The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from Between the Generations: An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80.
Between the Generations: An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80
Edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah
Vidya Bookstore, 2020
Read the excerpt:
Ama Ata Aidoo
Her children had found her in a truly sad state, bunched up into a rather tiny bundle on her widowed king-size bed, the sheets crumpled. With her head under the sheets, she barely managed to squeak out the ‘come in’ when they knocked. They are both here because Kabuki had phoned her like she normally would, early on a Saturday morning. Especially when she was not sure that either she herself or her brother would be able to visit their mother that weekend. This call had turned out to be anything but routine.
The young woman had realised that her mother was crying on the phone, and could not stop. So she hung up on the weeping parent and immediately called her brother, who had come driving furiously to meet her at their mother’s.
‘Mother, what is it?’ That from Narh, his irritation naked. Silence. Under the sheets, she shivered slightly to the reminder that they called her ‘mother’, only when they wanted to emphasise a fact. That a brilliant career in the foreign service notwithstanding, she is still the mother. Therefore, loved, but not really listened to. And she is old. So everything about her is rather out of date. Especially her ideas.
Ironically, she was also thinking that she had not asked anybody to check in on her, thank you very much, and if they had decided to come of their own free will, then they better behave themselves. None of their forced concern. ‘Mother,’ began the young woman who was already sitting at the bottom of the bed, and trying to pry the tightly held bed sheet off her mother’s head. This was a game she used to play with them when they were kids. In those days, the harder they had pulled at the sheets, the tighter she had clutched at them, until they threatened to give up out of sheer frustration. Then she would loosen up, show them her adoring and adored face, sit up, and hug them both.
But now they were no longer kids, and this was not a game. So she decided to throw the sheets off her head and sit up. The two were shocked by her face. Her eyes were alarmingly red and completely swollen from crying, which in any case seemed to have gathered momentum when she heard them knocking.
‘Oh Ma, what is it?’
‘Aleppo, Aleppo, ow, Aleppo!’
‘Alle-what?’ Of course, they had heard her. But believing their ears was another story altogether.
‘Aleppo, Aleppo, ah, Aleppo!’
‘But Ma,’ they began again, paused, and then didn’t know how to continue.
Her children had always had a love–hate relationship with the local media: another story altogether. Both of them were good and consistent viewers of international television news. After all, being her children, they had had to pay attention to the international media from when they were in kindergarten. They got to know early, when something happened wherever she was currently posted, whether they were with her or not. Since they made friends in the different countries where they briefly lived or visited their mother, they had also been interested in reports of events in the cities and the countries they had passed through.
Aleppo. That’s Syria, right? They’d been aware of the war in Syria from the earliest days of the demonstrations that led to the war, and they had followed as much of that heartbreaking story as possible, especially Aleppo’s then-that, now-this tragic fortunes.
Arab spring? What’s that? Why refer to a cataclysm in a whole different region of the earth, thousands of miles away from your world, by a name you gave to a ‘brief dalliance with democracy’ in your backyard? (Wikipedia) Why does everything in this world have to be identified only by their relationship to Western phenomena and whiteness? The Black Bomber? When the world, including all of Europe and North America was seeing the likes of Joe Louis for the first time ever? Was there an earlier White Bomber in human history? Ideas. We can weigh ourselves or others down with them more easily than with stones. Or fly better with them than birds do with their wings. Even if you’d unfortunately thought at the time that the demonstrations that followed poor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire would usher in only a Prague-like experiment, how about recognising, when it became obvious that that ‘Middle East thing’ would drag in a whole new beast that could also collapse whole civilisations: ancient and modern, and change the entire world forever?
A retired and somewhat generously pensioned African woman living in an African city tearing herself apart over other peoples’ woes? Where did her own problems go? Like problem number one:
Insensitive, insecure, inefficient, greedy, and cruel African governments. Black men still afraid of white men themselves still afraid of black men.
Problem number two.
What to do about ageing, out-of-tune, no-longer-in-Vogue-Western-male rock stars who recognise their need for international appreciation, hankering periodically to sing about Africa and her problems in order to boost their reputations. Oh, yes, stuffing their bank accounts already bursting at the seams from earlier rock concerts where they sang about Africa, Africans and their perennial problems.
Collapsed medical facilities
Stop it!! Stop it!!!
