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Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-) - in full Christina Ama Ata Aidoo

 

Ghanaian writer, who has depicted the role of African woman in modern society. Her acclaimed prose works include No Sweets Here (1970), a collection of short stories, the semi-autobiographical novel Our Sister Killjoy (1979), and Changes (1991), which won the 1993 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Africa region. Aidoo has noted that the idea of nationalism has been used by new leaders as a tool to keep people oppressed. She has criticized those educated Africans who profess to love their country but are lured away by the material benefits of the developed word; educated in the West, they internalize the ideologies of the colonizer and eventually fail to return to home for the benefit of their own communities. Aidoo believes in a distinct African identity, which she sees from a female perspective.

"'My dear young man,' said the visiting professor, 'to give you the decent answer your anxiety demands, I would have to tell you a detailed history of the African continent. And to do that, I shall have to speak every day, twenty-four hours a day, for at least three thousand years. And I don't mean to be rude to you or anything, but who has that kind of time?'" (from Our Sister Killjoy, 1977)

Ama Ata Aidoo was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Gold Coast, now Ghana. Her father was a chief of Abeadzi Kyakor, a political individual, as Aidoo's grandfather who was killed by the British. Because of her father's position, Aidoo grew up in a royal household with a clear sense of African traditions. Her father was also an advocate of Western education and sent her to Wesley Girls' High School in Cape Coast. In 1964 Aidoo graduated from the University of Ghana in Legon, where she received a bachelor's degree in English. While still studying, she started to publish poetry, and began to work with Efua Sutherland, founder of the Ghana Drama Studio.

Aidoo's work falls into various genres: fiction, drama, poetry, essays, letters and criticism. Her central issues are the legacy of the slave trade, the impact of neo-colonialism on the Educated Ghanaian elite, and the notion of exile and African diasporic identity. Often her stories focus on the role of women in the process of change. "Isn't it clear that the African man alone isn't able to cope with out relationship with the West and the rest of the world," she has said.

From the beginning, Aidoo has based her plays more or less on earlier tradition. She gained first notice with the play The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964), which concerned the problem of conflict between traditional culture and Western education and values. Aidoo has said, that she got the gist for the work from a children's playsong in Takorandi. In the story a young man from Ghana, Ato Yaweson, who was educated in the United States, returns home and brings with him seeds of conflict. The conflict is compounded by his wife's ignorance and immaturity. In the end Ato's mother helps to save the family. The play premiered at Commonwealth Hall's Open-Air Theatre, University of Ghana, in March 1964. It received mixed reviews, but was succesfully produced in Accra, Lagos, Ibadan, and elsewhere. Her second play ANOWA (1970), which was set on an earlier historical period than Dilemma of a Ghost, was based on a Ghanaian folktale of a girl who defied her parents in choice of her husband, and marries an attractive stranges who turn out to be the devil in disguise. Its inspirational source was a story that Aidoo's mother had told her. The play had a successful production in Britain in 1991.

No Sweets Here collected Aidoo's early short stories, written from the mid-1960s. It was republished in 1995 by the Feminist Press. In 'Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral' Aidoo uses the technique of oral storytelling. "Everybody needs a backbone. If we do not refer to the old traditions, it is almost like operating with amnesia," she has argued. The narrator tells her sister about Aunt Araba, beautiful, enterprising, and economically self-empowered woman. In her puberty she is sent to stay with a lady relative and learns to bake epitsi, tatare, boodoo, and other sweeties which satisfy "the tongue but do not fill the stomach". However, she returns home after troubles with the lady's husband Araba has a child, Ato, and marries a good husband. Aunt Araba starts to bake and sell ordinary bread with success. Ato remains the only child, his real father sends him to college but he is spoilt. Ato has a child with a girl, Mansa, promises to marry her but cannot do it because he has got another girl into trouble her parents are influential and Ado has to marry her. Aunt Araba sends Mansa to a friend and she starts to bake with machines. Araba dies, her spirit gone. "Certainly it was her son who drove it away." But Mansa, whom she has trained, is expected to carry on her legacy.

