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The Housemaid (1998)

Amma Darko

TheWith The Housemaid, Amma Darko, a Ghanaian writer with an education in science, has produced a wryly funny, sardonic novel containing quite biting social satire about life in a contemporary African society. Its chief focus is on women’s lives, but the author’s perspective is no litany of female victimisation, for she focuses mainly on women’s fierce (or even ruthless) survival skills. The first signal that her novel will not provide its readers with any sentimental take on the sisterhood of women is given when, in an early passage, a squatter camp mother’s rebuke to her ten-year-old daughter (because of the latter’s rudeness) provokes the following prematurely bitter, but pert reply:

“Too bad. You should have sent me to school to learn some manners then. But since you rather let me stay home to play mother to you and your friend’s sons — boys I’m only three years older than — where else can I learn my manners but in the streets?” (11)

Darko’s text is a combination of several genres: a murder mystery; a black comedy; social commentary. The writing is full of the vitality of village gossip (in the home and the drinking spot); women’s (and to some extent, men’s) plotting; and streetwise young survivors’ mutual advice and discussions. It is only right at the end of the novel that the text quite suddenly confirms the centrality of the warning that it poses right at the beginning in what must be one of the most arresting opening paragraphs in prose writing:

In Ghana, if you come into the world a she, acquire the habit of praying. And master it. Because you will need it, desperately, as old age pursues you, and mother nature’s hand approaches you with a wry smile … to daub you with wrinkles. (3)

The difficult social position of women is confirmed by the account of one typical, desperately poor old woman who is made a scapegoat for misfortunes attendant on her family’s poverty and then ostracised from her village — as it is when she is the discoverer of an abandoned, decomposing, newborn infant’s corpse. The strange hypocrisy of this society is exposed when the newspapers make the discovery a headline event and a “confirmation” of female perfidy (“Motherhood on Trial!”).

However, that this text is far from offering us a scenario of soft women abused by brutal men is shown when we see the scenario of one of the main character’s, the wealthy Tika’s, family background:

All the yelling and screaming had come from her mother; the imploring and pleading from her father. She remembered her mother’s hands flying at her father’s face in time with her insults. It was her father who had wept. (19)

Tika’s main adversaries in this tale are not her first boy-friend (who leaves her when he finds out that she goes to bed with many other men to promote her business), or the four lovers she settles for in her early middle age, but a poor and mainly female rural family comprising a shrewd peasant grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter (who becomes Tika’s housemaid in Accra, the capital city). Tika is childless and nominally single, and became wealthy by relentlessly exploiting her own mother’s guilt complex — at having been an absent mother, and for having been very harshly unsympathetic towards Tika’s deceased father. Tika’s father came from a poor farming village called Kataso — and Tika decides, partly to spite her mother, to adopt a philanthropic attitude towards these villagers.

The villagers themselves, notably Efia’s grandmother and her mother (as well as her drunken, greedy father), have their own ideas about getting their hands on Tika’s cash, since they are distant relatives and since Efia will be there, “planted”, so to speak, in Tika’s household. The plot they hatch is for Efia to fall “innocently” pregnant, whereupon her mother and her grandmother will pretend intense outrage and heartbreak, but will somehow nudge the employer into an attempt to compensate for her “negligence” (Efia being, after all, not only her employee but, so to speak, in her charge in the big city) by her offering to adopt Efia’s baby — their conduit to wealth!

As may be evident from this synopsis of their plan, it is hardly foolproof. It does, however, testify to the extent to which this novel is an illustration of the class war — the opponents in this case generally being all female (since Tika’s main ally is a formidable headmistress nicknamed Teacher) — rather than giving us the war of the sexes. At one point Efia’s grandmother invokes a marvellous anecdote that perfectly fits the cartoon-like to and fro movements of the plot (and the plotters): “My grandchild, do you know what God did next after he had created the cat with an appetite for mice? He gave the mouse a flair for dodging the cat” (77). Most readers would have the impression that this old lady and her daughter and granddaughter are, in fact, closer to the position of the cat than to that of the mouse — even if their plot in the end more or less backfires.

The elaborate and constantly adapted plan backfires because of two main miscalculations on the part of the village women — and in both cases there is a type of ignorance involved.

