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.
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.
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.
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.