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LOUD WHISPERS: A Voice For Many Generations Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-2023)

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Thursday, July 13th, 2023
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One Saturday morning in the early 1990s in London, my husband was reading West Africa magazine and he called out to me, ‘Come and see this, you are being quoted here’. West Africa magazine was a weekly publication produced in London, which was taken seriously by its target audience of African scholars, activists, students, politicians and thought leaders. A few weeks before then, I had written a rejoinder to an article in West Africa Magazine about female power in African societies. An African male commentator wrote that African women should stop complaining about patriarchy and marginalisation since we were already powerful matriarchs citing the example of women in several Ghanaian communities. I responded and pointed out the difference between a matrilineal society (which is what these communities are) and a matriarchy – there is no such thing as a matriarchal society.

I said that having a say in who occupies a royal stool does not necessarily translate to having power over the institutions that control the society, that kind of power rests in the hands of the brothers and sons of the women concerned. I was a young feminist activist and student at the time and I was irritated at the many instances of African male intellectuals and white scholars trying to silence the voices of African women. I did not know that what I wrote resonated with a powerful ally. I picked up the magazine from my husband and lo and behold, someone had also clapped back at the man who wrote the article (as well as others who agreed with him) and the person quoted me, in full agreement with my comments. I saw the name of my supporter and almost collapsed. Ama Ata Aidoo quoted me! Me? Who was I for the great Ama Ata Aidoo to agree with something I said and take the trouble to quote my comments? It was unbelievable. That was the beginning of a long friendship with someone who became my teacher, mother, mentor and friend.

Ama Ata Aidoo was a famous Ghanaian author, poet, playwright, feminist activist, politician, pan-Africanist, teacher and many other things. We met intermittently at conferences around the world or when she would pass through London. I had a similar relationship with other older African feminist scholars and writers who were either based in London at the time or passed through a lot such as Buchi Emecheta, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Ifi Amadiume, Amina Mama, Abena Busia, Lauretta Ngcobo, Ayesha Imam, Sindiwe Magona, Laeticia Mukurasi, and others. My relationship with these women shaped my thinking, writing and activism a great deal because from them, I learnt the value of owning your own identity with no apologies, as well as the right to claim space and voice as an African woman.

 When I moved to Accra to run the African Women’s Development Fund in 2001, I saw Auntie Ama more often. After many years of being a global citizen, Auntie Ama decided it was time to nurture a new generation of writers. She started an African women writers’ collective known as Mbaasem, in collaboration with her daughter Kinna Likimani. AWDF supported this important initiative for a number of years. Sometime in 2018, Auntie Ama called me early one morning. She wanted to say thank you for another grant that Mbaasem had received and to see how I was getting on with the political work I was doing with my husband. I gave her the updates and she ended the call with profuse prayers for me. I felt so excited, it is not often that you have such a great elder pray for you early in the morning. I got to the office at AWDF in time for our weekly staff meeting, and I told my mostly younger colleagues I was feeling great that day because Ama Ata Aidoo had prayed for me. I could see the blank look on many of their faces. I was confused at their reaction (well, lack of reaction) so I asked them, ‘’You do know who Ama Ata Aidoo is, right?’. Again, I got the same reaction, so I panicked, my voice rose as I almost screamed, ‘You don’t know who Ama Ata Aidoo is? Are you not from this country? What did you read in school?’. Out of a room of almost fifteen University graduates, only two of them put up their hands and they were closer to me in age. The rest had either never heard of her or had not read her books. Anger and outrage can have positive results if it pushes us out of our complacency and assumptions. That was the day we started a Book Club at AWDF.

In 2017, I compiled my first collection of Loud Whispers essays. I got in touch with Auntie Ama and asked her if she could write the Foreword for me. She agreed to do it, and just before the deadline was due, I had to be in Accra for an AWDF board meeting, so I went to spend half a day with her. We reminisced about the gains and setbacks of the women’s movement over the years, and the pitfalls of investing in politics and governance of our societies. Auntie Ama was one of those who always believed in the value of placing your feet firmly on the ground to say your piece and was not bothered with whether you liked what she said or not. She did not care about being liked, popular or famous. She was often bewildered at the awe in which many of us held her and the impact that her name had in global literary circles. She was humble, but she did not suffer fools gladly. What she cared about was her craft as a writer, the freedom to express herself and the right to call a spade a spade. She was fearless, wise, kind and had an indomitable spirit.

In 2014, there was a documentary about her life called ‘The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo’ directed and produced by the Ghanaian filmmaker Yaba Badoe and co-produced by Professor Amina Mama. The film was supported by the African Women’s Development Fund with the rest of the funding provided through crowdsourcing on IndieGogo. Towards the end of the process, there was still a shortfall required to finish the work, so the producers reached out to some people and I was privileged to be able to contribute towards the completion of such an important project in a personal capacity.

The last time I saw Auntie Ama was at the Ake Book Festival in Lagos in November 2017. We would speak over the phone occasionally, but my visits to Accra became fewer and shorter due to assignments in Ekiti and the dreadful COVID years. When I heard of her passing on 31st May 2023, I felt a keen sense of guilt and regret.  I wished I had spent more time with her. I wished I had checked on her more often.  I wished I had asked more questions. There were so many things I would have still loved to talk to her about. I however take solace in the fact that I had the opportunity of being mentored and supported by such a powerful role model.

Ama Ata Aidoo touched many lives through her writing, teaching and public service. Even if they never met her in person, they got to meet her through the complex characters she created in her plays and novels, set against a background of cultural shifts, societal upheaval, sexual autonomy for women, and non-negotiable African agency. Through Eulalie and Ato (Dilemma of a Ghost) Sissie (My Sister Killjoy) Esi (Changes) and many characters she created, like other writers of her generation, she faithfully tells the stories of what happens when we have to live with identities forced on us or have to make choices that are not entirely ours to make. In all this, she never ceased to show that there are always opportunities to think and do things differently, regardless of the pressures of culture, tradition, society or expectations. She was also fiercely critical of the perennial failures of African politicians to honour the social contracts with their people. One of Ama Ata Aidoo’s famous quotes was, ‘There are powerful forces undermining progress in Africa, but we must never underestimate the power of the people to bring about change’. Auntie Ama fought for this change with all the skills and talents she had till she drew her last breath. Her voice resonated across generations of writers, activists, politicians and community leaders.  I hope and pray that her writing and vast body of work will continue to find resonance with generations to come. Ama Ata Aidoo was not only a woman and a writer well ahead of her time, she was timeless.

What do you say as the hand that wrote an ocean of words finally stills forever?

What do you say when weary eyes close after a job well done, unwilling but inevitable?

What do you say when the voices call out to you, asking you to remember not to forget?

What do you say when you know that the journey has been long, fruitful, meaningful and unforgettable?

You say ‘Thank You’

Thank You Auntie Ama

Rest in peace beloved mother and friend.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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