Darko, Amma 1956–
Amma Darko 1956-
Darko is one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers from Ghana; her works, which have been published in German, English, French, Spanish, and Turkish, are often compared favorably with those of her countrywomen Ama Ata Aidoo and Efua Sutherland. Using her experiences as a girl growing up in late-twentieth-century Africa and later as a young African immigrant in Germany, Darko crafts fiction that explores the tension between African women's traditional roles and the often tragic results of their attempts to improve their circumstances.
Darko was born Tamale, Ghana, in 1956. She attended the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, from which she earned a degree in science in 1980. After graduating, Darko worked briefly for Ghana's Technology Consultancy Center. A coup d'etat against the Ghanaian government in 1981 resulted in the suspension of the country's constitution and many young Ghanaians went abroad. Darko attained a visa to relocate to Germany, where she rented a room in a small village and took menial jobs to support herself. Knowing no one, and being the only nonwhite person in the town, Darko felt isolated and spent most of her time alone. It was during this period that she began writing her first novel, Der verkaufte Traum (Beyond the Horizon), which was first published in Germany in 1991. Darko returned to Ghana in 1987, taking a course in accounting. Shortly thereafter she took a job as a tax inspector for the government. Beyond the Horizon won the Ghana Book Award in 1998 and Darko was named Author of the Year by the Africa-themed German literary group Afrikahaus. Darko lives in Accra, Ghana, with her husband and three children.
Darko's first novel, Beyond the Horizon, revolves around an African woman's experience in the German sex trade. When her abusive husband, Akobi, relocates from Africa to Europe, the subservient Mara must wait to join him until he sends for her. When Akobi does finally bring Mara to Germany, where he has settled, she finds that he has married Gitte, a German woman, to obtain a residency permit. While Mara is not surprised by Akobi's polygamy—which is permitted in their culture—she is dismayed to learn that part of her husband's plan in bringing her to Germany is to sell her into prostitution. Paradoxically, though, Mara finds that working as a prostitute increases her sense of independence and selfhood, and eventually she frees herself of her husband, declaring that she is now "a modern woman." In her next novel, The Housemaid (1998), Darko again addressed the dilemma women face when they try to establish economic independence. In essence a detective story revolving around the mystery of a dead baby, the novel depicts women who turn against and manipulate each other, largely because of the lack of education and opportunities afforded them by a patriarchal society. Die Gesichtslosen (2003; Faceless) examines similar themes of poverty, violence, and desperation. Set in the slums of Accra, Ghana, the novel tells the story of four educated women inspired by the plight of a homeless teenage girl to create an education center to help the city's street children. While Faceless implicates all of society in the exploitation of women and children, the novel ends on a hopeful note, as its protagonists are able to help the teenager and engage the media in exposing the realities of urban poverty. Darko's exploration of the lives of African women continues in her most recent novel, Das Lächeln der Nemesis (2006; Not without Flowers).
Darko's fiction has generated much commentary for its portrayal of women caught between the traditional values of patriarchal cultures and the desire to liberate themselves politically, economically, and personally. Critics have found her darkly comic depictions of women's betrayals of each other particularly powerful. Likewise, Darko's frank discussion of such issues as male brutality and crushing poverty, as well as her meticulous research of her subjects, are admired by reviewers. Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho wrote in his introduction to Faceless: "Faceless must be compulsory reading for all those who claim to be interested in the plight of street children … [who] cease to be mere statistics or a point of reference for media hysteria, academic discourse, or political rhetoric."
Der verkaufte Traum [Beyond the Horizon] (novel) 1991
The Handmaid (novel) 1998
Die Gesichtslosen [Faceless] (novel) 2003
Das Lächeln der Nemesis [Not without Flowers] (novel) 2006
Pamela J. Olubunmi Smith (review date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Olubunmi Smith, Pamela J. Review of The Housemaid. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 221-22.
[In the following review, Olubunmi Smith praises Darko's writing and the plot of The Housemaid, but is ambivalent about the novel's detective genre.]
A relative newcomer to the Ghanaian fiction-writing scene, Amma Darko is the author of a 1991 novel published in German and then issued in 1995 in its original English as Beyond the Horizon. … The Housemaid is her second novel. Darko joins fellow Ghanaian female writer Ama Ata Aidoo in focusing on the social ills of modern Ghanaian society, especially as they concern and affect women. Thus, the themes are familiar as they range from general national corruption to issues of money and greed, from the role and view of women in modern Ghanaian society to destructive woman-to-woman dynamics, from pursuit of education to the politics of poverty and to polygamy and husband snatching.
The Housemaid is a two-part, twelve-chapter short novel which tells the all-too-familiar story of urbanization and its peculiar values. This time, however, the familiar plot line is couched in a minidetective story: the homicidal death of an abandoned baby and the different responses of the women and the men. Woven through the whodunit plot is a bottom-line concern—that is, the truth about what it takes for women to advance economically and professionally in a male-dominated world. This is what Tika, the protagonist, discovers after failing her fifth-form exam. As the story unwinds, it becomes obvious that without adequate education and professional training, women are exploited and some like Tika end up sleeping their way to the top. Her enterpreneurial success well in hand, all gained at the expense of other personal fulfillment such as wifehood and motherhood (she has a hysterectomy), Tika seeks to remedy a familial omission: she would spend some of her wealth training a girl from her dead father's village extended family, undoubtedly a fitting memorial gift to her beloved father, who was ill-treated by her mother. Efia comes on the scene as the trainee housemaid, and all the ingredients of day-to-day living are played out in a web of deceit and intrigue, mostly by manipulative womenfolk. Efia gets pregnant and blames it on one of her mistress's lovers, an impotent civil-servant executive. As Efia's grandmother and mother's extortion plan falls apart, Efia runs away and soon delivers a Downsyndrome baby girl who dies minutes after birth. Out of fright, Efia disposes of the corpse, much decomposed from being carried around in a plastic bag in the hot sun. News of the discovery of the corpse in the thicket spreads throughout the town, reaching her porter friends, one of whom turns her in. Efia shows up to give an account of what happened, but ironically, the novel's tension is resolved by the deft, quick thinking of one of Efia's porter friends, whose motive is quite simply to cover for herself and her cronies.
