Our encounters were not limited to knowledge sharing. Yes, this is important, as Ama Ata Aidoo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were among those who read the draft of my first memoir, A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt. It was mutual, as she also gave me a few drafts to read. Then we met in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States. The most memorable was at Smith College, where we spent a semester together, seeing twice a week. A great cook, I took delight in consuming her egusi soup. I felt emotionally sad to be one of the earliest to know of her death and had to announce it on several platforms. It was a privilege to do a short tribute on May 31, 2023, at the recently concluded Canadian Association of African Studies held at York University, Toronto.
Ama and I were on first-person name salutations. She musically pronounced my name, Toyyin, adding “y” and refusing to let go. I reciprocated and called her “Amami, Mamami” to return the musical song. She knew when to provoke me. I was also a master at teasing her by making a patriarchal statement, to which she would immediately respond. I knew the Ghanaian presidents she could not stand, the ministers she detested, and I would say, “Amami, Mamami, you know I miss President Dash!”
Mamami reminds me that at several points in life, especially during childhood, most humans have lofty dreams and ambitions. For many, those dreams and ambitions will only come to represent “the good old days when life was simple,” never seeing the light of reality — especially if the dreamer is limited by one or several factors like poverty, country of birth, a lack of education, poor nutrition, and a limit in both exposure and cross-cultural experiences. For others, opportunity and preparation help them realize their dreams. This day, you’re stuck with your convictions, committed to your beliefs, and working to support the causes that align with your values. The next day, you have transcended into a realm larger than life — larger than a single lifetime that any human could have.
Since Aidoo shed her robe of the human hood and took on the next adventure in existence, the news headlines that made the rounds about her death seemed to have some common words: Ghana, Ghanaian, literary icon, author, and feminist. However, Aidoo can be qualified by more than those words that made up the news headlines of her death. For one, I chose to describe her as Africa’s gallant intellectual and literary general because although she is proudly Ghanaian, her life, works, and impacts transcend one country — they have been for Africa, from within Africa’s Golden State. It’s understandable that the reporters, especially those of foreign media houses, might have chosen to be specific about her country to avoid backlash on the Western world not doing enough research to report African news contextually. But in the case of this eminent scholar and what she has lived for, she is our collective heroine.
Professor Aidoo knew what it meant to have a purpose, define existence, and stay true to one’s causes, so much so that a legacy is built, intentionally or not. She lived for Africa; she lived for the rights of African women; she dedicated her life to documenting African realities and deconstructing erroneous notions of what Africa is, who Africans are, and what the realities of Africans and their continent are. She lived a wholesome and fulfilled life — an 81-year-old is old enough to join the sacred ancestors in many African cultures and societies. Nevertheless, no matter how old our loved ones are at the time of death, our insatiable human nature and the prospect of their absence, our loss, and our longing will always douse our mood at the reception of the news.
Nature and nurture come to play in forming the formidable intellectual and literary general that Aidoo was. Grounded in the history and exploits of her people from early on, Aidoo envisioned the life of an author for herself— seeing it as the best way to document histories and put the stories she had heard and was living into the hands of many others to make impacts. She was one of Africa’s generals, not on the battlefield during the world wars but on the intellectual battlegrounds of academic and literary imperialism. While staying vocal through her writings and words, Aidoo fought for Africa and did so proudly. She was instrumental in spotlighting some of the biggest issues African women have faced in decades. In so doing, she drew the admiration of Africans, especially African women, who came to see her as a mother, mentor, and idol.
Aidoo made great impacts, and they reverberate so much so that death is not finality for her. From her poems to her novels and plays, the literary world will continue to make reference to, discuss, critique, and base other works on the foundation of what Aidoo did during her lifetime. That is her legacy, which has inherently conferred on her the goddess status. She might have left her mortal body, but she lives on and among us through her works.
Although she was better known for her writings, activism, advocacies, and feminism, Aidoo’s life was an excellent demonstration of walking the talk and living one’s words. She will be remembered back home in Ghana as a literary heroine and a patriotic countrywoman with a deep desire to help catalyze her country’s development. Convinced that the Minister of Education role would afford her that opportunity, she accepted her appointment by the government in 1982. However, like several of the recently independent African states then, she soon discovered that the people in power mostly wanted the best hands without wanting those hands to go to work in a way that would benefit the country. Seeing as her lofty visions for the Ghanaian education system would never materialize because of the Council, Aidoo resigned from the position and dedicated herself to excellence in teaching in the Ghanaian tertiary education system, which she served assiduously for decades.
Aidoo never minced words about her criticism of the Western world and its role in the colonization of Africa, which has metamorphosed into colonialism and is being continuously modified to withstand and survive the agitations of intellectual and well-meaning, patriotic Africans. She is famously known for commenting on how Europe has been tirelessly milking Africa of its human, mineral, natural, artificial, and artistic resources for over 500 years. Aidoo’s vocal nature in decrying the covert and subtle neocolonialist efforts from the West earned her transgenerational reverence among her peers and even the younger generation.
One of the distinguishing traits of her feminism is adapting the African communal and tight-knit nature of pre-colonial communities into the formation and interactions of the women communities on the continent. This manifests in how renowned feminists like Aidoo and Professor Bolanle Awe take several other women under their wings and groom them. As the mother hen readily spreads her feathers to protect her children, Aidoo supported the feminist communities and female writers and authors. This is evident in her many engagements with these communities, as recently as 2021, at the Kwame Nkrumah Festival in Ghana. Aidoo’s life has inspired many of these young women in academia and the literary world. It has helped them understand that they can also dream and aim for their dreams.
Many of those she assisted, whether they had only met her through her work or had the opportunity to meet her physically, shared a special bond with her, so much so that until her death, she was popularly known as (m)Ama Ata Aidoo — the bracketed “m” signaling a prefix to form “Mama,” the African name for mother. Aidoo lives on through the many people she’s inspired with her work. Many found meaning through her work; they found reasons to be conscious as Africans, appreciate their African identity, deconstruct erroneous notions of colonialism, and recognize the ills of the colonial system and its impacts on Africa. She was a fierce and vocal general in her advocacy against the misrepresentations of African women and African stories, but she was a soft and accommodating mother to many.
Mamami, you earned your position among Africa’s most revered and respected literary icons, and now, you have donned the cloak of immortality through the body of your work. Beyond your existence, you live on. In that instance, death as the finality we have come to know ceases to be the end. A literary icon would then have attained the status of a god. You will be sorely missed. Africa’s academia will feel the void of the inputs you could still have made if you were here. However, our solace lies in the fact that no one can ever do enough and that, taking your exploits and achievements in the context of the impacts they have had and continue to have, you did your best. For that, we are grateful.
Farewell, Amami Mamami! May your journey in the next phase of life be easier!