Ama Ata Aidoo, Literary Pioneer and Feminist Icon, Passes on at 81

As the first published African female playwright and Ghana’s former Minister of Education, the author of No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy was admired by Chimamanda Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and popstar Burna Boy. “The decay of Africa’s social, political, and economic systems is directly related to the complete marginalization of women,” she once said.
Ama Ata Aidoo by Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/GettyImages.

Ama Ata Aidoo by Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/GettyImages.

Ama Ata Aidoo, Literary Pioneer and Feminist Icon, Passes on at 81

Ama Ata Aidoo, the pioneering Ghanaian novelist, dramatist, feminist, and educator, has passed on at the age of 81. She died on May 31, 2023, after a short illness, her family said in a letter to Ghanaian media houses. She was one of Africa’s most notable writers.

Aidoo was born on March 23, 1942, into a Fante royal family in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Ghana. At the age of 15, she knew she wanted to write. She attended the prestigious Wesley Girls’ Senior High School in Cape Coast and later enrolled at the University of Ghana, Legon, where she studied English. It was there, in 1964, she wrote her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost. The play was published by Longman the next year, making Aidoo the first ever African female playwright to be published, at the age of 23.

After her undergraduate degree, Aidoo was granted a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. In 1969, she returned to teach English at the University of Ghana, studying also as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies. Later, she worked as a lecturer at the University of Cape Coast, eventually advancing to the post of professor.

Aidoo’s grandfather was killed by British colonialists. The tragedy spurred her father to open the first school in their village, an effort to sustain their histories through education. She followed in his footsteps in her work as an educator and was appointed Ghana’s Minister of Education in 1982. She resigned after only 18 months when her mission to make free education accessible in Ghana was continuously dismissed, she left for Zimbabwe in 1983.

In 1988, Aidoo received a Fulbright Scholarship. The following year, she was a writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, Virginia. She taught English at Hamilton College, New York, and served as a visiting professor in Africana Studies at Brown University.

Aidoo’s vocality on social matters reached into her work. Her plays and fiction explored difficult subjects like sexism, imperialism, and the Slave Trade. She depicted conflicting Western and African ideals. The Dilemma of a Ghost follows a young Ghanaian man who returns to his country with an African American wife, and the tension that ensues from the cultural differences between his new wife and his traditional family.

But it is African women who reside at the center of Aidoo’s work. Her second play, Anowa (1970), is about a young woman who takes the reins of her destiny and meets disaster. It was listed by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, in 2002, as one of “Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.”

Her short-story collection, No Sweetness Here (1969), unveils the female condition in an ever-shifting post-colonial Ghana. Her first novel, Our Sister Killjoy (1977), tracks a young Ghanaian woman’s self-discovery as a student in Europe. Changes: A Love Story (1991), her second novel and winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa), explores a career-oriented woman’s search for love and companionship.

Many of Aidoo’s female characters subvert the stereotypes of her time: individuals that stem from an unmistakably feminist perspective that sought to focus the lives and identities of African women. She once said, “The decay of Africa’s social, political, and economic systems is directly related to the complete marginalization of women from developmental discourses.”

Aidoo also published poetry. She received the Nelson Mandela Prize for Poetry in 1987 for her most acclaimed collection Someone Talking to Sometime. Like another published volume, An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems (1992), she probes colonialism and its residue in Africa. She also wrote several children’s books and contributed to anthologies.

In 2000, she established the Mbaasem Foundation in Accra to support African female writers. She was also one of the patrons of the Etisalat Prize for Literature, established in 2013 to recognize debut fiction by Africans. The Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, which recognizes books that prioritize the experience of African women, is named after her and the American social scientist Margaret C. Snyder.

Throughout an illustrious career, Aidoo stood for the freedom of women from the patriarchal bounds of society, and Ghana’s and Africa’s freedoms from imperialist history, often paralleling the two. Despite censure, threats, and attempts to repress her voice, she continued to champion the stories of African women, and called for a distinct, independent identity for her country and its people.

Musician Burna Boy sampled a 1987 interview of Aidoo’s in his 2020 song “Monsters You Made.” In the clip, she says, “Since we met you people 500 years ago, look at us, we’ve given everything, you’re still taking. In exchange for that we have got nothing. Nothing! And you know it.”

In the wake of Aidoo’s passing, the Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga said on Twitter: “We have lost a granary of wisdom & knowledge.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another admirer of Aidoo’s, chose her short story “No Sweetness Here” for The Guardian’s podcast in 2012 and told the paper: “I think really that one of the reasons that she isn’t as well known as she should be in my opinion is because she’s female, and a lot of her work is very much about women and what it means to be female at a particular place and time. Not only does she write about women, but she writes about women truthfully, and sometimes when you write about a subject of that sort in a way that’s true, it makes people uncomfortable and when you have people who are the tastemakers of literature, and if they can’t absorb what you’re talking about, it then makes it difficult for you to be well known. I think Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer who should be more widely read than she is.” ♦

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Paula Willie-Okafor, Staff Writer at Open Country Mag

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