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African Literature

African Literature

African literature is best understood within the context of Ali Mazrui's categorization of African historical experience as a "triple heritage": Africa as a space produced by endogenous historical traditions, Arab/Islamic influences, and Western Judeo-Christian influences. This triple heritage has produced a literature characterized by a tripodal identity, based on its relationship to each element. Africa's indigenous heritage is of its rich oral traditions. The Arab/Islamic heritage is associated with the written literatures of North Africa and parts of East and West Africa. The Arabic and Western aspects of Africa's triple heritage reflect the continent's experience with the historical trauma of conquest, evidenced by such events as the Arab invasion of North Africa and West Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism. The Western/Judeo-Christian heritage has shaped the literature written in English, French, and Portuguese.

Oral Tradition

Oral tradition comprises the specialized verbal art formsproverbs, riddles, chants, lyric poetry, tales, myths, legends, and epicsthrough which African societies have ensured cultural continuity. It is the repository of a community's core values, philosophies, mysteries, rituals, and, most importantly, memory. It survives by virtue of transmission from one generation to another by word of mouth. Performance is its most important distinguishing feature. It exists only in its moment of actuation, when performer and audience come together in a quasi-spiritual engagement. The performer draws his or her materials from the collective ancestral lore familiar to the audience; distinctiveness comes with innovation and inventiveness, delivery, and command of language.

Ruth Finnegan sparked the most significant controversy on the status of oral tradition when she concluded, in her influential Oral Literature in Africa (1970), that Africa had no epic. Isidore Okepwho's The Epic in Africa (1979) and Myth in Africa (1983) became crucial to the institutional and conceptual legitimization of those genres against the backdrop of the Finnegan controversy. Allied to the development of a robust critical apparatus on African oral tradition was the process of recording the various oral genresfolktales, proverbs, riddles, myths, praise poetry, epics, and sagasfor posterity. Birago Diop's (19061989) Les contes d'Amadou Koumba (1947; Tales of Amadou Koumba) and Les nouveaux contes d'Amadou Koumba (1958; New tales of Amadou Koumba) and Bernard Dadié's (b. 1916) Le pagne noir (1955; The black cloth) have become classics of the folktale genre. The Sundiata, Mwindo, Ibonia epics and the Ozzidi saga are also extant in significant textual versions.

Written Literature

Africa's written literature could easily span close to five thousand years, depending on the persuasion of various commentators. Thinkers in the Afrocentric tradition trace the antecedents of African written literature to such touchstones as the scribal tradition of ancient Egypt, the Arabic poetic tradition, which began roughly with the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century c.e., the spread of that tradition to the Maghreb and West Africa from the ninth century c.e., which culminated in the development of Hausa Islamic/Arabic verse from the seventeenth century on.

The twentieth century witnessed the blossoming of a generation of North African writers whose craft combined centuries of Arab narratological conventions and Western influences. These writers either write in Arabic and have influential translations of their works in English and French, or they write directly in the two European languages. Of those whose works attained international recognition in English are the Egyptians Naguib Mahfouz and Nawal El Saadawi. Mahfouz's deft handling of historical realism, his inimitable depiction of quotidian life in Cairo turned his fiction into an important opus of Arab imagination and earned him the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, while Saadawi's transgressive novels have become some of the most important feminist works in the twentieth century.

The modern novel in French came much later in the Maghreb. The Algerian, Kateb Yacine's Nedjma (1956), is usually considered the first significant work of the fiction from the Francophone Maghreb, even though the Moroccan, Driss Chraibi had published a novel, Le passé simple (The simple past), two years earlier. North Africa fiction in French soon blossomed with internationally acclaimed writers such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdelhak Serhane, Abdelkébir Khatibi, and Assia Djebar. Djebar's expansive fictional opus, which explores wide-ranging themes such as the trauma of French colonization of Algeria, the brutal war of liberation, and the condition of women in the context of religion and tradition, has become the quintessence of North African literature in French.

With regard to subsaharan Africa, discussions of written literatures tend to take the late nineteenth century as a rough starting point. Indigenous language literatures evolved as a consequence of missionary activity during this period. Missionaries established churches and schools and introduced forms of orthography into local languages to facilitate translations of religious literature. As a result, indigenous language literatures blossomed in western, central, eastern, and southern Africa in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The Yoruba fiction of Nigeria's D. O. Fagunwa (19031963) and the Sotho fiction of Lesotho's Thomas Mofolo (18761948) are notable examples.

European language literature, usually referred to as modern African literature, is the dominant African literature. Although the violence of colonialism and the attendant sociopolitical ruptures it occasioned in Africa constitute the background of modern African literature, texts have evolved over several decades and across numerous genres in a manner that allows for the identification of divergent thematic and ideological clusters, all of which underscore modern African literature's investment in the representation of the African experience.

Negritude poetry was the medium through which modern African literature came to international attention in the twentieth century. The Negritude movement grew out of the encounter of young African intellectuals and their black Caribbean counterparts in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor (19062001), the Martinican Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), and the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas (19121978) were the avant garde of the movement. Negritude philosophy involved a coming into consciousness of the condition of one's blackness in the racist European context of the time and the validation of Africa as the matrix of a proud black race after centuries of European misrepresentation. Damas's Pigments (1937) was the first volume of poetry to properly signal the birth of the Negritude movement, but Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a return to the native land) became its bible. Senghor's Chants d'ombre (1945; Shadow songs) and Hosties noires (1948; Black hosts) transformed the movement into a full-blown aesthetic phenomenon. However, the full dimensions of Negritude angst were not recorded until the publication of David Diop's (19271960) Coups de pilon (1956; Pounding).

