Matrilineality and Slavery in Aidoo's Anowa

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

Aidoo, does not, however, evoke traditional matrilineal African society in a way that romanticizes it. Instead, she evokes it to demonstrate a specific historical moment of change and transition. Anowa, as heroine of the play, exemplifies this transition, as she is caught between defying conventions of traditional society and refusing to adopt the materialistic values of the rising bourgeoisie. She refuses to obey her parents and violates traditional conventions by choosing her own husband at the beginning of the play, thus asserting her independence in a way that severs her ties to traditional society so that she must state "I will walk so well that I will not find my feet back here again." She cannot go back, either physically or metaphorically to a society which cannot understand her independence in any way except to blame it on a supernatural phenomena. Yet she also upholds many of the communalistic values of traditional society in her confrontations with Kofi Ako, such as, her desire to continue working and her inability to accept the practice of slavery and Kofi Ako's materialistic values.

In this respect Aidoo departs from the more traditional oral literature form, for into it she introduces the more contemporary issues of slavery and capitalism. This is presaged in the very beginning by the old man in the prologue when he mentions the "bonds of 1844" and the forts used in the slave trade. The forts represent colonialism and the domination of the African people, but also the active participation of African people in the capturing and selling of humans. The old man discusses the cooperation of some of the Ghanaian peoples - specifically, in this tale, Kofi Ako, with the white foreigners and attempts to explain or forgive these collaborators in trade when he says : "let it not surprise us then that this-one and that-one depend for their well-being on the presence of the pale stranger in our midst: Kofi was, is, and shall always be one of us." (p.7) In this way the old man takes responsibility for the faults that end in tragedy. Rather than blame Kofi for working with the white colonizers in trade and acquiring slaves and rejecting him for having helped in consolidating colonial domination; he portrays it as a much larger social phenomenon and claims Kofi's faults as the community's.

The issue of slavery is central to this play. It is slavery which creates conflicts between Kofi and Anowa and which leads to the final tragedy of their deaths. Although as mentioned earlier, it is a dilemma tale in which there is no real solution, it seems that there is a definite bias in the play for the explanation that it was Kofi's greed which leads to his impotence and ultimate destruction and Anowa's refusal to accept slavery that leads to her insanity.

In introducing the theme of slavery, Aidoo in a sense, attempts to compensate for the erasing of slavery from the African oral heritage. Slavery is something that is not talked about; it is taboo. As Anowa says in repeating what Nana told her about it "Noone talks of these things anymore/All good men and woman try to forget;/ They have forgotten!" (46) Anowa's persistent questioning on the subject makes it unable to be ignored in the same way that Aidoo's persistent evocation of slavery and African participation in the slave trade is in a sense a process of remembering that which has been erased from oral literature. By bringing this theme into a play which is based on the oral tradition, Aidoo is reinscribing it into the oral heritage.

In a sense, Anowa is very similar to the character of "the man" in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born or Baako in Fragments by Armah in that the main fault that many see in her is her refusal to accept materialist ideals over her own moral values. She cannot enjoy Kofi's wealth if it means accepting slavery which is evil. It is this which sets her apart from the rest of society and is the reason they blame her for the tragedy that occurs. Thus, the old man says at the beginning "Kofi was, is, and shall always be one of us . . . but what shall we say of our child, the unfortunate Anowa?" (7) However, at the end, he also recognizes the role society played in the tragedy in saying "it is men who make men mad. Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman, a person, if we had not been what we are?" (64). In a sense Anowa represents the moral fabric of traditional African society which is destroyed by the greed and the evil of slavery which arises with the contact with European capitalism.

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ghana OV Aidoo OV discourseov