With the crime resolved and all speculation shelved, thought turns to the issue of the treatment of widows, the "poor lonely old widows … Ghana's poor, old, lonely women," who would have become victims of a "frenzied orgy of witch-hunting." The prospect of a similar fate befalling the protagonist's own mother, now old and abandoned by her only child, is implied and is too close for comfort. The novel ends on a redemptive note, as the protagonist and her friend laugh and cry away "their pain, their disappointment, their anger, their fear."
The Housemaid is divided into two parts. Part 1, consisting of a single chapter, simply focuses on geriatrics, Ghana-style, with the murder, the general reaction to it, and its resolution. Part 2 then unravels the "why" and "how" of the crime—the plot, so to speak—through a web of relationships. While the language is unencumbered, the tension of the work feels loose, particularly for a detective novel. Nevertheless, it is a good story.
MaryEllen Higgins (essay date fall 2006)
SOURCE: Higgins, MaryEllen. "Transnational, Transcultural Feminisms? Amma Darko's Response in Beyond the Horizon." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 25, no. 2 (fall 2006): 307-22.
[In the following excerpt, Higgins provides insight into the feminist movement across cultural boundaries using the cross-cultural relationships of Darko's female characters.]
During a seminar at the West African Research Center in Dakar in the summer of 1999, Senegalese sociologist Fatou Sow presented her work on West African wom- en's grassroots movements. She focused primarily on women's rural networks and occasionally described local practices she had observed as "feminist." After she concluded, an American seminar participant asked why she espoused feminism and described feminism in African contexts as "the right to wear jeans." Professor Sow rose in her blue boubou and queried, "Am I wearing jeans?" The group then debated the results of the relationships among European, American, and African women's movements, the meanings of feminism, and the question of who "owns" the feminist movement. The discussion of women's grassroots efforts to improve their economic predicaments in West Africa dissipated.1
I start with this anecdote to underscore the reduction of global women's movements—whether they occur in Africa, Europe, the United States, or elsewhere—to descriptions such as "the right to wear jeans" and also to emphasize the general misrepresentation of women's liberation movements internationally. Opponents of feminism often distort its goals and treat it as a monolithic entity, reducing it to an ideology that excludes men, disdains marriage, and rejects motherhood. In her essay "Literature, Feminism, and the African Woman Today," Ama Ata Aidoo remarks, "It has become common to dismiss feminism as a foreign ideology, zealously imported into Africa to ruin good African women."2 Such dismissals omit histories of African women's mobilization against gender-based oppression and ignore the fact that African women are among the most incisive critics of Northern feminisms.
Scholars and activists who have questioned the applicability of feminism in Africa do not generally oppose feminism as a liberating discourse for middle-class and upper-class women from comparatively wealthy nations. Rather, they have questioned feminism's relevance for—and its hegemony over—women's movements globally. Oyèronké Oy˘ewúmi writes, "African women and feminism are at odds because despite the adjectives used to qualify feminism, it is Western feminism that inevitably dominates even when it is not explicitly the subject under consideration."3 As Professor Sow argued, the pervasive question of the influences of "white feminisms" during discussions of women's movements in Africa often diverts attention from the specificity of women's active participation in local and national politics, local and global economies, and other spheres. One of the most problematic elements of feminism is the assumption that it is the prerogative of relatively privileged feminists to represent all women's interests. Chandra Talpade Mohanty has critiqued the "assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location."4 As bell hooks notes, several writings by middle-class feminists "rarely question whether or not their perspective on women's reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases."5 Nkiru Nzegwu's poem, "Sisterhood," speaks to pivotal differences among women manifested in international, racial, and linguistic divisions of labor. At the commencement of the poem, Nzegwu writes: "white sister told me/all women are one/united in de face/of chau'vism/(pa'don my englisis) [sic]." The poem concludes with a description of a woman "on knees/to scrub the floor clean/for sisterarchy."6 Cheryl Johnson-Odim similarly recognizes that women who do not share the privileges of middle-class Northern feminists "articulate a women's struggle that while fighting sex discrimination internally and globally, recognizes that many of those things that oppress them are part of an inequitable and exploitative global order which the elimination of sex-based discrimination will not eradicate."7
Like Northern-dominated "development" institutions such as the World Bank and the International Money Fund (IMF), European and American feminist organizations often have assumed that they are the ultimate sources of knowledge about how African women ought to progress. Additionally, they have spoken as if all women's liberation movements are rooted in the North, although African women have mobilized for their rights before their contacts with Europeans and Americans.8 Many European women utilized the colonies as a space to prove their ability to serve the nation, collaborated in Europe's "civilizing mission," and perceived women in the colonies as their apprentices.9 Furthermore, the term "Western feminisms"—generally employed to denote Western European and North American feminisms—neglects the Western location of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America on the world map. Thus, the terminology of feminism mirrors its European and North American dominance. The use of sisterhood as a paradigm has also been contested. Oy˘ewúmi asks, "Sisterhood, just like the term feminism, needs to be reexamined in the light of the fact that though its origins are very much tied to a specific culture, its intended application is ultimately transglobal … Can it carry the same meaning, given that its conceptualization is informed by specific cultural assumptions and histories?" (p. 6).
