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‘Love, like war,
like peace, like politics…’
Ama Ata Aidoo talks about her novel, Changes, and related matters arising with Yaba Badoe

2011 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel, Changes, winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa). Changes is one of my favourite novels written by an African woman. I love it first and foremost for the quirky, humorous, ironic, at times exasperated tone of the author’s voice. I love it for the wily wisdom of that voice and the range of characters it throws up from along the Gulf of Guinea. But most important of all, I rate the novel highly because it was the first I read that openly embraced a contemporary African’s woman’s sexuality, and made it the centrepiece of the narrative. 

Ama Ata Aidoo is my countrywoman, friend and mentor. She has distinguished herself not only as a writer, but also as a consultant on education and gender issues. She graduated from the University of Ghana and has taught at many universities worldwide, including Stanford and Brown in the USA. She was the first woman Minister of Education in Ghana, serving in the 1980s, and is the Executive Director of Mbaasem, a foundation to support African women writers and their work. She has written poetry, drama, short stories, and novels. I count myself privileged to be of a generation of Ghanaian writers and activists who refer to her affectionately as ‘Auntie’ Ama. So, when she agreed to be interviewed on a Monday (in May 2010) – a day she usually dedicates to writing – I felt honoured.

I arrived an hour late for the interview, confused by the demarcation between Accra and Tema around Sakumono and Lashibi. Ama Ata Aidoo was waiting patiently on the veranda of a bungalow that houses Mbaasem. I tumbled out of my car befuddled and deeply apologetic. Never one to waste time, she was reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel. As she closed the book, she asked: “What happened to you?”
******

I asked her: “How did the writing bug bite?... What encouraged her to become a writer?... Who supported her?... Where did Changes come from?”
“But that’s already in the public domain!”
“Yes, but what of a new generation of readers who don’t know; the new audience that’s out there waiting?” I said the words, even though I felt I’d already failed in my mission by turning up late, only to parrot well-worn questions that she was tired of answering. Therein lay my dilemma: how does one elicit a fresh response from the author of a modern African classic in order to bring it to a new audience?

Set in post-independence Ghana, Changes tells the story of Esi, a government statistician and independent woman who leaves her husband, Oko, because he intrudes on her time and personal space. Confronted with the difficulty of finding love and companionship on acceptable terms, Esi meets Ali and falls in love, but she must decide if she is willing to make the changes necessary for a polygamous relationship to work – Ali already has a wife. Throughout the novel, Ama Ata Aidoo addresses fundamental issues in the lives of African women: love, career, betrayal and family, without offering simple solutions. So, how did Changes come about?

“I think the stuff that makes our books comes from two or three places,” Ama Ata replied. “One of them is the obvious world: people you meet, events you participate in consciously or unconsciously. And then there is the imagination and I think that is really the thing. I definitely don’t know how my imagination mixes the factors that make up my novels or even my poems. I put in all these ingredients and the fire and the pot do their work.”

Changes is prefaced with a confession in the form of an epigraph by the author that writing the book was an exercise in “word-eating”. This is because in an interview many years before the novel’s publication, Ama Ata Aidoo in African Writers Talking stated categorically: “I cannot see myself as a writer, writing about lovers in Accra because, you see, there are so many other problems.” This from an author who in 2006 edited a sumptuous anthology of African Love Stories!

Seated on the veranda at Mbaasem, she explained what happened: “Obviously I must have been intrigued, although I was reluctant, by writing a love story at all. Clearly by the time Changes came along, I had calmed down and got myself to recognise that love, like war, like peace, like politics, is at the core of our lives: the glue. And you’re not going to get very far without love, however you see that love. So I must have been intrigued by people loving. And then, I think I had always been fascinated by how women respond to the issue of love and marriage and children, outside of what society so busily would like you to believe. People will tell you: ‘In marriage one has to be a fool.’ Of course they mean the woman. So I’m interested in a woman who refuses to be a fool in marriage. And people will say things like: ‘If you don’t have a husband, you don’t have a life.’ Who says? Or, they’ll say: ‘You have to have children. Without children you are not a woman.’ What? So I had been interested in these counter-principles to living, because I saw some women, even in the village, manoeuvering their lives in such a way that did not coincide with these so-called conventional wisdoms.”