Poetry comparable in stature with Negritude poetry did not come out of Anglophone and Lusophone (Portguese-speaking) Africa until the period of the 1960s1980s. Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), Christopher Okigbo (19321967), Gabriel Okara (b. 1921), John Pepper Clark (b. 1935), Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935), Lenrie Peters (b. 1932), Taban Lo Liyong (b. 1938), Okot P'Bitek (19311982), Kwesi Brew (b. 1928), Dennis Brutus (b. 1924), Agostino Neto (d.1979), and Antonio Jacinto (19251991) were the leading lights of Anglophone and Lusophone African poetry. Okigbo's collection, Limits (1964), is representative of this phase of African poetry.

The African novel also developed within the ambit of historical revaluation, cultural nationalism, political contestation, and anticolonial protest. Although modern African fiction started with the publication of the Ghanaian Joseph Casely-Hayford's (18661930) Ethiopia Unbound (1911), it was not until Amos Tutuola's (19201997) The Palm Wine Drunkard appeared in 1952 that Anglophone West African fiction attained international recognition. Francophone Africa's first novel, René Maran's (d. 1960) Batouala, was published to considerable acclaim in 1921 and went on to win the prestigious prix Goncourt. Batouala owed its fame to Maran's vivid portrayal of the effects of French colonial rule in Africa as well as his evocative and humanizing descriptions of African life and its environment.

The novel came of age in Francophone Africa from the 1950s onward when writers such as Camara Laye (19281980), Seydou Badian (b. 1928), Mongo Beti (19322001), Ferdinand Oyono (b. 1929), Sembene Ousmane (b. 1923), Cheikh Hamidou Kane (b. 1928), Ahmadou Kourouma (19272003), Williams Sassine (b. 1944), Sony Labou Tansi (19471995), Henri Lopès (b. 1937), Alioum Fantouré (b. 1938), and Tierno Monenembo (b. 1947) arrived on the scene. The thematic spectrum of these writers is broad and their range reveals the shifts that occurred in the sociopolitical dynamics of their informing contexts, particularly the tragedy of one-party states and military dictatorships that became the rule in postcolonial Francophone Africa. For instance, Laye's L'enfant noir (1953; The African child) is a powerful bildungsroman that explores the growing up of an African child who loses the values of his traditional society in a world permeated by European values. In Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (The poor Christ of Bomba) and Une vie de boy (Houseboy), both published in 1956, Beti and Oyono, respectively, deploy critical satire to expose the hypocrisies of the colonial situation. Ousmane brings class analysis to the crisis of colonialism in Les bouts de bois de dieu (1960; God's bits of wood).

However, it was Chinua Achebe's (b. 1930) Things Fall Apart (1958) that placed African fiction in the ranks of twentieth-century greats. In Things Fall Apart, the epic dimension of Africa's contact with the West, a preoccupation of much of modern African literature, reaches its philosophical and aesthetic peak. Much of Anglophone West African fiction explores versions of Achebe's themes either as collective sociopolitical fissures in a changing world or as individual dramas of alienation. Cyprian Ekwensi (b. 1921), T. M. Aluko (b. 1918), Elechi Amadi (b. 1934), Onuora Nzekwu (b. 1928), John Munonye (b. 1929), Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah (b. 1939), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), Kole Omotoso (b. 1943), and Festus Iyayi (b. 1947) all became major Anglophone West African novelists in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. While Armah adds a humanist/universal dimension to the drama of man's alienation from his environment in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Ngugi offers a Marxist exploration of the African experience of colonialism and neo-colonialism in A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977).

Apartheid and race relations are the background of Southern African fiction. Peter Abrahams (b. 1919), Richard Rive (19311989), Es'kia Mphahlele (b. 1919), Lewis Nkosi (b. 1936), Alex La Guma (19251985), and the Afrikaner novelists, J. M. Coetzee (b. 1940) and André Brink (b. 1935), all produced novels emblematic of the South African situation. Abraham's Mine Boy (1946), Rive's Emergency (1964), Alex la Guma's A Walk in the Night (1962), and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) document the scale of the human tragedy created by apartheid in South Africa.

African drama is perhaps the genre that has explored the resources of oral tradition most effectively as a result of the ontological linkages between the two: African religious ceremoniesrituals, sacrifices, festivals, funerals, christeningsare forms of drama and the roots of that modern African genre. Wole Soyinka, Wale Ogunyemi (19392001), Ola Rotimi (19382000), Femi Osofisan (b. 1946), Bode Sowande (b. 1948), and Olu Obafemi (b. 1950) have all written plays exploring the full range of human experience within the cosmic order and within the material contexts of colonialism, neocolonialism, and the self-imposed tragedies of the African post-colonial order. Soyinka's plays, the most notable of which are A Dance of the Forest (1963) and Death and the King's Horseman (1975), explore the entire range of these thematic preoccupations. In South Africa, drama proved to be one of the most versatile cultural instruments in the antiapartheid struggle because of its immediate accessibility to a large audience. The South African dramaturgy of Athol Fugard (b. 1932) comes closest to Soyinka's in terms of artistic accomplishment and thematic range.

Women's Writing

African women arrived on the literary scene much later than their male counterparts. Cultural impediments to the education of women, coupled with the Western sexism of the colonial system, kept girls out of the earliest missionary schools. Flora Nwapa's (19311993) Efuru (1967) was Anglophone Africa's first female novel. Other Anglophone female novelists include Buchi Emecheta (b. 1944), Ama Ata Aidoo (b. 1942), Ifeoma Okoye Zaynab Alkali (b. 1955), Nadine Gordimer (b. 1923), Maryam Tlali (b. 1933), Bessie Head (19371986), and Grace Ogot (b. 1930). Some women also became accomplished playwrights, Efua Sutherland (b. 1924), Zulu Sofola (b. 1938), and Tess Onwueme (b. 1955) being the most famous. Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury's (b. 1938) Rencontres essentielles (2002; Essential encounters) is the first novel to be published by a Francophone woman. But women's fiction from that part of Africa did not fully take off until the 1970s when two Senegalese women, Aminata Sow Fall (b. 1941) and Mariama Bâ (19291981), arrived on the scene.

