My failed date and a half-century of fascination with Ama Ata Aidoo

Renowned Ghanaian author, poet, playwright and academic Ama Ata Aidoo during the Ake Arts and Book festival in Abeokuta, southwest Nigeria, on November 17, 2017. She died on Wednesday aged 81.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

Ama Ata Aidoo, the Ghanaian literary icon, who passed away on Wednesday this week, was an emphatic definition of her literary and intellectual generation.

Indeed, she was so outstanding that most people associated her with her seniors, assuming that this Queen of African literature was considerably older than the barely 81 years at which she passed on. It is intriguing to consider how Ama Ata Aidoo rose and stood head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, who looked up to her without question as their leader and mentor over these decades.

On some reflection, I feel that Ama Ata Aidoo gripped Africa’s and the world’s attention and imagination with mainly four traits of her character. These were her tremendous positive energy, her superbly articulate and elegant communication skills, her fierce and fearless commitment to worthy causes, especially African dignity and female empowerment, and her irrepressible resilience.

To these, those of us who were privileged to know her personally may add her exuberant sense of humour, her unstinting generosity and her warm attachment to her friends.

Ama, with a striking precocity, comparable to that of our Ngugi wa Thiong’o, wrote her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, while still an undergraduate at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1964, and it was published in 1965. But disillusionment was waiting. The following year, Kwame Nkrumah, Africa’s independence hero, was overthrown in a military coup.

You can imagine the trauma and disorientation of such events on the minds and in the lives of then-young intellectuals, like Ama. Yet their elders had seen it coming, as David Rubadiri hints in his poem, “Yet Another Song”, suggesting that Africa’s enthusiastic songs of Uhuru were rapidly turning into “a song of exile”.

Exile, indeed was to follow Ama and her age-mates for most of their lives. Many of them opted for quietly living their lives, often in the colonial metropoles, and largely forgetting about Africa.

Not so for “the girl who can” Ama Ata Aidoo. Her unshakeable faith in Africa dictated that she stayed and fought in Africa as long and as best she could. That was not only in West Africa but also in Central and, especially, East Africa, with deep roots in all our lands, especially in Kenya.

Anyway, a lot has already been said about Ama Ata Aidoo’s public legacy and relevance to African Literature. The best that those of us who knew her as a person can do in our bereavement is to share our now precious gems of encounters with her and the impact they may have had on our own lives. I first met Ama in Lagos in 1977. I had not settled in Kenya then, but I had heard of the times she lived here, teaching at the then-Kenyatta College (later my beloved KU). In any case, Ama was familiar with Makerere, where I was based then, and she knew Uganda well.

So, we had a lot to talk about. I was of course the one truly fascinated at meeting this then-young woman, whose play, Dilemma of a Ghost, some of my students at Makerere had performed to considerable acclaim. I had also particularly enjoyed her short story, “In the Cutting of a Drink”, in an anthology whose title I cannot now remember. Anyway, we agreed to meet again and chat some more.

Fatal miscalculation

Unfortunately, our rendezvous was not to be. We had agreed on the following evening at the Eko Hotel but I could not make it and I have never forgiven myself for standing up for such a marvellous person. I think I made a fatal miscalculation about Lagos traffic and its “go-slows”.

When I asked Joseph, my Ghanaian driver to run me over from the Federal Palace Hotel, where I was staying, he told me humbly but frankly that the trip would not take less than two hours, and I had planned on half an hour! There were no mobile phones in those days, and in any case, I did not have the lady’s contact. So, I never even got around to apologising for my unbecoming behaviour.

But Ama Ata Aidoo was to surprise me with yet another invitation, ten years later. She was Chair of the 1987 Commonwealth Literature Prize Judging Panel and she recommended me as one of the judges. I duly travelled to Harare, where she was then residing, and participated in the judging process, which identified Tsitsi Dangarembga’s now classic novel, Nervous Conditions, as the year’s winner.

The best part of the exercise for me, however, was the opportunity to reconnect with Ama (a name which, in my Latinised mind, is a command: “Love”). What particularly struck me about Ama at that meeting was her apparent “comfort” (at-homeness) and confidence in Zimbabwe, where she had relocated, probably after her differences with Ghanaian President Rawlings, in whose cabinet she had briefly served.

Equally importantly, for me, Ama’s invitation shook me out of the comfort zone into which I was settling after my flight from the turmoil of Ugandan politics and the warm welcome I got from Nairobi’s academic and creative communities.

The Harare assignment was my first international engagement outside East Africa since 1977, and it was soon to be followed by many others, culminating in one in 1992, when, as Africa Chair of the same Commonwealth Literature Prize, I had the honour of presenting Ama Ata Aidoo’s own winning novel, Changes, to the international panel in Toronto, Canada.

My last face-to-face meeting with Ama was in Kampala in 2000 when my FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association) sisters invited her to their sixth-anniversary celebrations. She had survived a horrendous accident and was getting around on crutches, but nothing would stop her from travelling thousands of miles to show her support for literature and women’s empowerment. I remember joyfully receiving my FEMRITE Associate Membership Certificate from her hand.

Would it be an overstatement to say that Ama Ata Aidoo contributed significantly to my evolution?

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]