Conscience, History and Fiction: Ayi Kwei Armah and Critics of African Literature

- Badaru Basiru

Badaru Basiru is a writer and essayist. He has an interest in literature, law, philosophy, film and music.

Literary critics and scholars form a part of literature, both as a discipline and a profession. Their power of choosing, and of evaluating as being relevant, mainstream or classical, is beyond question. The African literary firmament – notably since after World War II which ended in 1945 – has sparkled with luminous creative artists who, to this day, have churned out captivating works and kept the flame of creativity and imagination burning all over the continent.

Among these artists is Ayi Kwei Armah, a novelist, poet and essayist. Armah's literary career began in 1968 with the publication of 'The Beautyful Are Not Yet Born'. In an instant, this novel established Armah as a talented writer and thinker, with its explicit depiction of corruption in Ghana in the last years of Kwame Nkurumah's leadership. The book has not just succeeded in establishing Armah, but also in finding so secure a place among other equally important works that it is studied and critically analysed in African literature classes.

Yet, in spite of such initial critical acclaim, 'The Beautyful Ones' met with criticisms: firstly, concerning the anonymity of its principal character, who throughout the book is referred to as 'the man', and secondly concerning his individualism and extreme alienation, in mind and in body, from the main society. Critics and readers of African literature, who were then mostly in Europe and America, were quick to opine that Armah's writing style and concept were not 'African' as in the manner of other contemporary African writers. Hence, comparison has often been made between Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' and Ayi Kwei Armah's 'The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born', in terms of characterisation and even literary form and linguistic composition.

There may be a similarity between Armah and Achebe, as both writers were born in colonial West Africa, at least in concept even if not in style and thematic preoccupation. Achebe was a tribal and cultural glorifier, a lamenter of European encroachment upon traditional African values; unlike Armah in whose writing could be found travails of conscious individuals in post-independent Africa and their futile attempts to steer clear of all mess and decay, and to resist familial pressures. Armah's recalcitrant avowal of Pan-Africanism contrasts sharply with Achebe's narratives of denial of primitivity of Africans, and of corruption in a nascent democratic government deemed too subservient to the whims of the erstwhile coloniser. But no African writer has actually offered a compelling narrative of the institutional and psychological damage of corruption to Africa as detailed as in Armah's 'The Beautiful Ones'. This is, besides its linguistic richness, what makes it a modern African classic worthy of study anywhere.

Of Armah's 'The Beautyful Ones', Chinua Achebe, himself a literary critic, said: 'Armah is clearly an alienated writer complete with all the symptoms. Unfortunately Ghana is not a modern existentialist country. It is just a Western African state struggling to become a nation.'

The capitalisation of Armah's critics on the existentialist outlook of 'The Beautiful Ones' makes their criticisms seem rather pointless and disregarding of the textual underpinnings of which motifs of his works are made up. Of course, Africa is not an existentialist continent, one that has undergone massive industrialisation and bureaucratisation leading to the alienation, and consequently to the confusion and desultoriness, of the individual. The African social order of  communal life has to a very large extent survived against intrusive alien values. No African individual is likely to have become so unique, so free from the constructs and constraints of his society, that he could attain the same level of freedom and uniqueness as the European individual has. And no matter how resistent the individual is, no matter how hard he tries to break free, the society pulls him back into itself in a somewhat collective manner.

In 'The Beautyful Ones', the man's character may be a bit extreme, but it is inarguably the consciousness of his spirit and his aversion to what he sees and encounters that may have caused such extremity in thought as well as in action or inaction. He is like a 'saint' caught up in the midst of sinners, with nothing and no one to turn to apart from his teacher, a man who has had nearly the same feelings and experience. And there is, apparently, a lack of hope, a sense of defeat in the belief of a possibility of change. But now it can be said in a louder tone that time (the ultimate judge) has vindicated Ayi Kwei Armah's creation of a character such as 'the man', because the African condition has only worsened and there is even clearer, more putrid proof to take a pessimistic stand.