Because women's writing arose out of the desire to introduce a female perspective to the sociopolitical vision of Africa portrayed by male writers and to address issues relative to female subjectivity in order to expose the cultural impediments to female agency, African women writers have treated a wide range of themes. The position and role of women as mothers and daughters within the institution of marriage, especially polygamy, the encumbrances attendant on societal/traditional role prescriptions for women, female circumcision, and gender inequality are all themes explored in such classics as Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy (1966), and Bâ's two novels, Une si longue lettre (1979; So long a letter) and Un chant écarlate (1981; Scarlet song).

Children of the Postcolony

A new generation of writers attained international recognition beginning in the mid-1980s. The most important factor that distinguishes them from earlier generations is that most of them, but for a few born in the late 1950s, were born after 1960, the year that African nations began to achieve independence. The political reality of these writers is that of the failed African postcolony, something that prompted the Francophone novelist, Abdourahman Waberi (b. 1965), himself a new writer, to describe them as "les enfants de la postcolonie" (children of the postcolony). Difficult socioeconomic conditions in the continent have forced most of the new writers to relocate to the West. Exile, migration, deracination, home, and diasporic identity issues are the major themes of the displaced. Female writers have been very visible in this group: Tsitsi Dangarembga (b. 1959), Yvonne Vera (b. 1964), Ammah Darko (b. 1956), and Chimamanda Adichie (b. 1977) have all achieved international recognition. Their male counterparts, Helon Habila (b. 1967), Chris Abani (b. 1967), Moses Isegawa (b. 1963), Ike Oguine, and Okey Ndibe (b. 1960) have all published internationally acclaimed novels as well. The Cameroonian, Calixthe Beyala (b. 1961), is the most successful of the Francophone authors in this generation. Other notable Francophone writers include Sami Tchak (b. 1960), Daniel Biyaoula (b. 1957), Alain Patrice Nganang (b. 1970), Alain Mabanckou (b. 1966), and Fatou Diome (b. 1968).

Debates and Critical Engagements

A rich critical tradition developed early around modern African writing. Francophone Africa had journals such as Présence Africaine (African presence), Peuples noirs, peuples africains (Black peoples, African peoples), Abbia, and L'Afrique littéraire et artistique (Literary and artistic Africa). Anglophone Africa had a wider array of early journals: Black Orpheus, The Conch, The Horn, The Muse, Drum, Okike, Transition, Ba Shiru, and African Literature Today. While most of these journals no longer publish, Notre Librairie (Our bookstore) and Research in African Literatures remain the most important. Furthermore, writers became implicated in the early process of elaborating a critical tradition by engaging critics or one another in debates ranging from the question of critical standards to the role of the writer in society. Chinua Achebe's Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), Wole Soyinka's Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Decolonising the Mind (1986) are some of the most important contributions to African literary criticism.

One of the earliest debates concerned the definition of African literature. The writers and critics who gathered in Uganda in 1963 faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing. The high point of the ensuing debate was the famous essay by Obi Wali, "The Dead End of African Literature" (1963), in which he declared that the literature written in European languages did not qualify as African literature. This was the beginning of the ongoing atavistic language debate. Although Achebe countered Wali's position, Ngugi embraced it, transforming the call for a return to African languages into a critical crusade that has lasted for more than three decades.

Another important debate concerned the issue of who was better qualified to critique African literature: the Western or the African critic. The high point of this debate occurred in African Literature Today between the American, Bernth Lindfors, and the Nigerian, Ernest Emenyonu. Lindfors had written an unflattering essay on the fiction of the Cyprian Ekwensi. Emenyonu wrote a fiery rejoinder, questioning the aptitude of Lindfors as a Western critic. The next big debate occurred in 1980, when the troika of Chinweizu, Onwucheka Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike published their famous book, Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature, condemning the overwhelming recourse to Western literary models and forms by writers such as Soyinka and urging a return to African traditions. With the explosion of postcolonial and postmodernist theories in the West at the end of the twentieth century, African critics became engaged in debating the appropriateness of applying those theories to African literature.

See also Communication of Ideas: Africa and Its Influence ; Negritude ; Postcolonial Theory and Literature ; Third World Literature .


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Pius Adesanmi

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Ama Ata Aidoo

Ama Ata Aidoo

(Christina) Ama Ata Aidoo (born 1942) explored the social conscience of her African peers through her writing, speaking, and teaching endeavors.

Ghanaian writer and educator, Ama Ata Aidoo delved the soul of African traditions through her literary works. As a novelist, poet, dramatist, critic, and lecturer, she voiced concerns over a variety of social and political issues at the forefront of Ghanaian society in the wake of a mid-20th century independence movement in her country. She uttered repeated concerns for the plight of womanhood in Ghanaian culture. She endowed the female characters in her literary works with strong wills and distinct personalities. Through her depictions of the traditional norms of society, she helped to expose the exploitation and disenfranchisement of women, not only from their careers but from the essence of their own identities.

