Ayi Kwei Armah Essay - Critical Essays


Ayi Kwei Armah’s novels have provoked conflicting reactions. On one hand, one can argue that Armah is essentially Western, not African. He is certainly not African in the manner of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. While Achebe’s works are to some degree “social documents,” Armah moves rapidly from social realism to a symbolic level, even within his first novel. His succeeding novels move away from external detail toward the inner life and the idealism of legend and myth. Achebe is a realist, Armah a romantic. Achebe maintains an objective stance in his analysis of the colonial and postcolonial eras in Nigeria, while Armah’s voice is strident and polemical. Whereas Achebe is likely to make the society itself as important a “character” as the individual protagonist, Armah, in his early works at least, focuses on the individual consciousness.

Armah’s novels thus bear the obvious marks of contemporary European and American fiction. His protagonists are alienated antiheroes who deserve sympathy and who are essentially correct in their moral attitudes, but who are ineffectual misfits. The society itself is clearly wrong but defeats the individual moral person through sheer force of numbers, viewing such protagonists as mad or criminal. In fact, this society is the typical twentieth century wasteland, whether it is in Ghana, northern Africa, or the United States. Armah’s Ghanaians resemble black Americans trying to be white in order to participate fully in the technological age. Finally, the protagonist within this society resembles, and often in fact is, the isolated artist—a typical Western figure, not at all African.

One can easily argue that if these are not incidental features, they are at least sketched into a larger picture that identifies Armah with an essentially African sensibility. Judging from his first five novels and not emphasizing simply the early works, one could conclude that Armah is an African writing for Africans. For him, the identity of the African artist is inseparable from the society that he serves. He would not want to be judged according to the Western criterion of art for its own sake, or by Western standards of what makes a satisfactory novel. He tries to make his novels functional within an African context. His primary stress is on the individual African sensibility isolated from his society. His novels are a search not so much for private redemption as for communal salvation, and in this respect he reflects an essentially African rather than Western mentality.

Armah is a philosophical novelist: Realism is in the service of, or sacrificed to, an idea. He is a social critic searching for a philosophical and historical framework. His protagonists are social failures but heroes in the cause of the greater Africa. His ultimate purpose is pan-African in scope, and his experimentation with technique and form, even though the source may be Western, is a search for the appropriate voice to further the end of common understanding.

Although each novel individually could not be called a bildungsroman, together they appear, in retrospect, to trace the individual protagonist from confusion and frustration to a sense of wholeness and communal belonging. The “man” in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born cannot be sure of his own identity or his moral values because he receives no reinforcement from his society, while Densu in the fifth novel, The Healers, rejects his immediate society and joins a small outcast community that understands the larger African tradition.

Armah has some interesting things to say sociologically as well. Like most contemporary African novelists, he deals with the traumatic experience of colonialism, the rapid change from traditional to modern society, the effects of the slave trade and of Western influence in general, the difficulties of adapting to the technological age, the political corruption immediately after independence, and the cultural vacuum. His novels move from the narrow confines of one Ghanaian city in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born to the larger international scene of America, Europe, and North Africa, to show at first hand those forces that helped create the filth and artificiality surrounding his protagonist. In Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, Armah leaves the 1960’s to give a picture of African society in the distant and recent past. In general, he argues that foreign exploitation has perverted the traditional communal values, which are, if anything, superior to the ones that have replaced them. What seems to concern Armah particularly, however, are the psychological implications of this displacement.

The protagonists of the second two novels are mentally disturbed and require professional therapy or convalescence. Juana of Fragments is a psychologist, and the outcast priests of Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers are practitioners of traditional therapies. The essential problem that Armah identifies is the impotence and extreme depression of the sensitive individual rejected by the westernized African society. In addition, Armah explores the nightmares and dreams of his frustrated protagonists, and in his novels he seeks an answer to frustration through the revival of racial consciousness in myth and legend. The ultimate purpose of his novels is therapeutic.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

If the central issue in Armah’s novels is the relationship between the individual and his (or her) community, then The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a depressing omen. The main character, the center of consciousness, has no name—not so much because he represents all men or even because he represents the man of integrity, though these are possible readings, but because he is anonymous. Society does not recognize his existence. He is an outcast because he attempts to hold on to moral values while the rest of society has succumbed to bribery, corruption, and materialism. This isolation is total. Even his own family urges him to advance himself for their benefit within the corrupt system. The isolation, however, extends beyond family and community. Even in this first novel, Armah introduces the historical context. The “man” is trapped within the present. He has no sense of belonging to a Ghanaian or to an African tradition. He cannot identify the source of his integrity or of his moral judgment. Hence, he resides in a historical void, which makes him question the very values that give him sustenance. Honesty seems unnatural, cruel, obstinate, even criminal and insane.

The story evolves at a specific time in the contemporary history of Ghana. Though Armah does not give dates, it is clear that the early episodes (chapters 1-12) take place late in Kwame Nkrumah’s reign, in the mid-1960’s. The final three chapters deal with the hours just after Nkrumah’s fall in February, 1966. The “man” is a controller for the railroad, a husband, and the father of two children. Armah describes in naturalistic detail a day in the man’s life, his journey to and from work, the oppressiveness of the physical surroundings, the boring and insignificant responsibilities of his job, and the return home to an unsympathetic and accusing wife. The only dramatic event in these first chapters is the man’s rejection of a bribe.