Writers are chroniclers of society. Armah only chronicles, and disapproves of, what he sees has gone wrong in Africa. It is, therefore, out of place to accuse him of not picturing the funky daily life in Accra. The conscious mind's obsession with the search for a path to social and political regeneration surpasses all other obsessions. What is even there to dance to, what is there to rejoice at when all around is filth, all kinds of filth? Only incorrigible fools and the blinded remain indifferent in the face of imminent danger. In the novel, the narrator describes the night shift thus:

'On certain nights – these last days they were not only Saturday nights, but other nights as well – the loneliness was made a bit more bitter by the distant beat of bands on the hill creating happiness for those able to pay money at all times of the month, to pay money and to get change for it – the men of the Atlantic-Caprice.'

Hotel dwellers, party attenders, the lavish class, those who have hardened against everything and have got for themselves the only 'means' to the upward climb. This is the category of people whom the man's wrath is directed at for their attitude, for their greed and indifference to the suffering of the majority and the retrogression of the society. With this knowlegde, it is not at all surprising if the central character's mind is preoccupied with thoughts of all things negative, things whose possibility for changing for the better is dimmed by a sharper, more bitter realisation of doom hanging in the air. The writer, as a thinker, is something close to a clairvoyant. Again, time has justified the mind of such a character as 'the man'.

Armah's second novel 'Fragments' was published in 1970, followed in 1971 by 'Why Are We So Blest?'. These novels are, in concept, like the first one and read like sequels, covering the same themes: materialism, greed, misuse of independence and power, imitation of inherited colonial traits, racism, grand expectations of fulfilment of dreams, social and political struggle. In 'Two Thousand Seasons' (1973) and 'The Healers' (1978), Armah takes a turn from social realism to history, but in effect retaining the content of his previous works and dipping even further in the quest for the awakening, rediscovery and disentanglement of Africans from noxious influences. The need for African psychological and historical reconstruction takes precedence in these books.

But it was particularly 'Two Thousand Seasons' that struck a chord of controversy among readers, especially Western literary critics and scholars. In the conventional sense, 'Two Thousand Seasons' is not a novel but a blend of pathfinding historical and philosophical musings of an utterer concerned about the distorted history and impression of Africa by non-Africans. The first chapter starts:

'We are not a people of yesterday. Do they ask how many single seasons we have flowed from our beginnings till now? We shall point them to the proper beginning of their counting .... Pieces cut off from their whole are nothing but dead fragments. From the unending stream of our remembrance the harbingers of death break off meaningless fractions. Their carriers bring us this news of shards. Their message: behold this paltriness; this is all your history.'

Laughable and unworthy of response is the notion, which is erroneous yet dominant in Western narratives, that Africans had not had a history prior to the arrival of Western European colonialists, that it was they (the enslavers) who cleared the grounds for such in their 'civilisation' and 'enlightenment' mission. The small, inferior place that is apportioned to Africa in world history does not contain a thousandth of the truth of Africa and Africans. Here was the home of civilisations and feats like the great walls of Zimbabwe, Benin kingdom, Nok art, Songhai empire, Pyramids of Egypt, Oyo empire, Ashanti kingdom, Nubian culture, Sokoto caliphate, Kanem-Bornu Empire, Wolof and Jolof cultures, Zulu kingdom, and many countless others.

'Two Thousand Seasons' sets out to retell history and, above all else, to highlight the African plight while suggesting in a reiterative tone the solution. And the bane of Africa is our abandonment of our ways and our headlong acceptance of strange, harmful systems – systems that have clearly turned out to be thorns in our flesh and our greatest enemies.

'There is one cause – all else are branches: you have lost the way. You have forgetten the way of our life, the living way. You yourselves have become a spring blindly flowing, knowing nothing of its imminent exhaustion, ignorant of replenishing reciprocity.'

