An African Education in 'No Sweetness Here'

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Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, now out in paperback. She divides her time between New Haven, Conn., and Lagos, Nigeria, and is on a life-consuming quest to learn how to dance. Image Courtesy of Chimamanda Adichie hide caption

itoggle caption Image Courtesy of Chimamanda Adichie

When I first came to the U.S. to go to university almost 10 years ago, my roommates were startled by everything about me: that I wore what they called "American" clothes, that I spoke English, that I knew who Mariah Carey was. They also seemed disappointed, as if they had been expecting a real African and then had me turn up.

Later, I began to suspect that this was because, apart from the movie Tarzan, all they knew of Africa was Chinua Achebe's magnificent novel Things Fall Apart, which they read in high school. But their teacher had forgotten to tell them that Things Fall Apart was set in the Nigeria of a hundred years ago.

And so I gave them the collection of stories by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called No Sweetness Here.

These stories of Ghana in the 1960s after independence are done so beautifully and so wisely and with such subtlety. The characters lie uneasily between old and new, live in rural and urban areas, and struggle to deal with the unpleasant surprises of independence.

There is a keen but understated longing for the past in these stories, but Aidoo is too good a writer to paint with overly broad brush strokes. She does not at all suggest that the past was perfect, and there is no romanticizing of culture.

Here's an example: Traditional weddings in Ghana have always been full of what one character tells us is misguided foolishness. The past was not, in other words, one in which things were necessarily better — and Aidoo herself might question the usefulness of "better" or "worse" as categories — but rather a past that is longed for only because it was created by Africans themselves without the power dynamics of colonialism. It was a time in which people understood their lives and could create meaning from their interactions with one another.

Westernization has spawned an unthinking consumerism in the characters, a desire for Western things often unwanted by the West itself. One character describes this as "desiring only nonsensical items from someone else's factory;" another sees it as "people at home scrambling to pay exorbitant prices for secondhand clothes from America."

No Sweetness Here is the kind of old-fashioned social realism I have always been drawn to in fiction, and it does what I think all good literature should: It entertains you. Aidoo has a fantastic sly wit and humor; she does not hit you over the head with her "message," but after you have greedily finished each story, you sit back and realize that you have been through an intellectual experience as well.

This book was particularly meaningful to me during my first alienating months in America. It was a comfort — its familiarity, the way it captured ideas I understood but would never have been able to capture myself.

I dislike the idea of literature as anthropology, and yet I rather unreasonably wanted my roommates to read this book as anthropology — as a follow-up to Things Fall Apart, as a way of making myself less of an unpleasant surprise.

Of course I also hoped that they would love the stories. In the end, only one of my roommates read the book. It took her a while to finish it and when I asked what she thought, she said it wasn't very African.

I've always been curious about how much of our cultural baggage we bring to what and how we read. I suspect we bring a lot, although we like to think we don't. I loved my roommate's response because it meant that this wonderful book had challenged some of her stock ideas about Africa. And although she didn't say so, I'm certain that it made her think and laugh as well.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'No Sweetness Here'

No Sweetness Here Book Cover

He was beautiful, but that was not important. Beauty does not play such a vital role in a man's life as it does in a woman's, or so people think. If a man's beauty is so ill-mannered as to be noticeable, people discreetly ignore its existence. Only an immodest girl like me would dare comment on a boy's beauty. "Kwesi is so handsome," I was always telling his mother. "If ever I am transferred from this place, I will kidnap him." I enjoyed teasing the dear woman and she enjoyed being teased about him. She would look scandalized, pleased and alarmed all in one fleeting moment.

"Ei, Chicha. You should not say such things. The boy is not very handsome really." But she knew she was lying. "Besides, Chicha, who cares whether a boy is handsome or not?" Again she knew that at least she cared, for, after all, didn't the boy's wonderful personality throw a warm light on the mother's lively though already waning beauty? Then gingerly, but in a remarkably matter-of-fact tone, she would voice out her gnawing fear. "Please Chicha, I always know you are just making fun of me, but please, promise me you won't take Kwesi away with you." Almost at once her tiny mouth would quiver and she would hide her eyes in her cloth as if ashamed of her great love and her fears. But I understood. "O, Maami, don't cry, you know I don't mean it."

"Chicha I am sorry, and I trust you. Only I can't help fearing, can I? What will I do, Chicha, what would I do, should something happen to my child?" She would raise her pretty eyes, glistening with unshed tears.

"Nothing will happen to him," I would assure her. "He is a good boy. He does not fight and therefore there is no chance of anyone beating him. He is not dull, at least not too dull, which means he does not get more cane-lashes than the rest of his mates..."

"Chicha, I shall willingly submit to your canes if he gets his sums wrong," she would hastily intervene.

"Don't be funny. A little warming-up on a cold morning wouldn't do him any harm. But if you say so, I won't object to hitting that soft flesh of yours." At this, the tension would break and both of us begin laughing. Yet I always went away with the image of her quivering mouth and unshed tears in my mind.

