Ayi Kwei Armah

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S. Nyamfukudza (review date 7 March 1980)

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SOURCE: “Drought & Rain” in New Statesman, Vol. 99, No. 2555, March 7, 1980, pp. 362-63.

[In the following review, Nyamfukudza discusses Armah's Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers.]

The first three novels by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, intricate in form and distinguished by a highly wrought prose style using violent imagery, were all vividly emphatic artifacts. With outspoken courage and unrelenting commitment, he grappled seriously with the waste, corruption and inefficiency resulting from the cultural confusion which is the post-colonial inheritance of Black Africa. Bereft of any sense of community or direction, the educated élites and the masses are shown as actively engaged in their own betrayal, collaborating in the neo-colonial plunder and impoverishment of their national heritages. His protagonists, anguished and fragile beings, are consumed in ineffectual quests for personal (and by implication) national salvation. The presentation of this predicament has been fitfully enlivened by his own brand of somewhat dark humour.

Two Thousand Seasons presents a considerable departure from what he has done before. Indeed, one of the questions likely to preoccupy the reader is whether it is a novel at all. The collective racial memory of the black people is given voice through their pilgrimage of self-assertion in received versions of the long years of collision, destruction and enslavement by the white man, ‘the destroyers’, both Arab and Caucasian, who have colonised and plundered Africa. The distinction between We, Us, the Black people—the plural narrative voice of the novel—and Them, the white destroyers, is absolute and uncompromising. The quest is largely a spiritual one, to recapture as well as create a saving vision of a time when black people were one and their relationship was one of ‘reciprocity’ between individuals, variously termed ‘the way’, ‘our way’.

The story itself is of a group migrating south to the coast, presumably the West African coast, from Arab invaders, only to collide with white slave-dealers raiding inland. A period of capture and enslavement follows, but the prisoners escape from the ship due to take them across the Atlantic and from then on wage a guerrilla struggle against the white men and a collaborating local chief. Strong meat indeed, but what the reader is likely to find even less comfortable is the abandonment of naturalistic delineation of individual character, setting and time itself, as the story ranges back and forth, speaking insistently to the present. The message is relentlessly at the fore-front and we are much closer to the traditional tribal story teller, whose purpose is to educate and preserve the group's identity, history and traditions, than to any familiar novelistic form.

Before Anoa's utterance then, our migrations were but an echo to the alternation of drought and rain. Who is calling for examples?


Who asks to hear mention of the predators' names? Who would hear again the names of the predators' chieftains? With which stinking name shall we begin?

The sombre, sometimes outraged biblical cadence of the prose bears the epic on. The theory and attempt are bold and admirable, but the resulting simplification and polarisation are an impoverishment of Armah's art. The message too is none too clear in its implications for the much more complex present.

The Healers, Armah's latest novel, is by contrast, a straightforward historical narrative and deals with the fall of the Ashanti empire under the onslaught of the British. Why was the empire such a pushover for the colonists? Disunity, greed for power and internal contradictions inherent in a slave-holding and war-like society undermined its capacity and spirit for resistance.

The prose is pared down into a beautifully taut and...

(This entire section contains 818 words.)

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evocative instrument, with the novel at its best in the first half where it revolves round one of the main characters, Densu, disenchanted and ill-at-ease with the manipulative local politics. Ababio, the Machiavel of the novel, comes over as a truly sinister and frightening figure, plotting away against the royal household and ready to ally himself to the invading white men in his quest for power. Densu resists his enticements, choosing instead to dedicate himself to the calling of the healers under the tutelage of one of the sages. They receive such scant recognition that at this stage they have removed to their own healer's village deep in the forest. It is a lonely and ascetic way of life, study and self-communing, knowing oneself and trusting to inspiration rather than leaping into the thick of short-term political battles. Towards the end, when the battles take place, the novel tends to read like a Cowboys-and-Indians tale. It ends on an optimistic note, however, with the villain Ababio exposed and tried, ironically, by his former white allies. Although under the shadow of defeat and alien domination, West Indian slaves and Black Africans dance on the beach in symbolic reconciliation. It seemed hardly possible that Armah's commitment could be pushed further, but so it has, towards a more general and specifically African reading public.


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Ayi Kwei Armah 1939-

Ghanian novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Armah's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 33.

Ayi Kwei Armah is considered one of Africa's leading prose stylists writing in English. His works typically explore postcolonial Africa and focus on human alienation. Though Armah's vision is one of a unified Africa, he writes vehemently of the psychological effects of colonialism on the people of contemporary Ghana and Africa. His works have met with mixed critical reaction but many reviewers laud his stylistic innovations.

Biographical Information

Armah was born in 1939 in Takoradi, Ghana. His father is descended from the royal family of the Ga tribe and his mother was a member of the Fante tribe. Armah graduated from Prince of Wales College and received a scholarship to attend Harvard University from 1959 to 1963. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies, graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1963. Armah then worked briefly as a translator in Algeria. When he returned to Ghana in 1964, he became a scriptwriter for Ghana Television where he worked for three years under the supervision of George Awoonor Williams (later known as Kofi Awoonor). In 1966 a coup d'état toppled the government of Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanian leader who held power since 1957 when Ghana gained its independence from Britain. After the coup, Armah worked as a teacher at the Navrongo Secondary School in northern Ghana. In 1967 he moved to France where he worked on the staff of Jeune Afrique. The 1966 coup significantly influenced Armah's views about corruption in politics and he harshly criticized Nkrumah's administration in his 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Armah returned to the United States in 1968 and received a graduate degree in fine arts from Columbia University in 1969. Armah subsequently taught at universities in both the United States and Africa while continuing to write.

Major Works

Armah's first three novels are often grouped together in critical commentary. They each are heavily symbolic representations of life in contemporary Africa. The first, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, tells the story of a simple railway clerk during the regime of Kwame Nkrumah. The protagonist, known only as The Man, acts as a representation of the common man Nkrumah has promised to represent. The novel dramatizes the conflict between hope for change and the betrayal of that hope by the nation's leaders and serves as a stinging indictment of the Nkrumah regime. Fragments (1970) recounts the story of Baako, who returns to Ghana after studying in New York for five years. His family expects him to flaunt his Western education to gain prestige and wealth for the family. Baako, however, rejects what he sees as the corrupt values of the new Africa and only wishes to live a quiet life. In the end, Baako becomes so alienated he undergoes a breakdown and ends up in an asylum. Why Are We So Blest? (1972) tells the story of Modin Dofu, an African student studying in the United States who decides to return to Africa after becoming disillusioned with his experience with Western education. He brings his white lover Aimée Reitch, who acts as a representation of the white race in the novel. The return to Africa proves disastrous when the conflict between his rejection of Western values and his involvement with Aimée eventually destroys him. The novel is complex in structure, abandoning the linear progression of Armah's previous works. The emphasis of Armah's later novels is to clearly focus on the idea of returning to traditional African culture as a model for the future. Two Thousand Seasons (1973) covers one thousand years of African history and approaches epic proportions in its compressed meanings, descriptions of battles, and use of folk mythology. Armah condemns the Arab “predators” and European “destroyers” and calls for the reclamation of Africa's traditional values. The Healers (1978) is a fictionalized account of the fall of the Ashanti empire to the British. The novel dramatizes the struggle for African unity. The colonial invaders attempt to manipulate Africa's divisiveness while the healers in the novel attempt to strengthen Africa through inspiration and unity.

Critical Reception

Armah's first three novels are generally praised for their artistry. S. Nyamfukudza calls them “intricate in form and distinguished by a highly wrought prose style using violent imagery.” While lauding Armah for his artistry and innovation, however, critics often label him a pessimist who offers little hope for the future. Greater critical understanding and acceptance of his agenda were realized with the publication of Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, although his detractors continued to fault his fictional portrayals of a new sociopolitical order in Africa as vague and unrealistic. Some reviewers complain of Armah's change in tone in later works, and accuse him of being too idealistic to inspire real change. A few reviewers also note a lack of detail in his vision for Africa's future. Adewale Maja-Pearce said “Armah is a visionary writer in the strict sense. This much at least must be conceded, even if the details of what is effectively promoted as a blueprint for a social and political arrangement are far too vague and simplistic to be convincing at any but the most hopeful level.” Some critics contend that Armah presents racist, simplistic views in his works when he portrays all that is black as good, and all that is white as evil and corrupt. Despite these criticisms, Armah is widely appreciated for the strength of his convictions and his desire to promote the betterment of the African continent.

Kofi Owusu (essay date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: “Armah's F-R-A-G-M-E-N-T-S: Madness as Artistic Paradigm,” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 361-70.

[In the following essay, Owusu analyzes the relationship between madness and artistic creativity as evident in Armah's Fragments.]

… I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. …

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

The nature of literary genius has always attracted speculation, and it was, as early as the Greeks, conceived of as related to ‘madness’. … Another early and persistent conception is that of the poet's ‘gift’ as compensatory: the Muse took away the sight of Demodocos's eyes but ‘gave him the lovely gift of song’ …, as the blinded Tiresias is given prophetic vision.

—Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature

The epigraphs from Shakespeare and Wellek and Warren are intended to provide this essay with both an introduction and a point of departure. Hamlet's “The time is out of joint. O curséd spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” sums up the essential features of Baako's predicament in Fragments. Both Hamlet and Baako are sensitive protagonists who are shocked by physical and moral corruption in the nuclear and “extended” families. Either would rather “fardels bear” than “his quietus make / With a bare bodkin.” In their attempt to stem the overwhelming tide of corruption, they represent “deviations” from the norm; and in trying to establish a new or different order to replace the old, they emblematize “unreason.” Society, in its turn, exacts a high price—that of exclusion—from “dangerous” elements like Baako and Hamlet. The former acts out the implications of his name: “Baako” translates into “one,” “single,” or “solitary.” Baako's loneliness and aloneness correspond to Hamlet's.

Baako shares close emotional affinities with the old woman, Naana. And the latter shares with Tiresias both apparently disabling physical blindness and the compensatory “gift” of prophetic vision. Naana links her “blindness” to “madness”: “Sometimes I know my blindness was sent to me to save me from the madness that would surely have come with seeing so much that was not to be understood.”1 Her blindness is some sort of heaven-sent shield to protect her from “the madness” which her grandson who, like her, feels intensely but unlike her also “[sees] so much,” cannot escape from. One of the salient aspects of the novel, which is remarkable precisely because it is intimated rather than crudely emphasized, is that Naana's insight parallels as well as complements Baako's perception. The former's insightful reminiscences and philosophizing provide a “frame” for the novel (which begins and ends with “Naana”), while the latter's perception—both his ability to apprehend through sight (unlike Naana) and his propensity for intuitive recognition (like Naana)—replicates the artist's and, thus, provides a gloss on the “frame” and on the intervening narrative. In the fictional world of Fragments, “madness” complements “blindness” and both have positive connotations.

Baako's madness has a long list of ancestors and descendants in African literature. Against the eerie background of the talking drums' insistent message, “Udomo traitor Udomo die,” Michael Udomo in Peter Abrahams's A Wreath for Udomo, goes through the telescoped motions of insanity (“… he did not know which was heartbeat, which drumbeat”) just before his death. The loss of control over his bodily and mental functions reflects Udomo's inability either to control or give direction to the realization of his “dream” he has, thus, outlived his usefulness, and die he must. Variations on Udomo's “insanity” are worked out in the “crack in Ezeulu's mind” (in Achebe's Arrow of God), Sekoni's “madness” (in Soyinka's The Interpreters), Aduke's “insanity” (in Chukwuemeka Ike's Toads for Supper), the antics of Yacobo, the “‘mad’ Sergeant” (in Robert Serumaga's Return to the Shadows), and so on. The impression one gets, then, is that the fictional “African,” faced with the nightmare of finding himself, in the words of Kofi Awoonor, “caught in between the anvil and the hammer”, decides that he would rather “fardels bear” and goes mad, and/or makes his “quietus” like Amamu in Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother. … What needs to be emphasized, at this juncture, is that the cultural code invoked by these novels is usually one which suggests that

Those who are dead have never gone away. …
They are in the crowds, they are in the homestead.
The dead are never dead.

(Birago Diop, “Breath”)

Peter Abraham's epigraph for A Wreath for Udomo provides an ironic gloss on the implications of this code:

Did we think victory great?
So it is—But now it seems to me, when it
cannot be helped, that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.

(Walt Whitman)

Generally, however, death in African literature appears to be like Ngugi's “… grain of wheat” which “is not quickened, except it die[s].” But we need to invoke more than cultural codes to interpret madness, and Armah's Fragments is as good a starting point as any for an explication of this phenomenon in African literature.

In Fragments, the phenomenon of madness is multi-faceted. Baako is almost always ill at ease, and we get the impression that his “madness” is a reflection of dis-ease; but there is more to it than meets the eye:

He wanted sleep for a body bruised all over from the fever within, though he was tired of lying helpless so many hours, … too ill and too weak to get up. … [T]he sheet under him felt wet and clammy from his sweat.


This excerpt suggests a substantialist definition of madness as a “disease,” and this definition co-exists, in the novel, with a functional definition of madness as “‘anti-social conduct’”:2

This was a rich crowd of guests. … Woolen suits, flashing shoes, … an authentic cold-climate overcoat from Europe or America …, and a magnificent sane man in a university gown …, a great rich splendor stifling all these people in the warmth of a beautiful day. …

Against all that happiness there was a solitary fool walking into the midst of things wearing only reasonable clothes, a shirt … over a pair of shorts.

“At least wear something decent.”

The clown, being blind, had had the confidence to be impatient with the entreaty, asking, “What's wrong with this?” and watched pure surprise slide into an overbrave public smile on his mother's face.


The “sanity” of those attending a traditional outdoor ceremony in tropical Africa in “authentic cold-climate overcoat” or “a university gown” contrasts with the “insanity” of Baako's “solitary … reasonable[ness].” The guests at this ceremony constitute a microcosm of society. And since, ultimately, it is this society, with its convoluted values gone terribly awry, which passes judgment on Baako, we are also invited to see madness in Fragments “structurally on the level of society as a whole as the discourse of reason about unreason, [as] an implacable dialectic … an obvious paradox” (Barthes 169). Society's unreasoning “reason” condemns Baako's reasoned “unreason” as “madness.” Society's warped notion of “reason” defines Baako's “madness”; but the “dialogue” between Baako and the society which consigns him to a mental hospital is “faked,” for

on the level of the interconstituent dialogue of reason and unreason, … we must keep in mind that this dialogue is faked; it involves a great silence, that of the mad: for the mad possess no metalanguage in which to speak of reason.

(Barthes 165)

The tight control that the proponents and representatives of “reason” exercise over the means and modes of discourse is exemplified in the scene in Fragments in which television sets marked for distribution “‘all over the country, in the villages’” (214), are shared among employees of the Broadcasting Corporation itself. The people “all over the country,” particularly those in the rural areas, the so-called silent majority, like Baako, the madman, are literally “silent”—silenced by exclusion.

Baako is a writer and so, like his creator, Armah, he belongs to the rather “touchy” tribe of genus irritabile; the demential image associated with him is like the “incurable wound” linked to Philoctetes' “unerring bow.”3 When Baako engages Ocran, the artist, in conversation, the strictly literary dimension of madness in Fragments comes to the fore:

Ocran gave Baako a tall glass of beer. … “So now, Mr. Scribe, what are you going to do? Write by yourself?” …

“I don't understand it fully,” Baako said. “But I've thought a lot about it. In fact I went all the way round the bend trying to make up my mind.”

“It doesn't hurt an artist to taste a bit of madness,” Ocran said. “But I thought a decision to write would be a simple thing.”

“Not for me. I had a nervous breakdown over it. … I felt like I was cracking up when I first realized it fully. It was like being tricked into a trap. … I couldn't decide what kind of writing I should spend my lifetime on. … After all, I had to ask myself who'd be reading the things I wanted to write. … I wouldn't do the usual kind of writing. … But if I can write for film instead of … the other stuff—it's a much clearer way of saying things to people here.”


Baako's “taste … of madness” or “nervous breakdown” is directly related to his craft. And he is in good company. The choice between one form of writing or the other, between, say, the novelist and the scriptwriter, is pertinent to recent developments in African literature. A writer like Sembene Ousmane, for example, has sought to resolve this conflict in favor of redirecting his creative energy to making motion pictures in his native Wolof with French and English subtitles. The author of Fragments, for his part, writes novels which dramatize, without resolving, the tensions generated by the conflicting claims of polemical writing and the strictly literary (“‘… the ghost of the missionary … bullying the artist’” [114]); the techniques of cinematography and the quintessentially novelistic (“‘… doing film scripts … would be superior to writing, just as an artistic opportunity’” [115]); and of non-African idiom and culture-specific African content (“‘… film scripts … would be a matter of images, not words. Nothing necessarily foreign in images, not like English words’” [115]). In short, Armah does not ”‘do the usual kind of writing’” (114). He does “unusual” things like working with, and at the same time subverting the claims of, imported generic codes and (systems of) language. But since African literature has not as yet developed a credible meta-meta-discourse of the “unusual” corresponding to the meta-meta-discourse of the “usual,” it stands the risk of being defined, from the perspective of the neighboring “usual” system, as “deviation.” The “usual” system, on the strength of its own norms, “participates in the values of civilization, escapes the fatality of being, conquers the freedom of doing; [while] the other partner is excluded from history, fastened to an essence, either supernatural, or moral, or medical” (Barthes 169). In Armah's Fragments, madness (the “unusual”) is suggestive in the sense in which Carlyle defines “symbol” in Sartor Resartus:

In a symbol there is concealment and yet revelation: here therefore, by silence and by speech acting together, comes a double significance.

(Centenary Edition, 1897, 175)

The “silence” of the mad (“the mad possess no metalanguage in which to speak of reason”) and the “speech” of the sane “[act] together” to yield “a double significance.” And Fragments's overarching ironic mode provides for “concealment and … revelation.” (The reference to Sartor Resartus is not adventitious: the revisionist thrust of much of African literature, in part, translates into an attempt to “refashion” assumed notions about literature. The suggestion is that the writer/critic, like Carlyle's “tailor”/“patcher,” should be “retailored”/“repatched.”)

Serge Doubrovsky's account of “l'affaire Picard” has a bearing on the concerns of this essay:

[I]t is easy enough to see in what way Roland Barthes and the “new criticism” generally are, to use Raymond Picard's revelatory word, “dangerous.” … On the one hand … they have broken and entered a jealously guarded hunting preserve. And on the other hand they have begun to reexamine the meaning of the critical act itself, to say nothing of denouncing the traditional method of performing it. With the bursting of this double safety lock, with the breaching of this dam, everything else is bound to go down too. … The result, in short, is “madness,” which is to say a new reason attempting to establish itself. The collective hysteria, the mob fury crying out for Roland Barthes to be burned, … to be beheaded, is quite simply …: hatred of the Intellectual who questions the foundation of our intellectual comfort.4

In Fragments, Armah compresses the larger issues in the ninth chapter into a pun. The chapter is entitled “Dam” which is a local (Akan) word for “madness” or “insanity”; but in the context of the entire chapter, the word also retains all the connotations of the bursting of a dam: “… the huge vomiting fever came draining out of him, tearing itself out of a body too weak to help or resist it, dropping in waves …, tasting … the thick bitterness of his own closed-up bile. Then he … turned the water on … [to wash] the vomit down the drain” (227). Baako's passions are spent; he is “drained” literally and figuratively. Soon after this, he is tied up and taken to a mental hospital. The multilingual pun on “dam” thus underlines the substantialist definition of madness as “disease,” and marks the point at which the text's activating events reach a climactic fever pitch. Not surprisingly, it is in this same—ninth—chapter that society's fear of Baako is given its most graphic expression:

“Stay far from him. His bite will make you also maaaaad!”

To this another, closer voice added in sage, quiet tones, “The same thing happens if he should scratch you.” …

In a while Araba's sobs subsided and she said in the uncertain silence, “Tie him up.” …

Now the others were quick with the speed of fearful men about to be released from their fear. While his [Baako's] wrists were being bound, a man in sandals was called to stand on his fingers. … The fiber of the twine ate toward the wrist bones, cutting his flesh.

(243, 246–47)

The violence of “fearful men” is the violence of the weak: an impotent society vents its collective spleen on Baako. This society finds Baako as “dangerous” as Picard must have found Barthes. “The collective hysteria” and “the mob fury” referred to by Doubrovsky and dramatized by Armah reflect the “revolt” against “a new reason attempting to establish itself.” A variation on the same theme is played out in the death of the child during its “outdooring”: the life of this new addition to the family of humans is smothered by rapacious older members of the human family.

Fragments calls for extrapolations from traditional, culture-specific matrices. The outdooring ceremony, for example, plays as crucial a role in the novel's climactic build-up as the libation ceremony plays in Naana's prologizing. Prior to Baako's trip abroad, in the opening chapter, his uncle, Foli, pours libation to invoke the protection of ancestral spirits. Ordinarily, Foli appears to be ensconced in the folly of his waywardness: he is “blemished” (9), a “drunkard” (7), his “voice … [is] used so often for deceit” (6), and he bears all the marks of a person who “has always been one to have a spirit flawed by the heaviness of flesh too often listened to” (5). But as the uncle calling “upon the nephew the protection of the old ones gone before” (5), Foli is a very different person:

… that night his words had a perfect completeness that surprised me [Naana] and told me the departed ones are still watching over those they left here above. Even Foli felt their presence. His soul within those hours left the heavy body so as to be with the departed ones. … Nothing was said then that was not to be said, and nothing remained unsaid for which there was a need.


The author employs verbal and contextual echoes to imbue Foli's words (“Nothing was said then that was not to be said, and nothing remained unsaid for which there was a need”) with the efficacy which Judaeo-Christians accord the opening of John's gospel (“In the beginning was the word. … All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made”). The implications of all this are that there are competing canons, not a single Canon; that there are traditions, not a or the Tradition. Nor are these canons and traditions without points of divergence as well as convergence.

The drama of the libation's rites is vitiated by the novel's inescapable narrativity, while other codes of the genre compromise the orality of the words accompanying the ritual. But the very processes of vitiation and compromise suggest, first, that the “standard” or “normal” notions about the language of fiction need re-assessing and, secondly, that the codes of the genre need re-coding. It is not for nothing that the drink poured for the ancestral gods is not the traditional wine of the palm (tree), but rather “schnapps” (6). The “foreign” gin is to libation what English and the “imported” form of the novel are to Fragments's culture-specific concerns. The metatext, like the libation ritual, is, thus, neither wholly traditional nor foreign. The conjunction of the competing claims of the foreign and the traditional results in a different kind of writing—an “unusual” kind of writing trying to get itself established. And in this connection, Foli, the most active participant in the libation ritual, lives up to the multiple implications of his name. Within the novel's macrostructure, Foli recalls the French word “folie” and, thus, provides yet another multilingual pun. Foli as “folie” justifies the reference to Roland Barthes's review essay, “Taking Sides,” on Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Folie (published in America as Madness and Civilization). Barthes claims that Foucault's book

… restores to history a fragment of “nature” and transforms into a phenomenon of civilization what we hitherto took for a medical phenomenon: madness. … Foucault never treats madness except as a functional reality: for him it is the pure function of a couple formed by reason and unreason, observer and observed. And the observer (the man of reason) has no objective privilege over the observed (the madman). It would thus be futile to try to find the modern names for dementia under its old names.


The “French connection” is suggested by the novel under discussion. Baako makes his return trip from New York to Accra via Paris: the connecting flight of his New York—Paris—Paris—Accra trip is made on an “Air Afrique” plane. And the France Baako sees is not without its madmen:

… a man … stood facing the quay wall … in a frozen attitude of prayer. … He wore no shoes, and he had taken off his shirt. … Suddenly he broke from his immobile stance and marched directly forward as if … to march straight through the high wall. But a step or two from it he stopped just as abruptly as he had begun, and raised his arms above his head worshipfully, supplicating the wall.


There is something else. The nausea which had accompanied Baako's “nervous breakdown” in America, resurfaces in France (“he felt the vague nausea threatening to return, … starting with a tightening sensation somewhere near the top and back of his skull” [58]), and works itself to its logical conclusion in Africa (“There was one sharp needlepoint of pain boring into his skull … before the huge vomiting fever came draining out of him” [227]). We need to recall the text's support for a reading of Baako's “nausea” and “nervous breakdown” as the artist's vocational hazard(s), in order to make the point that Baako's debate over “unusual” and “usual” kinds of writing has been evident in America, France, and Africa. And in Africa, as in France and America, “‘madness,’ which is to say a new reason attempting to establish itself” (Doubrovsky 46), is reflected in the propensity to foreground literatures and traditions, and background Literature and The Great Tradition.

Fragments assumes that literatures and traditions flourish under the banner of literary protestantism: they thrive at the expense of the catholic assumptions which underpin much of canonized Literature and Tradition. But the text also goes beyond these assumptions by introducing qualifications and suggesting, ultimately, that clear-cut distinctions are too easy:

The only time she [Juana] had asked him [Baako], he had told her he had been a kind of pagan all his life, and then he had laughed at her for saying she herself was an atheist. “You don't act that way,” he had said. “I think you're a Catholic. …” He had offered no explanation, but thinking about the words she had found an awkward truth about herself. … [T]he meaning of her life remained in her defeated attempts to purify her environment … to salvage discrete individuals in the general carnage. Sometimes she could almost understand the salutary cynicism of Protestants, … trying for an isolated heaven in the shrinking flight inward.


Baako is “a kind of pagan” who is protestant in outlook; Juana says she is “an atheist,” but she doesn't act like one, and when Baako says she is catholic she is confronted with “an awkward truth about herself.” It appears, however, that there is “method,” even “craft,” in this seeming “madness.” Before any complications are introduced, the two characters playfully, almost innocently, collaborate, without words, in making a “‘Very Catholic’ … prayer clasp” (176). Quite appropriately, Juana, the psychiatrist, plays the active role while Baako, the artist susceptible to nausea and nervous breakdown, is the passive partner. Soon after this, they make love in the sea—literally—and it is Baako who, in this instance, is more active and imaginative than his partner. The complementariness of psychiatrist and patient reflects the reciprocity of the sexual act, and both complementariness and reciprocity partake of the sea's all-inclusive totality. By analogy, the context of two people wanting to be alone together provides paradox as well as oxymoron, and both paradox and oxymoron are informed by the novel's ironic structure. (We notice how the disparity between what Juana says she is and how she acts—“he had laughed at her for saying she herself was an atheist. ‘You don't act that way,’ he had said”—hints at the ironic mode).

Fragments suggests that the artist's characteristic disinterestedness and impersonality, like the related notion of aesthetic distance, translate crudely into “the salutory cynicism of Protestants, their ability to kill all empathy” (177). But if the artist, like Baako, is African then he is fundamentally “like a doctor probing into a diseased body, locating a node of sickened nerves” (145): he is administering to the body corporate diseased, and the communal psyche seared, by “years of denigration and self-abasement … [f]or no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in [the] soul.”5 Armah's text sponsors the conception of the artist as protestant with catholic commitments. The protestantism of the artist does not, and, indeed, need not detract from his (“catholic”) role as healer (cf. Armah's The Healers) or “teacher” (cf. Achebe's essay, “The Novelist as Teacher”). Images of fragmentation, atomism, and centrifugal forces on the one hand, and those of unbroken circle (“The circle was not broken” [5]), reciprocity, and all-inclusive totalities like the sea on the other, co-exist in creative tension throughout the novel. The opening words of the novel are instructive:

Each thing that goes away returns and nothing in the end is lost. The great friend throws all things apart and brings all things together again. … That is how all living things come back after long absences, and in the whole great world all things are living things. All that goes returns. He will return.


“Throws all things apart” echoes Achebe's Things Fall Apart; but in this context, what is thrown “apart” is brought “together again.” The basis for the tension-generating drama of the Self (“each thing,” “things apart,” and “he”) and the Significant Other (“living things,” “things together,” and “all”) to be played out in the rest of the novel, is evident at the beginning.

To deal with the dialectics and/or dialogics of the Self and the Significant Other, protestantism and catholicism, fragmentation and unbroken circle, unreason and reason, centrifugal and centripetal forces, and so on, Armah adopts irony as a necessary structural device,

For irony, of all figures, is the one that must always take us out of the text and into codes, contexts, and situations. It is in fact precisely this tendentiousness of irony that makes it an interesting semiotic problem.6

Irony brings into play situation as well as the pragmatics of situation; codes as well as the contexts of codes. Codes in Fragments, particularly cultural ones, are deliberately loaded. Extrapolations from libation and outdooring ceremonies, for example, have been shown to be crucial to the appreciation of the novel. Additionally, the text's chapter headings in Akan, the local language, are made to carry the burden of “the key organizing ideas in their respective chapters.”7 So central are the novel's cultural codes that de-coding them entails a creative process of re-coding the genre itself. The result of these processes of decoding and re-coding is the transformation of the text into what Baako would describe as something unlike “‘the usual kind of writing’” (114); what Henry Gates, Jr. would describe as “a construct neither exactly ‘like’ its antecedents nor entirely new”;8 and what Serge Doubrovsky would characterize as “‘madness,’ which is to say a new reason attempting to establish itself” (46).

Interpretations of Fragments to date have generally tended to exhibit an unwillingness to go beyond perceived correspondences between Ghana and Armah's fictional “Ghana” on the one hand, and the supposed mental and physical conflicts associated with the “been-to” on the other. The literary appreciation of the novel has been hampered by the endless accumulation of pre-critical, often pre-textual, data. What is true of Fragments is, unfortunately, only too true of many—far too many—African texts. To allow facile anthropological and socio-cultural reductionism to clutter literary appreciation is to valorize literal-mindedness over literariness. And it seems to me, in this connection, that African literature is yet to benefit from the birth of “the beautyful ones.”


  1. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (London: Heinemann, 1974), 14. Subsequent references are to this edition of the novel (first published by Houghton Mifflin, 1970), and are incorporated into the text.

  2. Roland Barthes, “Taking Sides” in Critical Essays, tr. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972), 169.

  3. See Lionel Trilling, “A Note on Art and Neurosis,” Partisan Review 12.1 (1945): 41, 42.

  4. Serge Doubrovsky, The New Criticism in France, tr. Derek Coltman (Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 1973), 45–46.

  5. Chinua Achebe, “The Novelist as Teacher,” Morning Yet on Creation Day (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 71.

  6. Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale UP, 1982), 76–77.

  7. Ayi Kwei Armah, “Larsony Or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction,” ASEMKA 4 (Sept., 1976): 9. The novel, Fragments, begins and ends with Naana.Naana is a local term, usually affectionate, for an old woman. The headings for the intervening chapters are Edin (“name” and, by extension, “identity,”) Akwaaba (“welcome”), Awo (“birth”), Osagyefo (translates literally into “war-saviour”: a war-hero whose exploits “save” people, state, or kingdom from defeat or destruction), Gyefo (“saviour” without the martial connotations), Igya (“fire”), Nsu (“water”), Dam (“madness”), Efua (is the “soul-name”—usually loosely designated as “day-name”—of a female born on Friday), Iwu (“death”), and Obra (“life”).

  8. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Criticism in the Jungle” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Gates (New York & London: Methuen, 1984), 4.

Principal Works

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“La mort passe sous les blancs” (essay) 1960

“Contact” (short story) 1965

“Asemka” (short story) 1966

“African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?” (essay) 1967

“Pour les ibo, le régime de la haine silencieuse” (essay) 1967

“An African Fable” (short story) 1968

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (novel) 1968

“Yaw Manu's Charm” (short story) 1968

“Fanon: The Awakener” (essay) 1969

“A Mystification: African Independence Revalued” (essay) 1969

“The Offal Kind” (short story) 1969

“Aftermath” (poem) 1970

Fragments (novel) 1970

Why Are We So Blest? (novel) 1972

Two Thousand Seasons (novel) 1973

“Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali” (essay) 1974

“Chaka” (essay) 1975

“Larsony, or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction” (essay) 1976

The Healers (novel) 1978

“Halfway to Nirvana” (short story) 1984

“Islam and ‘Ceddo’” (essay) 1984

“Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis” (essay) 1984

“The Caliban Complex” (essay) 1985

“Flood and Famine, Drought and Glut” (essay) 1985

“The Lazy School of Literary Criticism” (essay) 1985

“One Large Problem” (essay) 1985

“One Writer's Education” (essay) 1985

“The Oxygen of Translation” (essay) 1985

“The Teaching of Creative Writing” (essay) 1985

“Africa and the Francophone Dream” (essay) 1986

“Dakar Hieroglyphs” (essay) 1986

“Third World Hoax” (essay) 1986

“Writers as Professionals” (essay) 1986

“Seed Time” (poem) 1988

“Doctor Kamikaze” (short story) 1989

“Speed” (poem) 1989

Ahmed Saber (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah's Myth-making in The Healers,” in Literature of Africa and the African Continuum, edited by Jonathan A. Peters, Mildred P. Mortimer, and Russell V. Linneman, Three Continents Press, 1989, pp. 5-14.

[In the following essay, Saber discusses Armah's creation of a traditional African myth in the novel The Healers.]

The Healers'1 integral structure is based on myth-making through which it attains symbolic proportions. In fact, Armah superimposes on its history of the Asante Empire a mythic level which is crucial to a full understanding of the novel. Since “a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time” and “explains the present and the past as well as the future,”2 the two intentions of myth and history are compatible. The Healers demands mythic interpretation, but it is informed by no classical European myth. In fact, Armah had already used myth, on a limited basis, in his earlier novels.3 In Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, however, he embarked on a full-scale program of myth-making. The Healers makes several references to traditional beliefs and practices, and habits of thoughts or behavior, which derive their origins not from the Greco-Roman myth of course, but from the African background. The novelist's overt purpose in myth-making is to offer a dynamic impetus to the formation of a new social order and a new political ideology in which the collectivity, as opposed to individual achievement, competition or manipulation, plays a leading role. In the writing of The Healers, Armah's imagination was unmistakably mythopoeic; myth-making serves as an intensification of mood, a clarification of characters, and as a form of perception which brings his material to artistic concentration, and endows his scenes with depth and liquidity. Armah's myth-making thus exhibits both the “philosophic” and the artistic properties of myth in general. It proposes an admittedly individualized version of a people's ethical and cosmic vision, and it does so with narrative forms typical of myth's arbitrary plot (here the journey or quest), characters of heroic grandeur, and nature's complicity in the drama.

Armah's mythic didacticism is governed by two complementary arguments, one destructive, the other constructive. The first is “demythification.” In presenting the rivalry and fragmentation of the Asante Empire and its failure to prevent British conquest, Armah demolishes currently prevailing myths which eulogise the government and society of that period. For its purpose, the novel relies on history—recorded fact in abundant detail—for support.

The constructive or positive myth is illustrated by Armah's dexterous interjection of a new, idealized society in which the only path to a harmonious and lasting survival is that of a communal consciousness and the total integration of individual feelings with collective life. Such a society is represented by the community of “healers” and their inspirational work in the novel.

The healers' society is an alternative in which “the body that is whole moves always together. No part of it goes against any other part.”4 The need for a community of healers had already been suggested in Armah's fourth novel, where the founders of such a utopian society are the “healers,” the “indispensable finders of paths to the way again.”5 However it is only in The Healers that their acts of healing and teaching are put to work. The healers and their “philosophy” are presented as the only possible means to salvation and as the only effective force against the danger of integration, corruption, and foreign occupation. In essence, Armah's mythic society of the healers is consistent with the plot and didactic purpose of the novel.

Armah's myth-making is centered on four individuals: the healer Damfo, Araba Jesiwa, Densu, and Asamoa Nkwanta. Since the last three have been exposed in one way or another to the political and social (as well as physical and psychological) violence of the Asante rulers and British colonialism, they have to be treated by Damfo.

It is worth remarking that from the start Damfo is classified as a special man having mixed powers of “inspiration” and “healing.” The society of the healers, and Damfo's inspirational work in particular, are sharply contrasted with the background of the so-called “destroyers,” the royal manipulators, “the poison,” and the “disease” of division that had befallen the Asante people—the black people. Indeed, Damfo's personality, life and work of healing are endowed with frequent mythic descriptions and mythic perceptions. Along with other dedicated healers, he lives in a remote area in the eastern forest far from Esuano and the royal family. It is here that Araba Jesiwa and Densu go to visit him from time to time.

Because of her marriage to Bedu Addo, a member of the royal family, Araba Jesiwa has been leading a life of fear, despair and suffering. In marrying a royal man whom she does not love, she has in fact violated her “soul,” her womanhood. As a consequence, “for years her soul has sunk into a deep, horrifying hole and stayed trapped there at the bottom, unable to crawl” (p. 67), and “for years it had seemed that Araba Jesiwa was fated to die childless” (p. 69) if Damfo did not come to her rescue. After Araba's consultation with many medical practitioners who just “stuffed her stomach with scrapings from the barks of innumerable trees … Damfo the healer from the eastern forest came to her” (p. 70). Thus through inspirational healing, he helps her find her true self and recover her fertility. On the one hand, Jesiwa's marriage with Bedu Addo is meant to reflect the barrenness and destructive nature of the royal rulers. On the other hand, her marriage with Kofi Entsua, a craftsman (carver), who loves her and whom she loves, must be interpreted as a symbol of harmony and creation. Not only does Damfo help Jesiwa regain her fertility, he has saved her life as well after she has been maimed beyond recognition by Buntui.

The second example of Armah's myth-making of healing concerns the young Densu who refuses to cooperate with a political manipulator, Ababio. Instead he chooses to join the “inspirers,” the community of the healers. After having witnessed the violence of the games of remembrance and their harmful impact on the people of Esuano, and after having discovered the wickedness and corruption of Ababio and other leaders, Densu has been facing a bitter choice between joining the repugnant “manipulators” and linking with the enigmatic community of the healers. Thanks to Damfo, who helps him see things clearly, Densu “did not like manipulators, he loved inspirers” (p. 27). But before the final decision, Damfo gives Densu more information about the profession of healers, and the nature and objective of healing.

In an open atmosphere involving teacher and disciple, Damfo patiently instructs Densu about the rules and regulations regarding how an individual may become a healer. He must have an intuitive ability to comprehend the world of plants, animals, birds, sounds of rivers, and the physical and spiritual composition of forests. Therefore, a learner has to train himself to hear, to understand sounds and grasp their spiritual meaning. More than an ordinary person, a healer is bound to act honestly. Furthermore, Damfo reminds the young Densu that a healer does not aspire to have power over other men. Instead, “he dedicates himself to inspiration. He also lives against manipulation” (p. 81). Hence “the healer is a life-long enemy of all manipulation. The healer's method is inspiration” (p. 81). Damfo adds that “inspiration” is that state in which both spirit and body are in harmony and that “manipulation” is the total negation of “inspiration.” “It's a disease, a popular one. It comes from spiritual blindness. … Manipulation steals a person's body from his spirit, cuts the body off from its own spirit's direction” (p. 81). Damfo goes on to explain that the art of healing does not involve the small parts of society only but the segments of a whole nation, if not of a whole race. These ideals, Damfo remarks, cannot be achieved by the heroism of a single individual. Instead, they require a group's collective engagement.

Armah's myth-making of healers and healing attains a new dimension with subtle juxtaposition of Damfo and Densu. As a matter of fact, through his teaching of the art of healing to Densu, Damfo serves as a striking model of the novelist's mission as an educator of his people. The conversation reinforces Armah's didactic intent. For instance, listening to Densu's questions about the art of healing and Damfo's answers, the reader cannot help feeling that the Ghanaian novelist has taken upon himself the responsibility to educate, guide and “heal” the new generation of African readers. Like Damfo, his spokesman, Armah becomes an awakener “of a people who have slept too long” (p. 83). In plunging Densu into the Asante past, Armah wants his readers to learn about “inspiration” and “manipulation,” the forces of “unity” and “division” of that special period of the myth of the African past. Above all, he wants him to know that “the events that have shattered our people were not simply painful events. They were disasters. They were strange, unnatural catastrophes” (p. 83). Cataloging these “catastrophes” is itself a call to a “lost unity” (what Armah called the “way of reciprocity” in Two Thousand Seasons) and a reminder and a warning that “the highest work, the bringing together of the black people, will take centuries” (p. 83). Hence Damfo says to Densu that “a healer needs to see beyond the present and tomorrow. He needs to see years and decades ahead” (p. 84) in order to bring about sound changes which transform society's defective structure. Wounded by the nobility and alienated by its political and social values, Asamoa Nkwanta has to be healed and rehabilitated.

The author's creation of Asamoa Nkwanta is closely consistent with the didactic framework. Like Araba Jesiwa, he serves as a major device for the novelist to probe deeper into the political and social structure of the Asante society. In addition, as the historical Asante army commander, Asamoa Nkwanta is a fascinating match for the British general Wolseley, paralleling him in stature and exploits, and even surpassing him in ingenuity and valor. He is the greatest of the Asante generals and their teacher as well (p. 98). He is a national hero, a man of humble birth who becomes the saviour or “Osajefo” of his people, freeing them from fear, from invasion, and from famine and death. Describing him to Damfo, the healer Nyaneba says that “Asamoa Nkwanta is a good man. He is also a valuable man, one of those highly skilled in the pursuit of a vocation” (p. 269). And his healing must be considered as “a force for the healing of our people,” Nyaneba adds. However, “all his goodness has been spent in the service of Asante royalty, which is part of the [communal] disease” (p. 269). By serving the nobility Asamoa Nkwanta has, in fact, wronged himself by waging “war on his own natural self” (p. 173).