It is the author’s quest to investigate the choices that real women make, the alternative roads that some of us travel on, which I admire tremendously. For as the authorial voice depicts Esi’s questioning spirit, the reader chuckles, and then gasps as a multi-layered narrative is delivered that links the old to the new.

When I confessed that I particularly relished the intervention of Esi’s eloquent grandmother in the story, an old woman whose critique of tradition and romantic love is searingly incisive, Ama Ata Aidoo elaborated on the grandmother’s attitude to marriage:

“She said real love, romantic love, the love that sets your heart thumping, you don’t marry for that one, because marriage is about security, about survival, about children. And when you go following your heart in that kind of way, sorry, it won’t end well. Because she knew people who had followed their hearts in her village; whether it’s among the educated elite, in England or the village, the course of true love never runs straight.”

I concluded by asking Ama Ata Aidoo if, two decades after its publication, Changes had taken on a life of its own. “It’s been translated into a few world languages,” she told me. “As we speak someone is working on a Catalan version. She made it very clear that I shouldn’t say Spanish, but a Catalan translation.” It has come out in French, after Dutch, German, Finnish and other translations. Then, with a shrug and a grin, Ama Ata Aidoo sighed: “I started publishing 40 years ago, and yet I’m still so poor. But 20 years on, Changes has held its own.”

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The Silent Rebel – S.W.D.K. Gandah (Sub-Saharan Publishers, P.O. Box LG 358, Accra; tel: 0302 233 371; 2004; 288 pgs) Autobiography of first-generation schoolchild born in 1927 in Birifu, Lawra District, in now Upper West Region, who with peers (often sons of chiefs appointed by the English) became the northern regions’ first teachers, lawyers, politicians and civil servants; editor Jack Goody calls this work by his research collaborator unique and fascinating
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The Eloquence of the Scribes – a memoir on the sources and resources of African literature – Ayi Kwei Armah (Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal; 2006; 351 pgs) Partly autobiographical journey towards knowledge and practise of arts and crafts rooted in Africa’s oldest oral and written traditions; analyzes obstacles (eg. the miseducation system, “the colonial publisher as pirate”); clarifies the honest intellectual effort and professional discipline that Africa needs
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Nyansapo – wisdom knot; Adinkra symbol of wisdom, ingenuity, intelligence and patience; conveys the idea that "a wise person has the capacity to choose the best means to attain a goal. Being wise implies broad knowledge, learning and experience, and the ability to apply such faculties to practical ends."
Sources: Cloth As Metaphor: (Re)reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana – G.F. Kojo Arthur (www.marshall.edu/akanart); The Adinkra Dictionary – W. Bruce Willis (www.adinkra.org)
Dame-dame – a board game; Adinkra symbol of intelligence and ingenuity.
Sources: Cloth As Metaphor: (Re)reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana – G.F. Kojo Arthur (www.marshall.edu/akanart); The Adinkra Dictionary – W. Bruce Willis (www.adinkra.org)
Let’s recognize, celebrate and help build the library of work on Ghana, Africa, the world and the imagination.
Ghana Book Review is contributing to the library by starting a bibliography of published books, papers and articles on or relevant to Ghana, or by Ghanaians, or published in Ghana.
Readers (and writers) can enrich the bibliography by sending in titles, with name(s) of author(s) or editor(s), publisher(s), place(s) and date(s) of publication, and number of pages.
When the urge becomes uncontrollable, send a note indicating the existence of a publication (at least two sentences on what the publication is about – this being a useful contribution towards a massive, annotated bibliography), or a review (at least two paragraphs on what the publication is about, what you think of it and why).
Corrections, clarification and enrichment of entries are vital to the process of growth in coverage and accuracy.
Even more important is to encourage others to read and to write.

Sources for all titles are books and publications from bookshops,
bookshelves, academic papers, articles, web sites and dis/interested
parties. The following are particularly useful sources that are also
noted in parenthesis when Ghana Nsem has used their annotation in
edited form, or mentioned them:
ABCBR = Africa Book Centre Book Review
CASAS = Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society
Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and CEFIKS Publications
– G.F. Kojo Arthur; cefiks@cfiks.org; cfiksorg@cfiks.org
Ghana National Bibliography, various editions since 1965
McFarland = Historical Dictionary of Ghana – D.M. McFarland
(Scarecrow Press, Metuchen NJ, US; 1st edition, 1985)
Science Direct, voluminous resource for scientific publications;
provides links to abstract and full PDF text