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Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-2023)

The ASA Women’s Caucus celebrates the life and work of Professor Ama Ata Aidoo, our beloved sister, mother, and aunty. Prof. Aidoo was a feminist and anti-colonialist who advocated for African women, for African literature, and for free education and literacy in Ghana. 

She was a renowned playwright, novelist, and poet, known for writing bold and complex African women characters. Her deeply influential writing explored the position of African women and the impact of Western influences on women in Africa, all the while drawing from African tradition and orature. She was of the first generation of African women writers and philosophers who cleared the pathway for and continues to shape the thriving global community of women authors that African literature and African Studies have today. 

Prof. Aidoo has been a professor of English at the University of Ghana and a fellow at the Institute for African Studies, where she researched Fanti drama. She has held various visiting professorships in the United States and Kenya. Among her many accomplishments, Prof. Aidoo served as Secretary for Education in Ghana from 1982 to 1983, and was the first woman to hold that position. Following this position, she moved to Zimbabwe, and while there, worked for the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education. Aidoo was also active in the Zimbabwe Women Writers Group. She was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship in 1988, and in 1989 was writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, Virginia.

Her writing won many awards: in 1962, Prof. Aidoo won the Mbari Club prize for her short story, “No Sweetness Here.” As a student at the University of Ghana in Legon, she wrote and staged her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost and when it was published 1965, Aidoo became the first published African woman dramatist. Her play Anowa(1970) and her first and most popular novel, Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) are two of the most taught African literary texts. Our Sister Killjoy, however, was largely ignored by male critics at the time, and in 1981, in response to this silence, Prof. Aidoo wrote and presented the famous essay “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves, or Glimpses of Women as Writers and Characters in Contemporary African literature,” at the International Conference on African Literature and the English Language, University of Calabar, Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. In 1987, she received the Nelson Mandela Prize for Poetry for her collection Someone Talking to Sometime. In 1992, Prof. Aidoo’s novel Changes (1991) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region. 

Prof. Aidoo was an advocated for African literary production. In 2000, Prof. Aidoo founded the Mbaasem Foundation with her daughter, Kinna Likimani, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing and maintaining the work of Ghanaian and African women writers. In 2013, Prof. Aidoo, (alongside Dele OlojedeEllah Wakatama AllfreyMargaret BusbySarah Ladipo Manyika and Zakes Mda), created the Etisalat Prize for Literature (now the 9mobile Prize for Literature), a platform for awarding and showcasing first-time African writers of fiction. The Aidoo-Snyder book prize that is awarded by the Women’s Caucus for an outstanding book that prioritizes African women’s experiences is named in honor of Prof. Aidoo, and Margaret Snyder the founding Director of UNIFEM.

Ama Ata Aidoo was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Gold Coast, now Ghana. 

And she has gone to join the ancestors. May she rest in peace.

On Reading the Sad News: Ama Ata Aidoo                                   
23 March, 1942- 31 May, 2023

Dr. Rashidah Ismaili

Just after reading the New York Times Art section where I see the continued resistance to returning stolen art that is in the museums of the United Kingdom; as I fill with rage at the arrogance of colonialism; at the condescension of what tries to mask as an ‘art sensitive gesture’ in the offering to LEND a few pieces of Benin icons looted centuries ago, I read the Obituaries and there is the announcement of my dear sister-in-arms of Pan African struggles and literary integrity for The Continent and Her Children; dead!

How to process this; “dead after a short illness?” This dynamic spirit of blazing eyes, searing brilliance, a force to be reckoned with, gone into the finite place of no return, of no access. How to speak to the silence of space that separates the living from the dead, her to me? The distance grows with each passing person who used to walk this earth with me, laugh with me, read to me and speak to the urgent need to be strong, vigilant in our quest for African autonomy and excellence. Telephones will not bring her voice to me laughing and crying at men’s folly, the cruelty of misogynists, racists, classism, exploitation and misappropriation of institutions of education, government, theological, and every manner of oppression the human mind has created; ALL!!! 

How to show all these decades later, modern devices notwithstanding, the huge smile that greeted me over half a century ago when I was on my way home for class, carrying a grocery bag and my notebook, on Bleecker Street in The Village, just about to turn west on Morton Street where I lived with my very young son, when Ama Ata, smiled with open arms blocking my path; “Aow, how lovely.” The inflection in her voice told me she was West African and it put me at ease. I stopped and we embraced on that street filled with people going to and fro, in front of a bakery shop that made the best bread and if you were about around 11:00 at night when they were loading the delivery trucks, you could get a free loaf of still warm bread.