To seek relief and reassurance, he pays a visit to his former teacher, who shares his moral awareness and can explain to some extent the origin of the present malaise, but who has withdrawn from society. The teacher has no family and hence no compelling responsibility. He refuses to participate in the corruption but also declines to fight it. All he can do for the man is understand his situation. He is, nevertheless, the first of a series of figures in the five novels who represent the wisdom of a way of life that Ghana no longer knows. Within this realistic and cynical first novel it is not surprising that the teacher lacks the confidence and the vision necessary to save the man or his society. In spite of this, Armah leaves no doubt as to the importance of the teacher and his philosophical appraisal of contemporary Ghana. He places the visit at the very center of the novel. From this point, the man must accept total isolation. He cannot lean on his elder and former guide: He must find his own solution.

The problem that faces the man in the final third of the novel involves him in the corruption of an old classmate who is a minister under Nkrumah. His wife and mother-in-law agree to participate in the illegal purchase of a fishing boat, which is primarily for the benefit of Minister Koomsan. When the man refuses complicity, he becomes even more of an outcast within the family. His wife constantly measures him against the successful Koomsan, who has surrounded himself with the things of modern civilization. The last three chapters, however, reverse the situation. Nkrumah falls. Koomsan, a pitifully frightened victim of the coup, comes to the man for aid. The two escape from the house just as the authorities arrive, and the man leads him to the fishing boat and to exile. The man himself swims back to shore and to his family. Though he has involved himself in the corruption he despises, the act of saving Koomsan must be seen as a heroic and humane gesture. The man’s wife, at least, now recognizes his courage and his worth. The novel thus moves from almost total submergence in the repulsive details of daily life to a romantic but ironic act of heroism, whose ultimate significance is nevertheless left ambiguous.

Armah is already suggesting the larger movement from realism to myth in the figurative and even symbolic dimension of thenarrative. What first strikes the reader’s attention, in fact overwhelms him or her, is the vivid and disgusting insistence on the filth, the excrement, and the vomit that one touches and breathes in the city. Yet this physical reality is at the same time the political and moral corruption that the society discharges as it continues to pursue and consume the “things” of Western technology. Koomsan’s escape through the latrine is symbolically a wallowing in his own excrement. A second symbol special to this novel is the chichi dodo bird, which despises excrement but subsists on the worms that the excrement nourishes: the man, as much as he may try to remain free of taint, is implicated in the social guilt.

Finally, Armah uses a third image, the stream, that recurs in all the other novels. He seems to identify water in a traditional way as a purifying agent. During one of his walks, the man notices, in an otherwise muddy stream, a perfectly clear current that seems to have no source. He associates it with a gleam of light—his own moral awareness—a clarity of vision that he cannot trace to any source. He sets this clarity against the brightness of new things imported from the West, but it is not strong enough or permanent enough to give him hope. In spite of his heroism, his baptismal dip in the ocean, and his “rebirth,” he still must recognize at the end that “the beautyful ones are not yet born.”


In Fragments, Armah continues the exploration of the individual and his obligation to both family and community. The scene again takes place in the later 1960’s, but the situations are considerably changed. Baako Onipa (the hero now has a name, which means “Only Person”) is a “been-to,” a member of the educated elite who has spent five years studying in the United States. In this respect, he resembles Armah himself, an American-educated intellectual who must have had similar difficulties readjusting to Ghanaian society.

Like Armah, Baako is a writer searching for a role within his newly independent nation. No longer is the protagonist buried in lower-class poverty. His education gives him access to prominent men in the community and to the things of modern technology. He thus has the means to satisfy the expectations of his family, especially his mother. He resembles the man, however, in his inability to sacrifice his personal integrity to take advantage of his opportunities. In a sense, his situation is even more critical than that of the man. He is a highly sensitive artist. Whereas the man has perceived the “madness” of his obstinacy, Baako has already experienced insanity in America and is on the edge of it again throughout this novel, the title of which, Fragments, is thus particularly appropriate.

The story does not follow a clear chronological path, because Armah has chosen to present it through three centers of consciousness. The emphasis is thus not on the exterior world but, much more obviously than in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, on the psychological responses to the world of the two main characters, Baako and Juana, a Puerto Rican psychologist who becomes Baako’s confidant, and of Baako’s grandmother, Naana, who represents the traditional wisdom of the people. The novel opens with Naana recalling Baako’s ritual departure five years before and her anticipation of his cyclical return. Baako does return, unannounced, however, to avoid the inevitable ritual ceremony. He dreads to face his family because he brings no gifts and because he knows that he will be unable to fulfill his mother’s expectations. His mother expects what the man’s wife expected in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, money and the comforts of the modern age. Baako, in his rebellion against this imitation of Western values, goes to his former teacher, Ocran, for advice. Ocran has himself chosen to pursue his profession as an artist in solitude, because he sees no possibility for useful work within contemporary Ghanaian society.

Against Ocran’s advice, the less experienced Baako has decided to make the attempt by turning his talents as novelist to a more public...

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