Our Sister Killjoy: Critiquing Nationalism

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

While Aidoo certainly recognizes the oppression of the European lower classes, for instance in the character of Marija, her strong nationalist sentiments in Our Sister Killjoy seem to prevent her from recognizing the similarity between their experiences and those of immigrants. She, in fact, explicitly rejects the idea that Africans and European share certain common bonds of oppression when for instance she meets someone from Scotland who points to their common struggles against colonialism and Sissie rejects this as the basis for an alliance because certain members of the Scottish elite were part of the colonial project in Ghana. Likewise, she says of a Welsh woman she meets who is involved with a resistance movement :

She could have passed for a soul sister
But for her colour
-- and our history.(p.93).

While Aidoo thus clearly recognizes the similarities between various forms of oppression and the struggles against these, her strong attachment to a cultural nationalist ideology thus causes her to reject the possibility of cross-cultural and interracial alliances. Darko therefore seems to go further in promoting a class analysis which demonstrates that while the experience of African immigrants in Europe is one of poverty, oppression and degradation, the same is true for lower class Europeans.

Despite their differences, Darko and Emecheta and Aidoo, thus, all demonstrate the way in which the glorification of Europe and by association, 'been-tos' who have had the opportunity to attain this ideal, are myths which only serve to encourage more emigrants from Africa to leave their home countries in search of wealth and prosperity and to instead suffer the degradation and poverty that is the common experience of the majority who embark on this journey. All of these writers try to expose the reality of conditions in Europe for African immigrants to debunk the idealized myths that surround Europe in African society.

It is clear, however, that many of those who emigrate from Africa to the West, do indeed benefit and gain from leaving their country of origin. This is true particularly of the educated elite and upper classes who travel to Europe to pursue their education or to seek higher wages and better conditions in which to exercise skilled professions. Aidoo critique these people for abandoning their own country, not contributing to its development, and failing to aid in fulfilling the needs of the people whom they have left behind. When Sissie is in Germany, she critiques Indian and Ghanaian doctors who practice abroad when the countries they have left behind are in even greater need of their medical knowledge and the services they could provide. However, Aidoo also clearly understands that the material and political conditions in Ghana are such that they hinder the ability of people to practice their professions effectively and also make it materially disadvantageous for people to stay. As she says,

So, please,
Don't talk to me of the
Brain -
Drain -
Which of us stays in these days?
But those of us who fear
We cannot survive abroad,
One reason or another ?(p.32).

Despite her understanding of the material conditions which cause people to emigrate from Africa, she nonetheless decries this departure and in particular the hypocrisy of those who espouse nationalist rhetoric and proffer solutions to the problems in Africa when they themselves have chosen to remain abroad and live a more privileged life in which they can escape many of these problems. Aidoo's position is somewhat contradictory in regards to nationalism. While she critiques the hypocrisy of those who espouse nationalist rhetoric and do nothing, she herself critiques them on the basis of a nationalist ideology which does not seem to offer any concrete solutions to the problems which she raises. There is a sense that she is calling for some kind of 'real' or 'meaningful' nationalism but there is no real sense as to what that signifies. The type of cultural nationalism as exemplified in Sissie seems highly contradictory as, on the one hand, she tends to glorify Africa in opposition to the Western Developed countries through her constant disparagement of European customs and the climate; and, on the other hand, she clearly points to the problems that plague African society and compel people to leave it. It seems then, that while Sissie is certainly accurate in her critique of the hypocrisy of the nationalism of Ghanaians abroad; her own nationalism, while not hypocritical, offers little more in terms of a solution.

Aidoo's harshest critique is reserved for the students whom she portrays as perpetually extending their studies abroad so as not to be obligated to return while at the same time positioning themselves as experts on the national problems of their home countries. While in London, Sissie attends a students' union meeting in where she intervenes to critique these intellectuals, "pleading that instead of forever gathering together and virtuously spouting such beautiful radical analyses of the situation at home, we should simply hurry back?" (p.121). Aidoo critiques this hypocritical form of nationalism of an educated elite who have the privilege to escape the problems that prevail their home countries and who do nothing to attempt to improve the conditions of the people whom they have left behind. At the same time, however, she clearly demonstrates that the conditions in Ghana are such that they compel people to leave. As she says,

...the form of nationalism as evident in the posturings of Africans in the diaspora becomes and excuse, a kind of smokescreen behind which these people lead their lives uninterrupted and still manage to convince themselves that they are still very much in tune with what's going on at home. I consider it dangerous. On the other hand, we are caught in a kind of almost no-win situation.(...)Against the loud, abrasive and really empty postures of our people abroad, you can counter or you can sort of look at it against the neo-colonial situation at home which has compelled people to compromise in order to survive.

