future” (James 20). Aidoo underscores in her statement her special interest in slavery as a historical phenomenon and as a discursive subject. She manifests that interest through her recurrent poring over the theme. Anowa represents a process in her explorations begun in her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965). Set in Ghana in the early 1960s, shortly after Ghana gained independence from Britain, The Dilemma of a Ghost dramatizes a confrontation between a young black American woman, Eulalie, and the family of a young Ghanaian man, Ato, to whom she is married. The animosity between Eulalie and her in-laws arises from the two sides' mutually negative assumptions about each other. The two sides' images of each other are mostly distortions and stereotypes that have arisen from the experience of the transatlantic slavery. These images reflect the characters' largely unexamined heritage from that experience. To the members of Ato's family, Eulalie, as a descendant of slaves, is one who has been fundamentally altered in a negative sense, a rootless individual. Eulalie's in-laws conflate her historical origins and her biological origins—both misconceived by the in-laws—and initially reject her. In her own case, Eulalie regards members of Ato's family as savages—obviously reflecting the kind of cultural education that accompanied and survived American and European partial justification for participating in slavery. A prevalent discourse in the European countries; participation in slavery thrived on a Manichean construct that opposed savagery to civilization, African to European, and so on.3

Aidoo highlights slavery again in the short story “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” the most sustained of the stories in the collection No Sweetness Here (1970). Set in an urban center in Ghana a decade after independence, the story shows a middle-aged steward at a rest house, Zirigu, who alternates between calling a guest, Kobina, who is a young black Ghanaian, “my white master” and “Master.” The young guest is not only puzzled by the steward's choice of this form of address but is uncomfortable with the obsequiousness with which it is accompanied. Habituated to conceiving of employment relationships as master-slave or master-servant, Zirigu is adamant. As to the significance of the political independence, which is generally understood where Zirigu lives as the originating moment of the new era, Zirigu is totally oblivious. Zirigu was a servant and a soldier in the imperial British army during the colonial period. Through his colonial service he had learnt about the peoples and customs of other lands; the colonial service, however, had not given him an insight into the changes taking place in his own society. At the end of his narrative through which he describes his experience and shares his innermost thoughts with the guest, Zirigu asks with an ingenuousness that is incongruous with his middle age: “My young Master, what does ‘Independence’ mean?” (29).

Aidoo's interest in clarifying the historical moment is reflected in a dialogue characterized by abruptness that is not attributed to specific characters in the story but that suggests a dramatized narrating consciousness:

‘If you ask them, why ten years after independence, some of us still have to be slaves, they say you are nuts to ask questions like that.’

‘You are getting your definitions wrong. By what stretch of imagination does a steward-boy or a housemaid become a slave?’


The questions that are posed in this dialogue strike at the heart of the limits of metaphorical extensions in language, and also at the heart of a debate about whether some kinds of labor that resemble or constitute slavery currently in Africa are serious enough to warrant attention.4 Through an ironic vocalization of the notions of independence and slavery, as suggested in the juxtaposition of a dialogue like the one above with the characterization of Zirigu, Aidoo depicts slavery as a sign whose metaphorical status cannot be assumed but must be clarified. Slavery and independence are interactive states comprised of signs of current, anterior, and posterior origination, intransigence, and transformations. They are not transparent metaphors of states of being, as may be illustrated in the conflict between Zirigu and Kobina.

Though Zirigu is employed in the postindependence period as a steward, he has nonetheless imbibed a feudalist-colonial mentality that sees the world in a Manichean relationship of master-minion. In Zirigu's world, the master-minion relationship is an unchanging one and the people involved in it cannot switch places. Just for having grown accustomed to his situation as a minion, Zirigu does not question it; he even begins to defend it. Zirigu projects onto himself an identity of a slave. But the young guest at the rest house contests this projection by Zirigu and the metaphoric assumptions implicit in its reification:

‘I don't make coffee for long time. Maybe now, 'e be cold. I go stand am for stove.’

‘Take your time, man. I'll wash myself and then come and fetch it. Please, Zirigu, I've said that you shouldn't wait on me hand and foot.’


‘Well, I don't see why you should You are old enough to be my father.’

‘My white Massa!’

‘And I am not a white man.’


Kobina perceptively recognizes the aggressive but also furtive manner in which language, which is a social transaction, naturalizes a private perception. He abjures the slave mentality displayed by Zirigu and the linguistic codes that naturalize it, but he does so only within the limited parameters of his personal modesty. Kobina does not seek to change on any large scale the distortions in the wider social and economic relations obliquely mirrored by Zirigu's language. Rather than probe the source of Zirigu's sense of powerlessness and the perpetuation of a colonial mentality by the social classes that Zirigu represents and serves, Kobina flees from the sheer manifestations of the powerlessness and the colonial mentality:

‘Massa …’

‘Zirigu, how often should I tell you not to call me that?’

‘But you are my massa!’

‘I am nothing of the sort. I was born not six years when you were going away to fight. How can I be your massa? And this is a Government Rest House, not mine. I am not even your employer. So how can I be your Master?’

‘But the other Massas, they don't say make I no call them so?’

‘Hell they don't. That is their business. My name is Kobina, not Master.’

‘Kob-i-n—a … K-o … Massa, I beg, I no fit call you that. I simple no fit.’

‘Too bad. That means I'll have to leave here too, earlier than I had hoped.’


“For Whom Things Did Not Change,” therefore, draws attention to a slave mentality that is (mis) (in)formed and reinforced by social, economic, and linguistic relations.