Most African societies existed on a communal basis. All members were interconnected, and hardly was there going against the whole any separate ambition of an individual member. Land was collectively owned and everyone had equal access to it. Labour too was done together, starting from the family, clan, and up to the tribe level. Proceeds from such labour, to which all hands had contributed, were also equally shared. No member was, in any circumstance, made to work for the personal aggrandizement of another member or group of members. Africa then was largely naturally egalitarian, and for that there was prosperity and an abundance of everything necessary for survival against nature. There was peace, since the genetic disposition was very much less infused with greed, jealousy and unhealthy rivalry. Spectacular was the connectedness among people, a sense of owing one another a debt of responsibility, of care, concern and gratitude.

The above description of communalism in African societies was 'the way'. What Armah cries over in 'Two Thousand Seasons' is the loss of the connectedness, the brotherhood and congeniality intrinsic to Africans. And all he proposes, all he cautions as a thinker, is an urgent conscious return to 'the way, our way, the living way'. He is not calling for rejection of modernity and what it has come with, nor calling for denunciation of everything foreign in so far as it would not lure Africans away from the remembrance, and upholding, of the way.

In the second chapter 'The Ostentatious Cripples', the reader melts in the horrifying accounts of how an alien, predatory force from the desert invades the land of the people, and how among the people such force is able to find a place. At first, these Arab invaders disguise as people in need of help, and it has always been in the nature of the people of the way to help needies. Unknown to the people of the way, unknown to their generous and kind spirit, the beggars are no beggars but opportunists and usurpers, destroyers of everything they come in contact with. But it may not be that all the people of the way may not have smelt a whiff of the cunning of the desert predators. That would have been totally foolish. How, why and what then would it have been? Indifference. Easy acceptance. The killers from the desert start killing. They kill thousands and thousands more, gaining strength and establishing a rule and a slave-master relation. They bring back their debauchery: eating, drinking, f**king, moaning, ejaculating. They turn women of the people into things to be owned – things whose essence of existence is giving pleasure and bearing children. And it is the women, winning the trust of the Arab predators with the sheer magic of their flesh, who bring an end to their parasitic rule. Gory is their death in the orifices of these women. Peace reigns thereafter; and the lethargic, indolent life of the people, itself destructive, resumes.

The third chapter 'The Predators' details, from a collective point of view, the cause of the migration of the people. The Arab invaders return, and in this second coming their onslaught is subtler. There have been divisions, so atypical and antagonistic to the way, among the people. These divisions arise from the struggle for leadership. Some among the elders and experts in the art of caretaking, having seen how the invaders enslaved and imposed their power upon the people, now aspire to refill the bloated space left by them, something utterly unoriginal to the way, the living way. Schisms have already erupted among the people. And the Arabs take them to their advantage. At the height of servitude and subjugation, the people plan their escape, taking care not to leave early easily recognisable traces.

Armah, again in his usual warning tone, decries the greed and deviation that have led the people even further away from the way. The penchant for power is the beginning of the annihilation of the people and the way itself. Power corrupts. He who seeks it desperately, and solely for the selfish satisfaction of his inner craving, is already a soul corrupted. The migration of the people from the predatory desert force does not bring a total escape and freedom from the deviant traits learned. It takes as much effort to take on a new trait as it does to rid oneself of it. The position of caretaking now becomes hereditary among the people, a thing entirely strange to the way's prescription. This heredity of kingship ensures the ascendancy of dotards, people so warped in mind as physical infirmities, to power. In the chain of kings, one emerges, eaten to the bone marrow with so much greed, arrogating finally to himself possession of land. And for the first time in the life of the people, land becomes a personal possession, not collective. At this point, the author, or rather the narrator, stresses the collectivism of ancient African communities. A reversion to a like mode buttresses, among other things, the writing of this novel.

Wole Soyinka, in 'Myth, Literature and the African World', comments on 'Two Thousand Seasons' thus: 'Ayi Kwei Armah asserts a past whose social philosophy was a natural egalitarianism... The actions of his protagonists are aimed at the retrieval of that past, but again Armah insists that the past is not a nostalgic or sentimental one: It is presented as a state embodying a rational ideal.'