Ama Ata Aidoo was born Christina Ama Aidoo on March 23, 1942. She was the daughter of royalty, a princess among the Fanti people of the town of Abeadzi Kyiakor in the south central region of Ghana. Aidoo's homeland, at the time of her birth, was under the oppression of a resurgent neocolonialism as a result of British aggression during the late 19th century. In the home of her parents, Chief Nana Yaw Fama and Maame Abba, anti-colonial sentiment was an unavoidable emotion in the wake of the murder of Aidoo's grandfather by neocolonialists. Yet in spite of the murderous tragedy, Fama acknowledged the superiority of Western education and sent his daughter to attend the Wesley Girls High School in the southern seaport town of Cape Coast, Ghana. She went on to study at the University of Ghana, beginning in 1961. In 1964, she graduated cum laude (with honors), earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

Academic Career

At the University of Ghana, Aidoo became involved with the Ghana Drama Studio, founded by Efua Sutherland. Aidoo participated in writers workshops and contributed her work to the school of drama. During her years in undergraduate studies, she in fact completed two plays and a collection of short stories. Aidoo continued at the University of Ghana for an additional two years after graduation, through a fellowship to that school's Institute of African Studies. On fellowship in 1965 she published one of her most famous writings, and her first major dramatic work, The Dilemma of a Ghost. Ghost was one of only two dramas that she published by the end of the century. The play depicts the conflict of an African student, Ato, who studied abroad and returned home to Ghana with an African American wife. In The Dilemma of a Ghost, Aidoo delved into her concerns over pan-Africanism and the plight of Ghanaians who travel abroad in search of an education. The play exposes the conflicts that confront students in resolving their African traditions in the midst of Western culture.

In 1966, Aidoo traveled to the United States where she attended the Harvard International Seminar and spent time at Stanford University. She returned to Ghana in 1969. Between 1970 and 1982, Aidoo taught English at the University College at Cape Coast and completed research on her native Fanti drama. Over the years Aidoo taught and lectured at many universities in the United States and in Africa, including the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Political Agenda

When Ghana gained its independence in March of 1956, the event precipitated a pan-African backlash. The resultant political tension simmered for over a decade and erupted in the 1970s. That decade was marred by an era of repression. Conservative attitudes prevailed, and many intellectuals were persecuted for their beliefs. In a 1997 interview, Aidoo commented to Jeanette Toomer of New York Amsterdam News regarding the nature and the extent of the oppression. Aidoo maintained that she endured not only incarceration but intimidation by jailers who threatened her with death. Her vocal and written expressions over the plight of women in traditional Ghanaian society, combined with her commentaries on pan-Africanism, left her vulnerable to scathing censorship policies and regulation. During that time, from 1970 until 1977, she published very little. She occupied herself in part as a consulting professor in the Washington Bureau of Phelps-Stokes's Ethnic Studies Program in 1974 and 1975.

Following her return to Ghana, Aidoo served as the national minister of education in 1982 and 1983 under the government of Jerry Rawlings. She remained prominent in Ghanaian academic affairs until 1983 when she once again abandoned the country for self-imposed political exile. She moved to Harare in Zimbabwe and remained there throughout the 1990s. In Zimbabwe Aidoo worked at the curriculum development unit of the Ministry of Education. She continued with her teaching as well as her writing, and established ties with the Zimbabwe Women Writers Group.

In 1988, Aidoo received a Fulbright Scholarship. She spent the following year at the University of Richmond, Virginia as a writer in residence. She returned to Africa in 1990 and for two years served as the chairperson of the African Regional Panel of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Messages in Art

Among Aidoo's most respected publications was her 1970 collection of stories entitled, No Sweetness Here. The stories represent the psychological bondage of the neocolonial period. That work is structured within a loose but cohesive framework that illustrates Aidoo's message through the eyes of working class characters over a period of a few years. As with other of Aidoo's writings, the stories focus on urbanized women, female characters who are rarely affluent—but neither are they destitute or in financial conflict. Aidoo's female protagonists turn their attention instead toward a universal search, each for her own elusive soul and for a female identity that has been usurped by an oppressive environment. Aidoo portrays a class of women that is overburdened by the insensitivity of men but is accepting—or at least cognizant of—specific gender issues that create the cultural environment. Aidoo tacitly summons other writers to the urgency of their obligation, to address and to publicize the moral wrongs of the society in order to realize social progress. As Aidoo noted to interviewers Rosemary Maranoly George and Helen Scott of Novel regarding such issues as are presented by the author in No Sweetness Here, "The situation … The way the novel ends means that the story is not finished, as the issue is not resolved." She further emphasized her concerns for women and their lack of so-called homes, "For these women it is hard to have a home of their own … there is always the possibility that it can be taken away … the instability of dependence."

Aidoo's second major drama, after Ghost, was Anowa. The play, published in 1970, makes a disparaging examination of the value of love within the confines of a marriage and further creates a metaphor between the keeping of slaves and the keeping of wives. Also among Aidoo's published works in the feminist arena is her 1977 semi-autobiographical novel, Our Sister Killjoy.

Between 1991 and 1993 Aidoo wrote and published Changes, a tale of a woman from the Ghanaian capitol of Accra and her personal battles. As the plot unwinds, the main character, a government data analyst, endures rape by her husband and is forced to confront her own destiny. Naadu I. Blankson of Quarterly Black Review applauded the effort by Aidoo, wherein she "… weave[s] the passions of two women, three men, and a host of [others] … quite respectably." As a literary work the novel artfully enmeshes the passions of upward mobility, the plight of African women in the workplace, and the role of the African female as the designated pawn of a polygamous society. It was Aidoo's contention, which she furthered through her writing, that sexism was a learned behavior on the part of the African male and clearly a consequence of the neocolonial environment. In Research in African Literatures, Nada Elia quoted Aidoo's rebuttal to those critics of African feminism, "I really refuse to be told I am learning feminism from abroad."

In a 1994 work, The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism (University Press of Florida), Vincent O. Odamtten commented that Aidoo "… radically transforms the Western literary genres," with her depth. He made further note of the disparity between the "narrowly formulated" feminist movements of Western cultures and the vital aura of feminism as demonstrated by Aidoo in her writing. Similarly Frank M. Chipasla noted in Kenyon Review, that her poetry "… continues to play functional and aesthetic roles … [in] the female literary traditions. In 1997, Aidoo appeared at Barnard College as a speaker in the Gildersleeve Lecture Series, in conjunction with the institution's Million Woman March. Toomer quoted Aidoo's personal observation that, "We are called feminists because we make it possible for our women characters to be themselves." Aidoo is averse to what she terms a "Western perception that the African (especially Ghanaian) female is a downtrodden wretch."

