The Ghanaian author, playwright, and educator Ama Ata Aidoo has written many short stories throughout her long career, eleven of which were published together in 1995 in the collection No Sweetness Here and Other Stories
. The stories are mostly set in late 1960s and early 1970s Ghana, a little over a decade after the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. Using humor and a straightforward style, Aidoo tackles themes from the postcolonial period like the push and pull between modernization and tradition, urbanization and rural life, the shifting identities of people being sorted in new socioeconomic ways, and the politics of gender. The stories address issues like prostitution, divorce, and consumerism, while generally implying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the story “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” a progressive young African man named Kobina engages in a series of discussions with Zigiru, an old servant who has been working in the government rest house where Kobina is spending time. The story’s tone stays lighthearted, but the sharp divide between the two men is clear from the way Zigiru insists on calling Kobina “Massa” despite Kobina’s repeated entreaties to stop – for Zigiru, the fact that Kobina is educated makes him a “big man,” and big men are necessarily superior and are owed respect. The only thing that has changed in Zigiru’s world after independence is that the big men are no longer identified by race, but instead by class – but either way, “inferiority felt by commoners, such as Zirigu, who have grown up knowing nothing but dependence upon authoritative figures is, rooted deep within their psyche.” The story ends on a downbeat note that demonstrates this as Zigiru asks, “My young Master, what does ‘Independence’ mean?”
“The Message” follows the attempts of a panicking mother to return from her small village to the Cape Coast hospital where her only child was born – the baby had to remain in the intensive care unit after the birth, while the mother couldn’t stay with her. The mother is unsure even of what has happened – the only information she’s been given is that increasing complications resulted in the baby being “opened up.” Wondering whether her daughter is still alive, the mother is trying to engage with an unfamiliar and modern medical system.
In “Everything Counts,” we meet a university professor who has returned to Ghana to teach African history only to find out that everyone around him believes that “one did not really go to school to learn about Africa” – that school is the place where the literature, history, and culture of the Western and white world are the only things worth learning. In dismay, he watches his students obsess over wigs that transform their hair and bleaching creams that lighten their skin – they’ve absorbed the messages about white standards of beauty being best.
“A Gift From Somewhere” tells the story of a mother trying to protect her son from his abusive father with a ferocity that even she didn’t know she had.
The story “Certain Winds from the South” centers on the need for Issa, a young village father, to leave his family in order to earn money in the city. His mother M’ma tries to argue him out of going, but Issa takes off anyway without telling his wife Hawa his plans: he isn’t simply moving to the city for a better job, but has actually simply abandoned his responsibilities. In the wake of his desertion, M’ma blames no one except herself for what has happened, feeling the burden of a culture of matriarchal blame that demands that women hold on to their men while expecting very little from the men themselves.
In “Something to Talk about on the Way to the Funeral,” we get a fly-on-the-wall perspective onto two women who spend their time gossiping about the deceased.
The title story, “No Sweetness Here,” takes place in a tiny, impoverished farming community and contrasts the lives of two women, one upwardly mobile, and the other part of the rural poor. The educated Chicha has come to this place to teach the village children grammar, and quickly identifies a favorite student: the bright and good-looking Kwesi. The more time she spends teaching him, the more Chicha sees in him the child she herself would like to have. When Chicha visits Kwesi’s home, she meets his mother Maami, who is in the process of divorcing Kwesi’s father because he and his family make her life miserable with abuse and neglect. Kwesi is the main joy and solace of her life. Chicha wants to sympathize, but instead finds herself jealous of Maami’s relationship with her son. One day, Kwesi is bitten by a snake, an accident that proves fatal. Chicha goes to pay her respects, and only then is able to realize what Maami has lost in this death: Kwesi wasn’t simply her child, but was also the only hope she had for a somewhat better future. For Chicha, the tragedy is sad but not world-ending – she has always had the choice to leave this community and use her Western education to get another job elsewhere, and that’s exactly what she decides to do. After she goes, Aidoo lets an unanswered question linger: “if Western-educated people avoid the hardships of the third world, how will their skills ever be fully utilized where they are most needed?”