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 travelled 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. have taught this text in Africa and 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. …