Aidoo's work at home and teaching took all her spare time and it was not until 1977 when she finished her next book, Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. This novel dealt with the encounter between African and European cultures, and the psychological impact of post-colonialism on women. The young heroine, Sissie, is disillusioned and alienated by her experience in England and in the "heart of darkness" of Bavaria, Germany. She feels uncomfortable about the use of a language that "enslaved" her, and she experiences racism and ignorance about Africa throughout her journeys. When her friendship comes on the brink of lesbian love, Sissie is disgusted, and decides to return to Ghana. Aidoo's narrative technique alternates between prose and poetry, sometimes one word covers an entire page. Sissie is not an omniscient narrator but other characters are treated as equals, who speak in their voices. In the manner of oral storytelling, Aidoo appeals directly to the reader. Our Sister Killjoy was largely ignored by African (male) critics. Partly as a response to this silence, Aidoo wrote the famous essay, 'Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves', first presented in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1981, at the International Conference on African Literature and the English Language.

The protagonist of Changes is a modern African woman, Esi, who earns more than her schoolmaster husband Oku. After a "marital rape" a concept that has not raised so much debate in Africa than in the West she asks for a divorce. She begins an affair with a Muslim businessman Ali Kondey. Though Ali is married, he can have more than one wife. They marry, and there are fewer demads put on Esi. She realizes that her husband is unable to give her the attention she needs and they drift apart. Esi is left to wonder "what fashion of loving was she ever going to consider adequate.''

Aidoo has taught for many years in the United States and Kenya. She has been a professor of English at the University of Ghana and a fellow at the Institute for African Studies, where she wrote and researched Fanti drama. In 1974-75 she served as a consulting professor to the Washington bureau of the Phelps-Stokes Fund's Ethnic Studies Program. She has attended an advanced creative writing course at Stanford University and she has been at the Harvard International Seminar. In 1983-84 Aidoo was Minister of Education under the government of Jerry Rawlings. Between 1970 and 1985 she published little, but in 1986 appeared a collection of poetry, Someone Talking to Sometime, which was followed next year by The Eagle and the Chickens, a children's book. The title story in The Girl Who Can and Other Stories  (1999) told about the relationship between mothers and daughters, between the younger and the older generation. The conflict is seen through the eyes of Ajola, the seven-your-old daughter of Kaya; her grandmother Nana considers her legs too thin: "If any woman decides to come into this world with her own two legs, then she should select legs that have meat on them: with good calves." Her legs become an object of different claims and cultural expectations, as if distantly echoing the thoughts of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon of the colonized-body.

Besides Ghana, Aidoo has lived in Harare, Zimbabwe from 1983, where she has worked for the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education. She has also been active in the Zimbabwe Women Writers Group. A politically outspoken person, during President Clinton's stay in Ghana in 1998 Aidoo criticized the mass media, saying that it has made the visit look like second coming of Messiah. In 2010 she concluded her time at Brown University as a long-term visiting professor of Africana Studies and literary arts. Currently she lives in Ghana and is the Executive Director of Mbaasem, a foundation to promote the work of Ghanaian and African women writers. Aidoo's third collection of stories, Diplomatic Pound & Other Stories, came out in 2012.

For further reading: Women Writers in Black Africa by Lloyd Brown (1981); Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (1986); In their Own Voices, ed. Adeola James (1990); Diverse Voices, ed. Harriet Devine Jump (1991); Black Women's Writing, ed. Gina Wisker (1993); The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo by Vincent Odamtten (1994); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo, ed. Ada Uzoamaka Azodo and Gay Wilentz (1999); World Authors 1990-1995, ed. Clifford Thompson (2000); New Directions in African Literature: A Review, edited by Ernest N. Emenyonu (2006) - Other African women writers: Flora Nwapa (1931-1996), Mariama Bâ (1929-81), Buchi Emecheta (b. 1944), Tsitsi Dangarembga (b. 1959)

Selected works:

  • The Dilemma of a Ghost, 1965
  • Anowa, 1970
  • No Sweetness Here, 1970 (afterword by Ketu H. Katrak, 1995)
  • Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, 1977
  • Someone Talking to Sometime, 1985
  • The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories, 1986 (illustrations by Paul Wade)
  • Birds and Other Poems, 1987
  • Changes: A Love Story, 1991
    - Muutoksia (suomentanut Terhi Kuusisto, 2002)
  • An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems, 1992
  • The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, 1999
  • Diplomatic Pounds & Other Stories, 2012


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