Anowa, published in the same year as “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” amplifies Aidoo's interest in the etiology of slavery within a historical context. The play employs a legend about a strong-headed girl who refuses her parents' guidance in selecting a husband, only to end up confirming the parents' worst fears. Vincent Odamtten has already pointed out other treatments of this legend, including one by Efua Sutherland, another Ghanaian writers (Odamtten 48). In Sutherland's re-telling of the tale (1960), it should be added, the girl is the princess Foriwa, who is driven by an impulse to modernize her village in a certain way, and so marries a “stranger” who can bring about the fulfillment of her desire. The stranger does not end up eating up Foriwa, as in the folktale, but joins Foriwa to transform the village, and with her lives happily ever after. In Ayi Kwei Armah's later (1970) parodic rendering of Sutherland's tale, the stranger looks like a white man. Seen against Sutherland's and Armah's reinterpretations, Aidoo's point of departure from the legend is all the more striking in its tropological import.

Aidoo specifies the historical setting of her play in a way that draws attention to the antecedent historical even in the area:

It is now a little less than thirty years
When the lords of our Houses
Signed that piece of paper—
The Bond of 1844 they call it—
Binding us to the white men
Who came from beyond the horizon.


A more direct way of stating the temporal setting could have been to say that the actions take place about 1870. Aidoo, however, foregrounds the year 1844, when leading Fanti chiefs signed a treaty binding Fantiland, a significant portion of modern Ghana, to the British for protection. This reference to a specific time and event comes early in the play, in the prologue, to establish the play's etiological interest. The Fanti chiefs had understood their transaction with the British as a survival strategy to help them deal with attacks from their neighbors, the Ashanti. As shown, however, by one of Aidoo's narrators, Old Man, borrowing from the hindsight provided by thirty years of observation, the signing of the bond was quintessentially a self-mortgaging act:

And men will always go
Where the rumbling hunger in their bowels shall be stilled,
And that is where they will stay.
O my beloveds, let it not surprise us then
That This-One and That-One
Depend for their well-being on the presence of
The pale stranger in our midst.


Another device that Aidoo employs in the explanatory discourse of the play comprises the narrators, Old Man and Old Woman, jointly called The-Mouth-That-Eats-Salt-and-Pepper. The equivalent of a Greek chorus, The-Mouth-That-Eats-Salt-and-Pepper explains and offers opinions on the actions in the play. But the Old Man and Woman also interject cultural and historical interpretations emanating from them and from the society that are not strictly part of the immediate dramatic action. This interpretive dimension of The-Mouth-That-Eats-Salt-and-Pepper emphasizes an impulse towards understanding why things have come to be the way they are. The dualistic characterization of the narrators reflects the disparate nature of the town's voices and of the epistemic processes that the narrators and the voices symbolize. The Old Woman's utterances tend to show impetuous judgments, while the Old Man's utterances tend to show measured reflection.

The Old Man begins his narration by passing on the history of the town of Abura, where the story is set, with a highlight of the town's cultural values and of the events that have shaped/are shaping the town. The two pivotal events that the Old Man highlights are the signing of the 1844 treaty and the trading in slaves up to the time the action in the play is unfolding—the 1870s—when slavery had already been outlawed officially in the European countries and in their colonies. The narrator ranks these events and calls slavery the “bigger crime”:

And yet, there is a bigger crime
We have inherited from the clans incorporate
Of which, lest we forget when the time does come,
Those forts standing at the door
Of the great ocean shall remind our children
And the sea bears witness.


Aidoo frames the play's remembering act through the opening speech by the Old Man and through his closing speech after the central characters, Kofi Ako and Anowa, as a result of an impossible resolution of their differences, respectively have committed suicide and gone mad (Anowa subsequently drowns in the play's alternative ending). At the end, the Old Man remarks:

And yet no one goes mad in emptiness, unless he has the disease already in his head from the womb. No. 1 is men who make men mad. Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman if we had not been what we are?


The characteristics of the Old Man's reflections include contradiction, debate, and doubt—elements that are lacking or evident in varying proportions in the other characters' modes of inquiry into the nature of their being.

The play dramatizes the different modes of inquiry through the conflicts involving the characters. The most precipitous of these conflicts concerns the question of slavery. The first of the conflicts takes place when Anowa declares that she is going to marry Kofi Ako. To Anowa's mother, Badua, Kofi Ako's previous record as a lazy and shiftless young man condemns his present. Badua's relation of effect to cause comes readily:

A—a—h, I wish I could turn into a bird and come stand on your roof-top watching you make something of that husband of yours. What was he able to make of the plantation of palm-trees his grandfather gave him? And the virgin land his uncles gave him, what did he do with that?


After Anowa has left home to be with Kofi Ako, Badua waits in vain for a conciliatory visit from her defiant daughter and there begins the seeding of another conflict. The focus now shifts to the source of Anowa's behavior and the conflict takes place between Anowa's mother and father. The mother hastily concludes that Anowa is “strange,” while the father rejects this label as it will imply some fault with his “man seeds,” and as he genuinely believes that Anowa is not behaving the way women her age have not been known to behave. Badua and, to a lesser extent, Osam reveal an essentialist definition in which the present is a transparent reflection and linear extension of the past. Although these characters' attributions of causes may sometimes appear to hit the mark, the reason is not in the soundness of the characters' episteme, which attributes an essentiality to things and displays an unmitigated certitude about the nature of things.

No sooner than Kofi Ako and Anowa begin to live together they become embroiled in conflicts that highlight their differences, especially in their analysis of their situation. First, Kofi Ako wants Anowa and himself to use protective charms as a means of fending off evil forces that might stand in their way to attaining prosperity and that might prevent them from procreating. Next, Kofi Ako wants them to acquires slaves to help them in their work, which consists of trading in animal skins. Anowa objects to Kofi Ako's first proposition on the grounds that it proffers a metaphysical solution to a physical problem in which they are, and should act, as human agents. She objects to the acquisition of slaves on the grounds that she can personally find no moral justification for it. The couple's argument reflects their different processes of deriving meaning and correlating effects with causes. When Anowa finds it increasingly difficult to persuade Kofi Ako not to trade in slaves, she describes herself as a “wayfarer,” a term that is commonly applied in the area to slaves. Anowa's metaphorical extension of the term emphasizes the alienation that she shares with the slaves already acquired by Kofi Ako. The exchange between Anowa and Kofi Ako is worth reproducing as it reveals the intricacies of each of these characters' positions:

