Read Time: 4 minutes
By Nana Dadzie Ghansah
Ama Ata Aidoo died yesterday and that is sad for the Ghanaian and African literally world. At 81, she was no spring chicken and her professional life was littered with awards and classics, but somehow, we want the good ones to live forever.
I am absolutely no authority on her body of work but her first play she wrote as an undergraduate in the University of Ghana at Legon in 1964 – “The Dilemma of a Ghost” – is a piece I still go back to read occasionally for the lessons it holds. Like most Ghanaian kids, I read that book as part of the required reading for Literature many years ago. However like Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, some books never lose their pertinence because they touch on intrinsic human traits and unavoidable interactions.
The themes “The Dilemma of a Ghost” explore are as pertinent today as they were back then in the immediate post-colonial era in Ghana.
The play tells the story of a Ghanaian man of the Fanti tribe, Ato Yawson (and that is as Fanti a name as you can get!) whose family sells their belongings to finance his studies in the USA. He returns home with an African-American wife much to the chagrin of his family…especially his mother, Esi Kom. Then the family expected him to come home, marry a good Fanti woman, and support them financially.
The initial disappointment is only worsened by instant after instant of misunderstanding between Ato’s wife Eulalie, and his family, and an absolute lack of the expected financial support. Aidoo brings out the clash between the different world views and cultures expertly.
Things come to a head about a year after the couple returns to Ghana. The couple is still childless and Ato’s family assume Eulalie is having problems conceiving. They show up with a concoction to wash her belly. Ato does not let them, which leads to words being exchanged. Even worse, he does not tell them that the reason they do not have a child is because they use contraception as they were not ready for kids.
The attempted belly-washing incident and Ato’s failure to explain why they do not have children lies at the root of the story Ama Ata Aidoo tells so well. It all hinges on a dilemma Ato creates – a dilemma based on his own cowardice and unpreparedness. And so like the ghost he keeps dreaming about – the ghost that stands at Elmina junction and does not know whether to go to Elmina or Cape Coast – he grapples with a conundrum. Should he side with his family, their way of life and a culture he has always known or with the woman he loves and a foreign way of looking at things?
And since he was unprepared for the dilemma he created (yes, falling in love is a choice) and his lack of courage in making the tough choices, he put his poor wife in very bad light and alienated his family. Like his mother so rightfully put it:
“Yes, and I know
They will tell you that
Before the stranger should dip his finger Into the thick palm nut soup,
It is a townsman
Must have told him to.”
Ama Ata Aidoo wrote this play at the time when Ghanaians were trying to reclaim an identity that had been suppressed by colonialism. This identity-reclaiming project stood in stark contrast to the behavior of those who returned to Ghana after studying abroad. This cohort often grappled with what they had always known versus what they had recently been exposed to. It got worse if they brought home a foreign wife, then most were unprepared for the clash and not brave enough to break taboos.
Yet, it does not have to be Ghanaian marrying an African-American. Differences can spring up when an Ewe marries a Dagomba, a Hutu married a Tutsi, a Serb marries a Croat, an Indian marries a Chinese or an American marries a Filipino. Those who are adventurous enough to let love blind them must have the courage to deal with the currents that they must swim against and be prepared to roll with the tide. Surmounting these differences is what makes our world a smaller and better place.
The play also touches on the issue of leaving home. You change when you are out there, and never return as the same person. Besides giving one another perspective on life, there may be a side of the change that makes one question the culture one left behind. Gradually one feels like a stranger in the land of one’s birth and wonders like the ghost, whether to stay or go back. Gradually what is home takes on a murky form. Even here, only courage and preparedness can save the day. A realization that one can straddle two worlds and harness the best out of both makes one realize one can spend the morning in Elmina and the afternoon in Cape Coast, and not be a confused ghost at Elmina junction.
Maame Ama Ata Aidoo, thank you for the lessons. I wish that day I saw you back in 2019 I had had the courage to come up and say hello. I did not and now you are gone. Fare well and may your eternal rest be peaceful.
Maame Ama, da yie!