One of Africa’s most-celebrated author, poet, playwright and academic, Ama Ata Aidoo, has died aged 81. As a renowned feminist, she depicted and celebrated the condition of African women in works such as The Dilemma of a Ghost, Our Sister Killjoy and Changes.
In a statement, her family said “our beloved relative and writer” passed away after a short illness, requesting privacy to allow them to grieve.
“The family … with deep sorrow but in the hope of the resurrection, informs the general public that our beloved relative and writer passed away in the early hours of this morning Wednesday 31st May 2023, after a short illness,” read the statement signed by Kwamena Essandoh Aidoo, a representative of the family.
The university professor won many literary awards for her novels, plays and poems, including the 1992 Commonwealth Writers Prize for her book “Changes,” a love story about a statistician who divorces her first husband and enters into a polygamous marriage.
Another notable achievement includes winning a Mbari Press short story prize for her book “No Sweetness Here”. In 1988, she won a Fulbright Scholarship; and in 2014, a documentary film “The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo” by Yaba Badoe was released in her honour.
In 2016, the Women’s Caucus of the African Studies Association named the “Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize” in honour of Ama Ata Aidoo and of Margaret C. Snyder; and in 2017 Ama Ata Aidoo Centre for Creative Writing was launched in Adabraka, Accra, Ghana, by Kojo Yankah School of Communications Studies at the African University College of Communications (AUCC).
Her work, including plays like Anowa, have been read in schools across West Africa, along with works of other greats like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
When asked by BBC HARDTalk’s Zeinab Badawi in 2014 if she regarded herself as a writer with a mission, she replied: “In retrospect, I suppose I could describe myself as a writer with a mission. But I never was aware that I had a mission when I started to write. People sometimes question me, for instance, why are your women so strong? And I say, that is the only woman I know.”
She opposed what she described as a “Western perception that the African female is a downtrodden wretch”. She was a major influence on the younger generation of writers, including Nigeria’s awarding-winning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In a piece about the Ghanaian in The Africa Report publication in 2011, Adichie wrote:
“When I first discovered Ama Ata Aidoo’s work – a slim book on a dusty shelf in our neighbour’s study in Nsukka [in south-eastern Nigeria] – I was stunned by the believability of her characters, the sureness of her touch and what I like to call, in a rather clunky phrase, the validating presence of complex femaleness.
“Because I had not often seen this complex femaleness in other African books I had read and loved, mine was a wondrous discovery: of Anowa, tragic and humane and many dimensional, in Aidoo’s play set in the 1800s in Fantiland; of Sissie, the self-assured, perceptive main character of the ambitious novel Our Sister Killjoy, who wryly recounts her experiences in Germany and England in the 1960s; or of the varied female characters in No Sweetness Here, my favourite of Aidoo’s books.”
Nigerian Afrobeats superstar Burna Boy included her powerful criticism of colonialism and ongoing exploitation of Africa’s resources in his song Monsters You Made in 2020:
“Since we met you people 500 years ago. Look at us, we’ve given everything. You are still taking. In exchange for that, we have got nothing. Nothing. And you know it. But don’t you think that this is over now? Over where? Is it over?”
Ama Ata Aidoo was born in a small village in Ghana’s central Fanti-speaking region in 1942. Her father had opened the first school in the village and was a strong influence on her.
At the age of 15 she decided that she wanted to be a writer and within just four years, had achieved that ambition after she was encouraged to enter a competition.
“I won a short story competition but learned about it only when I opened the newspaper that had organised it, and saw the story had been published on its centre pages and realised the name of the author of that story in print was mine,” Ata Aidoo once said as she looked back at her career.
“I believe these moments were crucial for me because … I had articulated a dream… it was a major affirmation for me as a writer, to see my name in print.”
She studied literature at the University of Ghana and became a lecturer, publishing her first play in 1964. Then served as Ghana’s Minister of Education from 1982 to 1983 under the Jerry Rawlings administration.
After her 18 month-foray into politics she moved to Zimbabwe for a time and became a full-time writer. In 2000, she established the Mbaasem Foundation to promote and support the work of African women writers.