Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo (1991) is about a Ghanian woman searching for her place in a modern world that is steeped in traditional culture. Esi has an advanced degree and she loves her job, but cannot find satisfaction in her marriage, due to her demanding and overly pushy husband. While she loves her young daughter, she resents the fact that she is expected to care for her as well as working and taking care of the house and being there for her husband. She resents her husband and her expected roles. Although Accra is a modern city, the cultural expectations of her society provide only frustration for Esi. Sadly, she is not the only woman frustrated by her situation.
But when Esi decides to leave her husband, no one else she knows, not her best friend from childhood or her mother or grandmother, can understand why. Their expectations for a modern woman are that she recognize her place as a woman and balance everything, even when it is unsatisfying. The life of a woman is, by their interpretation of the cultural traditions, meant to be unsatisfying. A woman is to marry, work for her husband, have a career, take care of her home and family, and be a loving mother. Although Esi wants to follow tradition, she cannot accept that her unhappy relationship is how her life must remain. She seeks change.
As the title indicates, Esi’s story follows her as her life goes through a series of changes through the coming years. With each new change, she struggles to find her place as a woman, her place as a modern woman, and her place within both family and cultural traditions.
I was struck by the contrasts between the different women, and I loved how Ama Ata Aidoo’s narration was omnipresent, letting the reader understand the opinions of the various different women and men in the developing drama. For example, Esi’s best friend, Opokuya, is also a well-educated working woman who finds satisfaction in her work. However, although Opokuya likewise is unhappy in her marriage (and frustrated with her pushy husband), she doesn’t accept change as an option: that is just not what a woman does.
I was also struck by how universal some of the issues were. Although some of Esi’s choices, such as entering into a polygamous relationship, were rather foreign to me from my Western perspective, I think a number of American women (especially when one considers twenty years ago when Changes was written) may relate to the male-dominated marriage, in which the woman is simply expected to fill roles of mothering and housekeeping, even when she is a well-educated a full-time career woman. I am not in such a marriage; my decision to be a full-time mother and “homemaker” was my own choice and for the most part I love it. But it’s rather sad to think of how many women, globally, are repressed with societal expectations, even after modern education and traditions have been embraced by the culture and have added additional options as well as responsibilities into her life.
The novel has lots of discussion of polygamy. Because polygamy is such a foreign cultural practice to me, I found it quite strange to read of Esi’s decision to enter in to such a confusing relationship, especially since she had been raised Christian. But this is just one example of how confusing life may be in a society with a complex history, multiple religious backgrounds, multiple traditions, and different approaches to education. All seem to conflict with each other. To try to embrace every expectation leads to disappointment. I found it quite interesting that Esi, while rejecting her Christian upbringing and entering into a Muslim polygamous relationship, would still seek the families’ approval before entering into this second marriage. Despite the fact that no one seemed to approve of her divorce, she still sought to satisfy societal conventions. She was caught between many cultural traditions, and none of them seemed to provide satisfaction to her as a modern woman.
Changes was not a happy book, despite its subtitle of “A Love Story.”1 It is a book about a smart, accomplished, attractive woman searching for peace and happiness in her life and still not finding answers. It’s a tragic book, really, but it’s strikingly realistic and that’s what makes it all the more powerful to read.
- I must admit, I didn’t find this a love story at all. Was this subtitle meant ironically? I suspect so. ↩