In this context, the letters which the Ghanaians abroad receive from home function as a constant reminder of the real material difficulties which their families, who do not have the privilege to leave, still face daily .They are dreaded as they remind them of their own position of privilege in as well as their inability or unwillingness to provide the necessary aid to those they left behind. Idealized constructions of the West as guaranteeing prosperity and success to those who attain this ideal lead to the belief that the 'been-to' if he or she returns will be able to provide for his or her family and elevate them out of their impoverished material conditions to a status of wealth and prestige. The letters from home thus demonstrate the 'been-tos' families hope that those abroad will return to alleviate their material difficulties. This idea is also expressed by Armah in Fragments , when Baako, the protagonist says "The member of the family who goes out and comes back home is a sort of charmed man, a miracle worker. He goes, he comes back, and with his return some astounding and sudden change is expected." Baako identifies this phenomenon as part of a "cargo cult" in which,

the been-to has chosen, been awarded, a certain kind of death. A beneficial death, since cargo follows his return. . . . A return is expected from his presence there : he will intercede on behalf of those not yet dead, asking for them what they need most urgently . . . Needs dictated by instant survival and subsistence requirements. Plus prestige for those closest, the immediate bereaved . . . the been-to cum ghost is and has to be a transmission belt for cargo.

The 'been-to's role is thus to return and bestow wealth and prestige on his or her entourage, however, it seems that in the process he or she must be sacrificed to fulfill these material demands. In Fragments, Armah portrays the destructive effects that these demands have on Baako and seems to ascribe this phenomenon to the corruption, greed and materialist values of the society. Aidoo, on the other hand, seems to be much more sympathetic to the needs of the families of those who are abroad and who write begging them to return to alleviate their material difficulties. Unlike Armah, who seems to express a kind of bourgeois individualism in which the 'been-to' has no responsibility to attempt to improve the material conditions of the people in his environment, Aidoo seems to recognize the responsibility of those who have that ability to use their position of privilege to provide aid to those who need it. Whereas Armah portrays a world in which Baako is prevented from obtaining intellectual freedom from a world plagued by materialistic ideologies because of the greed of his entourage; Aidoo emphasizes the dire material conditions and necessity which compel families beg for aid and to hope that the prestige and wealth associated with being a 'been-to' will improve their living conditions. This can be seen in the letter to Kunle from his mother when she says :

I am not begging
you for
Am I not a mother?
Do I not know you need
money yourself, and if I was rich like my friends, would I not send you some

But my son,
there is
nothing here at all.(..)(p.106).

These letters thus act as reminders of the drastic material conditions that exist in Ghana and the responsibility of those abroad to help alleviate the difficulties of those they have left behind. They remind those abroad of their privileged status and what is perceived as their duty towards the people of their society. They point also to the gap between their rhetorical ability to analyze the problems of their society and their inability to provide any material relief to those who actually face those problems daily. The letters are thus anticipated with dread and further encourage the educated elite to "wish[.. they] had the courage to be a coward enough to stay forever in England" (p.107). where they can escape many of the economic and political problems that plague Ghanaian society.

While Aidoo critiques those members of the educated elite who stay abroad, she also critiques those who do return to take advantage of the privileged status that 'been-tos' enjoy in Ghanaian society. As she says, " (...)life 'home' has its compensations. The aura of having been overseas at all. Belonging to the elite, whatever that is." Aidoo satirizes the prestige associated with being a 'been-to' through the character of Kunle who returns and attempts to take advantage of his privileged status by flaunting more wealth than he even has and who in his attempt to prove himself deserving of the awe with which he is regarded by virtue of his studies abroad, brings about his own death. In his attempt to prove himself a man of prestige, Kunle refuses to drive his own car and hires a chauffeur despite the fact that he himself is a better driver and thus dies in a car crash. In the end, Kunle, despite having achieved the ultimate symbol of success by studying abroad dies a pointless death and in no way contributes to the improvement of the material conditions in Ghana. The futility of Kunle's death points to the destructive effects that the desire for prestige and a privileged status can have while also shattering the aura of prestige which surrounds 'been-tos'.

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

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Last Modified: 29 April, 2002