Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo

Today begins the Second Annual Ghanian Literature Week, as celebrated by book bloggers around the globe. Kinna Reads is the central organizer of the occasion; see her introductory post.

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.

  1. I must admit, I didn’t find this a love story at all. Was this subtitle meant ironically? I suspect so.

Comments

  1. Buried In Print says

    I’ve only scanned your thoughts because I might yet read this one myself for the week’s event, but I can say that she discussed the question of its being a romance in the interview with her that I read in Writing Across Worlds. Even without having read the novel it was interesting to hear her thoughts on that.

    • says

      Buried In Print » I can’t find that book at my library system! But it sounds interesting. I do need to rethink my definition of “love story” because, as others mention below, there are other ways of considering something a love story.

  2. says

    Thanks so much for participating.

    Esi’s choice can sometimes make it hard to see the love. Because she choose a most fraught and problematic avenue to express that. I think she thought that entering into a polygamous relationship would give her all the benefits but then she would not have to deal with the demands of having a husband. She wanted to maintain her independence and yet have a man in her life. In Ghana, this choice is seductive and appealing to some women. But they quickly find that once a wife always a wife whether in a monogamous or polygamous marriage. The traditional expectations are the same. Love finds it hard to prevail but it’s still there.

    • says

      Kinna » I think you make a good point about what is love. And I can really see how she WANTED it to work out for her. I found it so sad in the end since, as you say, the “traditional expectations” ended up just as frustrating for her.

  3. says

    So excited to see that you reviewed this. I really liked it and like you found it both difficult to imagine and also gave me a lot to think about. The more I think about it the more I see the ‘love story’ as being about love in general. Esi divorcing her husband is the end of one love story, her choice to enter a polygamous relationship is another love story, albeit one that isn’t as close to how we might imagine our lives. Love stories in real life really don’t always turn out as we’d hope either do they? Definitely gave me so much to think about. Thanks for reviewing it :)

    • says

      Amy » I think you make a good point about the “love story.” It’s not a happily ever after story, but definitely there is a HOPE for love in this book. It certainly does give one much to think about, and I found the intriguing cultural differences of it being in Ghana to add a level of interest for me.