How and by who is this retrieval to be carried out is a question for ponderance by Africa, considering the discriminatory, senseless, selfish systems that have gained dominance in today's world.

It is in the fourth chapter 'The Destroyers' that Anoa's ominous utterance comes true. Thousands after thousands of the people's straying from the way, the destructive force from the sea shows up on the land. Noliwe and Ningome, themselves seers too, have made a prophecy matching Anoa's. And the greedy king Koranche, he a certified fool always as much slow in body as in mind, he who if not the people had already abandoned the way would never have had access to power, connives against the people with the slave merchants thousands of miles from the sea. The slave traders first claim to have come to do 'business' with the people and give the king and his courtiers and jesters puerile gifts like mirrors, trinkets and anklets. But the king and his minions are also enticed by the slave buyers' whiskey and gin. Isanusi the sage, Isanusi the fearless, Isanusi the truth sayer, refuses to betray his conscience and conveys to the people the actual purpose of the coming of King Koranche's guests, the white slavers from the sea.

Isanusi speaks: 'The first wish of the white men is this: they have heard of our land, of the beauty of the mountains and the plains' fertility here, and of the metals our earth contains – iron in abundance, gold, silver, and our pure, red copper. These metals it is the white men's wish to take away from us, to take them to their home beyond the sea... They would have us break up the mountains, take out what is good in them to give them, leaving ourselves here the waste sand....'

'Listen to their fourth wish. The white men say they have heard we have many people here – too many, they say – and that our women's fertility is reported a wonder among them. It is their wish to take numbers of our people away from us. They say these numbers would in the new places beyond the sea work on land as fertile as ours here ...'

'Hear now the last wish of the white men. They have a road they follow, and something called a god they worship – not the living spirit there is in everything but a creature separate, raised above all surrounding things, to hear them speak of it rather like a bloated king... For this they do not think it will be necessary to reward the king and his courtiers. They say it will be reward enough when we have lost our way completely, lost even our names; when you will call your brother not Olu but John, not Kofi but Paul; and our sisters will no longer be Ama, Naita, Idawa and Ningome but creatures called Cecilia, Esther, Mary, Elizabeth and Christina.'

For this refusal, Isanusi is expelled from the kingdom as punishment. Men who stick to 'truth' are often punished and cast as misfits. It has always been like that. To fit in the world, one has to, more often than not, renounce one's deep personal convictions. And Isanusi, like his creator Armah, is not one readily available for such outright betrayal of 'truth' in favour of the ruling elite, the up-side-down turners of the world.

Armah is blunt as a writer. Some of his creations and ideas may sound brash to the elite, intellectual and political. In the literary industry, Armah has 'suffered' at the hands of fellow African writers and critics something similar to the excoriation and rejection of Isanusi. There appears to be, in most views about him, a blinkered, partial reading of his works and a covert rage, or spite, at his reclusive person. The writer, as a seer, has to take a distance from, and stand on a step higher than, the society to see far beyond the visible and warn against impending disaster. Armah has seen in his thinking mind the heedless movement of Africans towards forces that would inevitably cause our disintegration and extirpation.

'Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a road not of regeneration but a highway to its own extinction.'

And these forces haved proved triumphant in dividing Africans such that there is constant pitting of one body against another, that all matters are viewed with parochial tribal or religious lenses: a success of the application of the 'Divide and Rule' theory.

Thinkers like Armah make utterances, calling to look beyond all inanities and appreciate the fact that all the diverse peoples of Africa are one. To separatists and devout believers, men with the tendency ever to fall for tribe or religion, such utterances are disturbing, making them feel uncomfortable in the narrowness of their mutilated minds. Africans have been put to sleep by extra doses of all kinds of dope, and so the need for our awakening is vital to our freedom and development in all spheres of human endeavour.

In a lecture on The Awakening, Armah says:' Now the awakening means for us that we need to regain knowledge of ourselves, the something that we are. To do that we have first of all to end our addiction to the poisons that put us to sleep. Secondly, we need to cultivate healing values that will help us remove – remake ourselves and then remake the universe.'