George and Scott said of Aidoo that perhaps, " … because of her own wealthy background … Aidoo spends less time addressing the material co-ordinates of Ghana and… focuses on the cultural dynamics … Aidoo has stressed the importance of artists and intellectuals being accountable, and calls for writers to retain their integrity …"

Certainly Aidoo's social-political apprehension transcends a spectrum of issues, among them the circumstances that served to fuel the emigration of African scholars and intellectuals from Ghana and which kept women oblivious to the full extent of their own oppression. In a provocative commentary to George and Scott in 1993 Aidoo said, "I'm published in the West. [And] There is something that makes [me] very uncomfortable about that. The people among whom [I] lived and grew up have no access to [my] products… . So it haunts the African writer …" By her remark she referred to the censorship of female authors in Ghana and elsewhere on the African continent. In 1994, Aidoo joined with others in founding the Women's World Organization for Rights Development and Literature to campaign on behalf of women's rights by means of publishing and other resources. In August 1999, the issue was at the forefront among representatives of that organization who gathered at the International Book Fair in Harare, Zimbabwe. Aidoo joined with others in reiterating their concerns. She was quoted by the Inter Press Service English News Wire in her vocal confirmation of the severity of the crisis. She rebuked a system where, "For African women, the struggle begins with the right to be born as a girl child… to have a whole body …to go to school; the right to be heard."

Aidoo published several works of poetry including her 1985, Someone Talking to Sometime, which addresses a variety of issues, and Birds and Other Poems, published in 1987. Her children's book, The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories, appeared in 1986, and she contributed to numerous anthologies and magazines including Black Orpheus, Journal of African Literature, and New African. Among her other works, An Angry Letter in January was published in 1992.

Further Reading

Black Writers, edited by Linda Metzger, Gale, 1989.

Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Volume 62, edited by Daniel Jones and John D. Jorgenson, Gale, 1998.

Under African Skies, edited by Charles R. Larson, Noonday Press, 1997.

Essence, February 1994.

Inter Press Service English News Wire, August 17, 1999.

Kenyon Review, Spring, 1994.

New York Amsterdam News, October 30, 1997.

Novel, Spring, 1993.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1993.

Quarterly Black Review of Books, February 28, 1994.

"Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-)," available at (November 4, 1999).

"Ama Ata Aidoo: Biographical Introduction," available at (November 4, 1999).

"Ama Ata Aidoo," The University of Western Australia/Department of French Studies, available at (November 4, 1999).

Research in African Literatures, July 15, 1999. □

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Aidoo, Ama Ata 1942–

Ama Ata Aidoo 1942

Ghanaian writer

Brought Womens Roles to Stage

Wrote Poetry and Political Love Story

Selected writings


Award-winning Ghanaian author, poet, critic, playwright, and feminist Ama Ata Aidoo has made it her lifes work to explore the difficult and complex effects of progress on the role of women in African culture. Her work is often semi-autobiographicalshe has struggled with many of the same issues that challenge her characters. She has tackled these controversial issues of Africas cultural evolution in such novels as Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint and Changes: A Love Story, as well as in a host of poems, collected in Someone Talking to Sometime and An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems, and short stories, namely in the collection No Sweetness Here. She also has written the plays The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa, and numerous essays. In a 1993 review, one Publishers Weekly critic declared Aidoo a remarkable writer who writes with intense power.

Christina Ama Ata Aidoo was born in 1942 in Abeadzi Kyiakor, in central Ghana, then known by its colonial name, the Gold Coast. She was born into a Fante family and grew up as tribal royaltyher liberal-minded father was a chief in her town. After her graduation from Wesley Girls High School in Cape Coast, Aidoo began studying drama and literature at the University of Ghana at Legon, where she was a student from 1961-64. With her fathers encouragement, she earned her bachelors degree in English. At 15, Aidoo was asked what she wanted to do for a career and, without really knowing why, replied that she wanted to be a poet. When her entry won a short-story award, she only discovered she had won when she saw her name in the newspaper. I believe these moments were crucial for me because I had articulated a dream it was a major affirmation for me as a writer, to see my name in print, she said in an interview located at the BBC World Service online.

Brought Womens Roles to Stage

Aidoo could not resist the appeal of writing for the stage and seeing her stories brought to life. She was particularly interested in the Fante dramatic style that was popular in the 1930s, and studied with Efua Sutherland, a leading Ghanaian dramatist. It was during her undergraduate years that she produced her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost, which was staged by the Students Theater at the University of Ghana in 1964. In the play, a Westernized African man returns to his African village with an African-American wife. In the first of her many works that explore the roles of women in African culture, Aidoo tackled difficult and controversial issues in Dilemma of a Ghost. The African-American wife must face criticism among the other village women and remains an outsider because the choices the couple make are deemed untraditional.

After college Aidoo remained at the University as a junior research fellow at the Institute of African studies. It was likely this experience, from 1964-66, that influenced Aidoos use of African oral traditions in her work. Ghana gained independence in 1957, when Aidoo was still a teen, and the spirit of socialism and Pan-Africanism of the time likely impacted her as well. Aidoo earned a creative writing fellowship at Stanford

At a Glance

Born Christina Ama Ata Aidoo on March 23, 1942, in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Ghana; daughter of Nana Yaw Fama (a chief of Abeadzi Kyiakor) and Maame Abba Abasema; children: Kinna Likimani. Education: University of Ghana, B.A. (with honors), 1964; attended Stanford University.