… I think maybe you are too lonely with only us men around. I have decided to procure one or two women, not many. Just one or two, so that you will have companionship of your kind.
[Almost hysterical] No, no, no! I don't want them. I don't need them.
But why not?
No! I just do not need them. [Long pause] People can be very unkind. A wayfarer is a traveller. Therefore, to call someone a wayfarer is a painless way of saying he does not belong. That he has no home, no family, no village, no stool of his own; has no feast days, no holidays, no state, no territory.
[Jumping up, furious] Shut up, woman, shut up!
Why, what have I done wrong?
Do you ask me? Yes, what is wrong with you? If you want to go and get possessed by a god, I beg you, go. So that at least I shall know that a supernatural being speaks with your lips … […] I say Anowa, why must you always bring in this …
About slaves and all such unpleasant affairs?
They are part of our lives now.
[Shaking his head] But is it necessary to eat your insides out because of them? [Then with extreme intensity] Why are you like this? What evil lies in having bonded men? Perhaps, yes [getting expansive] in other lands. Among other less kindly peoples. A meaner race of men. Men who by other men are worse treated than dogs. But here, have you looked around? Yes. The wayfarer here belongs where he is. Consorts freely with free-born nephews and nieces. Eats out of the same vessel, and drinks so as well. And those who have brains are more listened to than are babbling nobility. They fight in the armies. Where the valiant and well-proven can become a captain just as quickly as anyone. How many wayfarers do we know who have become patriarchs of houses where they used only to serve?
But in all this, they are of account only when there are no free-born people around. And if they fare well among us, it is not so among all peoples. And even here, who knows what strange happenings go on behind doors?
[Irritated beyond words, he seizes and shakes her] Anowa, Anowa, where else have you been but here? Why can't you live by what you know, what you see? What do you gain by dreaming up miseries that do not touch you? Just so you can have nightmares?


Kofi Ako's argument comprises stratagems to pass off slaves as people who are ultimately no worse off than nonslaves, all things considered—these things being the benevolence of slave-owners and the natural endowments of slaves. It subscribes to the dictum “Live what you know, what you see.” It abjures the inquiring and probing long view of history, choosing instead to short-circuit the exacting mental demands and moral consequences of such a route. The more Anowa seeks to develop her ideas about the ramifications and effects of slavery, the more Kofi Ako attempts to restrict the discussion until he finally orders her to “shut up.” Kofi Ako illustrates the antithesis of Anowa's etiological position, a position with which the author sympathizes, judging from her insistence upon exhuming the history of the transatlantic slave trade and assessing the participants' responsibility in it.

If Kofi Ako represents a flagrant mercantilist apologia for slavery, he also symptomizes an insidious desire to expurgate slavery from Africa's narrative. The play highlights that denial by echoing some aspects of Kofi Ako's position in a dialogue between the child Anowa and her grandmother. Anowa recalls the dialogue as she becomes increasingly isolated, having been labeled a witch, not just by Kofi Ako but also by her mother, who has heard about Anowa's refusal to own slaves and has interpreted the refusal as a disavowal of material wealth. The dialogue is prompted by the grandmother's recounting of her travels, including visiting the famed slave castles (at Oguaa, the older name for Cape Coast, Ghana). In the dialogue the child asks questions about slavery, but the elder dissuades her:

What is a slave Nana?
Shut up! It is not good that a child should ask big questions.
A slave is one who is bought and sold.
Where did the white men get the slaves?
I asked.
You frighten me, child.
You must be a witch, child.
They got them from the land.
Did the men of the land sell other men of the land, and women
and children to pale men from beyond the horizon who looked
like you or me peeled, like lobsters boiled or roasted?
I do not know, child.
You are frightening me, child.
I was not there!
It is too long ago!
No one talks of these things anymore!
All good men and women try to forget;
They have forgotten!
What happened to those who were taken away?
Do people hear from them?
How are they?
Shut up child.
It's too late child.
All good men and women try to forget;
They have forgotten!


The import of this dialogue is that it is a reinstatement of the crucial place of slavery in Africa's postcolonial history, as Mildred Hill-Lubin has also suggested. Maureen Eke proposes that Aidoo's general “attempt to (re)cover, (re)member, or (re)memory Africa's history” serves a cathartic and healing purpose (76). But the ending of Anowa implies a call for rectification more so than a calming of a consciousness stirred from watching its collusion in the tragic waste wrought by slavery on a continent. In the prelude to the ending, Kofi Ako sacrifices family bonding to his avarice. As he physically expands, he loses his power to procreate. When Anowa exposes his emasculation, he shoots himself. In the first ending of the play, Anowa becomes mad, and in the second ending she drowns after becoming mad. Regarding the bifurcated ending, Odamtten has commented that neither insanity nor suicide is productive, anyway (78).

Anowa is an invitation to soul-searching on the cause and consequence of slavery. The Old Man's question in the end may not be so rhetorical: “Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman, a better person if we had not been what we are?” (64)

Head traces the evolution of Maru, and a simultaneous development of her own perceptions about social and historical relations as follows:

In Botswana they have a conquered tribe, the Masarwa or Bushmen. It is argued that they were the true owners of the land in some distant past, that they had been conquered by the more powerful Botswana tribes and from then onwards assumed the traditional role of slaves …

The research that I did among the Botswana people for Maru gave me the greatest insights and advantages to work out above all that that type of exploitation and evil is dependent on a lack of communication between the oppressor and the people he oppresses. It would horrify an oppressor to know that his victim has the same longings, feelings and sensitivities as he has. Nothing prevented a communication between me and Botswana people and nothing prevented me from stepping into the skin of a Masarwa person. And so my novel was built up in blinding flashes of insights into an evil that hung like the sickness of death over all black people of South Africa.