Given the histories of misrepresentation, exclusion, and classism, African women activists and scholars—often working alongside colleagues in the African diaspora—have engaged in projects to "re-vision [their] lives, recreate [them]selves, and re-examine received ideas and notions."10 As African women map their own agendas, they also have named their specific movements: Molara Ogundipe-Leslie employs the term STIWA, or "Social Transformation Including Women in Africa" (p. 229); Siga Diagne speaks of Sani Baat, Wolof for ‘voice-throwing’ (qtd. in Kolawole, p. 6); Obioma Nnaemeka conceived of negofeminism, a term derived from Igbo culture, which underscores what she calls the "feminism of negotiation" and "no ego feminism."11 Synchronous with Alice Walker's depiction of womanism in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chikwenye Ogunyemi formulated her theory of womanism; she describes a movement committed to the particular concerns of African women on the continent.12 Clenora Hudson-Weems's theory of Africana womanism argues for a "separate and distinct identity for the Africana woman and her movement."13 She writes:
Neither an outgrowth nor an addendum to feminism, Africana womanism is not black feminism, African feminism, or Walker's womanism that some Africana women have come to embrace. Africana womanism is an ideology created and designed for all women of African descent. It is grounded in African culture and, therefore, it necessarily focuses on the unique experiences, struggles, needs, and desires of Africana women.
(pp. 154-55, italics in original)
In her theory of African womanism, Ogunyemi agrees with Hudson-Weems's call for self-definition and the gravitation toward African cultures as the bases for African women's liberation, but she critiques "utopian Africana womanism, which tends to romanticize black male-female relationships, ignoring its myriad dangers for women."14 Internal debates exist about the transnational applications of womanism and the attendant risks of essentialism, debates that mirror the arguments surrounding feminism. Nevertheless, as Nnaemeka attests, "What is at stake is the issue of agency, subjectivity and power—the power to name oneself, one's location and one's struggle" (Sisterhood, p. 13). As Tuzyline Jita Allan observes, for many African, African American, and Caribbean women, womanism "is a rich source of cultural capital in a social economy weighted heavily against them. Consequently, womanism has helped to fortify the longstanding discontent over white feminists' appropriation of womanhood."15
Feminists' representation of womanism as a separatist theory raises some salient questions. Why speak of separation, a term that assumes a preexisting union? Was there a partnership before this alleged separation? "Separatism" can also imply a politics of territoriality: are feminists who insist on feminism as the best form of global women's solidarity resisting womanists' claims to distinct, independent spaces? To expand the metaphor of territories, what do we make of traveling theories, transnational articulations, local commitments, cosmopolitanism? Are there unbridgeable divides between Euro-American feminisms and African/Africana womanisms? Should efforts to build bridges be examined and questioned more fully? How do internal differences in women's movements within Europe, the United States, and the various countries of Africa figure in? How do multifarious women's movements in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America intersect and diverge? How can sisterarchy—to use Nzegwu's term—be eliminated? These questions, some of which are beyond the scope of this essay, are central to discussions of global women's movements.
The economies and policies of nations located in the East, West, South, and North (however inadequate these delineations) influence each other; worlds intertwine through transnational phenomena such as immigration, trade, tourism, imperialism, international development initiatives, and war. Ogunyemi asserts, "We need cooperation, because the two worlds are still tied to each other."16 Conscious objection to oppressive military, economic, political, and cultural imperialism from the inside of imperialist centers—from those who protest, resist, mobilize, educate, and vote from within the alleged "center"—can be a powerful mechanism for change. In "Transnational Feminist Cultural Studies: Beyond the Marxism/Poststructuralism/Feminism Divides," Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal employ the term linkage to "suggest networks of economic and social relations that occur within postmodernity vis-à-vis global capitalism and its effects. Linkage does not require reciprocity or sameness or commonality."17 Diverse womanist, feminist, and alternative discourses provide multiple critiques and practices that aim to overcome sexism, and of course women's decisions to reject, appropriate, or modify those discourses and practices are part of the project of increasing women's options. The politicians who threaten women's reproductive rights in the United States are frequently the same politicians who authorize or support military and economic aggression against "poorer" nations, aggression that results in the further impoverishment and displacement of women.18 Advocates of global women's genuine partnerships can mobilize against multiple oppressions, including the oppression of women whose rights to healthy lives and a voice in their own affairs are devastated as a result of the destructive power of allegedly more "developed" nations.
While acknowledging the differences between women's movements globally, men and women across national and theoretical divides have protested the discrimination of women across borders. Such actions indicate that the struggle for women's rights is viewed as a global movement that works to counter sexism, to eradicate violence against women, and to increase women's opportunities and choices. Johnson-Odim observes that although feminist practices in North America and Europe have a history of upper- and middle-class biases, "it is clear that there have always been some radical white feminists who have understood the connections between race, class and gender…. The early radical feminism of the 1960s was, in fact, often broadly defined as being antiracist and anti-imperialist, but much of that movement has been displaced."19 The American and European versions of feminism that assume superiority linger, yet feminisms are changing as a result of the astute critiques of women around the world.20 Of course, the category "white women" is insufficient: it lumps together women across classes from places as diverse as Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Australia. It also overlooks women who claim multiple heritages. Angela Miles speaks of "transformative feminisms" as an inclusive alternative to those feminist projects that seek to empower relatively few women through equal access to already existing spheres of power. She writes:
Transformative feminists from all parts of the world challenge the dominations of class, race, and colonialism as well as gender; they present feminist perspectives on the whole of society and not just selected "women's issues"; and they reject the assumptions and value judgments underlying the "modernization" project which is being imposed by the West to the detriment of the whole of nature and most of the world's people in all regions.21
It is with these thoughts in mind that I turn to the representation of transnational women's relationships in Amma Darko's work.
