rewashed: Drama Homework on the Significance of Language and the Design of the House

 

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Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Dilemma of a Ghost” tells the story of Ato and Eulalie’s struggles with the cultural divide within their marriage. The conflict’s backbone rests squarely on the shoulders of Ato’s family’s traditions, taboos, and their battle with modernity. As I read the play, two clear divides jumped out at me: the structure of the Odumma Clan and the four distinct levels of language.


The Design of the House does little to fuel the cultural conflict between Eulalie and Ato, but rather serves as a symbol of that conflict. I visualized the Clan House as the typical architecture present in Ghana today, which says so much about our culture. The walls are thin and the terrace is opend. This signifies the communal spirit Africans have as any business is everyone’s business. Literally anyone can hear the conversations in the Clan house while walking down the path. This is exploited by the 1st and 2nd Women, who gossip among themselves of the sounds they hear. in Act 1, they hear weeping from the Odumma Clan house and assume that “Probably the old woman is dead.” The begin to weep and are about to leave the stage to announce it to their village when the woman appears! This is dramatically effective as it is both humorous and serves to show that the gossips are not malicious. In fact, the design of most clan houses encourage oral tradition rather than gossip as Nana later on tells the women what to tell the village about the tragedy they had been weeping about.
While I read this passage, I read this passage, I realized just how little respect for privacy typical village people in Ghana have. It should be well noted that even in Apartment complexes of hundreds of people in the USA conservations cannot be heard through the walls. This shows a symbol of conflict: in Africa, the old meshes with the new as exemplified by joining the new wind of the clan house directly to the old wing. In the West, the new obliterates the old. Eulalie hates how Esi Kom is as free in “her” room as she “glares at Esi Kom for a second” after she enters their outer room while they are not present. Eulalie does not understand this link between Ato and his family and learns to resent him for it by the end of the play. It is also shown directly in the title of the play, the Dilemma. Where do you turn to? The old ways or the new? Could a link form so that both can co-exist, even in the old ways (or the new ways) are wrong?
Now, I do not speak Fante, but I understand Twi. Although the whole play is written in English, there are distinct levels of language. I hear four: Eulalie’s “Yankee lingo”, Ato and Monka’s “new” Fante, Petu, Akroma and Esi Kom’s “traditional” Fante, and Nana and the 1st and 2nd Women’s “classic” Fante.
These levels can be distinguished by the references to proverbs, the sound effects made and the general lyrical quality of their dialogue. As Eulalie speaks only English, her monologue and general conversation are rhythmical and paced. Her dialogue’s slang however seems to be confused. As noted by Megan Behrent in her thesis paper “Ama Ata Aidoo: Language in The Dilemma of a Ghost”, Eulalie’s “Blast!” and “you canna hear my Yankee lingo” sound fake, even for a play written in the 1970s. However, her clear accent and use of the English language makes her not only different but also fun to listen to.
The core family’s Fante when directly translated sounds like blocks of dialogue instead of a language. Again, this serves to differentiate them from Eulalie. All their euphemisms, as compared to Eulalie, are sound effects and proverbs rather than actual words or phrases. One can almost hear the annoyance in their voice when saying “Ah!” “Oooo..o” or “Ei”. Sadly, to Eulalie at least, these sound effects must sound like “stupid, narrow minded savages.” for seasoning their dialogue with one syllable sound effects.
The most wonderful thing about the dialogue is the inclusion of Ghanaian proverbs. When these proverbs are said in Fante or Twi they make a lot more sense. For example, when Nana said “one does not stand in the ant trail to pick off ants” I was confused. When my mother said it in Twi however, I understood it to mean that when a serious matter is at hand, you do not go into the thick of it unprepared. These proverbs impart wisdom to both the audience and Ato. In comparison to Eulalie’s mom’s “words of wisdom” they make Africans seem more levelheaded and grounded than African Americans. “If Nakedness promises you clothes, ask his name” sounds more enlightened than “Sugar, don’t let them do you in.” I believe that it shows the audience that African tradition bases itself more on wisdom than encouragement.
The best example of this is Nana and the chorus’ language. They and the Bird of the Wayside speak plainly but have their own dialogue shaped like a free-verse poem. Their dialogue is lyrical and contains most of the proverbs in the play. They speak “classic” Fante which is a reminder of how tradition usurps modernity in Africa.
Culture seeps into every word and every gesture and even into the walls of their house. Aidoo masterfully uses contrast in these to portray the conflict between Eulalie and Ato. Whether it’s the way they speak, the guidance they’ve received or the home in which they live, one constantly recognizes the cultural divide between them.

 

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