Asamoa Nkwanta's “disease” is partly caused by the royal customs. When an Asante king dies, his slaves and belongings are buried along with him. One prince takes advantage of these traditional practices to murder Asamoa's favorite nephew. After this murder, Asamoa becomes “diseased” and his anger “turned into sorrow of such depth that he vowed not to touch arms again in defense of Asante” (p. 98). More than this, “that murder sickened his soul” (p. 99) to the extent that he

looked a wasted wreck. On his body the flesh was wasted. The skin hung loose on his limbs. His face looked as if he had inherited the skin covering it from one several times bigger, and the difference showed in long, deep lines. It was plain the man had suffered—the kind of suffering that comes from within. Strong men may resist pain inflicted from outside themselves. But against the pain that has its source inwards they are more helpless than the weak. … Asamoa Nkwanta's body showed the results of a terrifying struggle. His eyes showed worse—that the struggle was far from over.

(p. 172)

Thus the Asante general needs both physical and psychological healing. He is taken to the main village of healers at Praso for treatment. The physical healing comes smoothly and quickly. But Asamoa Nkwanta's psychological recovery proves to be difficult, for despite his physical and moral strength the general cannot free himself from injuries suffered in the past. In the course of the psychotherapeutic treatment, Damfo makes him look back into the past so that he can understand the nature and the source of his “disease,” and reminds him that “if the pains bringing disease to the mind come from the past, healing means the mind must go beyond the past, traveling into the future as lightly as it can” (p. 172). In leading the general through a self-examination and a scrutiny of his past experiences from a much more philosophically comprehensive viewpoint, Damfo succeeds in making him see that his sorrow and despair are rooted in his serving a single group—the Asante kings—instead of the whole Akan people. Thus the episode demonstrates how Armah combines historical fact with destructive and constructive mythologizing to weave his didactic fabric.

In essence, the Ghanaian novelist employs Asamoa Nkwanta's “disease” and healing as a lesson to military leaders about the grave consequences which may result from their supporting a privileged ruling minority while ignoring the welfare of the majority of the population. For instance, by defending the nobility Asamoa Nkwanta has not only harmed himself but also contributed to the divisions that have torn apart the Akan people. These divisions serve only the interests of those who “do not wish the unity of black people all over this land” (pp. 267–268) because “the royals these days serve only themselves” (p. 180), Asamoa says to Damfo. And even the Asante army he tries to save from total destruction by the British forces is, in fact, “a plaything the royals indulge themselves with” (p. 198).

While Damfo's healing of Asamoa is imbued with an appeal for a new awareness of unity and solidarity based primarily on race consciousness, it also serves as a profound contemplation of the present conditions in Africa. In this context, Damfo says to the Asante general in an optimistic tone that

“If the past tells you the Akan and the black people were one in the past, perhaps it also tells you there is nothing eternal about present divisions. We were one in the past. We may come together again in the future.”

(p. 176)

To support this new myth of a healing vanguard, Armah employs a mythic apparatus which embraces such elements as a formulaic journey and quest, omens, rites of aversion, and empathetic setting. These do not merely illustrate themes; they are fundamental agents in the narrative design and vehicles of philosophical assertions.

The novel is replete with mythic journeys. There are three types of journey. One is the physical journey undertaken by various characters or armies. Another is the time journey by which the reader is explicitly invited on an excursion to retrieve the Asante past as part of a quest for a map to the future. The third type is metaphorical, the evolution of the Asante national consciousness.

Densu's heroic and epic experiences are vivid illustrations of the journey and the quest. He is a wanderer, separated from his family by death, idealistically in search of a reality more ethical than that embraced by the corrupt and materialistic society he has rejected. After rejecting the competitive spirit of the games of remembrance and Ababio's offer to make him king of Esuano, Densu undertakes several long journeys in the course of which he encounters dangers and obstacles. The experiences of his journeys portray the evolution of his character and perceptions. His journeys take him back and forth from Esuano to the eastern forest, to the main village of healers at Praso, to Cape Coast, and to Kumase. He crosses whirling rivers and ventures through jungles of forest by day or night. Once on his way back to Esuano from the eastern forest, Densu is attacked and captured by Ababio and his men, then jailed and forced to stand trial by the “drink of death.” As a young and inexperienced orphan and as a growing man and, of course, as a mythic hero, Densu has to go through stages of immaturity, innocence, and nascent awareness. Eventually he reaches a social and spiritual maturity, for it is important to the myth-making conception that the hero comes to understand what he is. Densu reaches that point: “at first the change inside Densu made him see the world outside as too had changed. In his mind a great distance had come between him and life at Esuano. He thought of a complete break with the old life, and an immediate initiation into a new life, the life of healing” (p. 86). In addition he “also came to know of the ways of Esuano and the wider world it belonged to” (p. 87) in spite of the fact that “the journey had been heavy on his soul” (p. 109).

In addition to the devices of the journey and the quest, the rites of aversion and the omens are also relevant to The Healers' myth-making mechanism. They embrace the cultural reality of the historical themes and setting. One example of the rites of aversion—what the novelist termed in Part Five “The Sacrifice of Victims”—consists of a sacrifice of human beings as offerings of thanks to the gods and as a message to the spirit of the sacred river Pra. Densu is deeply appalled by such primitive beliefs and brutal practices, which he believes to be unnatural and a defect in the society of the Asante.

Those omens that occur in the last part of the novel (pp. 239–287) have both structural and symbolic functions. They serve not only as a striking prelude for the final downfall of the Asante Empire but also as a symbolic indication of the internal divisions and the chaotic forces of its political and social structure. Just before the final assault on the Asante capital, Kumase, Armah turns the flow of the narrative towards a climax by carefully enumerating a series of omens. This action creates an intense atmosphere of suspense for the reader. Besides, this section, entitled “Omens,” involves sudden and extensive alteration of sky, human, animal and vegetal beings. Reports of these phenomena are accompanied by widespread tales of strange stories and events.

Setting is by no means a minor element of The Healers' form and structure. The geographical environment and the cultural milieu are quite integral to the portrayal of both history and myth. They constitute a vital medium through which a portion of the metaphorical and symbolic meaning is transmitted. Moreover, Armah uses the setting as the major device establishing the general atmosphere and tone of the novel. Therefore, it is essential to Armah's intention that there should be no vagueness about the setting of his novel. This setting is in fact the product of a meticulously researched background, because the novelist wished to bring to life a vanished age, an earlier social order, and to do so in such accurate and appropriately documented detail that, without harmful, idealised delusions, the reader would experience the Asante past.

Rivers and forests are the dominant features of the physical environment of The Healers. Frequent references to rivers, streams and waters are made throughout the novel, and many events take place in or around the rivers Nsu Ber, Nsu Nyin and Pra. For instance, the festive rites of the games of initiation, Densu's and Damfo's journey, the sacrifice of victims, the Asante and British military confrontation; all these episodes deal in one way or another with these rivers, which are depicted not only as active agents of the Asante landscape but as relevant aspects of the Asante culture as well. Thus before any major event is presented, Armah gives a clear, descriptive account of the physical environment in which it will occur. For example, before the games of remembrance are introduced, the novelist gives us a vivid picture of their physical background in the following passage, which is instructive to examine carefully:

Two streams flowed by Esuano. One was a calm stream. It flowed so gently there were places where this motion was barely visible. Its waters were extraordinarily clear. You could see all the way down to the bed of fine sand sprinkled with pebbles of many colours, from light yellows to deep, dark purples.

If your hearing was keen and your imagination alive, you could hear, deeper than the light breeze's sound, the sound of pebbles rolling forward under the water.

Along the clear river's right bank the fine yellow sand brought by this stream formed a narrow strand. Below Esuano, just before the confluence with the second stream, the strand widened into an open beach. Because the first was smaller and gentler than the second, and also because it was such a clear thing of beauty, people named it Nsu Ber, the female river.

The second river was wider and more turbulent than the first. Its bed was invisible; its water was opaque with mud. In its flow past Esuano it carried a heavy load of leaves, twigs, and broken branches from its course upstream. Along both of its banks it deposited not sand but silt, a thick muddy ooze. Partly because this second stream was heavy and physically forceful, and partly because it lacked the beauty of the first, people called it Nsu Nyin, the male river.

The male river flowed north for most of its course, but not far below Esuano it began a powerful westward turn, after which it held the new direction till it reached a greater river, the sacred Pra.

The female river had a more consistent course. It flowed steadily north-west, to meet the male river just past Esuano, a good morning's walking distance before the greater confluence with the Pra.

Between the female river and the male, below Esuano, lay a wide strip of land cut off as if deliberately from other surrounding land. No one farmed it, though it was fertile, being river soil. A soft mat of grass covered it.

(pp. 3–4)

The above detailed description of the beauty and smoothness of the female river contrasting with the roughness of the male river and of their final confluence with the great sacred river Pra is not only part of the distinctive local color, but is also a revealing cluster of symbols for the socio-political disparity simmering at Esuano. These rivers are powerful indications of the salient division and antagonism within the Asante Empire in general. Furthermore, they are reflections of the flow of time, life, death, and the phenomenon of historical cycles. Thus the flow of history with all its irregularities becomes a river of events inexorably washing individuals and nations along.

Parallel to the importance of the rivers is the weight or significance given to vegetation. For example, throughout the novel the forest is presented not just as a part of the physical environment but also as a force capable of supernatural danger or protection. Like the rivers, its presence contributes greatly to the mythic quality of The Healers' setting. Because of its protective and defensive topography, the eastern forest is the abode for the healers. It is the center where the future healers are initiated and trained and where herbs used for healing are found. And because in Africa some trees and plants are considered to be the haunts of spirits and departed souls, Armah has included these animistic attributes of plants as part of the beliefs endemic to the Asante cultural milieu.

Besides the physical setting, there is also a cultural setting. Events and actions in The Healers are presented through their cultural perspectives with regard to tribal systems of social norms and political organization, hierarchy of chiefs, functions of chieftaincy and kingship in times of war, forms of customs and beliefs, symbols and concepts held by members of the tribes. The ardent feelings of nationalism exhibited by the more powerful Asante people with their expansionist tendencies are also depicted. All these specific cultural details, and many others, are symptoms of a condition, signs of a socio-political thought we are required to understand. All in all, combined with the physical environment, the cultural milieu constitutes a commanding network of myth and reality of the Asante past that Armah strives to resurrect in his novel.

In summary, The Healers' myth-making operates in two directions. On the historical level there is what has been called the destructive myth which seeks to counteract false perceptions of the Asante past. Interwoven with this is the constructive myth, which is illustrated in the healer's communal work and teaching. For both of these designs, Armah employs a full panoply of conventional mythic devices such as the journey and quest, the rituals of games, the natural and supernatural settings. The whole emphasis on myth-making in the novel is aimed not only at heightening tensions and intensifying actions but also at adding significance to theme or situation. And most of all, the mythic design gives unity and strength to the novel, thereby producing an aesthetic medium for the novel's socio-political ideas. In keeping with The Healers' didactic matrix, Armah's myth-making is an expression of a profound sense of togetherness—a racial togetherness of feeling, of action, and of wholeness of living. Hence, Armah uses both the negative and positive myths to teach the lesson of the necessity for oneness of the individual with the group. By recreating the mythic time of the Asante past Armah aims to evoke contemplation of the possibilities for tomorrow and its bearing on the present.


  1. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers (London: Heinemann, 1979). All subsequent numbers in parentheses will refer to page numbers of this edition.

  2. Claude Levi-Straus, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Myth: A Symposium, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), p. 85.

  3. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (New York: Collier Books, 1968), pp. 79–80, Fragments (New York: Collier Books, 1969), see Chapters Five and Six; Why Are We So Blest? (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1973), pp. 101–2

  4. Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Heinemann, 1979), p. 202.

  5. Ibid., p. 203.

Taban lo Liyong (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah in Two Moods,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Liyong takes exception with Armah's politics and what he terms Armah's “fascination with revolutions, revolutionaries, overturners, [and] coup-makers. …”]

Since Ayi Kwei Armah is fond of scaring readers off by opening with philosophical premises, I would also like to kick off by offering a philosophical truism of my own.

Works of art are ideologically based. Especially the serious ones wrought by a society's leading thinkers and artists. Even when they look so innocent as children's stories, popular proverbs, or pop-songs, they still elaborate, and popularise a people's philosophy of life.

So, explicitly some of the time, and implicitly most of the time a society's artists reinforce the group's outlook towards itself and towards other peoples. The creators drive the young, the new, towards acculturization. The critics perform the shepherd's task of leading the stray sheep back to the fold.

Rome created the Western world. Christianity strengthened it. Calvinistic election to sainthood through wealth, gave the Western world capitalism. What is called the Western world is therefore what the Roman world got from the Greeks (who had got it from others) which were then wielded together by the Catholic Church, heir to Roman Empire, and now kept together through avarice of the whiteman.

Art works of the West laid the pillars of Western civilization. Architecture, no less than the novel or play, are pillars of the Western ideology. Economics of which we know so much, no less than history, help to keep the West together. Exploration was applied market and raw materials search. Christian evangelisation and government went hand in hand.

Any African who wrote a non-ideological novel, play, short story, epic, essay, like a Western man, Western artist, Western scholar, worked ideologically within the Western ideology. By Western, I mean both the capitalistic and the Marxist sectors of it.

The West keeps on renewing itself. When Europe had no more mental resources for going forward after the dark ages, it went back to the ideas of the Greeks and Romans. When it was copying from the past, it named its copying period neo-classicism.

After Europe was fed up with copying, it turned its attention to wild tales from the savage lands its sons had come across. Ancient Atlantis was left behind. The Bermudas were now the scenes of theatres of war. Trebizond was now a name of the past, Mount Abora were invented in the wilds of Africa. Sailors to the South Seas brought back tales of woe and wonder. The Red Indians, the Real Indians, the Africans especially Kings and Queens, the South Sea-Islanders, fired the imagination of the Western, Capitalistic, Christian, Imperialistic world more than anything else in its short history.

Romanticism is the name we give to the ideas the West held about us. These ideas, the Westerners still hold, and operate from, up to tomorrow: the West has not yet replaced its romantic attitude towards us. And from Romanticism to Communism was one step.

Most of our artists, thinkers, rulers, still operate from the romantic vistas the West espy us from. Most of us, to put it plainly, operate against our own people by blindly doing as the Western world of capitalism taught us to do, or the Western world of Marxism is teaching us to do.

Only Re-Africanisation of the African mind, return to African sources of knowledge, wisdom, ethics and aesthetics will save us from the continued mental enslavement in which we still are in 1988.

For the Blackman, for the Abibirman, the only voices which sounded true were those which advocated separation. I still insist that Marcus Garvey was inspired, was prophetic, and is worthy of being called a founder of decolonisation. He not only wanted navies, armies, generals; he also wanted nations, presidents, emperors, kings; he not only wanted schools and hospitals, but also merchant vessels and a role in world trade and governance. Garvey was no Jamaican islander: Jamaica was too small for this genius. He developed his thoughts in the States. But they were to come to fruition in Africa.

The ideology of Blackness which Garvey developed, inspired West Indians, Black Americans, and Africans to independence. Political paper independence, that is. But the throne was shared by neo-colonialism and neo-traditionalism.

In the process of ruling African nations within the last thirty years, neo-traditionalism lost out to neo-colonialism. Just as was foreseen by Frantz Fanon and others.

(In the late sixties, the American historian Professor Robert July, researched into the effects of Negritude on literary creativity in Africa. He did not seem impressed. For, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and all the other Francophone Poets were writing as reactions to French ideology of deracination. They were reacting to a foreign-made mould into which they were supposed to fit. They were not proposing radical departures from the Christian humanist socialism which the West had given them.)

Kwame Nkrumah, using all the mental resources then available in the Black world, wrenched for us independence from Britain in 1957. The ideology of blackness had worked. We were all urged to seek first the political kingdom and all would be added to us.

Apart from South Africa and Namibia, we now have African presidents in all African nations. So the ideology has worked. It has not only brought to us new nations, it brought to us plenty of creative works elaborating our demands for nationhood, our search for cultural decolonisation. All our works of art which advocated independence or cultural decolonisation are testimonies to the hold extensions of Garvey's philosophy had on us. Rather, although we all aspired to our decolonisation, Marcus Garvey enunciated it first, and most vociferously.

Unfortunately, when we answered the blanket call: seek ye first the political kingdom, we never gave ourselves a role in designing our future. So a lot of things were added unto us. The far-seeing amongst us, like Frantz Fanon, knew that we had got a mixed bag full of sand and simsim. Unless we were remoulded in a furnace, we would remain The Wretched of the Earth. For, most of us were not only black and white, but equally confused about using black or white ideology for our own good and possible development. Deracination had had its toll: we were really Gauls now, shedding real to tears with Bokassa at the tomb of de Gaulle. We had no other knowledge of ourselves apart from what the white world told us.

We had no other means for lifting ourselves up unless we held onto a white hand. We had no future world to aspire to apart from Western world. Fanon had indeed revealed to us the subterfuges of the coloniser at the twilight of his power.

Ayi Kwei Armah learnt from Fanon. To The Wretched of the Earth he added The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

Mahatma Gandhi had invented non-violence as a weapon against British Colonialism in South Africa. He went and perfected it in India, leading to the granting of independence to the first non-white British dominion in 1947. What Gandhi invented worked with the English mentality of cricket matches, public debates, and noblesse oblige. Nkrumah and other later independence-seekers used it (in combination with other tactics) successfully against the British.

The United States of the sixties was a seething pot of black revolutions. Within the states the Blacks were active in widening their fields of civic and economic operation; in areas of civil liberty protest marches were organised from state to state; and generally, the fight for Black human dignity was on. One could not have been unconscious of what was going on, even if one was in Harvard University. Martin Luther King, Junior, led the best run, and most effective organisation under the auspices of Southern Christian Churches. And he was an avowed Gandhist: he used non-violent civil disobedience to its utmost. (There were also more radical movements on campuses. To have been a Black student in America then means to have been racially radicalised.)

Existentialism was the popular campus philosophy then. Especially Jean-Paul Sartre's brand of it. Sartre, in effect played a Cartesian game. Descartes had stated that he thought, therefore he was. Sartre responded he existed, therefore he was. And, therefore one's actions described one's existence. It is by one's deeds that one advertises one's existence. In other words the lion advertises his existence by eating the lamb. Also, one could branch off and walk away to the North Pole to demonstrate one's lonely existence.

Therefore, romantically speaking, one could pursue one's loneliness, because, in a way we are all alone in our existential pursuits. So, everything is permitted, as Dostoyevsky's characters, especially the intellectually bright ones, deduced.

The bravado with which Modin left Harvard, just as the quixoticism with which Armah left Harvard, are existential manifestations. The madness that Baako experienced in Fragments exemplifies existential aloneness. Also, the heat of the Algerian sun and desert which brings out the worst characteristics in man, had already been remarked upon by Albert Camus, another existential darling of the American campuses of the sixties. (In a way this was an extension of European romanticism.) Especially in his plays, Sartre never tired of showing that intense company is hell. Three sisters; a man, his sister and mother—as in Fragments of Armah, are proofs of the philosophy. Or the pressure of the family, on behalf of the bigger, wider society, on a family head—‘the man’ in The Beautyful Ones.

Commitment. That single word must have kept a lot of artists, particularly writers, sleepless during those days. Artists in communist countries were encouraged to be critical of their systems. That way they showed that they were committed to humanity. Artists in communist countries were forced by their systems to propagate communism and tear capitalistic laissez-faire to pieces as proof of their commitment to the workers of the world. Writers of the Third World were buffeted left and right. The West wanted them to criticise their rulers (in the name of the people? or the West?) in order to show commitment (to whom? to what?) The communist world wanted them to be non-aligned against the West as their only way of demonstrating ‘commitment’.

Czechoslovak writers were committed against the Russian invasion in 1968. Alexander Solzhenitsyn got the Nobel Literature Prize for literature for his commitment. On the other hand, Bertold Brecht was committed; Vladimir Mayakovsky was committed, Pablo Neruda was committed. And Ayi Kwei Armah was committed in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. ‘Committed’ as per the Western meaning of commitment. (His other ‘commitments’ in later books have received different appellations.)

Ayi Kwei Armah who grew up in those revolutionary years in America was committed firmly to the liberation of the black race. He told us who and what he hated in Why Are We So Blest? (Westerners, Whites, Capitalists, Imperialists.) He told us what he hated in Fragments (demands of families on their few educated relatives; avariciousness of the relatives; and Africa turning out to be like the Irish sow that eats its young; and fuzz in accepting gestures for the real things). He told us what he hated in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (presidential clinging to power, corruption, ineptitude, the general temptation of the populace to sins for whatever little gains they may get, and forgetfulness about what independence was all about.) He showed us what we should remember in Two Thousand Seasons (our original grandeur, the way (communism), our age-old way; the connectedness in purpose for humanistic living together, the hatred or oppression by Whites/Christianity, Arabs/Islam, or traditional rulers/religions; the overturning of the tables as necessary preludes to reinstitution of communistic, just, and lasting systems). He also showed us how the rain first beat us in one place: old Ashanti Kingdom (discord, suspicion, disunity, ineptitude, and of course foreign intrusion in our affairs).

Luckily, when he made his choice to write for us, Frantz Fanon had already produced the testaments from which he could launch his lessons, provide guidelines for his essays.

At a later time in his writing, the Cape Verdean ideologue, Amil Cabral added another vital ingredient: an explicit rejection not only of Western Capitalistic Imperialism, but also the new imperialism of Western Marxism. Cabral's solution was: return to the African source of civilization.

The late Senegalese philosopher/historian Cheikh Anta Diop had already demonstrated with Carbon 14 the antiquity of African civilizations of the Nile Valley. He told us that we are a very literate lot, are extremely history conscious, and own the patent for the first civilization in the world. Just because the Whiteman came and found us with our pants down does not mean we are always naked. Whenever anything African is contested, Armah urges: Let us look for proofs in history.

Somewhere along the line, Christian Messiahnism, Marxist Messiahnism, or Nietzchean racial futuristic self-realization, seem to play at the back of Armah's mind. “This world is not my world” so says the song, “I am just passing by” To where? Heaven. To where? Communism. To where? German supremacy. To where? … the way, our way of Communism: towards Anoa.

Reread in 1988, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born published in 1968 cannot make a convincing case against Kwame Nkrumah and his Ghana.

Ghana became independent in 1957. Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, after about ten years in power. Armah charges Nkrumah with clinging to power beyond his youthfulness; overstaying his welcome and usefulness; frustrating younger Ghanaians who wanted to take over; running a corrupt government; letting the colonial heritage fall to pieces.

Wait a minute. How long has Margaret Thatcher been in power? How young is Ronald Reagan? Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest Soviet ruler started rule at the age when Nkrumah was already overthrown. Houphuet Boigny is still lording it over the Ivorians. Hastings Banda still dodders on the Malawian throne till death doeth him part. Kenneth Kaunda led Zambia to independence and awaits a state funeral. As did Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. If anybody was old to senselessness in state house, it was Habib Bourguiba.

Nkrumah was not old. Not that old. In the British parliamentary system, Nkrumah was just about to complete his second term of five years.

Armah, what more case have you against Nkrumah?

Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Mohammed Murtala, Thomas Sankara—aren't these Africa's front-line fighters against Western Colonialism and neo-colonialism? Haven't Western press called them names in order to discredit them as preludes to eliminating them?

If one does not read the Western press between the lines, or detect the forked tongues of the snakes in the grass, one is likely to murder a brother, a father figure, or abet, aid, witness such a murder. Those the Western world later remove from power, they first induce the press to discredit, the world bank to impoverish.

Ghana is supposed to have been corrupt. If there was corruption, it must have come together with the first settlers in Christianborg: corruption is a Western concept, sin, used first by the slave traders to trick us to sell our brothers and sisters to them. How did the few White administrators conquer Africa? Wasn't it by guile, otherwise known as corruption? The Leventis empire was built throughout the hundred or so years of Ghana's existence, first as a colony, and now as a nation. Didn't Leventis use corruption, bribe to win concessions? To expand? To be on the goodbooks of the governors, including the first native governor, Nkrumah? People were circumventing the exchange control regulations before Regina, Estella's sister, dreamt of importing a Jaguar. If the Winneba Ideological Institute taught only jokes of the five stages of drunkenness, then it was a tame affair. At least Nkrumah had seen fit to establish and institute to train his cadres. (When “the Beautyful Ones” get born, I hope there will be an institution for them to attend, even if its purpose will be to remind them of the beautiful things they had learnt in their original beautyful homes.) The bus conductors did not learn appreciating a new bank note from the first Cedi, nor how to be rude: buses were in Ghana long before Nkrumah was born. The timber merchants did not grow more teeth with the ascension of the Show Boy to power. The governor's appointed ministers, legislators, and top civil servants went to “The Atlantic Captrice” or its predecessors long before Estella fell in love with this type of passing time. The aristocratic houses of Ghana, of lawyers, doctors, engineers, merchants, were enjoying all these things before Nkrumah and his Verandah Boys interfered. And, the government house where Koomson was installed had housed other families before Koomson (‘Come-soon’?) had ever won his way to it. And, if Koomson did not get in, somebody else would have.

So where's the charge? If anything, Nkrumah overturned the tables on the professional nationalists, and delivered the government to the people. And now, our first pioneers could make their own mistakes therein. Or did Armah sympathise with the professional nationalists?

Besides, we have no specific charges against Nkrumah himself. True, we would have liked Ghana to have been born beautiful, healthy as a baby, and have gone through the natural stages of growth. Armah charges that the baby was as ugly and unnatural as aboliga the frog. True, Maanan felt that Nkrumah was to be the man to satisfy her: had reached her inside where no other no man had done before. But, just because she did not know of the machinations of the CIA dirty boys, she does not have to be sent into a sea of madness. After all, she was aware that “they” had mixed it all together.

Everything. She should have recruited Kofi Billy, and they should have gone to fight those people who had “mixed” us up so badly. But, Armah leaves them—Maanan and Billy,—still mixed up.

Apart from dealing with his opponents by locking them up in “preventive” detention, a method the British had invented hundreds of years back, there is no Nkrumahgate, there is no Luwere Triangle, there is no tonton macoute, there are no accidentalizations of opponents in car accidents. Unless, of course, permitting ministers to send their children to overseas schools, having ministers who buy fishing boats in the names of their wives, and arranging for hard currency to be pilfered to England are deadly sins.

Nkrumah took over the governance of Ghana from the British colonial administration. He inherited a set-up where the governor was dictator; a non-democratic institution. And, he was pitted against the Ghanaian professional nationalists. They had the financial means and clout. He only had the Verandah Boys and the people on his side. The odds were clearly against him. Kotoke was already a senior policeman when Nkrumah took over. Achaempong was already a senior army officer. These institutions had a way of saluting Her Majesty's little whiteboys in uniform and disregarding everybody else. Any rottenness that bursted out in Nkrumah's times had already been festering for years during Governors' rules. Besides, with the independent path Nkrumah was pursuing, leading Ghana to non-alignment with the East, the West which is a jealous lover, would not forgive him.

If The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was written as a criticism of Nkrumah and his Ghana, the charges do not stick. Ayi Kwei Armah could be fairly charged of poor judgement, or political naiveté.

Fortunately, it did not matter much whether it was Nkrumah who was in power in Ghana then. It did not have to be Ghana for testing and elaborating on the thesis. Any independent African nation could have done. Ghana, under Nkrumah, happened to have been the place and person Armah was more familiar with. The failures, shortcomings of independent Africa, as visualised by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth had indeed manifested themselves. And Fanonist Armah chronicled these in the Ghanaian experience. Armah did not have to know real politic, nor economic, nor international manipulation of states at higher levels. He did not need to know all these to know that African states are hostages to the West. To know that the sufferings were induced by our enemies and detractors. And that if anything, it is the United States which was the culprit both in Lumumba's Congo, and Nkrumah's Ghana. He simply identified the failures Fanon had predicted in his book manifesting themselves in Ghana. After that he advocated a coup and a driving of the money-changers from his father's house.

Living in the hey-day of revolutionary ideas on U.S. campuses, it would have been unusual if he too did not turn revolutionary. In his essays he declares that he had left studying literature for sociology, especially that part of it which dealt with changers of institutions' institutions, especially with revolutions and revolutionaries. He was now more fascinated with political activists who had made history by overturning the tables against their erstwhile overlords.

With a Castro here, and a Che there; a Mao here and a Ho somewhere else, the temptation to grow into a revolutionary was great. Especially, when the Americans, South Africans and Belgians had combined to murder Patrice Lumumba, the first charismatic leader of the Congo. Armah confesses that he was traumatised. And, in a hurry he set off for Afrasia-Algeria to join a guerrilla group, intending to go and serve his apprenticeship in Southern Africa.

He left University for revolutions. (Just as other American students had also dropped out of college to go down south to spread civil disobedience.)

Anger is no basis for revolution. And hurry trips up revolutions and revolutionaries.

Revolutions without ideologies are simple insurrections. And, one does not begin life by saying: I want to be a revolutionary: an overturner. True, there is a phenomenon before one which one hates. True, it has its shortcomings. True, a change would be for the best. But what change? Reform?—that is, trimming it of its excesses? Reform?—that is adding to it other ingredients which would make it better? Or utter ‘overturning’? If one wants to overturn, is killing a president a revolution or a drastic change of the guards? In Africa here is a coup the same as a revolution. Haven't all the Nigerian governments been the extension of one regime? Fidel Castro started and accomplished a revolution. Haile Mengistu has a revolution to nurse. But I do not see a revolution anywhere else in Africa. So, what sort of a revolution was Armah going to join? To lead? Chasing the coloniser out of Southern Africa is simply a method for leaving the stage to us. And a romantic college dropout who comes walking to Algeria in search of revolutions to join could be ignored or suspected.

Much more importantly, according to me, is this point: When Jesus started his mission, he already had some idea of what his father's house holds. In other words, most of whatchangers of human life, not only were fascinated with ‘revolutions’; ‘overturning’, but had definite ideas of what replacements they had for the bad things of the old world. Otherwise they spent 40 years wandering in the Sinai Desert for where they were to next set up camp. Otherwise they spent 200 seasons walking up and down before resolving to resist any further provocation with violence.

So, instead of fascination with revolutions and revolutionaries first, our man should have researched on a well-ordered society. What is man, or Abibi-man? What does he consider good? So that more of it could be added unto him? What does he consider evil?—So that less of it is seen around. It is questions like these which will eventually lead us all to the establishment, designed in our minds first, of the best ideology for Africa. ‘Reaction’ against capitalism is no ideology. Ridiculing Marx and Engels is no ideology. Prescribing coups to remove Nkrumah or Balewa is no ideology.

Perhaps we should now leave the disciplines of the social sciences where the Western World teaches national and international control, where the Third World is studied as a target area for assault and conquest, and go to the old discipline of philosophy where enduring questions are asked? The ancient Egyptian word for it is particularly enlightening Wisdom—knowledge. Naming ours ‘the way, our way’, is superficial. Calling it ‘communism’ without differentiating it from Marxist Communism is confusing. Perhaps Cabral points to the direction from which our salvation will come: ‘The Source’, and our return to it.

Unfortunately no African students have seen fit to study ‘our source’ for its rehabilitation. All our students have been informants to Western and Eastern academicians of what our shrines hold. All our men of action have been informers of the Western and the Eastern world of what we are doing. We have no Africans who are Africa's Africanists. So, Africa needs Re-Africanising, as Fanon said.

Thematic scholarship may be likened to reports of blind people feeling an elephant. Those who chance upon the tusk report on the smoothness of the elephant. These being whisked left and right by the tail may report differently. So, there are scholars who write whole theses on the ‘gleam’ in The Beautyful Ones.

Others choose to fascinate themselves with speed, others with history, and a few with myths.

‘The man’ had to move. On foot or by bus. Shiny objects cast gleams, as they should. Orchestrating speed and ‘gleam’ into whole essays seem myopic to me.

‘The man’ is a silent watcher, dispassionate, uninvolved. Not for him the hustle and bustle. Medin before him had crossed oceans, transcended continents, in search of frantic involvement. Baako before him had been driven to madness by too much caring for the demands of his family, by adopting a mental attitude against them. ‘The man’ is now wiser. He makes way for others to hurry past him. In the evening he then shares his experiences with Oyo, his wife; or Teacher, his philosophical mentor who looks like a man in need of a teacher himself. Although Oyo wishes for the things of the world other fellow wives were having, she is a normal housewife. She demands what is reasonable. And a man who has a wife who does not care, has no wife at all. At the end of the novel, when the temporary world of the Koomsons came tumbling down, she compliments her husband for having kept his cool. Oyo's mother is something else. She is the bullying mother-in-law. Perhaps Akan matriarchy, where the husband comes to live with his wife's people, becomes a newly recruited son to his mother-in-law, gives her immense powers over her son-in-law.

For, Oyo's mother is as bad as Efua, Araba's mother in Fragments. Baako's sister Araba, and mother Efua drove him to madness by their inordinate demands on him and society around them. They wanted to benefit by outdooring the new baby. Now these two have resurfaced as Oyo and her mother. Baako had a former teacher called Ocran. He, the sympathetic and understanding one. He, in whose presence Baako felt free to open up himself. In the next book, he re-emerges as Teacher. The women in Armah's novels start off with Naita, then Mrs. Jefferson, and then Aimée. The first was black and experienced. The next two white, are either sex-starved, like Mrs. Jefferson, or frigid like, Aimée. Juana the Puerto Rican psychiatrist then comes in. She would be black, loving and understanding.

The black and good ones metamorphosed into Oyo, the mother, the pregnant one. But, as one reads through the first three novels, one sees an unfolding: a progression from the soporific Why Are We So Blest? through the return to Africa in Fragments, ending in the mature The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

(Otherwise one would be hard put to it to explain the regression from the fully formed novel, back to episodic fragments, and finally arriving in diary entries: trial pieces.)

The planning of the novels is more logical if it starts in America and comes to Africa (Why Are We So Blest). Then the final return of the scholar to Ghana (Fragments). Ending in his employment, marriage, and life as a working family man (The Beautyful Ones).

The fantasies of Aimée and romances of Modin took place far away in foreign lands. But the intense involvement with Aimée drained Modin of all his emotional energy and reserve. As Sartre could have told Modin, and did tell him through Solo.

Efua, Araba, and Baako's uncle suffocated him with the intensity of their demands for the cargo from abroad and government service. This domestic tragedy then gets transferred onto the national canvas in The Beautyful Ones. Here, it is no longer ‘the man’, the narrator who gets the heat, the smell, the stink. He is too sane for that. It is the readers whose noses are rubbed into the refuse. It is the demands of families on the nation that bring about national breakdowns.

At one time I thought Why Are We So Blest? came after The Beautyful Ones. But, I changed my mind. In Aimée's fantasy, there looms the Kikuyu rapist. And there are East African scenes. I thought this showed that Armah, was now broadening out to cover East Africa as well. But faults in naming male Kikuyu with female Kikuyu names made me change my mind.

So, if individual quests occupied Modin, then domestic matters drove Baako to madness. And, in The Beautyful Ones, by making experience intense and immediate, the reader got the heat full in the face which would otherwise have gone to the hero, ‘the man’.

Why Are We So Blest? is against the moguls of the Western world whose Oppenhardts (deceptive ‘open-hearts’), whose Jeffersons (husband and white), whose Aimée and Sylvia simply use people who are naive enough (as Naita warned) to be used. Why is against the French and the Arabs. Why is against a laissez-faire organisation of guerrilla movements. Why is pro-Blacks. In Why Armah commits himself ideologically very clearly to tearing away the mask of ‘love-of-the-blacks’ in the hating hearts of the whites. Naita had warned Modin off on thinking there was real love (apart from use) across the racial line. Solo (Solomon? Solo-actor?) had had his heart seared by white Sylvia. He pitied Modin when he saw the same tragedy being re-enacted. When the white French officers tore Modin to pieces whilst Aimée sucked him to pulp, we all should have learnt our lessons in race hatred. Or is it love for our own on this side of the race line? In any case, isn't this Fanon's thesis?

In Two Thousand Seasons Armah now explores the impact of Arabism and Islam on the one hand, and white Christian imperialism on the other. The Arabs and Muslims who have called us all ‘Kaffirs’, ‘infidels’, ‘uncircumcised dogs’, and ‘slaves’ were paid in kind here. Apparently they are very sensitive to being called names. Why they do not develop sensitivity about calling other people names, one does not know. Some Westerners can now put up with criticisms from the ‘servants’ quarters. Armah in this book says: Islam out; Christianity out; Arabs out; Whiteman out. In with African way, our way.

Naana, the wise old woman of Fragments now returns as the prophetic Anoa, reminding us of our way, of our destiny which awaits fulfilling. Later on, when a younger Anoa came to being, after Ningome and Noliwe, then Naana resurfaces as Idawa, Isanusi's companion in the fifth grove. Beautiful Abena the leader of her age-group, together with the other girls in Two Thousand Seasons carry more than their share of the blackman's and blackwoman's burden. It is as if Armah was redistributing the roles according to sexes, and being very conscious about offending the female sex. The villains of the piece are all males:

Koranche the terrible, with his son Bradford George; Kamuzu the Inheritor with all his gaudiness from borrowed feathers; Dovi the apostate caring more about his family than his colleagues. In the murders of the first Arab rulers, it was the women who did it. One does not know why Armah made his men in Two Thousand Seasons so effeminate. Mind you, there are still philosophers amongst them: Isanusi; fighters amongst them: Fundi Juma. But all in all, the women outshine them.

This is dangerous in a myth. A myth that is supposed to explain the past and chart the future. Amazonians are not bad. But unless the Western Viragos do not interfere with our Amazonians I have no fear of the coming to birth of the way, our way.

The characters in Two Thousand Seasons range from historical names in West Africa, through Central Africa to Eastern and Southern Africa. The saga is supposed to be one of awakening of our collective African memory and call to Arms. And the call is to sons of Abibiman everywhere in Black Africa. Although the book contains the chronicles of one of our clans, that single one is supposed to be representative of the whole. The ‘predators’ (Arabs) first descended upon the clan by the shores of the Nile. The clan took to flight. Headed West where they found the Arab slavers had already ravaged the land. They then headed East across Africa, traversing the continent through forests, swamps of desponds, till they arrived in areas as beautiful as Burundi, or Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia. Here they found the Portuguese, or English, had already built forts and were busy carting shiploads of African slaves to America (and the West Indies). The youthful cream of this clan got tricked by their Chief into a slaver's boat. At sea, the group staged a revolt (somewhere off Namibia?) killed the whites, returned to land, and a third of them vowed to return to the sacred grove, the shrine of the Blackman, where Isanusi awaited them. It was not a tired people's return. It was dedicated natives who returned to clear the land through violence in order to reinstitute the rule of the way, our way of communalism. They came back to fulfil the promise. Armah has called us back to the source, our source. The way, our way. Our way against all their other ways.

Here is a primer for revolutions. Revolution for communism; for connectedness; for sharing the little that we have, for racial purity. This epic links us up with our ancient civilization on the banks of the Nile. We are an ancient people who cannot forget our social superiority of thousands of centuries when the whole world was in darkness. The intervention in our affairs by Arabs and Europeans within the last two thousand seasons is no big matter. By rededicating ourselves to our old way, we may still recover our traditional greatness. The message is now out: the prophet has uttered it.

Now, more relaxed, Ayi Kwei Armah, wrote The Healers. He now returns to Ghana and recounts the fall of the great Ashanti empire. Inadequate kings who relied on their ancient mothers for state-craft; state councils which slighted their war generals; internal dissensions which ate at the core of national unity; upstart kings, or client kings who would as soon change allegiances as stronger kings (black or white) came on the scene; a colony of healers who were torn between involvement in national affairs and maintaining hermits' lives; as well as the white man's superiority of arms made the British defeat the Ashantis. If modern Africa wants to be strong, the lesson is clear, learn from the Ashantis, avoid their mistake.

In Two Thousand Seasons, we saw a return to the source, our source. But all the seasons were full of wars. In The Healers we are now given secondary arenas of love, or religious hermitages, of children's games. Above all, preaching here has been reduced to a minimum.

The return to the source that Amil Cabral talked about has now started in The Healers. But, something else has happened: the period of intense quest for change is gone. Cabral had cautioned that revolution should be unobtrusive, silent, slow and effective. Revolution should rain on us little, but all the time, like medupe.

Ayi Kwei Armah is a mythmaker. Mythmakers make myths. They do not tell of past actions: They create fables to explain the past. They re-order past events to become meaningful to a people. They create the past linking their history with it. The Egyptian myths make the makers of the world, the sustainers of the world, to have Egyptians at heart.

The Hebrew myths which have spread the world over thanks to European paucity in durable myths—insist that the world was created by their God for their benefit. And, we are all Gentiles, unwanted foreigners. Mohammed in his time also created the Arab myth which made God fluent in Arabic, a lover of the Arabs, and insist that he was the only God with Mohammed as his chosen prophet, and Arabs as his chosen people.

Mythmaking is a very ancient art. Every language has its own myths. But, mythmaking has not ended, either. And one person may create a myth for his group. The ‘truth’ of the myth is in the plausibility with which it makes bare the mysteries of the world to its own people.

