Ama Ata Aidoo’s Illimitable Voice Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-2023)

Ama Ata Aidoo, whose works include The Dilemma of a Ghost (1962), Our Sister Killjoy (1977), Someone Talking to Sometime (1986), and Changes: A Love Story (1991), has died aged 81. The Ghanaian novelist, poet, and playwright was a renowned feminist whose works celebrated the lives of Ghanaian and African women. 

On 31 May 2023, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghanaian feminist, poet, playwright, novelist, and author of works including Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and Changes: A Love Story (1991), passed away aged 81. Aidoo’s death was announced in a press statement signed by the Aidoo family head, Kwamena Essandoh Aidoo. ‘With deep sorrow but in the hope of the resurrection, informs the general public that our beloved relative and writer passed away in the early hours of this morning Wednesday, after a short illness,’ the statement read.  

Aidoo—the first African woman to publish a play when her debut, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was released in 1965—was born in Ghana (then-Gold Coast) on 23 March 1942. She was raised in a Fante household and was the daughter of a chief in Abeadzi Kyiakor, a town in the former Gold Coast region. After attending Wesley Girls High School in Cape Coast, Aidoo studied English at the University of Ghana in Legon. At university, she participated actively in writing workshops and the school of drama. As a student in 1964, she wrote and staged her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, which follows the life of a Ghanaian student who returns from studying abroad with his African American wife, and her struggle to come to terms with her cultural past in her new African home. In 1965, the play was published by Longman. Between 1964 and 1966, Aidoo worked as a junior research fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, a time that likely strengthened her commitment to incorporating African oral traditions into her work and also had an impact on her writing. She graduated from the University of Ghana in 1964.   

After publishing The Dilemma of a Ghost, Aidoo spent decades writing an array of fictional and non-fictional works. Her bibliography included: Anowa, a play (1970); No Sweetness Here, a collection of short stories (1970); Our Sister Killjoy, a novel (1977); Someone Talking to Sometime, a poetry collection (1986); Changes, a novel (1991); The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1997); and Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories (2012). Aidoo’s works explored a vast range of subjects, including the effects of neocolonialism on Western-educated Ghanaians, the legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, exile, and African diasporic identity. Aidoo also wrote several essays, such as ‘The African Woman Today’ for Dissent Magazine, on African literature and the realities of women in African society.  

In addition to her literary accomplishments, Aidoo was actively involved in education and public service. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Ghana, Aidoo won several scholarships, including one for creative writing from Stanford University in California, which enabled her to travel for two years before returning to Ghana in 1969 to teach English at the University of Ghana. At the University of Ghana, she worked as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies. She also worked at the University of Cape Coast as a lecturer in English from 1970 to 1982, before becoming a professor. In January 1982, Aidoo was appointed as the minister of education under the government of President Jerry Rawlings. As minister of education, Aidoo sought to make education in Ghana freely available to everyone while serving as minister. However, after 18 months, when she realized she couldn’t accomplish her goals, she resigned. She went on to live and teach in the US before relocating to Zimbabwe in 1983 on a self-imposed political exile to pursue her career as a writer and an advocate for education. 

Aidoo was one of Africa’s greatest literary voices and her status was evident in her numerous achievements and accomplishments. In 1987, she won the Nelson Mandela Poetry Award for Someone Talking to Sometime; in 1992 she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa for her novel, Changes: A Love Story. In 1992, she became the first recipient of the International PEN Women’s Committee Travel Fellowship from UNESCO, and in 1998, she was chosen to lead the African Visions Literature Tour. In 1999, Aidoo was awarded Companion of the Star of Volta, Ghana’s highest civic honour. 

Over the course of her long and impactful career, Aidoo inspired numerous African authors. Ghanaian writer, poet, and academic, Abena Busia, described Aidoo as a ‘consummate storyteller’. ‘Her narrators are women,’ Busia explained, women who unveil the details of their lives, or the lives of their friends and loved ones, in shared stories and whispered secrets. And the secrets, in the end, are the shared realities of our everyday lives, the minutiae of cultural realities observed in wry detail.’ Nigerian author, Bisi Adjapon, described Aidoo as a ‘mother figure’, who blazed the trail for many African authors.

In a piece published in 2011, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated that, ‘When I first discovered Ama Ata Aidoo’s work, I was stunned by the believability of her characters, the sureness of her touch and what I like to call, in a rather clunky phrase, the validating presence of complex femaleness.’ When the news of Aidoo’s death broke, Nigerian author, Lola Shoneyin, described Aidoo as her ‘literary mother’. ‘She embraced me, taught me, and always had the right words. Mama was a towering literary figure and feminist, Shoneyin said. In a 2012 article celebrating Aidoo’s 70th birthday, Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, said: ‘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.’

Recommended Reading

Here are some Republic articles to read for more context on reading culture and African literature:

Unforgettable Words
Mind Makers
New Discoveries

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