Independence and Automobiles

Selasi Dorcoo, English 393B, DePauw University

In Changes, Ama Ata Aidoo voices her opinions about the independence of women in contemporary Ghana. She writes about what she believes should be the ideal situation, points out why the ideal is only an ideal, and then describes the actual situation by using two characters, Opokuya and Esi. Contrasting their access to automobiles, she identifies different degrees of women's independence.

To understand how important cars are in Changes, one must examine what it is like for a woman to live in contemporary Ghana. According to the World Bank's annual gender profile survey of African countries, women made up a mere 9 percent of parliament in Ghana in 2000. In addition, women held just 9 percent of the ministerial positions in government at the turn of the millenium. The same World Bank survey reports the pecentage of household headship in 1997 as 26 to 74 in favor of men, both in the rural and urban areas of Ghana. All these percentages point to a prevalent culture of female repression in contemporary Ghana. The situation even looks grimmer when the disparty between the date of conception of Changes and the dates reported by the survey is factored in, since the novel was written in 1991, some years before the World Bank report.

Like colonialism, repression works by convincing the repressed to accept the status-quo. A major way to do this is to genderize occupation and occupational skills. For example, driving is a man's occupation in contemporary Ghana. Any woman therefore who can drive and who owns a car is seen to be equal to men. However, traditional Ghanaian attitudes, believe women are supposed to depend on their men for everything. Thus, it was a deviation from the norm to find women who own cars in contemporary Ghana.

In this light, it is not surprising that Aidoo uses in Esi to show that the African woman should be independent by owning a car. Esi's independence, as a result of owning a car, appears when she first visits Ali Kondey in his office. Ali offers to give her a ride home, but she tells him that she came with her own car. This fact seems very insignificant until we notice Ali's reaction. Ali, the book says, was "struggling with a solid feeling of disappointment" (Aidoo 3) when Esi rejected his offer of a ride. This disappointment could be interpreted as the usual feeling of disappointment felt by anyone who has been rejected, but it could also be interpreted as Ali's frustration at learning that he would have to woo an independent woman. He recognized that it would be difficult wooing a woman who really did not need anything from a man.

The character Opokuya is less independent that Esi, for she haggles over the use of the car with her husband every morning. Opokuya actually is haggling over her independence from her husband each day. It is an unspoken truth, obvious to both Opokuya and her husband, that whoever controls the car is in control of affairs. Kubi, wanting to have traditional male total control, makes it very difficult for his wife to get the car, even when it is parked for the most part of the day anyway.

Nevertheless, Opokuya relentlessly struggles to be independent in the situation in which she finds herself. She tries to do her rounds, "with or without the car" (Aidoo 20), just to prove to her husband that she does not need it to be independent. Sometimes, Opokuya gets the automobile to do her rounds, and sometimes she does not -- a fact which suggests that she is sometimes dependent on her husband, and at other times, she is not. Although Opokuya complains about having to do her rounds without the car, she actually is very content depending on Kubi sometimes. In her words "[I] would rather not think of anything happening to Kubi. Not just yet, dear Lord" (Aidoo 56), Opokuya states her contentment with her occasional dependence on Kubi.

In Opokuya therefore, Aidoo depicts an African woman who contradicts herself. Opokuya is not as independent as Esi, but strives to reach Esi's level of independence. However, Opokuya, wittingly, does not want to gain the level of independence that she is striving for because she knows that she will not be able to stand on her feet when she is completely independent of Kubi.

[This essay is based upon a response paper from Professor Anne Fernald's Postcolonial literature class at DePauw University. It was been substantially edited by GPL.]

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Last Modified: 7 December 2003