Male-Female Relationships of Different Generations in Anowa

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Many critics have commented on the fact that though Anowa is set in what later became Ghana in the 1870s, some of the issues and ideas Aidoo has woven into the story are thoroughly modern. Anowa's individuality and complex, often problematic relationship with both her parents and husband are often mentioned. Another is the depiction of several generations and how they handle conflict in different ways. The play is built around male-female relationships, implicitly contrasting different generations.

In Anowa there are three main couplings: The Old Man and Old Woman (also known as "Being-The-Mouth-That-Eats-Salt-And-Pepper"), the elder generation; Badua and Osam, the parental generation; and Anowa and Kofi Ako, the younger generation. This essay discusses these relationships and how they form the core of the play.

The oldest couple in Anowa are the Old Man and the Old Woman. They are not part of the main action of the play, but more of a chorus commenting on the choices and attitudes displayed by the "real" characters. The name "Being-The-Mouth-That-Eats-Salt-And-Pepper" is a local euphemism for a gossip, further underlining how they represent society's opinion. While it is unclear from the play whether the Old Man and Old Woman are married, they represent their genders in their age group. Aidoo presents them as a couple, implying they function as a unit.

The Old Man and Old Woman are supposed to live in the village of Yebi, where Anowa lives with her parents until the end of phase one. Thus, it is a specific segment of a society close to Anowa that is providing what should be knowledgeable commentary. From the beginning, Aidoo sets up a contrast with the pair. In the stage descriptions at the beginning of the prologue, Aidoo writes, "She is never still and very often speaks with agitation, waving her stick ... He is serene and everything about him is more orderly." The Old Man and Old Woman rarely agree.

The Old Man is more sympathetic to Anowa and her troubles than the Old Woman from the first. The Old Woman disagrees with his every opinion. At the end of phase two, for example, the Old Man shares Anowa's horror at Kofi Ako's acquisition of slaves. He states, "there must be something unwholesome about making slaves of other men, something that is against the natural state of man and the purity of his worship of the gods." The Old Woman is only concerned that Anowa has not had any children and will not act as a proper wife to Kofi Ako. Her only indirect comment on the slavery matter is "she would rather be poor than prospering."

At the end of Anowa, the Old Woman blames Anowa for Kofi Ako's demise. She shows no compassion towards Anowa or her situation. The Old Man does. He gets the final lines of the play, which include one insightful statement: "She [Anowa] was true to herself." The Old Man seems to understand Anowa's motivations better than the Old Woman. She is more concerned with Anowa's every transgression. The Old Woman is quick to blame Anowa's mother, Badua, for bringing up her daughter in an incorrect manner. The Old Man examines how the action reflects changes in social trends, while the Old Woman is only concerned with judging the wrongs of individuals, with no thought to the big picture.

Badua and Osam, Anowa's parents, share many characteristics with the Old Man and Old Woman. Badua is as quick to judge as the Old Woman, while her husband is depicted as more thoughtful, like the Old Man. Badua and Osam are definitely a longtime...

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married couple, as their more personal troubles and manner of fighting indicate. Underneath the disagreements, however, is a partnered core. Both Osam and Badua stay within their defined roles as man and woman, husband and wife.

In phase one, where Osam and Badua are the primary characters, Osam tries to offer solutions to their problem with Anowa, but Badua does not want to hear them. Osam has wanted to apprentice their daughter to a priestess, but Badua wants her to be married in the socially accepted fashion and "normal." Indeed most of Badua's mental energy is spent on wanting her daughter to be a different kind of person, one that accepts her societal role and lives the kind of life her mother wants her to live.

On page twelve in phase one, for example, Badua lists all she wants for her daughter, some of which she does not even have for herself. Osam is more realistic. He tells Badua, "My wife, people with better vision than yours or mine have seen that Anowa is not like you or me." Later in the phase, Badua cannot accept that Anowa, against all social norms, has found her own husband and will live a different kind of life. Osam stays out of the matter, accepting that his daughter has made a decision. He only becomes critical when the bickering between Badua and Anowa turns nasty, and Anowa is mean to her mother's face.

After Anowa leaves with Kofi Ako, there is a scene in phase two which shows Osam and Badua's reactions to their married daughter's choices. Badua still only thinks in terms of what she wants Anowa to be and the socially acceptable role in her village. For a moment, Badua expresses a desire to look for her, while Osam realizes that Anowa probably does not want to be found. Later in the scene, Osam, like the Old Man, expresses understanding about Anowa's opinions on slavery. Badua can only see that her daughter, though barren, is living a wealthy life that many women would envy. Badua cannot see beyond her own life and values. Osam is not particularly worldly either, but he is more understanding of opinions that are different than his own. This duality has much in common with the Old Man and Old Woman.

The bulk of Anowa concerns the relationship between Anowa and Kofi Ako. In many ways, it is the exact opposite of the previous couples discussed. While Anowa is outspoken in her opinions, as Badua and the Old Woman are, she has a certain strength and independence that they do not. Anowa does not have regard for social norms, as she shows over and over again. She did not marry when most girls in her culture did, and turned down many suitors. Anowa chose to marry Kofi Ako, over her mother's protests. Anowa also enjoys working and helping her husband with his trade in direct fashion. Indeed one of her goals upon marrying him was to make him a success. Early in phase two, Anowa is carrying skins like her husband.