This essay explores the possibilities for transnational or transcultural women's solidarity through an analysis of Amma Darko's literary representations of cross-cultural relations between women. It also attends to Darko's engagements with grassroots women's movements in Ghana. My focus is on Darko's compelling narration of a Ghanaian woman's emigration to Germany in Beyond the Horizon (1995), and her depiction of the interactions between her Ghanaian protagonist, Mara, and Mara's German "sister-in-law"/cowife, Gitte.22 Mara relocates to Germany to join her recently emigrated husband, Akobi. Unbeknownst to Gitte, Mara is her cowife; Mara masquerades as Gitte's sister-in-law so that Gitte will not divorce Akobi and precipitate his deportation. Through the sister-in-law ruse, Darko explores the possibilities for and failures of transnational, transcultural sisterhood. Readers are also moved to contemplate, through the sister-brother dramatization, contemporary inequities that exist in the relationships between Ghanaian men and women. Though Akobi calls Mara "sister," her "sister role" is a result of his exploitation of her labor and her loyalty (p. 93). Simultaneously, Beyond the Horizon is an eye-opening exposure of domestic and international violence against Ghanaian women; here Darko's work contributes to local and international discourses about the abuse of women in the transnational sex trade.
The reader is aware of a potential alliance between Mara and Gitte; Mara knows that "one slip from [her] could give the whole game away" (p. 94). However, Gitte's solidarity with Mara is precluded by ignorance. Gitte's view of Africa is seen through the prism of touristic fantasy: she anticipates a luxurious house being built for her by the Ghanaian seaside and she "dreams of life in Africa: warm weather, palm trees, fresh fruits, and ten thousand bambinis attending to her wishes" (p. 81). She anticipates a future with servants and a swimming pool as she imagines that Akobi is a prince whose subjects wait eagerly for her arrival. At Gitte's insistence, she and Akobi split their domestic labor evenly, yet soon after Mara's arrival in Germany, Mara cooks, cleans, and washes laundry for them. Gitte initially complains that Mara is doing all of the housework but conveniently believes Akobi when he tells her, "Our African women work even harder than us men, Gitte. And my sister is no exception. They are brought up like that, to work, work, work. They love doing it" (p. 108). Mara notes, "Gitte smiled gratefully at me and shrugged" (p. 108). A wife compelled to masquerade as a sister, Mara is not treated equitably even in this new role—like the speaker in Nzegwu's poem, she becomes the household servant.
In the sphere of Akobi and Gitte's home, the international division of labor manifests itself alongside and inflects the sexual division, to the denigration of both Akobi and Mara. Gitte's nationality affords her power over Akobi: she issues him orders, reproaches him for disobedience, and reiterates racist stereotypes of African men. She declares, "When I first met your brother, Mara, he was very lazy, a very lazy African man. At first I didn't understand, because here we hear always that African people are hard workers and love hard work because God made them specially for the hard work of the world" (pp. 98-99). Gitte concludes that Akobi "is not a proper African man" (p. 99). Her self-serving belief in essentialized notions of African men and women—fictions once used in attempts to legitimize enslavement and colonization—impedes transnational women's solidarity. At the conclusion, Mara confesses to Gitte that she is Akobi's wife but does not tell her about how Akobi has coerced her into prostitution. Their mutual solidarity and understanding are never achieved. Theirs is a failed opportunity because of Gitte's blindness, racism, and self absorption.
Darko's work parallels Ama Ata Aidoo's earlier narrative about emigration, Our Sister Killjoy, or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint (1977).23 In Aidoo's narrative, the Ghanaian protagonist Sissie travels to Germany on a government grant. Aidoo depicts women's transnational connections within the context of the historical inequities between Africans and Europeans. Aidoo's narrative also interrogates neocolonialism, consumerism, and Europhilia, as Ranu Samantrai has observed.24 As Samantrai argues, the "sisterhood" between Sissie and the German housewife, Marija, is punctured by the history of Europe's oppression of Africa. Though Marija and Sissie are both exposed to gender discrimi- nation, their histories are not shared. Samantrai notes several examples in Our Sister Killjoy, including the testing of birth-control pills on Third World women for the benefit of women in the First World, their divergent experiences with the English language, and paternalistic development programs. According to Samantrai, "Though [Aidoo's] novel does provide a basis for a strategic, though incomplete solidarity, it recognizes that we do not yet live in a world in which African and European women can meet on neutral ground, stripped of the forces of race relations" (p. 147). The differences between Sissie's and Mara's predicaments are also significant: Marija seeks a friendship with Sissie in part because she finds her exotic—she desires an escape from domestic boredom. Mara is trapped in a place where people treat her as a sexualized, exotic object; videotapes of her being drugged and raped are used to coerce her into prostitution. When Sissie arrives in Germany she is politically aware: throughout the novel she debunks the myth of European superiority and returns to Ghana at the conclusion. Mara fully recognizes the fiction of Europe-as-haven only in the last chapters of the novel, yet she feels too burdened by the expectation that she succeed, and too stripped of her dignity, to venture back home. Marija—a lonely woman who enjoys cooking for Sissie—is a more sympathetic character than Gitte. While Gitte attempts to befriend her "sister-in-law," she also views her as a convenient source of domestic labor. Darko's and Aidoo's narratives illustrate J. Oloka-Onyango and Sylvia Tamale's assertion that "the bond that is necessary for a coalition to evolve within international feminism cannot be created from a romanticized sisterhood that assumes common oppression of all women."25 Aidoo and Darko both expose the fictionality of multiple postcolonial promises— the promise of just governments after independence, of women's equal rights, and the lingering, empty promises of upward development through close ties to Europe. The differences between Sissie and Mara—in class, education, and political consciousness—are also significant.
