Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2014

Changes, by Ama Ata Aidoo

ChangesIt’s just a coincidence that I happened to re-read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch this week while also reading Changes, but it certainly impacted on my reading of the novel.  Aidoo’s short book explores the journey of a modern, educated Ghanian woman as she tries to reconcile the demands of love with her own sense of self-respect.  It’s a journey many women took back in the 1970s when books like Greer’s provoked a reassessment of the idea that if you were a woman in love, you must give up everything for the beloved.  Higher education, ambition, time for yourself, your own preferences about almost everything, your own money?  These needs were all expected to be subservient to the love, but they were not choices that men had to make.  And while we were negotiating these matters in our personal lives, society around us was in a state of flux because feminism challenged the dynamic in so many ways.

In Aidoo’s novel, set in the late 20th century, Esi Sekyi is an ambitious statistician who works for the Department of Urban Statistics.  When she falls for Ali Kundey, she is already married, to Oko, and she has a child called Ogyaanowa.  Ali is married too, to Fusena, and they have children as well, but he is equally besotted by Esi.  Their paths keep crossing, and the inevitable happens.

Equally besotted, however, does not mean that the choices that must be made by both parties to this love affair are equal.  No indeed.  It is Esi’s wise old Nana who tells her that a man always gains in stature any way he chooses to associate with a woman – including adultery… But, in her association with a man, a woman is always in danger of being diminished. (p.196)  Ali, as a Muslim, can take a second wife, or he can have a mistress without shame, whereas to be either of these involves a loss of status and respect for Esi.

But the novel is about more than that.  Esi has a husband who tries to put the spark back into their marriage by forcing himself on her one morning as she prepares to go to work.  Esi is a modern, educated woman but she struggles with the issue of this marital rape: in her culture as in ours not so long ago, there was never any right of refusal for a woman and her husband could take her at any time against her will.  For Esi, the sense of violation is tied up with post-colonial perspectives, with modernity and with respect for traditions.  She can hear the reproof in her head: There isn’t a word for what happened in any of the African languages around her, and her distress would be dismissed as imported feminist ideas (p. 16).

You cannot go around claiming that an idea or an item was imported into a given society unless you could also conclude that to the best of your knowledge, there is not, and there never was any word or phrase in that society’s indigenous language which describes that idea or item. (p.16)

It is not just that society does not have an indigenous word for what happened because it is her husband’s right to claim her at any time and at his convenience, there is also a chorus of female voices that considers her lucky:

Besides, any sane person, especially any sane woman, would consider any other woman lucky, or talented or both, who can make her husband lose his head like this.  (p.17)

It is this tension between feminist principle and the reality of a traditional society around her that makes Changes such interesting reading.  The novel is mainly written from Esi’s perspective, but also from Ali’s.  We see his wife’s point-of-view too, when she tackles him about Esi: the first question she asks is, She has a university degree? It is telling that Ali has no idea what this has to do with it – because he has no awareness that Fusena has given up her plans for advanced study and a career in order to be his wife, and his wish now for intelligent company is a painful insult.

This is a wise and thoughtful book.  Highly recommended.

PS That lovely cover artwork is by Hassan Aliyu.

Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Title: Changes
Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1991
ISBN: 9780435910143
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Availability

Fishpond: Changes (Heinemann African Writers Series)


Responses

  1. This sounds excellent, Lisa. I really ought to read more writers from Africa.

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    • HI Kim, the author is Kinna’s mother, if you follow Kinna reads.

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  2. I wonder how you found The Female Eunuch on a second reading. I remember it was life changing for me at the time, but Germaine has become such a loose cannon I don’t know if i could go there. Have you read Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew by Christine Wallace?

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    • Hi Gert… no, I haven’t. I didn’t want to. From what I heard of it, it sounded as if it were written to trade on Greer’s tabloid press headlines which warp what she says to indulge the tall poppy syndrome. That bio was unauthorised which meant she didn’t have access to her subject and had to rely on gossip. I’ve had the privilege of hearing her lecture on Sappho and I’ve read her work on Shakespeare’s wife and other things. I respect her academic expertise, and have no time for cancel culture. I’ll wait for a serious bio written by someone of Brenda Niall’s ilk.

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      • I still think it was worth reading in the absence of any other bio at the time and with the intention of reading other writing about G G. I have followed her life and ideas over many years. A complex character.

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      • P S I know Greer hated this book. Found it intrusive and WAS unauthourised. But it’s not totally unsympathetic Here are the last few lines.
        ‘…she is the maverick of mavericks, flawed, sometimes flailing, but always fighting.
        This is the key to why she has been an inspiration to so many other women. She has never surrendered her sovereignty. Germaine Greer never was tamed.’

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        • LOL I’m glad I’m not famous enough to have people poking around in my life and writing about me!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. […] a chorus of voices in Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose; there is a chorus in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes. If I remember correctly, there is a chorus of Igbo spirits in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, […]

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