Career: Writer, educator. University of Cape Coast, Ghana, lecturer in English, 1970-82; Phelps-Stokes Fund Ethnic Studies Program, Washington, D.C., consulting professor, 1974-75; Minister of Education, Ghana, 1982-83; University of Richmond, Virginia, writer-in-residence, 1989; chair, African Regional Panel of the Commonwealth Writers prize, 1990, 1991; Mbaase, a non-profit organization that supports African women writers, founder and director.

Selected memberships: Zimbabwe Women Writers Association; Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA); Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI).

Awards: Short story prize from Mbari Press competition; prize from Black Orpheus for story, No Sweetness Here; Anowa listed one of the best African literary works of the 20th century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair; research fellowship. Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana; Fulbright scholarship, 1988; earned the Commonwealth Writers Prize for African writers for Changes: A Love Story, 1992.

Address: Home P.O. Box 4930, Harare, Zimbabwe.

University in California, and traveled for two years before returning to Ghana to teach at the University of the Cape Coast and releasing her next play, Anowa, in 1970.

Anowa takes place in the late 19th century, when a strong-willed woman bucks tradition and refuses an arranged marriage, only to end up in misery with the man of her choosing, who becomes a slaveholder. In addition to again tackling the complex place of women in developing African culture, Anowa honestly examines the equally difficult history of slavery in Africa. In weaving historical fact into her story, Aidoo acknowledges the uncomfortable truth of Africas complicity in transatlantic slave trading. The play was listed as one of the best African literary works of the 20th century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.

In No Sweetness Here (1970), Aidoos first published collection of short stories, she explores further still both the complexities of gender in her culture and the conflict between rural and urban, traditional and modern influences that stress it. It is in these works, which she wrote in the 1960s, that Aidoo exhibits her comfortable knowledge of and affinity for African oral traditions in her use of tools such as African idioms. Aidoo first experimented with using poetry in the midst of prose in her dense 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy; or Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. The novel follows a young African woman who travels to Europe in the late 1960s. The journey brings into sharp focus the underdevelopment of the African culture she left behind, as well as a kind of racism she never felt there.

Wrote Poetry and Political Love Story

After a frustrating 18-month stint as Ghanas minister of education, Aidoo left her homeland for Zimbabwe, where she taught and wrote poetry. She had taken her appointment to the ministry very seriously, believing that it was in her power to reform the Ghanaian school system, making an education available to all. She resigned after realizing that her dream was out of reach. During her time in Zimbabwe she composed enough poems to publish a collection, Someone Talking to Sometime, which was published in 1985, as well as a childrens book, The Eagle and the Chickens in 1986. She continues to teach in Zimbabwe and abroad. She lectures frequently and has taught in the United States at Hamilton College, Oberlin College, Brandeis University, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College.

Despite previous statements that there were too many serious political issues in Africa for her to ever consider writing a love story, Aidoos 1991 novel, Changes, is just that. In writing Changes, Aidoo later admitted she came to realize that love or the workings of love is also political, according to an online article at In Changes Aidoo examines the role of women in African society and around the world. The lead character, a Ghanaian woman named Esi, is punished by her husband for her independent ways and dedication to her job. They separate and Esi falls for a married man who makes her his second wife, an arrangement that would leave her free to work. Eventually, it is her second husbands independence that wears on Esi. In writing the book, Aidoo employs several different formats; she again uses poetic notes throughout the text, and captures conversation in script form. Changes earned Aidoo the Commonwealth Writers Prize for African writers.

Aidoo published An Angry Letter in January, her second collection of poetry, in 1992, and another volume of short stories, The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, followed in 1997. She founded and is director of Mbaasa, a non-profit organization that subsidizes residencies for African women writers.

Selected writings

The Dilemma of a Ghost, (play; first produced in Legon, Ghana, at Open Air Theatre, March, 1964), Longmans, Green (London), 1965, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.

Anowa, (play; produced in London, 1991), Humanities Press (New York, NY), 1970.

No Sweetness Here, (stories), Longmans, Green (London), 1970; Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.

Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, (novel), Longman (London), 1977; NOK Publishing (New York, NY), 1979.

Dancing Out Doubts, NOK (Engu, Nigeria), 1982.

Someone Talking to Sometime, (poetry), College Press (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1985.

The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories, (for children), Tana Press (Engu, Nigeria), 1986.

Birds and Other Poems, (for children), College Press (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1987.

Changes: A Love Story, (novel), Womens Press (London), 1991, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 1993.

An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems, Dangaroo Press (Coventry, England), 1992.

The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, Sub-Saharan Publishers, 1997.

Also contributor to anthologies, including Modern African Stories, Faber, 1964; Black Orpheus: An Anthology of New African and Afro-American Stories, Longmans, 1964, McGraw-Hill, 1965; Pan African Short Stories, Thomas Nelson, 1966; New Sum of Poetry from the Negro World, Presence Africaine, 1966; African Writing Today, Penguin, 1967; African Writing Today, Manyland Books, 1969; Political Spider: An Anthology of Stories from Black Orpheus, Africana Publishing, 1969; and African Literature and the Arts, Volume I, Crowell, 1970; and contributor of stories and poems to magazines, including Okyeame, Black Orpheus, Presence Africaine, Journal of African Literature, and New African.



Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1993, p. 56.

Research in African Literatures, Summer 2002.

Online, (December 23, 2002).

BBC World Service, (December 23, 2002).

Pegasos Literature-Related Resources, (December 23, 2002).

Post-colonial African Literatures in English, (December 23, 2002).