Although it recognizes the limitations of transnational solidarity between women, Beyond the Horizon does not abandon the tenets of feminism. Darko calls attention to the problems of domestic abuse, domestic rape, and international trafficking in women. The Nkyinkyim Anti-Violence Project in Ghana speaks to Mara's alienation as it describes the predicament of women who have experienced domestic violence: "Being a victim of violence can be a very isolating experience and the man inflicting the violence intends it to be so. The shame that women often feel makes it difficult for them to talk about their experience of violence."26 Florence Abena Dolphyne observes that when women's families cannot return bride-wealth given by husbands, there is little support for her if she wishes to divorce. Often abused women "suffer in silence."27 Even though Akobi beats her violently, Mara "abandon[s] the idea of announcing [her] wish that the marriage be dissolved" because her father depleted her dowry in order to remarry (p. 28). When Mara attempts to leave Akobi and return to her village, she is "met with very little sympathy" (p. 28). Darko echoes the activists of the Nkyinkim Project, who critique "parents who refuse to offer shelter to their daughter when she reports that she wants to leave her abusive husband and thus put her life in danger" (NETRIGHT, p. 5). As Kofi Anyidoho writes, "Mara is trapped between Akobi's utterly selfish life of brutal greed and delusion, and her society/family's equally selfish and misguided expectations about a so-called good life in the city, their tragic illusions about the pleasures of life beyond the horizon in the white man's land."28 Furthermore, Darko's exposure of international trafficking in women, María Frías, has argued "powerfully denounces, and shockingly speaks out for the lives of black women who are traumatically silenced and sexually exploited in the brothels of the Western world."29 Darko portrays the grim results of ideologies that presuppose women do not have the right to own their bodies. Mara has been triply exploited: her father entrusts her to a husband who mistreats her, Akobi regards her as "his wife … and property" (p. 7), and Oves becomes her "lord, [her] master, and [her] pimp" (p. 3). Darko casts an incisive critical lens on those who, like Akobi, his partner Osey, and the owner of the German sex nightclub, Pompey, profit from the sexual exploitation of African women. Whereas Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne turn their cinematic gaze on Europeans who attempt to sell African immigrants into prostitution in their 1996 film, La Promesse, Darko imagines the complexities of the lives of the women who struggle with the consequences.30 Mara's late realization that "the body being used and misused belonged to me" propels her finally to "take control of [her] own life" (p. 118). Yet the faith she placed in an abusive husband and in an exploitative Europe has already resulted in a seemingly irreversible downfall. Darko's conclusion leaves readers with little comfort; instead, she inspires her audience to seek change.
Beyond the Horizon maps Mara's eventual rebellion. Mara resists internally but does not have access to a feminist or womanist discourse that articulates opposition to gender-based discrimination until she meets Mama Kiosk. Mama Kiosk, who acts as a surrogate mother to Mara before her departure from Ghana, is Ogunyemi's womanist; she comprehends Mara's struggles and attempts to help her through a keen awareness of local gender politics. She is apprised of traditional resources and discourses that can emancipate Mara—resources that have not been available to Mara through her mother, who accepts a masculinist version of the traditional social order. Mara does not initially rebel against Akobi's confiscation of her income because she does not know how to claim her traditional rights. As Takyiwaa Manuh notes, women in Ghana can usually anticipate a high degree of autonomy in choosing how to spend their earnings.31 Women can also expect to be deeply respected for their roles as mothers, yet when Akobi learns of Mara's pregnancy, he batters her. While Darko's novel recognizes that traditional practices in Mara's village of Naka lead to fulfilling lives for many women, her critique targets those who fail to grant women their rights. Mara explicates: "As for the morals of life my mother brought me up by, I have cemented them with coal tar in my conscience. If the gods of Naka intended me to live by them, they should have made sure I was married to a man who loved me and who appreciated the values I was brought up with. I lived by these values until I could no longer do so" (p. 131). European values and practices do not offer an emancipating substitute; instead, Mara is left "friendless, isolated, and cold" (p. 1). Mama Kiosk, a woman who thrives in the marketplace and participates in her community, offers Mara an alternative. It is she who helps Mara to become independent economically when Akobi refuses to share his salary. The relationship between Mara and Mama Kiosk recalls Oyěwúmi's privileging of the figure of mother, rather than sister, as the model for African women's solidarity (pp. 11-13). Mara intimates, "This my growing self-confidence Akobi didn't like … In his search for answers he sought somewhere to put the blame. Not surprisingly he landed on Mama Kiosk" (p. 24). Like Aidoo's feminist, Mama Kiosk is viewed by Akobi as a threatening figure who sets out to "ruin good African women." At first Mara sees Mama Kiosk as a divisive figure; she tells herself that she will not let Mama Kiosk shake the "harmony" of her marriage (p. 26). She casts aside the wisdom of Mama Kiosk, who implores her to forget Akobi after his departure to Germany. Still, Mama Kiosk's knowledge permeates Mara's narration, which is delivered from the perspective of a woman who is no longer innocent, or "green." Mara later finds solace in her friendship in Germany with Kaye, an African woman and former prostitute with whom she can share her story.