It is a historical truth that Africans have run the gauntlet of beating from one end of Africa to the other. Nilotes say they fanned out South-Eastwards from Egypt to Eastern Africa on the eastern side of the Nile. Others have it that they went West instead, from the River Nile, before turning East and then Southwards. How does the creative artist, whilst accepting these as historical events, interpret them? Does he say his people were weak? Does he say they were cowardly? Does he say they were disorganised?

If he is a mythmaker, he first creates a destiny for his people. Then all defeats are interpreted as battles lost during the course of the long way whose final victory would belong to his chosen people. His people could be as rude, uncivilized, as the Trojans. They could be chased out. And, after travelling the seas, some of them could land near Rome: fatherless and motherless. They could be bastards, outcasts, what-have-you. Wolves would be invented for their foster mothers. The future glory of Rome, at a later date, would be attributed to them. Destiny, is the controlling theme: a future glory whose quest makes the momentary sufferings one goes through insignificant and bearable.

That is why Two Thousand Seasons was invented for us. African governments have failed us, every one of them. Those which were around when The Beautyful Ones was written, had failed us. Failed us in terms of not matching aspirations with performances. Now, 20 years later, they are none the wiser.

Why is this the case? Armah amplifies Fanon's myth about brought-up-by-whites Africans: their inferiority complex, their dependency complex, their mental laziness, their reversal to village corruption. As I said already, if Ghana has not been there, Fanon's disciple would have looked for another setting for The Beautyful Ones. There were many then. They are more now.

The ‘cargo-cult’ as believed in the Pacific Islands states that the dead ancestors work hard day and night sending goodies to their beloved ones still quick on earth. But, whites have learnt to intercept our gifts. During the Second World War, whenever the Kanak ancestors sent cargoes by plane or boat, the Australians, Americans, British quickly wrote their own names on the cartons, depriving the living Kanaks. For example, if dead Kanak had wanted to enrich “Rabuka” then a clever ‘Pillai’ put his name on to the box of presents. So, the battle to repossess the ancestral ‘cargo’ is on in Fiji, Noumea, Guam, Caledonia, etc.

In Africa, our version is that, our cargo, together with our Gods, had been taken to Britain or France. And our cargo gets doled to us little by little, after we have bought a thing called a certificate or a degree. Sometimes one has to sojourn in the Whiteman's land, learning how to extract for oneself and one's family, one's share of the cargo at month-ends. The whole state is cargo. Through brain, and more through brawn, one gets as much of it as one's luck and position permits.

One is a failure when one does not bring home one's share from the national cargo. If one is Baako Onipa, who had been to the land of the robbers, one was expected to cart back home part of the national loot: cars, refrigerators, money. Money with which to complete the building of the house one's mother had started. If one was ‘the man’ working in the railways department, one was expected to bring home the stray cargo that timber merchants left on one's table, or associate with Koomson in an attempt to better one's chances at getting more loot.

The white man brought graft and corruption. The white man brought priests to rant against them; the white man brought police to catch those who can be caught. But, corruption, or graft, and magendo seem to be insensitive to religious injunctions or judicial punitive measures.

And, we heirs to the way, our way, have developed independent appetites for chewing the offered kola nut. What then is to be done about the iniquities of this world? Writing novels against them is one thing: one has first named publicly what had always been whispered. But the game is on the increase. What is to be done? Invent a myth about bribery, with box office where the Goddess of Bribery welcomes 10٪ of the loot for raising bastard children, orphans, and the poor?

Or invent other ten commandments with ‘corruption’ designated worse than ‘theft’, and as one of the deadly sins?

We have to reach the stage when we can name our virtues and sins. The Beautyful Ones Is Not Yet Born, operates at the level of Christian sins and virtues. Fragments operates at the level of sinless existential selfness, aloneness, but with popular ethos ruling the subconscious.

It is only in Two Thousand Seasons that existentialism gets married to revolutionary ethos. It is only now that the people of the way, especially the militant guardians of it, draw the dividing line between good and evil; between justifiable killing and senseless or selfish murder. And, Healers instead of updating the revolutionary progress of the youth in Two Thousand Seasons, took us to the healers' hermitage, the fifth grove of Isanusi, Teacher's hut where he lay naked.

There was another way; go into fiction. Create a Utopia, a world apart from the world you and I know where we are fixed by gravity and history. How did Abena organise life in the fifth grove after the end of the book Two Thousand Seasons? Was our heaven on earth sustainable? But of course we know the answer. The Ashanti kingdom fell; independence was got and allowed to rot within ten years.

He who wants to chart a new course has more work to do than the treaders in beaten paths. Ousmane Sembene the Marxist has an easy way with these things: Marxist interpretation. (Sometimes he adds a modicum of Negritude to it!)

The way, our way, has to lead to a house: a home well-orchestrated. A home where human ‘aspirations’ are designated ‘temptations’, till they are sorted out between these beneficial and those harmful. A home where deeds are not only divided between the beneficial and the harmful, but also those which are beneficial at the moment of setting up house, and those for permanent guidance of footsteps. A home which should be better than Islamic homes. Not a desert temporary watering hole, not a savannah transhumance home, but a permanent settlement, like old Ibadan but with better rules. A home better than the Christian one where one lives for the sake of one's soul, where all habitations this side of death are temporary. A home where the dead, the living and those yet to be born commune. A home with a shin shrine for the living forces full knowledge about which we lack.

In a lyrical and moving essay, Armah recounts how he sought for the panacea for all Africa's ills and found it in a Social Science Course at Harvard University on Revolutions and Revolutionaries. Or, as he rephrases it: Creators of institutions which replaced the privileged rule of the unjust few. Searching for fulcrums is good, so long as you have a place to stand on, and the object to move at the other end. But, interest, fascination with upsetters of regimes is unhealthy. Unhealthy when it is the first thing a social engineer wants to do: Condemn a house for demolition before designing a more habitable one somewhere else. To destroy is easy. But first make a master plan. Otherwise people may mistake your chaos for the next world. What “vision” do you have for the people of the way? Can you promise them a land full of honey and flowing with milk? Have you the courage to say: let thy will be done! and you know what that will is? Revolutions. Revolutionaries. Old Mao fell in love with these and sunk his young sperm in Cultural revolution.

I am trying to say, it is high time Ayi Kwei Armah stopped his fascination with revolutions, revolutionaries, overturners, coup-makers, and built a Utopia. A Utopia of the way. And, since Anoa is not some illusory fixed fifth grove where we have been, but the home of the future, we hope our Anoa will be better than Jerusalem and Meccah combined. We also hope that a Buddhist would find rest in it; a Hindu would rest his weary spirit therein; and Marxists will envy it because it is more wholesome; and capitalists will desert their stock markets for it; and a shrine will be built for Akhenaten in it.

But to do this, agemate Armah will have to grow in wisdom.

Further Reading

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Boafo, Y. S. “The Nature of Healing in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers.Komparatistische-Hefte 13 (1986): 95-104.

Discusses the role of healing in ending political divisions among Africans as presented in The Healers.

Review of Two Thousand Seasons.Ebony 35, (January 1980): 24.

Fair review of Two Thousand Seasons.

Additional coverage of Armah's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol 1; Black Writers, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors Modules:Multicultural,Poets; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.

Derek Wright (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Safety in Numbers: A Note on Numerology in African Writing,” in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, 1991, pp. 31-7.

[In the following essay, Wright traces the use and ritual significance of numbers in several of Armah's works.]

Numbers have a customary importance in the proverbs, folk-myths, modes of divination, and seasonal ritual observances of traditional African societies, so the numerological neatness of much West African writing comes as no surprise. The days of the week, months of the year, or years in a given period may acquire magical significances and correspondences in drama and fiction in the light of numerological traditions.

For example, in Soyinka's early tradition-oriented play The Strong Breed (1963), the hero Eman is guilty of twelve-year dereliction of his ancestral duty as hereditary carrier of the village community's sins, and this is made to correspond to another village's sins of twelve months, which it becomes his fated task to remove and to which events lead him inescapably back. Thus the annulment of the time of a single year—and, it may be, of many years of ritual malpractice in the corrupt society of the play—simultaneously effaces his own twelve-year apostasy. Numbers have the same fatalistic propensities in the parallel circular return to a lost self and a forsaken obligation by the protagonist Amamu in the more modern setting of Kofi Awoonor's poetic novel, This Earth, My Brother. … (1972). Amamu reassumes symbolically the burden of suffering of his childhood cousin Dede, whose death from malnutrition in 1944 is made to mark exactly the centenary of the colonial invasion of Ghana and to serve as the culmination of a century of imperial pillage and neglect; thus the personal and historical burdens borne by Amamu and Independent Ghana become one and the same. In similar fashion, in Soyinka's adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae (1973) the old year which is violently purged by the sufferings of an aged slave, in the role of carrier, is symbolically equated with the whole political era of King Pentheus' evil reign.

A writer whose work has shown an especial fondness for calendrical structures is the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah. The action of his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), is played off against an annual purification rite and in his third novel, Why Are We So Blest? (1972), the hero's sacrificial death occurs after his twelfth diary entry and twelve days from the end of the year, at the start of what, in the traditional societies referred to by Mircea Eliade in The Myth of the Eternal Return, is the changeover period of recreative chaos between the old and new years.1 Armah's second novel, Fragments (1970), is divided by its thirteen Akan-titled chapters into the thirteen lunar months of the traditional Akan year, which is brought full circle by the circumscribing narrative of the protagonist's blind, dying grandmother Naana; and these lunar divisions are in turn played off against the monthly phases of the moon, to which the Akan words Awo (birth) and Gyefo (redeemer) additionally refer. At the end of this momentous year Baako, the persecuted artist transfigured metaphorically into a sacrificial carrier, is hounded like the hero of The Strong Breed, only here it is by his own materialistic family and into the mental exile of madness rather than physical banishment. “A been-to, returned only a year ago,” comments one of his captors.2 After running his pursuers into exhaustion in a quasi-ritualistic, circular chase across Accra, in which he symbolically takes over the burden of communal frustrations, repressions and neuroses, Baako“stopped running and walked deliberately down the remembered path of his first day back home” (p. 235), as if his run has, by some precise magic, exorcised the torments of the whole of the past year. The figurative carrier's mind is “a whirling torture” as he tries “in vain to grasp some substance out of the blighted year behind” (p. 187).

The symmetry of Armah's calendrical patterns is correspondingly evident in his numerological structures. One notable instance of this is the considerable play which the early novels make with the mystical Akan number seven and the less auspicious number five. Seven is symbolic of the Akan world's seven abosua clans, which in turn correspond with the seven heavenly bodies of traditional cosmology,3 whilst five, because it is sacred to the supreme being Onyame in traditional belief, is a taboo and therefore unlucky number in Akan lore.4 Ritual numbers, like other elements of ritual process in Armah's work, have much to do with the natural passage and proper experience of time, one of the properties which it is their function to measure. Naana, in Fragments, lives in a world of sacred numbers—seven days for an outdoored child, twelve hours of sunlight, five a “jinx” quality not to be tempted—and this world is ruled by natural time cycles measured in months, weeks, days and hours. It is upset by the artificial numberings of pay cycles, as when an outdooring ceremony for a newborn child is brought forward to coincide with pay-day, and by modern technology's reversal of night and day, which causes her to lose her sense of time: “Have two nights passed? Or is it two whole weeks that have passed me by? … And then they became and broke my peace, saying I had been sitting out there in the cold for hours” (pp. 1–2). “Or have I lost count of my days all over again?” she asks her grandson Baako on the morning of the premature outdooring (p. 138).

In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born the seven years of a prodigic child's passage from life to death symbolically match the insane rush of the first Independent government through an accelerated life in which too much happens for the significance of anything to be properly understood. Meanwhile, for the woman Maanan the same seven years measure out of the painful path to madness, paved by bitter disillusionment with her Messiah, Nkrumah, and the loss of her political faith. In Fragments sevens abound in the hollow posturing rhetoric with which Westernized Accra surrounds a pseudo-indigenous art and culture. The ancient regalia of the seven clans glitters gaudily in a “surfeit of brightness” from the gold-leaf grille of Ghana Bank, where Fifi Williams uses his office to pick up good-time girls who speak like Hollywood actresses (pp. 95–97). The permanently non-functioning, phantom buses of the new Ghana's transport service are timed, traditionally, to arrive every seven minutes. At the level of the novel's myth-structures which are opposed to the empty sham of this material world, reference is made to the figure of Mammy Water, the Woman of the Sea or Sea-goddess who, in West African mythology, has magical revitalizing powers and who, after they have spent seven years in the sea, sends back her faithful lovers as visionary healers and her betrayers and deserters as madmen.5 In Fragments, Mammy Water is represented by the Puerto Rican psychiatrist Juana who comes from across the sea to Ghana in the seventh year of her failing marriage and, after making love with Baako in Mammy Water's element, listens with him to a fisher-boy's “seven separate songs” which rhythmize the sea's giving up of its nourishment (p. 184). Juana is a more authentic Mammy Water than Maanan in the first novel: her lover's betrayal and desertion of her values during her absence leads, appropriately, to his madness, which only she can heal—at the end of the book Juana returns to rescue Baako from the asylum and the clutches of his acquisitive family—whilst in the earlier novel it is the healer, not her faithless lover, who is spurned and punished by madness and becomes one of the altered, not the alterer of consciousness. Sevens and fives figure again in Armah's two historical novels, Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers (1973 and 1978), which are divided, respectively, into seven chapters and seven parts, and in which the unity of the seven Akan clans is splintered by royal intriguers and by colonial incursions and traditional values are kept alive by enclaves of guerrillas and healers exiled to fifth groves.

More central to the ritual fabric of Fragments is the custom of outdooring the newly born only after seven complete days have passed. The ordained period is crucial: firstly, because of the traditional sacredness of the number eight to the fertility goddess of the Akan earth,6 and, secondly, because of the traditional West African belief that the natural cycle of one week must go round before the child can be fully admitted and initiated into its full life cycle on the earth. The completed week represents the whole life cycle in microcosm and, beyond this, the whole cycle of birth and death since the newly born is understood as being on loan from the other world, to which it will return along its “circular way” sooner or later. During the course of this perilous initiatory cycle the child is a thing of two worlds: it is, in Naana's words,“only a traveller between the world of spirits and this one of heavy flesh” and is still “in the keeping of the spirits” (pp. 138–39). The guardian spirits who accompany it will not retreat to the other world and abandon it to earthly care until this trial period comes to an end with the completion of the seventh day of life. “The seventh night, deep deep night of the black black land of gods and deities they will come out. … If they insist then I shall die the death of the blood,” says Awoonor's Amamu of their Ewe counterparts.7 Seven as the number of fertility, healing regeneration and continuing life seems also to be bound up with the belief that spirit-children—variously called abiku, ogbanje, and amomawu—are contracted to the spirit world to come and go to the same mother a total of seven times before being persuaded to resume a normal life cycle.8 In Fragments the behaviour of Baako's mother Efua and his sister Araba, the child's mother, seems least likely to persuade the reluctant child to remain in this world, and their departure from traditional practice is significantly indexed by the general commutation of the hallowed seven into the ominous five. Allowing the pay cycle to override the ordained weekly cycle, the family brings the outdooring ceremony forward from seven to five days—this, moreover, for an already premature baby who finally arrives after five miscarriages and whose coming is linked by the mother with the parallel home-coming, after five years abroad in the “other world” of America, of her brother Baako, who is himself Efua's fifth child.

There is more at stake here than numerological sanctities, however, and more than the ritual order's traditional alliance of religious feeling with practical common sense, which is demonstrated in Naana's question: “They have lost all belief in the wisdom of those gone before, but what new power has made them forget that a child too soon exposed is bound to die?” (p. 284). The implications are more far-reaching and lead to the moral center of Armah's numerology. In the unbroken eschatological cycle of traditional beliefs like Naana's, the newly born are watched over by the ancestors from whose spirit world they have just arrived and may even reincarnate some of their characteristics; the children will later repay the debt by guaranteeing to elders who are about to become ancestors a “personal immortality” in their own living memories.9 The inability of Araba's child to get born until after the fifth attempt is proportionate to the exclusion from the family of the grandmother. The refusal of a dignified, revered old age to Naana implies also the denial of her personal immortality since she is forgotten even before her death. The neglect of one end of the cycle interferes with developments at the other: the circular continuum of death and birth, the ancestors and the unborn, is abruptly broken, and the wheel on which, in Naana's words, “everything goes and turns around” (p.1), is halted. The five years of Araba's miscarrying children, one for each year of Baako's exile, are also the five years in which Naana's position in the family is permitted to deteriorate from that of a family elder who retains the authority to assert her superior rights at a libation ceremony (at Baako's departure) to that of one who, now blind and ignored, has no rights at all (Naana at Baako's return).

The traditional purpose of ritual and its precise numerological functions is to hold in place, in a finely calculated balance, the walls of a sacred cycle of being. Measured libations and prayers, which in Fragments are forgotten by all but Naana, maintain the contiguity of the cycle's interdependent phases of birth, growth and death, arrival and departure, childhood and spirithood, in the light of the belief that a going in one world is always a coming in another. The different meanings of the word “Naana”—grandparent, grandchild and ancestor—establish a verbal continuum between the three which registers their actual interconnectedness in the cycle. Prayers to the ancestors for intercession in matters of fertility testify to the power of the dead over birth and, proportionately, of outgoing over incoming lives. The not yet born turn in a wheel of dependency with the not yet dead. The numerological symmetries of Armah's second novel reflect the fine balance in which this wheel is held by ritual observance and stress the paramount importance, in traditional belief, of its cycle's undisturbed continuity.


  1. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 2nd edition, pp. 62–73.

  2. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments, 1970 (London: Heinemann, 1974), p. 248. Further page references, taken from the 1974 edition, are given in parentheses in the text of the article.

  3. Eva Meyerowitz, The Sacred State of the Akan (London: Faber, 1951), p. 27.

  4. Ibid., p. 95

  5. Kofi Awoonor, Interview with John Goldblatt, Transition 41 (1972), 44.

  6. Meyerowitz, p. 76.

  7. Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother … (London: Heinemann, 1972) p. 13.

  8. Christie C. Achebe, “Literary Insights into the Ogbanje Phenomenon, Journal of African Studies 7, 1 (1980), 36

  9. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), pp. 24–26, 82–84.

Edward Sackey (essay date Autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: “Oral Tradition and the African Novel,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 389-407.

[In the following essay, Sackey analyzes the innovative use of traditional African oral poetics in the structure, theme, and style of novels by Armah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Kofi Awoonor.]

In the growth and development of modern African literature, African traditional oral poetics is playing a very significant role. This is seen in modern African poetry, modern African drama, and the modern African novel. Indeed, it is at the center of the on-going experiments and innovations in modern African literature. The African writer has found in the sources of the African oral heritage a new enrichment, a new revitalization of contemporary African writing. Now African oral literature invites communal participation so that I do not see anything intriguing about its incorporation into African drama and African poetry. This is because their consumption is also communal. Like African oral literature, modern African drama and modern African poetry can be socialized, democratized. This is not meant for a particular class of people. The same cannot be said of the African novel because its consumption and creation are basically individualistic. Thus, the incorporation of African oral poetics into the novel forms a basically written and individualistic form and seems to be rather intriguing plumbing.

This paper, therefore, seeks to plumb the significance of African traditional oral poetics in the African novel. Many African novelists now expect that the riches of the African oral tradition will nourish the novel form, but I do not think all of these authors make creative use of the African oral tradition in the sense of making something new out of it or showing innovation. One must therefore go beyond mere exploration of the African oral tradition. The level of a novelist's success may be determined by the degree of his or her innovation because a mere celebration of the romantic aspect of the African oral tradition is not enough. The concerns of this study are the structural and thematic significances of African oral poetics for the growth of the modern African novel.

Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ama Ata Aidoo, and probably Kofi Awoonor draw on the narrative of African oral tradition for structure, theme, and style. They show that this tradition is also extremely flexible and highly inventive by boldly breaking away from the conventional structure of the novel form so that the novelists represent a sophisticated continuation of African storytelling and other oral traditions in dialectic tension within the novel form. Also, by incorporating the oral literacy structures into the novel form, these innovative writers of the novel are gradually working toward the Africanization of the novel form and evolving a poetics of the African novel. They depend on the oral tradition of Africa to deform the received Western novelistic pattern in order to challenge our received notions while our African identity is also affirmed, thereby freeing Africans from the negative image in which others have created us. Indeed, Armah, Ngũgĩ, and Aidoo have boldly willed themselves to break the rules of the conventional Western novel form and to show that African literature is reactive. It is a literature that is defensive of the African heritage.

Chinua Achebe was the vanguard in this literary movement that seeks to defend the African heritage, but the achievement of Achebe seems to end at the level of the word. I admit that the attempts being made to relate the English language to the rhythms of African speech are important given the language crisis in African literature, but it seems that a novelist must go beyond that to include other elements of the novel such as structure and perspective. Achebe is undoubtedly sensitive to the African oral tradition, but he appears to be less innovative when it comes to the deployment of oral literary structures. One is therefore not surprised that all Achebe's novels—from Things Fall Apart through Anthills of the Savannah—are structurally in the mode of the great Western tradition.

It is useful for one, in attempting to explore influences of the African oral tradition on the novel form, to be clear as to what is typically African and what is exclusively African or what is borrowed to nourish the African tradition. This is because the oral literary tradition—the folktale, the proverbs, and the riddles among others—is not ethnocentric in favor of African culture alone. In fact, it cuts across many, if not all, cultures; hence the need for that distinction.

I shall limit my discussion to a selection of novels by Armah, Ngũgĩ, Aidoo, and Awoonor: Fragments,Two Thousand Seasons,Devil on the Cross,Matigari,Our Sister Killjoy, and This Earth, My Brother. … These novels seem to be insightful fusions of formal characteristics of both traditional oral performances and written literature, modified to suit the written medium.


Armah burst out of obscurity onto the African literary landscape with the publication of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), a novel which seems to contain the seed of Two Thousand Seasons in terms of textual structure, technique, setting, use of language, narrative stance, and characterization. Fragments (1970) is soaked not only in the Akan folktale tradition but also in the Akan world view. In much the same way, Why Are We So Blest? (1972) draws on the Akan folktale, structurally and thematically. Consequently, Two Thousand Seasons (1973), which is a clear manifestation of African oral poetics and is a novel with an indisputable African identity, is a culmination of Armah's awareness of the African oral heritage. Indeed, a key element of Armah's art is his return to African traditional aesthetics as sources of his fiction. He is one African writer among many whose imagination is not constrained by his Western literary education but positively energized by African oral poetics. Armah's writing not only depicts African consciousness but also depicts the search for identity, the search for a language to express the richness of African oral culture. Two Thousand Seasons throws into sharp relief the meaning and significance of African oral art forms. It is, in my opinion, a very important contribution to the novel form. Fragments is, by the nature of its poetics, more of a forerunner to Two Thousand Seasons.



Fragments is made up of thirteen chapters as follows:

Chapter One Naana Introduction
Chapter Two Edin )
Chapter Three Akwaaba )
Chapter Four Awo )
Chapter Five Osagyefo )
Chapter Six Gyefo )
Chapter Seven Igya ) The Body
Chapter Eight Nsu )
Chapter Nine Dam )
Chapter Ten Efua )
Chapter Eleven Iwu )
Chapter Twelve Obra )
Chapter Thirteen Naana Conclusion

The structure of Fragments is based on the Akan traditional calendar that comprises thirteen and a half lunar months. Each month is made up of twenty-eight days (Wright 138–140). A critical analysis of the bare structure of the novel, as it is shown above, and a comparative study of this structure and the structure of a typical Akan etiological folktale are revealing indeed. The structure of Fragments is in three parts: an introduction, the body of the narrative, and a conclusion. If one isolates the introduction and the conclusion of Fragments, one is left with the body of the narrative which comprises eleven disparate constituent parts. This simple operation lays bare the novel's heterogeneous and anecdotal character. There is a distinct connection between the introduction and the conclusion. Like a typical Akan etiological folktale, the end of the narrative is also contained in the conclusion, but the prologue's confident affirmation that “nothing in the end is lost” (1) is answered by the epilogue's painful realization that nothing of the last stage of her is worth conserving, because it has not “brought with it peace and the good stillness which understanding brings” (279). Actually, the structure of Fragments manifests the structure of the Akan etiological folktale. Although the novel has a fragmented structure, two characters ensure the unity and cohesion of the narrative. They are Naana and Baako. Naana frames the novel, and Baako cements the frame. Together they co-ordinate all the disparate parts into a whole. Thus Fragments is given an appearance of unity and cohesion on the surface. The germ of the structure of Fragments could therefore be said to be present in the African oral traditional heritage. In fact, Fragments is an African artwork in form and content, only it is written in English.

The rippling, concentric structure of the novel is an enactment of the novel's message and is also a manifestation of the aesthetics of the African traditional mode of communication: the use of symbols. The novel's structure is symbolic of its central concern.


Fragments can be said to be a study of the philosophy of life and value systems of the Akans of Ghana. It is deeply rooted in Akan cosmological thought. The Akans, as well as the other ethnic groups of Ghana, do venerate their ancestors. It is believed that the ancestors protect the living against forces of evil. The living, for their part, respect the dead and invoke their presence (through libations) to participate in the affairs of the family or the community. This is what Foli, Baako's uncle, does prior to the departure of Baako for further studies abroad (5–7). Such a libation precedes every function in the community and is a ritual, a way the community demonstrates its reverence for those who had lived there before. Libation serves as a formalized communicative channel between the living and the physically dead, the ancestors. Although the ancestors serve as spirit guardians, their efficacy depends on human fulfillment of responsibility; if the ancestors are disobeyed there could be personal or social disaster. For example, disruption of the continuity between the living and the dead is tantamount to spiritual chaos that could lead to an untimely death.

Within the tenets of this belief, a newly born child must not be outdoored before or on the seventh day of its birth because it takes seven clear days for the baby to break spiritual ties with the ancestors of the underworld. Until a week has elapsed the baby remains part of the spiritual world of the ancestors although it is physically present here in the material world. This is what Naana means when she says, “The child is not yet with us. He is in the keeping of the spirits still, and already they are dragging him out into this world for eyes in heads that have eaten flesh to gape at” (138).

Naana is the singular for Nananom, which is the Akan word for the ancestors, so Naana is the voice of the ancestors in the novel, and she echoes their philosophical thoughts. Indeed, she represents them. But ironically no one takes her seriously. Thus, the child gets outdoored at the age of five days in a blatant violation of ancestral injunction. Consequently, it dies. In Akan mythology the number five is unlucky so that it is foolhardy to perform such an important traditional ceremony on the fifth day apart from the fact that it should not have taken place at all. The conversation between Naana and Baako is revealing:

“Araba's son is coming out today,” Baako answered.

“But that is not possible,” she said. “Or have I lost count of my days all over again? Is it then a week since your sister came back with the child?”

“You have not lost count, Naana. It's five days now, but it's been decided. This is to be the day.”

“Five days,” the old woman whispered in her astonishment. “Five days. …”


Another contributory factor to the baby's death is that no libation was poured, breaking with tradition. Even if it had been poured, the ancestors would not have accepted it. This dialogue between Naana and Baako is insightful:

“Did they pour a libation before starting this drinking? I heard nothing, neither the silence nor the words.”

“There was no libation, Naana.”

“Do not play with me, Baako. You made my heart jump.”

“It's true, there was none.”

She sighed. “Great friend, they have taken to forgetting the ancestors themselves. They do not look to those gone before, and they do not see the child. Where are their eyes, then?”


Thus the journey of the child from the underworld to the material world was cut short following the failure to observe the norms and practices of the all powerful ancestors.

One aspect of Akan philosophy that the novel espouses is maternal inheritance, which is done by a section of the Akans of Ghana. Among these Akans, the children of a marriage become the responsibility of their maternal uncle, popularly known among the Akans as “wofa,” who has power over his nephews. The reason is that the blood of the woman is the blood of her immediate family. It is this blood that nurtures her pregnancy in spite of the important role of her husband, and this can never be challenged anywhere. But the man's responsibility for the pregnancy is not impossible to challenge—not every seed that a man sows germinates. This is the point Naana forcefully drives home in her conversation with Baako about the child's untimely outdooring ceremony:

“Why did you not stop your sister and your mother also from this foolishness?”

“I could not.”

“Now it is my turn not to understand. You, the uncle, you could not?”

“I thought Kwesi would stop Araba,” Baako said. “But I was wrong. And he is the father.”

“Was there any need to tell me that? Kwesi is the father. I have heard you. But the child is yours to look after. A father is only a husband, and husbands come and go; they are passing winds bearing seed. They change, they disappear entirely and they are replaced. An uncle remains. The blood that flows in Araba is yours, Baako, and the child is yours also if it is hers. So what has he done, that you will fold your arms and let them destroy him?”


In traditional Africa the view of time as cyclic is inextricable from beliefs and practices regarding birth, marriage, and death. The cyclic recurrence of time is seen in the embodiment of the “malicious” spirit known variously in West Africa as Abiku, (Yoruba); Ogbanje, (Ibo); Dzikudziku, (Ewe); Awomanwu, (Akan); and Gbeba, (Dangme). In Fragments Naana's stream-of-consciousness meditations on the redemption of time that frame the novel offer a view of time and life that recalls the traditional cyclic order. It is contained in such utterances as:

Each thing that goes away returns and nothing in the end is lost. The great friend throws all things apart and brings all things together again. That is the way everything goes and turns round. That is how all living things come back after long absences, and in the whole great world all things are living things. All that goes returns.


and “Death. … Now I see in it another birth, just as among you the birth of an infant here is mourned as the travelling of another spirit” (286).

The cycle must not be broken. If it is broken it means the disruption of a natural process.1 The preservation of the cyclic continuity of time is important to the survival of the community as a whole. The premature outdooring of Araba's child is a case in point; the child's entry into the material world is disrupted, and so it suffers death as a result.



Two Thousand Seasons is a clear demonstration of the strength of the Akan oral tradition and is more deeply rooted in that tradition than Fragments. The structural organization of Two Thousand Seasons carries an oral traditional undertone. The novel is made up of seven chapters, and the number seven appears no fewer than forty times in the narrative. Here are a few examples: “On a clear night when the light of the moon has blighted the ancient woman and her seven children …” (1). Or “another cripple king rose to power trampling on the spilt entrails of seven rival brothers” (59). Or “… we searched for the seven children and the ancient woman, …” (68). Or “He sent seven separate messengers seven separate times …” (111) and so on. Seven therefore seems to be a leitmotif in the novel. My guess is that the number seven is indispensable to the meaning of the work and that the explanation for its recurrence may be found in the Akan oral tradition, the creative source of the novel. I hasten to admit that the number seven is of mythical importance in many cultures, and that it is not ethnocentric in favor of the Akans or, for that matter, of any African tribe. For example, in Sundiata, Sundiata is described as “the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth” (6). One hears of the seven wonders of the world. We also know that Jesus Christ spoke seven times from the cross. The number's significance cuts across many cultures; it is not exclusively African.

Armah has used the number seven in all his novels except Why Are We So Blest? In The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, he writes:

Aboliga the Frog one day brought us a book of freaks and oddities, and showed us his favourite among the weird lot. It was a picture of something the captain called an old manchild. It had been born with all the features of a human baby but within seven years it had completed the cycle from babyhood to infancy to youth, to maturity and old age, and in its seventh year it had died a natural death.


It surfaces once only in Fragments too. Armah writes “At intervals along the shiny cagework medallions bore all the ancient symbols in sculpted relief: twin pods of cocoa, sets of Ashanti gold weight, the complete line of spokesmen's staffs for the seven Akan clans …” (95). The significance of the number five has already been discussed. The number six is also a symbol of death and resurrection or rebirth, and it has the derivative symbolism of strength. Probably, this explains the significance of the structure of Armah's The Healers, given its theme of unity and the need for the resurrection of an African society imbued with African cultural values.

Akan oral tradition2 has it that seven is a symbol for the universe and the Akan state. It is believed by the Akans that seven heavenly bodies—the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn—rule the heavens. Seven matrilineal clans represent Akans on earth and rule the ideal and complete state. It is also believed that a mother-goddess gave birth to these seven clans, each of which represents the seven planets of the universe. Traditionally, the Akan state, of which Armah is a son, is made up of seven clans. Armah belongs to the Anona clan.3 Furthermore, among the Akans there is a particular star that is usually surrounded by seven smaller ones. This cluster of stars is usually described as the old lady and her children. It is possible that “the ancient woman and her seven children” in Two Thousand Seasons refers to them and, therefore, the united Akan state. Also Akan oral tradition4 has it that there was once a dispute over whom would be chieftain among the Akans, and a group of them decided to break away. They are the Fantes, a name which is a corruption of the Akan phrase, fa ate, which means that some of their number have seceded. There is another oral tradition that also seeks to explain the origin of the name Asante. It is also said to be a corruption of another Akan phrase, so ante, which means they are impervious to advice. One can deduce from the two tales that once upon a time the Akans were a united people, but disintegration occurred as a result of misunderstanding. Probably Armah has used the history and tradition of the Akans as a metaphor in this novel.

It must be pointed out that in all preliterate African societies traditions were handed down by word of mouth with a number of mnemonic devices. Oral traditions have been the main method of teaching the history of many African peoples, including the Akans. Kwame Daaku asserts that “[a]mong the several devices adopted to preserve their history and tradition may be mentioned the pouring of libations, the music of the drums, the creation of special linguistic staffs, oaths, songs, proverbs, and funeral dirges” (117). It seems to me, therefore, that it is Akan mythology and folklore that specifies the number seven that runs through Two Thousand Seasons like a subterranean stream and creates the theme of unity the novel espouses.


The contents page of the novel shows its skeletal structure as follows:


1. The Way

2. The Ostentatious Cripples

3. The Predators

4. The Destroyers

5. The Dance of Love

6. The Return

7. The Voice

Obviously, the prologue does not form part of the narrative proper. Like Fragments,Two Thousand Seasons is a montage of episodes strung together so that its plot is slight. It is the narrators, the group of twenty, who provide structural unity for the otherwise episodic narrative whereas the number seven frames the novel. Although Two Thousand Seasons is also crafted on the African traditional storytelling technique, it is slightly different in structure from Fragments. The difference is the prologue. In the storytelling tradition of Africa, the storytellers in most communities begin a tale with a formula, an oral stylistic device, which is typically African. Armah and other innovative novelists like Ngũgĩ and Aidoo have successfully incorporated it into the novel form. This oral stylistic device is meant to arouse the interest of the audience and also to establish rapport between the performer and the audience. For example, among the Dangmes of Ghana, before a storyteller begins a story, he calls out: “i ti ha nye” meaning “I'll tell you a story,” and the audience response which is done in unison is “wa he o no,” “we are all ears.” The performer: “Ligbi ko wa nge,” “Once upon a time.” The audience: “Abo dzemi loko wa ba,” “The world was created long before we were born.” This is to concede the fact that the story that is about to be told is far older than they are so that they can not challenge its veracity. It is after this ritual that the performance proper begins.


The narration in Two Thousand Seasons is done by a group of twenty. So Armah has used the third person plural pronoun “we,” and it appears that the choice of the communal “we” perspective has an African aesthetic explanation. The choice is probably meant to underscore a traditional African philosophy that the novel espouses: the philosophy of communalism. This is also the basic philosophy of “the way, our way.” I am not in any way implying that individual efforts are not recognized in the traditional African society, but it is important that they are directed toward the good of the community. The communal interest is supreme in the African society. Perhaps this is the reason why we do not know the identity of the narrator. We know that the narrators are the group of twenty freedom fighters or revolutionaries. There has to be a spokesman for the group; he speaks for and on behalf of the group. He exists in the fictional world of the novel. His voice is heard loud and clear. But his identity is hidden. The explanation could be that what is important is the communal identity, not the individual identity; the individual identity is therefore subordinated to the communal identity. The choice of the communal “we” perspective could be seen as a rejection of individualistic tendencies, everything that is alien to “the way, our way.”


The performance of an African folk or oral literature is a group affair in which all who so wish take part freely. There is no distance between the performance and the audience. In fact, the oral nature of the artistic technique makes this possible. The participants sit around together, at ease with one another and, as the appeal of the story cuts across age and sex boundaries, there is no passivity, and all come into a truly integrated community. I recall a storytelling session performed at the forecourt of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. There was an interlude during which a student partnered a Deputy Secretary of State in executing an intricate traditional dance to the admiration of all. This is quite different from the technique of written literature where both the creation and consumption are individualistic in spirit and in form.

Armah has brought this oral feature of creation and consumption to bear on Two Thousand Seasons to give it an African authenticity through audience interjections. There are many interpolative remarks that give rise to the impression that the narrator imagines himself or herself to be in the presence of a live audience. Some of these comments are directed toward the listeners, individually or as a group, while others frequently act as substitutes for the listeners' supposed reactions to the behavior and attributes of the characters the narrator is portraying. Here are examples: “Who is it calling for examples?” (9). Or “You do not understand how the destroyers turned earth to desert? Look around you. You are ignorant of death, but sleep you know. Have you not seen the fat ones, the hollow ones now placed above us?” (10). Or “why break our ears with all the names, all the choices?” (144). These are not mere rhetorical questions; they are questions that are prompted anticipations of audience reaction. Stylistically, they are meant to announce the assumed presence of an active participatory audience. But whatever might be the case, the performer in the novel performs in absolute isolation from his or her audience. The fact is that the dynamic interaction and interplay between the narrator and his or her listeners, which is such a vital part of Akan storytelling sessions, is totally removed. Therefore, the artist is deprived of their feedback—their enthusiastic responses to his or her performance, their changing reactions which reflect the shifting fortunes of a tale's central figures, and their expressions of encouragement to the narrator in his or her task. They, on the other hand, are cut off from the artist's physical presence, and consequently they cannot enjoy his or her utilization of nonverbal devices, such as mimetic movement and gestures, to heighten their perceptual experience of the story (Wendland 28).

In African oral literature criticism is a creative art, an artistic performance. It is part of the creative process, and creativity or performance and criticism take place at the same time. This is clearly and adequately demonstrated again through assumed audience intrusion in Two Thousand Seasons. Criticism in the African oral tradition is therefore a creative effort in which the whole community participates simultaneously. It is important that critics of the African novel take this basic truth into consideration. This is because the African novel is a marriage between two disparate traditions: oral and written.

There seems to be a parallel between the narration of Two Thousand Seasons and the utterances of a possessed fetish priest or priestess in an African community. Apparently, the narration of the novel takes on something compulsive, inevitable, and fateful that is suggestive of the utterances of a priest or priestess. Their language, like the language of the novel, sounds imperative and incantative. Like the language of the novel, the language of the priest or priestess also has the quality of urgency. Usually, the priest or priestess also exploits the communal “we” to show that he or she is a medium of the gods, a spokesman of the group to which he or she belongs. The narrators of the novel who assume the voice of a griot, spokesman of the black race, seem to be motivated by the fact that the narration is directly connected with their practical experiences, with the joys and sorrows they have experienced, with their moods and needs. This is possible because the narrators are not only part of the narrative strategy of the novel but also belong to the fictional world of the characters. The narrators are like a traditional spiritual medium, sensitive and receptive to the impressions, thoughts, and feelings around them, and capable of transmitting such impressions and feelings freshly, on an elevated plane, and with sufficient power, to the people around him. They are well-informed about the history and culture of Africa.

Another element of the narrative that is borrowed from the African oral tradition is the trickster tale. In different parts of Africa different animals feature as the trickster in folktales, but the human reality they represent is always and everywhere the same. The protagonist of ruse, cunning, and resourcefulness may be the spider, Kweku Ananse, as among some tribes of Ghana; the rabbit or the hare as in some regions of La Cote D'Ivoire; or the tortoise as among the Yoruba of Nigeria (Badejo 3–17). The trickster however, remains as the embodiment of the triumph of tricks and wits over brute force in a world of intense struggle for survival. The trickster tale depicts a situation of brain pitched against brawn. The tricks assume many forms, but it is always the weaker, disadvantaged animal which does the trick.

Two Thousand Seasons is full of examples of such funny tricks and tricksters. First and foremost, the way the whites took occupation of Africa smacks of tricksterism. They tricked us into accepting them as helpless visitors, so we gave them the reception that has been typical of “the way, our way.” We were naïve, unsuspecting; and they took advantage of our unsuspecting nature, our deep sense of hospitality in order to take complete control of our lives. Faisal, Mohammed, and Hassan, among others of their kind, met their deaths through trickery and deceit. By the same method of trickery and deceit the African king got the group of twenty lured into captivity. They had to get themselves freed by the same means. The trickery device is characterized by deceit to avoid open confrontation with authority or a stronger person. So the trick is always hatched by the weaker or the disadvantaged person because an open confrontation is not in their interest. Although the trickster element exists in the African oral tradition, it is not exclusively African.


The novel has an epic structure that is African, and this gives the novel an African stamp. Indeed, the argument that the epic does not exist in Africa (Finnegan 108–110) is false. The truth is not that the epic form does not exist in Africa, but that the African epic form is different from the European epic form (Kunene, “Okpewho” 553–559). The epic form is as much African as it is European and seems to be a cross-cultural genre that it is not the monopoly of any culture, but there are cultural differences. Kunene points out that although the scholarly work of Okpewho on the African epic establishes the importance of the epic tradition in Africa (in The Epic in Africa), it fails to bring out a theory of African epic and to give a definition of the epic from an African perspective. Kunene goes on to show a basic difference between the Western epic form and that of Africa which Okpewho has ignored. He asserts:

The hero [in the African epic] is representative of the community. It is as though the community had delegated its various aspects to one corporate heroic personality. This fact partly explains why the hero's actions do not center on his or her psychology but on the events. He or she seldom is developed as a character in the same way as say “Hector” is in Homer. In the African Epic the events are more significant (as arising from collective social action) than the individual as an instrument of events.

