‘The Girl Who Can’ is a short story by Ama Ata Aidoo. Set in a village in Ghana, the story takes us into the world of Adjoa, the seven-year-old protagonist, who lives with her mother (Maami) and grandmother (Nana). Set in a household comprising only of three generations of women, the grandmother-the mother- the daughter, ‘The Girl Who Can’ shows how the liberation of the girl child can help liberate older generations and the entire community.
In their small family of three, Adjoa and her grandmother seem to be active agents who often find themselves at odds with each other with Nana acting as the primary authority figure while Adjoa struggles to make herself heard. Maami, Adjoa’s mother, is mostly a silent figure, however, whenever she does speak up, it is in support of Adjoa. It was because of Maami’s insistence that Adjoa goes to school even though Nana wasn’t originally in support of the decision. It is this decision to send Adjoa to school that sets in motion a series of events that provide hope and promise the liberation of their family from the deeply entrenched patriarchal values.
It is significant that their family contains no male member. One would like to believe that in the absence of a man, a patriarch, their home space would be free of patriarchy. However, the fact that the patriarchal belief system is deeply ingrained in society, that it can be found in every member of a community including women, is made clear through Nana. The head of this family of women is guided very much by a patriarchal ideological framework as is made evident by her gaze towards Adjoa’s legs. A common bone of contention in the family are Adjoa’s legs which Nana finds inadequate and too thin. She says, “… if any woman decides to come into this world with all of her two legs, then she should select legs that have meat on them: with good calves. because you are sure such legs would support solid hips. And a woman must have solid hips to be able to have children.”. Thus for Nana, the sole objective of a woman is to give birth. She objectifies her own granddaughter and according to her, her legs are not strong enough for motherhood. In fact, when Nana agrees to send Adjoa to school, she says, “Ah, maybe with legs like hers, she might as well go to school.”. This further shows that the primary purpose of a woman, according to Nana, is to give birth. Since she thinks that Adjoa has an inadequate body type for carrying a child, Nana is willing to send her to school as a plan-B. Her education, according to Nana, is not a priority but something to be sought in the absence of the other better option.
Nana’s outlook is soon changed when the legs that she so criticised become the source of Adjoa’s athletic talents. For Adjoa, running appears to be no big deal until she is selected to run for the junior section of her school in the district games. When she shares the news with her family they don’t believe it at first and Nana goes to “ask into it properly”. Of course, she finds out that the news is indeed true, and is (surprisingly) pleased by it. This is where the first change in Nana’s view is noticeable. Adjoa observes, “In any case, since the first time they heard the news, I have often caught Nana staring at my legs with a strange look on her face … All this week, she has been washing my school uniform herself. That is a big surprise. And she didn’t stop at that, she even went to Mr Mensah’s house and borrowed his charcoal pressing iron each time, came back home with it, and ironed and ironed and ironed the uniform, until, if I had been the uniform, I would have said aloud that I had had enough.”. The newfound passion for taking care of her granddaughter’s school uniform is symbolic of Nana’s desire to help Adjoa in the sphere of education.
When Adjoa wins, Nana “carried the gleaming cup on her back. Like they do with babies, and other very precious things.”. By carrying the trophy like a baby is carried, Nana is symbolically replacing the baby she saw as the future of women with other, newer, possibilities. The trophy becomes a stand-in for other futures available to women that expand the horizon of their existence beyond motherhood and the story highlights the importance of schooling and education in realising these horizons. It is also significant that it’s not just Adjoa who benefits from this, but so does her grandmother who is able to break free from her patriarchal worldview. The upliftment and liberation of Adjoa thus becomes an inter-generational liberation.