Brenna Sanchez

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African literature

African literature Oral and written literatures of the continent of Africa. Oral literature in Africa is immensely rich and diverse. A central feature of the continent's oral traditions is the close link with the rhythms and texture of music. Audience participation is encouraged through the technique of call and response. Narration is regarded both as performance art and as vital transmission of historical information. Folktales, myths, legends and proverbs provide a community with a continuous link with their ancestral heritage. A major theme of much of Africa's written literatures is the conflict between traditional cultures and modernization. In Africa, literature written in indigenous languages antedates that in European languages, but the latter is more widespread. The earliest known indigenous works are religious texts, informed by Christian and Islamic literature. In North Africa a tradition of Latin writing dates back to the 5th-century Christian theologian Saint Augustine. In the 14th century the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun wrote his magisterial Introduction to History. The tradition of North African writing in Arabic has continued into the 20th-century, chiefly through the work of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz - the first Arabic writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (1988). In East Africa the earliest extant Swahili text dates from 1652. The oldest surving Swahili epic verse is the Hamziya (1749) by Sayyid Aidarusi. Early Swahili poetry was heavily influenced by Islamic verse and was written in Arabic. In the mid-19th century Latin script became more common. The greatest figure of 20th-century Swahili poetry was Shaaban Robert. In West Africa the beginnings of Hausa literature are traced back to the campaigns (1804–08) of the Fulani reformer Shaykh Usman dan Fodio. While the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin have a fertile oral tradition, the first Yoruba novel, The Forest of a Thousand Demons by Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, was not published until 1938. Hubert Ogunde's play Strike and Hunger (1945) was a landmark in the development of Yoruban theatre. African literatures in European languages were mainly born out of colonialism. In the 20th century the major African writers in Portuguese were the Angolan poets and political activists, Agostinho Neto and Mário de Andrade. The first contemporary African literature in French also took the form of political protest against colonial rule. Its leading figure was the Senegalese poet and statesman Leópold Senghor. Senghor developed the notion of négritude, which asserted the values of traditional African culture. Major African novels in French include The Poor Christ of Bomba (1956) by Mongo Beti and The Radiance of the King (1954) by Camara Laye. Arguably the richest European language in African literatures is English. The Interesting Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) by Olaudah Equiano, a former slave's account of the horrors of the slave trade, is the first-known work of English literature by an African. Nigeria has perhaps the strongest body of African literature in English. The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) by Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian novel to receive international acclaim. Wole Soyinka, like Tutuola, drew on Yoruba myths to create plays such as A Dance of the Forests (1963). In 1986 Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In the novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Chinua Achebe depicted the effects of British colonialism on Igbo village life. Gabriel Okara also explored the conflict between African traditions and Western materialism in his novel The Voice (1964). The Nigerian novelist Ben Okri won Britain's Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road (1991). A vibrant literature in English also emerged in Ghana. Major works include the novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) by Ayi Kwei Armah and the play The Dilemma of a Ghost (1968) by Ama Ata Aidoo. One of the best-known works of African literature in English is the epic poem Song of Lawino (1966) by Ugandan writer Okot p'Bitek. In A Grain of Wheat (1967) the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thing'o explored the struggle for independence from Britain. In the late 1970s Ngugi abandoned the language of the colonizer to write in his native tongue, Gikuyu. Ngugi's decision is part of a growing modern trend to encourage more literary production in indigenous African languages.

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GHANA. A country in West Africa and member of the COMMONWEALTH. Languages: English (official), WEST AFRICAN PIDGIN ENGLISH, and indigenous languages such as Ashanti, Ewe, Fanti, and Ga. The region was under British influence from 1874, and present-day Ghana comprises the former British colonies of the Gold Coast and Ashanti, the protectorate of the Northern Territories, and the United Nations trusteeship of British Togoland. There is a cline of usage from English-based pidgin to the standard WEST AFRICAN ENGLISH of the media and such newspapers as the Daily Graphic, the Ghanaian Times, the People's Evening News, and The Pioneer. Ghanaian writers in English include C. Ama Ata Aidoo, Joseph W. Abruquah, Aye Kwei Armah, Kofi Awoonor, and J. Benibengor Blay.

Ghana has probably had more intimate and longer contact with English-speaking expatriates than any other West African country. The English established their first fort at Cormantine in 1631 and English seamen and merchants and their local wives appear to have formed a nucleus of English-speakers in Ghana more than a century before the settlements in LIBERIA and SIERRA LEONE. Ghanaians have always prided themselves on the quality of their English. Localisms include: (1) Words and phrases found in other parts of anglophone West Africa: balance change (as in The balance you gave me is not correct), chop box food box (as in Put the yam in the chop box), themselves each other (as in Those two really love themselves). (2) Distinctive local usage, such as an airtight a metal box, a cover shoulder a kind of blouse, enskin to enthrone (a chief), an outdooring a christening ceremony. (3) Uncountable nouns often used countably: equipments, furnitures. (4) Hybrids of English and local words: kente cloth, donno drum, bodom bead.

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Aidoo, Ama Ata

Ama Ata Aidoo (äm´ä ätä´ä ī´dōō) (Christina Ama Ata Aidoo), 1942–, Ghanaian author, poet, and playwright, grad. Univ. of Ghana (B.A., 1964). Combining traditional African storytelling with Western genres, she writes of the contemporary roles of African women and the negative impact of Western influences on African culture. Her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was published in 1965. Her short stories, collected in No Sweetness Here (1970) and The Girl Who Can (1997), and her novel, Our Sister Killjoy (1977), expand on these themes, many of which mirror Aidoo's own experiences. Her other works include the play Anowa (1980), the poems of Someone Talking to Sometime (1985), Birds (1987), and Angry Letter in January (1992); a collection of children's stories (1986); and the novel Changes: A Love Story (1991), which explores a contemporary African marriage.

See V. O. Odamtten, The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo (1994), A. U. Azodo and G. Wilentz, ed., Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (1997).

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Aidoo, (Christina) Ama Ata

AIDOO, (Christina) Ama Ata

Nationality: Ghanaian. Born: Abeadzi Kiakor, Ghana, 1942. Education: University of Ghana, Legon, B.A. (honours) 1964; Stanford University, California. Career: Lecturer in English, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, 1970-82; Minister of Education, 1982-83; writer-in-residence, University of Richmond, Virginia, 1989; chair, African Regional Panel of the Commonwealth Writers' prize, 1990, 1991; professor of English, University of Ghana, Cape Coast. Awards: Fulbright scholarship, 1988; Short Story Prize, Mbari Press. Address: University of Ghana, Department of English, Cape Coast, Ghana.



Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. London, Longman, 1977; New York, NOK, 1979.

Changes: A Love Story. London, Women's Press, 1991; New York, Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1993.

Short Stories

No Sweetness Here. London, Longman, 1970; New York, Doubleday, 1971.

The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories. Engu, Nigeria, TanaPress, 1986.

The Girl Who Can and Other Stories. Accra, Ghana, Sub-SaharanPublishers, 1997.


The Dilemma of a Ghost (produced Legon, 1964; Pittsburgh, 1988).Accra, Longman, 1965; New York, Macmillan, 1971.

Anowa (produced London, 1991). London, Longman, and New York, Humanities Press, 1970.


Someone Talking to Sometime. Harare, Zimbabwe, College Press, 1985.

Birds and Other Poems. Harare, Zimbabwe, College Press, 1987.

An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems. Coventry, England, Dangaroo Press, 1992.


Dancing Out Doubts. Engu, Nigeria, NOK, 1982.

Contributor, Contemporary African Plays, edited and introduced byMartin Banham and Jane Plastow. London, Methuen, 1999.

Contributor, The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, edited by Lorna Sage. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Critical Studies:

Ama Ata Aidoo: The Dilemma of a Ghost (study guide) by Jane W. Grant, London, Logman, 1980; The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism by Vincent O. Odamtten, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1994; Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo edited by Ada Uzoamaka Azodo and Gay Wilentz, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.

* * *

Christina Ama Ata Aidoo's greatest strength is her ability to mix humor and hope with the serious issues of gender and social conflict. Her protagonists are caught in situations that are beyond their power to change; however, these characters' resistance to traditional roles and beliefs make them vibrant within these prescribed roles. Ghanaian critic Vincent Odamtten warns against using the terms of the (Western) liberal humanist tradition to describe the roles of these women: "individuality" and "independence" do not do justice to the different needs of African woman, he cautions. Their need for community, he believes, is greater than Western women's, and what they seek are relationships of equality with their men, not the wherewithal to live without them. Although this view is itself biased by Odamtten's own cultural and gender identity, it does appropriately state that Aidoo's protagonists seek fulfillment within their existing relationships rather than trying to live without men's love.

Aidoo's keen sense of drama is conveyed in both dramatic scripts and novels through witty, realistic, idiomatic dialogue and through careful juxtaposition of scenes that tell a story in pictures. In both plays, Anowa and The Dilemma of a Ghost, there are two sets of doubles to the main characters, whose scenes parallel the themes of the main duo. Characters called "Boy" and "Girl" bicker, slap, and insult the representative of the opposite sex, just as their grown-up counterparts do. The second set of doubles is the grandparent pair. Each play illustrates a social problem through the viewpoints of three generations. Aidoo surprises expectations through chiasmus : the grandfather figure speaks for the female protagonist's point of view, while the grandmother upholds the traditional view.

The plays discuss the social problems of gender roles and capitalism imposed on an agrarian society. The Dilemma of a Ghost features a strong woman married to a weak man who becomes corrupted by his own greed. When he decides to own slaves, she loses her mind because her values and love have been corrupted beyond her capacity of acceptance. In the contemporary setting of Anowa, on the other hand, the strong female protagonist is an African American who marries into a Ghanaian family. Her pivotal argument with his society is her belief in her right to delay childbirth. A side issue, which would provide an element of hilarity onstage, is that she smokes and drinks. The real issue of the play, however, is the imbalance of the day-to-day marital relationship: caught between the strong wills of mother and wife, the husband doesn't know who he agrees with. He wants whatever is easiest, not being able to make his own moral choices.

While Aidoo's dramas would make exciting stage productions because of their idiom, color, and tension, the novels make more entertaining reading. Our Sister Killjoy, written in 1966, is a precursor to the 1991 novel, Changes: A Love Story, in the same way that the play Dilemma foresees Anowa. The first novel tells the story of a sixteen-year-old Ghanaian girl who travels to Germany and London on an international government program for youth. The titular character, Sissie, earns her negative epithet of "killjoy" because she doubts the motives behind government programs such as student loans and grants to study abroad. Instead of celebrating the opportunity to expand their horizons, she deplores the suffering of her black brothers and sisters who live at poverty level in cold, unfriendly London, while deluding themselves that they are privileged to enroll in white education factories. Sissie urges them to return to Africa, to apply their skills to its economy instead. Many of her most "successful" compatriots are willfully blind to the horror they have bought into: soul-destroying white capitalism.

Sissie's idealism is touching, but it is not her only moral quality. The scene in which she "loses her innocence" is forceful and makes her seem cynical beyond her years. In rejecting a young German woman's love, Sissie observes her own enjoyment in causing pain to another. The reader wants her to connect her own enjoyment of power to her political ideas about white supremacy, to realize that she could be as abusive of power as a white person, but she does not make the connection.

Changes is the more polished novel: both narrator and protagonist are more mature. The protagonist, Esi, illustrates that, although the modern Ghanaian woman can "emancipate" herself by divorce, and obtain both love and independence by becoming another man's second wife, it is not enough. Although Esi's new lover is considered progressive in his views because he wants to honor her freedom and equality, his social status as an African male with the right to have many wives and girlfriends makes him different from Esi. Entirely honest in portraying the conflict between the need for love and the need for independence, Changes suggests that one thing that will not change, even if social structures do, is women's need for loving attention. Aidoo's characters are wise about gender differences; they do not blame everything on "the system" but recognize fundamental differences between men and women.

Jill Franks

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