Monday, May 7, 2012

Marriage in the African Context: Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa


Over the years, marriage has been a major preoccupation of many African writers ranging from the female ones: Buchi Emecheta to Lola Shoneyin to their male counterparts: from Chinua Achebe to Ben Okri; all of these writers, to be candid, employed different styles to express this popular thematic concern through the lens of their varying perspectives and experiences. Uniquely and beautifully too, Ama Ata Aidoo treats this recurrent universal issue in one of her plays – Anowa.


In Anowa, Aidoo shows us the perception of marriage by the African, both in their cultural and psychological backgrounds. She presents a conflict between the old view of marriage and the new, a situation in which the bastardisation as well as the corruption of the young minds is brought to bear. In the play, for instance, Anowa defiantly rejects her parents’ idea of betrothal, an out-dated practice that cannot bring her the true happiness she desires. Why must she be married off by her parents? Why is it odd that she desires to marry whomever and whenever she wants? According to her, “one can belong to oneself without belonging to a place.” Therefore, her non-conformity with the marriage tradition of Yebi, of his father and mother, is, for her, a journey into freedom. This is no doubt a popular African practice where a woman is required to marry a particular man from a particular family. Among the Yorubas, there is a popular saying that “ilesanmi dun joye lo” meaning: “Good family is better than a rich one.” What this implies is that it is better to give one’s daughter’s hands in marriage to a poor but morally conscious and disease-free family than to a family with a bad name and a bad history.

However, this seems a different story when we consider the reason Anowa’s parents, especially her mother, Badua, has kicked against her daughter’s wish to marry Kofi Ako. Obviously, she is not worried whether the man is from a good home or not; rather, she is so concerned that her daughter might end up perpetually in poverty that she cries: “Why should it be my daughter who would want to marry that good-for-nothing cassava-man?” (17). Her reaction, quite interestingly, provides another hint over how some parents, mostly mothers (since it is conventionally their responsibility to do so, not without the approval of the father though) in Africa, blatantly engage in what should be called the commercialisation of marriage. Simply put, it is a situation in which the parents see childbirth as a path to overnight fortune and affluence, a case in which the said property, (in this case, the female child), who also can be described as a marital investment, is well-taken care of, (even, sometimes, at the expense of the male child) in order that, through marrying her off to a fat-pocketed husband, she might rescue them from their penury-stricken condition.

In the light of this, therefore, to arrive at the conclusion that Badua’s worry over her daughter’s choice of marriage is motivated by sheer greed and selfishness would not be unjustifiable. It is an act deeply rooted, disappointingly, in selfishness, rather than in selflessness with which the pillar of parenthood is, traditionally, erected. Thus, this brings to mind the question that: What is usually the motive of parents for giving their daughter’s hands in marriage? Or, better paraphrased, why have some parents refused to allow their daughter the freewill to choose whomever they want to marry? The answer to this question is simple. If parents, like Badua in the play, disapprove of their child’s or children’s desire to marry their own choices of husbands or wives, such parents definitely must have a hidden agenda, which must be geared towards satisfying their own interest rather than for the well-being of their supposedly priced child or children. What then can we refer to as genuine or true parenthood?

Another angle through which an unhampered view of marriage in Africa can be gleaned is through the magnificent lens of childbirth. We are confronted with these interest-sapping questions: why must there be children in every marriage? Why should the primary aim of a marriage be childbirth? Why do marriages devoid of children crumble so fast? Why should a marriage without the male child lack happiness? All of these issues and many more have been the major thrusts of most African plays and novels over the years. They are, matter-of-factly, disturbing and confusing. In the play, Anowa, to be specific, the issue of child-birth is of the high esteem, considering the significant role played by the chorus, The-mouth-that-eats-salt-and-pepper, in throwing light on the general concern of the people of Yebi, microcosmic of the African setting, as regards childlessness. In one of their commentaries, they express their regret at the defiant manners of Anowa, how her strange behaviour foregrounds an idea of bad child. In other words, in their view, it is better to have no child at all than have a bad child.

Accordingly, Anowa’s mother, Badua, worries so much over her daughter’s state of childlessness that she blares out sorrowfully:  “Anowa had not yet had children.” (32) Also, the self-acclaimed unmarried couple, Anowa and Kofi Ako, are not unaware of how very frustrating it can be for couple to remain childless. Listen to the lovers, whose love defiles conventional norms and traditions, whose unconditional love breaks all barriers of parental-policing:

1.   Anowa: When I throw my eyes into the future, I do not see myself there.
2.  Kofi Ako: This is because you have no children. Women who have children can always see themselves in the future. (36)

Quite naturally, we might want to ask, is there really future for any childless couple? Who would take over from them, their legacies and their hard-earned material acquisitions, when their mortal faces are dug deep into the famished earth? Indeed, marriage without children is like life without water.

Very significant also in this issue of marriage is whether the wife should always play the role of a slave to his husband. Many women have been physically and even psychologically battered, many have been sent into an early grave in the name of wives by their husbands who erroneously believe that, in the words of Anowa, for instance, “…in order for her man to be a man, she must not think, she must not talk.” (52) But why is it so? What makes a man or a husband superior to his woman or his wife? If it is an issue of child bearing, who owns the child: mother or father? Will any of them be able to procreate without the other? In fact, there would be no man on earth had there been no woman. Many have argued that the man provides for the need of the family and so, that makes him superior. The question is: Is the wife too not capable of fending for herself? These are relevant issues surrounding marriage in the African context; and none of them, it will suffice to say, establishes any absolute significance.

An in-depth investigation of marriage in the African context may be incomplete without considering the issue of polygamy. In Africa, polygamy seems the most popular marriage practice; and through it, many marriages have thrived and survived for long. However, polygamy has different shades; and there are varying reasons for marrying more than one wife. It is this motive that Aidoo has set to investigate in Anowa when she uses the central character, Anowa, to probe the ideal of a more-than-one-wife man, through Kofi Ako, Anowa’s fiancé and husband. Because of her inability to bear a child, she asks her husband to marry another wife, to which the latter, already enamoured by her stupendous grace, happily declines. In this connection, then, marriage, therefore, becomes an avenue for weighing true love. Against this background, there are those who marry more than one wife only because they “can afford dozens more;” and there are others whose main aim is an attempt to escape from barrenness. As a matter of fact, the former is more common in Africa.


In all, Aidoo’s rich writing skill enhanced by her fertile experiences in the ways of the African, of course herself being an African, is brought to the fore through this interestingly language-coated play, Anowa. The way she handles the age-long issue of marriage is most remarkable. The play is, indeed, an eye-opener into the true world of marriage in the African context. This, she achieves by relating several issues which bother on the particular subject in order to present a comprehensive experience of marriage in the African context.