That is it, how it started, this sisterhood, circa 1963. She was visiting on a fellowship and I was in grad school, a single mother raising a male child. It turned out we had a mutual friend who lived nearby and who worked at The Mission and we met there on many occasions as he had parties for the sake of having Pan African exchanges with Continental Africans and Africans from the Diaspora. We were budding artists, writers and thought of ourselves as Thinkers/Philosophers/Intellectual Young Pioneers. We were devoted to Dr. Nkrumah’s vision of the New Africa and the African Youth who would go out into the world, gather another set of knowledge, come Back Home and integrate the new learning with the old and forge a path that would lead to the total re-formation of Africa where tribalism would not be a means of division but rather of broadening our understanding of what it meant to be simply An African.

Oh my dear sister, how often we cried at the disappointment of our dreams, at the intractable position of some of our most learned men and women. Still, you wrote your words of condemnation, of inspiration and created plays, poetry and fiction all for us to hear and experience the wonders of your gifts. The pain at being called a tool of Western Education and other such nonsense, most hurting, to not be understood for the message you, and me, we brought. Still you fought on and on. I know how painful it was for you to resign your position of Minister of Education and then to go to Zimbabwe. Fortunately, you found happiness there in real human terms; your daughter was born and later your first grandson. 

Back home you continued your work; writing, forming a foundation and then, we came together to create OWWA; Organisation of Women Writers of Africa.  You and Jayne Cortez were co-chairs, I was the Treasurer and we went on to plot out two incredible conferences; the first of its kind where women of African descent came together and shared experiences, writing methods, food and laughter. We were joyous and inspiring in our celebrations with our Men of Distinction. Always, always you were a dynamic source of knowledge and fun.

Now, how to navigate the loss, the emptiness. The void of your voice and wisdom along with Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, Nawal al Saadawi, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming and so many others who said the words, took the positions, owned the podiums of the world,  this void that chokes me, and sometimes leaves me without adequate words to shape the thoughts I am having and a response to the world events we witness daily. The march of self-destruction of so many of our ‘leaders’ and youth chasing after torn jeans and multicoloured wigs, for an identity that denigrates and denies the Africanity of their history. How do we extol the strong who maintain their artistic and intellectual integrity, encourage them when many are in need of housing, a respectful venue and honest benefactors. And yet, dear sister, we must continue somehow without you, Tom Feelings, Virginia Hamilton, Lucille Clifton, Abbie Lincoln, Max Roach, Willie Kgostisile, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Sibongile Khumalo, Randy Weston, Esther Cooper Jackson, Harry Belafonte, all who have left their indelible marks on the cultural and human landscape.  So, I want to promise to be Aunty for your daughter and Gogo for the young men, your grandsons. I promise to write as honestly as possible without your sharp critique. I promise to be a true Pan Africanist and advocate for women and indeed for the human species as we struggle to make this world a home of art that inspires the best of each of us. To the children of Africa, sing your songs and sing praise for Ama Ata Aidoo and all those now silent voices. Read their works. Listen to their records. Look at their art in museums and books. Be inspired. Make your mark. Don’t let death take away the challenge and love, the smiles and urgings of those now quiet. Be artistically, intelligently, respectfully NOISY.

Sleep in grace, my dear smiling, Brilliant One. 

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This photo was taken at the 2005 ASA Women’s Caucus Luncheon, when the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize was inaugurated. The women in the picture are Ama Ata Aidoo and Margaret “Peg” Synder (in the very front); and from left to right: Lynda Day (2005 Treasurer), Akosua Adomako Ampofo (2005 Co-convener), Naana Banyiwa Horne (past Co-convener), and Mary Osirim (2005 Co-Convener). 

Ama Ata Aidoo was a legend for all times!  As a Ghanaian playwright, novelist, poet and professor, her writings and teaching focused on the experiences of African women during the colonial and postcolonial periods. Ama was a beacon of light and hope to those who sought to better understand the challenges and tensions that African women face particularly in wrestling with African and Euro/American-centered worldviews.  She was a very distinguished writer, who was outstanding in the range of her contributions to many literary genres!  Among her many publications are:  The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965, the first play written in English by an African woman), Changes:  A Love Story, winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Someone Talking to Someone, which won the Nelson Mandela Prize for Poetry in 1987 and Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories (2012).