(Abrahams 14-15)

Head also cites as provocation for her writing Maru an experience in which her young son whom she was raising in Botswana as a Botswana citizen was harassed for looking “colored” (see A Gesture of Belonging, letter #31). Head, who was married to a black South African, was of “mixed”—black and white—parentage; so Head's son looked “colored.” But Head also wrote about herself, “I look like a Bushman, who is a despised tribe here. … I am short in height” (A Gesture of Belonging, letter #33).

Head states that Maru is her deliberate examination of the reasons for the low social status of the San, or the Basarwa, alias the Bushmen, in Botswana, and how the causes of this low status manifest local and universal patterns of slavery. When she takes up the theme of slavery against in a subsequent narrative, A Bewitched Crossroad: An Historical Saga of Africa (1984), it is to use the historiography cum “faction” medium to amplify her understanding of the internal and external forms of slavery as they have contributed to the disdain with which the Basarwa have been treated.5

In the story of Maru, set in a village in Botswana, there is no specification of a particular historical period, but a Botswana in the modern era is suggested. The icons of modernity include “a long row of office blocks, at the end of which was an imposing structure of modern design, painted in a contrasting range of brilliant colors.” The structure is identified through a board bearing the words “Dilepe Tribal Administration,” in block letters (27). The administrative center of the village contrasts with the kgotla, the village rotunda, where in earlier times Botswana chiefs deliberated the political, legal, and social concerns within the community, as portrayed in A Bewitched Crossroad.

Head depicts the social relations in Maru through conflicts that reveal the characters. The conflicts receive symbolic and mythic amplifications in the narrative language, with the result that what would look like a personal incident in a small village becomes a colossal issue akin to a national problem. Head integrates into the story some autobiographical elements and a historical event from Botswana's history that orchestrate the story's historical dimensions. The main conflict in the novel develops when a young woman by the name of Margaret arrives in Dilepe village to work there as a teacher. To the people of Dilepe, Margaret looks like a South African colored. Things are fine until Margaret reveals her identity to be Masarwa, or “Bushman.” The Masarwa are traditionally slaves of the Tswana who constitute the elite of the village. The Masarwa herd cattle for the Tswana at posts located outside the village or live as slaves in Tswana households. The prejudice held by the Tswana about the Masarwa is similar to that displayed by Ato's family against Eulalie in Aidoo's The Dilemma of a Ghost. Margaret, like Eulalie, is an untouchable by virtue of the circumstances of her birth. Dilepe's social elite, with the exception of three people, decide to run Margaret out of the village.

A relevant conflict in the novel's plot involves two of Margaret's defenders, Moleka and Maru. The two men belong to the uppermost crust of the elite, with Maru, for whom the novel is named, having the political edge because he is the paramount chief-designate. Moleka and Maru are drawn to Margaret, choosing to see her as a person rather than as a representative of the cartoon figures of the Bushman. The novel contrasts Moleka's and Maru's methods of dealing with slavery, cast as the ultimate consequence of prejudice. To make Margaret acceptable to the villagers, Moleka begins to sit at table with his slaves. Even though Moleka's action sends the village buzzing, the narration swiftly exposes its limitation as a way of ending prejudice: “He always says he treats his slaves nicely. He never says there ought not to be slaves” (48). The consequence of Moleka's gesture is similar to the consequence of the rationalization Kofi Ako in Anowa, who wonders why slaves cannot simply belong in “their place” if they can get to act free (Anowa 37). These benevolent slave-dealers do not consider the impossibility of the condition of “free slave.”

An effect of Moleka's action is that it ironically brings out among the dominated class the very tendency that he is trying to correct. Here is a part of the narration: “A servant, not a Masarwa, who worked in Moleka's home spread the word that they no longer knew what was what. He said that all the slaves in Moleka's home sat at table with him when he ate” (48). The servant's response to the equalization gesture illustrates the hierarchy that has been socially constructed and exploited by the different groups. The novel describes this hierarchy in the early pages:

The white man found only too many people who looked different. That was what outraged the receivers of his discrimination, that he applied the technique of the wild jiggling dance and the tin cans to anyone who was not a white man. And if the white man thought that Asians were a low, filthy nation, Asians could still smile with relief—at least, they were not Africans. And if the white man thought Africans were a low, filthy nation, Africans in Southern Africa could still smile—at least, they were not Bushmen. You just have to look different from them, the way the facial features of a Sudra or Tamil do not resemble the facial features of a high caste Hindu, then seemingly anything can be said and done to you as your outer appearance reduces you to the status of a non-human being.


Maru counters the ostracism of Margaret and the premise that inferiority biologically inheres in the Masarwa by deciding to marry her. However, Maru does not propose to Margaret; he takes the woman's volition for granted. His approach reveals that a liberation act that is solely externally derived can be tyrannical. It also reveals the difficulty of concentrating on one source for the solution to a social and historical problem like slavery. Maru assumes that by fixing the nuclear family, which looks like a cognate of the inner soul that he privileges, he can fix the slavery problem. He seems to think that although his approach may be slower, it is fundamentally more justified than all other approaches. But while the revolutionary effect of his marriage to Margaret builds up, what happens in the meantime to the Masarwa slaves who are maintaining his (and other chiefs' inherited) thousands of cattle posts and who “sleep on the ground, near outdoor fires,” their “only blanket” the radiation from those fires (59)? Maru's neglect or postponement of necessary reforms in the economic infrastructure is all the more disturbing because Margaret's mother had been a denizen of those outdoor posts and had died in the night giving birth unattended to Margaret. It was the child's cries that attracted as passer-by and saved her. Margaret's survival is, therefore, a matter of chance. An intervention that is too slow may be too late. However, this criticism of Maru's slow reformism is not the narrative's central focus.