Maami Ama loved her son; and this is a silly statement, as silly as saying Maami Ama is a woman. Which mother would not? At the time of this story, he had just turned ten years old. He was in Primary Class Four and quite tall for his age. His skin was as smooth as shea-butter and as dark as charcoal. His black hair was as soft as his mother's. His eyes were of the kind that always remind one of the long dream on a hot afternoon. It is indecent to dwell on a boy's physical appearance, but then Kwesi's beauty was indecent.

The evening was not yet come. My watch read 4:15 p.m., that ambiguous time of the day which these people, despite their great ancient astronomic knowledge, have always failed to identify. For the very young and very old, it is certainly evening, for they've stayed at home all day and they begin to persuade themselves that the day is ending. Bored with their own company, they sprawl in the market-place or by their own walls. The children begin to whimper for their mothers, for they are tired with playing "house." Fancying themselves starving, they go back to what was left of their lunch, but really they only pray that mother will come home from the farm soon. The very old certainly do not go back on lunch remains but they do bite back at old conversational topics which were fresh at ten o'clock.

"I say, Kwame, as I was saying this morning, my first wife was a most beautiful woman," old Kofi would say.

"Oh! yes, yes, she was an unusually beautiful girl. I remember her." Old Kwame would nod his head but the truth was he was tired of the story and he was sleepy. "It's high time the young people came back from the farm."

But I was a teacher, and I went the white man's way. School was over. Maami Ama's hut was at one end of the village and the school was at the other. Nevertheless it was not a long walk from the school to her place because Bamso is not really a big village. I had left my books to little Grace Ason to take home for me; so I had only my little clock in my hand and I was walking in a leisurely way. As I passed the old people, they shouted their greetings. It was always the Fanticised form of the English.

"Kudiimin-o, Chicha." Then I would answer, "Kudiimin, Nana."

When I greeted first, the response was "Tanchiw."

"Chicha, how are you?"

"Nana, I am well."

"And how are the children?"

"Nana, they are well.

"Yoo, that is good." When an old man felt inclined to be talkative, especially if he had more than me for audience, he would compliment me on the work I was doing. Then he would go on to the assets of education, especially female education, ending up with quoting Dr. Aggrey.

So this evening too, I was delayed: but it was as well, for when I arrived at the hut, Maami Ama had just arrived from the farm. The door opened, facing the village, and so I could see her. Oh, that picture is still vivid in my mind. She was sitting on a low stool with her load before her. Like all the loads the other women would bring from the farms into their homes, it was colourful with miscellaneous articles. At the very bottom of the wide wooden tray were the cassava and yam tubers, rich muddy brown, the colour of the earth. Next were the plantain, of the green colour of the woods from which they came. Then there were the gay vegetables, the scarlet pepper, garden eggs, golden pawpaw and crimson tomatoes. Over this riot of colours the little woman's eyes were fixed, absorbed, while the tiny hands delicately picked the pepper. I made a scratchy noise at the door. She looked up and smiled. Her smile was wonderful flashing whiteness.

"Oh Chicha, I have just arrived."

"So I see. Ayekoo."

"Yaa, my own. And how are you, my child?"

"Very well, Mother. And you?"

"Tanchiw. Do sit down, there's a stool in the corner. Sit down. Mmmm....Life is a battle. What can we do? We are just trying, my daughter."

"Why were you longer at the farm today?"

"After weeding that plot I told you about last week, I thought I would go for one or two yams."

"Ah!" I cried.

"You know tomorrow is Ahobaa. Even if one does not feel happy, one must have some yam for old Ahor."

"Yes. So I understand. The old saviour deserves it. After all it is not often that a man offers himself as a sacrifice to the gods to save his people from pestilence."

"No, Chicha, we were so lucky."

"But Maami Ama, why do you look so sad? After all, the yams are quite big." She gave me a small grin, looking at the yams she had now packed at the corner.

"Do you think so? Well, they are the best of the lot. My daughter, when life fails you, it fails you totally. One's yams reflect the total sum of one's life. And mine look wretched enough."

"O, Maami, why are you always speaking in this way? Look at Kwesi, how many mothers can boast of such a son? Even though he is only one, consider those who have none at all. Perhaps some woman is sitting at some corner envying you."

She chuckled. "What an unhappy woman she must be who would envy Ama! But thank you, I should be grateful for Kwesi."

After that we were quiet for a while. I always loved to see her moving quietly about her work. Having finished unpacking, she knocked the dirt out of the tray and started making fire to prepare the evening meal. She started humming a religious lyric. She was a Methodist.

We are fighting
We are fighting
We are fighting for Canaan, the Heavenly Kingdom above.

Excerpted from No Sweetness Here by Ama Ata Aidoo © 1970 Ama Ata Aidoo. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Press.

Books Featured In This Story

No Sweetness Here and Other Stories

by Ama Ata Aidoo

Paperback, 160 pages | purchase

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No Sweetness Here and Other Stories
Author
Ama Ata Aidoo

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Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Hardcover, 435 pages | purchase

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Half of a Yellow Sun
Author
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

Paperback, 209 pages | purchase

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Things Fall Apart
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Chinua Achebe

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