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Our Sister Killjoy

Ama Ata Aidoo

Our Sister KilljoyThe formidable Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, who has been a cabinet minister in her own country, gave this text (her best-known work) the full title Our Sister Killjoy — Or Reflections From A Black-Eyed Squint. As the subtitle indicates, the narrative perspective in this 1977 work — still in 2001 a strikingly unusual and pertinent commentary on the African encounter with the West, on European soil — is unashamedly, sharply African, in the sense of directly inverting what has come to be termed “the colonial gaze” (of those who came, mainly from Europe, to observe, or to settle among, African or Indian people). Without being a conventional narrative or biography, it is a text that uses the framework of an account of a state-sponsored visit to Germany by a young Ghanaian woman (the “Sister” of the title, usually addressed as “Sissie”) to analyse what Europe is and does to those Africans whom it “sponsors” and educates. Sissie’s “black-eyed squint” takes what the British term a “jaundiced look” at Europe and the “generosity” of those Europeans (particularly, in this case, the Germans) who seem to want to “make up for” colonialism, slavery and racism by inviting Africans like herself to stay there and be introduced to (and, of course, be impressed by) European prosperity and culture.

What makes Sissie’s supposed squint so clear-eyed, and her castigation so cutting, is her ability to see through power abuse in all its forms, and her refusal to overlook the African forms of it. Early in the text the balanced nature of her assessment is made evident to the reader. Using grotesque imagery to characterise corrupt Third World leaders, Sissie says, “You wouldn’t know they were / Feeding if it was not for the / Occasional / Tell-tale trickle somewhere / Around the mouth” (34). Two pages later, she gives an equally surreal description of the Bavarian region: “The blood of their young men was / Needed to mix the concrete for / Building the walls of / The Third Reich  .../ How this reminds me of the / Ahome kings of Dahomey. / That’s why / ... / [The Germans] wonder if, should they / Stop cultivating the little pine trees, would / Something else, / Sown there, / Many, many years ago, / In / Those Bavarian woods / SPROUT?” (36-37).

Something of the eeriness of this thought colours the entire description of Sissie’s relationship with a lower middle-class Hausfrau, Marija, who befriends her because of a fascination with dark-skinned people (as Sissie soon discovers). The relationship is jealously observed by the local grandees (to whom an African woman visitor is an exotic trophy):

    They raged. The thinned-out end of the old aristocracy and those traditional lickers of aristocratic arse, the pastor, the burgomaster and the schoolteacher ... (44)

Sissie sees “West Berlin — / As loud as a / Self-conscious whore at a / Gay last-night party / Aboard a sinking ship / East Berlin, / Quiet like a haunted house / On a Sunday afternoon” (59).

The text is presented in a (vaguely) stream-of- experience manner, communicating the quizzical, frequently sarcastic or indeed harsh value judgments and analyses of the protagonist (Sissie; “Sister Killjoy” who refuses to be charmed or naively overawed). In many places the “narrative” changes pace into a form of free verse — by means of which Sissie presents some of her most biting, or occasionally sympathetic observations.

Sissie easily accommodates her sense of her own blackness, and of the poverty and chaos of many African societies, in recognising either the similar qualities (of taxingly difficult or oppressive circumstances hidden under the surface of German bourgeois life), or the hollowness of much European privilege. For “The ranks of the wretched are / Full” and “Being a woman” (for instance) “Never will be a / Child’s game” (51), even in “cosy” Bavaria.

Aidoo’s oblique portrayal of the ultimately wretched Bavarian Marija, the young married woman with her single boy-child who is Sissie’s major “window” on middle-class life in Germany, is simultaneously poignant and an exposure of the cost of prosperity. For Sissie gradually begins to discover that the strange desperation in Marija’s intense and insistently displayed feelings of friendship for herself (after all, an exotic and temporary sojourner in her village) result from the extreme and bleak loneliness of her life.

This realisation (in Sissie) begins to dawn when she is taken to see the couple’s all-white bedroom with its “simple funereal elegance” (63). This is in the cottage where Marija and her husband live, but really Marija lives alone because her husband has to work such long hours of overtime (to pay off their mortgage) that he returns only in the deep of night, too exhausted even to eat. It is in this room that Aidoo sets a fleeting, pathos-imbued sexual “advance” from Marija: “where a young Aryan housewife kisses a young black woman with such desperation, right in the middle of her own nuptial chamber” (64). It is an electrifying moment in the text as Sissie sees Marija “anew”: “Look at how pale she suddenly is as she moves shakily, looking lost in her own house”, with the single tear of her forlorn loneliness “forever falling” from her eye (65).

Later Sissie tells Marija that in her own home in Ghana “There are seven of us my mother’s children and sixteen of us my father’s”; discussing polygamy: mentioning “some of its comforts, but admitting too that it was very unfair, basically” (68).

When Sissie prepares to leave the youth hostel (an ancient castle) in the Bavarian village for her next destination, she discovers the extent of Marija’s emotional dependence on her. In one of the most subtle turns of the text, Aidoo shows Sissie cruelly savouring the German woman’s sorrow and anguish: “It hit her like a stone, the knowledge that there is pleasure in hurting” (76). Thus Aidoo illustrates her recognition of the unfortunate “naturalness” of cruelty issuing from unequal power relations, but this time showing the German in the pathetic role of the victim, and an African in the unbecoming role of the torturer.

Like the hero of a picaresque novel Sissie moves on to Britain, where black people are plentiful in comparison with the German village (where she was an exotic rarity). She says of London that “the place seemed full of [black people] but they appeared so wretched, she wondered why they stayed” (85). Her focus here is mostly, however, on more privileged Africans, the recipients of awards and study grants, whose brains (as Sissie sees it) are being picked by their hosts (86-87). “So when they eventually went back home as 'been-to’s, the ghosts of the humans that they used to be, spoke of the wonders of being overseas” (89- 90).

Aidoo in this section of the text brings out many of the miseries attendant on the African brain drain to the West — the starving families back home; the cultural humiliation; the abandonment of cultural loyalties; the refusal to return and invest skills and time in African societies. One of Sissie’s deliberations on the distinction between “Westerners” and Africans acknowledges sardonically that “we [Africans] let the more relaxed part of us get too strong ... we only need a small effort to update the ... more insensitive part of ourselves. Like catching up with ancient cruelties!” (116).

Relaxed is, of course, one thing that Sissie is not. In Britain she seems to spend much of her time haranguing other Africans to contribute their expertise to their motherlands, instead of merely buying their mothers’ houses and remaining in Europe. She is simultaneously appalled by and contemptuous of the range of lame excuses and transparently disingenuous explanations she is given. Eventually she gives up — as she did when the man she loved, a feistier member of the above-mentioned group of Africans successfully working and studying in Europe, left her — largely because of this ideological difference between her and them. For “when an atmosphere is as inert as Africa today, the worst thing you can do to anybody is to sell him your dreams” (129).

She flies back. To be in her own continent again, she says, feels “like fresh honey on the tongue: a mixture of complete sweetness and smoky roughage”. Her impression of the “home” that is there in Ghana combines, she says, “its unavoidable warmth and even after all these thousands of years, its uncertainties” (133).

I highly recommend this unusual and incisive text to such readers as would prefer a challenging reading experience to a soothing one.

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