Firstly, by pure chance the Kataso women pick an “impossible” victim as the putative father of the unborn child — he is one of Tika’s wealthiest lovers, but he is infertile; and secondly, they had not heard of paternity testing. Beyond these errors, though, is the fact that the village women entirely underestimated the shrewdness of the supposedly decadent and therefore (as they assumed) naive city woman (Tika)! She soon began to sense that they were up to something and that they wanted to encroach on her space, affections and hard-earned privileges — and she enlisted the help of her older friend, Teacher (with her village connections), to work out and counteract their plot. So, invoking another folkloric parallel, she tells them: “but for a sheer twist of fate, Ananse the spider would have taken over as king of the jungle and driven the lion to hide his shamed face in the corners of ceilings” (81). She is, of course, here alluding to the trickster figure of West African tales, the spider Ananse who almost succeeds in overthrowing the hierarchy of nature, but is bested in the end — a tale with a clearly conservative moral in rebuke to the upwardly mobile aspirations of the lowly in human society.

Faced with an ignominious return to the village and, generally, the dreary prospects of life in Kataso, the pregnant Efia flees and takes refuge with her former village playmate, precariously surviving in another centre as a porter. When her child is born mongoloid, and dies soon after birth, she flees again, secretly taking the child’s corpse with her to have it buried in Kataso. In the end it proves fortunate for her that she is frightened away from the dead child’s body, for the villagers would have condemned her (or her grandmother) for witchery, had they seen the corpse. At the end of the novel, when Tika has relented and forgiven Efia and her family their plotting to exploit her, we find Teacher and Tika discussing this:

“So what do you think would have happened had she delivered that damaged baby in Kataso?”

“I cannot even begin to think about it!” Teacher replied. “But as sure as night turns to day and day to night, believe me, Kataso would have been thrown into a frenzied orgy of witch-hunting. And only God knows how many poor lonely old widows would have been spared. So we can thank God not only that Efia did not give birth in Kataso, but also that the remains were found in a state beyond identifying as having Down’s.”

“God help Ghana’s poor, lonely old women!” Tika muttered to herself.

“And God help us all!” Teacher added. (105-06)

It needs to be noted that this very harsh or cynical notion of women’s lot, and of village morality, should be set off against two qualifying factors. One is that the above conversation allows Teacher, who had endorsed the Kataso villagers resentment against Tika’s mother as the woman who “took away” Tika’s father from his first wife (a fellow-villager), to pounce on the opportunity provided by such a conversation about old women to promote the eventual reconciliation between Tika and Tika’s own mother. And the other point is that it is in terms of her sense of a communal village responsibility that Efia’s friend Akua took in the pregnant young woman, helped to look after her and showed intense concern at her disappearance. She explains her concern to her less-concerned friends by saying: “What if we never see her again till the yam festival [in Kataso] and they ask me about her?” (99)

Not that these slight cushionings of a bleak social scenario entirely blunts its edges. Boredom and emptiness are the tone of village life; exploitation and precariousness that of life in the city. Some few become wealthy and privileged in the city, but they pay a harsh price for success, Darko suggests. She writes of village girls’ prospects:

The girls, in contrast [with the boys], were sent for by relations or contacts in the city to work as housemaids and babysitters, though many ended up as iced-water sellers and prostitutes. (30)

I believe that this unsentimental look at post-colonial life does not reflect either lack of concern or lack of compassion. It alerts us to the way whole generations are being ruined in this process, and this serious point is perfectly balanced by a clear-eyed and amused awareness of the cunning schemes dreamt up by those trying to emerge from stagnation and poverty.

I end this account of Darko’s novel with an example of the succinct and vivid way she evokes a whole social scene and pattern. She is, here, describing the kind of life many of the girls from the villages end up leading — precarious and dangerous, but taken in their stride and cheerfully endured — these young girls being the adventurers of a new generation of newly urbanised Africans:

Life as a porter in Kumasi was not what a normal person would call living. It was survival. But Akua knew that, come the yam festival [back in the village], the adulation she would receive in Kataso would make all her sweat and humiliation sweet.

Like her mates, Akua had no regular home. They all lived in unfinished buildings; when final completion work started, they moved out. Thanks to bribes of cash and sex, workers at the building sites regularly tipped them on the next place available for occupation … (32)

In this unusual way, the author describes something close to a social tragedy — yet does so without undue lamentation, because of her recognition of a vitality, an enduring and fighting spirit, that creates strange new urban communities in the midst of decay.

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