Kofi Ako, on the other hand, shares more of the values of Badua and the Old Woman. While these older women do not exactly respect him, at least in the first part of Anowa, they change their opinions when he becomes very rich from his trade. When Kofi Ako marries Anowa, he knows she is different from other women, and appreciates this to some degree. However, as the play goes, he wants her to become a more socially acceptable wife who keeps house and does not do the kind of hard labor Anowa favors. As Kofi Ako becomes more wealthy, his tolerance for Anowa's "strange" ways lessens.

One major difference between Kofi Ako and Anowa as a couple and Anowa's parents is how they argue and treat each other. The bulk of Badua and Osam's problems are discussed between them. While they disagree, they seem basically supportive of the other. No one leaves or throws the other out. Kofi Ako and Anowa never compromise on their beliefs. Kofi Ako never accepts that his wife is different and will remain that way. Anowa never accepts what Kofi Ako wants for her. The biggest argument between them is over slaves. Anowa is appalled that Kofi Ako wants to build their wealth by buying men and women. She never accepts this, even when they grow wealthy on slave labor. Anowa wants to work herself. Kofi Ako never understands her problem with slavery. When she first learns of his plan and vehemently protests, Kofi Ako replies, "Everyone does it ... does not everyone do it? And things would be easier for us."

Because the couple's communication is so poor and they are so unhappy with each other by phase three, Kofi Ako wants Anowa to leave, though he will not give her a specific reason. This is the point of contention for Anowa. By this time, the couple is wealthy with a big house in Oguaa. While Kofi Ako dresses well, Anowa wears what she has worn from the beginning of the play. The couple has never been able to produce a child, a fact that Anowa blames on herself until the end of the play. When Kofi Ako and Anowa have their final argument over the reason why Kofi wants her to leave, it is bitter and drawn out. The couple has lived in separate parts of the house and slept in separate beds for some time. Their verbal tug of war is mean and bitter. It ends with Anowa accusing Kofi Ako of being less than a man. She blames him for their lack of children because he must be impotent, with some slaves present. He kills himself moments later, though Anowa finally agrees to leave. She never finds out his reason and kills herself by drowning later on.

Aidoo portrays male-female relationships in a complex, thought-provoking manner. Each of these three couples has a different kind of relationship, in part because of their different ages, experiences, and life expectations. The only true failure among the three, Kofi Ako and Anowa's relationship falters when their duality grows unbalanced. Neither will let go of their fundamental beliefs in any manner, constructive or otherwise. Aidoo could also be interpreted as condemning the inverted roles Kofi Ako and Anowa take versus the Old Man and Old Woman and Osam and Badua. Anowa remains true to herself but pays a harsh price. The many possible interpretations of Anowa make it a very interesting play.

Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.

Folk Proverbs in Aidoo's Play

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Aidoo's play Anowa concerns a young woman, Anowa, who marries a young man, Kofi Ako, against her parents' wishes. The young couple leave their home village of Yebi in order to strike out on their own, making their own way in the world. At first, Anowa works along with her husband, but he soon purchases slaves to do their work for them, and the couple prospers. From the beginning, Anowa is against the purchase of slaves, but Kofi acts against her wishes. As the years go on, their material wealth increases with the increasing number of slaves Kofi buys, but their marriage deteriorates. Throughout the play, scenes between Anowa and her husband are interspersed with conversations between Badua and Osam, Anowa's parents, and an Old Woman and Old Man. In much of the dialogue, characters refer to traditional proverbs and folk sayings in order to argue their point or convince another person of their opinion. Although these proverbs and sayings are probably not familiar to the non-African reader, one may figure out their meaning by the context in which they are used. In the following essay, I quote several of the proverbs uttered by these characters, and discuss their meaning in the context of the play.

The sapling breaks with the bending that will not grow straight.

This proverb is spoken by the Old Woman about Anowa's refusal to obey her parents' wishes to marry. In this context, it means that the child ("sapling") who deviates ("bends") from her parents' rules will not grow to be an upstanding ("straight") adult.

A prophet with a locked mouth is neither a prophet nor a man.

This statement is made by Osam, Anowa's father, to Badua, Anowa's mother. Osam is arguing that their daughter was meant to be a priestess (or "prophet"), and that not allowing her to express her spiritual calling ("with a locked mouth") will prevent her from becoming a priestess, but will not make it possible for her to lead a normal life as a woman (to be "a man").

The yam that will burn, shall burn, boiled or roasted.

Osam also evokes this proverb in arguing with his wife that Anowa is meant to be a priestess ("a yam that will burn"), and so no matter what she is made to do by her parents (be "boiled or roasted"), she will still fulfill her destiny in the end. Another interpretation may be that a child who is destined to turn out bad ("burn") will do so no matter how her parents rear ("cook") her.

Marriage is like a piece of cloth ... And like cloth, its beauty passes with wear and tear.

