Happy Birthday, Ama Ata Aidoo
Happy birthday, Ama Ata Aidoo
I'm one of your many fans across the world. The first time I came across your name was probably in 1969, reading an editorial in the now defunct Sierra Leone Daily Mail to my grandfather. I don't recall what it was all about, but I do remember stumbling over your name as I read and Grandpa righting me ever so gently as he often did. I must confess I promptly forgot all about you. Until I got to my 1974-75 school year, and there you were at the top of my Literature in English book list.
Those days, the best place for used books was what we called the gron bukshop. I don't know if you've ever been to Freetown, but back then book hawkers were a block or two down from the old C.M.S. Diocesan Bookstore, opposite the famous City Hotel that once stood at the corner of Gloucester and Lightfoot-Boston Street. Inside the old split-level bookstore, price tags were a little steep, so friends pointed you a few blocks down market. There, dog-eared and pulpy wares were stacked as neatly and looked as tasteful to the eye as juicy yellow and purple garden eggs, hot cayenne peppers, and bunches of greens that market women spread lovingly on vegetable stalls at Kroo Town Road or Kissy Street.
For the most part, books were African Writers Series orange and black. There were so many copies on the ground (so much competition), you could haggle and knock off a few leones even on a good price.
Come September that year, I was back at Methodist Girls High School. I must tell you that before we started reading your play, the teacher gave us a little history about the Wesleyan Mission that founded Wesley Girls High School in the Cape Coast, which you attended from 1961 to 1964, and the Methodist Girls High School in Wilberforce, Freetown.
When we finally got stuck in, she let us speak our minds (quite a novelty) after each act. What opinions we had! It seemed everyone knew somebody who'd married a foreigner—who looked visibly different, spoke Krio, Themne or Mende with a funny accent, cooked Cassava leaves with kerosene (well not quite) and didn't have a clue how to wear dokhet ehn lappa or print. We all felt quite grown up talking about the issues with no parents or carers around.
Something else I found out about you during the 1970s was that you had graduated from University of Ghana in Legon. Somewhere else I read that Wole Soyinka taught at Legon for a bit as well as University of Ife, Ile Ife, and at Ibadan. So I decided Fourah Bay College was good but Ife and Ibadan and Legon were better for drama and plays. Between 1975-1978, I wrote lots of little plays and poetry. My mother thought they were good. My father, somewhat indifferent, warmed to my enthusiasm for some structure like college education, even if it was majoring in drama which he felt wasn't quite like the law. My dear siblings would indulge my theatrics whenever they could. I never did make it to Legon. By 1978, I was a freshman at Fourah Bay College and I graduated in 1982.
Fast forward almost a generation on, with majority of my worklife spent outside Africa, I am re reading The Dilemma of a Ghost in Baltimore, Maryland. Within my small reader circle made up of of immigrant African and African American women, we pore through this review.
Ato Yawson, a Ghanaian who recently completed his studies in the United States and returns home with an American bride, Eulalie. From the beginning it is clear that Eulalie isn't like the girls back home, and that there is potential for conflict here. Already in the opening scene, a short prelude, Eulalie and Ato are arguing. Still, here there seems hope that love can conquer all -- at least that's how the two feel. But one of the big issues they will face is already addressed here: Eulalie isn't eager to bear children yet, though it is expected of her and Ato that they will begin a family as soon as possible. Eulalie doesn't quite fit into the African lifestyle. Ato, the scholar, is highly regarded for his accomplishments, but there are also expectations on him now, and it is difficult to balance them with wilful Eulalie's needs and desires. The action of the play is spread out over a year. Over the entire time Eulalie can't accustom herself to African customs and life. She turns to alcohol, and continues to do much as she pleases, rather than adopting the position expected of her. She doesn't fit in -- a situation that seems impossible to remedy. Aidoo presents the story quite well, balancing the action between the couple (and the family) with dialogues between two village women who provide a different perspective on events.
When we finish the play about two weeks later, we talk about the issues, add our life experiences to the story's dilemma and discuss how we deal with our ghosts in debates on slavery and cultural differences between Western and Continental African world views.
It's 46 years, I observe, since Dilemma of a Ghost was published, I wonder out loud if you took on the play in 2011 whether you'd present the story any differently? In this 2006 Border Crossings theater company interview, you called the idea "an inspirational moment" and urged honesty in debate. From across time and space, I say thanks for that inspiration and happy birthday again!