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Ama Ata Aidoo was a literary warrior, says publisher

Ama Ata Aidoo died in the early hours of Wednesday 31 May 2023 after a short illness

Nana Ayebia Clarke, a Ghanaian-born publisher residing in the UK, has paid glowing tribute to one of Africa’s most celebrated writers, Ama Ata Aidoo, describing her as a “literary warrior”.

Aidoo died in the early hours of Wednesday (31 May 2023) after a short illness.

Speaking to Nana Yaa Mensah, the co-host of the Asaase Breakfast Show, on Thursday (1 June 2023), Clarke, who is a specialist publisher of literature from Africa and the African diaspora, said the renowned feminist was very humble despite her achievements.

“What you saw was what you got; there was no hidden agenda with her,” the award-winning publisher said. “She could be fierce in her debates, but Ama is a warm, gentle person. I can’t think of the fact that she’s no longer here.

“She didn’t shy away from difficult subjects,” Clarke recalled.

“She was a warrior, she was a literary warrior. She was fearless in her defence of Africa and Africans, but especially African women.

“She was celebrated, she was feted but there was something humbling about Ama Ata Aidoo; there was nothing pompous about her,” the founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing said.

Background

Ama Ata Aidoo was born on 23 March 1940 in Abeadzi Kyiakor, near Saltpond, in the Central Region.

With a career spanning more than five decades, she received international recognition as one of the most prominent African writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Aidoo attended Wesley Girls’ Secondary School in Cape Coast from 1961 to 1964. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Ghana, Legon, where she obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts in English and refined her début, The Dilemma of a Ghost, premièring in 1964 the play she had begun writing while still at school.

The Dilemma of a Ghost was published by Longman the following year, making Aidoo officially the first published African woman dramatist.

After graduating, she held a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University in California, returning to Ghana in 1969 to teach English at the University of Ghana.

She served as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at Legon and as a lecturer in English at the University of Cape Coast, where she rose to the position of professor.

Aidoo was appointed a minister of education under the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) in 1982. She resigned after 18 months, realising she would be unable to achieve her aim of making education in Ghana freely accessible to all.

She went on to live and teach again in the United States, as well as taking up academic appointments in Europe and Zimbabwe.

African identity

Aidoo’s novels depict the role of African women in contemporary society.

She argued that the idea of nationalism has been deployed by recent leaders as a means to keep people oppressed. She also criticised formally educated Africans who profess to love their countries but are seduced away from their homelands by the benefits of living in the “developed” world.

She shaped her fictions around a distinct African identity viewed from a female perspective.

In 1983 she moved to live in Zimbabwe, where she continued her work in education, including acting as a curriculum developer for the Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Education, as well as writing.

In 1986 she delivered the Walter Rodney Visions of Africa Lecture, organised by the support group for Bogle-L’Ouverture publishing house In London.

Aidoo received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1988 and was writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, Virginia in 1989. She also taught various English courses at Hamilton College in upstate New York in the early mid-1990s. She was a visiting professor in the Africana Studies Department at Brown University for seven years, serving in that position until 2011.

Aidoo was a patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature (alongside Dele Olojede, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Margaret Busby, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Zakes Mda), created in 2013 as a platform for African writers publishing their first work in fiction.

Works

Apart from The Dilemma of a Ghost, first produced at Legon in 1964 and given a US première in Pittsburgh in 1988, Aidoo’s plays include Anowa (1971), first produced at the Gate Theatre in London in 1991.

Her works of fiction particularly deal with the tension between Western and African world-views. Her first novel, Our Sister Killjoy, was published in 1977 and remains one of her most popular pieces of writing. It is notable for portraying a dissenting perspective on sexuality in Africa and especially same-sex relations.

Whereas it is commonly believed that homosexuality is alien to Africa, and marks an intrusion of the ideas of Western culture into a pure, inherently heterosexual “African” culture, Aidoo portrays the main character, Killjoy, as having lesbian fantasies and maintaining sympathetic relationships with lesbian characters.

Many of Aidoo’s other protagonists are also women who defy stereotypical women’s roles, as in the historical protagonist of Anowa.

Her novel Changes won the Africa division of the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She was also an accomplished poet – her collection Someone Talking to Sometime won the Nelson Mandela Prize for Poetry in 1987 – and she wrote many children’s books.

Aidoo’s “To be a woman” features in the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, edited by Robin Morgan. Her story “Two Sisters” was published in the landmark anthology Daughters of Africa (1992), edited by Margaret Busby.

In 2000, Aidoo founded the Mbaasem Foundation, a non-governmental organisation based in Ghana, with a mission “to support the development and sustainability of African women writers and their artistic output”. She ran the NGO with her daughter, Kinna Likimani, and a board of directors.

Aidoo was the editor of the 2006 anthology African Love Stories. In 2012, she launched the compilation Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories of short stories and a collection of essays by renowned writers from Africa and the African diaspora.

Reporting by Fred Dzakpata in Accra

Editor’s note: This article was edited on 9 July 2023 to correct Ama Ata Aidoo’s year of birth. Family records show she was born in 1940, not 1942.

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