The characters of Changes live their lives split between two poles. They are modern, well-educated figures who nonetheless try and maintain a strong connection to their traditional cultural roots and values. Esi, the primary figure in the novel, is the best example of the tension between modern and traditional values. She is a remarkably independent woman dedicated to her career as a government official. As such, she has a hard time accepting the traditional roles defined by her culture for a woman. She places a higher value on her career and her own personal fulfillment than on playing the role of a proper wife. This tension leads directly to her divorce with her first husband, Oko, who wants her to be a traditional African wife.
At the same time, Esi is also still clearly attached to the values she learned while growing up. She allows herself to become a second wife to Ali, and she performs all of the necessary rituals that her culture dictates. Like Esi, Ali tries to bridge the gap between the world in which his elders were raised and his own modern lifestyle. The ensuing tension and unofficial divorce that surround his second marriage highlight the limited degree to which traditional values can be upheld in modern times.
The title of the novel, Changes: A Love Story, refers to the numerous personal and cultural transformations that lie at the heart of the narrative. The changes that occur throughout the course of the novel take place both at the character level and at the societal level. At the time of the novel, Ghana had recently achieved its political independence. The country is changing politically, economically, and culturally. Similarly, Esi achieves her own independence from her husband and marriage. Consequently, she becomes free to pursue her own ambitions without a family or a husband to restrict her. In a sense, she has transformed herself into a model of the modern woman: she is not only financially stable but also completely independent. Esi’s new independence is also symbolic of a larger change occurring within African societies. As women like Esi have an increasing number of educational and professional opportunities available to them, their roles both in the home and in society inevitably change. They are no longer simply wives and mothers who are dedicated to their own ambitions.
All of the major characters in the novel are well-educated. Their education is not only the mark of their place in society but also an ironic and elusive symbol that signifies both change and stasis at the same time. The two primary lovers in the novel, Esi and Ali, are also the most highly educated. Esi holds a master’s degree, and Ali has studied in France and England. Upon hearing of Ali’s second marriage, the first question that his wife, Fusena, asks him is whether or not the woman has a university degree. This question highlights the degree to which education symbolizes progress, modernity, and independence for the women of the novel.
For Esi, her education enables her to have a well-paying job that can secure her independence. It is precisely that independence that attracts Ali to her, and it is the same independence that earns Esi the scorn of her first husband’s family. Esi’s education sets her apart from traditional African culture, making her feel alienated from her mother and grandmother, neither of whom can understand her attitudes towards marriage and work. Ali is as educated as Esi, and like her, he struggles to balance the two worlds in which he lives. When Ali proposes to his elders that he take a second wife, they are shocked. For them, Ali’s education has propelled him into a new world that does not allow for such actions.