Thursday, January 23, 2014

279. No Sweetness Here and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo

No Sweetness Here (1970; 2013 reprinting by IBSS; 157) by Ama Ata Aidoo is a collection of eleven short stories. Though the title is familiar I have always thought of it as a novel. The short story genre had been used by some writers mostly to fill the interregnum between novels. However, I am pretty sure this was not its purpose in Aidoo's case. The stories in here are quintessential Aidoo, though I have read just a few of her works; they are realistic and examine our daily lives in such a way as to prove, irrefutably, that nothing much has changed; that modernity only adds gadgets and equipment without changing the basic behaviour of humans. If anything at all, we move in circles and in cycles, repeating events and attitudes. For instance, if you thought that power and promiscuity, or power and domination - specifically, the unconscious repression and discrimination that makes the power-bearer superior to all others, are today's problems then you definitely have to think again. Note that this book was first published in 1970, meaning the latest any of the stories was written was in that year; yet, the issues they cover could be pointed out amongst us, over four decades later. What more proof does one need to appreciate that humans have not changed? And this is one of the numerous functions fiction performs: its use as a measure of progress, retrogression, or stagnation. Ama Ata Aidoo's writings make her a chronicler of social, economic, and cultural changes. Note that there is no contradiction between Aidoo being a chronicler of change and the fact that human behvaiour in itself does not change; for how would we know this if there is no baseline for comparison.

One of such issues that has remained with us as a people and which keep coming up is identity, as in our looks. In the period of Aidoo's writing this was as hot an issue as it was now; for it was such discussions that led to the establishment of the negritude movement, that became the mantra for most newly-independent African economies leading to a new wave of socialism across the continent. It was that which influenced the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o to write in Gikuyu. In fact identity has been on the hot-burner since the early twentieth century with Kobina Sekyi's The Blinkards. It is this theme that the first story Everything Counts, which opens the anthology, addresses. Aidoo describes the lives of the people in a period where shoulder-length wigs worn by women, both educated and illiterate; a period where people bleached themselves into multiple-colours of black and red and shades in between and carry themselves with a sort of 'I have arrived' arrogance. Fair skin and long hair even became the national symbol of beauty such that beauty pageants were a contest of the fairer and the silkier.

The pan-Africanists and the pro pan-Africanists, who were fighting against this phenomenon mostly from their diaspora hideouts, were themselves caught up in this neo-colonial entanglements in a different way. They were afraid of going home (or coming back to Africa) to contribute to the development of the continent and to fight the cause they preach. Everything Counts is about the death of our identity and our gradual metamorphosis into hybridised caricatures. And the fact that we are still discussing issues of identity, forty-four years after Aidoo's writing, shows that we have made no progress. When at an informal gathering, Ngugi said 'Africans are afraid of their bodies', he explained further that Africans bleach their skin and cover their heads with hairs from every country - India, Peru, Mongolia, Brazil, etc. - but Africa. [Recently, a whole exhibition was ran for exotic wigs in Ghana]. The African hair is described as nappy uncontrolled and every such adjective of disorder one could conceive. So that an 'uncontrolled' hair could be the object of threat of dismissal from an academic institution. Similarly, when Gabby Douglas won an Olympic Gold at the London Olympics, it was her hair that was mercilessly attacked, and by African Americans, not her record triumph. Later, to appease the people and to show how not-neglectful she was about her hair, she appeared on the cover of Essence with her silky, shiny and straighter hair. If we as a people have not won our identity, what can we gain? This is what Aidoo's story is about.

For Whom Things Did Not Change is about the things that did not change with independence. The struggle for independence was a struggle for change; change not only in the leadership but in the economic status of the ordinary people - the masses. However, it is clear that for most people independence was just a change in leadership. Nothing else changed. Zirigu and his wife Segu are caretakers of a Government rest house. They have seen a lot of the 'big men' come and go, including the colonial government officials and have concluded that nothing has changed in their character since colonial times. By this Zirigu and Segu mean that they still go after the young girls, sleep with them, and buy them gifts, sometimes with the express approval of their parents, who benefit from such malevolent benevolence; that the big men still refrained from local foods and settle for exotic ones prepared by Zirigu, a cook; and that the big men still boss over the people, even those old enough to be their grandfathers because they have education. 

However, most importantly was the story of subtle oppression that Zirigu and Segu went through at the hands of their guests and even the government; the unwritten laws that sustained the master-servant relationship that existed in colonial times. When the Rest House was renovated and fitted with new gadgets such as Water Closets, their quarters was not even connected to the electrical power and they were supplied with a brand-new latrine pan. Though these two additions would have had no cost implications on the project, according to the project manager, they were left untouched primarily because they were not 'big men' and as caretakers must be treated as such. After all, some are more equal than others.

