No Sweetness Here: Disillusionment and Independence

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

Throughout the collection, Aidoo depicts women who survive despite the obstacles in neo-colonial Ghanaian society. For the majority of these women independence has brought no relief and has in fact only increased the difficulties they face. There is indeed "no sweetness here" but nonetheless, survival is the driving force throughout the collection. While Aidoo certainly seems to be committed to portraying the material, economic and social problems which plague post-colonial Ghanaian society and the difficulties which these cause in the daily lives of the women in her stories; it seems that she is equally committed to portraying strong female characters who survive in face of these adversities. One reason for this is perhaps her conscious attempt to reject stereotypical depictions of women as passive and weak and instead demonstrate the strength and resilience of African women. Like many of her contemporaries, Aidoo harshly critiques the failure of independence to bring improvement to the majority of people's lives but Aidoo differs to some extent differs in her portrayal of ordinary people in Ghana. In both The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Fragments, for instance, Armah portrays a society in which virtually everyone is corrupt and hardly any character, aside from the protagonist, is exempt from responsibility for the problems which plague the society.

Aidoo, on the other hand, while critiquing the elites and the bourgeoisie, emphasizes the strength of her predominantly female characters who despite the material difficulties that pervade their society struggle to survive and overcome these obstacles. This can be seen in "Certain Winds from the South", in which Aidoo discusses the effects of poverty on families and particularly the experience of women and children who are left behind by men who must seek work elsewhere so as to be able to support their families. The socio-economic relations between the northern and southern regions of Ghana are such that "the South is a socio-economic magnet for northern Third World labor and resources," in that there is a dearth of economic opportunity in the North which leads many people to migrate south to find work. As a result of these "winds from the south" many men leave their families to survive on meager incomes as they go south in search of economic opportunity.

Yet, Aidoo does not criticize the men who leave but rather she understands the plight of men such as Issa who explains that he is not neglecting his family through his departure, saying "what will be the use in my staying here and watching them starve?" (p.50). The drastic conditions in the North give him no choice. likewise, M'ma Ansa and her daughter have no choice but to survive with a certain stoic acceptance, just as, Auntie Araba of 'something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral" survives after being abandoned by the father of her child and later her son. This depiction of women is post-independence Ghana exemplifies the disillusionment of post-independence Ghana in which expectation is gone and in its place all that is left is a drive to survive as best as one can in the prevailing conditions. By the end of the collection one is left with the symbolic image of Maami Ama "kneeling like one drowning who catches at a straw . . . clutching Kwesi's books and school uniform to her breast," (p.74) with Kwesi representing the hope of what independence had to offer, poisoned by a snake in its infancy.

In stark contrast to the lives of women struggling to survive in face of material difficulties is the satiric account of Ghanaian society in "Two Sisters" which is the tale of Connie and Mercy, members of the middle class neo-colonial elite who in many ways exemplify the hypocrisy and consumerism of these sectors in post-independence Ghana. Connie is depicted as the emblem of morality who worries about her sister Mercy who has affairs with bourgeois politicians to procure various commodities, and yet, she nonetheless accepts the sewing machine which her sister's lover buys for her, albeit with a guilty conscience, but nonetheless demonstrating the hypocritical nature of the morality which she espouses as it promptly disappears when she stands to make a material gain. Mercy is a materialistic and opportunistic character who becomes the mistress of a politician to fulfill her consumerist goals. Aidoo, however, does not necessarily condemn either of these women but rather demonstrates the corruption of Ghanaian society and the consumerist tendencies of the rising middle class. Mercy is not an exception but rather exemplary of a certain class of women who opportunistically become the mistresses of wealthy men for their own gain. As James says in Mercy's defense, 'since every other girl she knows has ruined herself prosperously, why shouldn't she? . . . Every morning her friends who don't earn any more than she does wear new shoes, wigs and what-have-you to work. What would you have her do?" (98). Aidoo does not necessarily target individuals but rather the rising consumerism within the elites of post-independence Ghana who sacrifice all morals and values for a pair of shoes or a sewing machine,

Perhaps the harshest critique and the most exemplary of the disillusionment of the post-independence period is the critique of the politicians, the national bourgeoisie of Ghana. They offer government estates and expensive gifts bought with national money for their numerous mistresses while the majority of people in the country must struggle to survive. This corruption, however, does not arise simply as a result of the corruption of individual politicians but rather, it is a wider systemic problem as can be seen in Aidoo's depiction of the military coup which overthrows Mercy's lover and his government. Despite Connie's hope that the military will now "clean[..] up the country of all that dirt," (p.100) nothing has changed. Mercy shows up with a new lover, the new military leader of the country. It is impossible to tell the difference between the new and old leaders; like Mercy's shoes, no one can tell if "those are the old pair which were new a couple of months ago? Or are they the newest pair?" (p.101). Aidoo here is clearly referring to the military overthrow of Nkrumah and echoing the sentiment of other contemporary writers such as Armah who wrote, "It would be wrong(...)to think that the change would bring something new. . . . New men would take into their hands the power to steal the nation's riches and to use it for their own satisfaction . . . There would be nothing different in that. That would only be a continuation of the Ghanaian way of life."

The stories in the collection No Sweetness Here exemplify the disillusionment of the period directly following independence in Ghana. Like other writers of the time, Aidoo critiques the national liberation struggle for its failure to liberate and improve the living conditions of the majority of people in Ghana and particularly of women. Aidoo in particular does so by focusing primarily on the "minutia of every day life" of the elite to some extent but primarily of ordinary people, as symbols of the larger societal problems. In this she differs from contemporaries such as Kofi Awoonor, in This Earth, My Brother... who focuses almost entirely on the elite classes and portrays a much more allegorical and at times almost mythological account of post-colonial Ghana and the incredible corruption and decay of society. While Aidoo, likewise portrays the corruption of the elite classes, she seems more concerned than with exploring the way the material difficulties that are in large point caused by the failure of independence to bring about social change, affect ordinary people, particularly women. Rather than focus primarily on the alienation of 'honest' or 'virtuous' members of the educated elite who are alienated because of the corruption and greed of the ruling classes, Aidoo focuses largely, on instances of the everyday lives of various women who struggle against their material conditions to survive.

Like another contemporary writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, Aidoo depicts the problems that plague post-independence Ghanaian society and certainly shares much of the sense of disillusionment of the time; however, in many ways she differs radically in her portrayal of this society. In Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a society in which everyone is corrupt and all are willing to sacrifice morality and virtue to further their aspirations to materialistic ideals. The lone "man" who attempts to remain honest and refuse to succumb to the greed and corruption of society is thus ostracized completely. Although at the end there is a glimpse of hope, overall, as Angmor says "the social environment is rendered uncongenial for honest living by the prevalent dishonesty and selfishness of both the rulers and the generality of the citizenry, " (italics added.) In contrast, Aidoo demonstrates the corruption and greed of the national bourgeoisie, while at the same time portraying numerous characters who are strong, honest and are simply struggling to survive in this society. Aidoo's vision of this society seems to be far less pessimistic as she seems committed to showing not only the corruption and the greed that pervades, but also showing the strength of those who resist and survive despite the problems that plague their every day lives.

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

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