Monday, May 7, 2012

Thematic Concerns of Ama Ata Aidoo's The Dilemma of a Ghost


Of all African plays, Ama Ata Aidoo’s ranks among the best. Renowned for her ingenuous creative prowess and her blend of Afro-centric preoccupations with the Eurocentric underpinnings, Ama Ata Aidoo interrogates daring issues, both historical and contemporary, facing Africa as a continent and Africans as a people. In one of her greatest plays, which also double as her debut, The Dilemma of a Ghost, Aidoo voices out over a number of agitating problems confronting the post-colonial Africa. Taking the lead here in this paper are the issues of education, identity, clash of culture, marriage and of course childbirth; all of these totals the essential popularity accorded this interestingly crafted play.


At the heart of the discourse, concerning the true face of education to the Africans are nagging questions begging attention. What is an education to the African? Is education supposed to be an escape into the abyss of bastardization? These questions attract our concern as we probe the change that has suddenly beclouded Ato Yawson’s attitude toward his own culture after his return from his academic journey. To Ato western education has no business with cultural assimilation, although he seems to be holding dare the white man’s ways. For instance, how could Ato, an African, tell his fiancée that they are going to make a good family with or without children? However, his people hold a contrary opinion: his education has dissuaded him from his root. So he no longer believes in the very tradition, which bears his childhood. Confused over the strangeness in her brother’s behaviour, Monka blares out: “The master scholar was sitting on the chair studying, so he could not move off! After all, what is he learning? Is it the knowledge of the leopard skin?” (page 9)

Monka’s attitude as well as her mother’s and others in the family here is not surprising. It is the way they, as Africans, see education: a journey into cultural slavery.

When Ato describes Eulalie as the “sweetest and loveliest things in Africa and America rolled together”, we cannot but be concerned with the woman’s split personality or what we might call double identity. In the play, there is a sense in which we glean a different view about an African in Diaspora or an African-American. We are made to believe that every black man on earth, regardless of his true country, is conscious of his sense of home, of root. In this connection, it is then not surprising that Eulalie on her arrival in Africa confesses: “I’ve come to the very source.” Africans, no matter their locations, are still, by matter of sense of belonging, bound to their root. This perhaps is the thrust Isidore Okpewho tries to capture with the character of Otis Hampton in Call Me By My Rightful Name. Although Eulalie acts and thinks like an American, she however does not refute her Africaness. In a nutshell, no matter how far away man is from his root, he will forever be drawn, either spiritually or physically, to its ways.

Closely related to the issue of identity is clash of culture. When two cultures meet, there is usually a disagreeable point. Either one tries to dominate the other, or both struggle for acceptability. Ato’s attitude after his return from his school in the US foregrounds a picture of one man with two conflicting cultures. Eulalie’s disgust at the ways and manners her fiancé’s family relate with her points out the theme of clash of culture. The woman’s nonchalant act of smoking and excessive drinking displeases Ato’s family and even Ato himself. Thus, an attempt to understand an alien culture is an attempt to relegate your own. This seems the major preoccupation of Soyinka as manifested in the characters of Lakunle and Sidi in The Lion and the Jewel. With this point, Aidoo seems to aver that even marriage is not capable of proffering a satisfactory answer to the question of clash of culture.

Apart from clash of culture, marriage is another prominent issue in the play. The playwright takes us into the African perspective of marriage. According to her and as presented in the play, marriage is a life-long contract, which prospers when there are children in it. The whole society expresses shock at the revelation that Ato and his wife deliberately delay childbirth. Embittered and flabbergasted at this strange behaviour, Petu affirms the importance of childbearing in marriage. She says, “When two people marry everyone expect them to have children. For men and women marry because they want children.” The implication of childlessness in marriage is further stressed when one of the two market women who serve as the chorus to the play laments thus: “If it is real barrenness,/Then, oh Stranger-girl,/Whom I do not know,/I weep for you./For I know what it is/ To start a marriage with barrenness.”  In the same vein, it is an African belief that when a man is ripe for marriage, his family, especially the mother could intercede on his behalf. When Ato returns from America, a family meeting is held. At the meeting it is revealed that a wife has already been wooed for Ato; in fact, the bride price has been paid. This act further reiterates the African reaction to marriage. In Africa, it is not a wrong decision if a mother chooses the choice of wife for her son, or choice of husband for her daughter.

In addition to the issue of marriage is the theme of childbearing. As if there were no other reasons people get married except to raise children, The Dilemma of a Ghost stresses this issue in such a way that one might want to think that the African woman is a machine built only for producing children. However, if one looks closely, this assertion is close to the truth. There have emerged in many African plays and novels including Isidore Okpewho’s novel entitled The Victims, stories of how the African woman is relegated and maltreated due to her inability to bear a child. In fact, in many cases, women are thrown out of marriage because of their failure to produce a male child. In The Dilemma of a Ghost, Aidoo renders her own voice on the issue of childbearing in Africa; she does this while stylishly hiding under the guise of the two unidentified women. Aidoo, using the women as her mouthpiece, holds that:
                            2ND: Sometimes we feel you are luckier
                                     Who are childless.
                            1ST:  But at the very last
                                     You are luckiest who have them.
The above, no doubt, expresses the joy replete with childbearing. When Ato reveals to his mother their plan of birth control, his mother blares out: “Ei, everyone should come and listen to this. I have not heard anything like it before…Human beings deciding when they must have children?” Considering the above, one might be tempted to aver that marital life without children, for the women, is like death. This is the true face of African interpretation to marriage: childbearing.


In whole, Ama Ata Aidoo seems so much at home when treating such issues as discussed above in her works. In fact, these are recurrent issues in most of her writings. Her experience as a woman must have been of great help in this regard. The themes in The Dilemma of a Ghost, some of which have been examined above, are indeed a true mirror of the African life. Aidoo has, once again, proven herself as one of the African best playwrights.