Whether in her short stories, books for children, novels, plays or essays, Ama Ata Aidoo, the Ghanaian and African literary icon who turned 70 on 23 March, speaks to the most urgent issues of our times. “She is a writer for all seasons,” says Kenya’s most famous author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
I have known Ama Ata Aidoo for many years. We share many personal friends who, in their different ways, have made an impact on our lives: Ime Ikiddeh, Grant Kamenju, Parsali Likimani, and Micere Mugo. The first three have passed on, but their memory is always present. All four were an integral part of my intellectual formation.
Ama Ata Aidoo too has been part of my intellectual journey. We have traveled many places together, having met in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, America, England, and Germany. She has been in many more places, which is another way of saying that she is first and foremost a writer of the world in the world.
Her infectious laughter and warm personality easily break barriers of culture and race, even when and where she is at her most critical. She never compromises on questions of African dignity and standing in the world. She is a great Pan-Africanist in life and thought; she embraced and was embraced by Kenya and Zimbabwe as a daughter of the land.
In that sense, we can paraphrase what is said of Kofi in Ama Ata Aidoo’s play, Anowa, but here in a positive way, that Ama has been, is, and will always be of us. She speaks to the human and the world but uncompromisingly through Africa. But her embrace and defence of Africa has not meant complacency.
Her embrace of the continent is through tough love: being able to see its beauty because she is also able to see clearly its warts. Dignity like any other ideal must start from home, the domestic sphere, and the sphere of self. One can pick any of her poems, stories and fiction generally to see this: but tough love was always there even in her earliest works. Aidoo’s work, including the playful mischief, is rooted in orature as much as it is in her literary inheritance from Africa and the world.
This is best illustrated in Anowa. I have taught this text in Africa an America and, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I always find something new in it with every reading and analysis. It grows on me through every reading. I have never seen it on the stage so I have had to look and see its theatre and theatricality through the text.
Some of her truly unforgettable characters like the pair, Old Man and Woman, together being the Mouth that Eats Salt and Pepper, are from classical African orature and from the everyday lives in an African community.
They are like the Greek Chorus, itself rooted in classical Greek Orature. But firmly at the centre of the stage and action is Anowa herself. She is the prime mover, whether in terms of her defying tradition and communal expectancy by choosing to marry Kofi, or in her defence of productive work as what constitutes the human as opposed to the parasitic living on another person’s life, as in the system of slavery.
It is difficult to sum up the play and the character of Anowa. I have met her story in classical African orature in the archetype of the beautiful maiden who refuses the hand of the young men of her neighborhood but ends up in the hands of a stranger who turns out to be an ogre.
Amos Tutuola, in Palm-Wine Drinkard, put his indelible mark on the archetype, in the tale of The Complete Gentleman of the Jungle. In Nigerian orature, there is a similar story of the village beauty who defies the expectations of her immediate community by marrying, not one of the young men of her village, but a stranger who seems to promise a horizon way beyond the local confinement to the known and the safe. Is she punished for disobeying the wishes of her father and mother? Or is she paying the price that those who venture beyond the norm and the expected in the area of ideas, have had to pay?
But the story does not rest on this archetype alone. There is also an element of the spirit child born into the human world, allowed to live on condition that she becomes a priestess, wedded to the gods. The moment she marries a human, she has defied the gods and hence the tragic end. In both, she is still defying the expected, the normal and the safe.
Anowa can also be placed in another folk tradition, particularly the European, seen in what I have called the Faust theme in literature. The theme deals with the archetype of an upright person who sells his soul to the devil for prosperity, materialism, and power. But eventually the devil claims his own.
The theme is particularly prominent in the European Christian tradition because the phenomena of the soul, salvation, sin, perdition, heaven and hell are central to Christianity. If the soul is the real and the eternal, and not the ephemeral body, can one exchange the eternal for the earthly passing away, the body and its satisfaction?
The attraction of the Faust theme then is precisely in its symbolism of the opposition between materialism and morality, between materiality of possessions and the integrity of spiritual possession.
The material power is there for a time. It is associated with excess, greed and power, which we see exhibited in Kofi. The Kofi who attracts Anowa, the one for whom she defies family and tradition, is the Kofi of moral integrity, who lives by his own productive labour.
But the Kofi of the trade in slavery, who ultimately depends on slave labour, is the Kofi of the excess that corrupts the soul. The new Kofi, who has made a pact with the devil of material success no matter at whose cost, is already dead long before his suicide.
But Aidoo places this in history. Lest the reader/the audience forgets, the prologue invokes the Atlantic Slave Trade, the “bigger crime,” the eternal witness of that crime being the many slave castles, “those forts standing at the door of the great ocean.” The Big Houses mentioned are certainly those houses whose fortune was rooted in the slave trade. We recall this connection when at the end we find Kofi living in such a big house, “the Big House at Oguaa”.
The Bond of 1844, the protectorate status signed by the traditional elite of the time, “the lords of our Houses,” “binding us to the white men who came from beyond the horizon”, is prominently intentionally mentioned, which would place the present of the story in the year 1874. This is during the reign of Queen Victoria. Later we find her picture conspicuously hanging on the wall of Kofi’s Big House.
The genius of Aidoo as an artist is the way she has used the image of “the bond” to explore the theme of the unequal power relationship at different moments in society in history. The image of the bond connects unequal gender relationships in whatever society to those of class in any society. Positively of course, there is the bond of love like that which draws Kofi and Anowa together; this may collide with the family bond when that bond is itself bound up in uncompromising traditionalism. But it may and does collide with the bond of slavery, domestic or Atlantic, or colonial and neo-colonial.
One cannot view or read the mis-enscène in the third and final part of Anowa, with the pictures of Queen Victoria on the wall, without of course bringing to mind the neo-colonial setting of the present in the writing of the play, which is also the present of our times, of what I have described in my novel, Wizard of the Crow, as “corpolonialism”. Thus written in 1965, the play talks squarely to our times.
That’s Aidoo. Whether in her short stories, children’s books, novels or plays, she speaks to the most urgent issues of our times. She is a writer for all seasons.