Mara's decision to join Akobi in Germany is driven both by her belief that she should remain loyal despite the abrogation of her rights and by her own internalization of the "been-to" myth. She assumes that those who have "been to" Europe and North America merit respect and admiration. Like Akobi, she buys into an imperialist ideology that views all things European and American as superior. The quest for imported commodities turns into a litany in the narrative: "television, radio, fridge, carpet, even car!" (p. 34). She remembers:
You could have a television that was spoilt. It didn't matter. You probably did not even watch it or, if you did, you didn't understand anything on it for why should you if it was all full of Simon Templar running up and down boxing people unconscious, shooting them dead and kissing long-legged blonds when you yourself had not seen a gun before, knew nothing of something called Scotland Yard and had never seen your parents kiss? But that didn't matter. What mattered is that you had a television. And if as well as the television you had a fridge and a car, then, ch, between you and the Minister or doctor only his English wife separated you.
Mara's internalization of the belief that European and American commodities raise her status—a legacy of colonial assimilation projects—ultimately leads to her downfall.32 Television commercials promise satisfaction through the purchase of commodities, but the "fridge" is associated with her position in the household as cook for Akobi and Gitte. The car ultimately transports her to her job in a German brothel. In Europe she is seen as a commodity herself, an exotic object of desire. Her assimilation of European materialism, compounded with the international division of labor, work against her liberation. Like Akobi, Mara succumbs to the promises of comfort—both she and Akobi choose commodities that promise luxurious bliss over human contact and communication. To preserve an illusive harmony and win over her husband, she attempts to become his version of a "civilised" (p. 55) urban woman and signs her letters "Mara of the City" (p. 50). Mara later exclaims, "I needed improvement? I, who was wearing jeans?" (p. 66). The act of wearing jeans is not viewed by Mara as a feminist gesture but as a sign of her modernization. By the novel's conclusion, Mara realizes that her quest for commodities has brought only emptiness, but she continues to seek wealth in order to meet the high expectations of her relatives in Naka. Darko's characterization of Mara was inspired by her firsthand observations about the pressure felt by several women emigrants in Europe: "You either had to do menial jobs which would just keep you above water or you went into prostitution if you wanted to meet the expectations."33
Beyond the Horizon highlights omissions in Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, as Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions similarly engages with Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.34 In sharp contrast to Fanon's representation of the psychologically colonized woman who desires marriage with white men, Mara yearns for the approval of her assimilated African husband. She rejects African cloth in favor of European dresses in order to "[pass] better into his world, his modern world" (p. 49). She hopes that when he learns that she wears "not cloth, but dresses," he might "consider [her] developed enough for him, appropriate enough to be seen by his side" (p. 74). In much the same way that Europe ultimately rejects the assimilated colonized in Fanon's analysis, Mara notes that Akobi distances himself from her in public, "desperately trying to give the impression that he didn't know me" (p. 25). As her story progresses, the more knowledgeable, less green Mara recognizes her longing for acceptance as a "complex" (p. 75) and her attempt at assimilation as a "caricature" (p. 55). She sees that Akobi has stolen her inheritance and that her desire to please him through European commodities alienates her from her heritage. Europhilia becomes a devastating addiction: Mara knows that the money spent on passport bribes "could have fed my whole family in the village for maybe a year or so" (p. 53).
Akobi, who adopts the Europeanized name "Cobby" in order to win approval and avoid the discomfort of his European acquaintances, also diverges from Fanon's depiction of the colonized man. Akobi is, as are the men in Fanon's study, convinced that Europe is superior; yet he, like Mara, seeks the affection of his assimilated African lover, Comfort. Comfort is described as a typist at the Ministries who "had once snubbed him but who smiled back at him when she heard he was preparing to travel to Europe" (p. 122). She "bathes with skin-bleaching soaps" (p. 5) and dates the "First Secretary to the Housing and Construction Minister … in exchange for empty promises of a bungalow and a Morris Minor" (p. 6). Comfort's connection to the government ministries—and her subsequent relationship with "some high-up army official" (p. 138)—suggests a critique of the Europeanized, neocolonial elite. Her name is also evocative of the consumer comforts Mara tragically idealizes at the expense of her own dignity. Akobi's marriage to Gitte is not perceived as a desired initiation into and possession of white culture à la Fanon; rather, he uses Gitte to maintain his status as a legal migrant and to acquire the wealth that Comfort demands.
Darko does not contradict Fanon's analysis as much as she updates it, however. Fanon's description of the psychologically colonized resembles Darko's portrayal of Mara at the novel's conclusion: she is both alienated and duped.35 Mara's fragmentation mirrors Fanon's description of alienation and self-objectification. Fanon writes, "I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object" (p. 112). Mara, whose face is "plastered" with "gaudy pink rouge" (p. 2) to fill her role as an exoticized prostitute, likewise gazes at her reflection in an oval mirror and claims, "My image? No!—what is left of what used to be my image" (p. 1). Like the body of the colonized described by Fanon, Mara's body—masked by European cosmetics—suffers from multiple dislocations. A bone in her finger has been "displaced" (p. 2). Through her description of Mara's body, Darko critiques the abuse of women in the sex trade, a path that leads to Mara's isolation. Darko's oeuvre echoes Fanon's project to "help the black man to free himself from the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment" (p. 30). Her narrative extends Fanon's project, however, by shifting the emphasis to African women.