Maru's abdication of the throne of Dilepe to show the depth of his investment in his marriage to Margaret is a strategy that subordinates the external realm of politics to Maru's inner realm of morality. Maru is given to listening to the voices of the gods in his heart—gods that tell him to shun the vices of pettiness, bigotry, and so on. Some critics have already pointed out the limitation of Maru's abdication as a political strategy, citing his own subsequent ostracism by the people of Dilepe. As the narrative puts it, “When the people of Dilepe village heard about the marriage of Maru, they began to talk about him as if he had died” (126). But one detail about Maru's abdication from Dilepe is that it has a real-life model in the action of a preeminent Botswana chief known as Khama III, or Khama the Great. Khama was the heir-apparent of the Bamangwato about 1866 when he renounced the throne as a result of conflicts between his vision of the society and some of the traditional practices in the society. Khama subsequently withdrew to one of his cattle posts, just like Head's Maru. But Khama was not shunned; the people moved with him to the cattle post, thus founding the town of Serowe. Khama resumed his political activity. Under his rule, Serowe thrived and became the capital of modern Botswana (see A Bewitched Crossroad ch. 4).

Head's variation on the abdication in Maru may imply a critique of a privileging of politics as the overriding denominator in social transformation. The novels swings towards a private realm, and to an emphasis on the indigenous sources of slavery. Consequently, the narrative eclipses the historically specific colonial dealings in slavery. For instance, there is documentation of Dutch farmers' and traders' widespread practice during the nineteenth century of abducting and enslaving BaSarwa people in the Kalahari region of present-day Botswana (see, e.g., Morton, “Servitude, Slave Trading, and Slavery”). Rather than highlight the specifically historical form of colonial practice in slavery, Head goes for a representation in which a simple Manichean white-black relationship becomes an inclusive pro forma implied slavery. Thus the white missionary who raises Margaret and bequeaths her name to the Masarwa girl gets caught in this epistemologically fuzzy equation. Although the senior Margaret kisses her adopted child's toes at bedtime and educates the child unstintingly, the narrative states that the relationship between the senior and junior Margarets was never really like that between a mother and child, and that the child “was a semi-servant in the house” (16). Part of the reason for this judgment can be deduced from the motive associated with the senior Margaret: she is a white armchair scientist whose singular objective is to use her work on the child to prove that “environment [is] everything; heredity nothing” (15). Against an overdetermined colonial background, the premise of the “experiment” by the senior Margaret is an attenuation of the Masarwa child's latent ability and an arrogant substitution of the adopter's culture in the child's life. The senior Margaret is therefore a typical representative of the novel's “white man.” Head may have seen the need for a more specifically historical representation when she narrates the Dutch practice of slavery in Southern Africa in A Bewitched Crossroad, although in this “saga” she focuses on the Khoikhoi of the Cape Region rather than on the San or BaSarwa (“Masarwa” in Maru).

Emecheta, like Aidoo, owes the material for The Slave Girl partially to her mother, who also told her the story of a slave girl, but this story is closer to home. The model for Ojebeta, the main character of The Slave Girl, is Emecheta's mother whom the author apostrophizes in her autobiography:

My mother, Alice Ogbanje Ojebeta Emecheta, that laughing, loud-voiced, six-foot-tall, black glossy slave girl, who as a child suckled the breasts of her dead mother; my mother who lost her parents when the nerve gas was exploded in Europe, a gas that killed thousands of innocent Africans who knew nothing about the Western First World War; my laughing mother, who forgave a brother that sold her to a relative in Onitsha so that he could use the money to buy ichafo siliki—silk head ties for his coming-of-age dance. My mother, who probably loved me in her own way, but never expressed it; my mother, that slave girl who had the courage to free herself and return to her people in Ibuza, and still stooped and allowed the culture of her people to re-enslave her, and then permitted Christianity to tighten the knot of enslavement.

(Head above Water 3)

Emecheta considers writing to be “therapeutic and autobiographical writing even more so” (3). The Slave Girl is Emecheta's tribute to her mother, whose story, as laid out above, is parallel to the story of the mother's name-sake, Ojebeta, in the novel. But the novel is also Emecheta's attempt to “cover the history of womanhood and link it with the happenings of the rest of the world” (204). Formally educated as a sociologist, Emecheta brings to bear on her writing the exploratory reach of her discipline. Her study of “the tradition of slavery” suggests a digging around her subject to reveal the histories, manifestations, metamorphoses, myths, and ideologies of slavery in an early twentieth-century Igbo village. Ibuza, where The Slave Girl is set, is a node within an economic sphere located around the lower Niger River, which itself is a node within Nigeria, then a colony of Britain. This Nigeria in turn constitutes a cultural and economic space within the orbit of imperial Britain. The notion of slavery is one that Emecheta picks up again in a subsequent novel, The Joys of Motherhood (1979), with which The Slave Girl intertexts through the narration of the story of a slave girl who is buried alive with her dead slave mistress. But the most intensive representation of slavery in Emecheta's work is The Slave Girl.

The title of The Slave Girl pays homage to the character Ogbanje Ojebeta, whose ups and downs in her journey from being a freeborn to a slave form the loose plot of the novel. As Florence Stratton has suggested, however, it also projects the archetypal dimensions of a slave girl who is buried along with her dead mistress so that in the after-life the girl can continue to cater to the mistress who herself is ultimately the patriarch's slave. The “shallow grave” to which a girl in a patriarchal culture is consigned is one that desperately tries to bury a girl's talents and being. Stratton is extrapolating from Ojebeta's life history and from the life histories of the other girls in the novel a common social fate symbolized in the story told by Chicago, one of Ojebeta's fellow slaves (see Stratton).

The Slave Girl does identify the ideology of slavery with patriarchy, and many critics have already highlighted this dimension of the novel (see Stratton; see also Spencer-Walters). However, the files provided in the novel of the various characters—which include girls as well as boys—and of the actions of these characters also suggest an emphasis on the cultural, economic, and political forces that cannot be subsumed under the analytical category of patriarchy without blunting these distinctive influences. The novel projects the economic activities of the region in the time of the story's setting through the depictions of the markets. It also highlights the displacements of the various characters—most strongly symbolized by journeys—that are consequences of internal cultural exchanges and of the social and political transformations brought about by colonialism. It is useful, therefore, to pay some attention to these components of the novel's discourse. Such attention will reveal much more about the significance of slavery in the novel's etiological discourse.