(“Okpewho” 555)

Therefore it could be seen that Finnegan's argument is based on the Western concept of the epic form and is not based on a critical textual study of any epic from Africa because, in the first place, she does not believe in the existence of the epic form in Africa.

John William Johnson has given cogent arguments about the structure, content, and indeed the existence of the heroic epic in Africa. His findings are based on a close study of four famous epics from Africa: Sundiata,Kambili,Mwindo, and Ozidi. He has come up with a list of characteristics to use as a basis for the definition of an African epic. Primary characteristics are that these epics are poetic, narrative, heroic, and legendary. Secondary characteristics involve the epics' length, multifunctionality, and their cultural and traditional transmission. My view is that the assertions of Kunene and Johnson are true to Two Thousand Seasons as an African epic.

Two Thousand Seasons is poetic not only in form but in content as well. The structure of the novel, derived from the mythical number seven, gives it unity. The language of the novel draws largely on the resources of poetry, namely metaphor, simile, repetition, and alliteration to give the novel a poetic character. It is basically a narrative, and the central thought of the novel is to uphold the communal ethic of the traditional African society. So there is no hero in the sense in which there is a hero in, say, the Sundiata or the Mwindo where the epic hero usually has the advantage of birth that sets him above the rank and file. This is not to say the novel is not heroic but that the heroism is contained in the communal spirit.

Two Thousand Seasons has its source in a widely held belief that the Akans of Ghana originated in the medieval African Kingdom of Ghana on the border of the Sahara. Although the novel may be said to be related to facts of history, it has no historical basis. The story of Anoa, the young, imaginary Akan girl who is granted very disturbing visions of the future enslavement of her people, is a myth on which Armah draws. Anoa is African and the novel is a “rolling survey of [its] history … from a nebulous past to a visionary future” (Okpewho, Myth in Africa 205). Anoa, the setting of the novel, is also a myth. So is “the way, our way.” The novel could therefore be said to be legendary in character.

Concerning length as a characteristic of the African epic, Kunene argues convincingly that it is not length, but poetic intent—its impact, seriousness of purpose, and relevance to all generations that make up the history of the society—which matters from the African perspective. I think the novel falls into this category because it gives a passionate political and cultural direction to the African peoples! Indeed, the novel is an exercise in cultural decolonization and rehabilitation.

Two Thousand Seasons is encyclopedic in structure in the sense that it is a storehouse of knowledge about Africa. Indeed, Armah's deep knowledge of African cultural traditions is brought to the fore in this novel. It contains the history, literature, languages, philosophy, geography, biology, government, law, and politics of traditional Africa. The novel is, in my view, multigeneric in a limited sense; thus, it can be said to be an African epic that has its roots in the oral tradition of Africa. But Armah has also rejected the idea of the African epic as an aristocratic genre.


One African novelist who is also involved in using African oral tradition to undermine the conventional Western novel form is Ngũgĩ. He has actually given notice of this revolutionary artistic intention in Petals of Blood. Indeed, Devil on the Cross, like Armah's Two Thousand Seasons and his earlier works, is probably a logical development from Ngũgĩ's earlier novels both at the level of theme and style. It crystallizes the viewpoints toward which he was finding his way in the first three novels and which he embodied in a somewhat more complex manner in Petals of Blood (see Cook and Okenimkpe). The same is true of Matigari, his latest novel.


Devil on the Cross is also a manifestation of African oral tradition; it is deeply rooted in the fertile soil of African folklore. It was originally written in Gĩkũyũ, Ngũgĩ's mother tongue, before it was translated into English by the author. The novel's form and technique are borrowed from African oral tradition, specifically the storytelling tradition. In fact, Chapter One of the novel makes this announcement loud and clear. Like the Prologue of Two Thousand Seasons, Chapter One of Devil on the Cross is meant to serve the same artistic function. The story proper begins in Chapter Two, serving to establish a rapport between the narrator and the reader. It also prepares the reader for the story just as in the oral performance it prepares the audience for the performance.

Ngũgĩ has integrated song, dance, formal patterns of celebration, and mourning into the narrative. Actually, the novel more acts or shows than tells. It has a close analogy with Our Sister Killjoy in terms of narrative strategy. Matigari, which also draws on African oral poetics, is not different from Devil on the Cross in form. Indeed, the poetics of Matigari and its predecessor are a concrete demonstration of Ngũgĩ's literary manifesto. He writes:

I had resolved to use a language which did not have a modern novel, a challenge to myself, and a way of affirming my faith in the possibilities of the languages of all the different Kenyan nationalities, languages whose development as vehicles for the Kenyon people's anti-imperialist struggles had been actively suppressed. … I would not avoid any subject—science, technology, philosophy, religion, music, political economy—provided it logically arose out of the development of theme, character, plot, story and world view. Further I would use any and everything I had ever learnt about the craft of fiction—allegory, parable, satire, narrative, description, reminiscence, flash-back, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, dialogue, drama—provided it came naturally in the development of character, theme and story. But content—not language and technique—would determine the eventual form of the novel. …

Detained 8)

Matigari seems to be a novel that rebels against the conventions and restraints of more realistic texts. Like all literary fantasies, this novel does not observe unities of time, space, and character. Matigari is supposed to be imaginary, a work of fantasy. But it could be argued that the novel is reality fantasized. Like any other text, a literary fantasy is produced within, and determined by, its social context. Although it might struggle against the limits of this context, as indeed it does in the case of Matigari, it cannot be understood in isolation from it (Jackson 3). Matigari is a work of fantasy rooted in African folklore, and it explores the unsaid and the unseen of post-independence Kenyan culture, that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over to create the impression that it does not exist.



Am Ata Aidoo is well known as a playwright and writer of short stories. Her art is mostly fed by the oral tradition of Africa. Her first novel, Our Sister Killjoy, a very witty experimental work, is also informed by the African oral tradition, the Akan folktale. It is framed on the storytelling technique of the Akans of Ghana, and it shows signs of the lexical adaptation of Fanti idiomatic expressions into English, a feature which is characteristic of Aidoo as a writer. I suspect that the transliterative device is meant to capture African cultural feelings and expressions. The language of the novel is given an oral communicative rhythm.

The narrative appears to be plotless, episodic. It is reminiscent of the plot of The Palmwine Drinkard.Our Sister Killjoy has a dynamic narrative rhythm in that the action is not only narrated but performed, dramatized as well. The novel is a composite of prose, drama, and poetry all crafted into one. The composite nature of the narrative is a carry-over from the oral tradition of Africa where there is no strict division between the three genres.

The narrator is seen to be personally involved in the action, and the reader is also made to be involved. Hence our awareness of the presence of an audience or reader by the constant repetition of “my brother” in the narrative. The participation of the reader as audience is thus invited, and the involvement of the narrator/performer in the action of the narrative underscores an African aesthetic philosophy that the artist must be part of what he or she represents or criticizes (Kunene, Ancestors xviii).

We must not lose sight that the Prologue of Our Sister Killjoy is comparable to those in Two Thousand Seasons and Devil on the Cross or Matigari in terms of style and structure. In the storytelling tradition of the Akans and some other tribes, the storyteller begins each tale with a standardized formula. It is this stylistic device that Armah, Ngũgĩ, and Aidoo have successfully incorporated into the novel tradition.



This is another bold experimental novel that draws on the oral tradition of Africa. Elements of the traditional religious and ritual practices are thematically and structurally used. For example, the mermaid, which is at the heart of the novel, constitutes a basic structure which gives support and shape to the novel. The flight of the Yewe cult devotees into the forest and the appearance of Sakpana, the terrible god of smallpox, show that all is not well with the society. Among the Anlos it is believed that when sakpana appears in town, disaster in the form of smallpox strikes as a punishment for a social crime committed. Every member of the society is supposed to suffer the punishment as a form of ritual cleansing of the whole society. Given the theme of the novel—the betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of the people—one can easily see the thematic significance of the Yewe and Sakpana in the narrative. The songs (Anyidoho 91–99), the proverbs, the meaningful traditional names, and the dirge, all of which are forms of the Anlo-Ewe oral tradition, also give sustenance to the narrative. Awoonor has also used the novel form to revive the funeral dirge of the Anlo-Ewes. This is seen in the undercurrent of the elegiac that pervades the novel and that gives the novel a funerary tone (Priebe, “African Dirge,” esp. 266–267; 269–274).

The novel is not entirely embedded in the oral tradition of the Anlo-Ewes; it is a creative synthesis of African and Western literary traditions. For example, the epigraph is quoted from a Western source: Dante's Inferno Canto I (and there are further quotations from Canto II [149] and Canto XX [95]). The Danish existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard is quoted three times (117, 118, 149). The sixteenth-century French philosopher René Descartes is also mentioned as well as Djilas' The New Class (26). Awoonor shows signs of eclecticism in the novel, but the African tradition is at the core of his experiment.


African oral tradition is an integral part of African life, and so it is the African cultural context that gives African oral tradition meaning and purpose. But there are widespread changes taking place in Africa today that must not be ignored. Thus there is the need for the adaptation of the African oral tradition to modern technologies. There is the need to make use of structures appropriate to the fast-changing times. This is what it must be because Africa cannot isolate herself from external influences occasioned by educational and technological advances. One must also bear in mind the emergence of a written literary tradition and a host of other factors that accompany cultural change. My view is that if the African oral tradition is not integrated into the written tradition, the tradition may be lost to posterity. Also, its use is likely to rekindle interest in the study of the oral tradition and thereby help to redefine the identity of the African in today's world. The African oral tradition could be said to be an instrument of defense to challenge Western misconceptions about Africa. For me, the integration of the African oral tradition into the novel form shows a tremendous leap forward in African imaginative works of art, from oralcy to literacy and from tradition to innovation.

This short study to brings to light the fact that a rigid poetics of fiction is not desirable because such poetics tends to establish literary norms and canons whereas the novel by nature and history is opposed to such norms. The modern African experimental novelists seem to say that because the novel form is open, open to experimentation, a restrictive poetics of fiction is unacceptable.


  1. African literature is replete with examples of the disruption of the cyclic continuity of time and its consequences. Perhaps the best illustration of how time relates to the spirit comes in Achebe's Arrow of God in which Ezeulu, the main character, is to mark the passage of the seasons, to act as keeper of Time. In symbolic progression of the novel, Ezeulu loses his vision of cyclic continuity and attempts to become the individual owner of time. By the conclusion, British missionaries and colonial personnel have eroded the traditional sacred stability of the village, and Ezeulu has elapsed into madness, his death imminent. Also in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo breaks the week of Peace that precedes the planting of crops, and the community sees his act as jeopardizing the cyclic continuity of the seasons.

  2. For detailed information on Akan cosmological thought, read J. B. Danquah, R. S. Rattray, and Kofi Asare Opoku.

  3. My source here is Dr. S. A. Dseagu of the Department of English, University of Ghana, Legon.

  4. I have been informed here by Mr. Ebenezer Acquaye of the Swahili Section of the Department of Modern Languages, Legon.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1988. [Other editions include: London: Heinemann, 1987; African Writers Series. Oxford, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1988.]

———. Arrow of God. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1974. [Other editions include: London: Heinemann, 1964; African Writers Series 16. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1965; New York: John Day, 1967; Anchor Literary Library. Intro. K. W. J. Post. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1969; 2nd ed., London: Heinemann, 1974; The African Trilogy. London: Pan, Picador, 1988 (Contains Things Fall Apart,No Longer at Ease,Arrow of God).]

———. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett, 1969. [Other editions include: London: Heinemann, 1958; Greenwich: Fawcett, 1959; New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1959; New York: Astor-Honor, 1961; African Writers Series 1, London, Nairobi, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1964; The African Trilogy. London: Pan, Picador, 1988 (Contains Things Fall Apart,No Longer at Ease,Arrow of God).]

Aidoo, [Christina] Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint. Longman African Classics. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1988. [Other editions include: African Creative Writing Series. London: Longman, 1977 (copyright 1966); Longman Drumbeat 35. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1981; New York, London, Lagos: NOK, 1979.]

Anyidoho, Kofi. “Kofi Awoonor and the Ewe Tradition of Songs of Abuse (Halo).” Priebe, ed. 87–102. First published in Towards Defining the African Aesthetic. Ed. Lemuel A. Johnson et al. Washington: Three Continents, 1982: 17–29.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. African Writers Series 48. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1969, reset 1975. [Other editions include: Boston: Houghton, 1968; African/American Library, Intro, Christina Ama Ata Aidoo. New York: Collier, 1969; London: Heinemann, 1969.]

———. Fragments. African Writers Series 154. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1974. [Other editions include: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970; African/American Library. New York: Collier, 1973; Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1974; London: Heinemann, 1974.]

———. The Healers. African Writers Series 194. London, Ibadan: Heinemann: 1979. [Another edition is: Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1978.]

———. Two Thousand Seasons. Chicago: Third World, 1980. [Other editions include; Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1973; African Writers Series 218. London, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1979.]

———. Why are we so Blest? African Writers Series 155. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1974. [Other editions include: New York: Doubleday, 1972; Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1973; Modern African Library 30. Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1974; London: Heinemann, 1974.]

Awoonor, Kofi, This Earth, My Brother … An Allegorical Tale of Africa. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971. [Another edition includes: African Writers Series 108. London, Nairobi, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1972.]

Badejo, Diedre L. “The Yoruba and Afro-American Trickster: A Contextual Comparison.” Présence Africaine 147 (1988): 3–17.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writing. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Daaku, Kwame Y. “History in the Oral Tradition of the Akans.” Journal of the Folklore Institute 8:2/3 (1971): 114–126.

Danquah, J. D. The Akan Doctrine of God. London: Frank Cass, 1968.

Djilas, Milovan. The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System. New York: Praeger; London: Thames and Hudson, 1957. Rev. & corr. ed. New York: Holt, 1957; New York: Praeger, 1962; London: Unwin, 1966.

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970. [Another edition is: Oxford Library of African Literature. Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Ibadan: Oxford UP, 1976.]

Jackson, Rosmary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New Accents. London and New York: Methuen, 1981.

Johnson, John William. “Yes, Virginia, There is an Epic in Africa.” Research in African Literatures 11 (1980): 308–326.

Kambili = Bird, C., with M. Koita and B. Soumaoro. The Song of Seydou Camara. Vol. 1: Kambili. Occasional paper in Mande Studies. Bloomington: African Studies Center, Indiana University, 1974.

Kunene, Mazisi. “Isidore Okpewho: The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of Oral Performance.” Review. Research in African Literatures 11 (1980): 552–559.

———. The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain. Poems. [Translated from Zulu]. African Writers Series 235. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1982.

Mwindo. = Biebuyck, Daniel, and Kahombo C. Mateene, ed. and trans. The Mwindo Epic, from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Devil on the Cross. Trans. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. African Writers Series 200. London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1982. First published in Gĩkũyũ as: Caitaani Mūtharaba-inĩ. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1980.

———. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. African Writers Series 240. London, Nairobi, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Matigari. Trans. Wangui wa Goro. African Writers Series. Oxford, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1989. First published [in Gĩkũyũ] as: Matigari ma Njirũũngi. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1987.

———. Petals of Blood. New York: Dutton, 1978. [Other editions include: African Writers Series 188. London, Nairobi, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1977, reissued 1987; Africasouth Paperbacks. Capetown: David Philip, 1982.]

———. The River Between. African Writers Series 17. London, Ibadan, Nairobi, Lusaka: Heinemann, 1965, reset 1975. [Another edition is: London: Heinemann, 1965.]

Okpewho, Isidore. The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

———. Myth in Africa: A Study of its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Opoku, Kofi Asare. “The World View of the Akan.” Tarikh 26 (1982): Vol. 7.2: 61–73.

Ozidi = Clark, J. P. The Ozidi Saga. Ibadan: Ibadan UP and Oxford UP, 1977.

Priebe, Richard K. “Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother as an African Dirge.” Priebe, ed. 265–278. First published in The Benin Review 1 (1975): 95–106.

———, ed. Ghanaian Literatures. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies 120. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Rattray, R. S. Religion and Art in Ashanti. London: Oxford UP, 1954.

Sundiata = Niane, Djibril Tamsir. Sundiata: An Apic of Old Mali. Trans. G. D. Pickett. Longman African Classics. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1986. [Other editions include: London: Longman, 1965; Longman Drumbeat 15. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1979.] First published as: Soundjata ou L'épopée mandingue. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1960. [Related by the griot Mamadou Kouyate and transcribed and translated into French by D. T. Niane.]

Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead's Town. London: Faber, 1952; New York: Grove, 1953. [Other editions include: Evergreen Book E—328. New York: Grove, 1962; Westport: Greenwood, 1970; Intro. Michael Thelwell. Black Cat Book. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984.]

Wendland, Julius. “Julius Chongo's Adaptation of Nyanja Nthano for the Radio.” Crosscurrent 3–4 (1989): 28.

Wright, Derek. Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of His Fiction. New Perspectives on African Literature 1. London Munich, New York: Hans Zell, 1989.

Adewale Maja-Pearce (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah and the Harbingers of Death,” in Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 13-23.

[In the following essay, Maja-Pearce discusses the political ideology which infuses Armah's fiction, especially in Why Are We So Blest?]

To be a writer at a time like this, coming from such a people, such deep destruction, the most criminal. Only one issue is worth our time: how to end the oppression of the African, to kill the European beasts of prey, to remake ourselves, the elected servants of Europe and America. Outside that, all is useless; and I am outside.

AYI KWEI ARMAH: Why Are We So Blest?1

Why Are We So Blest? tells the story of Modin, an African student in the United States, who becomes disillusioned with academia, returns to Africa with his white American lover, Aimée, and stumbles into the desert of mortification and reward in search of the revolution which is certainly not to be found on the campus of a western university:

The educated Africans, the westernised African successes are contemptible worms … Happy to get degrees, then go home and relax on the shoulders of our sold people. The end of a western education is not work but self-indulgence. An education for worms and slugs.

(p. 161)

Modin is an idealist; Aimée, the archetype of the perverted westerner, is simply tagging along for the ride: ‘What kind of love fires the white-haired American, sucking life that cannot fertilise her dryness, from sources already several times desiccated?’ (p. 208), asks Solo, the novel's third narrator, whose own commentary is meant to provide a dispassionate counter-balance to those of Modin and Aimée. But the revolution is elusive. After wandering aimlessly for days in the vast expanse of sand, sand and yet more sand, they happen upon four white men in a jeep. Modin is stripped naked and tied to the back of the vehicle, arms and legs spread-eagled in the manner of a crucifixion; Aimée, who recounts the event, is raped by each of the men in turn; whereupon: ‘They held me, legs apart, and rubbed me up and down against Modin. They succeeded in arousing him’ (p. 286). Two of the men then tie a thin piece of wire round the base of the tip of Modin's penis and pull hard. For a brief moment nothing happens; then ‘the tip of his penis snapped off and hung by just a bit of skin from the bottom’:

Modin started bleeding. The blood curved out in a little stream that jerked outward about every second. I reached him and without thinking of what I was doing I kissed him. His blood filled my mouth. I swallowed it. I wanted him to speak to me. He had groaned a little when I took him and kissed him, but he said nothing.

I asked him, ‘Do you love me?’

He didn't answer me.

‘Say you love me, Modin, please.’ He wouldn't say a word to me.

(p. 288)

This is certainly one of the most unpleasant scenes in the entire corpus of modern African literature—and one of the least convincing. But artistic truth is not among Armah's most pressing concerns, as the quotation with which this essay opens makes clear. Why Are We So Blest? is written largely to prove a thesis; in the words of Solo: ‘Why could he not see his companion? This was an object, destructive, powerfully hurled against him from the barrel of a powerful, destructive culture. Why could he not see that?’ (p. 115). The point about Aimée is that she is less a woman in her own right than the representative of an entire civilisation; and it is wholly within the logic of Armah's vision, such as it is, that she is impelled—literally—to suck the lifeblood from the African crucified on the altar of Europe's destructive urge. In a passage from another novel, Armah has written:

Each single one of them is a carrier of destruction. The spirit of their coming together, the purpose of their existence, is the spread of death over all the earth. An insatiable urge drives them. Wherever there is life, even if it be only a possibility, the harbingers of death must go—to destroy it.2

This is taken from Two Thousand Seasons, the novel that followed Why Are We So Blest? and in which the debilitating history of Africa's bloody encounter with Europe is portrayed on an epic scale that eschews any close examination of the individual sensibilities within the murderous cycle of destruction. History itself is the hero of the novel, the two thousand seasons from conquest through regeneration to the final liberation when Africa throws off the yoke of oppression and reconnects with its own fractured past; in the words of the seer:

Two thousand seasons: a thousand you will spend descending into abysses that would stop your heart and break your mind merely to contemplate. The climb away from there will be just as heavy. For that alone can you be glad your doors have been so closed, your faculties are now so blunted. You will need them blunter still, to make less perceptible the descent of a thousand seasons. Two thousand seasons: a thousand dry, a thousand moist.

(p. 16)

The action of the novel takes place towards the end of the time of overt slavery, ‘the open trade in human beings’, but at the beginning of ‘a cleverer kind of oppression, harder to see as slavery, slavery disguised as freedom itself’ (p. 104). Thus speaks the rebel and man of action, who is not fooled by the lies and deceptions of the collaborators in their midst—‘the parasites among us’ (p. 59)—through whom the fair-haired destroyers seek to achieve their ultimate ends. The rebel and his fellow sympathisers take up arms in the knowledge that the cycle of destruction will not be finished within their own lifetimes, but that they have a duty to keep alive the flame of their peoples' eventual redemption, whatever the price they themselves are condemned to pay in the process. And in this Armah is nothing if not thorough. He anticipates the charge that to fight guns with guns might itself condemn the African to the same degenerate universe as that inhabited by the destroyers themselves, but argues that such a course of action is justified both in its awareness of what it is doing, and the end to which it is dedicated:

It is not things we praise in our utterance, not arms we praise but the living relationship itself of those united in the use of all things against the white sway of death, for creation's life … Whatever thing, whatever relationship, whatever consciousness takes us along paths closer to our way, whatever goes against the white destroyers' empire, that thing is beautiful, that relationship only is truthful …

(pp. 205–6)

The end in this case—‘the way’—is what Armah understands to be the genuinely humanistic alternative which was present in African society before the coming of the destroyers, and which will exist again after the destroyers have themselves been destroyed. The point is to retrieve what has been stolen, not to bear arms for its own sake:

Our way is reciprocity. The way is wholeness. Our way knows no oppression. The way destroys oppression. Our way is hospitable to guests. The way repels destroyers. Our way produces before it consumes. The way produces far more than it consumes. Our way creates. The way destroys only destruction [my italics].

(p. 39)

That the destroyers will in turn be destroyed is not in doubt, their destruction being the nemesis of their own inhuman philosophy:

Their reign is surely bound within the two thousand seasons of our oppression. For their greed is preparing deep graves for them; it will raise against them the torrential wrath of all things in the universe, all bodies, all souls still with the seed of life unkilled in them.

(p. 205)

Those who maintain intimate knowledge of ‘the way’, who keep faith with the humanistic vision through the centuries of destruction, are known as the healers, the title of Armah's fifth and last published novel to date.3 The healers, are those within the community who ‘set great value on seeing truly, hearing truly, understanding truly, and acting truly’.4 This function, we are told, necessarily precludes them from exercising power over others, but then the need to manipulate temporal power is itself a betrayal of ‘the way’. In Armah's universe, we can judge how far Africa has travelled from its indigenous base by the very existence of kings and chiefs, which in turn is the result of false divisions within a society that was once previously whole but which has allowed itself to become fractured:

The disease—the breaking up of that community—has taken centuries, thousands of years. Most of our people do not even wish to imagine any such possibility of wholeness … The healers are also confused, not about the aim of our work, but about the medicines we may use and about what may look like medicine but may end up being poison.

Often, our confusion comes merely from impatience. The disease has run unchecked through centuries. Yet sometimes we dream of ending it in our little lifetimes, and despair seizes us if we do not see the end in sight … A healer needs to see beyond the present and tomorrow. He needs to see years and decades ahead.

(p. 84)

Armah is a visionary writer in the strict sense.5 This much at least must be conceded, even if the details of what is effectively promoted as a blueprint for a social and political arrangement are far too vague and simplistic to be convincing at any but the most hopeful level. It is also a racist vision, his admirers notwithstanding, and racist in the sense that his vision is exclusive in human terms: black people, African people, are different from white people, European people, and this difference is not merely one of colour but a profounder difference of sensibility, of which colour is the outward symbol.

Part of the black, African sensibility includes an ability to live in harmony with one's fellows in a genuinely egalitarian society which is only undermined by the presence of the alien destroyers, who are themselves spiritually incapable of achieving such a state of nirvana. Quite how this differs from the equally ‘imaginary, fanciful, unpractical’ notion of the happy native in a state of primordial innocence until the arrival of ‘white’ civilisation is not entirely clear. What is clear is that it was the same argument in reverse which underpinned the ‘cleverer kind of oppression’ that Armah himself understands to be the condition of slavery—however subtle—and which necessitates the bearing of arms in the first place. But to fight guns with guns is, indeed, to partake of the same sickness, at least for those who insist on seeing all human beings, irrespective of colour, as partaking of the same humanity. In other words, it is only by subscribing to the myth of racial exclusivity that Armah is able to judge the same conduct by different criteria.

In this Armah is not alone, merely the most comprehensive; and if his work has so far escaped the charge of racism, it is because the depth of the African humiliation to the fact of their enslavement has blinded African commentators, along with their western apologists, from seeing the thing for what it is.6 Even Wole Soyinka, admitting ‘discomfort over the actual language of confrontation’,7 nevertheless manages to absolve Armah from the charge which he himself has already—and rightly—anticipated:

Two Thousand Seasons is not a racist tract; the central theme is far too positive and dedicated and its ferocious onslaught on alien contamination soon falls into place as a preparatory exercise for the liberation of the mind. A clean receptive mind is a prerequisite for its ideological message, and there is no question that this work is designed for the particular audience of Armah's own race. What he offers them now is ‘the way’, ‘our way’.

(pp. 11–12)

Obviously, Soyinka is guilty here of a straightforward confusion over nomenclature, since to talk of ‘Armah's own race’ is to partake of the same categories which make Armah a racist. In any case, to argue, as Soyinka does, that castigating ‘all aliens as inhuman exploiters’ (p. 111) is permissible on the grounds that ‘the central theme [of the novel] is far too positive and dedicated’ might, after all, be used to excuse any number of racist tracts which set out to prove the exact opposite; to prove, in other words, the inferiority of blacks in the slave societies to which they were transported in the wake of the European onslaught, in itself the raison d'être of Armah's ire. Soyinka further tells us that Armah's ‘unusual vehemence’ must be understood in context; that is, ‘The quest for and the consequent assertion of the black cultural psyche began as a result of the deliberate propagation of untruths by others, both for racist motives and to disguise their incapacity to penetrate the complex verities of black existence’ (p. 107), which is all very well, except that Armah himself, by the same token, fails to penetrate the complex verities of ‘white’ existence. This is nowhere more evident than in Why Are We So Blest?, where the lofty abstractions of the opposing human conditions—one black and humane; the other white and destructive—are embodied in terms of the individuals who proceed to act out their preordained roles.

Why, for instance, does Modin allow himself to have a relationship with Aimée in the first place, much less carry her all the way across the Atlantic in order to participate in an event for which she herself is indirectly responsible, but which is justification enough for the dramatic course he has embarked upon? To say that they are in love is clearly ridiculous, since Aimée, ‘daughter of a race of destroyers’ (p. 149), is obviously incapable of such exalted passion; conversely, Modin must willingly debase himself in order that he might generate a spurious passion which must end with his destruction.

The telling incident occurs even before they leave America when he discovers, in the heat of love-making, that Aimée can climax only by concocting an elaborate fantasy involving an unnamed African colony, a servant called Mwangi, and a settler husband who is about to discover them in flagrante delicto:

‘Kansa. The rebellion, my period. My husband is coming home. He's a settler. I don't know when. It's dangerous. You're the boy.’

‘And Mwangi is my name.’

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes dooon't stop! Yes!’

(p. 199)

Naturally, Modin is somewhat upset by this less than wholesome revelation, but which she blurts out despite herself: ‘That was a foolish thing I did, going all guilty and making a confession to him’ (p. 203); but the author nevertheless conspires to have him forgive her for the insult to his sense of worth, to say nothing of his manhood, in order that the thesis he needs to ram home should reach its own perverted climax in the desert to which they are heading:

The disgust I began to feel with Aimée is gone. A tenderness I cannot explain has replaced it. I thought I would put her out but in the end I just talked to her. I asked her if she really knew what she'd been doing. She cried and said she had always been told she was bad. She kept using the word monster. Her tears disturbed me. She is not someone I expect to cry easily, and I am always taken by surprise in such situations anyway.

(p. 213)

The problem here isn't so much that Modin finds it in himself to overcome the disgust he reasonably feels, but that he continues to believe that love is still possible within the terms of his diminished status. And it isn't enough to say that Modin is able to internalise his oppression, which is what his forgiveness amounts to, on the grounds that he is ‘[a] pure slave, with the heart of a slave, with the spirit of a slave’ (p. 255), but that he himself has already understood the true nature of the beast. We have it on the author's own evidence that Modin is exceptionally bright, bright enough, at least, to win a scholarship to an Ivy League university—‘All your confidential reports say you are a most unusually intelligent African—the most intelligent as a matter of fact’ (p. 120), according to his professor—and bright enough, therefore, to draw the obvious conclusions, which is precisely what he does. He sees through the educational system clearly enough to reject his studies in favour of the revolution at home—‘What a farce, scholarships! That blood money never went to any of us for our intelligence. It was always payment for obedience’ (p. 160)—just as he sees through the motives of the white women who fasten on to him in order to satisfy their perverted desires:

These women I have known have had deep needs to wound their men. I have been an instrument in their hands. The men have reacted to me with a fear difficult to hide, and I should have known my annihilation would be a cure for part of their disease.

(p. 162)

It is not only Aimée who has opened his eyes to the truth of his condition. He has already had one disastrous affair with another white woman, the wife of his professor:

Her love-making made it hard for me to think she was a woman, a mature one. I saw her face. She meant well and her body had some shape, but the way she made love, it was a friendly frenzy, and I could not help it if a part of me stood outside of us, watching her joy that had the motions of agony.

(p. 130)

That affair almost costs him his life when her husband discovers them in the throes of love-making; but the point is further underscored by Naita, a black woman with whom he also has an affair, and who confirms his suspicions when he confesses his distaste for the professor's wife:

Why you talk so dumb all of a sudden? You need sex, take it. But this talk about love and sincerity is just foolishness. I thought you were smart enough so white folks couldn't get you sick, but you ain't. That's just too bad. Their men box you in so you feel all tight and lonely. Then their women move in and pick you clean and you too dumb to know it's got nothing to do with love and sincerity.

(p. 134)

Naturally enough, Naita, the inheritor of the humanistic tradition in the New World by the mere fact of her blackness, does to him what no white woman can possibly do: ‘We moved together. Each motion told me she felt what I felt. Our end was unforced, natural’ (p. 123). And yet Modin manages to make an exception in Aimée's case, even after she confirms what he already knows about the mortal danger inherent in the debilitating racial encounter. ‘You're the boy,’ she tells him, whereupon he takes her all the way to Africa, there to find the annihilation he had already foreseen.

Armah, in short, attempts to have it both ways. Modin must be at once slavish enough to overlook the insult to his person, and intelligent enough to act as the author's mouthpiece during his sojourn in the heartland of white depravity. This is the novel's central flaw, and inevitable given the task the author has set himself: ‘to end the oppression of the African, to kill the European beasts of prey, to remake ourselves, the elected servants of Europe and America’. The method is not fiction but polemic disguised as fiction. To this end, Modin is the fall guy, because in order to have a relationship with ‘a daughter of a race of destroyers’, then he, too, must be destroyed—and never mind Soyinka's insistence that Armah's vision is ‘secular and humane’. Secular possibly, but hardly humane.

On the other hand, Why Are We So Blest? might be nothing more than a rape fantasy in which the author, realising the futility of violence to achieve his desired end, that is, the defeat of the civilisation which continues to enslave him, invites his own castration as the only logical end in a nihilistic universe. Modin, certainly, has already been deprived of his manhood even before he leaves the land of the free and the brave, just as the snivelling Solo, the otherwise dispassionate narrator, was himself rendered impotent—his word—following his own (inevitably) disastrous relationship with yet another ‘daughter of a race of destroyers’:

My impotence simulates omnipotence. Often, what seems a reasonable arrangement I know is false. It is not understanding I am researching for, I have time to kill—an infinity ahead of me, and these notes are reduced to something to help a defeated man survive empty time. I arrange them, rearrange them. Out of all this destruction my aim is no longer to search for sense. My goal is littleness itself: to fill time, to survive emptiness.

(p. 232)

Nothing is left but ‘What is ordained for us … the fate of the évolué, the turning of the assimilated African, not into something creating its own life, but into an eater of crumbs in the house of slavery’ (p. 84).

Unfortunately for Armah, it probably doesn't matter what happens to men who—à la Naipaul—allow themselves to be reduced to nothingness: ‘The world is as it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it’.8 It is easy enough to dismiss such a sentiment on the grounds that—à la Armah—the place of the African in the world was already defined by those who insisted on constructing the ideology of race in the first place. But this is a conclusion, not a reason, since one's humanity was never a negotiable commodity. Simply to abdicate one's birthright at someone else's insistence is not merely to embrace a death far worse than Modin's otherwise straightforward (if rather dramatic) crucifixion in the desert; it is also to debase the ‘other’ in order that they might then drink the sacrificial blood—‘Say you love me, Modin, please’—willingly offered by the victim who invites his own destruction. The men in the jeep would be more convincing—artistically, at any rate—as the fantastic creations of Modin's victimhood the better that they might do what it is that the white man must do, that is, rape his woman and seize his manhood, the one inevitably following on the other; but in denying Aimée her humanity, it is inevitable, after all, that Modin—and, by extension, Solo—should also be denied theirs. This is inescapable, since any racialist ‘vision’ is necessarily reductive, whatever its ostensible justification. The pity of it is that the man who was sufficiently privileged to write Why Are Why So Blest?, who, in other words, was himself caught in the contradictions of two competing civilisations, might have told us something about our common humanity, which ought to have been the novel's real theme. The fact that he was unable to do so must be measured in terms of his failure to transcend the same sickness that demanded of him a true vision.


  1. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest?, London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972, p. 230. Page references will be to the 1984 edition.

  2. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, Nairobi: EAPH, 1973, p. 6; also published by Heinemann (London, 1979).

  3. Armah has continued writing, but refuses to publish with non-African publishing houses. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to find a suitable African publisher; as he explained to Femi Osofisan, the Nigerian dramatist and novelist:

    ‘No, I have not fallen silent. I'm writing all the time. It's just that I have not been publishing. In fact I have three completed novels, but I've not been able to find a publisher …

    ‘It's true … Or would you have me continue to give my works to multinational companies? If we as writers denounce our politicians for their links with these foreign parasites, how can we in all honesty continue ourselves to patronise them?’

    He shakes his head emphatically. ‘No, my friend, I'll keep my books in my drawer until I can find an African or black publisher who's capable of handling them. Or until we writers can get together and organise our own publishing houses.’

    Femi Osofisan, ‘Reflections on a fading breed’, Sunday Times (Lagos), 26 November 1989, p. 5.

  4. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers, Nairobi: EAPH, 1978; London: HEB, 1979, p. 81.

  5. ‘Given to seeing visions or to indulging in fanciful theories; existing only in a vision or the imagination; imaginary, fanciful, unpractical’ (OED).

  6. See, for example, Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of His Fiction by Derek Wright (London: Hans Zell, 1989), a work which, the author tells us, ‘carried [Armah's] fiction into a broader cultural and anthropological ambience and considers it in terms of a more complex series of determinants’. What this amounts to, in plain English, is a strategy for evading the moral dimensions posed by a novel such as Why Are We So Blest? in favour of academic theories about form and structure. We see how the engine is assembled, in other words, but haven't been told what it's for. A more readable, because less pretentious, critical study is Robert Fraser's The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980).

  7. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975, p. 110.

  8. V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River, London: André Deutsch, 1979; London: Penguin Books, 1986, p. 9.

Ode S. Ogede (essay date April 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Revolution in Armah's The Healers: Form as Experience,” in African Studies Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, April, 1993, pp. 43-58.

[In the following essay, Ogede asserts that Armah's The Healers signals a change in the novelist's portrayal of revolution and that the novel contains a previously unseen element of optimism.]

The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah's most recent novel (1978), has received less critical attention than it deserves given the importance of its theme—the sociopolitical liberation of Africa—and the compelling textual strategies it deploys towards that end.1 What scanty criticism it has attracted has concentrated only on the novelist's social vision, with the debates centering on the degree of faithfulness to the historical materials on which he bases his novel. Nevertheless, without due attention paid to the rhetoric, the peculiar idea of revolution that Armah advocates cannot be grasped fully. By rhetoric is meant the linguistic strategies employed by the writer to put his ideas forward—his style, the use of aesthetic means for achieving desired effects on the reader. This essay attempts to redress the picture and demonstrate the aesthetic elements that give Armah's novel its special stridency.

While it is true, as many critics have pointed out (Lindfors 1980, 91; Fraser 1980, 83–86; Wright 1989, 244–47), that The Healers uses the fall of the Ashanti empire in the 19th century as a paradigm of how other African societies were undermined during the period of Western imperialist incursions into the continent, fidelity to that history itself should never be at issue. Rather, since Armah is a novelist (and not a historian), of greater significance should be the quality of his imaginative use of the past for the purpose of furthering present sociopolitical objectives. If, as he has stated, “the human value of literature, after all, lies primarily in the interactions it makes possible between the way we live and the way we think—between our existence and the reflections we make of and on that existence,” it would not be inapposite to demand of the critics that they use “a high level of knowledge about technique, a craft, an art” (Armah 1985, 356) to bring out the writer's total vision, his textual strategies, through aesthetic evaluations.

Critics who concentrate on the historicity of The Healers look only at a part of, not at the whole, novelistic vision and fail to do justice to Armah's overall artistic accomplishment. Robert Fraser, for example, notes rightly that Armah's novel takes as “a field of inquiry a particular moment when the stress to which one society was habitually subject arose to overwhelm it.” This moment, he adds, serves “to demonstrate the reason for this failure and hence to illustrate something about the nature, not only of this culture, but perhaps also of all comparable societies which succumb to external pressure in this way” (1980, 84). Despite Fraser's compelling recognition of the necessity to place The Healers in its wider postcolonial context, he abandons his own vision, and, instead of elaborating the fictional techniques that could point to the global character of the postcolonial text, Fraser continues to read the novel as a work that specifically sets out to present an authentic history of the Asante. Adopting a polarized critical stance to Fraser's Derek Wright, who describes The Healers as “a more substantial” foray into history than Two Thousand Seasons, claims that “original source materials and Armah's historical re-invention are … mixed up in Fraser's reading of the novel” (1989, 247). Wright undertakes to correct Fraser's reading of the novel, but his plot summaries do little to uncover the layered complexity of Armah's novel.2

The most critically valuable reading of The Healers to date, by Bernth Lindfors in his survey article entitled “Armah's Histories,” equally misplaces the aesthetic thrust of Armah's work.3 For Lindfors, the novel is “potentially [Armah's] most important book and certainly his healthiest” because in it the novelist has overcome the urge to depict “good and bad guys” along racial lines (1980,95). Lindfors goes on to praise the tone of self-criticism that Armah advocates among Africans. He notes the novelist's apt use of imagery and acknowledges that he relies on techniques of the folktale for his characterization. Unfortunately the critic, whose dedication to African folklore has borne fruit in many book-length studies (Lindfors 1973; and Lindfors and Oyekan 1973), fails on the whole to appreciate the significance of folklore in the overall design of The Healers. Lindfors refers to The Healers as “a cartoon, still comic-strip history … juvenile adventure fiction” and claims “it will not persuade many adults because it falsifies more than it authenticates and in the process fails to avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification” (1980, 95).

By taking a critical look at the African past, Armah joined the ranks of writers who find their present disturbing enough that they shape their past into a utopian future. As a result, his novel eloquently illustrates how “history, without diminishing its importance in a post-colonial text, can be made and re-made almost at will, given the right circumstances and a voice empowered by indignation and sympathy” (Richards 1990, 130). The key condition that Richards proposes as necessary for an imaginative use of the past by a postcolonial writer like Achebe—“a voice empowered by indignation and sympathy”—is germane for the task Armah sets for himself in The Healers because, for him, as for the Nigerian writer, the purpose of writing is to reassess the past in order to help the present society regain its freedom. This is a nationalistic-cum-continental assignment that Armah pursues with intense commitment.

