By Abena Busia
On this occasion we have been given the opportunity to share personal tributes that capture the spirit of Auntie Ama Ata Aidoo through telling of our encounters with her. There are many stories I could tell, for example to acknowledge how important it was for us at Rutgers University that she was the very first person to accept the invitation from us as an African Studies Co-ordinating Committee and help launch our then fledging African Studies Centre, now thriving almost twenty-five years later. However, for me, there is one that stands out as the most important to encapsulate that element which was so central to us as African women writers, and that is the spirit of generosity with which she embraced us.
Those of you who know my collection Testimonies of Exile will know that Auntie Ama wrote a review for the back cover of the collection in which she said:
“In Testimonies of Exile Abena Busia brilliantly exposes exile as an almost living creature: cruel and omnivorous. In these poems we encounter this particular beast in its dimensions: especially exile from land, language, those we love and ourselves…
… The “testimonies” span continents and stretch across time: from our very beginnings to our endings. Indeed, in their profundity, clarity and force of language, and distilled as they are from a wealth of living, exile itself and dying, so many of these pomes should be “the work of a mature poet at the peak of his life’s work!!”
It is a mark of both the current tragedy and uniqueness of Africa and her peoples- both at home and abroad- that the collection is from a young woman in her prime…
…Read them and wonder too”
It was a tribute that stunned me, and that is just an edited version of the letter she wrote. For me, as an endorsement of my first collection, it was so profound. But I reference it here not so much for what the tribute itself says, wonderful as it is, but for the story behind it being written at all, which is the story of the first individual, private, face-to-face conversation I ever had with Auntie Ama.
Back in 1989, when we were preparing Testimonies of Exile was for press, my publisher the Eritrean Kassahun Checole of Africa World Press, was wondering who could write the endorsements for the back of the book. We knew we wanted, if possible, because of my history, an Africa-American, an English or Euro-American, and an African. For the African we both agreed that we wanted to hear from the only other Ghanaian woman poet already published by an international press at that time, and that was Ama Ata Aidoo. So we sent her the manuscript and waited and waited and waited… That year was the year of the 8th Triennial Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Silver Jubilee Conference at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, and Auntie Ama was one of the featured speakers. So off we went to track her down. Kassahun already had an appointment to meet with her that first day, so he took me in tow. As soon as she saw me, she greeted me, smiled, and acknowledged that she knew why I was there. Then she did a surprising thing; she asked me to come and see her for a private conversation.
When I arrived in her room, what she did astonished me even more, she asked me if I knew who she was? A question to which of course I smiled and asked if she knew any Ghanaian literary scholars and writers who did not know who she was. But it was not her literary, but her ideological identity that she was alluding to. She wanted to be clear I understood the history of her political affiliations explaining she’d called me for a talk to make sure I knew she was, as she put it, a “diehard Nkrumahist” and that this was not going to change. I responded by telling her that the works of hers I taught included Our Sister Killjoy, and confessed however that there was a page or two which I prayed no student would ever ask me about because I found them painful to read even after all these decades. (This is the scene in which she satirises a conversation my father was reported to have had with Edward Heath). She laughed and said she was pleased I understood, but then asked why, knowing all that, I was prepared to send my manuscript to her anyway? To me the answer was simple: I was a young Ghanaian woman poet about to publish my first collection. I needed an honest assessment by someone from within the community to which I felt I belonged. So I finished with the question “if I cannot ask you, who is it I can ask?
Aidoo and friends
She thanked me for the clarity and forthrightness of my answer (I refrained from pointing out I was standing in front of a master teacher of that!) and said on the basis of that informed trust she would indeed send her comments to my publisher. I was very touched by that interview because she did not have to do that. She could have just ignored us, which we know happens frequently, or returned the manuscript saying she was too busy, which she was at the time. But she did not, she chose to talk to me, to establish that basis of trust between us that lasted until the end. For example, it led to me being an integral part of Yaaba Badoe’s film The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo. Although I am never seen on screen, I am the interviewer she is speaking to throughout. I have always treasured that trust. As I value the way that first meeting ended. As I turned to leave, she said to me wryly, “you know don’t you that both you and I will probably be in trouble with our friends and colleagues if I do this and my name appears on the back of your book?” Standing in her doorway I said, “Yes. Probably!”, and we both burst out into the laughter that sealed our camaraderie. The letter containing the review arrived within a week if the end of that conference.
When the letter arrived, I was so very touched by what it said. I have shared it with you not to advertise a book that was published thirty years ago now, but because the words, and the context in which they were written, remain for me such a clear demonstration of her forthrightness and honesty; her willingness to be bold in her support of other up and coming women writers, and her commitment to mentoring. There is good reason why a whole generation or two of writers and scholars, especially women, across the continent and the world, are in grief this last month, sending messages of tribute and solidarity to the Pan African Writers Association, a host of Women’s institutions, her family, and in particular her daughter Kinna of whom she was so very proud. And I am glad to be counted among her literary daughters.
 My father had been Prime Minister of Ghana (1969-72) at the time Edward Heath was Prime Minister of Great Britain. But more importantly a dozen years before, he had been Leader of the Opposition, with Nkrumah as Prime Minister, at the time of Independence. It was the 1966 overthrow of Nkrumah that brought us back from exile and opened the possibility of father becoming Prime Minister three years later
- Her Excellency Busia is Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil
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