The Slave Girl begins with a prologue that gives a synoptic history of the founding of the area where the story takes place. Along with the historical backdrop, the prologue describes the area's prominent cultural institutions and assumptions. The first icon mentioned is the market, described as “the center of all that mattered in Ibuza” (9). Markets turn out to be the foremost defining icons of the adjacent areas as well. Asaba, Idu, and Onitsha—all big towns—are presented through their markets alone, a representation that is ultimately slanted, even if in the early years of the twentieth century, the story's setting, southern Nigeria was experiencing a mercantilist expansion arising from increased urbanization and from a diversification of international trade as a calculated attempt to suppress slave trade. We find these truly multifarious towns reduced to markets in the novel.

The distinguishing features of the markets include the presence of a new currency, whose significance incorporates its portability. The people could carry on their person the new money and use it to magically transform their identity. The market is also a place for spectacle, in which the new wealth can be displayed. In the novel, all roads lead to the all the different markets, as people who live in the villages take products ranging from cassava pulp to palm oil, palm kernels, and rubber to larger distributing/collecting centers for domestic and foreign consumption. But the new markets and the new money have also generated new values, or modified old ones. It is against this context of new-market-new-money-new-values that Ojebeta's brother, Okolie, takes the precipitous action of selling his younger sister. Seduced by the magic of the new money, the English currency of the expanded markets, Okolie leaves for Onitsha with his seven-year-old sister in tow. Ojebeta has become Okolie's ward because their parents have been killed in an epidemic that originated in Europe and spread across the world, and the eldest child in the family has abandoned Okolie and Ojebeta in order to pursue his own economic salvation. On the way to Onitsha, Okolie experiences bouts of guilt for deciding to sell his sister, but the only thing that suppressed the guilt is his thought of the liberating potential of the new money:

Mixed up with these feelings of self-justification was the conviction that he desperately needed whatever money came his way to prepare himself for his coming-of-age, one of the most important events of his age-group.


When Okolie and Ojebeta run into a suspicious relative, Okolie cooks up a story woven around the legendary riches that Onitsha markets generate:

… You remember our relative Olopo who married a Kru man? She is very rich now. They say she has built many houses in Otu at Onitsha. She heard of all the mishaps that were befalling us, with everybody dying and sent a messenger last market day to tell me that I should bring Ojebeta to Onitsha since she wished to see her and buy her this and that, to console her for the loss of her mother. …


Okolie gets to see Ojebeta, and he does have his coming-of-age dance in Ibuza market in the grandest style in Ibuza's living memory. No one in Ibuza asks Okolie, who is known as a lazy and indigent farmer, the source of the money with which he stages his spectacular coming-of-age. All that seems to count in the village is the glory, however fleeting. The people of Ibuza take the occasion to inscribe the centrality of their market as an icon of their success:

By the time they had danced round Ibuza, many relatives from Okolie's mother's side had joined in singing his praise names. One old woman from Ezeukwu who had looked after his mother Umeadi as a child came out and said:

“Who was born in the center of the biggest market in Ibuza?”

“He!” the crowd replied. Fingers pointed at Okolie, and the voice of the crowd was as heavy as the blast of a gun, as frightening as claps of thunder.


If the narrator's commentary here suggests an authorial distancing from the celebration of Okolie's market show, there is nevertheless a degree of élan in the narration of the teeming life of the Onitsha market and of the industry of its women merchants. These merchants include Ma Palagada and Ma Mee, prototypes of the new importer-exporter. The women circumvent the laws banning export slavery. Choosing to see those laws as obstacles to their generation of significant personal wealth, these merchants turn to agricultural and industrial products for export/import. They export farm products such as palm oil and rubber, and import finished goods, notably cloths. To build their wealth, the businesswomen rely on the labor of the slave girls and boys—other people's children—whom they acquire illegally by pretending to be interested in liberating the children from poverty while actually enslaving them.

The hard-boiled merchant, seasoned by the markets, succeeds very well; her child, the successor, who has not been re-born into the market, fails woefully. Thus, Ma Palagada's economic empire disintegrates in the hands of her son, Clifford, who has passed through the market but through whom the market has not passed. The slaves of the market who literally grow up there become its inheritors. Clifford reports on the Palagadas' slaves at the end of the story: “Jieunuka was now a successful businessman in Otu and had married Nwayinuzo; her friend Amana had also gone into business and had a big shop, and a car, and though she was now widowed was fine and happy” (177).

The novel suggests that the economic slavery promoted by the new market ethos is a product of the colonial annexation of the Nigerian market economies to Britain. But there is also an indigenizing process that reflects the people's identification with the industriousness promoted by the new market economy. Hence Ma Palagada, an apologist for slavery, is drawn with warmth. There is a subplot that traces Ma Palagada's triumphs and trials. Ma Palagada, who buys Ojebeta from Okolie, comes across generally as a wise investor. She is frequently ahead of all the merchants, turning every challenge into profit. When she dies and her empire collapses, there is a sense of loss.

But there is a prickly ambiguity in the portrait of this successful Onitsha merchant Ma Palagada, which together with the outcome of the slaves mirrors what appears to the novel's ambivalence about slavery. Smart, feisty, industrious, wealthy, and beneficent, Ma Palagada would be irresistible except for her dealing in slaves. When she is purchasing the small children whose labor she will exploit, she is relentless. But we are made to feel admiration and sympathy for Ma Palagada. By virtue of being a woman, in a largely patriarchal society, she is potentially threatened by social subjugation and economic exploitation. Ma Palagada takes a route that will ensure her financial independence and that will diminish, if not erase, the effects of an imposed social inferiority. Her measure of success is wryly noted in the narrative in the reversal that her personality and fortunes effect in a common patriarchal convention. Typically in that convention, a married woman is identified by her husband's name. Ma Palagada's last husband, who is otherwise quite macho, and her children by her two husbands are called by her sobriquet—“Palagada,” which is a reference to the sound made by her legs when she is walking (70).