Because the reader who has grown used to the concept of the modern nation might see a discrepancy between the ideological projects of nationalism and pan-Africanism in Armah's work, it helps to recall that Armah's novel invites a rethinking of contemporary concepts of the nation, nationalism and nationality. According to Robert I. Rotberg “‘nation,’ ‘nationality’ and ‘Nationalism’ are catchwords that have been used to describe a multitude of situations, human conditions, and states of mind” (1970, 33). Rotberg rightly traces the rise of the modern nation states to “the growth of monarchical power, and the consequent establishment of centralized states” in pre-19th century Europe and his elucidations of the original meanings of the concepts of nation, nationality, and nationalism are relevant to Armah's novel:

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the nation was an accepted form; it referred generally to a definite territory that was inhabited by a people who possessed a distinctive common culture and language and who felt that they constituted a nation. The concept of nationality—that is, the state or quality of belonging to a nation—naturally followed, and nationalism, if the word were used at all, continued to possess a very narrow connotation.

(1970, 44; see also Schipper 1987, 282)

There is much sense, then, to view precolonial Africa's tribes/ethnic groups as corresponding to “the nation” in its original usage, as Armah does in his references to the Ashanti group in The Healers. This is the sense in which Chinua Achebe talked of the Igbo nation in his novels Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964), and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o implied it as well in his book The River Between (1965) where he described the existence of the Kikuyu nation. The idea of the modern nation in Africa was an importation of colonialism, which had yoked together many African peoples of diverse ethnic groups, thus giving birth to the positive concept of nationalism as a movement of the colonized people to free themselves from bondage. In order to maximize the solidarity of the oppressed in their independence struggle, pan-Africanist leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Amilcar Cabral necessarily stressed the unity of all African peoples. Giving primacy to the belief that the fates of each and every African people were tied together, these leaders ventured that the freedom of one African group meant the liberation of all the others but that, as long as one segment of the race remained in shackles, the entire group can be regarded as being still in a state of enslavement. Armah belongs in this line; thus, in The Healers, he equates the fall of Kumase with the “fall” of Africa. For Armah, there is an allegorical relationship between nation and continent—between the fate of Ghana and that of all Africa.

The ideology of revolution that Armah expresses in The Healers indicates that the thrust of his thinking has moved away from abstract moral notions of culture which occupied his three early novels—The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Fragments (1970), and Why Are We so Blest? (1972). In The Healers Armah has developed into full scale his rhetoric of the primacy of resistance to physical conquest as an antidote to colonization. Although the idea (to find a militant solution to colonization) was first cursorily experimented with in Two Thousand Seasons (1973), it is in The Healers that Armah offers a blueprint for decolonization of all oppressed societies, a blueprint which looks beyond the attainment of political independence and confronts wider and urgent issues of national reconstruction as prerequisites for pan-African unification and freedom.

The key to the idea of the revolution that Armah has in mind is embedded in his equation of revolutionary action to the work of healing. As has been observed, the image gains its effect from analogy with the work of medical practitioners both of whom seek the health of individuals in order to restore harmony to society (Lindfors 1980, 92). In the words of one of the author's surrogates, Damfo, a revolutionary action like healing negates “force, deception, and manipulation in relationship with close ones” (Armah 1978, 78). 4 Of even greater significance from the perspective of the role that Armah proposes for narrative within the novelistic schema is the political credo of healing spelt out in the following terms:

We healers do not fear power. We avoid power deliberately, as long as that power is manipulative power. There is a kind of power we would all embrace and help create. It is the same power we use in our work; the power of inspiration. The power that respects the spirit in every being, in everything, and lets every being be true to the spirit within.


The political ideology espoused here is a new philosophy of power—that of inspiration—to which Armah is committed, as opposed to dictatorship or rulership by tyranny or brute force. And he wants to see the establishment of social justice for the community, rather than for lone heroes. Thus, if a dominant element in Armah's early fiction is the “tension with the suggestion that the artist/intellectual should attempt to save the whole society” (Peck 1989, 32), in The Healers that tension has been resolved amicably because the artist envisions a community of dedicated individuals who would come together for the society's good.

True, the absence of an interventionist political ethic among the healers constitutes a weakness in Armah's novelistic vision as it denies his revolutionary socialist idealism a necessary organizational framework with which to achieve the revolution. Indeed, the whole schema would tend to smack of Leninist pragmatism. Nevertheless, one redeeming feature that is never lacking in Armah's thinking in The Healers, but was absent in the earlier novels, is optimism. Of hope about the successful outcome of the liberation struggle there is ample supply in The Healers, as there was not in the earlier works, and this is certainly a healthy sign, especially as it is married to his recommendation of sober judgment as another element that is needed to give courage and direction to the fighters.

It is to his credit that Armah sees the need for society to harness all its resources—the aggregate community of hands a people can boast of—in the struggle for emancipation. It is for this purpose that the cool-headed reason championed by Damfo and Densu, the two major characters in the novel who stress the value of education and persuasive logic as a means of bringing about a new egalitarian order, could co-habit with the revolutionary violence favored by Asamoa Nkwanta, the man who commands the military wing of the revolution. It is untypical of Armah to characterize Asamoa Nkwanta as a strong moral force who dramatizes the necessity of flexibility in any national cause (compare Nkwanta with Armah's uncompromising heroes such as the Man, Teacher, Modin Dofu, and Solo in the earlier works, for example). In this context, The Healers represents an important new stage in Armah's study of the rise of a leader who pulls his community together for a common cause.

The main technique adopted by Armah is to impress the reader that underlying all Nkwanta's anti-imperialist work is a strong opposition to injustice and cruelty in general. Armah succeeds admirably, providing clues to his own romantic idealist sensibility behind which lies a deep-seated abhorrence of wanton violence in whatever form it manifests itself. Although violence is a central motif in The Healers—the destruction of “manipulators,” Armah's euphemism for the self-serving and rapacious indigenous military and political rulers and their foreign collaborators who have dominated African politics since the colonial era, and from whom the writer seeks to save society—the objective is not violence for its own sake, but as a means to liberation. Armah hopes to achieve the liberation of the society from the oppressor through an agent like Wole Soyinka's third force in Season of Anomy (1973)—a neutral, independent body of revolutionary socialist idealists, referred to as “the healers.”

Far from a superman, Armah presents Asamoa Nkwanta, his perfect image of a revolutionary, as an average person who is able to rise above ordinary pettiness and reach the peak of his military career through sheer hardwork. The first manifestation of Nkwanta's ire against inhumanity occurs when his nephew is murdered in cold blood to accompany the corpse of their king in accordance with some outmoded and corrupt tradition. And, in protest against the savage action, Nkwanta's characteristic reaction is to desert the nation's army. It is this sense of heightened reaction to injustice that Damfor ignites in Nkwanta during the general's meeting with the healer, who broadens his awareness of social injustice and enables the war leader to see his nephew as a victim of an oppressive social order that needs to be destroyed. Nkwanta dreams of creating a society in which there are “no slaves no kings” but just “people. Human beings who respect each other” (175). A coincidence of feeling quickly developed between him and healers. And so this potential healer converts himself into one and denounces all aspects of his past that furthered the interests of the corrupt establishment. Nkwanta realizes his aspiration when he redefines the goals of the Asante army in line with the effort of the nationalists who are engaged in the liberation struggle.

Implicit in Armah's presentation of the operation of the commando squad under General Nkwanta's leadership is that the war leader's anti-imperialist ideological resolution, his intelligence and bravery are all worthy of emulation by others. The didactic strategy, borrowed from oral tradition, is so deftly handled as to avoid obtrusive posturing and melodrama. Cautious, wise, and down-to earth, Nkwanta is convinced of the strategic significance of gathering information to the successful outcome of the struggle; so, he sends Densu on pre-war spying expeditions but does not totally depend on the judgment of his lieutenant, whose naiveté comes to the surface when Densu describes the imperial army as a spent force and advises his general to treat it with disdain. Instead, Nkwanta decides not to underestimate the enemy—a move that is as tactical and pragmatic as his military formation:

I have seen our brothers on the coast, those at Edina trap fish … when they begin, they never oppose the motion of the fish. They lead them into the net. Only then do they close up the end of the net. There's no way out. The fish are trapped.

So let the whites invade Asante. I shall select a place good for fighting a battle. When the whites reach that place, they will be fish facing the forward wall of the net. Let our center regiments be that wall. Let the regiments turn on the white troops in the forest and harass them to death. And let the regiments of the right wing circle round the whites, come up from behind them, and block the end of the net.


According to the logic of the novel it is of little narrational significance whether or not Nkwanta's profile attempts to recreate the true heroic image of a real war leader of the same name in 19th-century Ghanaian history; of more significance is that it serves as a good instance of the manner in which history can energize fiction. Throughout the novel, Nkwanta's strategy of war is portrayed as an ingenious one. And there is a passionate attempt by Armah to capture the speech patterns of Africans through Nkwanta's incantatory cadences.

Stylistically, the repetitions and homely images in the novel, common devices in traditional storytelling, are tellingly useful in helping to anchor the story in its true setting. In the above passage describing Nkwanta's war tactics, for example, the homely image of fish trapped in a net draws the reader's attention to a local occupation of Ghanaians and other Africans in the tropics. This reveals the passionate effects that can result in the African novel when a writer blends traditional African and modern artistic devices in good measure.

A more overt use of didacticism, bordering on moral indignation, can be found in Armah's delineation of the ravages caused by the colonial invasion. Almost as a preacher, the novelist impresses the point that the oppressed should accept blame for failing to unite in a common onslaught against imperialism, consequent on which failure is the loss of freedom and the resultant untold hardship faced by the people. The eventual defeat of the Asante army is attributed to disunity, against whose future re-occurrence the novelist warns. When the “old thunder of the Asante army” is fired, “a long continual roar” with a devastating power “shook forests and broke branches” and “smoke rose endlessly from thousands upon thousands of guns fired incessantly, and the morning turned to night with no connecting noon, afternoon or evening” (283). Had the strategy been ineffective, Armah implies, the Asante army would not have had such an impact. Therefore, the defeat of the national army was due neither to the superior technology of the imperialists nor the dearth of fighters but instead was the outcome of disunity.

The details of the upheaval, exploitation, and oppression generated by forced labor introduced by white colonialists are a must for anyone who wishes to know about the repercussions of colonial subjugation. The story is as much history as it is fiction, and Armah's heavy and blatant emphasis on the indignities of slavery is intended to press home his message that the white invasion was motivated by selfishness. Forced labor introduced by white invaders was not intended to improve the lot of the natives, even if subsequently blacks could not be totally denied access to some of the social services their labor created. The colonial vandalism which passed for white humanitarianism and civilizing mission in Manso typifies the black colonial experience:

A huge space was cleared and beaten flat. The houses were bigger. The work had to be done with greater care than at the other stations. Along the road ditches had to be added to drain the rushing water. In all the rain the laborers were forbidden to stay in the areas they had worked to clear. To fatigue in the daytime the white men added discomfort at night and disease in after days.


In its emphasis on the physical assaults of the colonial experience, more than its psychological strains, Armah's novel bears closer resemblance to the francophone West African writings of Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono than the work of fellow anglophone writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, and J. P. Clark. Nevertheless, Armah draws as deeply from the oral tradition as his fellow English-speaking West African writers to invigorate his fiction.

The language of Armah's comment on the lessons of the war has a lyricism that is rooted in the African epic and dirge traditions. Its cadences are eloquent, composed, and declamatory but devoid of verbosity:

But what a sad homecoming this one was for the army! What a terrible accounting faced the nation! A procession of warriors had passed through Kumase, Kumase the virgin capital, Kumase the impregnable stronghold, Kumase the evergreen garden. But this was no proud procession of victory. …

Tongue-tied were the singers of victorious songs of praise, what could they sing of? And for whom to hear? Those who had looked forward to the cruel pleasure of taunting long lines of captives brought back from the battlefields grew sad. Here were no captives to be taunted and insulted. Here were only bereaved survivors. Nephews in all the strength of their youth had gone to this war with forty companions. Now they returned alone carrying furlong bundles to remind those left alive of beloved ones whom death has swallowed away from home.


Here the occasion of the national disaster challenges the narrator (and Armah) to explore the subtleties of language. The praise epithets he uses convey his anguish over the downfall of Kumase (Africa), which marks the end of a noble era. The narrator's dramatic stance, his rhetorical style, and the didactic texture of his narrative, all reinforce the view that Armah attributes a veritable role to language in the revolutionary struggle for the emancipation of Africa. Although it has its own charm in itself, it is a language with no barrier in the way of its message, namely that unity is an essential ingredient that should be cultivated before the oppressed could achieve liberation. And Armah is optimistic that the liberation struggle will eventually be successful.

Seen correctly, the location of the base of the healers in a jungle called the eastern forest, from where they make sporadic assaults on the enemy, is not an expression of the author's naive urge to return to roots, the primordial womb of nature. Rather, this hideout reinforces Armah's idea that, while they could not afford to withdraw from society totally, those who are to move society forward should be both physically and spiritually distanced from the debased atmosphere. Clearly modeled on well-known tactics of guerrilla fighters in Southern Africa, the healer's base in the eastern forest is, in this sense, firmly rooted in reality. Although many critics read this aspect of The Healers critically, sniping at it as an escapist tendency which leads Armah to people this world of his novel with “heroes” of “this saintly breed” (Lindfors 1980, 92), it can be seen in allegorical terms.5

Densu, for example, one of the characters who dominates the life of the eastern forest, is “in the center of the movement of thought in The Healers [but] is not so important for what he does, but for what he thinks: his thoughts and actions seem significant [only] to the extent that they trigger, shape or control the readers' perception of events in the novel” (Gikandi 1987, 33). Therefore, Armah's intent is to present the eastern forest as a think-tank, an ideal home of the healers whose quiet environment, far removed from the chaos and competition of daily living in society, enables its inhabitants to discover formulas that can be applicable in society. Significantly, Asamoa Nkwanta, “the symbol of power which can be enhanced for the advancement of historical ends” (Gikandi 1987, 37), makes the necessary pact with these dwellers of the eastern forest, foremost among whom are Densu and Damfo, his former teacher.

But, more importantly, it is as a storyteller that Armah employs Densu in his strategy to lead his community to a new Eden. He journeys into the unknown world of the camp of the invading British forces; his remarkable wisdom, courage, and smartness are qualities that Armah deems essential to the success of the counteroffensive mounted by the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. Note particularly his description of the appearance of the black conscripts in the colonial army, whom Densu treats disdainfully:

The white men came from the front, between the lines of black soldiers with long rifles. Their leaders wore tight trousers and a tight coat of smooth red cloth with golden ropes and numerous shiny pieces of metal on his chest. Close beside him, but a shade behind, walked a tall, unsteady-looking fellow, also dressed in the manner of white soldiers, but he wore only one rope. This man's face was pale and blotchy, as if he suffered some leprous, disfiguring disease. He carried under his left arm a thick book, and in his right a pad of papers. The other whites—there were more than thirty dressed as soldiers, and about ten wearing different clothes, four, like the leader's companion, carrying pads of white paper to write on—marched stiffly to the tents and took their positions on chairs arranged there on a long platform.


This passage begins as a simple factual description of the appearance of the colonial army and then turns into a bitter satiric attack on the ignoble role of black collaborators who stand revealed as buffonic stooges, simpletons who allow themselves to be used as tools of imperialism. It underscores Armah's intent to use Densu's voice to sensitize the larger community so that the members will learn from the mistakes of their fellow compatriots and never allow themselves to be duped again. The graphic descriptiveness and the attempt to report everything on the scene to the reader lends the narration an appearance of objectivity. In The Healers, Armah's overall objective is to show that liberation is not only desirable but feasible; for this reason he directs attack as much against the blacks who help to perpetrate their own subjugation as against the white originators of oppression.

“Most remarkable of all,” Wole Soyinka has written in Myth, Literature and the African World of Two Thousand Seasons, “in a book which is hardly squeamish in its depiction of violence is Armah's insistence on a revolutionary integrity, a refusal to be trapped into promoting the increasingly fashionable rhetoric of violence for its own sake” (1976, 114). That wanton destructiveness or bloodletting is never Armah's intent is pointedly made manifest in The Healers, where the healers demonstrate the social value of their creative potential—the creation of a free society. Especially noteworthy is Armah's attention to issues of gender, showing his recognition that without due recognition of the role played by African women in the revolution the history of African resistance would be incomplete.

The hardship suffered by women in Africa predated colonialism, and yet, despite the fact that many women fought alongside their male counterparts in the decolonization struggle, their marginalization has continued in many independent African countries. Since the tradition of African women's active participation in liberation movements goes back to the time when the first shots were fired, it would have been aesthetically inauthentic if Armah had failed to give it due recognition in a novel whose agenda is to trace the roots of African resistance to colonial rule. As other studies have shown (Ousmane 1960; Ngugi 1977), in addition to their roles as wives and mothers, many women have not only catered to the wounded in battle but have often engaged in combat alongside their menfolk during the decolonization struggles in Africa. In many respects, The Healers shows a positive development in Armah's thinking, in that he has moved from stereotypical depiction of women as either parasites or devils to viewing them as human beings who possess qualities that enable them to perform some vital roles which are complementary to those performed by their male counterparts.

V. U. Ola, a key feminist critic from Nigeria, put her finger on this issue when she observed that:

Armah has a keen eye and a deep understanding of the monumental capacity of women for creativity and for destruction, but in The Healers he makes the female principle the reservoir of the love, care, patience and suffering which are the sources of spiritual healing and self-discovery, the major themes of his fifth novel.

(1985, 74)

Although Ola's identification of “spiritual healing and self-discovery” as what she terms “the major themes” of Armah's novel is inadequate as a summary of the preoccupations of that text (because she fails to fathom the ultimate objectives to which these qualities are directed), she makes a number of insightful observations. For example, after noting how “much of the wound is inflicted” in the novel on women “not by colonialism [directly, I should add, as a qualifier] but by that process of self-betrayal for which Armah never ceases to hold Africa accountable,” Ola makes an enlightening documentation of the roles played by the novel's female characters such as Ajoa, Esi Amanyiwa, Efua Kobri, and Araba Jesiwa, pointing out “the wounds” inflicted on each “by kith and kin jostling for power” (1985, 75). The women all show endurance, love, and intelligence in their dealings with their male counterparts. But particularly crucial are Araba Jesiwa's roles as “a mother and a friend to Densu,” whose personal development she helps to promote by introducing him into “the strongest cravings, hopes and fears of most women, those of self-fulfillment through childbirth; the bond between a mother and a child, and how special Appia must be to the mother” (1985, 77). Ola concludes her study by relating how, his limitations of insight into gender issues notwithstanding, Armah's treatment of the topic in this novel “underscores the relevance of his concerns to the African experience” (1985, 77).

One of the compelling aspects of Armah's handling of gender issues in The Healers is the way he amasses a plethora of realistic evidence about women like Araba Jesiwa but succeeds in some way to direct the reader's attention beyond her individualism to her allegorical representation. The anxieties felt in African literary circles about any manifestation of allegorism in the African novel, simply because some white critics view it as a transgression of some as yet undefined immortal laws of the novel, are ludicrous to say the least. One can sense this condescending element in Albert Gerard's pronouncements:

So many African novelists and playwrights have been unable—as has often been observed and deplored—to achieve convincing individual characterization. In many cases, they continue the folktale tradition of emphasis on anecdotal incidents or allegorical morality. The absence of any native tradition in those genres also accounts for clumsiness in plot management and in the depiction of personal emotions: constant resorting to implausible coincidences and awkward handling of the love theme are illustrative of the difficulties that they will have to overcome.

(1971, 379)6

In seeing allegorism and anecdotal forms as sources of indictment which especially Western critics ought to bring against African writers, what critics like Gerard and Lindfors forget is that, in fact, those very devices have constituted some of the main invigorating elements in their own literatures' masterpieces such as William Faulkner's novels, and James Joyce's and Edgar Allen Poe's stories. Thus, allegorism or anecdotalism per se ought not to be seen as literary aberrations but, rather, what should count is how each writer establishes a relationship with these forms. What is particularly interesting about Armah's novel is that he presents Araba Jesiwa's story as simultaneously realistic and parabolical. And her emergence from her state of degradation, dispossession, and depression to eventual rehabilitation and recuperation summarizes most clearly the quality of the accomplishment accorded the healing profession in this novel.

Once the healers recover her, Araba Jesiwa is ready to participate in propagating their ministry, thus disclosing the community-centeredness of the healers' work. She can then be viewed as a figurative representative of the African woman—battered, long suffering, and debased—whose retrieval by the healers from her tormentors and the killers of her son Prince Appia can also be viewed in allegorical terms as representing the much needed act of regeneration—social, political, moral, and spiritual—that Armah envisages. Indeed, it is not coincidental that Araba Jesiwa should re-unite with the other healers—Densu, Asamoa Nkwanta and Damfo—in that final episode of poetic justice in the novel during the trial of Ababio. Ababio has become the new king and strong man of imperialism, but Araba gives the evidence that leads to the conviction of Buntui and Ababio, his mentor. As they are made to answer for their role in the killing of Prince Appia, the poetic justice achieved becomes reminiscent of the ending of Sembene Ousmane's Xala, where nemesis similarly smiles on the exploited masses of Senegal in their struggle against exploitation. Although Armah is not so naive as to see this victory as the end of the struggle, whose goal remains the restoration of the dignity of the dispossessed majority, it has certainly prepared the way for the work of reconstruction that lies ahead. The mood of celebration that grips their society is analogous to the joy of national freedom; hence, there is an allegorical relationship between Araba's fate and that of Africa.

This note of hope about the successful outcome of the black people's independence struggle on which The Healers ends represents the greatest achievement of the novel in the sense of its vigorous response to the movement toward utopian literature on the continent, whereby the creative function of the novelist is to concretize the collective dreams of society. Among other works in this category should be included Ali Mazrui's The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), Soyinka's Season of Anomy (1973), Sembene Ousmane's Xala (1974), and Ngugi's Petals of Blood (1978). However, Armah's work produces the most passionate and enthusiastic paradigm of revolutionary struggle in the African novel since Ousmane wrote God's Bits of Wood in 1960 to inaugurate this tradition.

Armah's concept of revolution in The Healers is most meaningful if seen within the framework of myth as defined by Okpewho as an imaginative projection into the future. “Now, the counterpart of, say the mythical novel is the realistic novel,” where “the pressure of historical reality or contemporary experience is so strong that the sense of projection steadily gives way to the urge towards documentation even with the utmost figurative skill” (Okpewho 1983, 21). In The Healers, the concept anchors itself in Armah's idea of re-Africanization, earlier enunciated by the idea of “the way” in Two Thousand Seasons (1973). In The Healers, “the way” subsumes the ideology of wholeness or re-unification of all black people of African descent plus the end of all unnatural rifts because, for Armah, all contentions among black entities “is disease.”

If examined with the laws of realistic fiction, the concept of revolution in The Healers would collapse entirely. That Armah has come to abandon totally that other vision of confronting oppressive forces, seen in Two Thousand Seasons in the work of the “pathfinders”—Isanusi, Abena, Anoa, and Idawa, who played the part of the enemy's destroyers—is a liability. Indeed, the moral plane in which Densu, Araba Jesiwa, Ajao, Damfor operate to heal, to restore wholeness, to bring unity to society is out of tune with the actual history of the liberation movements in Africa, which the work ostensibly mediates. Thus, the vision in The Healers is not actually a growth, but retardation, in Armah's vision. It is simply romantic and idealistic to portray “healers” as a group that shuns love, marriage, farming, and fishing (even though they could love and marry, farm, and fish). They simply cannot regenerate their class by continuing to completely shun marriage, fame, wealth (89–91); nor can they, therefore, by their action, sustain their influence from generation to generation. Another accusation that can be leveled against Armah is that he wishes to portray the healers as “inspirers” who are for wholeness but sequesters them from the masses as a special elite group. Armah is here infusing fragmentation within his advocacy for wholeness—a fragmentation that works against the solidarity that he envisions. In other words, Armah's selection of a select group subverts the wholeness he champions. This, therefore, puts a question mark on the communalism and unity he advocates and injects contradictions into his avowed posture.

But, in concluding this essay, the underlying conviction should be restated: the critic need not agree with Armah's romantic, idealistic vision to recognize the power of his imagination which comes through in his graphic descriptions, his depiction of intelligent, dedicated, and patriotic men and women engaged in actions which are targeted at moving their society forward. In putting together his novel, published as long ago as 1978, it would seem as if Armah had taken to heart the same views that were to motivate a Nigerian scholar and critic, to proclaim ten years later:

The Negritude movement has run its course and, while it lasted, it had solved the problem of rehabilitating our essential humanity. I envisage that if our creative writers henceforth face the future through imaginative projection of our problems that are equally imaginatively solved, we shall have taken the first steps in solving Africa's development problems. Until our writers begin to depict Africa as a land of promise and project her as a continent with a great future, there will always be a worm that squirms at the core of her development plans.

(Nnolim 1988, 15)

For Armah, after the much criticized cynicism that dominated his early fiction, it must have been an act of self-atonement to look to the future with greater hope. After all, existentialist angst, as many critics have been quick to point out, has failed to end the problems of colonialism and neocolonial domination of Africa. No wonder Armah has reasoned it is time to show awareness of possibilities as he takes on the role of an artist who faces the future of the continent optimistically, using the secret magic of art.


  1. In this regard it is interesting to observe that even the special issue of Research in African Literatures on Armah failed to pay any attention to The Healers. Ato Sekyi-Otu's article, “Towards Anoa,” which focuses exclusively on Two Thousand Seasons, ought not to have been so insular.

  2. See Ogede 1992 for a fuller discussion of the limitations of Wright's study.

  3. If, indeed, The Healers is “potentially” Armah's “most important book,” as Lindfors claims, it is another irony that ten years after its publication, not one of the major journals has published an article devoted exclusively to it.

  4. Following the initial reference to The Healers, Armah's name and the date are omitted and only page numbers are cited.

  5. An example of detailed analysis of character portrayal in The Healers can be found in Lindfors 1980.

  6. Charles Larson expresses similar but slightly modified views (1978, 66–111); the Nigerian scholar D. S. Izevbaye has responded with acute perceptivity (1975, 3–6).


Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart. London: Heineman.

———. 1964. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. 1968. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

———. 1970. Fragments. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

———. 1972. Why Are We So Blest? Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

———. 1973. Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing.

———. 1978. The Healers. Nairobi: East African Publishing.

———. 1985. “The Lazy School of Literary Criticism.” West Africa 3522: 355–56.

Fraser, Robert. 1980. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah. London: Heinemann.

Gerard, Albert 1971. Four African Literatures: Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Amharic. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gikandi, Simon. 1987. Reading the African Novel. London: James Currey Publishers.

Izevbaye, D. S. 1975. “The State of Criticism in African Literature.” African Literature Today 7: 1–19.

Larson, Charles. 1978. The Emergence of African Fiction. Revd. London: Macmillan.

Lindfors, Bernth. 1973. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana.

———. 1980. “Armah's Histories.” African Literature Today 11: 85–96.

Lindfors, Bernth and Owomoyela Oyekan, eds. 1973. Yoruba Proverbs. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, Africa Program.

Mazrui, Ali. 1971. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. London: Heinemann.

Ngugi, Wa Thiong'o. 1965. The River Between. London: Heinemann.

———. 1977. Petals of Blood. London: Heinemann.

Nnolim, Charles. 1988. “Ridentem Dicere Verum: Literature and the Common Welfare.” Inaugural Lecture, University of Port Harcourt.

Ogede, Ode S. 1992. “The Offal Kind: Armah under Glass—A Review of Derek Wright's Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of his Fiction.Transition 55/1:179–84.

Okpewho, Isidore. 1983. “Myth and Modern Fiction: Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.African Literature Today 13:1–23.

Ola, V. U. 1985. “The Feminine Principle and the Search for Wholeness in The Healers.Ufahamu 14/3: 73–83.

Ousmane, Sembene. 1960. God's Bits of Wood. Translated by Francis Price. London: Heinemann.

———. 1974. Xala. London: Heinemann.

Peck, Richard. 1989. “Hermits and Saviours, Osagyefos and Healers: Artists and Intellectuals in the Works of Ngugi and Armah.” Research in African Literatures 20/1: 26–49.

Richards, David. 1990. “Repossessing Time: Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah.Kunapipi 12/2: 130–38.

Rotberg, Robert I. 1970. “African Nationalism: Concept or Confusion?” In Governing in Africa: Perspectives on New States, edited by Marion E. Doro and Newell M. Stultz, 33–44. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schipper, Mineke. 1987. “National Literatures and Literary History.” Research in African Literatures 18/3:280–92.

Sekyi-otu, Ato. 1987. “‘Towards Anoa … Not Back to Anoa’: The Grammar of Revolutionary Homecoming in Two Thousand Seasons.Research in African Literatures 18/2:192–214.

Soyinka, Wole. 1973. Season of Anomy. London: Rex Collins.

———. 1976. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, Derek. 1989. Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of his Fiction. London: Hans Zell Publishers.

B. M. Ibitokun (essay date Spring/Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “Visual Iconology in Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” in Commonwealth Novel in English, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring/Fall, 1993, pp. 13-29.

[In the following essay, Ibitokun explores visual communication in Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.]

Visual experiences play an important role in our gradual apprehension of the universe. They are not restricted to the realm of the physical, they also have to do with the mental. In fact, the interaction of the physical and the mental is something of a reflex. In the child, physical sight is more emphasized than mental sight in the sense that the child takes in through the eyes pleasure experiences and events of the world around it. Through visual experiences and correspondences, the personality of the child is forged and shaped in a certain social matrix. As time goes on, the child becomes more and more reflective and the quality of its visual experiences deepens. The physical eye is, at this juncture no longer a mere receptacle of external impressions, scenes and events. It becomes the transmitter of external impressions to the soul and the reflector of the soul to the outside outside world or of the soul to the soul. Once internalized, the object brought forward is subjected to scrutiny. It is in this respect that we can talk metaphorically of “to see”; in the sense of “to understand”. We cannot understand with our physical eye. The verb “to understand” has moved the focus of interest from the physical to the mental. But then, it is the physical that arouses to action the mental as powerfully expressed by Thomistic psychology:

Nihil set in intellectu quod non prior in sensu1

Therefore, it is in the senses that we are going to read the message of the soul. And let me hasten to add that the communication processes of the mind are not mediated through the senses alone. Man is the symbol-using2 semiotizing animal. The tradition that gives the monopoly of communication processes to the lexical and the sensory is prejudicial and misleading. Achebe in his seminal essay on “Language and the Destiny of Man”3 asserts that before the codified human language when man was living alone in the cave, the simple gesture of throwing a stone at an intruder is already a potent communicative medium. Therefore, Femi Osofisan's catchy, prolegomenary sentence in his essay: “Beyond Translation”4 hits off the mark when he says “In the beginning was not the Word but space”. Here, we do assert that “In the beginning was the Word and that Word was communication”. Space is communication—it is one of the manifestations of the word which precedes it. There is no theater without space and space is word and never is it a frill. It is always a metaphor, un espace connote5 as Gerald Genette would rightly say.

I am limiting myself in this article to visual communication processes which I find predominant in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The syntax of these communication codes has, in my opinion, obvious thematic relevance. Running round the visual is the central thematic symbol of the gleam as well as its antithesis, the gloom.

In the novel there are two aspects of visual idiom. The first which is really not the concern of this paper deals with the novelist-reader relationship. It is a communication process artfully disguised. Visual concentration mediated through detailed descriptions of events, scenes and characters is surely the novelist's communication device to talk to the reading or critical consciousness. By selecting settings, places, etc., or by the use of metaphors, symbols etc., and rearranging them in a special idiosyncratic order—the receptive eye glossing over one before the other, dwelling on this, and flitting over that, Armah shows us who and what he is, for the faculty to choose has a lot to do with the psychology of the chooser—it betrays his essence.

Therefore, no work of art creates or writes itself; none is impersonal or non-iconic. A leftist writer's eye is quite different from that of a rightist writer. Achebe's outlook on life is not the same as Armah's. What we are predetermines the direction of our outlook on life. What we select from life is already an index of what we are. And the manner with which we lay out what we select is also informative of our personality, and aesthetics. The same remark holds good for the critic.

The corpus of an artist's works is the generality of his “tone”6 or focalization on the world, his visual iconology, what Sartre, speaking of Marcel Proust, and the totality of Proustian writings calls “genie.”7

Armah wants to make us see in order to make us feel as he feels. In Fragments he gives us an insight into his creative credo: phanopoeic and melopoeic concentration. In his manuscript titled “THE ROOTS” which he later burns out of frustration, he writes stressing his point in capital letters:

Through repetitive use of image and sound imprint idea of violence, unpleasant, strong irresistible attacking the viewer, invading his eyes, assaulting his ears.

The second aspect of the visual communication process is behavioral, operative as it were in characters or between characters. This paper intends to explore that aspect to interpret the meaning of the movements or radiance of the eye, for as the saying goes, the eye that Laye's young king in The Radiance of the King speaks and opens out to Clarence who has been anxious to fuse with him.

At the beginning of The Beautyful Ones we are introduced to the visual semiotic of the gloom and “the gleam,” to a world of abject poverty, old asthmatic age, strained efforts, gold fetishism and death: “bus,” “rattle,” “spastic shudder,” and “rust.” The passengers see their own image in the rickety commercial bus whose pieces we are told … “were held together by too much rust ever to fall completely apart.” Against this aura of doom are pale lights: “two vague circles. … humid orange flow … yellow flame,” which punctuate drearily the “darkness of the dawn.” Shedding forth their sheens at the same background are “a generous gob of mucus” and “a lot of peswas, single brown pieces.” Although, “mucus” and “peswa” are different lexicons, they are yoked together in a metaphysical conceit in this context, and they symbolize nausea and disgust.

Even the second set of human actors: the driver and the bus conductor, despite the show of liveliness they put on are part of the general gloom. Armah presents them in their various poses of existential trivia and gestual futilities:

… the driver resignedly threw away … the bus conductor sat down heavily with his legs dangling down [emphasis, mine]

And having given all these pictorial minutiae of poses, objects, lights or color effects and background, Armah implicitly adds, as an explanatory anchorage text beneath the canvas, the caption. … “Passion Week.” Here is a case of psycho-temporal intertextuality in which temporality explains why all the characters are sad.

The bus conductor counts the take he has just collected from the passengers, the “sleepy feet.” Armah tells us that he sits down with “his eyes wide open” to cross-check his money against the ticket stubs. This short scene with its staccato sentence rhythm—note the colon, the full stop and especially the commas—tries to suggest repetitive reflex gestures of the conductor whose heart palpitates at the sight of gold. He counts on as if the glint and the chink of the peswas have found their inroad into his soul through his physical eyes and the message of the soul back to the materialist world is lodged in “his eyes wide open.” This short scene reveals to us one of the preoccupations of the novel: the fetishization of gold. At the shrine of Mammon, Koomson is the archpriest, the driver and the conductor, his fervent devotees. From the conductor's gaze we would read one aspect of post-independence Ghana: blind rush to materialism and hedonism in which all eyes either bourgeois or proletarian, glow in quest of gold.8 With the spider's painstaking gesture, the conductor looks for the last peswa that might be lurking somewhere in the corner of the box:

… it was enough of a struggle looking round the corners and the bottoms of boxes to find small coins somehow overlooked, [emphasis, mine]

What strikes the mental eye is not the physical property of money. It is not the glint of the peswas. The fascinating phenomena is its value. The conductor soon becomes more fascinated at the sight of a cedi note given him during the harsh times, the “Passion Week.” Those who give peswas are the poverty stricken, they never look the receiver in the face because they do not have any personality to exhibit, project or impose. The self-knowledge of the rate in the money-making society turns a passenger into a “walking corpse” wracked with the angst of existential hollowness and trivia.

But as far as the giver of a cedi is concerned, the experience is beatific because it gives room for self-gratulation:

Someone had at this time of the month held out a cedi for his fare. He had looked into the face of the giver and sure enough, the eyes had in them the restless happiness of power in search of admiration. With his own eyes the conductor had obliged the man, satisfied his appetite for the wonder of others. He had not lowered his eyes. … So the conductor had not lowered his eyes. Instead he kept them fastened to the hungry eyes of the giver of the cedi, and fed them with admiration. He had softened his own gaze the better to receive the masculine sharpness of the giver's stare. He had opened his mouth slightly so that the smile that had a gape in it would say to the boastful giver, ‘Yes, man. You are a big man’.

The giver has the knowledge of his self-importance and insists that the receiver of the cedi acknowledge it through a visual code of self-submission. Armah talks of “eyes (which) had in them the restless happiness of power in search of admiration” … Even when the boastful giver has gone away not bothering to check whether he is given the correct change or not, the conductor can still be seen peering hard at the markings on the cedi note. Almost imperceptibly has the cedi note acquired the substantiality of its giver into whose respectable halo the conductor has been hypnotically drawn. At the peak of his visual pleasures, he touches the cedi, takes it again so as to feel its substantiality and even its smell; fascinated, he breathed it slowly into his lungs.”

He feels that the visual experience is not reassuring enough, it has to be cross-checked with the tactile and the olfactory. We could even say at this point that the conductor's love for gold touches on the pathological. His histrionic gestures at the sight of gold can be taken as a satiric self-dramatization of a Mammon-mongering monster. In his experience, the visual, the tactile and the olfactory interact but it is the visual which irritates the move. Does the conductor look at gold or does gold look at him? In whichever way we consider the experience, both are staring at each other and it is only the conductor's human reactions which the reader-observer can register, once again the conductor is at it:

He took the note, unrolled it this time and pressed it flat against his nostrils.

But curiously enough, the cedi note, as new as it is, smells rotten. The cedi evokes a historical symbolism as it relates to the Ghanaian nation which though young and fresh is already morally nauseating and decadent. This incident also brings to mind the grotesque portrait of “the old man-child” of Aboligo the Frog later in the novel.

From the “conscious” sight of the conductor, our experience is turned to the “unconscious” sight of the man.

The bus conductor is a one-man actor who thinks he has no audience besides himself to gaze at him and sneer at his infantile self-jubilation. When the self feels that it is alone and is not watched, it comes out fully and acts with complete freedom. All feelings of shame and guilt are suppressed and the id is allowed to have the day. A man who lives in society is a fettered creature because the norms through which that society operates are checks and balances on his behavior. The conductor believing strongly that no societal eye is watching him opens out and plays pranks with the cedi. But that delusive valve of self-protectiveness is soon punctured when he finds out that he is being watched all along by “A pair of wide open, staring eyes.” His soul then writhes with a sense of shame and guilt. His previous self-elation gives way to self-dejection and self-loss. Unwarily has he unearthed and exposed his innermost self to a lone watcher—“the staring eyes”—who will certainly tell on him. The hidden aspects of the self that are constitutive of self-esteem have been thrown open to be flouted and jeered at. Although “the staring eyes” have not talked—will they ever?—we could make conjectures about what they would say. What expression could be more eloquent, lyrical and polysemous than staring and gazing. The eyes seem to express themselves more richly through stare than through the alphabetic, linguistic medium whose nature limits or blurs the contours of feeling and emotions. Bewildered at the “hemorrhagie interne,” the conductor no longer sees just a pair of staring eyes but myriad eyes shooting at him:

I have seen you. You have been seen. We have seen all.

The progression from the individual to the collective can be seen in the language, from the active to the passive voice and back again to the active but with the dramatic switch of the first singular “I” to the first person plural “We.” And even at this juncture, “him” as object which in our knowledge of the English Language we expect to fall in line is curiously left out and replaced with “all,” a term whose vagueness or infinite suggestiveness is enigmatic. And what is this “all?” Only the silent staring eyes would know and say, probably.

Curiously enough, as hard as these eyes are staring they are ineffectual. It is the conductor himself who interprets their speculations. The eyes are temporarily non-functional in the sense that their owner is not consciously using them. He is fast asleep. Although it could be argued that in the case of the man, the unconscious continues with the work of the conscious, that the reality of the unconscious is a fragment chopped off from the reality of the conscious, that the man who, after all is said and done, as an eye-symbol of observations and criticisms not only continue the watch when awake but also when fast asleep. The process of watching is rather psycho-analytic than purely physiological.

But what exactly has the conductor done amiss here? Do we blame him for showing his love for gold and for etching some grotesque gestures before it? Armah makes us believe that the issue is more than that. The conductor has a ghost in his cupboard which another eye besides his cannot prod and probe. Haven't we some dirty aspect of the self which we hide away from the other? We are all watchers who will not like to be watched. Once we are watched, we are exposed, our self-esteem is punctured and dashed to the ground. Keepers of ghosts we all are in one form or the other. Baudelaire, and Eliot after him in his regard would cry out, “Hypocrite mon lecteur.”9 Out of a sense of guilt for an undisclosed crime, the conductor becomes jittery and wants to win the sympathy of, and connive with, the staring eyes. Perplexed and almost short of words to express himself: “The conductor cleared his throat and ate the phlegm.” He wants to dismiss the judge-convict situation he has initially impressed on the reader and himself for he thinks that he has not in reality committed any crime. The gestural effort of offering a cigarette and the change of diction to the socialist cant, “Brother” repeated two times presuppose the conductor's ardent desire to bring the watcher into his confidence so that the exposed aspects of him can be locked away. The reader and Armah laugh hilariously when it is discovered that the conductor's fear is after all baseless because: “The watcher was no watcher after all, only a sleeper.” He has not therefore suffered any “hemorrhagie interne.” His fear has been a figment of his hallucination. He can now sit as judge to convict the sleeper. His previous language and tone of supplication now give way to those of violence, confrontation and open abuse:

Words shot out angrily from the conductor's mouth with an explosive imperiousness that woke the sleeper ‘You bloodyfucking sonotabitch’. ‘Article of no commercial value’. ‘You think the bus belongs to your grandmother?’ … ‘Are you a child? You vomit your smelly spit, all over the place. Why? You don't have a bedroom?’

