Aidoo, Changes, a Love Story
Chapters 10 and 20 of Ama Ata Aidoo's novel Changes, a Love Story: Two Chapters that Explore the African Literary Theme of Polygamy
Two chapters in particular of the novel Changes, A Love Story (1991) by Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, explore in detail the subject of polygamy as an African literary theme. Chapter 10, in which Ali first proposes to Esi, and Chapter 20, in which Ali presents ESI (his now very lonely and neglected second wife) with an expensive new maroon sports car, deal poignantly, with the theme of African polygamy within this story. Within Chapter 10, Aidoo's focus on polygamy as a literary theme has to do with the impending second marriage of handsome and charismatic Ali, whose Muslim faith allows polygamy, and Esi, a recently divorced Christian woman with a busy band fulfilling career who has left her unhappy marriage to her first husband, Oko, and is asked, within this chapter, to become Ali's second (current) wife. Within Chapters 10, Esi agrees to marry Ali, even though he is already married to his first wife, Fusena and will remain married to her, as is permitted within Ali's religion, Islam.
As Aidoo implies early on in Chapter 10, though, Ali's romance with Esi, soon to culminate in his polygamous marriage to her, have already hurt Fusena, who becomes so suspicious of Ali's late nights out that one night she makes a surprise trip to his office (only to find him there alone, since, as Aidoo tells us in this chapter, "He had never believed in making a bedroom of his office" (Changes, a Love Story, p. 83).
Even so, Fusena, Ali's first, and still, at this point, only wife, knows that the energy has somehow gone out of their marriage, and she correctly suspects the presence of another woman in Ali's life. For Ali's own part, since he is a successful man with enough money to support two wives (the Koran, Ali's holy book, states that a man may have up to four wives, as long as he treats and supports them all equally) he would like to make Esi his second wife, instead of just keeping her as a mistress. As one conversation of theirs goes, in Chapter 10:
" . . . Ali, there isn't a single human being who doesn't need somebody.'"
"Does that mean you will marry me?'"
"Yes Esi, I want to marry you'" (p. 86).
However, as Aidoo also tells us within this scene, Ali, although already proposing to Esi, has yet to actually discuss his plans for a second, concurrent, marriage, with the person with likely the most to lose from it, his first wife Fusena. When Esi asks Ali if he has yet told Fusena of his plan to take her as his second wife, Ali says yes, although, as Aidoo also states, "too quickly, too loudly" (Changes, a Love Story, p. 86) to be believed by Esi, or by us. Here, Aidoo implies the hurtfulness (and in this case, the deceitfulness) of African polygamy as a practice, not only for the second wife (as will become clear later, within Chapter 20), but for the first. And, although the practice of polygamy might well have had its place, and even a useful and practical place, in ancient times, perhaps due to there being not enough men to go around, based on the frequent and constant wars occurring in that part of the world where Islam first sprang up, in modern Africa the practice represents a hardship on women, rather the first, the second, or a later wife. In Ali's own case, even before he actually marries Esi, Fusena's concerned late night telephone calls to his office indicate that there is simply not enough of Ali to go around for two women, married or not. But since in Chapter 10 Esi is still at the point of being on the receiving end of all of Ali's attention, while Fusena receives none of it (although in Chapter 20, the imbalance will be reversed, now in Fusena's favor) Esi is blind to the true hardships, on women, of polygamous marriages within today's world.
Esi's reluctance to wear, or even to actually look at for the first time, the engagement ring Ali offers her in Chapter 10, since Fusena already "wears your ring" (p. 90) foreshadows the sadness, at being "only your second wife'" (p. 89)
She feels in Chapter 20, new sports car and all. As scene within Chapter 10, in which Ali first presents Esi with an engagement ring, goes:
"Bring your finger,'" Ali commanded.
"Ali!" she could only exclaim.
"Come on, come on, bring it.'" (Aidoo, p. 89).
Almost as if she already knows the future, however, Esi feels frightened and extremely reluctant to either accept or wear Ali's engagement ring, on what should instead be a most romantic and joyous occasion. But instead of feeling joy, all Esi can think about is the wife that Ali already has, Fusena, and how she, Esi, can possibly fit into this already complicated picture.
Moreover, her own monogamous (at least, that is, up until she had first met and fallen in love with Ali) Christian background has not prepared her at all for a life as a second wife in a modern polygamous marriage. Even at the outset, then, Esi is, quite understandably, reluctant to accept Ali's proposal of marriage, and very afraid, also, of what the ring that Ali offers her within in Chapter 10 symbolically represents. As Aidoo states, "Esi brought her finger out rather gingerly. It was almost as if she was afraid of the ring" (p. 89). Esi's early fear, within this chapter, of marriage to Ali effectively foreshadows the misery she will feel, and finally admit to herself as well, within Chapter 20 of the novel.
Chapter 20 of Changes, A Love Story begins with Aidoo's telling us, of Esi, that:
That year's end turned out to be perhaps the most desolate time Esi had spent in all her life. She not only felt tired like everyone else at that time of year, but she was also restless and lonely. She could not even plan anything for the coming holidays. This was mainly because she kept hoping
Ali would come to stay for a reasonable length of time: during which they could decide on what they would do together. (p. 141).
As it in fact turns out, Esi spends the run-up to Christmas, Christmas itself, and the days before New Year's becoming increasingly anxious and depressed, and even relying, for the first time ever, on the use of tranquilizers to get her through the days.
This portion of Chapter 20 points out, implicitly yet very powerfully how Esi is hurt and neglected within her polygamous marriage. Then, finally, on New Year's Day, Ali turns up to visit, much to Esi's surprise, though not to her delight. His visit is, quite simply, too little too late. By now, Esi has grown used to seeing her second husband only very infrequently, but having to spend Christmas entirely alone is the final straw.
As a consolation gesture for his ongoing neglect, Ali surprised his nearly forgotten second wife with a flashy new, very expensive maroon sports car. The car, as Esi sees immediately, is both a consolation prize for his continued absences, and a bribe so that Esi will continue to tolerate them. This latest gift tells Esi that this, like all Ali's presents, have been used to pacify her, substituting his physical presence and the attention and emotional support she never receives from him. Ali's strategy for keeping two wives happy at once has been to shower Esi with gifts, since he has not being able to be in two places, with two wives, at once, clearly a serious drawback of modern-day African polygamy. Without saying as much, Aidoo also makes it clear that this is her key critique of modern African polygamous marriages such as this one: there is not enough of the man's attention to share equally, even if the wives lack for nothing materially. As a consequence, women within contemporary African polygamous marriages feel emotionally, even if not materially bereft, while a husband like Ali enjoys the best of both worlds, maintaining the comforts of home and family with Fusena, and using Esi occasionally for sex. Clearly, however, both women get hurt within this arrangement, since one or the other is always being deprived of either sex or companionship. The time Ali does spend with Esi, brief as it might be, is time spent away from Fusena and his children they have together. In other words, one woman or the other, even if not Ali himself, is always being shortchanged in some way. After all, it is not as if Fusena, Esi, and Ali, live communally, or even in very close proximity to one another. Moreover, none of them would even want to live thus, since Fusena has resented…