When their new visitor did not come with a girl and did not ask for one, when he asked for the local food and not the Zirigu's exotic delicacies, and also did not imbue himself in alcohol, they were worried if everything was alright with him. The abnormal has become normal and the latter absurd. They were surprised and were unable to call him by his real name as he demanded but rather 'Massa', a corruption of 'Master'. Zirigu was afraid that he might lose his position as a cook should the guest be served the food he had asked for. This incomprehension of relating to his fellow human being on the basis of equality and his fear of authority are symptoms of decades of oppression and discrimination against his lot, something he had come to accept. This story therefore analyses the psyche of the less privileged individuals who have been made to think for such a long time that they are nobodies without education, that they are less human than their educated peers, so that they should called them 'Master' by right. Thus, for the underprivileged (or less educated folks), the likes of Zirigu and Segu, nothing changed. Their lot had not changed, if anything it had been worsened by the knowledge that their own people are those in authority.

In this story also, Ama Ata Aidoo traced the gradual degeneration of meritocracy and the evolution of cronyism as a tool for rising through the political and social ranks. Gradually, it was becoming difficult for individuals who knew no one in certain positions of power to obtain certain posts or to be offered any help they required.

The rapid rate of urbanisation has become a major concern to developers. It is expected that urban centres will account for half (from the current one-third) of Africa's population, currently at over 1 billion, by 2030 and that in some countries the urban centres will account for about 85 percent. However, we did not just get there. Rural-urban migration has been part of the torrid story of Africa. This is partly the theme of In the Cutting of a Drink but fully covered in Certain Winds from the South. In the former, a man was sent to Accra to look for a family member who, at the age of ten, was given to a woman to be trained as a home-keeper and a dressmaker. However, this girl was  not seen for twelve years and the worried family would want to know what had happened to her. Through the man's shock of life and scenes in Accra, Ama Ata Aidoo provides the rural-urban divide that provides the allurement necessary for migration, even if the end results were always not as had been conceived, ab initio. Through the narrator's eyes we become observers of the cultural change that was taking place: women living and cooking for men they are not married to; women drinking beer with men and those working as prostitutes. Aidoo, a chronicler of social changes, brought out the cultural, moral, and developmental gap between the city and the rural centres. The man was even shocked at the number of cars he saw and wondered who paid for all the electricity, expressed as lights, consumed. Certain Winds from the South has been reviewed in African Short Stories

The Message is a funny story of how we receive and treat messages and also of the misunderstanding of the old about new developments, in technology especially. When an old woman received a message that her pregnant grand-daughter in Cape Coast had been 'opened up' and the child removed, she instantly presumed her dead and began mourning. In this mood, she boarded a lorry [yes, a lorry] to Cape Coast to the hospital where the incident had taken place. At the hospital even when she saw Esi Amofa dressed and lying in bed, she could not think of her not being dead, until she began to speak. 

On the way to Cape Coast, the differences in attitudes between the old woman and the young male driver were clear. The driver and the other young people in the lorry considered the woman archaic and overreacting, whereas the woman could not stop talking about her granddaughter who had been opened up. Aidoo also discussed the ritual of pitying in Ghana; a situation where everybody whom one tells his or her problem will have something to say something to console the victim, which sometimes lead to the telling of his or her own similar stories. Even enemies in such moments suspend all hatred to grieve with the victim.

The title story, No Sweetness Here, is about the pain of motherhood and of loss. Just as the title suggests, there is no sweetness here on this earth. Life is full of encumbrances. Maami Ama's marriage had gone stale and was seeking divorce and Kwesi, the pretty son of the two, was at the centre of it. Ama's husband Kodjo Fi and his family hated her because she did not behave as was expected of her (buying her mother-in-law gifts of cloths, as the other in-laws did). On a day of reconciliation - the Ahobaa Festival - the two sought to completely divorce. And Kwesi's custody had to be decided. A child belongs to the father though he belongs to his mother's family, where his inheritance is, that is the custom. Kwesi's father claimed him but Kodjo would not enjoy this feat. That afternoon something happened to Kwesi.