At the same time that it gazes critically on the international sex trade, domestic abuse, women's exploitation of other women, and consumerism, Beyond the Horizon critiques neocolonial practices in Africa. The character Akobi resembles European colonizers and neocolonizers. Like a colonizer, he does not offer Mara rights that she can expect in the traditional setting: he steals her dowry, refuses to share his earnings with her, and divests her of her earnings in the market so that he can finance his ventures abroad. Akobi is interested primarily in the profit he can reap from Mara's labor; he views her as a commodity both in Ghana and in Germany. Just as colonial officials punished African rebels, Akobi beats Mara at any sign of insolence. Her moves toward independence are crushed with violence. He prevents Mara from uncovering his betrayal of Gitte by mistranslating their conversations. Akobi, like the colonizing figure, controls language; he knows that if the women share their knowledge and unite against him, his plans for material gain through exploitation are in danger. Especially dangerous is the prospect that Mara will become subversive. If Gitte discovers his infidelity and divorces him, he risks being ousted. Similar to the neocolonialist elite, Akobi does not treat Mara as a partner in solidarity against common oppressions. Rather, in his search for status through material gain, he isolates himself from her. Educated in a missionary school, Akobi sees Europe as Heaven. His dream is to live like a government minister: to journey to Europe, to feel superior, and to win over Comfort. He squanders the inheritance of the very people to whom he owes his success. After Mara decides that she can no longer be loyal to him, she hires a private investigator to uncover "his financial deals, private arrangements, properties acquired" (p. 133), mirroring real investigations performed by activists who have uncovered the postcolonial corruption of governing elites.
Darko's narrative inspires both local and transnational conversations. Transcultural alliances between women are forged through opposition to the treatment of women as second-class citizens but are also complicated by inequities between so-called "first" and "third" worlds. The relationship between Mara and Gitte illustrates economic, class, and racial differences that impede women's transcultural solidarity. Darko's narrative suggests that the worlds of European and African women are indeed intertwined, yet white Northern women must first contemplate their privileges in order to build a transnational or transcultural sisterhood. In Beyond the Horizon, unequal power granted through national affiliation, male-dominated social orders, the Northern tourist industry's neocolonial representations of Southern spaces, and the continued pervasiveness of racist stereotypes functions alongside gender-based oppression to silence and disempower women. Darko's work underscores the failed solidarity between men and women, between women of different nations, and between par- ents and daughters. These failures are not viewed as inevitable, however. Darko's work can be read as call for change, a means to educate readers about the particular predicaments of women who struggle against the multiple forces of domestic abuse, economic exploitation, colonization, and coerced prostitution. Inequities are propelled by national, gender, and class hierarchies—hierarchies that womanist scholars have poignantly challenged. Alliances may be forged through an interrogation of the privileges that nationality, gender, and class often provide. The figure of Gitte does not embody feminism, nor are the principles of various feminist movements abandoned in Beyond the Horizon. Darko reiterates the feminist movement's insistence on women's ownership of their own bodies as she exposes the global problem of domestic abuse and the grim realities of international trafficking in women. Mara's bonds with Mama Kiosk and Kaye in Beyond the Horizon are not based on essentialized categories but rather on shared experiences and mutual understanding.
Darko addresses the challenges of global sisterhood as she concomitantly attends to local, grassroots issues in Ghana. As I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, Fatou Sow's presentation on West African women's networks shifted from a discussion of indigenous agency to a debate on the merits of international feminism. Sow eventually, however, directed the conversation back to its focus on women in rural West African economies—economies that are affected by the practices of international development agencies. This event illustrates a problem, along with the hint of a promising outcome for transnational feminisms that resonates with Darko's writing. Her work values what Vandana Shiva calls a "plurality of knowledge systems" over a "hierarchy of knowledge systems."36 Mara becomes isolated because she accepts the hierarchy: she ignores Mama Kiosk's indigenous knowledge about women's local agency and instead embraces a materialistic, Eurocentric "been-to" myth. Darko's work speaks to the politics of the reception of indigenous women's knowledge as she participates in the transnational production of knowledge. For Darko, the local and the global are not mutually exclusive but linked; Beyond the Horizon serves as an outcry against practices—Ghanaian, German, and transnational—that deny women claims to their own sexuality and their own economic stability. Through the representation of Mara's position as a domestic servant in a German woman's home, and her subsequent position as an exoticized commodity in a European nation, Beyond the Horizon reflects upon the international division of labor and the oppressive constructions of race that create divides between women and men. Darko's text provides a model for transformative women's movements that venture beyond the horizon of the monolithic category of "woman" to attend to myriad forms of oppression in widely varying local contexts.
1. I attended Professor Sow's seminar, entitled "Les Problèmes de Genre en Afrique," while participating in the West African Research Center's Dual Intellectual Citizenship Program in Dakar in the summer of 1999.
2. Ama Ata Aidoo, "Literature, Feminism, and the African Woman Today," in Challenging Hierarchies: Issues and Themes in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, ed. Leonard A. Podis and Yakubu Saaka (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), p. 25.
3. Oyèronké Oyěwúmi, "Introduction: Feminism, Sisterhood, and Other Foreign Relations," in African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood, ed. Oyěwúmi (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003), p. 1. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
4. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Mohanty, Anne Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 55.
5. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), p. 3.
6. Nzegwu's poem appears in Oyěwúmi, pp. vii-viii.
7. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, "Who's to Navigate and Who's to Steer? A Consideration of the Role of Theory in Feminist Struggle," in Feminist Locations: Global and Local, Theory and Practice, ed. Marianne DeKoven (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 113.
