We are here: In memory of Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo

By Nana-Ama Danquah

Posted on June 2, 2023 16:18

 © Author Ama Ata Aidoo
Author Ama Ata Aidoo

“Time by itself means nothing, no matter how fast it moves, unless we give it something to carry for us; something we value. Because it is such a precious vehicle, is time.” – Ama Ata Aidoo

From 1979 to 1980, a group of young Ghanaian writers worked with the internationally celebrated musician Guy Warren aka Kofi Ghanaba, to create an organisation to promote Ghanaian music and literature.  One of those writers was a young man, Kwame Karikari, who had just returned from the US, where he’d earned a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. A young, idealistic woman, Ama Ata Aidoo, was another writer.

By then, she was already breaking boundaries.  Her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was published in 1965, making her the first published African woman dramatist.

In addition to being a playwright, Ama Ata Aidoo had also established herself as a writer of short fiction (No Sweetness Here and Other Stories, 1969) and, with the 1977 publication of Our Sister Killjoy: or Reflections from A Black-Eyed Squint, a novelist. The organisation that Karikari and Aidoo helped found, the African Heritage Library, was short-lived, but the friendship they formed would be lifelong.

“Ama was quite an intriguing woman,” Kwame Karikari said when I spoke with him after receiving word of her passing. “She was somebody who could really make you laugh, but she could also make you really think. Ama did not compromise on her Africanness.”

And with good reason, she was born in 1940 in the village of Abeadzi Kyakor in Gold Coast, the British colony that would, in 1957, claim its independence as Ghana.

Ama Ata’s father was a chief in Abeadzi Kyakor; she was raised in a royal Fanti household where she cut her teeth on lore and learned the history of her people and their land. Her father, despite being a custodian of his people’s traditions, was quite progressive.  He championed Ama Ata’s education. She attended the prestigious Wesley Girls’ High School and went on to earn a degree in English from University of Ghana, Legon.

Love in Kenya

Not long after graduating from university, Ama Ata Aidoo traveled to Kenya.

“That is where I really got to know her,” said Ngugi wa Thiong’o, multihyphenate writer who has won the Man Booker, Prince Claus, Neustadt, and a host of other international prizes and awards. “But I don’t remember ever meeting her. It seems as though I’ve known her all my life. She was a force of nature. What I remember most about her is her laughter.”

Ngugi shared with me a story about Aidoo’s time in Kenya, where she taught for several years. It was where she also met Parsali Likimani, a young biochemist from a prominent Kenyan family. “He was my mate,” said Ngugi.

© Ama Ata and Ngugi 

The two had attended Makerere University in Uganda together, then they’d followed the same path and attended the University of Leeds in England before, finally, returning to Kenya, where Ama Ata and Parsali fell in love.

“It was an intense love,” Ngugi laughed. “It was a deep love, a passionate love, it was a crazy love. Unfortunately, Parsali died fairly young, but that daughter of theirs was truly a product of love; love like you wouldn’t believe it.”

A daughter’s confidante

It is evident to anyone who has ever heard Ama Ata Aidoo speak of her daughter, Kinna Likimani, or seen the two of them together, that the bond of love they share seems primordial.

kinna and ama © Kinna (lt) and Ama (rt) 

The two appeared to be the best of friends, confidantes. Together, Aidoo and Likimani, an accomplished author and editor in her own right, created the Mbaasem Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, committed to fostering and promoting the work of African women writers.

Since Ama Ata Aidoo’s death, the internet has been flooded with tributes, photographs of her and passages from her books, lots of posts from people of all ages all over the world honoring her, offering praise and gratitude for her work.

When I asked Kinna whether Ama Ata had a sense of the enormous legacy that she was leaving, Kinna herself sounded awed by the sheer magnitude of love and appreciation being bestowed upon her mother.

She spoke of Ama Ata’s humility, how genuinely surprised and delighted she was whenever someone complimented her work.

“No, Mommy had no idea. …She said somewhere that when she reads some of her books like Anowa, like Our Sister Killjoy, even Dilemma [of a Ghost], she can’t believe she tackled these issues and these themes so bravely, and that if she had been older, she never would have. She was always trying to come back to one or two to revise them, and we would be like, ‘no, you can’t.’ But no, Mommy had no idea, she had no idea.”

I met Ama Ata Aidoo in the early noughties when I was a visiting scholar at the University of Ghana’s School of Communication Studies. I’d been selected for the position by Professor Kwame Karikari, the journalist Ama Ata had befriended two decades earlier.

One day he phoned to tell me he would be throwing a party for Ama Ata, to celebrate her 60th birthday.  I was at the edge of my seat; fingers crossed, hoping he would invite me.

Fire and vulnerability

The way Ama Ata Aidoo wrote probingly yet also compassionately about the connections and the fissures in the relationships between Africans on the continent and Black people in the diaspora spoke to me, a Ghanaian-born girl being raised in America, like nothing else had.

Kwame did me one better; he asked if I would be mistress of ceremonies at the event. And so began my friendship with a woman and writer who was uniquely herself and encouraged others to be as well. Ama Ata Aidoo claimed space; she was always present and willing to meet the moment with the truth of her emotions.  In other words, she did more than exist; she lived, with fire and vulnerability.

WhatsApp Image 2023-06-02 at 16.33.55 © Nana-Ama Danquah (lt) and Ama Ata (rt) (photo from author’s collection)

Everyone who knew Ama Ata speaks of her laughter, which is infectious and also cleverly intentional.  She had the wit and delivery of a seasoned comedian. For nearly seven years Ama Ata taught at Brown University in Rhode Island as a long-term visiting professor. It just so happened that her final semester at Brown was my daughter’s first.

That year, I traveled to the campus to attend Parents’ Weekend. Ama Ata and I met at a restaurant for lunch. Our server brought a basket of bread so warm you could see the steam rising off it. We each took a piece, bit into it.

“You know,” Ama Ata softly confided, “I am doing the Atkins diet.” Surely, she was joking, I thought.

“The low-carb diet?” I asked. She nodded and kept chewing. “But bread is all carbs,” I reminded her.

“It’s only for today,” she sighed. “Let’s have a drink,” she suggested. “Aren’t we celebrating?” I wanted to know exactly what we were celebrating; it could have been any number of things. “We are here,” she announced. I raised my glass to that.

Several drinks later, the lunch crowd having cleared out, we were politely asked to leave so the staff could break before the dinner service. Ama Ata said she’d order a car because she had an account with a local company which, I soon learned, was called Big Daddy.

“Hello,” Ama Ata said, her volume raised, as though the person on the other end were deaf. “Is this Big Daddy?” She sounded salacious. I bit my lower lip to stop myself from laughing out loud. “I want you to come for me,” she continued.

“Hello?  Hello? Big Daddy? When? Oh, but Big Daddy that is too long. I need you now, Big Daddy.” And so went the conversation until the dispatcher agreed to send a car right away. By then, I was howling with laughter, tears streaming down my face.

“Why are you laughing?” she asked, after she’d hung up. The inflection of her voice told me she knew exactly why, that my laughter was indeed the desired effect. I wiped the tears from my eyes, shrugged.

“We are here,” I said.

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