A Gift from Somewhere. Abena Gyaawaa had lost her child she had had on the very day they were born until a Mallam visited her at the point of delivery one afternoon when everybody was out on their farm. This Mallam, himself a quack, promised her that the child she bore would not die like the others; but when she instantly went into labour and the child she delivered was dying (or dead) she cried and asked the Mallam if the baby was not dead. He, in turn, performed some face-saving incantations, looking for ways to escape this tragedy he had no control of avoiding. He sent the mother to fetch some items but before she left she forbade her the eating of fish on Fridays and Sundays. When the lady departed to bring the items the Mallam had asked for, he escaped. But the baby survived and was named Kwaku Nyamekye (God's gift) and other children followed. Abena doted on Kwaku to the annoyance of his father. According to the Mallam if Kwaku reached a certain age he should be the one to perform the rituals, unless Abena wanted to go on with it. And Abena - a clear indication of a mother's love - decided that she would bear the burden until her dying day. This story, like No Sweetness Here, is set in a polygamous home and it shows the relationships that exist among co-wives and husbands. These stories are about the love between a mother and a son and how deep and protective it could be.

Two Sisters is a story about two sisters who are different in their views on life and the paths to success, and what it entails. Mercy is bent on living large even when her education and means in life did not allow or could not support such a life. She needs to be able to stand-up to her friends who change their wardrobe regularly and are picked from work by big cars. So like they all do he befriended an Member of Parliament, one old enough to be her father. This worried Connie, her elder sister who was of the meek type and could not even stand up to her husband, James, who has been cheating on her and does not mince words about it. James is not bemused by Mercy's behaviour. To him, it is natural and is rather looking for means to exploit the situation.

Again, Aidoo's realism shines through. Progress by or through connection or proximity - tribal, crony, familial - to power has become the norm since the dawn of independence. Meritocracy is lost and non-functional. The society then was like James. Connie on the other hand represents the ideal: she cared about the future of her sister, what would happen to Mercy should the MP drop her like he had done to the others? In the interim, Mercy left home to live in a government bungalow Mensar-Arthur, the MP, had acquired for her. And the coup came and Connie was thankful for it for solving a clear and present danger she had no strength or ability to change - a small change in the dynamic wheel of life. For her the coup was justified for eliminating the likes of Mensar-Arthur who had come to symbolise the government. But Mercy was tenacious and she also knew that humans, as they are, do not change. If Mensar-Arthur was no more, another would replace him and the cycle would rotate at the same speed as if nothing had interrupted it. So Mercy stayed away from  Connie's home until one day she appeared with an old captain, a member of the new junta regime, who had been appointed as head of the commission investigating some issues regarding the old government. Connie was surprised at Mercy's relentlessness and James, as usual, was his happy self - scheming and seeking ways to use the new man. Do things change? There really was no change except new people with old souls. The soldiers were about to do the same things they had accused the old regime of and the wheel turned relentlessly and endlessly on.

The Late Bud. A troublesome child - Yaaba, finally decided to surprise her mother but like everything she did, even this surprise ended in disaster and led to more trouble for her. Having overheard her mother talk about the need to paint the floor of their rooms, Yaaba decided to go with her friends early in the morning to fetch red-earth, forgoing an opportunity to wear her Christmas dress to church. At the time she woke up in search of a hoe, she fell in a large bowl of water, hitting her chest against the edge, collapsing and spilling the entire water. Later when the twins with whom she was going to fetch the red-earth came to call her, the relatives who had been awoken when Yaaba's mother had shouted for thief were surprised that Yaaba would willingly do such a good thing.

Earlier Yaaba had been wondering if the woman she called mother were truly her mother. This arose from the manner she called Yaaba's sister 'my child, Adwoa' and Yaaba just that. The relationship between Yaaba and her mother was not easy, emanating from the former's misdemeanours. Here the precociousness of children and their ability to process information in their own way come to the fore. How do you handle and stubborn child? Do you tolerate him? Or punish him?

Each and every story in this collection is steeped in realism; however, Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral epitomises what the anthology represents. The narrative style adopted here even benefits from it. When people attend funerals or parties or such gathering, the object of gossips become the lives of the victims or patrons by whose circumstances the gathering was taking place. It is through the gossips and tit-bits of two friends - one living in the village of Ofuntumase, another arriving there just for the funeral - on the way to a funeral that this story, the story of the relationship between the deceased and her son, is told. These two friends are not siblings neither are they distant relatives but just as it is in small towns and villages, they knew enough of the history of the deceased and the bereaved family, filling the tiny gaps with conjectures and hearsay.

