Ama Ata Aidoo, author, activist and African heroine

It sounds ridiculous to say that I have been preparing myself for the death of Prof Ama Ata Aidoo for years, but that’s exactly what I tried – and failed – to do. A few years ago, there was a rumour she had died and I called her daughter, Kinna Likimani, a close friend, in a panic.

She reassured me: “Mummy is fine, don’t worry.” A few weeks ago, I was in London preparing to host the first live show of my podcast, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, when I got a voice note: “All the best with your live show. Also just a heads-up, Mummy is very unwell.”

I appreciate how generous Kinna was in trying to prepare me, but how does one prepare for the loss of a woman so fundamental to one’s sense of self?

Like many Ghanaians, I came to Ama Ata Aidoo’s work in secondary school, where her seminal texts Anowa and The Dilemma of a Ghost were part of the curriculum. I, too, sang the words uttered by the Ghost, who was in a dilemma about which path to take: “Shall I go to Cape Coast or Elmina? I don’t know, I don’t care.”

In sixth form, I played the role of the slave girl in a production of Anowa. And yet, although I enjoyed her work, it was not until I started studying feminist theory in my early 20s that she became a significant figure in my life.

Initially inspired by African-American feminists such as bell hooks, Michele Wallace and Alice Walker, I asked myself: “Where are Africa’s feminists?”

This question led me back home, and to the work of Ama Ata Aidoo. Here was a writer who depicted bold, independent African women; characters such as Esi in Changes, who left her husband after he raped her – in a society that did not recognise the existence of marital rape.

In my 30s, I had the opportunity to get to know Ama Ata Aidoo personally when I moved home to Ghana to work as the communications officer for the African Women’s Development Fund: the first pan-African grant-making body on the continent.

That was when I got to know her as an activist. At the time she had started Mbaasem (which translates from Twi as “Women’s Affairs”), a literary organisation that aimed to nurture talented female writers.

She had been motivated to do this because she knew how challenging it could be for women to find space to write. I once heard her talk about a writer friend whose entire manuscript had been ripped up by a jealous, abusive partner – this in the days when people used typewriters.

Although Prof (as many of us fondly called her) experienced some health challenges in recent years, she was still a very active presence in creative and activist spaces in Ghana and around the world. In 2017, she headlined the Ake arts and book festival in Nigeria; in October 2022, she was an active participant at an event with Jennifer Makumbi, engaging in a vibrant exchange with the author during the Q&A session.

That same year she had spoken at an online event on Five Decades of Killjoy Feminism, inspired by her cult classic book Our Sister Killjoy. When asked what she was reading, she mentioned my book, The Sex Lives of African Women. That was the kind of woman Ama Ata Aidoo was: an icon who always shone the light on others.

She hated to be addressed in familial terms – “Auntie”, “Mummy”, “Ma” – something Ghanaians instinctively do as a sign of respect. Yet many of us still felt compelled to call her Auntie because she was as magnanimous in her generosity as she was stern in her critique – something only a favourite aunt can get away with.

She expressed love through her commitment to the rights of women, as well as queer and marginalised communities of all kinds. Sissie, the protagonist in Our Sister Killjoy, says: “Yes, work is love made visible.” Ama Ata Aidoo’s love for us – women, feminists, the marginalised, African people wherever we may be – is visible in the incredible archive of work she leaves behind.

Part of what comforts me is that I believe Ama Ata Aidoo knew how much she was loved. She received her flowers here on earth – and I expect her to receive even more now that she is our feminist ancestor.

Her life story was documented by Yaba Badoe and Amina Mama in the film The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo, and a compendium entitled Essays in Honour of Ama Ata Aidoo at 70: A Reader in African Cultural Studies was published soon after her 70th birthday. Her words have even been sampled in albums by prominent musicians such as M.anifest and Burna Boy.

She inspired creatives all around the world, and will continue to do so. Although we’ve lost her presence here on Earth, she is not gone: we have gained a powerful and eternal source of inspiration.

Source: The Guardian