Opokuya: resisting gendered material limits in Aidoo's Changes

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

In contrast to both Fusena and Esi, Opokuya represents the working class woman who is primarily concerned with material restraints to her independence. Opokuya is also educated and has a career as a nurse, however, her career is far less lucrative than the other two women's. She has a stable marriage which is, however, plagued by constant battles with her husband over control of the car which becomes a symbol of the independence Opokuya longs for. The car is a material necessity for her to be able to fulfill her role as a working woman, a mother, and a wife and symbolizes to some extent the daily struggle of the working class woman against the material restraints imposed upon her. As she says of the daily battle with her husband Kubi over the car, "it was one of the few areas of friction in an otherwise good marriage. Opokuya hated bringing it up. But she had to : every morning . . . How was she to work full-time, and medical work at that, and look after a family as a big as theirs without transportation of her own?" (p.14) Opokuya's and Esi's view of the car demonstrates the conflicts between the two of them despite their friendship and clearly points to the very different concerns that their social and economic statuses entail.

For Esi, the new car from Ali, represents a bribe which symbolizes the failure of her marriage to fulfill her psychological needs. For Opokuya, Esi's new car evokes a sense of resentment and jealousy of the freedom the latter enjoys and symbolizes the failure of her marriage and her hard work to fulfill her material needs which could allow her independence. As Opokuya says upon seeing the car,

where was her luck? What was it she had gotten out of life and out of marriage? Answer : a very faithful husband. Four fine children. Endless drudgery at work. And the state, who was her employer, paying salaries so low you were convinced the aim was to get people like her to resign and go to work for doctors in private practice. Now look at her and look at Esi ....(p.149-50)

Opokuya cannot fully understand Esi's concerns and unhappiness because they are the concerns of a woman who already has much of what she herself wants. Her concerns are much more representative of working class women who in a sense don't have the privilege of worrying about the type of emotional or psychological fulfillment that Esi seeks because their primary concern is the daily struggle against the material conditions of their existence simply to make ends meet.

It is through Opokuya that Aidoo discusses the hypocrisy of the national government and that of influential Western agencies in Africa in dealing with women's issues. She critiques the emphasis placed on overpopulation and weight in regards to women in Africa. As Opokuya notes, the stress placed on population reduction is such that contraceptives are available in abundant supply and forced on women while medication which could address the much more serious medical needs of African people is scarce. As she ironically notes, "you know we would never run out of the routine drugs if they were also contraceptive and we gave them to all patients, including men and children(...)" (p.13). Aidoo harshly critiques the hypocrisy of this type of Western intervention which operates under the pretense of aid to the people of Africa and critiques the acquiescent role of the national government, although her emphasis on the national bourgeoisie as "beggars" tends to obscure the latter's active (rather than simply passive) role in the perpetuation of ideas such as overpopulation theories which divert from the more pressing concerns and the material inequities of African society. As Opokuya says,

'Meanwhile our governments are behaving like all professional beggars. they have learned the rules of effective begging, one of them being that you never object to anything the giver likes. And they know the giver likes one thing now : that there should not be too many of us. Under such circumstances, how does the beggar tell the giver to go and stuff his dangerous and experimental contraceptive pills, capsules and injections? Yes injections. And they call their murderous programmes such beautiful names : "family planning" and "mother health" ... all to cover up...' (p.14)

Likewise, she critiques the emphasis on weight loss for women and in particular the negative depiction of overweight women, particularly African women but also Western women, saying,

'The days when being fat was a sign of prosperity and contentment are long over. You and I know that these days the only fat people in the world are poor uneducated women in the so-called Third World and unhappy sex-starved women in the more affluent societies who are supposed to eat for consolation.' (p.35)

Opokuya is clearly aware and highly critical of the treatment of women in her society, the material constraints on their lives as well as the hypocritical way in which these problems are dealt with which serve primarily to divert attention from the more serious concerns and thus, fail to actually improve the majority of women's lives while perpetuating negative images of them.

[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