The conscious attempt of Armah at focusing on visual iconology becomes evident. From page 1 to page 5 of the novel there is a high concentration of the words of sight like “eyes wide open,” “looked into the face,” gaze, watch, watcher, stare, “staring” and from page 3 to page 5 the frequency of these words and their semantic reverberations are even more noticeable.

If nobody from the fictive realist world of the conductor is watching, at least the reader situated in the world of reality is watching. The reader's eye prods the soul of the conductor and could say what or who he is. The conductor is found out to be also a worshiper of gold. Given the chance, he will be as opportunistic and destructive as Koomson. Like the other “walking corpses” dumped at the lower rung of the social ladder, he looks up and wants to take the leap and be called “the boastful giver” and “a big man.” Grudgingly therefore, does he carry about his repressed, self of a materialist character manque. But is that a sin? A crime to be ashamed of? His histrionic drama in which he acts out his pet dream and unresolved desire has a cathartic effect on him.

It would have been much better if an intruding pair of “staring eyes” had not frozen his therapeutic drama in mid-action thereby bottling up again his soul in a violent manner. We do share of his embarrassment. The unresolved emotion which could not be totally released through self-dramatization is now unstoppered through diatribes.

Visual idiom plays an important part in the world of bribery and corruption because not much of linguistic utterance is advisably needed to get across a deal. The network of the eye codes break down only when one of the characters involved in the deal shows or simulates that he at a loss in interpreting a visual message.

Amankwa, the timber dealer purposely shows up after office hours. There is a propitious time to offer bribery to the man who is the only worker left behind when all the others must have gone home tuning down, so to say, the barrage of staring eyes. Amankwa knows quite well that the man is not the booking clerk and therefore cannot help him speed up the administrative processes for the transportation of his timber from the bush. Yet, he wants the man to help. Here he is, standing in front of the man and looking at him. Whatever follows is no longer expressed in words, Amankwa feels strongly that visual expression should carry the message home better:

Now he was looking almost directly into his eyes. On his face was a strained expression produced by his desire to penetrate the man's incomprehension, partly by the structure of the face itself.

The timber dealer is surprised to find out that the message his stare channels to the man's eyes is not reciprocated as culturally or socially10 expected. Does the man really understand him or is he pretending that he does not? Does he not want to help? And why shouldn't he help while others in such a condition will readily help? Like the conductor we met much earlier in the novel, Amankwa wants to move much nearer the man to enlist his sympathy and co-operation. But the man refuses to yield by shooting impervious eyes at him:

I should be asking you people in this office what have I done to you. Why do you treat me this way? The man just stared, and was lost completely in his surprise at the visitor's words and fascination with his teeth. [emphasis mine]

When simple stare is not effective, Amankwa brings out of his purse two cedi notes which he drops on the table. Both Amankwa and the cedi notes now stare at the man who also in turn fastens his pair of eyes on them. The reader looks at them all from a corner. Once again, the timber dealer moves nearer the man and tries to do away with the sense of self-importance he had initially impressed on him by showing off his protoplasmic build, feline gait, delicate sandals and dresses: all a-glow with beaming smiles, and radiant eyes. He now strikes on social camaraderie, wooing the man's heart by addressing him as his equal. “Yes brother” I know, brother, I know; Brother, he asked. …” But the man sees beyond this fake opportunistic brotherhood and is enraged the more because he understands that Amankwa is really playing on his intelligence. What is this bogus brotherhood in a situation where the eyes can only see boldly instances of social stratifications? It is no wonder that the man refuses to accept the bribe by taking the cedi notes.

The man and the conductor have opposing attitudes to gold; the former is confusedly withdrawn from it, the latter, pathologically drawn to it. One has the nagging impression that the man is awkwardly hiding a malaise. At the sight of gold he occasionally wavers in his moral uprightness. Surely, he finds Koomson's household attractive. And the moralist in him is able to differentiate between the use of money and the way by which this money is acquired. Oyo, his wife is not bothered by those moral niceties. She knows the social value of gold. She sees in Koomson and Estella not human characters but Mammon and its glistening paraphernalia. When Koomson and Estella visit Oyo and the man in their house, Oyo simply pitches her seat right opposite the minister and is fascinated by him. She smiles beatifically at him and diligently, almost religiously, with a napkin in hand wipes off …“ a small stream of beer … running down the Partyman's lower jaw,” and with the same respect full of admiration fills up his mug with beer. But drinking this beer is a gesture of condescension. Estie does not take kindly to the circumstantial renunciation of her high class. Her spite for Oyo and the man can be plainly read on her “sour face” while she sips the socially inferior beer.

Oyo sees in the visiting couple the accomplishment of a well-being which has eluded her and her husband. In her gaze are mixed expressions of admiration and envy. When she accompanies her husband to the Koomson's for the return visit, we can see her eyes flitting from one item to the other. In this scene we have the impression that the narrator's eye has been relegated to the background, and that we see through Oyo's eye. Armah astutely plants those materialist gadgets along Oyo's pathways and allows her to stare on. The man, as usual, in a philosophic pose, fake or faithful, looks indifferent. But Oyo right from the moment she arrives at the facade of Koomson's house:

… stared at the gate with the longing interest of a woman thinking of getting herself something exactly like that as soon as the could. The man looked away, contemplating nothing in particular.

Armah's visual concentration in this setting is obvious. He talks of “gardener,” “lush grass,” young girl in blue jeans, servant girl, array of chairs and sofas. And then an artistic time is worked in to allow the couple to remain alone for a long period in the sitting room. Their eyes feed on “the gleam” and remind them of their own gloom. Surprisingly enough they do not talk to each other, they even try to avoid each other's gaze. The man already knows what is going on in his wife's mind; so does the wife:

The two, left alone, were at first too busy taking in the sight of the room they were in to say anything to each other. The man looked wonderingly at all the things in there. He was trying to avoid a direct meeting of eyes but every now and then he became aware that his wife was doing the same thing, inspecting the room, and it seemed to him that more than once he happened to catch in her eyes the glint of a keen desire. He could not blame her in the least. There were things here to attract the beholding eye and make it accept the power of their owner.

Oyo and her husband have come to realize once again that they are connoted messages or signifiers of the gloom. Silence is very expressive here. They stare at wealth, hygiene, well-being only to see their own improvement re-created imaginatively in bolder relief.

In addition to this setting is the radiance of Estella's character. Coming a bit late from upstairs to welcome the visiting couple she lets her dress, gait and bearing speak for themselves. Estella is what Oyo is not and what Oyo desperately wants to be. What Oyo lacks direly, Estella has in “superfluity” and parades it. Oyo takes in more through her stare than she can express in speech:

Mrs. Koomson descended the stairs wearing a dress that seemed to catch each individual ray of light and aim it straight into the beholding eye.

But the man's mental eye sees beyond the physical or superficial beauties of characters and things. These glints are vestigial trinkets of the West by which our forefathers were thrown into slavery. The man sees in Koomson the image of the treacherous chief or king of old who, stupefied by the civilizational gadgets of Europe has helped sell out his African fellow men. The man's “beholding eye”11 is different from Oyo's because what is rot and psychic snare to him is fragrance and psychic safety-valve to her. But what do their children know? The acuity of the inner eye has not been developed in them. They therefore see nothing wrong if they can be allowed like Koomson's daughter to feed fat on the rot of the times. It makes no difference, does it?

When Oyo has exhausted her physical energy by nagging at her husband, she mediates her spite for him through visual codes. She thinks her husband is mean and idiotic. When the man returns from work on the first day there seems to be physical quiet everywhere in the house. Pitched against this seeming quiet is Oyo's fiery looks. One can easily detect from that gaze that she bears a big grudge against her husband:

The man walks into the hall, meeting the eyes of his waiting wife. The eyes are flat, the eyes of a person who has come to a decision not to say anything, eyes totally accepting and unquestioning. … The children … are not asleep. It seems their eyes also are learning this flat look that is a defense against hope.

What the man intimates that he does not want to be involved in the boat deal although he would not mind enjoying the gains or benefits derived from it, Oyo “stares unbelieving at her husband, then whispers softly, chichidodooooo.” Despite the interruption of the woman who at that time comes in to lend “a little sugar,” Oyo does not take her eyes off her husband. In her gaze the man can read in bold relief his existential bankruptcy. Oyo is telling him that he is a nonstarter. He will later be called “a useless nobody” by his mother-in-law whose gaze he dares not meet.

At the moment he braces himself up, in spite of the be-numbing scourge of psychological warfare, so as to look his wife in the face but he finds “her eyes fixed on his face.” Almost at once does his personality or masculinity shrivel and he twitches in the agony of his uselessness being flung at him. In his ever-increasing embarrassment, he lacks words to express himself when Oyo, spouting the vitriol of satire and irony, dubs him an “Onward Christian Soldier” who refuses or is afraid to receive a bribe. Does he act in bad faith? His conscience pricks him from time to time and he bemoans his own woes:

O you loved ones, spare your beloved the silent agony of your eyes.

Whenever he goes he sees those eyes drilling a sense of guilt and remorse into his sensitive soul. While he is on his way to Teacher's house in the dead of the night, those eyes are his nagging companions. And he admits that:

… all the time the eyes that could never be avoided just stared steadily and made it terrifyingly plain that in these times, honesty could only be a social vice … a very perverse selfishness.

The coup incident finally reverses the hermeneutics of visual idiom. Oyo's stare which usually stands for spitefulness for the man now for the same man issues forth beams of love and admiration. Oyo realizes fully now that she has a very good and enviable husband and she wants him to ever remain as he is and has been. Now she hates to be taken into the halo of Koomson's gleam. She now sees in the minister who has taken refuge in their house the symbol of rot, insecurity and imprisonment. Sparkling away in the dark like the cat's are the minister's baleful eyes. He is afraid lest Nemesis should catch on him.

On the road are policemen who have mounted roadblocks to check and clear vehicles. But these policemen do not appear to look into the validity of motor particulars, but for cedi notes which must have been cunningly inserted into the license folder by road users. The man, a kind of omniscient Tieresias, is around; he:

… stopped by the roadside, squatting in the grass to watch what was going on.

He is not asleep this time but fully awake. He is not being watched; instead he is “the silent watcher by the roadside.” He sees the policeman remove adroitly from the license folder “the kola nuts” the driver had stuck into it. Both the driver and the man exchanged a glance and the former “smiled and waved” to the latter. In that comic and satiric glance can be read the philosophic sobriety and mental perspicacity of an oppressed people who have seen the arseholes of their corrupt leaders, civilian or military. In that glance are enacted and confirmed right behind the back of the rulers represented by the policeman, communication codes of exploited humanity. It is a glance of complicity glowing with embers of revolutionary fervor which will dislocate and dismantle the oppressive superstructure. In the luminosity of that glance are boldly written the apocalyptic messages of a good morrow whose caption is carried in bold, capital letters at the back of the bus painted green:


On his way to his place of work, the man passes every morning by “the gloomy building” of the Post-Office, U.T.C., G.N.T.C., (formerly known as A. G. LEVENTIS), U.A.C., and the French C.F.A.O. These blocks are tableaux-vestiges of the Western business world as they evoke the routes through which the products of Western civilization are brought to, and dumped on, Africa and through which Africa's precious mineral and agricultural resources are commodified and carted away to the West. These exploitative manipulations have not stopped, only hands have changed:

The sons of the nation were now in charge, after all. How completely the new thing took after the old.

Next in line of perspectives stands the hotel, the Atlantic-Caprice. The fashionable sound of the name itself is informative. “Atlantic” refers to the Atlantic ocean which links Africa to Europe and North America, it sounds an exotic note of Europeanicity and Americanicity; it brings to mind cargoes with white tastes berthing at Accra's (Africa's) port. “-Caprice” (of oceanic waves?) connotes goatish libertinage and Bacchanalian orgies. It is significant that the hotel is pitched high on Yensua hill. Its spatial prominence stands for the social pre-eminence of the people who go there, the men of “the gleam” as opposed to “angry ones,” “a people hungry.” Cleverly intimated here is the socio-political and economic antinomy of the haves and the havenots. At the Atlantic-Caprice, like on the Olympus of the gods, people lie supine and idle. No work. Instead, they feed fat on the sweat of the down-trodden.

It is also very significant to note that the hotel is painted white: the color of the white man's skin. In anti-neocolonial Accra, it is a signifier of spiritual putrefaction because it provides for visceral pleasures. Cars go uphill hooting Eros. In that process, the deluded African self is stupidly undergoing an uphill task of embracing its own death. While the commercial houses empty the African self of its material wealth, the Atlantic-Caprice robs it of its spiritual and moral strength.

The Block which represents the Labor house is situated down below the hotel. The hotel saps the Block as the opulent squeeze life out of the indigent. In its microscopic form, the office or the Block relates to Ghana, (Africa) a nature or an agricultural environment overrun by European lethal values of steel and concrete instantiated by a mechanical labor in the Railway Corporation.

I think the inclusion of the harbor as one of the spatial symbolisms is meant to diffuse the aura of the gloom in the novel. The man moves away from the Control Office to the harbor during breaktime. At the harbor, the seascape sublimates his erstwhile anguished soul and makes it possible for her to re-live her transcendence and freedom of yore. The novelist captures the experience with totally different visual connotations: mirthful sky, graceful, unfurling waves, eyes-caressing and hope-laden colors, ecstatic achieve of the “white bird,” and the buoyancy of the day at noon. The harbor scenery is romantic. The white bird in the canvas is both coded and non-coded. In its historically and ideologically coded message, it represents purity and innocence, it also refers to Armah's inspirational force in full swing or to the man's cloistered soul in a moment of willful self-liberation from social rot.

But that soul is soon enmeshed in the stench of the latrine, a signifier of moral bankruptcy. To get rid of the man from the scene of a bribery deal which is going on between Amankwa and the corruption Space Allocation Clerk, Armah provokes in him a diarrheal fit which sends him headlong from the office upstairs to the latrine below. There, he sees cans lying on the ground and encrusted with old feces. Stench of urine from slippery grayish grooves hits his nose. He also sees chunks of dry and fresh human feces besmear the walls or hang on these. Moreover, a pornographic graffito of sex in ‘an impossible Indian position’ with the caption: VAGINA SWEET, also hits his eyes. Then one after the other, he willy-nilly reads on the wall repressed poetry (of Ghana?) which people, in order to express their deepest feelings and emotions without restraints, scribble hurriedly and discretely in public conveniences. Gold fetishism is semiotized in the caption: MONEY SWEET PASS ALL, hollow ideological perorations and institutionalized embezzlement in WHO BORN FOOL / SOCIALISM CHOP MAKE I CHOP / CONTREY BROKE, and absurdist, self-parodistic jokes in YOU BROKE NOT SO / … PRAY FOR DETENTION / JAILMAN CHOP FREE.

The reader should note the aestheticist medium of capitalization here as it throws the captions into a more conspicuous view.

The novelist's trick effects can at times have some sardonic import especially when the man and Koomson or Koomson and the latrine are brought together. When Koomson is on his visit to the man's house, Armah provokes in him the need to ease himself. ‘Nature is calling’ Koomson says. He requests for a “toilet,” an iconic object of the gleam but the man replies with sustained sarcasm:

We have a place all right. … Only it isn't anything high class. It isn't a toilet, you see. Just a latrine.

He is subsequently led there. But as it often occurs in this novel, an artistic time which is used as a thematic agent of delay is worked in. Somebody else at that particular time is using the only latrine available. Therefore, Koomson will have to wait at the door. This delay will also make him survey the stinking environment of the latrine. While standing there “peering into the darkness around the bathroom hole …” he can hear the grumblings of intestinal disorders and anal blasts of the user within. Thrown out of his social orbit by infinitely, nauseating symbolic patterns of experiences, Koomson is sick at heart. When the user—“a small boy,”—comes out and Koomson is shown the door and asked to go in for his own turn:

… with just a single glance into the entrails of the latrine, he turned back.

This scene is a perfect example of the Lacan mirror image in which the child looks at the self in the mirror. As far as the reader is concerned and as far as the deep unconscious of Koomson goes, Koomson, despite his dainty apparel is an embodiment of moral shit. The shit of the latrine hole from which he shies away is the concrete expression of what he is. The self is repudiating the self. The maggot-teeming “entrails” of the latrine signify depth, and centrality of decay. By glancing at these, Koomson is in reality glancing at his own innermost maggoty self.

At that scene also, Koomson is brought to experience just one facet of the hard realities of life of the masses realities which he and his Partymen continue to aggravate with impunity. Does this scene make any impact on him as a humane person? Armah soon tells us:

Something had gone out of Koomson, and throughout the evening it did not come back.

What is this “Something”? Bitter regret for an unwarranted condescension to visit the man and be so shabbily entertained? Pity for the abject poverty of the man who was once his classmate? Or has he for a spell turned a humanist philosopher who, on seeing the teaming maggots of the latrine, is reminded of the end of man as matter in the grave? The latrine here would stand for the grave. The rest of the tableau we all know. Or is he silently reciting his mea culpa for his past evil deeds? What is certain to say here is that he is no longer the man he was when he breezed into the man's house. The latrine sight-episode has changed him at least for that evening.

After the military coup, he is again brought face to face with the same latrine. Now, it is not a matter of answering Nature's call, but of saving his own life. Now, there is no turning back. The only exit is through the latrine hole. Self-pityingly, he looks at the hole besmeared with human shit. Shit stares at shit. He does not only see it or smell it, he touches it, and as if in a reciprocal gesture, the shit embraces him. In Koomson's ritual of passage is powerfully semiotized the oneness of shit, moral and physical.

But is the man's passage through the latrine hole coded or non-coded? Do we simply say that since the man has to lead Koomson out of the house, both of them must pass through the same place?

But is it not possible for the man to turn around the house to meet Koomson at an appointed place? After all the man has nothing to fear from the coup plotters who are at the heels of the deposed politicians like Koomson. The reader is further intrigued by Armah's quasi-cinematographic of the man's passage through the hole. Reading at this stage is slowed down for the mind to take in every experience. In the process, the reader cannot but associate the man with the chichidodo metaphor earlier flung at him by his wife.

But is Armah pushing the man to identify with moral decadence? Could the reader also conclude that despite the man's moral niceties, he is a confused follower of Krishna who, at death, will have a maggot-breeding heart? Is he also vicious for taking delight in “some … perverse selfishness”?

The import of the man's tactile experience with the shit-encrusted banister at the beginning of the novel becomes pertinent to our argument here. The wood (the self?) which the banister is made of has disappeared under the growing encrustation of shit, urine, mucus, palm-oil and remnants of Kenkey. The many hands, fingers, anuses, penises, noses, etc., which run on it are those of the people who, either because they are vicious or are vitiated by the hardships of the times, contribute to the growth of moral garbage. It is significant to stress that however withdrawn the man may be from rot, he still relates to it. We are always part of our society. His instinctual gesture at the beginning of the novel to withdraw his fingers from the banister is belated, and therefore suspect. It seems as if he flirts with moral shit at the unconscious level.12


Visual iconology in The Beautyful Ones are an aesthetic construct to aid understanding. The tableaux which appear rather to our eyes than our intellect readily stick to our memories. Words, besides the figurative ones, are easily forgotten; images remain. The artistic merit of this novel is that it is a novel of images directed not only at sophisticated readers but also at the generality of African readers. Armah's use of the visual here is an important aspect of his populist aesthetics drawn from the pool of oral African Literature whose essence rebels against the Gutenberg syndrome of writtenness, alphabetism, and logocentrism.

[This paper's conception and writing are informed by Roland Barthe's structural analysis of the photographic message, IMAGE, MUSIC, TEXT and Wang New York 1977 trans. by Stephen Heath.

And all quotations are taken from A. K. Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Borne, (AWS 1969) Heinemann; henceforth referred to as The Beautyful Ones.]


  1. Cited by Una Nelly, The Poet Donne, Cork University Press, 1969, p. 113.

  2. Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action, Essays on Life Literature and Method. (University of California Press / Berkeley, 1966), p. 3.

  3. Chinua Achebe, ‘Language and the Destiny of Man’ Morning Yet on Creation Day, Essays. (Heinemann 1975), pp. 30–37.

  4. Femi Osofisan, ‘Beyond Translation (A Comparatist Look at Tragic Paradigms and Dramaturgy of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi, Ife Monographs on Literature and Criticism 3rd Series, No. 1, 1985, p. 1.

  5. Gerald Genette ‘Espace at Language’ in Figures I Editions du Senil, 1966, p. 103.

  6. B. M. Ibitokun, ‘Characterization as Tone in Armah's Fiction’, IFE, Annals of the Institute of Cultural Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, No. 2, 1988, pp. 35–46.

  7. The total specificity of the writer as expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre while speaking about Marcel Proust: Le génié de Proust, ce n'est ni l'oeuvre considérée isolement, ni le pouvoir subjectif de la produire: c'est l'oeuvre considérée comm l'ensemble des manifestations de la personne, Jean-Paul Sartre: l'être er le néant, essai d'ontologie phénoménologique Editions, Gallimard 1943, p. 12.

  8. Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (Heinemann), 1980 p. 17.

  9. Charles Baudelaire, Poeme-preface to Les Fleurs du Mal and T. S. Eliot: The Wasteland.

  10. Roland Barthes op. cit. p. 27.

  11. D. S. Izevbaye, “Ayi Kwei Armah and the ‘I’ of the Beholder” A Celebration of Black African Writing ed. Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan (Ahmadu Bello University Press and Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 232–244.

  12. Charles Nnolim, “Dialectic as Form: Pejorism in the novels of Armah,” African Literature Today No. 10.

Leif Lorentzon (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Story and Narrative in the Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Critical Theory of African Literature Today, Vol. 19, 1994, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Lorentzon discusses the differences between narrative structures in Armah's novels.]

Readers of Ayi Kwei Armah's five novels invariably agree they are novels of great diversity. It is particularly between the first three and the last two where the change is most noticeable. One critic even goes so far as to talk about the early and the late Armah.1 When other critics more acutely instead stress the homogeneity between the five novels, it is predominantly theme and imagery that is considered. Yet most readers would insist that the novels are remarkably dissimilar for a single author's works. I believe this largely has to do with a change of narrative strategy.

Narratology is the discipline with which we can study this change of narrative posture. With its roots in Russian formalism early this century, it was further developed and introduced to a larger audience during the seventies in France. Today, American universities are perhaps most productive on the subject. It is in other words a decidedly Western theoretical approach. This should not of course stop students of African literature from making full use of these theories. As in any science, the scholar of literature must under no circumstances discard theories before examining them. It would be uncommonly daft not to test the validity of narratology on the modern African novel, since the novel is the genre which essentially generated the theory. And just as the theory in this case is Western, so is the genre, the novel: ‘the only literary art form which has been totally imported’ to Africa.2 I am certainly not suggesting a disregard for African poetics. But ‘there is no African society that, to my [Abiola Irele's] knowledge, has carried the judgment of texts and reflection upon literature to the same degree of elaboration which we are today used to in the western tradition.’3 There is no better practice than narratology when we are (which we are) interested in the narrative strategies of narrative texts.

Structural narratology, which is what is considered here, has been accused of only revealing the already obvious: ‘The few models that survived … became so second-nature as to make their very use in detailed analysis almost unnecessary, their codes and categories leaping to the naked eye in a sad, professional deformation of reading for pleasure.’4 If this judgement applies to some aspects of narratology, it is absolutely the position of this essay that a narrative close-reading of a novel reveals phenomena in a text which can be put into a larger literary or social context. It is a matter of ‘mobilizing narratological insights for other objects’.5 It may, for instance, be possible to recognise something of the supposedly progressive Africanisation of Armah's prose, by initially analysing the narrative strategy of the novels and then putting the result of each analysis into a larger perspective of the genre and African narratives of all kinds.

This essay will refer to results of a close reading of Armah's novels on a macro-rather than a micro-level, in which the theories of Gérard Genette, inter alia, have been used. A complete analysis according to Genette's model will indeed attend to some that are obvious on a first reading, but it also reveals features which are significant for a comparison with other literatures. It is some of these aspects that I wish to pay attention to here.

Genette's method essentially considers relationship between story, the narrative events, and narrative, the discourse that narrates these events.6 Of great interest then is the discrepancy between the order of the events in the story, and their order of appearance in the discourse. One of the distinctions of a narrative is that it, alone of all texts, has two time-orders. Rarely are the events of a story in narrative texts told in the order they occur in the story. Genette defines as anachrony ‘the various types of discordance between the two orderings of story and narrative.’7 A retrospective temporal movement he calls analepsis and the forward one prolepsis, in relation to the primary story-time of the narrative.8 Analepsis is by far the more common anachrony in narratives of all kinds and so also in Armah's novels, where prolepsis appears only parenthetically.

If we compare the analepses of Armah's five novels, we will find that Two Thousand Seasons has no analepses while the other novels are full of them. In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and The Healers the retrospective temporal anachronies stretch beyond the commencement of the primary story-time (external), while in Fragments and Why Are We So Blest? the analepses essentially remain within that temporal zone (internal). When Teacher in The Beautyful Ones remembers times before liberation he does so outside the scope of the primary story-time of the novel. The anachronies of The Healers are also dominated by external analepses, and just as in The Beautyful Ones they are huddled together in one part of the novel. Here it is Densu remembering the first time he met the healer Damfo, Araba Jesiwa and his sweetheart Ajoa during his walk through the forest. In both these novels analepsis is conventionally used to give, for the story, essential background information from outside the primary story-time.

Fragments and Why Are We So Blest?, however, are dominated by internal analepsis. The Outdooring is one example of an event in the former that is told much later in the narrative, in relation to when it happens in the story. And Why Are We So Blest? is a virtual temporal jigsaw puzzle. This kind of narrative, where the temporal order of the primary story-time is internally distorted, appears first with the modern novel after Madame Bovary and particularly with William Faulkner and the French nouveau roman. ‘With the coming of the twentieth century, plotting in narrative became dominated by time … plots began to be developed which were based on re-arranging time.’9 So if external analepsis is conventional and internal modern, we find that Armah's first and last novels in this respect are traditionally narrated, while Fragments and Why Are We So Blest? are in a modernistic tradition.

This should perhaps not mislead us to be too conclusive regarding the Africanness of these novels. Walter J. Ong claims that linear plot is incompatible with the oral tale, and recent speech-act theory insists that ‘conversational narratives and literary narratives share essentially the same characteristics’.10 An oral narrator, however, would never tell a tale as anachronistically as we read them in Why Are We So Blest? and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, where even the reader struggles with temporal entanglements. The listener, and I dare say even the raconteur, would be utterly lost. And when contemporary African writers recreate indigenous epics they narrate chronologically, if not linearly or for the novel conventionally, which Mazisi Kunene's epics, as well as Armah's last two novels, bear witness to.

To further investigate the rhythm of a narrative it is essential to compare story-time with page-space, or what Genette calls the pseudo-time of the reading. What is considered then is the speed of the narrative. He distinguishes between four narrative movements: pause, scene, summary and ellipsis. In pause the narrative halts, to either describe the space of the story, the diegesis, or reflect upon it without any story-time passing. Genette does not make this distinction between the two qualities of pause, as the result regarding the speed of the narrative is the same, it pauses. Yet I believe we can discover a significant aspect if we differentiate between a descriptive and a reflective pause in novels in general, and in the novels of Armah in particular.

The Beautyful Ones is the only novel of his which is generous with descriptive pause. It is during the first day of the story we find famous passages like this:

The banister had originally been a wooden one, and to this time it was possible to see, in the deepest of the cracks between the swellings of other matter, a dubious piece of deeply aged brown wood. And there were many cracks, though most of them did not reach all the way down to the wood underneath.11

No story-time passes here in a passage which describes story-space, diegesis. And its symbolic significance links it to an allegorical modern tradition of Moby Dick and The Trial.

If we add descriptive pause to all the slow summaries, which only this of Armah's novels exhibits, we realise that the speed of this novel is slow, at least in parts. In a summary, story-time passes with various speeds. We find very fast summary in Two Thousand Seasons, for instance, when 20 kings and their reigns are accounted for in a few pages.12 In The Beautyful Ones there is slow summary:

The driver climbed down onto the road from his seat, took a crumpled packet of Tuskers from his shirt pocket, stuck a bent cigarette in his mouth, and lit a match. The head refused to catch, however; there was only the humid orange glow as the driver resignedly threw away the stick and took out another.

(p. 1)

Slow summary and descriptive pause of this kind is found in plenty of prose, but in excess only in the nouveau roman of an Alain Robbe-Grillet text.

Armah's first novel is also abundant with reflective pause:

The wood underneath would win and win till the end of time … Of course it was in the nature of the wood to rot with age. The polish, it was supposed, would catch the rot. But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight. Being was enough.

(p. 12)

No story-time passes when the narrator, as close to the protagonist as in Fragments, reflects upon the diegesis. In Why Are We So Blest? it is the characters themselves who meditate in their notebooks. While The Beautyful Ones is the only one of Armah's novels that is comparably rich in descriptive pause, the first three novels are all rich in reflective pause. Why Are We So Blest? is extreme in this regard, as the whole novel can be understood as a reflective pause; it is certainly the dominant narrative movement. This would ally these introspective characters with modern literary figures as Raskolnikov and Stephen Daedalus, and such an existential hero as Antoine Roquentin. In Armah's later histories there is little if any reflective pause. Consequently the heroes are more types than characters with diverse qualities. These two novels are instead typical of that ‘connective tissue par excellence of novelistic narrative, whose fundamental rhythm is defined by the alternation of summary and scene’.13

Later Genette expanded with a fifth narrative movement, reflexive digression, which accounts for something essential in oral narrating and found in Armah's last two novels.14 The reflective pause reflects inside the story (intradiegetic), whereas the reflexive digression is a digression from that story, a reflection outside it (extra-diegetic). But it does not have to be an oral phenomenon. This kind of digression is certainly found in Tristam Shandy and Jacques le fataliste, to mention two earlier novels where the reflexive digression seems to dominate the monumentally authorial narration. It is also abundant in the post-modernist novel, where the narrator, or rather the fictionalised author ‘is free, once again to break in upon the fictional world’ from another ontological level.15

In Armah's last two novels the narrator intrusions are, however, decidedly of an oral nature:

Ah, Fasseke, words fail the storyteller. Fasseke Belen Tigui, master of masters in the art of eloquence, lend me strength. Send me eloquence to finish what I have begun … Send me words Mokopu Mofolo. Send me words of eloquence. Words are mere wind, but wind too has always been part of our work, this work of sowers for the future, the work of the storyteller.16

Narrator intrusion of this nature is found in oral literature and that written close to it. The Homeric invocation of the muse is an early example of this kind of meta-narrative, narrative about the narrating, in Western literature. In traditional African tales we find it, for instance, in D. T. Niane's version of Sundiata and J. P. Clark's The Ozidi Saga.17

There is another kind of reflexive digression of a meta-narrative character found both in African traditional orature, like The Ozidi Saga and Armah's last two novels. I am here thinking of the narrator's rhetorical questions to the reader. In Two Thousand Seasons there is much of this: ‘Dovi had suffered, but who is it saying any of us have been alone in our suffering?’ (p. 180). The story pauses here, but with Genette's terminology we can best define it as reflexive digression of a quality found amply in traditional African orature. Ruth Finnegan attests to this in her monumental book, and in W. M. Kabira's study of East African orature we are shown how one raconteur uses the audience ‘by asking rhetorical questions and making the audience fill in gaps in her story’.18 A tentative proposal would suggest that the occurrence of different kinds of pause in Armah's novels, links the latter two histories with the oral narrative and the earlier three with the modern novel.

Of the other narrative movements we shall briefly look at ellipsis, where story-time is unaccounted for. Genette distinguishes between the explicit, when the ellipsis is indicated in the text, and the implicit, when the reader must deduce the ellipsis from a lacuna of story-time in the narrative.

The former is a common narrative figure: ‘When [many] days had passed that his wives had remained pregnant, one day six of his wives pulled through; they gave birth merely to female children.’19 Here the explicit ellipsis functions as a strengthening adhesive. The opposite is the case when the implicit ellipsis rather breaks the continuum of story-time without indicating this in the discourse. This is the case in such novels as Light in August and La route des Flandres. In Armah's first two novels the implicit ellipses dominate. They are also indefinite in that they do not indicate the time ellipsed. In Why Are We So Blest? ellipses are explicit due to the notebook technique, and thanks to the occasional date also sometimes definite. As the narrative rarely in itself, however, reveals the ellipses, it is possible to regard this novel, too, as dominated by implicit narrating.

This is certainly not the case with his last two novels. Two Thousand Seasons has the greatest time span, which demands either very fast summary or ellipsis. There is plenty of both. The ellipses are always explicit and often definite: ‘A hundred seasons we spent in this slow flowering.’ (p. 50). Even if temporally shorter than in Two Thousand Seasons the ellipses are of the same quality in The Healers. The narrating of the games in the first two parts is typical: ‘The last day, Saturday, came, the day when the champion for the entire games would be chosen.’ (p. 42)

The generalisation regarding the modernistic and conventional nature of implicit and explicit ellipsis, is just that, a generalisation. Yet it indicates one specific reason why readers find Armah's early novels modernistic and Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers closer to African traditional narratives.

Genette discusses the distance between the story and the narrative in terms of narrative of events and speech. I shall disregard both of these and instead observe the narrating of thoughts. For this we have to leave Genette's otherwise so elaborate model, as he does not acknowledge a narrating of consciousness, and turn to Dorrit Cohn in order to properly account for passages such as this from The Beautyful Ones:

The allocation clerk is in there with his boss for something like half an hour, and when they emerge he is closely followed by the supervisor and they are both smiling broad, very satisfied smiles. Let them smile. This place is kind to them, so let them smile. In another country they would be in jail. Here they are heroes.

(pp. 128–9)

The last three sentences seem to come directly from the consciousness of ‘the man’. Cohn calls this narrated monologue, when in a third-person context there is a reflection, as if in first person, from one of the story's characters.20 Jane Austen is generally considered as the author who first successfully and extensively used this technique, which later was perfected by Gustave Flaubert. Ever since then it has become the most common method for presenting character's thoughts in a third-person context.

The Beautyful Ones and Fragments are dominated by narrated monologue. Both novels are predominantly third-person narratives with a narrator extremely close to the protagonists. Naana's chapters in Fragments, however, are of a different quality. With the exception of her account of Baako's departure in the first chapter (self-narration), her chapters are best understood as autonomous monologue, which is ‘by definition, a discourse addressed to no one, a gratuitous verbal agitation without a communicative aim’.21 This is a good characterisation of Naana's narrative:

From the world and the life around me, nothing comes to me. My eyes are no longer windows through the wall of my flesh but a part of this blinding skin itself. Soon my ears too will be shut, and my soul within my body will be closed up, completely alone.22

Even if not as radical as the Penelope chapter in Ulysses, it clearly belongs to the tradition of the modern novel. With yet another tentative generalisation this would suggest that Armah's first two novels, in their narrating of thoughts, are modern.

Armah's following novel is completely dominated by self-narration in its conventional notebook technique, which links it, both in form and introspective probing, with a tradition of epistolary and diary novels like Malte Laurids Brigge and La Nausée. Except for the narrator's peculiar plural self-narration, there is not much thought narrating in either Two Thousand Season or in The Healers. The little there is in the latter is in psycho-narration, when the narrator tells the reader what the character thinks: ‘He thought of the coming year he would have to spend at Esuano and tried to imagine it as time usefully spent.’ (p. 105). Ever since writers dared to explore the mind of their characters, this has been the most common technique used in doing it. It is also the kind found in African traditional tales, as well as in old epics such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf. So while Armah's first three novels in their narrating of consciousness resemble the modern novel, his latter two are traditional bordering on oral form.

The concept which has attracted more commentary than any of Genette's innovations, is that of the focalisation of the narrative. He separates the notion of point-of-view into mood: through which character is the narrative perceived? who sees it? and voice: who is the narrator? who speaks? I shall for lack of space not consider voice here, but instead end the essay with a quick comparative glance at the mood of Armah's novels.

Genette differentiates between three kinds of perspectives he calls non-internal- and external-focalisation.Two Thousand Seasons is the only Armah novel with unshakeable non-focalisation. Its narrator knows and says more than any character in the story, which is the most conventional perspective of traditional tales. The Healers at first seems to be internally focalised through Densu, but there are passages where the narrator leaves Densu, and reveals a non-focalised perspective. And the narrator is quite explicit about it: ‘He [Asamoa Nkwanta] now searched the lines for signs of Densu, but could see no sign of him.’ (p. 286). Densu soon appears, but he has then been absent from the narrative for some ten pages.

In his first three novels Armah uses internal focalisation. In The Beautyful Ones it is chiefly fixed to ‘the man’, with the exception of the first few pages and Teacher's narrative. Fragments and Why Are We So Blest? are both variably internal. With each chapter in the first and each notebook entry in the latter, the perspective of the narrative changes. While non-focalisation is typical of the oral tale and traditional novels like Le Père Goriot and Things Fall Apart, the variable internal is found in many since Madame Bovary, and characteristic of many novels we consider archetypes of the modernistic novel: To the Lighthouse and The Sound and Fury. So this is yet another narrative reason why readers and critics have found Armah's first three novels more modern than the later histories. Ever since Derek Wright's brilliant book on Armah's Africanness readers have had to reconsider their initial impression of Armah's fiction. Here Wright unearthed African subtexts in precisely those novels that had been considered modern and Western, and discarded the later histories as ‘mannered experimentation with simulated orality … and simplistic historical vision’.23 My view here is rather methodological. A structural narrative reading complements an analysis such as his, where the text is put into a specific context. With a narratological approach it is possible to isolate certain features of a narrative and study these in a comparative light, and, if we want (which we do) place the result into the larger perspective of the whole genre.

It is this I have tried to indicate here; or rather to illustrate how useful a narratological analysis can be to an understanding of a writer's oeuvre. By way of close reading we realise how Ayi Kwei Armah's five novels are narratively structured. We compare them with one another, and then, rather presumptuously perhaps, with all the narratives of the world. This has, of course, only been suggested here. I nevertheless hope that I have managed to imply the value of at least these theories and methods in the study of the modern African novel. It would indeed be sad if we were to deny ourselves the pleasure of testing the rewards of modern theoretical thinking on African literary tales. There is possibly something here for everyone, including students of African literature, a literature which ‘is an amalgamation, a syncretism of past and present’.24 It deserves the same tools or methods of criticism as other literatures.


  1. Simon Gikandi, Reading the African Novel (London: James Currey, 1987) 73.

  2. Dennis Dathorne, The Invisible Present (New York: Harper & Row 1975) 53. See also note 6 below regarding what was literally imported to Africa with the colonists.

  3. Abiola Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (London: Heinemann, 1981) 18.

  4. Christine Brooke-Rose, ‘Whatever Happened to Narratology?’, Poetics Today, 11, 2 (Summer 1990) 287.

  5. Mieke Bal, ‘The Point of Narratology’, Poetics Today, 11, 4 (1990) 730. The interested reader may turn to this and the following two issues of Poetics Today for a valuable orientation of the present status of narratology: 11, 2 (1990); 12, 3 (1991).

  6. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980) 27. It is a section, ‘Discourse du récit’, of Figures III (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972). Genette's distinction makes the obvious apparent; it was the novel as discourse which was imported to Africa, while the story, of course, has been present for thousands of years.

  7. Genette, 36.

  8. Genette calls the temporal level to which all anachronies are defined the first narrative, Genette, 48. But as that well can be confused with the first narrative in a discourse, as in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, where there is more than one narrative, I find Bal's term more suitable. See Mieke Bal, Narratology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985) 57. Originally in Dutch: De theorie van vertellen en verhalen (Muiderberg: Coutinho, 1980).

  9. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellog, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press) 235.

  10. Joyce Tolliver, ‘Discourse Analysis and the Interpretation of Literary Narrative’, Style, 24, 2, 266; and Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 1988 (1982), chapter 6, but particularly p. 145.

  11. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Heinemann, 1968) p. 12 of the reset edition of 1975.

  12. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (London: Heinemann, 1979) 63–6.

  13. Genette, 97.

  14. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited (Ithaca: New York, and Cornell University Press, 1988) 36–7. Originally in the French: Nouveau discours du récit (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1983).

  15. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York and London: Methuen, 1987) 199.

  16. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers (London: Heinemann, 1979) 63.

  17. See D. T. Niane, Sundiata (Harlow: Longman, 1965) 40–41; and J. P. Clark, The Ozidi Saga (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1977) 321 and 326.

  18. Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970) 385.

  19. Daniel Biebuyck, ed. &. trans., The Mwindo Epic (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969) 53.

  20. Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) 13. For a discussion of this particular technique of third-person thought narrating, which in English for long has been neglected, see also Brian McHale, ‘Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts’, PTL: Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature, 3, 2 (April 1978).

  21. Cohn, 225.

  22. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (London: Heinemann, 1974) 278.

  23. Derek Wright, Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa (London: Hans Zell, 1989) viii.

  24. Solomon O. Iyasere, ‘Cultural Formalism and Criticism of Modern African Literature’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 14, 2 (1976) 328.