The financial successes of the Palagada slaves who in the end take to the market appear to mitigate any evil that Ma Palagada's robbing of these (ex)slaves' childhood might have constituted. In contrast to the entrepreneurial Palagada slaves, Ogbanje Ojebeta, who chooses marriage over accumulation of personal wealth, ends very badly. She merely changes masters at the un-young age of thirty-five when her bride price is finally paid by her husband, whom she gleefully calls her “new owner” (179). The moral appears to be that in some circumstances slavery is “a necessary evil.” Consequently, an ironic reading of the novel's fifth chapter, “A Necessary Evil,” which details Okolie's hypocritical rationalizing of selling his sister, appears to be limited.

Closely associated with the markets are journeys that symbolize cultural exchanges and displacements. At Ojebeta's birth, her caring father makes a journey to Idu, similar to a mythic journey, to procure the medicinal protection that will ensure her survival. Ojebeta's greedy brother will take her on a journey that parodies family members' instinct for mutual protection. Okolie claims that by selling his little sister to the wealthy Ma Palagada, he is offering her “a chance to make the best of her life” (38). On their way to Onitsha, Okolie and Ojebeta pass a stream and then cross the big River Niger. Like Ojebeta, Chiago crosses many rivers on her way to slavery in the Palagadas' house. In the market at Onitsha, the riverside is equally important. The market mammy, Ma Mee, has her stall on the edge of the river, a position that enables her to snap up people disembarking from canoes and to sell them her merchandise. The rivers and streams have a strong association with slavery in a manner that recalls some diasporic African slave narratives: “Whenever they went to Otu market, and she went to the waterside, she still used to gaze across the tangle of boats, canoes and steamers, across the River Niger, thinking to herself that one day she would be free” (95).

The slaves in the Palagada household are displaced, many of them permanently:

It was said that Pa Palagada had bought the men from some Potokis [Portuguese] who were leaving the country and returning to their own land. The two, who were young boys at the time, could not remember where they had originally come from, so they were given Ibo names and were put to work on the Palagada farms. (60)

One of the Palagada slaves was born a twin and her people, somewhere among the Efiks, did not accept twins; her mother had nursed her secretly and later had her sold, simply to give her a chance in life.


The kinds of displacement illustrated in these passages are due to the influence of the transatlantic slave trade and to intercultural exchanges within the area.

In the country at large, a more widespread form of displacement is taking place. This displacement affects mostly the men who are leaving their farm work in the villages to take up European jobs in the cities, but it does not preclude the women. The narrative compares the European jobs, called “olu Oyibo,” to the slaves' separation from their homes. When Ojebeta returns to Ibuza after negotiating her freedom from the Palagadas, the people of her village celebrate her “smooth skin and such modest and polished manners” (149). They do not inquire about her experience in Onitsha, but they probably would not have believed her if she had told them that dispossession, loneliness, unpaid toil, and a dire struggle to retain her personal dignity have constituted her experience as a slave of the Palagadas:

They would call Ojebeta's stay with Ma Palagada anything other than a good thing. For had she not returned with such fine manners and clothes, just like the older men who went to seek their fortunes in white man's jobs, in olu Oyibo. No, it was to olu Oyibo that she too had gone, not just to Otu Onitsha. That was an understatement.


Like the willful amnesia that the people of Abura in Aidoo's Anowa court to prevent them from confronting slavery, the fantasy spun by the people of Ibuza cushions them against recognizing their complicity in the evil that stares them in the eye. Their hyperbolic sense of the prosperity that olu Oyibo—the white man's jobs, which are drudgeries reserved for the colonized—will confer on their sons and daughters is underscored by their continued poverty. They do not forget to remind their children, such as Jacob who becomes Ojebeta's husband, to “make more and more money to come and give to your people,” but when these children make their periodic visits home, they can only hand out the white man's biscuits to the relatives (161, 169).

Jacob, whom Ojebeta marries, reimburses Ma Palagada's son for the amount that Ma Palagada had initially paid for Ojebeta. As a result of being virtually bought anew by Jacob in a customary ritual called bride price, Ojebeta begins a new form of slavery in which she is obligated to serve her husband as he chooses. The novel's closing paragraph emphasizes the link between the foreign and indigenous forms of slavery:

So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she has helped to spread in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters.


Together the responses to slavery by Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta constitute a cultural critique in the independence phase of Africa's postcolonial era. By breaking from the immediate neocolonial thematics, the three writers highlight the polycentric character of African cultural dialogues reflected in the literature. Their examination of slavery within specific African contexts foregrounds female and class perspectives, but gender and class do not emerge as an end concern.

The writings do not take exactly the same route or arrive at exactly the same destination. Aidoo's character Anowa, for instance, tempted by with the potential wealth that she can generate as a slave dealer, risks her life for spurning the allure of this wealth and for appearing to censure her townspeople who relish such wealth. Her choice to privilege personal relationships and the common weal over a compromised personal wealth is a difficult one, as she expressed this choice against the social tide. She sacrifices her life for the long-term survival of her society and for her own moral integrity. Yet Anowa is not a simple morality tale; this play instead provides a window into the multiple struggles of an individual confronting an enormous economic, ethical, and psychological thrust: slavery. Though Anowa's life, in spite of her immense talents, is not spared, due to her public rebellion her society is never again the same. The play shows the inherent polyglossia of a seemingly harmonized traditional society.

Head's Maru suggests a turn to the resources within the individual. Placing the emphasis on the ethics of slavery, the narrative looks to the untainted inner visions that the enslaver or oppressor can still marshal, and to the resistance or the simulacra of resistance that the enslaved or oppressed can muster. But investing the politically and socially privileged Maru, who has inherited a huge allotment of slaves, with a redemptive spirit that insists on liberating the society first by doing away with his political and social authority is tantamount to wanting to save the world one fragment of a person at a time. Maru's understanding of his new exemplary character makes him do away with his political and social authority. How effective is his personal mantra, which can be formulated as “You freeborn people, marry a slave and help eliminate prejudice”? In casting Maru's initiatives in active terms, relative to the subdued tones of Margaret's resistance, Head's narrative unwittingly subordinates the agency of the enslaved and the oppressed to the grand gestures of the benevolent enslaver and oppressor.

