A Woman in Her Prime

by Asare Konadu. Heinemann, 1967. 107 pages

Compared to the brilliance and brashness of so much Nigerian literature, the quieter literature of Ghana may seem in danger of being overlooked. A Woman in Her Prime is a good example of what a mistake that would be.

Like its heroine, A Woman in Her Prime is modest, balanced, calm, and understated, but with a charm and quiet beauty that prove captivating. It centers on a domestic drama that can be stated simply: Pokuwaa would like a child, but her prayers have not been answered.

The opening chapter skillfully draws drama from this simple situation. It is the appointed day for sacrifice to the god Tano, but Pokuwaa is running late. She washes herself, rubs her skin with shea cream, and purifies herself with white clay powder, then looks for the black hen she means to sacrifice. She finds only a post in the ground and a broken string. The hen has escaped! She asks some children if they have seen it, and when one child admits to having thrown a stick at a stray black hen she sees that he is a fetish child -- the product of prayers and sacrifice like the child she wants for herself. Rather than being harsh with him, she enlists him and the other children to search for her hen. They find the hen in the bushes, about to be swallowed by a snake, but Pokuwaa is just in time to pin down the snake, rescue the hen, and make her sacrifice.

In a few pages we learn a lot about Pokuwaa: about her courage and resourcefulness, her faith, the strength of her desire for a child, and the fact that she is good with children and able to gain their trust.

Pokuwaa has divorced two husbands, apparently with little fuss, when they prove unable to give her children. (Oddly, there is little suggestion than the villagers think the fault is with her.) She becomes the second wife of a kind man named Kwadwo, and in less than a month she shows signs of being pregnant. She loses the child, though, and a medicine man chides her for not making the proper sacrifice. Pokuwaa's mother, who had pressed her to leave her second husband, seems nearly as concerned about that lack of a child than Pokuwaa herself. Kwadwo's first wife also resents her husband's attention to Pokuwaa. But Pokuwaa and Kwadwo have a gentle, teasing relationship, full of goodnatured humor. Pokuwaa has good friends, too, and a thriving farm. Her wish for a child doesn't prevent her from enjoying her life.

Another small drama arises when Pokuwaa discovers a dead body in the forest. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, she tells only her mother and keeps quiet as the villagers search for the missing man. Her feeling of guilt comes out in her tears at the man's funeral, causing Kwadwo to suspect she knew the dead man better than she admits.

Perhaps because finding the body has caused her to think more deeply about life and death, or perhaps because she has simply had enough of endless rituals and sacrifice, and her mother's nagging, Pokuwaa finally says, "I think I am going to have peace at last. I am going to give up crying inside me for that which I cannot get. I am not going to sacrifice any more."

There are many African novels that tell of violence, betrayal, and cruel disillusionment. There are few that express the sweetness of village life. With its loving descriptions of the rituals, routines, and gossip of a small community, A Woman in Her Prime expresses how disappointment may be balanced by tenderness and peace -- and how we sometimes get the thing we want only after we have stopped striving for it.

From A Woman in Her Prime:

Pokuwaa boiled the herbs overnight in a pot of fresh water from the river. At the first peep of dawn, for seven days, she got up, poured some of the herbal water into a small pot and walked to the outskirts of the village. There, standing over the same log of the onwoma tree, she scooped the water over her body seven times, repeating words of incantation. She concentrated hardest on walking straight home without looking back. Arriving home she dabbed herself with pepre and white clay, filling the room with a mixed scent of tree barks and clover. If Kwadwo was asleep she nudged him. He woke up and sniffed the scent of the pepre. "That is nice," he said. "You'd better get nearer." He held her close and rubbed his nose into her neck where the scent was strongest.

They took delight in each other, and Pokuwaa was conscious that during this time she was hanging on Kwadwo's praises and admiration. She dressed in new clothes and paraded for him to see her and say she was nice. It wasn't Kwadwo's normal way to speak his praises. Once when he said he didn't like the clothes she wore, Pokuwaa broke out crying. He learned his lesson. Also, he did enjoy the way his admiration sent her walking with her chest out and swinging her arms luxuriantly.