Anowa is a highly symbolic play. The use of the styles and structures of oral literature make this particularly evident and enables Aidoo to rewrite a legend based on a few characters who are symbols of various aspects of a society at a specific historical moment. By the end of the play, Anowa in a sense becomes a symbol of Africa, her destruction representing its conquest and the ensuing breakdown of the morality, spirituality and strength of African society. This is paticularly evident in Anowa's dream which she recounts after remembering her questionning of Nana about the white colonizers and the slave trade. In this dream, Anowa identifies with Africa, her body becoming the African continent :
I dreamt that I was a big, big woman. And from my insides were huge holes out of which poured men, women, and children. And the sea was boiling hot and steaming. And as it boiled, it threw out many, many giant lobsters, boiled lobsters, each of whom as it fell turned into a man or woman, but keeping its lobster head and claws. And they rushed to where I sat and seized the men and women as they poured out of me, and they tore them apart, and dashed them to the ground and stamped upon them. And from their huge courtyards, the women ground my men and women and children on mountains of stone. But there was never a cry or a murmur; only a bursting of a ripe tomato or a swollen pod. And everything went on and on. (...) since then, every time there is a mention of a slave, I see a woman who is me and a bursting as of a ripe tomato or a swollen pod. (p.46)
In this passage, the lobsters represent the white colonizers and slave traders who, as Nana describes them, look like "you or I/ were peeled of our skins/ Like a lobster that is boiled or roasted."(p.45) The "huge courtyards" most likely refer to the slave castles built by the colonizers and Anowa gets coded as a pregnant woman who gives birth to the men and women who are stolen and destroyed by the slave trade. Anowa, who herself is not a mother and is in fact barren, thus becomes the mother of the African people - she is mother Africa, whose children are taken from her through the slave trade. This depiction of slaves as children stolen from their mother is emphasized right after this passage by the sound of"an unseen wearied multitude [who] begin to sing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'". This anachronistic singing of an African-American spiritual emphasizes a kind of transhistorical relationship between the children of Africa taken to different parts of the world, and their mother Africa, or here Anowa, while also locating the origin of this displacement of African peoples in a specific historical moment. This passage seems to suggest a new meaning in Anowa's barenness. It is not so much that she is unable to conceive but, rather, that her children have been stolen from her - she is barren because the slave trade has metaphorically robbed her of her fertility, the fertility of Africa, by selling it to other parts of the world. Likewise, Kofi Ako's impotence can be seen as the result of his selling off his own people for materialistic gain.
Kofi Ako represents the rise of the petit bourgeoisie, a new class in African society who because of his aspirations to bourgeois ideals collaborates with the colonial powers and capitalism, thus, betraying Africa. But the tragedy is that he, in fact, gains nothing - he accumulates wealth at the expense of his manhood. The accumulation of wealth through trade and slavery leads to his impotence and Anowa’s barrenness. The tragedy of the tale is largely, that of Africa and specifically of Ghana; it is the conquest, betrayal and corruption that capitalism and colonialism (the slave trade representing one of the most brutal and tragic elements of these), engender on the continent. The terms of the conquest become very gendered through the identification of Anowa with the figure of 'Mother Africa', who is betrayed by the male figure of the petty bourgeoisie, Kofi Ako; however, this gendered depiction of betrayer and betrayed is not a strict division by any means. Throughout the play Anowa is to some extent chastized by the women, many of whom represent the traditional African society, who blame her for the tragedy and fear and criticize her for not staying silent about the horrors of the slave trade. Likewise, in Anowa's dream, she says it is the women who "ground my men and women and children"; it seems that none are exempt from assuming some responsibility for the tragedy of Anowa and Kofi Ako, and by association the tragedy of the conquest of Africa. By using the structure of the dilemma tale, Aidoo also draws the audience into this story; the audience in a sense becomes subjects in the historical project of the play. At the end when the old man says : “Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman, a person, if we had not been what we are?"(p.64); the 'we' includes the audience, particularily the African or specifically Ghanaian one, although it does seem to have broader implications that could also possibly address a Western audience. Rather than simply relay a message, the structure of the play raises questions that the audience must answer for themselves, thus demanding active participation from the audience in interpreting the events that occur. It draws the audience into the play as agents of the tragedy -- it forces the audience to feel implicated in the tragedy and to think about the larger issues of the play.
It should also be mentioned that at the time when the play was published, in 1970, a Ghanaian audience would most likely remember that only four years before, Kwame Nkrumah who had led Ghana to independence had been removed from government and forced into exile by a military coup, rumored to have been backed by the C.I.A., under the immediate pretext that he had betrayed the people. The old man’s lines at the end of the play, particularly his comment, “There is surely one thing we know how to do well. And that is assigning blame when things go wrong,” could certainly refer to this more recent historic event.
Thus, Aidoo uses the structure, language, and themes of her oral literary heritage but she adapts them to a contemporary subject. This demonstrates the way in which oral literature can be adapted to reflect contemporary issues and in a sense subvert some elements of the oral heritage, as Aidoo does in this play, rewriting history through the legend of Anowa. Aidoo thus shows the artistic merits of the oral literary heritage and by adapting it to deal with both contemporary and historical issues, and demonstrates that it is not a static art of the past, but rather a living art form which still has artistic and social value.
[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]