The Indelible Life of Ama Ata Aidoo A Personal Reflection

Growing up in Ghana in the 1980s, there were certain writers you didn’t escape. Ama Ata Aidoo, who passed away in May 2023, was one such writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes writes. Hers is a timeless legacy of a writer who triumphed over the double battle of high-level literary creation and persistent erasure, and became one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

Growing up in Ghana in the 1980s, there were certain writers you didn’t escape. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah inhabited numerous conversations because of the malaise the nation felt it was emerging from; Atukwei Okai’s poetry rang out at state functions; and, in 1982, Ama Ata Aidoo surfaced from the ring-fenced world of books to be appointed—albeit briefly—our Minister of Education. It was not a random appointment; Ama Ata Aidoo was steeped in education. Her father, Nana Yaw Fama, had opened the first school in Abeadzi Kyiakor in the Central Region of Ghana and, after graduating from the University of Ghana in 1965, she had worked in education in both Ghana and the United States, becoming a professor before our military government roped her into a political role. As a child, I didn’t know the details; I just knew that the education minister was a writer, and who is to say what seeds that reality planted, what futures it made me imagine?  

In a family like mine, where we regularly went to theatre productions at the Arts Centre in Accra and at the University of Ghana in Legon, playwrights were revered, and when I started my secondary education at Achimota School, I joined the Drama Club as soon as I could. In my first year, I watched Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa; in my second, I was a stagehand for the production of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel; in my third, I played a small part (Awere) in J.C. de Graft’s Sons and Daughters. When I eventually became president of the Drama Club, I directed Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost, also understudying the part of (Bird of the Wayside). In both Anowa and Dilemma, I was struck by the dignity with which local traditions were portrayed, in contrast to the utterances of my priests and some of my science teachers. It is an approach that provided valuable external validation of my father’s own leanings and has become a hallmark of my work and research. My admiration for Ama Ata Aidoo was seeded in these early moments of engagement with her work. 

I finally got to see her—off Ghana TV—in 2001 at a reading at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the UK. Still reeling from years of Anglo-trauma at people mispronouncing my name, I experienced something akin to a crush when she corrected the mispronunciation of her name in the introduction. When, during the Q&A that followed, she put an audience member who asked a Euro-chauvinist question in their place, I knew it was full-blown love. Prior to that, I had read Changes, Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1991 novel of love and liberation, with wide-eyed awe at the effortless depiction of different facets of West African society and culture and felt compelled to write a rare book review. In the review, written in late 2000, I described Changes as ‘written without fuss in the language that Ghanaians call English—adapted to suit the whims and imaginings of the local mind.’ Writing my own first novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, in 2007 I was careful to write the parts set in Ghana with the same attentiveness to local use of the English language. I also sought to write characters that I could see as clearly as I saw the male love interest in Changes—Ali, a man who moved the way I like to imagine I moved. A man who wore ‘kohl around his eyes’ with such nonchalance that he made me resume, at the age of 21, a kohl habit that I had abandoned when I was a 10-year-old. Given its visceral impact on me, it is no surprise that Changes was one of the works that I recommended for my African Book Club when I became Associate Writer in Residence with BBC Radio 3 in 2005, alongside Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, The Collector of Treasures by Bessie Head and Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. 

This convergence of influences from Ama Ata Aidoo came unmoored from a larger history and the kinds of threads that make a West African tale worthy of the label story. It was only in the last decade that the fabric began to assemble. It was in the wake of the murder of my uncle, the poet and diplomat Kofi Awoonor, in the Westgate Mall attack, that I found out that both he and my other writer uncle, Frank Kobina Parkes, were regular visitors to the University of Ghana when Ama Ata Aidoo was studying there and knew her well; and when I told my mother the story, she remarked that Ama Ata Aidoo was a few years ahead of her at Wesley Girls High School. However, the significance of Ama Ata Aidoo’s consistent presence as one of the leading thinkers and writers in the world is easily lost without taking into account how blatantly women writers were ignored in the post-independence scramble to name the ‘fathers’ of every pursuit in Africa. Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ writes in his The Rise of the African Novel, how the famous Makerere Conference, the 1962 gathering to discuss African literature in the English language, only had two women in attendance, and how women had subsequently been excluded from the emergent canon. While Ama Ata Aidoo was still early in her university career at the time of the Makerere conference, it is into that literary milieu and its attendant barriers to women that she emerged with her debut, The Dilemma of a Ghost, three years later. I became acutely aware of the double battle of high-level literary creation and persistent erasure when Ama Ata Aidoo gave me a talking to in 2017 during my tenure as the founding director of the Ama Ata Aidoo Centre for Creative Writing in Accra. I left our meeting with a renewed conviction of her importance, this time fully rooted in history, politics, and an appreciation of the skewed narrative of the construction of Africa’s nation-states. 

As if to underline the ubiquity and unfading significance of her work, on the morning of Ama Ata Aidoo’s passing, my father’s older sister, Esperanza, wrote to tell me that she had played the titular role of Anowa in its very first production at the Drama Studio (where Ghana’s National Theatre now stands) in 1970. She was part of Efua Sutherland’s group, The Studio Players, which included fellow enthusiast actors such as Ebow Daniels, Rose Fynn, Kwesi Villars and Emmanuel Ayensu. In my grief, this snippet of family folklore was suddenly of great comfort. It gave me the assurance that my children will be able to connect with the work of Ama Ata Aidoo the same way that I did a generation after my aunt. One of them might even act in one of her timeless plays, or perhaps direct a film based on her work. Indeed, to paraphrase the great woman, work is not only love made visible; it is a life made indelible. May she rest well

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