K. Damodar Rao (essay date July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Fictional Strategies of Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. 35, No. 2, July, 1994, pp. 104-21.

[In the following essay, Rao traces the fictional strategies in Armah's five novels and notes a change of tone in the author's latter two novels.]

Ayi Kwei Armah has emerged as a major writer on the African literary scene. The brilliant Ghanaian novelist is an articulate spokesman of African history and identity. Through a process of diagnosis/analysis of contemporary reality and reclamation/reconstruction of African history Armah, in his fictional medium, embarks on a course of restoration which at the same time serves as “an aggressive response to the colonialist theory of pre-colonial barbarism.”1 Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist-revolutionary, while analysing the role of the native intellectual in the post-colonial context, formulates that the African creative writer in the process of evolutionary growth creates “a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature and a national literature” transforming himself into “an awakener of his people.”2 Armah's incisive probing into the matrix of Africa's past and present in an attempt to celebrate the principles of reciprocity and positive change points to such a fighting and national literature. His fictional creation is the summation of his sustained efforts to approach and dismantle colonial and neo-colonialist structures.

Since the publication of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born3 Armah has attracted critical attention by sheer excellence of his art. Initially, there were voices that complained of his outsiderist posture and characterized him as a startling novelist, an “unpredictable enfant terrible at drastic odds with the literary establishment.”4 The controversy that surrounded him with the publication of his first novel was compounded when he followed it with Fragments5 and Why Are We So Blest?.6 However, in his later works, Two Thousand Seasons,7 and The Healers,8 as the total consciousness of a whole people is sought to be unfolded, a true perspective of Armah's concerns becomes apparent. Armah is often referred to as a pessimist and a cynic mostly because of his first three novels. These novels, in fact, belong to the analytical stage while Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers could be considered as belonging to the constructive phase. Part of the controversy that surrounds his earlier novels emanates from the deliberate stance of the novelist as an observer, an outsider. The critical response to Armah's fiction, to begin with, was unfavourable which later became pronounced with misplaced hostility. The Western critical opinion, in particular, patronisingly greeted Armah for portraying universal themes of alienation and degradation in all walks of Ghanaian life. But the scathing attack on the Arab/Islamic and Christian/European/Imperialist colonisers in Two Thousand Seasons prompted accusations of rabid communalism, anti-racial racism, in short, Negritude reborn.

The creation of the modern African state, a relatively new phenomenon, with its own tale of tears and blood during the colonial holocaust, provides ample scope for the creative novelists to constitute in writing the reconstruction of the past and documentation of the vicissitudes of African history. The post-independent African situation is always plagued by political conflicts and coups d'etat. It is a sad saga of inner and intra-party struggles and corruption in high places. The political independence which became synonymous with neo-colonialism has left Africa at the mercy of imperialist forces and multi-national companies. Neither the nationalist leaders nor the subsequent military regimes provided an opportunity for the vast exploited masses to participate in the political processes. Besides, these regimes invariably worked for the legitimisation of the role of reactionary forces.

The complexity of African history and culture finds its profound expression in Armah's novels. The understanding of the dynamics of social transformation in the African context is reflected by Armah in the fusion of different time frames and slices of history as discernible in his fiction. It is also marked by an awareness that the continent is alienated as a result of colonial brigandage and sabotage from within. Thus, the sense of alienation and exile in his works is a natural corollary of the larger state of alienation of the society. Armah is greatly influenced by Frantz Fanon in respect of the latter's views on alienation and violence. Fanon's psychological-therapeutic approach is primarily concerned with the states of mind, the different kinds of frustrations and complexes which deny the natives an opportunity to view themselves as an entity, as a class. Fanon directs the attention of the black man towards the realization that his alienation is not an individual problem. Its causes could be found in the interiorization or epidermalization of an historically and economically determined inferiority. Fanon's concept of violence as a cleansing force operates at two levels: it aims at dismantling the material structures of the colonial system and at another level breaks the psychological barrier and the alienation of the colonized. What Fanon observed in respect of the colonized writers is also applicable to Armah who is engaged in the task of decolonizing the mind:

The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future as an invitation to action and a basis for hope.9

Armah's fiction, while realising the function of a writer in the African context, bears the stamp of the novelist with a vehemence of approach and a sense of urgency. A close reading of the complex web of symbols and images and also an encompassing historical vision shed light on the various factors that make him the most articulate and a vehement spokesman of the history and values of the African people. This is what precisely distinguishes Armah from the other African novelists who are no less continental in their bearings. His understanding of the African situation and the dynamics involved in the process of social change lend coherence and strength to his fictional medium. Armah's work, in its totality, offers a study in aesthetic dialectics. The first three novels attempt a critical portrayal of the post-independent and neo-colonial context. If the novelist's visionary projection forms the thesis, the sordid reality presented in these novels provides aesthetics of negation. Synthesis is achieved in the wholesome and positive re-creation of history as discernible in Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers. This process of dialectical progression is also evidenced in the development of each novel.

These two analytical and constructive stages in the literary creation of Armah are not mutually contradictory. The definite trend of evolution is effected by Armah by a shift of emphasis. The evolutionary process in Armah's novels is marked by a historical perspective. It is significant to note that the dialectical process of time frames and different phases of African history lend meaning and unity to each individual work. The real concerns of Armah emerge clearly only when these shifts are closely followed. The first three novels, for instance, deal with local realities, the alienation of individuals only to stress the context of community. It follows quite naturally that the nationalist identity of a writer as exhibited in the first instance need not be an impediment to his larger continental and Pan-African aspirations. In the visionary construct of Armah, the relationship between the specific and the general in the work of art on the one hand and between the local and continental realities in general gains in importance. In fact, Chidi Amuta observes that these two factors of unity become synonymous in the African context:

The relationship between the national and continental imperatives in African literatures, re-echoes the theoretical relationship between the specific and the general in the identity of individual work of African literature. Each work of African literature created from a national perspective approaches the continental truth through a rigorous objectification of its specific national realities, for both realm of experience are dialectically and historically interconnected.10

Armah's work points to such a dialectical and historical interconnection between the two realms of experience which, in fact, helps to elevate the national perspective into ‘continental truth.’ This interaction also defines ‘the way’ of the group ethic as envisioned in his fictional creation—subtly suggested in the analytical/critical/national phase and explicitly enunciated in the historical/constructive/continental phase.

The secular vision in African writing is aggressive and it finds its finest expression in Armah. In his works, the vision is guided by a moral and humanistic ethic. His moral outlook itself is underlined by a pragmatic socialist ideal. A failure of most of Armah's critics to perceive the basic theoretical dynamics of his vision has led to much of mis-reading of his novels. Charles E. Nnolim introduces Armah as both a “cosmic pessimist” and “a retrogressive pejorist” for whom “Ghana is one giant, stinking lavatory.”11 Ben Obumselu comments that Armah expresses the “aesthetic discomfort of an American tourist” and “misanthropic neurosis” that was characteristic of “an exiled imagination.”12 The proliferation of an appreciative body of Armah criticism is of fairly recent origin. A fitting counterpoint to the hostile initial criticism is provided by Chidi Amuta when he says that Armah is a “brilliant” novelist.13 He attempts to put Armah's historical novels in proper perspective:

As novels of historical reconstruction both attempt to recreate the essence of pre-colonial African society in the light of contemporary experience.14

In the frame of social vision he comes to represent, Armah is categorised by Soyinka as belonging to an exclusive category of “the uncompromising iconoclastic view.”15 Soyinka holds that Armah's careful construction of a mythical past is a “potential model for the future.”

Armah's moral vision is reflected in the pursuit of the journey as adhered to by a hero in each of his novels. He tries to lead, if passively on some occasions, either by personal example or direct action to the life-exuding path. But the disease is so deep-rooted that the hero is almost destroyed on some occasions by the very society that he wishes to serve. Modin in Why Are We So Blest? and Isanusi in Two Thousand Seasons actually die in the attempt. In spite of the seemingly passive posture adopted by the heroes in the first three novels and the impending havoc wrought out by the society, all hope is not lost and the torch is carried on by those who have an imaginative rapport with the protagonists. In Fragments, Naana and Juana re-construct what Araba and Efua destroy. In The Healers, Ajoba also partakes in the process of healing. This introduces a dominant motif in the novels of Armah. The principle of feminine fertility emphasizes the regenerative force providing comfort and inspiration to the protagonists.

Armah's first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, with its predominantly urban setting in which the anonymous hero passively protests against the deterioration in value-systems in the society, belongs to the analytical stage. The “black skin, white mask” syndrome which infected every walk of life was so appalling that the novelist invested the surroundings of Ghana with all the conceivable images of decay, rot and corruption. These images leave behind a nauseating experience making the desire for change all the more intense. The shock treatment is a technique employed chiefly for the purpose of celebrating, what should have been, the real aspirations of the community. Armah's preoccupation with the dislocation of ideals in the aftermath of independence adds to the novel a political, and in the larger perspective a historical dimension to the dialectical processes at work. The Nkrumah regime in Ghana which started off on a note of promise, slided into a mire of corruption and degeneration. The political leadership and the bureaucracy vied with each other in pursuit of selfish gains and comforts at the expense of the people. The people also showed a tendency to imitate their former colonial masters and nationalist leaders.

The unnamed protagonist of the novel is an ordinary railway clerk at Takoradi, leading a dull and drab life. However, he is set apart from others by his two redeeming qualities. In the first place, he is sharp and perceptive. His sensitive perception enables him to closely observe men and manners, helps him in his judgement of the beautiful and the ugly and the moral choice between good and bad. The man's participation in the struggle against “the gleam” should be viewed in the background of the spiritual vacuum. Secondly, the man is alive to the social realities, particularly the problem of corruption rampant in the given context. He is unwilling to take part in “national game” (129) of corruption and self-promotion. The predicament of the man is strikingly contrasted with the rapid fortunes his childhood friend, Koomson, has made in the hierarchy of social and political echelons.

The three movements of the personal, social and political factors run parallel in the novel converging on a complex pattern. The personal dimension is sought to be mirrored by way of Teacher's nakedness which itself marks his transition from a state of dynamism to a mere total impasse. Koomson is the epitome of the social movement as his is a success story all the way by means of corruption and violation of the party ideology. The political factor and its ramifications are symbolized in Maanan's madness which is a result of her absolute disillusionment with Nkrumah regime. Above all, there is the moral factor, the man's incorruptible vision that offers a stark contrast and a fitting counterpoint to the ongoing process of self-betrayal. Despite the grim scenario presented, the margin for hope is not lost which is indicated in the evocative title itself, the “not yet” implying possibilities of the beautiful ones of future. The man's stubborn refusal to participate in the all round phenomenon of “cutting corners, and eating the fruits of fraud” (95) is a positive feature of the novel. The man's denial of the gleam, thus, is creative as it opens the way for the beautiful ones, the course of which his wife has already endorsed by saying “I am glad you never became like him” (165), and sharing his natural movement of walking.

The search for a technique which effectively reflects the conflicts, inner and outer, is continued in Fragments and Why Are We So Blest?. The cinematic techniques of freeze shots, close-up, flashback are exploited to the fullest extent in these novels. Fragments deals with the collapse of dreams of Baako, a sensitive individual, in a ramshackle society of fragmented vision. In a way, he is an heir to the anonymous protagonist of the first novel. But Baako's struggle becomes more vocal and violent. While focusing the attention on a degenerate society, the novel attempts to strike a balance between individualism and social order. The shift to communal experience is evidenced in the soothing influence and old world wisdom of Naana and also the principle of feminine fertility embodied in Juana.

Baako, a young man of twenty-six, is expected to return home after a five-year stay in New York where he did a course in creative writing. His return does not pave the way for a cosy future either for him or for his family as Naana had initially imagined. His family looks up to him as an Osagyefo, the leader, the harbinger of family's fortunes. A “been-to” is expected to bring fortunes to the family and hence is looked upon as a demigod and offered special treatment by the family and the society. This is portrayed through the character of Brempong whom the family and the society adulate on his return. Baako knows that he cannot expose himself to the general trend of greed and easy gain. He wants to serve the society in his role as a script-writer for Ghanavision. But his commitment to his artistic vocation is viewed with suspicion by the society steeped as it is in hypocrisy and corruption. This is because the society judges the achievement of an individual from the standpoint of family, its microcosm. The life-restoring principle of Baako makes him stand apart from a people who are bereft of ideals.

Armah's ability to scrupulously portray the reality by shedding light on the minute details and his technique of presenting the action through a series of flashbacks and episodes as evidenced in the novel are breathtaking. The familial aspirations and expectations are diligently brought out in the out-dooring ceremony of the child and pointedly referred to in the tumultuous welcome reserved for the likes of Brempong. The societal fragmentation is stunningly portrayed in the killing of the dog and the violent death of Skido. The hypocrisy of the social order is depicted in the self-projection of the authorities at Ghanavision and the meaningless exercises carried out at the Writers' Workshop in the name of training youngsters in creative writing. Both the factors—familial and societal—converge on in the end to precipitate the crisis in Baako's life. Thus the forcible confinement of Baako in the asylum is the culmination of all forces working against the individual's sensibility.

In this bleak picture and sordid drama presented in the novel, the novelist's visionary ideal is filtered through the overlapping consciousness of Naana, Baako and Juana. Together, they offer a connectedness between past, present and future. The writer's penetrating vision upholds wholeness and reciprocity as it attempts to carefully posit the inner meaning in a larger historical perspective through the principle of feminine fertility. In his loneliness and general gloominess, Baako finds a source of strength and vitality in the company of Juana. She understands his “painful ability to see so clearly” and cannot reject his offer of friendship. The human touch provided by Juana at the hospital to Baako's bruised psyche brings portents of hope and recovery. At the end of the novel, she is seen preparing the unused room for Baako.

Armah's third novel, Why Are We So Blest?, while attempting to comprehend the contradictions that define the African situation, marks the connecting centre between the analytical and constructive phases in his fictional creation. It signifies the centre of the shift to a communal voice and the narrative explores without explicitly moving away from the personal posture of the previous novels, the hard realities of the continent. It offers a fictional re-creation of the peculiar phenomenon of the exploited offering themselves as an easy prey to the dehumanizing processes set in motion by colonialism proper which is a negation of hard-fought independence. The novel, as such, is an indictment of the self-destructive streak of a group ethic as much as an exposé of the destructive capabilities of the exploiters. In Why Are We So Blest?, the social and psychological factors which demarcate the distinction between the white and the black, the oppressor and the oppressed are portrayed in husband-mistress relationship.

The narrative of the novel is unfolded alternately, though not in a sequential order, from the points of view of Solo, Modin and Aimee, the three main protagonists of the novel. Intercepting the flow of these points of view are the diary entries of Modin and Aimee. Solo's narrative is punctuated with commentaries on the past, present and future of Africa, the different slices of which are connected by a sense of gloom. The novel provides a complex study of contrasts in its thematic and structural dimensions and the fragmented narrative effectively captures all-pervading sense of failure. Solo refuses to compromise on the values he cherishes most and is consequently faced with the prospect of being labelled a loser. He often wonders whether “anything exists that is at the same time beautiful and true” (15).

Modin Dofu, the central character in the novel, is highly educated, intelligent, and pursues his studies at Harvard. Like Baako in Fragments, his problem is twofold: he remains a loner in America and cannot identify himself with the alien culture. His problem is further confounded by his inability to communicate with his own people back home. The white scholars attempt to make him feel “all special on account of being with them” (121). They call him “unique” and “unusually intelligent” which, in fact, increases his sense of isolation. Modin's awareness of the death-dealing psychological corruption in an alien land does not prevent him from the subsequent association with Aimee Reitch. She is portrayed in the novel as a true representative of her race and continent. Aimee's interest in Modin is, like her revolutionary fervour, part of her search for new sensations. In fact, both of them meet in a psychology laboratory where thresholds of pain are measured on a pain recorder. Most of the visitors, including Modin, record a normal of seven to eight points. Aimee who visits the place for the sheer experience of thrill records a high of thirteen points much to the surprise of all. Outside the laboratory, she shows more than normal interest in Modin and he offers himself as an easy prey. The alienation of the individual, thus, is diligently portrayed as part of cultural hegemonism sought to be established by the white masters. Aimee's instinctual in-built mechanism not only prevents her from being totally attached to her friend but also enables her to establish psychological superiority over her companion. The dividing agencies of cultural dichotomy and racial hiatus are so strong in this association that Modin remains a mute witness to and a helpless victim of the forces unleashed by his friendship with Aimee and gets carried away by his self-consuming streak.

Why Are We So Blest? marks the end of the analytical phase in Armah's literary career and sets the tone and context for the brilliant exposition of the group consciousness in the constructive stage. Solo, the artist-figure, paves the way for seers, prophets, utterers and healers, the exponents of positive direction, the Maquis of Modin's vision whose course is defined by Solo: “In this wreckage there is no creative art outside the destruction of the destroyers. In my people's world, revolution would be the only art, revolutionaries the only creators. All else is part of Africa's destruction” (231). The statement not only opens up possibilities for a literary warfare against colonialism of all shades but defines the fictional oeuvre of Armah as well.

Two Thousand Seasons, in an epic sweep, attempts to designate “the way” of the people of a continent in the process of reclamation of the past one thousand years. The emphasis throughout the novel has been on the need to provide an alternative ethic to the dependence syndrome. The assault is directed against the Arab-Islamic predators and Christian-European destroyers and also against the betrayers among the natives. The novel, in its ultimate analysis, turns out to be a literary manifesto for the collective credo of a race and a continent. The novel's collective voice in the form of “we”, with its shared suffering and group ethic, is reinforced by the author's inspirational and socialistic affirmation.

The novel's encapsulating view informs and derives its strength from rhythmic patterns and structural polarities. Its macro-microcosmic vision is presented in dialectical terms and in the articulation of corroboratives and alternatives. The plural voice of “we” in the first four chapters invokes a shared tale and a communal experience, ranging from the rule of women—“the time of fertility”—to the patriarchal society. This part also covers the voice of many generations in exile. They are driven away from their native lands by the predators from the desert. But in their new settlements, they confront another powerful enemy—“the destroyers from the sea”. Anoa's warning about the loss of “the way”, the long epic journey of the people in search of a “new home” and the crisis of identity suggest the alienation of a whole community on its own soil.

The second part of the novel signifies the juxtaposition of the structural polarities in the novel. The plural voice of “we” in this part personifies the sense of liberation and the revolutionary fervour of a militant group of young men and women—“eleven girls and nine boys”. The shift from general to the particular is marked by a swift turn of emphasis which is appropriate to the theme of the novel. The core group of young revolutionaries, before they launch a vigorous search for the lost way, become skilled in different games and are trained, guided and inspired by fundis, experts in different fields of learning and practical experience. Isanusi is the most articulate of the fundis. The militant group's close association with Isanusi in finding the way of the reciprocity and wholeness is a practical demonstration of the fusion of revolutionary ideology with practice and of strategy with action. Isanusi makes the young core group learn that their work is not the sum of a momentary sense of revenge inspired by rage. In the surroundings “blighted with death's tinsel”, the work of destruction's destruction is the work of undying worth. Isanusi himself dies in the process but the members of the revolutionary group carry on the offensive into the enemies' camp and ultimately emerge as victors. The way of the people recognises connectedness as part of its integral vision.

Two Thousand Seasons has humanism as its basic underlying ethic. The epic-dialectic form, directed towards the realization of a collective goal, makes the novel a milestone in African fiction. The dynamics of African history and society provides an encompassing vision in which the dialectics of social transformation demand an end to exploitation of all sorts. In his mission of pathfinding, Armah discovers beauty in reciprocity and connectedness, and the beautiful ones in thinkers, healers and revolutionaries.

If Two Thousand Seasons is characterized by thematic and structural polarities, The Healers offers a unison of theme and structure. It is a fictional representation of the social and revolutionary imperatives involved in the process of the liberation of the mind. Like the earlier novels, it is aimed at self-assertion. The novel presents a culmination of conflicting values set on a course of imminent collision which, however, move in the direction of positive change, affirmation and resolution with a clean narrative supporting part-history and part-fiction. The disintegration of the Asante empire during the last quarter of the nineteenth century due to an amalgam of factors—primarily because of the British aggression and lack of unity among native tribes—provides the background against which Armah's fictional imagination transposes the healing community into a creative and regenerative force. The obscure event as recorded in history is transformed into a viable paradigm for the historical processes that could have taken place anywhere in Africa not confined to a particular place.

The summation of conflicting values so brilliantly brought out in Two Thousand Seasons is once again in full display in The Healers. The therapeutic value which the society is in need of is evocatively brought out in the title itself which suggests the unifying force that binds the thematic and structural principles of the novel as well. Armah's vigorous search for a catalyst of change is amply rewarded and his faith in the artist-figure vindicated with the healing community providing the much-needed impetus to the struggle against the stifling socio-political order. The healing community could be traced back to the pre-colonial periods and Armah's attempt at finding an alternative ethic takes him not merely to the historical recesses but to the precise point of history when the healing community was treated with respect. Thus, the healers are at once representatives and harbingers of restorative processes set in the direction of meaningful co-existence.

The oral method of narration brilliantly serves the exposition of the group consciousness in the process of realizing the “highest work.” In keeping with the oral tradition, Armah makes an effective use of invocation, flashbacks and digression in the course of the narrative. His moral vision is presented in the categorisation of “manipulators” and “inspirers” representing opposing sets of values. The manipulators are those who intend to annex the freedom of the natives and initiate the process of colonization. The category also includes those native betrayers whose nature is marked by self-centredness and willing servitude of the alien marauders. Ababio, the classic example of “middleman”, Governor Glover, General Wolseley and the other generals of the British army are the manipulators in the novel. On the other, there are “inspirers” whose vocation it is to awaken the people making them participate in the process of regeneration. These include Densu, the protagonist, Damfo, the master-healer, Asamoa Nkwanta, the General of the Asante army, Araba Jesiwa, the princess of Esuano and a host of healers who are all committed to the process of restoration. Out of this dialectic the communal voice attempts to offer a positive note, a synthesis of past model and future course.

Armah's fictional creation to date is a practical demonstration of the fusion of art and ideology. His aesthetic ideology and stylistic stances corroborate with authorial ideology. His prose, as a powerful weapon administers shock treatment in the beginning and the same is transformed into a soothing instrument gradually. It reaches new poetic heights of inspiration bordering on the oral narrative in Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers. Armah attributes special significance to intellectuals and artists in the process of restructuring. Whatever be the vocation, their creation must realize the supreme duty—“to end the oppression of the African, to kill the European beasts of prey, to remake ourselves”—as Solo so explicitly strikes at in Why Are We So Blest? In his bold attempt to offer a new novelistic form and a fresh sensibility, Armah also provides a new vigour and impetus to African fiction. The summation of his fictional creation is like a probing searchlight into the mechanics of social organization and a penetrating beam into the dynamics of social change.


  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (London: Penguin, 1967), p. 168.

  2. Ibid., p. 179.

  3. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1969). All further page references are to the Heinemann edition.

  4. Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, (London: Heinemann), p. ix.

  5. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974; Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974). All further page references are to the Heinemann edition.

  6. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest?, (New York: Doubleday, 1972; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974; Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974). All page references are to the Heinemann edition.

  7. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973; London: Heinemann Books, 1979).

  8. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers, (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1978; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979).

  9. Frantz Fanon, p. 87.

  10. Chidi Amuta, The Theory of African Literature, (London: Zed Books, 1989), p. 67.

  11. Charles E. Nnolim, “Dialectic as Form: Pejorism in the Novels of Armah”, African Literature Today, No. 10 (1987), p. 207.

  12. Ben Obumselu, “Marx, Politics and the African Novel”, Twentieth Century Studies, No. 10 (1973), p. 115.

  13. Chidi Amuta, p, 20.

  14. Ibid., p. 59.

  15. Wole Soyinka, “Cross-Currents; The ‘New African’ After Cultural Encounters”, Writers in East-West Encounters: New Cultural Bearings (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 54.

Chinyere Nwahunanya (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Writer as Physician: The Therapeutic Vision in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers,” in Neohelicon, Vol. XXII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 141-54.

[In the following essay, Nwahunanya terms Armah's The Healers, “a fictional discourse on the nature and control of political power.”]

In my conclusion to a recent essay on Two Thousand Seasons, I posited that Ayi Kwei Armah “situates the African tragedy within the context of the loss of ‘the way’ as a guiding ethos and suggests a return to this moral anchor and revitalising essence as a sine qua non in the process of charting a new course for the ideal Africa of the future”. I suggested also that in The Healers, Armah extends the frontiers of his proposition in his suggestion that the work for the future, the assignment for the healers, is the cultivation of the awareness that can ensure a complete return to the ethos of “the way”, connectedness and reciprocity. For the fall of the Ashanti empire in The Healers is shown to be a consequence of both the colonial enterprise and the role of divisive manipulators like Ababio. With the projected exit of such people in the wake of a return to ‘the way’, therefore, it is hoped that the society would be healed once again of its most serious ailment, disunity, which is one major consequence of the colonial experience (Nwahunanya, 1991: 559).

There is a sense in which The Healers is a fictional discourse on the nature and control of political power. Therefore, O. S. Ogede (1993: 46) would be correct in seeing as significant what he identifies as “the political credo of healing” in the novel. In fact Ogede sees Armah's position as “political ideology, … a new philosophy of power—that of inspiration—to which Armah is committed, as opposed to dictatorship or rulership by tyranny or brute force”. While we concede the possibility of pursuing this interpretation, our focus in this essay is determined by Ogede's earlier observation that Armah “generally conceived his writing in therapeutic terms, as an attempt to heal the wounds of colonialism …” (Ogede, 1991: 531).

Armah's therapeutic vision has influenced both his overall analysis and the language, and his main textual strategy is the language of the physician. The Healers is in fact one of the few contemporary African novels in which a conscious attempt is made by the author to match theme with language, for Armah in this novel looks at Africa's past and present predicament, and the implied options for the future from the point of view of a physician doing a diagnostic examination of a diseased organ or organism, an examination followed by adequate prescriptions after the cause of the ailment has been identified.

By the time we get to The Healers from Armah's synchronic analysis of Ghana in The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born, the problems of the Ashanti society which we see as the causes of communal tragedy in Two Thousand Seasons are still present, possibly to a higher degree. The selfish appetites of the leaders have been whetted the more, colonialism having established itself better; and egocentric considerations are seen to underlie the drives of most people in the society. But like in Two Thousand Seasons the few people who do not identify with the prevailing ethos opt for seclusion, having become alienated; and they adopt a curative approach to the society's problems, hence their name, “the healers”.

The Ashanti society of The Healers is shown to be replete with mechanisms that ensure that every shade of political opinion is fully represented in the polity. But, as a carry-over from what we find in Two Thousand Seasons, certain positions have become hereditary. This hereditary is what accounts for the succession of Koranche by his invalid son Bentum (renamed Braford-George). While the problems of succession among the aristocracy remain, the main problems with the Ashanti society in The Healers derive from its martial outlook which makes the youth to be brought up to prize competitive engagements and martial arts, since winners usually acquired an enhanced social prestige/status.

With the predominant spirit of competition that encourages people to outshine and supplant others, we have the growth of personal ambition. The effect of this on the society is negative, for it extends to the political arena and causes internal dissension and distrust. This enables people with similar aspirations and ambitions to team up against others either out of sheer envy, inferiority, or both. The society's material outlook thus encouraged a dangerous spirit of competition in which perpetual losers or the weaker ones developed a natural hatred for the regular winners and the strong. This created a favourable context for intrigue which was easily exploited by the whites when they came.

From the individual drives to supplant others, the society institutionalises the urge for physical conquest of neighbours. The majority of the people come to favour aggression, and the Ashanti become famous as a warring nation. Thus, apart from the gold deposits that attract foreign economic attention to them, their liking for war, which makes them a threat to surrounding tribes/empires, brings them into the ruinous public glare of Western colonial interests. This was because the martial outlook of the Ashanti led to an expansionist drive that made more enemies than friends for them, and they also failed to recognise the bounds of their political power. In these enemies, the British and other early colonists easily found allies. For one thing, the vassal chiefs of the defeated kingdoms who became subordinate to the Asantehene paid tribute to him as an obligation. As J. K. Fynn (1971: 153) confirms:

Subject peoples paid tribute and were often the objects of heavy exactions … The end result of this kind of ‘indirect rule’ was that subject peoples never identified their interests with those of the empire as a corporate entity … they regarded themselves as subjects of a distant and harsh political overlord. Thus before the reforms in Asante government initiated by Osei Kwadwo the Asante empire suffered from a series of internal revolts.

With these revolts comes disunity of the type that forms the starting point of Armah's diagnosis in The Healers, for it is disunity that constitutes the internal sources of the social tragedy in Asante society at the time of the second Asante war which is fictionalised in the novel.

At the time the story begins, a festival of competitions in various sports and games has just been held, and after it Appiah, one of the key victors in the games, is murdered mysteriously and his body mutilated. The memories of the murdered Appiah's participation in the games, his victories and the manner of his death make his young companion and rival Densu begin to ruminate on the overall implications of the competition that characterizes the games.

In earlier times, the narrator tells us, the festivals in which the games featured had been

made for keeping a people together. They are not so much celebrations as invocations of wholeness. They were the festivals of a people surviving in spite of unbearable pain. They were reminders that no matter how painful the journey, our people would finish it, survive it and thrive again at the end of it, as long as our people moved together … But the hard realities of our scattering and our incessant wandering had long disturbed the oneness these festivals were meant to invoke, to remember, and to celebrate.

(pp. 4–5)

All the migrant peoples who were scattered in Two Thousand Seasons had conceived these festivals as a unifying principle, a reminder of “a past oneness” which could be revitalised and put into positive use in the present. But with the passing of time the meaning of unity “had been torn to shreds” (p. 5). It is this dissociation which comes in the stead of unity that the young Densu finds incomprehensible even as he ruminates upon it:

These rituals had celebrated the struggles of a people working together to reach difficult destinations. The games were now trials of individual strength and skill. At their end a single person would be chosen victor, and isolated for the admiration of spectators and the envy of defeated competitors.

Thus, a ceremony of wholeness metamorphoses into a ritual of separation.

This realisation underlies Densu's initial unwillingness to participate in the games, and when he eventually decides to, he participates and loses deliberately in order to frustrate those who are used to applauding conventional victors, as well as to refuse to be used by people like Ababio who inordinately aspire to positions of power within the king's court.

Ababio is one of the cronies in the king's court and he is determined to eliminate Appiah, the legitimate heir to the throne, and install Densu who he erroneously believes he can manipulate to achieve his selfish ends. He of course plans the murder of Appiah and sees to its execution through using the brainless brute, Buntui. When Ababio finds out that Densu refuses to cooperate with him, he decides to implicate Densu in the murder of Appiah, by framing trumped-up charges, and faking public grief for the dead prince.

It is to escape from the clutches and evil influence of Ababio while investigating the circumstances surrounding Appiah's murder and his mother's disappearance that Densu runs away to the Eastern forest where Damfo and his group of followers, the healers, reside. Densu's meeting with Damfo opens his eyes to the wider implications of the power tussles in the court for the whole society, and the spiritual demands of healing work to which the healers have submitted themselves.

Unsure initially of the firmness of Densu's resolve and zeal, Damfo spends some time explaining to him the demands and implications of healing. As Damfo says, healing as a vocation demands all sorts of self-denial, and the qualification for healing discipleship are second only to those prescribed by Jesus Christ to those aspiring to follow him. As Damfo puts it,

… the things a healer turns his back on are innumerable. These are the things of the world. Not only things of the flesh, but also things touching the spirit. There's comfort. Wealth. There's also love, the respect of close ones. Even fame, the respect of distant people. Power among men. The satisfaction of being known wherever you go. These are the things that sweeten life for men. The healer turns his back on all of them.

(p. 91)

The principles that ensure the life of self-denial which healing demands are put down as seven commandments which Damfo expounds to Densu in a secular sermon. First, the pupil healer does not drink, or smoke intoxicants, and he “does not use violence against human beings. He does not fight” (p. 92). The healer must not kill, only doing so if he must “out of respect for life”, that is, where what he kills destroys life (p. 93). Again, the learner does not call upon his god to destroy anyone (p. 93). The learner does not go to the king's court, or to any place where men go to seek power over other men, except of course he goes there to save a life. “That's different from going to the centres of power to flatter those already powerful. The nature that knows how to flatter the powerful is an inferior nature” (p. 94). The learner must also not gossip (p. 95). He does not waste the night (p. 95), and he respects those older than himself (p. 96).

Given the difficulty of these prescriptions, it becomes clear why “A decision to be a healer must be firmer than any other decision” (p. 101). In spite of the strict code of conduct for healers, Dansu opts for healing and gets initiated after weighing Damfo's diagnosis of the malaise that bedevils his society.

It is after Densu's initiation that news comes to the healers of the illness of Asamoa Nkwanta, an Asante general who is now distraught and refuses to fight for the king because of the cold-blooded murder of his nephew, a murder as senseless as the murder of prince Appiah. The healers set out to diagnose his illness and revive him. The assumption here is that the cure of a disease is possible only after proper diagnosis.

Damfo's interviews with Asamoa Nkwanta unravels a lot of mysteries about his depression, and the sick general is tutored in aspects of Asante social reality of the past which are erstwhile unknown to him. Damfo's basic assumption is that “if we forget our past and have no vision of the future” (p. 176) we get lost in our non-comprehension of the present. The Akan and all black people in fact, Asamoa is told, were one in the past. Therefore, contrary to what contemporary purveyors of modern history suggest, “there is nothing eternal about our present divisions. We were one in the past. We may come together again in the future” (p. 176).

Asamoa becomes confused because he has spent his life fighting to make Asante strong; that is, he had always fought to establish or maintain the separateness of the Asante. But this has involved helping to concentrate power or the control of people over others in a few hands: “When I think that the result of all my work, the best that is in me, is simply to give power to people who only know how to waste power and waste life, my arm grows weak and I feel all the forces of life and will deserting me” (p. 180). What exasperates Asamoa the more is his realisation of the selfishness of the aristocracy: “The royals these days serve only themselves” (p. 180). The tradition of selfish service had in fact been established in the court tradition in Two Thousand Seasons by the kings who are willing to sacrifice their own people for worthless gifts from white colonists. Armah's condemnation of these kings and their attitude underlies his portrait of them when the white men arrive at Cape Coast. Here, in Cape Coast, the chiefs who come to the shore to have their hands shaken by the new white men “were just ignored—left standing there like a heap of fools” (p. 191).

The coming of the whites and the subsequent invasion of the Asante thus provides Armah another opportunity to continue the analysis of the causes of communal tragedy which he started in Two Thousand Seasons. In this novel as in The Healers, we have a pattern of gifts and treaties of cooperation, followed by military bombardments on pockets of resistance. Most importantly, the selfishness and greed of the chiefs is brought into sharper focus.

When the Europeans arrive, their primary objective is to launch an attack on Kumasi the headquarters of the Ashanti empire. They realise they can achieve their objective only if they secure the cooperation of the local chiefs. The scenes in which this cooperation is elicited constitute one of Armah's bitterest indictments of African chiefs in the novel, for they are shown to act mainly out of selfish interests, and this selfishness is shown to be one of the causes of West African communal tragedy in the colonial period. The chiefs are also shown to be stupid, for they are bribed and bought over with things as cheap and valueless as caskets of gin, with a mere oral promise and hope of future rewards after victory would have been achieved over the Ashanti: “We only hope this white general, being so powerful and rich, will be generous when the time comes for rewards” (p. 214). (It is significant that at this time, the opportunist Ababio has become king at Esuano, following the confusion created by Appiah's murder. So these chiefs could as well be echoing Ababio's mind.)

The position in The Healers is that the society suffers from a basic disease, disunity, which must be cured if the society is to be the same again. This diagnostic vision comes again to Densu as he water-gazes in Part 6, Chapter 5 of the novel. What he sees in the water is “a world in which some, a large number, had a prevalent disease. The disease was an urge to fragment everything. And the disease gave infinite satisfaction to the diseased because it gave them control. At the other extreme were those with a contrary disease, an urge to unite everything” (p. 230).

Those with the urge to fragment are the kings and their cronies and lackeys who stand to gain from the disunity of the people which creates factions that are easy to manipulate. Those with the urge to unite are the minority like the group of healers who impose on themselves the duty of restoring the social health of the community. This state of affairs, we have noted before, began before the advent of the predators and destroyers in Two Thousand Seasons, but was reinforced in intensity by the colonial presence. It results in the bifurcation of the society into the majority of self-centred people (such as kings and their followers) and the minority who oppose the prevailing ethos. This prevailing ethos is greed and selfishness, and it manifests the most in kings and rulers or those in or near the corridors of power who have eyes on kingship. Intrigue, then, becomes a way of attaining power, and unsuspecting people are pitched against each other in power games in which the potential reapers are the umpires who goad contestants into competitions.

By the time we get to The Healers, the estrangement of the visionary members of the society from the rest is complete, because they are looked at with suspicion by those who feel threatened by the healers' beliefs, chosen options, or exemplary ways of life. (It accounted earlier on for the preference for Otumfur in Koranche's court to the seer Isanusi in Two Thousand Seasons. It also accounts for the incendiary raid on the healer's village in The Healers.

The visionary members of the society choose a life of isolation and exile, gather themselves into the small community of healers with a common goal. They do so in order not to be corrupted by the prevailing materialistic ethos, and to coordinate their activities and achieve greater objectives. It is not surprising therefore that it is to the healers that Asamoa Nkwanta, the Asante general, is sent for a cure, at the onset of the emotional turmoil following the murder of his nephew, an event he sees as a betrayal.

As a trained healer, Densu has to get to the bottom of things in order to make an accurate diagnosis. And so just as their Freudian interview with Asamoa reveals the sources of his grief which set them on the route to curing him, Densu burrows into the service of the white general Glover, and in the course of espionage service he discovers the white man's views about the black man, views which underlie his methods. According to Glover, “Give the black man gifts, … and his soul belongs to you. He and his people will fight for you” (p. 259). Unfortunately, however, the Greek gifts of the white colonist are accepted by their black recipients without the blacks giving any serious thoughts to their implications. For, as a strategy, the white man “had brought drinks to bribe the kings so they would bring their men to fight for him” (p. 259). But the gifts are not confined to the drinks: “The gifts were many—large bottles of gin, often given in whole cases; bright new guns and powder and bullets to go with them, and always the coins that could make the angriest king break into smiles” (p. 259). The gifts achieve the desired effect, and the bribed kings come to see their fellow black brothers as the common enemy of they and the whites.

In the light of the healers' diagnosis of the problem of the blacks, Armah uses the final battle encounter between the Asante and the white colonists as a test of the solidarity of blacks, a test which they fail because of the dissociating effect of the colonialist's tricks. Only the healers have the proper vision of black unity, and this vision underlies the role they play in persuading many black porters to abandon the loads they are made to carry for the white men, thereby slowing down or halting the movement of the whites. But the healers' project is to help install Asamoa as the ultimate power in Asante, so that he could be used to cure the society of her ills (p. 271). For as Damfo puts it, “Among our people, royalty is part of the disease. Whoever serves royalty serves the disease, not the cure. He works to divide our people, not to unite us, no matter what he hopes personally to do” (p. 269). Thus while the whites are mustering their forces for the final onslaught, the royals at the court are engaged in intrigue, seeing the healers as a threat to their existence, to the extent of carrying out incendiary action on the healers' village in Praso. In this way, the last bastion of hope—the community of healers with their curative vision—is put in disarray. And significantly, it is at this point that the final showdown on Asante takes place.

Armah presents another dimension to the tragic experience of his society in the consequences of treachery and betrayal for the bribed chiefs when they begin to go back on their promises to their white friends. The march of Wolseley to Asante gets beset with problems as the black chiefs he had bribed begin to show signs of hypocrisy in their refusal to provide men to build the road through which the march to Kumase was to be effected. When bribes of money, ammunition, firearms and alcohol fail, the white man resorts to intimidating the populace with acts of violence (p. 271). Villages are burnt at night, towns are threatened with destruction, populations are terrified, and men are taken hostage. When the men run away, women and children are used in their place. So a reign of terror spreads over the land as the road to Kumase progresses.

Despite the apparent military superiority of the white man at this point in time, Asamoa Nkwanta prepares for the final onslaught against the whites with his tried and tested military tactics, and with his characteristic nationalist and patriotic zeal. But he discovers at the last moment, and too late, that he has been betrayed by selfish interests at the court, led by the king's mother herself. As Oson the eunuch tells him after Kumase had been overrun, the selfish concerns of the king's mother are the reasons behind the orders from the king to Asamoa to withdraw the fighting men: “… she asked the king if he would rather be king of a violated kingdom or be nothing in a virgin nation. … She said if Asante followed Asamoa Nkwanta's plan and resisted the whites, there would be nothing to stop Asamoa Nkwanta from becoming king of the inviolate nation. She said the wisdom of a king lay in knowing at all times what to do in order to remain king” (p. 291). This Machiavellian logic proves that she would rather her son ruled in hell than serve in heaven. For the individual welfare of the Asantehene and his cronies at court mattered more to the king's mother and the king than the collective welfare of the people. She forgets that even if Asamoa had an eye on the throne, his kingship would be more beneficial to the people, given the healing process he has undergone in the hands of Damfo and his followers, than anything the incumbent king could offer the society.

The final scene of the novel is the achievement of the visionary ideal, the bringing together of black peoples through the dissolution of those barriers that had kept them apart, especially during the period of colonial occupation.