From them - one speaking and the other interjecting - the reader comes to realise that the deceased had only one child, Ato; that he had the child with a 'big man' when he went to work for the family and to hush things up they brought Auntie Araba - the deceased - to the village to deliver. Auntie Araba loved her son and pampered him. She gave him whatever he asked for. However, when the man involved failed to have a child with his legal wife, he came and settled all requirements and took Ato away, on the excuse of offering him the chance to get better education. Ato who had been coming to the village of Ofuntumase for vacations impregnated Mansa during one such holidays. Her mother took Mansa in, looked after her, worked with her until such a time that Ato would come and marry her. But Ato did not come when he was expected. He had impregnated the daughter of a 'big man' who was threatening fire and brimstone if he refused to marry his daughter. And this daughter is one of those who abhor village life and disregard villagers. Mansa left the village in search of a better life, which did come. She took control of her life and succeeded, albeit with help here and there.

Again, we see Ama Ata Aidoo's trick of change and no change in the dynamic. Was Ato not just like his father and Mansa like Auntie Araba? What then had changed between the generations? Nothing. This is what Aidoo is trying to tell us, that change though certain affects the peripherals of life. The nature of man is usually unaffected. To put it differently, in the larger scheme of things everything returns to equilibrium regardless of the changes in the variables. Yet for the whole to be in equilibrium, the parts must also be in equilibrium.

Other Versions, which ends the collection, is about the life of a young man and his relationship with his mother, and father, as he progressed through his education. A mother who would not accept anything from the son but would prefer that the son handed anything he had for her to his father - a man whose meanness is legendary; who after paying the last O'Level fees decided that he had done enough. When this boy found himself in the US, he realised that the lives of women worldwide were the same and their love too. For her mother's only joy was in the knowledge that he was doing well.

Conclusion. Though I have not read enough of Ama Ata Aidoo's works, the few I have read speak of an author whose perception of life and events is phenomenal. She knows and understands what she wants from her stories. The narrative could be a monologue or a dialogue, but they usually change perspectives as the story unfolds. Aidoo's conversations in her stories are taken directly from real-life; thus, reading her stories one feels as if one is having those conversations or participating in the narrative. What Aidoo puts in her dialogues are exactly the things we will say - no inverted and extraordinarily complicated sentences which only politicians, in their attempt at bamboozling the masses, will make. What she writes about are things we are likely to meet or see, if we stop to look; and how she writes about them are how they occur in life.

One theme that runs through each of these stories is the emancipation of women. In this way Aidoo could be described as a feminist who wants to see women take control of their lives. In this regard, No Sweetness Here is a feminist text. Regardless of what the subject matter one could read the subtle messages of women empowerment.
When a black man is with his wife who cooks and chores for him, he is a man. When he is with white folk whom he cooks and chores, he is a woman. Dear Lord, what then is a black man who cooks and chores for black men? [For Whom Things Did not Change; 20]
The relationship between the women and the men in these stories is not an easy one. They are centred around women and their relationship with the world from within the confines and dictates of society, village, family, and men. There are mean men, men who neglect the women they impregnate, those who truly do not love their children and has no way of training them in the way they wanted, those whose perception of wives is determined - ironically - by their mothers, old men in amorous relationship with young women, men who would not cook for their wives though they are professional cooks; there are single-parent women, women who are rejected or discarded like a piece of used rag, women who become the breadwinners of their homes, and those who will do everything possible to keep the family together.
Once when mother didn't know I was within earshot I heard her telling my little aunt that Father always feels through his coins for the ones which have gone soft to give away! [Other Versions; 152]
Yet, I will say Ama Ata Aidoo is a cautious feminists, for she remains non-judgemental in her stories even when describing polygamous homes. She is not preachy and moralistic. She does not allow her story-telling to be overwhelmed by themes and agendas.

And Ama Ata Aidoo can be funny. Sometimes you cannot avoid laughing in public to questionable stares. Who does not know that Cape Coasters - literate or illiterate - are more English in their mannerisms, sensibilities and behaviour than the general Ghanaian population, and where more could one find this than in their names and language?
Scrappy nurse-under-training, Jessy Treeson, second-generation-Cape-Coaster-her-grandmother-still-remembered-at-Egya No. 7 said, 'As for these villagers,' and giggled. [The Message; 53]
How many times do you hear Treeson as the name of a person? Yet a visit to Cape Coast will offer one the opportunity of hearing several of such -sons, like Blankson, Menson, and others. In fact, it is entirely possible to pinpoint a Fante from their names. This book is highly recommended.
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2 comments:

  1. Great review, Nana. I read it long ago at uni. May have to read it again. Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete

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