Emecheta's Ma Palagada in The Slave Girl, in contrast to Head's Maru and Aidoo's Anowa, energetically trades in slaves, buoyed up by her conviction that slavery is “a necessary evil.” The character Ogbanje Ojebeta—to whom the novel's title refers primarily—embraces her husband, who buys her from Ma Palagada's heir, as a “better master” (179). The setting of this novel in the European colonial era, specifically from the height of World War I to the termination of World War II, when the most influential colonial power “was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she had helped to spread in all her black colonies,” heightens its ironic thrust. But Emecheta's irony does not fully dispel a feeling that the novel conveys some ambivalence about slavery through its suggestion that slavery is an upshot of inevitable economic forces. It is as if the enslaver can simply be forgiven, and the enslavement forgotten, if in the end the enslaved somehow manages to do well economically.

The etiological discourse in the writing of Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta in which they examine slavery suggests that slavery is not a discrete historical event, but an event with prehistories and consequences. It reveals a variety of the experiences of slavery, from the enslaved to the enslaver. The accretions on the notion of slavery render slavery as a sign whose metaphorical status invites scrutiny. By representing the dilemmas, motives, and emotions exemplified in the different characters in the respective narratives, the writers lead us to inspect the causes, effects, manifestations, and (trans)formations of slavery in specific contexts. Anowa,Maru, and The Slave Girl in remarkable ways constitute explorations of slavery that take a long view of history by going beyond the immediate independence period for some understanding of the remote causes of some perennial predicaments, notably the deep social polarizations and the recalcitrant practices of slavery in some places, in the period beyond independence in Africa.


  1. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the conference “Slave Narratives: Chronicling Our Present, Remembering Our Past, Predicting Our Future,” at Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio, 14-16 October 1999. I would like to thank the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Humber College, Toronto, for supporting my participation in this conference.

  2. A remarkable departure from an essentialist separation of West African and Southern African histories of slavery is the comparative approach taken in the collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Eldredge and Fred Morton, Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor and the Dutch Frontier. In one of his essays in the book. “Slavery and South African Historiography,” Morton characterizes the essentialist separation of the two regions as a methodological lapse.

  3. Documentations and analyses of European and American deployment of Manichean images for assuming self-superiority vis-à-vis other people are common enough. A recent and extensive survey of the distribution, evolution, and ideology of these images, however, is by Jan Nedeveen Pieterse in White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture.

  4. Scholars and social activists place different degrees of importance on the vestiges of the slave trade between Africa and Europe and North America, and Africa and the Arab countries; and on slavery within present-day Africa. See, for instance, Derrick; Grace; and Morton and Eldredge. Derrick acknowledges the continued existence of bondage, including its extreme forms, but he dismisses its significance, drawing attention instead to Africa's “other problems.” Grace, on the other hand, considers the instances to be too significant and too prone to naturalization to be ignored. Derrick and Grace, as well as Morton and Eldredge, and several other scholars see gaps to be filled in the research.

  5. I use “faction” to mean a melding of fiction and facts. The manner and outcome of the melding will reveal different writers' artistic and other interests. The variations are, perhaps, captured in a definition of the term by Wole Soyinka, who himself has written factions, as a “genre which attempts to fictionalize facts and events, the proportion of fact to fiction being totally at the discretion of the author” (Foreword, Ibadan: The Penkelmes Years; emphasis in original). Head's faction in A Bewitched Crossroad suggests an interest that is historiographical and interpretive. This work consists of two narrative threads. One thread highlights the factual events in the area corresponding to present-day Botswana and its environs from about the middle of the eighteenth century to 1966. The other is an episodic story about a fictive clan—inspired by the experience of a real-life family—that mirrors the historical developments highlighted in the other narrative thread. The two threads take the form of alternating chapters that are thematically organized.

Works Cited

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Aidoo, Ama Ata. The Dilemma of a Ghost. London: Longman, 1965.

———. Anowa. London: Longman, 1970.

———. No Sweetness Here. Essex: Longman, 1970.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. Fragments. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Azodo, Ada, and Gay Wilentz, eds. Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo. Trenton: Africa World P, 1998.

Derrick, Jonathan. Africa's Slaves Today. New York: Schocken, 1975.

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Emecheta, Buchi. The Slave Girl. London: Allison and Busby, 1977.

———. The Joys of Motherhood. 1979. London: Heinemann, 1994.

———. Head above Water: An Autobiography. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1986.

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Head, Bessie. Maru. 1971. London: Heinemann, 1972.

———. A Bewitched Crossroad: An Historical Saga of Africa. New York: Paragon House, 1986.

———. A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979. Ed. Randolph Vigne. London: SA Writers, 1991.

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Morton, Barry. “Servitude, Slave Trading, and Slavery in the Kalahari.” Eldredge and Morton 215-50.

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Soyinka, Wole. Ibadan: The Penkelmes Years. A Memoir, 1946-1965. Ibadan: Spectrum, 1994.

Spencer-Walters, Tom. “Orality and Patriarchal Domination in Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl,” Umeh 125-37.

Stratton, Florence, “The Shallow Grave: Archetypes of Female Experience in African Fiction.” Umeh 95-124.

Umeh, Maric, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta. Trenton: Africa World P, 1996.

Sutherland, Efua. “New Life at Kyerefaso.” Ghanaian Writing Today, Volume 1. Ed. B. S. Kwakwa. Tema, 1984. 80-86. First published in Langston Hughes, An African Treasury: Articles, Essays, Stories, Poems, by Black Africans. New York: Crown, 1960.


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Further Reading