8. Mary E. Modupe Kolawole's Womanism and African Consciousness (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1997) researches women and social transformation in the precolonial era; subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text. See her second chapter, "African Women's Mobilization—The History and the Myth," pp. 43-71. See also Amina Mama's Women's Studies and Studies of Women in Africa During the 1990s (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1996), pp. 11-12.
9. See, for example, Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds., Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), Antoinette M. Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), and Simon Lewis, White Women Writers and Their African Invention (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).
10. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1994), p. 3. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
11. Obioma Nnaemeka, "Foreword: Locating Feminisms/Feminists," in The Dynamics of African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African Feminist Literatures, by Susan Arndt (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2002), p. 12; italics in original. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
12. See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983) and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11, No. 1 (1985), 63-80. Arndt provides an insightful discussion of Walker and Ogunyemi in The Dynamics of African Feminism, pp. 37-78.
13. Clenora Hudson-Weems, "Africana Womanism," in Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, ed. and intro. Nnaemeka (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1998), p. 155. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
15. Tuzyline Jita Allan, Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995), p. 7.
16. Qtd. in Arndt, "African Gender Trouble and African Womanism: An Interview with Chikwenye Ogunyemi and Wanjira Muthoni," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 25, No. 3 (2000), 718.
17. Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal, "Transnational Feminist Cultural Studies: Beyond the Marxism/Poststructuralism/Feminism Divides," in Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State, ed. Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 359; emphasis added.
18. See, for example, Judith G. Gardam and Michelle J. Jarvis, Women, Armed Conflict and International Law (The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2001). See also the reports of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children at http://www.womenscommission.org.
19. Johnson-Odim, "Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism," in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, p. 316.
20.Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice, eds. France Winddance Twine and Kathleen M. Blee (New York: New York University Press, 2001) and Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, ed. Grewal and Kaplan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) are just two examples of the effort to redress feminism's historical eclipsing of women who have not experienced the same privileges as middle- and upperclass women of European descent.
21. Angela Miles, "North American Feminisms/Global Feminisms—Contradictory or Complementary?" in Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, p. 165.
22. Amma Darko, Beyond the Horizon (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995). Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
23. Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy, or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint (New York: Longman, 1977).
24. Ranu Samantrai, "Caught at the Confluence of History: Ama Ata Aidoo's Necessary Nationalism," Research in African Literatures, 26, No. 2 (1995), 140-57. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
25. J. Oloka-Onyango and Sylvia Tamale, "‘The Personal is Political,’ or Why Women's Rights are Indeed Human Rights: An African Perspective on International Feminism," Human Rights Quarterly, 17, No. 4 (1995), 698.
26. Network for Women's Rights in Ghana (NETRIGHT), "The Nkyinkyim Anti-Violence Project," AKOBEN, 2 (December 2002), 5. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
27. Florence Abena Dolphyne, The Emancipation of Women: An African Perspective (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1991), p. 8.
28. Kofi Anyidoho, "Amma Darko's Faceless: A New Landmark in Ghanaian Fiction," Introduction to Faceless, by Amma Darko (Legon: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2003), pp. 11-12.
29. María Frías, "Women on Top: Prostitution and Pornography in Amma Darko's Beyond the Horizon," Wasafiri, 37 (2002), 8.
30. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, dirs., La Promesse (Belgium), New Yorker Films, 1996.
31. On 22 July 2003, Professor Takyiwaa Manuh delivered a lecture entitled "Gender and Development in Ghana" at the University of Ghana at Legon. Dr. Manuh discussed marital rape and Ghana's domestic violence bill in a lecture she delivered as part of a Fulbright seminar. See also Aidoo, Changes: A Love Story (New York: The Feminist Press, 1993).
32. Arthur Hollist raised the issue of Mara's pursuit of European commodities after the presentation of my work on Beyond the Horizon at the Modern Language Association Convention in December 2002. I thank Professor Hollist for his insights.
33. See my, "Creating an Alternative Library: Amma Darko Interviewed by Ellie Higgins," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 39, No. 2 (2004), 113.
34. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967); Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (Seattle: Seal Press, 1988); Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963). Dangarembga's engagements with Fanon have been analyzed in several critical essays. See, for example, Lindsay Pentolfe Aegerter's "A Dialectic of Autonomy and Community: Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 15, No. 2 (1996), 231-40, and Carl Plasa's "Reading ‘The Geography of Hunger’ in Tstitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions: From Franz Fanon to Charlotte Brontë," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 33, No. 1 (1998), 35-45.
35. I refer specifically to Fanon's description of the "duped" and "alienated" colonized man in his Black Skin, White Masks, p. 29. Subsequent references to Black Skin, White Masks will be cited parenthetically in the text.
36. Vandana Shiva, "Foreword: Cultural Diversity and the Politics of Knowledge," in Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of Our World, ed. George J. Sefa Dei, Budd L. Hall, and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), p. vii; emphasis omitted.
Darko, Amma and Ellie Higgins. "Creating an Alternative Library: Amma Darko Interviewed by Ellie Higgins." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 2 (2004): 111-20.
Interview in which Darko discusses social and political problems in contemporary Ghana, as well as influences on her writing.
Kohrs-Amissah, Edith. "Amma Darko." In Aspects of Feminism and Gender in the Novels of Three West African Women Writers (Aidoò, Emecheta, Darko), pp. 65-77. Heidelberg: Germany: Books on African Studies, 2002.
Discusses Darko's gender-centered themes in her novel Beyond the Horizon.