Indeed, some of the criticisms of Armah are valid. Even he, if he is to be fair to himself, can attest that descriptive words such as 'predatory', 'destructive', 'whiteness of death', 'harbingers of death', 'makers of carrion' are unnecessary and could have been substituted with something less acerbic. The racist denigration of Africans that Armah, in his vocation as a writer and thinker, tries to fight and correct should not be reciprocated, as that would give an impetus to those still blind to the reality of Africa to taint his efforts. Racism must not be corrected with racism. Yet nothing Armah ever writes that has not happened. The Arab raids did happen, so also the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The effects of these catastrophes are still present in Africa and Africans. One does not have to be a history genius to understand that slave trade depleted the numbers of able-bodied Africans, leaving back on the continent mainly the weak and the old incapable of providing the labour requisite for optimal production and growth. The slave trade also, sadly, helped institute all over the world an inferior perception of Africans: the black skin becomes thus an epitome of inferiority of mind and body. Again, the slave trade preceded colonialism, the direct rule and enslavement of Africans in their homeland, and as a result was the most ravaging effect: brainwashing of Africans and obliteration of their histories and ancient achievements.

Franz Fanon, another revolutionary thinker, made a whole analysis of the psychological and mental effects of colonialism to Africans in his cutting-edge work 'The Wretched of the Earth'.
Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and existentialist philosopher, in the preface to Fanon's 'Wretched of the Earth', writes: 'Of course, Fanon mentions in passing our infamous crimes at Setif, Hanoi, and Madagascar, but he does not waste time condemning them: he makes use of them. He demolishes the tactics of colonialism, the complex play of relations uniting and opposing the colonists and the "metropolitans." For the sake of his brothers, his aim is to teach them how to outwit us... Colonial violence not only aims at keeping these enslaved men at a respectful distance, it also seeks to dehumanize them. No effort is spared to demolish their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs, and to destroy their culture without giving them ours. We exhaust them into a mindless state... Such a business is conducted briskly by experts: psychological warfare was not born yesterday. Nor was brainwashing.'

Armah must have been influenced by the struggles of Black Freedom Movement pioneers like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, etc. His Harvard training as a sociologist must have exposed him to the waves of anti-racial discrimination campaigns surging in America in the 1960s. Also, his stay in Paris as translator and editor of Juene Afrique could have been a factor behind the existentialist posturing of his early novels, as France was home to some of Europe's notable existentialist writers and philosophers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. No writer escapes the ideas of the authors he reads. All works of art are nothing but imitations of other works, be they works of nature or other artists. Moreover, there is a striking resemblance between Armah's nameless hero of 'The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born' and Ralph Ellison's 'The Invisible Man'.
Discouraging as criticisms are, Armah has never relented in his literary pursuit. He has continued publishing, although he did take a long break. 'Osiris Rising' (1995) was his comeback, then 'KMT: The House of Life' (2002), 'The Eloquence of the Scribes' (2006), 'Remembering The Dismembered Continent' (2010), 'The Resolutionaries' (2013).

It takes courage to parry destructive remarks and keep going. It takes a great deal of mental energy to write with the elegance, vigour and vision Armah has embodied in his writing career. It takes firmness of mind to stand apart, to think distinctively. Young writers of African descent need to emulate the passion, ideals and aims of writers like Armah; for the vocation of writing has a much larger purpose than popularity or prize money.

2019 marks the 80th birthday of Ayi Kwei Armah, who was born in 1939 in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana. And what is the better way to celebrate the birthday of a living literary legend tWorks Cited

  • Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Are Not Yet Born. Heinemann Educational Books, African Writers Series, 1968. 
  • Armah, Ayi Kwei. Two Thousand Seasons. Heinemann Educational Books, African Writers Series, 1973. 
  • Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge University Press, 1990. 
  • Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Awakening. 
  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated from the French by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, New York, 1994. han to read his works and discuss all he has written and stood for?

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