Anowa's mother, Badua, says this to Anowa in attempting to convince her not to marry Kofi. Badua feels that Anowa is taken in by Kofi's physical beauty, and is trying to explain to her that a marriage based on physical beauty, or attraction, will not last in the long run.

Some of us feel that the best way to sharpen a knife is not to whet one side of it only.

This is spoken by the Old Man to the Old Woman. He is arguing that she must consider both "sides" of the situation between Anowa and her parents in order to make a clear judgment ("sharpen a knife") on it.

Is she the best potter who knows her clay and how it breathes?

The Old Man continues to point out that, just because a man and woman have given birth to a child, that does not necessarily mean that they know what is best for her. He is suggesting that perhaps Anowa knows herself ("her clay") and what she needs from life ("how it breathes") better than her parents do.

Some people babble as though they borrowed their grey hairs and did not grow them on their own heads.

The Old Woman says this to the Old Man, implying that what he is saying is without wisdom, and so he sounds as if he were really a young man (without grey hair) who has only put on the guise of an old man ("borrowed their grey hairs"), rather than gaining the true wisdom which comes with age.

The infant which tries its milk teeth on every bone and stone, grows up with nothing to eat dried meat with.

The Old Woman says this to the Old Man, in arguing that Anowa should be made to behave her parents' wishes, as she is too young to make wise decisions. The saying means that a baby who is teething and tries to chew the most difficult items ("tries its milk teeth on every bone and stone") will ruin its teeth by the time it is an adult ("with nothing to eat dried meat with"). In other words, allowing a young girl, such as Anowa, to make her own—unwise—decisions about her life will only leave her without wisdom or resources as an adult.

The man who hates you does not care if you wait in the sun for your clothes to dry before you can go and join the dance.

Kofi makes this statement to Anowa, as, early in their marriage, they are discussing their attempt to support themselves on their own, without the help of their families, and away from their home village. The expression means that a person who does not care about you ("hates you") will take no interest in your personal problems, large or small. Kofi is suggesting to Anowa that they are truly on their own in the world, and cannot expect sympathy or aid from the families and community whom they left on a negative note.

A shrine has to be worshipped however small its size. And a kind god angered is a thousand times more evil than a mean god unknown.

Anowa says this to Kofi as they are arguing about the value of using "medicines and taboos" to solve their problems. Kofi thinks that there is no harm in such remedies, but Anowa feels that one cannot resort to such measures lightly. Her point is that using "medicines and taboos" requires a commitment on their part to the cure; in other words, they must "worship" the "shrine" of these "medicines and taboos," even if they only wish to use them in a "small" way. Furthermore, Anowa argues that the positive benefits of these cures ("‘a kind god") can be overshadowed by the possible negative consequences ("a kind god angered is a thousand times more evil ...").

A crab never fathers a bird.

Badua says this to Osam during one of their arguments about Anowa. Osam is trying to point out to Badua that Anowa has always been an unusual child, and that the fact that she left her home and family with her husband should come as no surprise. In explaining that Anowa has always been different, Osam mentions that others in their village "fear her," and that he himself "has always feared her." Badua retorts that "a crab never fathers a bird," meaning that, if Anowa is different and to be feared, and she is Osam's daughter, then Osam, too, must be different and feared by others. In other words, the child is a reflection on the parent, since the child can only be so different from her parents (one species cannot "father" another). Badua is trying to argue that Anowa is really not so strange and different from anyone else, just as Osam is not strange or different.

One stops wearing a hat only when the head has fallen off.


Our elders said that one never stops wearing hats on a head which still stands on its shoulders.

Anowa makes these statements at two different points in arguing with Kofi that she wishes to continue working, even though they have slaves to do their work for them. Anowa's point is that she was meant to work, and that doing work (like "wearing a hat") will continue to suit her until the day she dies ("only when the head has fallen off").

Aidoo's play consists primarily of pairs of couples—Badua and Osam, Anowa and Kofi, the Old Woman and the Old Man—arguing with one another over how Anowa has chosen to conduct her life. During the course of these arguments, each character refers to traditional sayings and proverbs in order to support her or his side of the argument. Part of Aidoo's project in writing this play was to record in writing, and reproduce on stage, elements from the oral tradition of African culture. These traditional proverbs are demonstrated to contain many universal wisdoms. At the same time, however, Aidoo plants a seed of doubt in the reader's mind as to the value of relying solely on traditional wisdom in making life decisions. At one point during an argument between Anowa and Kofi, Kofi suggests that such traditional wisdom is not always the best; he states that "proverbs do not always describe the truth of reality." This statement is important to the broader implications of the play, and the role of traditional proverbs in the dialogue. A central theme is that of tradition, and breaking with tradition. Anowa has broken with her family tradition in marrying a man of whom her mother does not approve, Kofi, and leaving their village with him, never to return. Just as tradition does not necessarily account for "the truth of reality" in Anowa's life, so, this line suggests, traditional wisdom, as expressed in these proverbs, is not always the best wisdom.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture with a specialization in film studies from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.


Critical Overview