I was privileged to meet Ama when the Women’s Caucus of the African Studies Association (WC ASA) inaugurated the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize in 2005. (Snyder is the Founding Director of UNIFEM).  The WC Book Prize is a unique award given by a professional organization, presented in alternate years to a scholarly and a creative work which prioritizes the experiences of African women.  After a year of working closely with Claire Robertson (the Book Prize was her brainchild), Naana Banyiwa Horne (lead co-convener of the ASA WC when I joined her as co-convener), Akosua Adomako Ampofo (co-convener with me) and Lynda Day (WC treasurer), we celebrated the launching of the Book Prize at the Women’s Caucus Luncheon in which Ama Ata Aidoo and Margaret Snyder were invited as keynote speakers.  In the period leading up to this inauguration, I vividly remember sending a letter to Ama inviting her to this celebration and Akosua and Lynda physically going to her home in Ghana asking her if she could participate in this event.  I think their visit made all the difference. Ama was able to attend and gave her keynote, “An Insider’s View:  A Reading” along with a talk by Margaret Snyder on “Want Good News about Africa? Listen to Women.”  At the end of our luncheon, Ama insisted on returning the honorarium for the talk to the Women’s Caucus, for which she developed an incredible fondness.  I cannot aptly describe the graciousness with which she made this donation to us – she was very honored and humbled by this book award bearing her name. 

During her several decades as a writer, she also taught countless numbers of students at several colleges and universities including the University of Cape Coast, Hamilton College and Brown University, the latter where she spent seven years on the faculty. Her contributions to education were also noted in the political sphere in the early 1980’s, when she was named Secretary of Education under Rawlings.   

Ama was an inspiration to feminists across the generations, especially to many writers, activists and scholars as a pioneer in her field.  She holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of those of us in the ASA’s Women’s Caucus!  

Mary J. Osirim
Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty
Franklin and Marshall College
Women’s Caucus member

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Tribute to Ama Ata Aidoo by Tomi Adeaga

Ama Ata Aidoo along with other African women writers of her generation took the lead in defining African feminist literature and gender studies. Aidoo’s giant footsteps have led the way for younger African feminist writers to follow. She is gone but her works will live on. Adieu.

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Tribute to Auntie Ama Ata Aidoo 
by Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome, an admirer from afar

Seen from my Yorùbá worldsense, Auntie Ama Ata Aidoo has gone where the elders are wont to go. I call her Auntie because as a Yorùbá woman who is younger than her, it is unimaginable that I would call her by her given name. She’s my auntie although we are not blood relations. From a Yorùbá worldsense, we on this side of reality can only encounter her manifestation by happenstance, in the realm of dreams and in the realm of eternity. We the living are connected to the dead and the unborn. Auntie Ama is part of this unending connection between the unborn, the living, and the dead. 

Also, given influences from western ideas, I know that Auntie Ama lives on in the beautiful, excellent work that she did while here among us, when we could see, touch, hear, and interact with her. She lived well and left a great legacy of spoken and written coherent and focused, well developed and articulated ideas as well as analyses. 

Auntie Ama wrote so many wonderful books. Besides prose, she wrote poetry and plays. She was also a politician and scholar. She could be depended upon to speak truth to power and refuse to compromise her lofty values for pecuniary gain. She was clear and funny. Her work speaks to the most significant issues, problems, and challenges that confront Africa and Africans. 

I am most appreciative of the ways in which Auntie Ama explored, analyzed and explicated gender, and how useful her books are for teaching the contextualization and conceptualization of the politics of gender in everyday life. I’ve used some of her books for courses taught on African Politics, and Writing on African Women and Feminism. I’ve also enjoyed reading them just for my own pleasure. 

I met Auntie Ama at conferences—African Studies Association and Organization of Women Writers of Africa—where she made presentations that were informative, captivating, funny and right on point. Frankly, she was such a force of nature that one would want to believe that she would live forever. But now, she is gone. This is inevitable. We will all die someday. While we are alive, it remains for those of us who loved, respected and want to honor her memory to think of what she stood for, what she fought for, what she was passionately devoted to, and to grasp those things and continue her legacy. This way, she lives forever in each and every one of us and those to whom we teach her ideas. She also lives on when we use her ideas to pursue social, political, and economic justice. She lives on when we decide to embrace her work ethics. She lives on when we cite her and acknowledge her contribution to the production of knowledge. She lives on when we remember and reminisce about her. 

So long Auntie Ama. Rest in peace. 

Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome
Professor of Political Science, African & Women’s Studies
Leonard & Claire Tow Professor, 2015/2016
Brooklyn College, CUNY

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My first encounter with Ama Ata Aidoo was in high school–through her book “The Dilemma of a Ghost.” Despite having little appreciation of her strong feminist stance at that age, I was delighted and honored to meet her later in my career when she gave the keynote address for the ASA Women’s Caucus. Mama Ata Aidoo, you have touched so many lives including mine, with your strong African feminist stance, your lucid writing, and most of all, your beautiful smile. Damirifa due! Daa yie! Rest with the ancestors.

J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.
Howard University