Asante has of course been overrun; Ababio is now king at Esuano—the community in which the story began—and the white man has established his presence as overlord after looting the place at Kumase. King Ababio, seeing Densu as the only threat to his continued illegitimate occupation of the throne, brands Densu the murderer of Appiah and arranges a trial presided over by a white man. It is during this trial which Ababio had hoped would go in his favour and eliminate Densu that Araba Jesiwa, the mother of the murdered prince Appiah (the legitimate heir to the throne Ababio now occupies) who had been undergoing medication in the hands of the healers, miraculously talks and gives the crucial evidence which confirms the complicity of Ababio in the murder of Appiah. This evidence turns the tables, and Ababio the accuser becomes the accused. The white judge, confused but happy at the emergence of truth, orders Ababio to be taken in handcuffs to Cape Coast for trial.

It is symbolic that the day of Ababio's trial becomes the day of unity for black peoples, for it would seem that Ababio is an epitome of those divisive obstacles that stand in the way of the unity of black peoples, and his removal ushers in a new era of concerted action. Ababio is not a creation of the white presence per se, since he and his type predate colonialism. But his action has been shown in the novel to create obstacles for the black man and cause tragedy both for individuals in society and for the society as a community. Thus Armah's conclusion of the novel implies a certain ambivalence towards colonialism, for by removing Ababio and the obstacles he symbolises from the society, the white man, even while contributing earlier to destroying the society, helps too to revitalise it. Ama Nkroma, one of the female healers, recognizes the significance of the event:

… look at all the black people the whites have brought here. Here we healers have been wondering about ways to bring our people together again. And the whites want ways to drive us further apart. Does it not amuse you, that in their wish to drive us apart the whites are actually bringing us work for the future?

(p. 309)

The work for the future, the assignment for the healers is the cultivation of the awareness that can ensure a complete return to the ethos of “the way”, connectedness and reciprocity. For the fall of the Ashanti empire in The Healers is shown to be a consequence of both the colonial experience, and the roles of divisive manipulators like Ababio. With their actual or expected exit therefore, it is hoped that the society would be healed once again of its most serious ailment, disunity, which is one major consequence of the colonial experience. In this way, connectedness, that major defining attribute of pre-colonial West African society, would be re-established as part of the healing process.

Armah makes the point of course that while the whites may not be the original source of the tragic disunity of African peoples, their coming led to the increased atomisation of social bonds with their propensity for encouraging “divide and rule” and whetting the appetite of greedy kings and chiefs with gifts which made them turn against their own people. The extent to which this is made possible is established through Armah's use of contrastive images in his presentation of the white ways in Two Thousand Seasons while showing what “the way” is not. That the ethos of the predators and the destroyers comes and successfully supplants whatever was good in the black ways of life is Armah's focal point in his diagnosis of the roots of the African tragedy.

What Armah shows is a concern for the fate of his society as a victim of colonialism, and he shows in the process what was good in the society and why the loss of that patrimony was tragic. As he puts it in The Healers:

The events that have shattered our people were not simply painful events. They were disasters. They were strange, unnatural catastrophes. Those who survived them could only survive in part because they found ways to forget the catastrophes. When you're still close to past dangers that threatened to wipe you out, even remembrance pains you. Our people forget a lot of things in order to survive. We even went beyond forgetfulness. To forget thoroughly the shattering and the dispersal of a people that was once whole, we have gone far as to pretend we have always been these silly little fragments each calling itself a nation.

(p. 83)

The tragedy of African societies is therefore defined in terms of the disastrous and catastrophic nature of the shattering of their past. He also examines the extent of the complicity of Africans themselves in the process, due to the selfish interests of a few.

Armah embarks on this process of retrieving the racial memory through cultivating what T. S. Eliot calls “the historical sense” (1932: 14). This is the perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of the manifestations of the past in the present, for the writer “is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past …” (1932: 22). Armah's cute sense of history enables him correctly diagnose the causes of the tragedy of West African societies, tracing them to both the effects of the colonial experience, and internal sources within pre-colonial African societies. Based on these, he also makes implied projections on the causes of the political problems in the present.

Armah starts with a look at the structure of the Ashanti polity, but he ends up with a general observation on African societies. He suggests that just as was the case with ancient Ashanti rulers, contemporary leaders in Africa adopt all sorts of divisive ploys to get at power. And once they are in power, in order to perpetuate their tenure, they and their cronies devise and employ all kinds of diversionary measures that remove the attention of their unsuspecting subjects from the ties that bind them, and thereby blind citizens to the misdeeds of such leaders.

Armah's ultimate prescription as a panacea to Africa's ailment is that leaders should start to emphasize those things that cement tribes or ethnic groups and individuals together, and be ready to recognize even when a collective action or what looks like a group decision is made to serve the interests of an individual. Once this happens, leaders would start ab initio to emphasize mass-oriented programmes; and only those who share the common interests of the people and are ready to work towards them would be encouraged to seek or remain in political power.


Armah Ayi Kwei, The Healers. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Eliot, T. S., “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (1917) in Selected Essays 1917–1932. London, 1932.

Fraser, R., The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah. London: Heinemann, 1980.

Fynn, J. K., Asante and Her Neighbours 1700–1807. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Nwahunanya, C., “A Vision of the Ideal: Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.Modern Fiction Studies Vol. 37 (1991), No. 3.

Ogede, O. S., “Patterns of Decadence, Visions of Regeneration in Armah's Fragments.Modern Fiction Studies Vol. 37 (1991), No. 3.

Ogede, O. S., “The Rhetoric of Revolution in Armah's The Healers: Form as Experience.” African Studies Review Vol. 36 (1993), No. 1, pp. 43–58.

Peek, R., “Hermits and Saviours, Osagyefos and Healers: Artists and Intellectuals in the Works of Ngugi and Armah.” Research in African Literatures, 20/1 (1989).

Wright, D., Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of His Fiction. London: Hans Zell Publishers, 1989.

Paul R. Petrie (essay date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Politics of Inspiration in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers,” in Critique, Vol. 38, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 279-88.

[In the following essay, Petrie argues that Armah's intent in writing The Healers “is not to provide practical instruction in revolution, but to promote a body of ideals to inspire and guide meaningful and lasting change that includes, but goes well beyond, the realm of the political.”]

Critics of Ayi Kwei Armah's most recent novel are unanimous in recognizing the central opposition between inspiration and manipulation that both structures the novel and constitutes its philosophy,1 and in identifying the essential idealism of the novel's scheme. Most critics, however, consider The Healers seriously flawed and find the source of its deficiencies in the very fact of its idealism. The novel's weakness, the arguments go, is that the utopian ideals of the healers are incapable of enactment in the temporal, historical world. Although the root assertion of such arguments is nearly undeniable, the judgment that that fact spells the novel's failure depends upon a misreading of Armah's goals. The novel does indeed assert the healers' ideals as the only true basis for African sociopolitical regeneration, but it simultaneously questions the degree to which those principles can successfully be translated into real sociopolitical action. The novel is founded upon Armah's realization of a paradox: any social movement, if it is to result in anything more than mere exchange of one regime of manipulation for another, must begin at the level of ideals, even though full achievement of those ideals in sociopolitical terms is impossible. The Healers makes its appeal through its idealism, seeking to win as wide an audience as possible to a motivating belief in the principles of inspiration. The novel's purpose is not to provide practical instruction in revolution, but to promote a body of ideals to inspire and guide meaningful and lasting change that includes, but goes well beyond, the realm of the political.

The duality between the ideals of inspiration and the realities of manipulation is so central to both the novel and its criticisms that little need be said here to elucidate its major tenets. The philosophical vision of the novel is most cogently spelled out in the chapter entitled “The Inspirers,” in which the Healer Damfo answers the eager questions of his future protégé, the youth Densu. In summary, the vision is: Having lost the knowledge of an original “wholeness” in the universe, black Africa is now divided between “two forces, unity and division. The first creates. The second destroys; it's a disease, disintegration” (82). The people have lost their sense of spiritual interconnectedness with themselves, with others, and with the physical environment. The Healer attempts to restore that sense by learning to “read signs” (80) of wholeness in the natural world, to heal the sick by “restoring a lost unity to … body and spirit” (82), and to work against the “disease [of] the breaking up” of “the community of all black people” (84) into nations, tribes, and classes. The means by which those goals are to be met are peaceful and contemplative. Damfo's root definition of a Healer's work is that “it's seeing. And hearing. Knowing” (79) a unifying truth that transcends temporal existence. “He who would be a healer,” Damfo continues, “must set great value on seeing truly, hearing truly, understanding truly, and acting truly. … The healer would rather see and hear and understand than have power over men. Most people would rather have power over men than see and hear” (81). Where the world works by political coercion, the healer works by spiritual insight.

If I'm not spiritually blind, I see your spirit. I speak to it if I want to invite you to do something with me. If your spirit agrees it moves your body and your body acts. That's inspiration. But if I'm blind to your spirit I see only your body. Then if I want you to do something for me I force or trick your body into doing it even against your spirit's direction. That's manipulation. Manipulation steals a person's body from his spirit, cuts the body off from its own spirit's direction. The healer is a lifelong enemy of all manipulation. The healer's method is inspiration.


The philosophy of The Healers, then, asserts an egalitarian ideal of lost African community in total harmony with the natural and supernatural worlds, and healership is the work of restoring that lost community through a mystical faith in this true universal order.2

Critics consistently fault Armah for the putative naiveté of his novel's idealistic philosophy. Derek Wright, for example, asserts:

The egalitarian, life-respecting power he theorizes about, though perfectly at home in an ideal social order, is no more immediately graspable or translatable into practical actions and lived social realities in the existing order, than the abstraction of racial reunification that Damfo proposes to achieve with it.


Similarly, Ode S. Ogede writes that “the absence of an interventionist political ethic among the healers constitutes a weakness in Armah's novelistic vision as it denies his revolutionary socialist idealism a necessary organizational framework with which to achieve the revolution” (46). Other critical comments follow suit. Bernth Lindfors, although disavowing any intention “to belittle the novel's importance,” does nevertheless define the book as “juvenile adventure fiction,” “good cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-indians stuff” that “falsifies far more than it authenticates” (95). Y. S. Boafo grants Armah the right to “his hopes, wishes, and dreams” but faults “Armah's healing prescription” for being “difficult to translate into meaningful action (in terms of [its] practicability)” (333). Even Simon Gikandi, who acknowledges Armah's “fabular mode” of characterization, identifies as a “contradiction” the fact of “the detachment of its characters from the vagaries of common experience” (37). The common thread in all these comments is that Armah's novel is too idealistic, that it fails to imagine realistic characters who are able to enact healer principles in life as lived by the common majority.

Criticisms along those lines arise from the mistaken assumption that Armah intends to write realist historical fiction, when in fact his approach to history and to character is unwaveringly visionary, mystical, and (in Gikandi's term) fabular. Lindfors, for example, reveals the prorealist basis of his argument when he aligns his criticism of Armah with Mark Twain's criticism of James Fenimore Cooper on the grounds that a Cooper hero “never gets his hair mussed and never farts” (95). Twain's critique is a realist's dismissal of romanticism. But neither Cooper nor Armah has any intention of creating realistic characters; their reliance upon stereotyping and romantic idealization in no way precludes the status of their novels as serious treatments of cultural issues, as recent criticism of Cooper forcefully demonstrates. If Armah's fiction seems contrived when evaluated according to realist standards of probability and accurate observation, it—like Cooper's Leatherstocking novels—works perfectly well on its own terms, as a popular novel of social ideals.

Most of the other negative criticisms or critical reservations about the success of Armah's novel stem from similar expectations that the novel's use of Asante history to comment upon Africa's contemporary situation must entail the goals and methods of realism. But, as Neil Lazarus rightly notices, “Armah's technique in The Healers moves outside the compass of realism. For the growth, development, and even physical appearance of characters in The Healers acquire their resonance not … by their sociological authenticity, but by their value-disclosing ideality” (490). It is true, as Robert Fraser asserts, that The Healers is a historical novel, but one that presents a thoroughly idealized version of history and is primarily concerned with articulating a philosophical ideal to motivate and guide those who would dedicate themselves to the reformation of African society. As an assertion of informing principles, Armah's book is only peripherally concerned with the realists' task of showing how social ideas get enacted on the plane of historical reality; that subsidiary concern is firmly subordinated to the novel's main goal of promulgating its motivating philosophical ideal.

Armah is fully aware that the healers' methods, if measured by standards of political pragmatism, are not particularly efficient ways of fomenting revolution. “A healer needs to see beyond the present and tomorrow,” explains Damfo. “He needs to see years and decades ahead. Because healers work for results so firm they may not be wholly visible till centuries have flowed into millennia” (84). For reformers or revolutionists who measure social action by its efficacy in temporal terms, the prospect of a millennial duration for their efforts would be horrifying, as indeed it is even for some healers. “The disease has run unchecked through centuries,” notes Damfo. “Yet sometimes we dream of ending it in our little lifetimes, and despair seizes us if we do not see the end in sight” (84). But the healers can admit no short cuts to revolution, because the ends they seek encompass the means employed to achieve them; the ends cannot justify the means, because the means become part of the ends, once they are achieved. A social revolution established by violence would violate the very goals it sought to establish, and thereby guarantee the need for further revolution.

There is no danger, Armah seems to be saying, that the violent and coercive methods that are usually used to bring about social change will be abandoned any time soon. It is certain, however, that the use of such manipulative means guarantees further manipulation. Even the healers themselves have trouble accepting this lesson. As Damfo, the only one of the eastern forest healers unsullied by political dabbling, notes, “The healers are also confused, not about the aim of our work, but about the medicines we may use and about what may look like medicine but may end up being poison” (84). The confusion he identifies becomes fatal later in the novel. Healer attempts to become involved directly in Asante politics—even in the interests of furthering goals of social regeneration—represent a violation of healer principles of nonmanipulation, and end in disaster. Having abandoned the principles of inspiration by openly backing Asamoa Nkwanta, the healers' village is burned and the healers are slaughtered by operatives of the Asante royals, who “think that what healers want is to make themselves into a new kind of aristocracy to replace the old” (294). Although the healer discipline of abstention from political manipulation does not exempt them from victimization by political manipulators, their abrogation of their own principles virtually assures their destruction at the hands of those more skilled in the use of political power; healers who choose to become manipulators will be destroyed by those more practiced in the arts of manipulation. For healer ideals to retain what inspirational power they do have in the “real” world of power relationships, their idealism must be rigorously maintained.

Armah's novel proposes that the only hope for escaping the vicious circle of political reaction is to reform judgement of human actions to accord with an order that transcends history, by a mystical faith that places adherence to informing ideals above concrete and immediate political goals. Insofar as the novel does address issues of enactment of inspiration ideals in the real political world, Armah seems nearly as pessimistic in The Healers as he did, for example, in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The “good guys” are as thoroughly thwarted and defeated in the fall of the Asante empire as they were in the fruitless coup that ends Armah's first novel. True, Damfo has avoided the general slaughter of healers, Densu has been rescued from wrongful execution, and the villain Ababio has been deposed and awaits trial for murder. But the restoration of black community and the egalitarian reform of the African tribes seem more distant than ever, and the English grip on West Africa has been strengthened by their defeat of the Asante empire. At the novel's end, the “beautyful ones” of this tale gather at Cape Coast, having survived the English holocaust, but they seem as powerless to effect the course of political events as any of the righteous in Armah's earlier novels.

The Healers includes two characters, Asamoa Nkwanta and Densu, whose experiences demonstrate the novelist's doubtful (at best) attitude toward the possibilities for enactment of inspiration principles in the real political world. Armah's development of these characters is evidence not of naiveté, but of his acute awareness of the problems involved in acting in accord with philosophical ideals rather than with political pragmatism. Neither character is a healer, but both are allied with healers and healing principles. Densu has begun the discipline of training for healership but delays his preparation in order to act as spy and messenger in Asamoa Nkwanta's bid to defeat the invading English army. Asamoa Nkwanta retreats to the healers' village from his place at the head of the Asante army when the ritual killing of his favorite nephew throws him into severe depression and loss of identity. His restoration to healthy selfhood under the guidance of Damfo includes the partial acceptance of healer's utopian ideals of a classless, royalless, and slaveless society. Both Asamoa Nkwanta and Densu are admirable characters whose appeal derives in large measure from their sympathy with the ideals of inspiration. But it is essential to notice that neither man is himself a healer. Asamoa Nkwanta is only partially in accord with the principles of inspiration. Although he accepts healing at the hands of Damfo, and although he comes to recognize that the self-serving politics of the Asante royalty are at odds with the interests of both the army and the people, as a military commander he can never subject himself to the healers' disciplines of nonviolence and separation from royal politics. As Damfo recognizes when he parts ways with the other eastern forest healers,

Asamoa Nkwanta is a good man. He is also a valuable man, one of those highly skilled in the pursuit of a vocation. But all his goodness has been spent in the service of Asante royalty. Among our people, royalty is part of the disease. Whoever serves royalty serves the disease, not the cure. He works to divide our people, not to unite us, no matter what he hopes personally to do.


Asamoa Nkwanta's mistaken hope that he may serve the people by defending them against invasion while simultaneously avoiding royal political entanglements (after having openly threatened them with civil war!) leads to his betrayal by the royals into defeat by the white invaders. The general enlists reader's sympathies by taking a principled stand for the Asante people, against the arrogant invaders, and (implicitly) distinct from the evil royal hierarchy. But his fate indicates the degree to which Armah doubts that much, if any, good can come from the means of political manipulation, whatever its stripe.

The general's story is the primary locus of Armah's doubts about the relation of healer principles to political action. As Robert Fraser notes, Asamoa Nkwanta's story raises “the essential philosophical question of the validity of war as an instrument in the service of patriotic ideals” (89) (by which I assume he means the healers' ideals). Damfo explicitly notes that it is not the goal of the healers to convert everyone to healership (80–81), even though the healers envision a society in harmony with inspiration ideals. Damfo (as Fraser notes) justifies his healing of an individual whose vocation is war by invoking the healers' calling to restore the “true selves” of those psychically out of balance. The fact that Asamoa Nkwanta's true self is the “Soul of the Army” seems to indicate that a place exists for war in the society envisioned by the healers, even though violence is proscribed for the healers themselves. Further, the general makes a philosophical distinction between the justifiable use of the army for defense and its wrong use for royal self-interest (179–182), but such a distinction, as we have seen, cannot be maintained either philosophically or practically. The general's precarious philosophical position demonstrates both Armah's awareness of the need to find modes of political action harmonious with inspiration and his pessimism about the possibility of doing so.3

Densu, too, enacts the author's doubtful attitude about the question of ideals and actions. Densu expresses an even stronger attraction to inspiration ideals, and may even possess the “healer's nature” (80) requisite to join them, but he does not become a healer within the span of the novel. As Damfo introduces “the novice” (92) to the first order of the rules of healership, the young man voices important differences between the healers' rules and his own convictions. For instance, Damfo articulates the fundamental principle of nonviolence: “The learner wishing to be a healer does not use violence against human beings. He does not fight.” Densu immediately posits self-defense as a possible justification for the use of violence, even, if necessary, to the death; “If the healer is attacked, surely he defends himself,” he reasons, because a man turned killer is less human than beast.

“As one learning to be a healer,” Damfo asked, “what would you do in such a case?”

“I would stop him.”



“Without killing him?”

“If that's possible.”

“If it's impossible?”

“I would kill him,” said Densu.

“That goes against the rule,” the healer said.

“Not against its meaning, I don't think.”

“What do you think is its meaning?” the healer asked.

“Respect for life.”

“How can you kill out of respect for life?”

“If what I kill destroys life,” Densu answered.


Readerly sympathies with the utter pragmatism of self-defense, as well as the privilege apparently granted Densu's position by its receiving the last word in this exchange, may lead us to accept Densu's ideas as compatible with healer principles, particularly because Damfo makes no final rebuttal. But neither does Damfo grant an exception to the rule against violence. The healers' mode of spreading their ideals is “inspirational” rather than coercive; Damfo states the rules and then seeks to have Densu realize the truth through open-ended dialogue, rather than to subdue him with an argument or an invocation of authority. The strict construction of the principle of nonviolence stands, at least for the healer.

A similar exchange occurs over the principle of strict avoidance of all who trade in manipulative political power. Densu, the pragmatist, questions the wisdom of forswearing involvement in all politics.

“Can healers live and work without social power always?” Densu asked.

The healer said: “Healers need to work with social power, but that power must not be diseased.”

“Does any such power exist?” Densu asked.

“It may not exist,” the healers said, “but it should be possible.”


In response to Densu's skeptical (and perfectly reasonable) questions about the practicability of healer power, Damfo reasserts the ideal of a “possible” nonmanipulative power that “may not exist” yet in the temporal world and that, as Densu notes, will take “ages” (94) to develop. Damfo insists on the healers' reliance on “a healthier source of power” (95) than that practiced by the royals, even should that mean delaying the realization of the healers' goals into “the distant future.” “Meanwhile?” Densu doubtfully asks.

“Meanwhile the healer heals the individual sick,” Damfo said.

“That is all?”

“Healers work to create a power based on respect.”

“Where?” Densu asked.

“Wherever they see possibilities.”


Densu's reservations about the healers' separatism are no less sensible, pragmatically considered, than were his objections to the principle of nonviolence. But the rhetorical shape of this passage does not mask, as did the previous exchange, the fact that healer's principles stand firm, regardless of the revisionary efforts of the apprentice Densu. The learner's positions on key healer principles represent practical adjustments to seemingly impossible ideals, but Densu's opinions are not pure expressions of healer principles. Like many of the critics of Armah's novel, Densu cannot fully accept a philosophy that seems incapable of immediate application in the sociopolitical world.

Significantly, Damfo sends Densu back to Esuano for a year of leave and reflection, rightly fearing that Densu's decision for healership may be motivated more by his disgust with the realities of manipulation than by his love of the principles of inspiration. When Densu returns to Damfo, he does so not as an accepted healer candidate, but as a fugitive from Ababio's injustice and as one in need of healing himself. Having lost his friend and kindred spirit, Anan, to Ababio's machinations, Densu comes perilously close (not for the last time) to losing his will to live. When Densu agrees to act as a spy and messenger for Asamoa Nkwanta, he acts as a free agent; he cannot act as a healer while working for the army.

Through Densu and Asamoa Nkwanta, the possibilities for political action along the lines of inspiration principles are narrowed nearly to the vanishing point, and the story's ending is notably ambiguous about the probable future course of Densu, the novel's single remaining figure of principled action. Upon his acquittal and release, Densu rejoins Damfo, Araba Jesiwa, and Ajoa, but the novel does not indicate whether he intends to resume his novitiate as a healer or to choose some other, unnamed course. What can he do? Most of the healers are dead, having proven the inefficacy of healer's principles for producing immediate political change. The defeat of Asamoa Nkwanta leaves the novel with no remaining representation of ethically governed exercise of power for Densu to emulate. As critics have often complained, the prospects for productive translation of the principles of inspiration into immediate sociopolitical action are indeed dim.

But despite Armah's pessimism about the immediate possibilities for inspiration-driven action in a world of manipulation, the novel wins our approval for characters who attempt to enact those ideals. Characters like Asamoa Nkwanta and Densu win readers' admiration through their personal integrity and their dedication to principled action. If Armah doubts the efficacy of compromise between inspiration and manipulation, he nevertheless asks us to approve the intangible qualities that drive people to seek a more inspirational social order. Asamoa Nkwanta, Densu, Anan, Nsaako the Cape Coast interpreter, and even Sakity, the novel's single example of a good king, are measured not by their ability to effect revolution, but by their rigorous integrity in attempting to live according to anti-manipulative ideals. Their appeal derives not from what they accomplish but from their effort and intention to work for inspiration. Similarly, the novelist's approval of the healer Damfo occurs on the plane of motivating ideals rather than tangible accomplishments. The novel does not ask us to accept healership as the only acceptable mode of action; it does, however, make its main healer an appealing and compelling character on the same terms of integrity and idealism as the other positive characters. Characters who make good-faith efforts to act in accord with higher ideals are designed to win our approval and admiration, but they do so in ideal rather than practical terms.

The main focus of The Healers is not upon the exigencies of political action, but on the principles that underwrite those actions. The novel acknowledges the “real world” necessity to translate philosophical ideal into political action but asserts the need for subscription to an informing ideal, despite the fact that the defeat of that ideal in historical terms seems almost a foregone conclusion. Armah is not fooling himself with a false and shallow optimism. The metaphoric reunification of the black community in the novel's closing scene does not overlook the fact that it is accidental, brought about by the triumph of anti-African English power, a parody of the kind of unity the healers seek to achieve. The novel freely admits this point. Significantly, though, the final perspective belongs to a healer, Ama Nkroma, who points out the irony of the fact that the triumph of the whites has brought about the symbolic regathering of the subjugated tribes. From the perspective of power politics and its analysis, the scene is a weak promise of an end to the black diaspora, deferred “until centuries have flowed into millennia.” But the scene is narrated from the perspective of the healers and demands that its readers decide which perspective—inspiration or manipulation—they will choose.

The novel's ending is no naive glossing over of hard facts; it is a willful assertion of dedication to the ideal as a moral imperative and as the only hope for true and lasting reform, even in the face of indefinitely deferred success in historical terms. If Armah's pessimism in his early novels was existential, so too is his new-found optimism in The Healers. The message of this novel is that the relation of ideal goals to concrete political action is necessarily paradoxical and that any political movement not driven by impossible ideals is doomed to repeat an endless cycle of manipulation. Armah's goal is neither to provide a practical handbook for revolutionaries nor to deny the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to practical change along inspiration lines. Instead, The Healers sets itself the task of instilling in a mass audience the motivating ideals that alone may result in a revolution deeper and more lasting than any mere exchange of political institutions.4


  1. Following the precedent set by earlier critics of this novel, I have adopted the words philosophy and philosophical to denote the full range of social, political, ethical, psychological, medical, cosmological, religious, and mythological ideas included in inspiration, even though inspiration is much more than a philosophy, strictly defined.

  2. Just as the healers' philosophy gains its fullest expression in Damfo's conversations with Densu, the counter-philosophy of manipulation is articulated, less extensively, in the arch-manipulator Ababio's interviews with Densu. See especially 112, 299–301.

  3. Asamoa Nkwanta defines just war as war against whites, and Armah leaves unclear whether the basis for this justification occurs on grounds of self-defense or on grounds of race. In fact, the place of nonblack humanity in the healers' cosmology is ambiguous.

  4. Two Armah-written essays, published in Présence Africaine in 1967 and 1984, respectively, are particularly germane to the issues of ideal and action raised by The Healers. “African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?” (64.4: 6–32) and “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis” (131.3: 35–65) both concern (in part) the relation of indigenous communistic ideals to contemporary social and political life. Those articles present complex and instructive counterpoints and continuities with each other and with The Healers, but further investigation lies outside the scope of the present essay.

Works Cited

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Healers. London: Heinemann, 1978.

Boafo, Y. S. “The Nature of Healing in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers.” 1986. Critical Perspectives on Ayi Kwei Armah. Ed, Derek Wright. Three Continents P, 1992. 324–334.

Fraser, Robert. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction. Exeter, NH: Heinemann, 1980.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading the African Novel. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

Lazarus, Neil. “Implications of Technique in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers.Research in African Literatures 13 (1982): 488–498.

Lindfors, Bernth, “Armah's Histories.” African Literature Today 11 (1980): 85–96.

Ogede, Ode S. “The Rhetoric of Revolution in Armah's The Healers: Form as Experience.” African Studies Review 36 (1993): 43–58.

Wright, Derek. Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of His Fiction. New York: Zell, 1989.

Samuel A. Dseagu (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 45-51.

[In the following essay, Dseagu provides an overview of Armah's career and major works.]


Ayi Kwei Armah was born in 1939 in Takoradi, then the only deep-sea harbor on the Gold Coast. He is descended on his father's side from a royal family in the Ga tribe inhabiting the environs of the present capital of Ghana. During the nineteenth century there arose a conflict within the royal family over succession to the royal stool as a result of which the ancestral family withdrew into exile to settle in Dahomey.

When the Takoradi harbor was built and the town became the hub of international trade on the Gold Coast, many people, including the father and relatives of Ayi Kwei Armah, moved there in search of a job. The father must have been prosperous, because he married into the Fante tribe inhabiting the western section of the country where Takoradi is located. Aspects of the family life are presented in the semibiographical Fragments.

Ayi Kwei Armah had his secondary education from 1953 to 1958 at the Prince of Wale's College, now better known as Achimota School, the most prestigious secondary school in Ghana, established by the colonial administration to provide education for the middle class. On account of his outstanding academic performance he was awarded a scholarship for further studies in the United States, where he studied between 1959 and 1963 and obtained a degree cum laude in social studies from Harvard. Later, between 1968 and 1969, he went to Columbia and obtained a graduate degree in fine arts, a feat that was unusual in those days and is rare in Africa today.

From his parentage, upbringing, and education, Ayi Kwei Armah was well marked for a comfortable situation in life as an establishment figure. However, his exposure as a teenager from Africa to the liberal culture of America and also to the radical politics of African Americans, culminating in the street and campus riots of the late 1960s, must have profoundly affected his temperament. The 1966 Ghanaian coup d'état that toppled Kwame Nkrumah from power must also have confirmed him in his views about the corruption of privilege and power. As is shown in Fragments, he therefore opted out of the privilege that would have been his into an austere way of life as a writer living by his pen.

Upon graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a translator in Algeria, then, thanks to the polemical writings of Frantz Fanon, one of the most progressive decolonized countries. He soon returned to Ghana, where from late 1964 until September 1967 he worked first at the then newly established Ghana Television as a scriptwriter under the authority of George Awoonor Williams, now known as Kofi Awoonor. After the 1966 coup d'état, he became a teacher at Navrongo Secondary School in the far north of the country, as if to go as far as he could away from the capital of the country.

He left Ghana in 1967 for France, where he worked briefly on the staff of Jeune Afrique. From there he returned to the United States, where between September 1968 and June 1970 he remained at Columbia as a student and later as a lecturer of fine arts. From August 1970 to June 1976 he taught at the Tanzanian College of National Education of Chang'ombe. He went south in 1976 to teach for the next two years in the Department of English of the National University of Lesotho. In the first half of 1979 he taught as a visiting professor in the Department of African Languages and Literature of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Since then he has been living in Dakar, Senegal, where he has been working as a French and English translator, a job with which he started his working life.

It would appear from his sojourns that Ayi Kwei Armah has planned to live and work in the different cultural zones of Africa so as to become truly pan-African in his outlook. His experience in each significant cultural area is reflected in specific novels giving the perceptive reader a comprehensive account of his outlook on Africa since the colonial era.


Ayi Kwei Armah's first major work, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was published in 1968. Set in Armah's hometown of Takoradi, the novel deals with postcolonial life in Ghana under the supposedly egalitarian government of Kwame Nkrumah. By focusing on three characters in differing circumstances, the novel presents a cross-sectional description of life in Takoradi, Ghana's gateway then to the world.

The main character, an insignificant clerk working in the nation's railway office and finding it hard to make ends meet, is revealed in his social anonymity by the nondefining name of “the man” that he bears. He is the representative of the ordinary person that the nationalist government of the Convention Peoples' Party (the CPP) under Kwame Nkrumah had claimed to be helping. “The man's” predicament as a poorly paid worker living in the slums is both depressing and desperate because nobody sees his plight as a product of the nation's economic malaise. He is despised by his wife and close relatives as a lazy person and loathed by the more affluent as an informer of the government. In his abject situation, he symbolizes the wretchedness of the ordinary Ghanaian in the post-colonial era.

The second major character in the novel is also portrayed as an insignificant and anonymous social being through the nondefining name of “the Teacher” that he bears. As his name suggests, he is the educator and the mentor of the society, the type that in the Far and Near East countries is revered as a guru. The point of the novel is that in the Ghanaian society this guru is marginalized and ignored. The society shuns the ethic of reflection that he seeks to introduce and prefers the “fineries” of the West.

The last major character, Koomson, is the symbol of the desire for materialism. It is part of the message of hopelessness in the novel that it is rather this representative of the negative influences on society who has a significant status and is even, rather cynically on Ayi Kwei Armah's part, the party man of the CPP, the party of the ordinary person. It is no wonder that when the coup d'état occurs toward the end of the novel and the old political and economic guards are swept away, the impression persists that the saviors of the society “are not yet born.”

Ayi Kwei Armah's next major work, Fragments, was published in 1970. It is set in Accra and deals with the homecoming of Onipa Baako, the main character, from his studies in the United States. In terms of subject and treatment, this second published novel rather predates The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Indeed, it is much more conceivable that Ayi Kwei Armah would start his major works with the homecoming of his hero and then follow him in his actions and reactions in his country in subsequent works. It would seem that the two works were handed to the publishers at the same time with Fragments as the first novel and The Beautyful Ones as the sequel, but that the publishers, naturally interested in a hot sell, chose to publish the sequel first.

As in The Beautyful Ones,Fragments focuses on certain significant characters in presenting a picture of a postcolonialist African society: the main character, Onipa Baako, his foil Brempong, his grandmother Naana, his mother Edin, and his girlfriend Juana, the psychiatrist. Onipa Baako, like “the man,” “negates the negative” drive for Western materialism, although unlike “the man” he has a higher social status. Brempong and Edin are like Koomson in the sense that they symbolize the drive for materialism. Naana and the Teacher are alike in that they represent the saner but despised voice in society. Juana, the Puerto Rican psychiatrist who works in one of the state hospitals and who treats Onipa Baako later in the novel when he breaks down and then befriends him, is to be seen as the doctor in the country madhouse. The author uses Juana's perspective for the greater part of the novel because it is she who, by her training and situation as a concerned foreigner, poses the question: what has caused this malaise?

Ayi Kwei Armah's third novel, Why Are We So Blest?, was published in 1972. Set in the progressive decolonized country of Algeria, it, like the previous novels, focuses on the perspectives of certain characters: Modin Dofu, a Ghanaian who had abandoned his studies at Harvard on principle, his white girlfriend Aimee, and Solo, the eventual keeper of his diary, which is the substance of the novel.

In this novel, Armah gives himself a larger canvas in which he surveys the predicament of the entire decolonized continent of Africa. Solo, the representative of “freedom fighters,” has been sidelined by his own comrades and now keeps a menial office job. In that sense, he is like “the man” in having been betrayed by his country's politicians. Unlike “the man,” he is intelligent enough to understand the larger national and international forces at work against him and his continent. As if to take up the question posed by Juana in Fragments, he has found the answer but feels impotent to arrest the situation. At least, he feels impotent to warn Modin.

Modin, also intelligent enough to appreciate what is wrong, fails to understand that he is gradually compromising his principles to be of service to his people by his continued association with Aimee, who throughout the novel is presented as a symbol of the all-enticing West. The point is later made crystal clear in Two Thousand Seasons in the image of the “Springwater” flowing generously to the desert, which in turn gives nothing but destruction.

Aimee, in her frigidity, is like the barren desert. As Modin increasingly tries to arouse her and teach her the need for a warm relationship, he is forced to forgo his own inclinations and do things her way, and that becomes the message of the novel. Modin's life and death, as Solo explains in his footnotes to the diary, become the symbol of the entire Africa's progression from independence, “so woefully assimilated” (56) to the West.

The first three novels were first published by American companies. As Ayi Kwei Armah consistently dealt with the theme of Africa's identity and predicament in his novels, it was to be expected that he, like his fellow writers Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, would turn his attention also to the question of publication.

In East Africa in the 1970s, there was a publishing company, East African Publishing House, devoted to the dissemination of local texts for the populations. Ayi Kwei Armah went to the company for his next novel, Two Thousand Seasons, which was published in 1973, obviously to show that Africa is the center of his reading public.

The novel takes an extensive and epic canvas for its setting, “two thousand seasons” of the development of the entire black continent. The reason is to answer the question posed by Fragments: What has caused the malaise? As the full meaning of Why Are We So Blest? is explained in this novel, so also is the title of Fragments clarified: “Pieces cut off from their whole are nothing but dead fragments” (1). Armah's contention is that Africa's present malaise is the symptom of a thousand-year exploitation by foreigners and their African accomplices addicted to the fineries of the foreigners. To break the vicious cycle, he proposes comradeship: “There is no beauty but in relationships” (206).

Armah's next novel, The Healers, also first published by the East African Publishing House in 1978 and set in the Asante Empire late in the nineteenth century, attempts to show how a nation can be lost through greed and selfishness and won through comradeship. The healers are some of the traditional medicine practitioners. They take very little reward or none for their healing because greed and selfishness are anathema to their calling. In contrast are the power seekers who destroy rather than heal life. Such are most of the traditional leaders and chiefs.

As in his previous novels, Ayi Kwei Armah uses certain characters as representative viewpoints in this novel. The main character, Densu, loathes violence and greed and aspires to become a traditional medicine man. His foil, Ababio, is so ambitious that he destroys life in order to win power. Significantly, upon the coming of colonialist rule, Ababio hoists himself up as an ally of the colonialists in order to consolidate his power. As Ababio explains to Densu, “Those who take care to place themselves on the right side of big changes, when the big changes have taken place, become big men” (29). Reminiscent of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, Ayi Kwei Armah seems to be saying, through Ababio, that such are Africa's present traditional leaders and politicians. No wonder, then, that in the postcolonial era Africa has become the place of the “wretched of the earth.”

Ayi Kwei Armah has been working on his latest novel, Osiris Rising, which, judging solely from the title, promises to deal with the renascence of Africa as a result of the “healing” administered by the beneficent “healers” following “two thousand seasons” of her dark ages. Ayi Kwei Armah is also a literary critic with a number of outstanding articles to his credit. Most of his critical essays have been on essentially the same concerns as his novels: the identity and predicament of Africa. His main concern is for the establishment of a pan-African agency that will rope in all the diverse cultures and languages of the African continent. He calls, for instance, for the adoption of Kiswahili as the continental language of Africa. He expects that the adoption of a continental language will lead to the establishment of a continental publishing house to correct the present intolerable situation: “There is not a single African publishing house capable of printing works, distributing them throughout the continent, exporting the surplus and bringing home the profits, to plough them back into the further development of African literature” (“The Festival Syndrome,” 727). There is ample evidence, therefore, in Ayi Kwei Armah's creative works and critical writings that his primary subject is the situation of Africa at the present time.


Ayi Kwei Armah's first published novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was rapturously received in Ghana, the writer's native land. Outside Ghana, it was also received with considerable interest as an indication of the sophistication of the African novel. The editor, Eldred Jones, of African Literature Today, an authoritative critical journal of African literature, concluded an informative and sympathetic review thus: “Armah has taken the predicament of Africa in general, and Ghana in particular, and distilled its despair and its hopelessness in a powerful, harsh, deliberately unbeautyful novel” (57). Fragmentsconfirmed Ayi Kwei Armah's reputation as a major African writer. He has often since been regarded as belonging to the next generation of African writers after Chinua Achebe. Indeed, his first two novels have been consistently on the reading lists of all departments of English in Ghana's universities and on the list of most departments of literature in Africa.

Although his reputation rests mainly on his first two novels, his later works have also been remarkably well received. Their style is much more oral, suggesting the presence of a traditional tale-teller. The critic Robert Fraser has sought to provide the following explanation for the more direct obtrusion of traditional techniques in those novels: “Armah has evidently become increasingly concerned with the democratic basis of his art. There has been a marked effort to reach out beyond the confines of the literati … to recapture some of the wider ancestral appeal of the oral artist” (Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, X).

Ayi Kwei Armah's novels have a certain air of totality about them that would lead one to speculate that the writer imitates the French novel. However, Armah seems to warn such a possible speculator in his novels and essays that his style is all completely African. As presented in The Healers, his is the “tongue of the story-teller, descendant of the masters in the art of eloquence” (2).


Works By Ayi Kwei Armah

Major Novels

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1969. Translated into Swahili as Wema Hawajazaliwa. Nairobi: Heinemann East Africa, 1976.

Fragments. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974; Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974.

Why Are We So Blest? New York: Doubleday, 1972; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974; Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974. The page reference in the text is to the Heinemann edition.

Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979. Page references are to the Heinemann edition.

The Healers. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1978; London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979. Page references are to the Heinemann edition.

Major Articles

“African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific.” Présence Africaine 64 (1967): 6–30.

“The Caliban Complex.” West Africa March 18 and 25, 1985: 321–322; 570–571.

“The Festival Syndrome.” West Africa April 15, 1985: 726–727.

“Dakar Hieroglyphics.” West Africa May 19, 1986: 1043–1044.

Selected Studies of Ayi Kwei Armah

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975; Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1976.

Dseagu, Samuel. “The Nature of Oral Influence on the African Novel.” Diss. University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1987.

Folarin, Margaret. “An Additional Comment on Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.African Literature Today 5 (1971): 116–128.

Fraser, Robert. “The American Background in Why Are We So Blest?African Literature Today 9 (1978): 39–46.

———. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. “Review: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.African Literature Today 3 (1969): 55–57.

McEwan, Neil. Africa and the Novel. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Ogungbesan, Kolawole. “Symbol and Meaning in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.African Literature Today 7 (1975): 93–110.

Sackey, Edward. “The Relevance of Oral Traditions in the Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah.” M. Phil. diss. University of Ghana, Legon, 1990.




Armah, Ayi Kwei (Vol. 5)