Facility starved doctors who have to ask patients’ relatives to take their loved ones’ home. To die of course. Because the said patients are too ill or too old for hospital care, or their illnesses are ‘spiritual’, so there’s nothing much that can be done for them
Young mothers dying needlessly in childbirth
Open drainage and garbage mountains
Stop it! Stop it!! Stop it!!!
Kabuki and Narh always thought that their mother was different in more ways than one. But this particular habit she has of sympathising with strangers and foreigners more than her kin was the strangest yet. They didn’t know, and had never heard of any one of their own generation, older, or younger, who was that odd. After all, everybody grieves their personal losses and other calamities that happen close to home, while keeping an appropriately distanced sympathy for other people and their tragedies?
Not their mother. From when they were old enough to notice and understand the world around them, they had marvelled at her capacity to stay cool-calm-and-collected during personal and kinship crises. For adversities that she had had to cope with, supervise and get resolved one way or another, she was superb, her back stiffened most formidably, her teeth clenched. So they grew up convinced that if anyone ever wanted to see their mother in tears, then they would have to bring her tales about other people caught in disasters and chaos.
The aftermaths of earthquakes, tsunamis, major volcanic eruptions that pour hot ashes on people who had not received any warning or could not run fast enough as they left their homes under molten lava;
floods and other mayhem
women raped by a battalion of their own national or other people’s armies
those who are ridiculed, humiliated, marginalised, raped and butchered by their neighbours, in their own countries and may be even by their own nearest and dearest.
Her response to such news? She disintegrated completely. She would wail for hours, huge tears streaming down her face, her heart broken.
Like now. That’s why when they first entered her room and the voice they heard from her was so tiny that they could hardly catch it, they breathed a simultaneous sigh of cautious relief. They thought: ‘Ah, whatever has got her into this miserable state must be far away from here. But then these days, how far away is “faraway”?’
That morning, the young people were not taking her stubborn silence. That morning, they were not having any of it. And luckily for them, it was a Saturday. They would not be going to work, and they didn’t intend to go anywhere else. They were no longer children. The days were gone when they would stand by her for hours, puzzled and confused and wondering what was wrong with their darling mother, and yet not have the courage to question her. Until their legs ached, and either of them had the good sense to signal the other that they should sit down somewhere, or leave. Then they would slink away close to tears, their heads bowed. Or they would sit down by their mother’s bed, also with their heads bowed. As though whatever was bothering their mother so much was their fault. They always knew that as soon as she was alright again, she would come out of her room and look for them: with her face lighted up, a freshness to her step, and smother them with lots of hugs and kisses. Sometimes she would go on and treat them to something really nice: their favourite snack of the moment. Or any of those permanent number ones: cakes, chocolates, ice cream.
Every now and then over the years, she would have an attack while they were away in school, or staying over at their grandmother’s. However, they would come home to find her calm, beaming and loving. But they could tell. When their father was alive, it was not so bad. After he died, that part of their lives too died. They would spend the whole day with her if necessary. Or go to their grandmother’s.
That morning, Narh made her a cup of tea, and then two cups of coffee for himself and his sister. Kabuki brought two chairs from the sitting room and they sat by her bed. They too were silent, and it looked like things were going to stay that way for a while. Two benign torturers couldn’t have handled the situation better. She realised soon enough that she had to talk.
About the book
A new collection of short stories from eight African countries and by some of their leading writers.
Between the Generations: An Anthology for Ama Ata Aidoo at 80 is dedicated to the distinguished Ghanaian playwright and poet. Described as ‘international affairs through fiction’, the 230-page collection, according to its editor Ivor Agyeman-Duah, looks at issues of wealth and inequality, immigration, sisterhood and gardening, love lost and regained and other contemporary issues of Africa in the world.
Between the Generations presents a new story by Ama Ata Aidoo, ‘Aleppo’, as well as contributions from eleven other contemporary writers, including Nigerian novelists Sefi Atta and Ogochukwu Promise, South African writer and academic Njabulo S Ndebele, the award-winning Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop, Ghanaian writers Ayesha Harruna Attah, Martin Egblewogbe, Gheysika Adombire Agambila and Bisi Adjapon, and from Rwanda and Cameroon, respectively, Louise Umutoni and Ray Ndebi.
The collection is published by Vidya Bookstore, and was preceded by two other internationally well-received anthologies: All the Good Things Around Us and The Gods Who Send Us Gifts, both also edited by Agyeman-Duah.