The Dilemma of a Ghost observes the inter cultural matrimony of African-born Ato and American-born Eulalie. Ato’s internal conflict between his African roots and Western lifestyle are more than he bargained for in this powerful novel by Ama Ata Aidoo.
Ama Ata Aidoo explores the invisible boundary between Eastern and Western traditions in The Dilemma of a Ghost. The story, revolving around African-born Ato and American-born Eulalie, deals with inter cultural matrimony. Although it is played out by the entire cast, the cultural dilemma in this drama is Ato’s internal conflict between his African roots and a new life.
African dilemma plays aim at igniting cultural, moral, psychological, and/or legal questions within the reader. Dilemma means a community reaching the point that tests their boundaries, which provides an important glimpse into African life. Community, as well as family, is crucial to the livelihood of traditional Africans. These ideals have been, for the most part, lost in translation for Westerners.
Aidoo incorporates the chorus, an influential dramatic device, into this play to represent the entire community. Unlike Greek theatre, the chorus in The Dilemma of a Ghost is directly related to the issues and concerns of the people. The first woman of the chorus says of Ato’s return to Africa, “the arrival of the son may mean the paying of all the debts at last,” (15) representing the expectations put on “the white man himself” (16) by the villagers. The chorus shares similar viewpoints with Ato’s traditional family throughout the drama.
The conflict between Eastern and Western ways of life eats at Ato throughout The Dilemma of a Ghost. The setting is a dramatic device used by Aidoo to illustrate a dichotomy between cultures. Ato and his family hail from a small village in Ghana. When Ato and Eulalie return from their studies in America, they settle in Accra, a modern Westernized town. His family does not disapprove of this. “Not that they expect him to make his home [in the village]. No…he will certainly have to live and work in the city when he arrives from the white man’s land” (13). However, it confirms Ato’s internal conflict between new and old. Certain customs are held dear in the hearts of traditional Africans.
Aidoo uses these to create symbolism representing either African or Western culture. “And certainly, he must come home for blessings when the new yam has been harvested and the Stools are sprinkled” (13). This line, spoken in the prelude by the Bird of the Wayside, reveals the community’s desire for Ato to maintain his original culture while living in Accra. The chorus introduces the tradition of childbearing in African culture when the first woman says, “my sister, even from bad marriages are born good sons and daughters” (18). The traditional Africans refuse to abandon their customs for modern augmentations.
Aidoo also presents symbols of Western culture, but this is done in a demeaning manner. When Ato enters a room and finds Eulalie drinking a bottle of Coca Cola, she responds, “I was only feeling a little homesick and I drank it for sentimental reasons. I could have had a much cooler, sweeter and more nourishing substitute in coconuts” (20). Eulalie is grasping onto her Western roots because she is afraid, partially because she has not been openly accepted, of African culture.
The chorus reveals Eulalie’s Western customs when the second woman says, “this woman uses machines for doing everything” (24). The chorus is referring to refrigerators and ovens, representative of Western life. The second woman also says, “her food never knows wood fire” (24). The chorus is accusing Eulalie of laziness, a common conception of Westerners.
Eulalie fails to experience African customs, symbolizing her rejection of the culture. Ato’s mother prepares an African delicacy of snails for the newlyweds, but Eulalie refuses the offer. Eulalie calls the cuisine “some crawling things” (21) and proceeds to throw the gift away in Ato’s presence.
She is blatantly disrespecting African customs by refuting Esi’s offering. Eulalie, reflecting on a childhood conversation, says, “How we used to talk of the jungle and the wild life…And I haven’t seen a lion yet” (19).
In the statement above, Eulalie confirms her ignorance regarding African civilization.
Africans also lack knowledge regarding Western culture, as displayed in Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost. When Ato speaks of his American wife, Akyere, Ato’s aunt, responds, “we do not know the ways of the white people” (17). It is a true statement, but, as Ato later points out, his wife is not white. Aidoo points out the ignorance of Africans who group Westerners into a single cluster. Ato’s family also attacks Eulalie and her ancestors.
Nana, Ato’s grandmother, disgustedly says, “my grand-child has gone and brought home the offspring of slaves” (17). Since Eulalie is not directly linked to a traditional African tribe, Ato’s family sees her as inferior. Even Ato is the target of his family’s ridicule. While searching for him, Akroma, Ato’s uncle, says, “but where is our master, the white man himself” (16). Akroma mocks his nephew for adopting Western culture throughout his studies in America. The above quote confirms some Africans’ ignorance and hatred for the land beyond the seas.
Ato and Eulalie bend gender boundaries set by traditional African standards. It is common in this culture for the woman to essentially wait on her husband. Since Eulalie hails from the United States, and Ato courted her in the West, a bit of chivalry develops in their relationship. Ato bends over backwards to assure Eulalie’s happiness. Even when she insults African customs by disposing of Esi’s snails, Ato defends his wife’s honor, claiming, “she does not know how to eat them” (22).
Eulalie also makes a habit of breaking taboos throughout The Dilemma of a Ghost. While visiting Ato’s parents, Eulalie finds it necessary to wake up to a morning cigarette. Also, when offered a gin and water by her husband, Eulalie quickly accepts. Western culture has taken its toll on the couple, but both find their actions completely acceptable. On the basis of traditional African ethics, Eulalie is not fulfilling her role as a woman or a wife.
Throughout the drama, Ato is never very concerned with resolving the conflict in which he created. Before the couple even visits Ato’s family in Ghana, Eulalie asks, “Ato, can’t your Ma be sort of my Ma too?” (14). It is a viable question because Eulalie has never shared the tight-knit bonds of a family unit. Ato, rather than explaining to his wife the cultural dilemma that will soon detonate, responds, “sure she can,” (14) in a slow and uncertain voice. Also, when Eulalie makes reference to her Western customs, Ato does not confront the issue at hand. Rather, he replies, “can’t we ever talk, but we must drag in the differences between your people and mine?” (14).
Still, Ato realizes that his family, upon meeting Eulalie, will make similar cultural innuendos. Ato is hesitant to brazen out the tension between his wife, representative of new life, and his family, symbolizing African roots.
The cultural discord in The Dilemma of a Ghost is untouched even in the conclusion of the drama. Esi begins to accept Eulalie as a person by looking past her heritage and disregarding cultural insulation. Instead, the heat gets placed on Ato, who is already facing a personal struggle. Esi says to her son, “Now I know you have been teaching your wife to insult us” (29).
He may or may not be doing this, but it hurts worse than hearing the words out of Eulalie’s mouth to know that her own son doubts his culture. It is the price Ato has to pay for not tackling the dilemma when it arose. The drama concludes with Ato wandering the streets in bewilderment, finally forced to deal with his actions. Aidoo proves that Ato’s internal conflict between new and old cannot be resolved without the assistance of community, a main theme in African dramas. Unfortunately, by marrying without consent and visiting infrequently, Ato finds himself alone in the streets of Ghana, a place he once called home.