Last Updated on June 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
A rattling bus drives down a road in Ghana just before dawn. Once the passengers depart, the conductor counts the money collected for tickets, hoping to find extra change from passengers who overpaid. The narrator remarks that during Passion Week, the passengers usually give exact change. This makes collecting fares easy but not as profitable. The narrator refers to the passengers as sleepwalkers, barely aware of their own surroundings, but they feel somewhat more alive on payday. The conductor finds a cedi, a larger unit of paper currency. He muses on why the paper money should be worth more than the coins before noticing a strong musty smell coming from the bank note. Despite the unpleasant smell, the conductor presses his face to the bill, feeling both pleasure and embarrassment at his actions.
The conductor senses a man in the bus staring at him, which makes him angry and afraid; he feels accusation in the watcher’s expression. He goes to offer the man a cigarette but realizes the watcher has been asleep the whole time. The watcher has also been drooling, so the conductor lashes out at him, and the watcher rushes to wipe away the spittle. The conductor kicks the man off of the bus, so he proceeds to stumble away down the road. He approaches an overflowing trash can, and the narrator recounts how the country has attempted but failed to keep towns cleaner by installing these receptacles.The man who just left the bus puts some old bus tickets on top of the trash pile before walking to the road, where he is almost hit by a taxi.
The narrator reflects on how little the country has changed since gaining its independence. Officials are still taking bribes; there is still corruption. The narrator describes a hotel on the top of a hill, the Atlantic-Caprice, which has spotlights referred to as “the gleam.” The gleam can both repel and attract people, and the narrator suggests the gleam is misleading and disturbing. The man reaches the Block, home of the railway offices. The narrator explains that the building has been painted and repainted countless times but that its appearance and integrity never improve. The man walks into the railroad building, which, like the bus at the start of the chapter, is rotting and decaying.
As the man enters the railway building to start his day’s work, he notices that the night clerk has fallen asleep on the job. After the clerk wakes up, he reports that there was not much work during the night but that the night was bad for him because he was alone. The narrator muses on how the night shift can increase one’s loneliness because of the sounds of the trains moving towards their destinations. Some of the telephone lines went dead during the night, but that is a common occurrence. The man looks over the log book as the night clerk departs.
A messenger arrives and tells the man he has won the lottery, but the man is sure the money will never be paid. The messenger and the man share a joke about how corrupt Ghana is before the Morse machine starts to transmit a message from another station. People greet one another as workers and messengers come and go, but they eventually work in silence, fatigued by the heat.
The narrator describes the moisture of the railway building, which is a result of both the sea outside and the people in the building. The workers come in, do their jobs, and return home. The man sends a message to a worker at another station and they have a brief conversation via the Morse machine. He wonders about human communication and how seldom people open up to one another. The man thinks about the deadening monotony of human life and contrasts this with the possibilities represented by the trains, which are always going somewhere else, “out ahead.” The man follows the rail line and crosses a bridge, observing the movement of the water. The man feels melancholy, pondering abstract questions that he knows he cannot answer.
The day is uneventful, as are most days in the man’s job. He thinks about how people are unexcited to go back to their homes after work but are just happy to be “fleeing” their workplaces. For the man, the office does not feel as constrictive when the other workers have left. The Morse machine continues to report on details of train arrivals and departures. A man wearing kente cloth enters and approaches the protagonist. He is described as wolflike, with rows of teeth, and asks to see the allocation clerk. The protagonist reports that the clerk will not be in until the following morning. However, the visitor insists that the man help him with his “private” issue. He says that he has lumber to sell to the railway; the wood has not been picked up and will rot. The visitor attempts to bribe the man with two banknotes, worth ten cedi each. The man turns down the bribe, and the visitor laughs hysterically at the controller’s show of integrity. The man considers how easily people can fall into a life of corruption, noting that it seems “unnatural” for him to refuse the bribe.
The sweeper enters the office to clean up, and the narrator reveals that this is one of three jobs the sweeper has worked over the course of the day. The sweeper assumes that his current position is only temporary and that greater things await him. As the man leaves the station, he descends the stairs toward his own shadow, anxious about his future.
The beginning of Armah’s novel establishes an atmosphere of decay and futility. The bus that travels in the dark is characterized by “its confused rattle [which] had given place to an endless spastic shudder.” The narrator ironically asserts that it sounds “as if its pieces were held together by so much rust ever to fall completely apart.” This description suggests that the bus is so decrepit that its very disrepair is somehow the only thing keeping it going. In the same chapter, the narrator introduces the symbolic waste receptacle, “one of the few relics of the latest campaign to rid the town of its filth.” The drive to “Keep [the] Country Clean” is short-lived, as represented by the state of the trash bin, which is flooded and surrounded by garbage. Finally, the railway building where the protagonist works is described as grimy and greasy, a disgusting canvas upon which multiple coats of paint attempt to hide the sordid surface.
The first set of chapters also introduce the theme of corruption. The bus conductor sifts through fares looking for extra change to keep for himself, while the narrator later comments that “the same old stories of money changing hands and throats getting moistened and palms getting greased” continue to tarnish the nation in its newfound independence rather than inspiring outrage in the citizens. A pivotal scene occurs when the protagonist turns down a bribe from a merchant seeking a lumber contract. Corruption is so widespread in Ghana that the lumber man had “a look on [his] face [that] made it plain that . . . no sane man would give an answer” like that of the protagonist, who refuses the money.
Indeed, the citizens of Amrah’s Ghana not only fail to refuse bribes or express outrage at decay and disrepair, they also seem to move through life completely unaware of the moral and physical corruption around them. Amrah terms them “sleepwalkers,” as they proceed through everyday tasks by rote, ignoring larger existential considerations like “the final futility of their efforts” or “the endless round that shrinks a man to something less than the size and the meaning of little short-lived flying ants on rainy nights.” It is the narrator and sometimes the protagonist who muse on these grim realities. Given Amrah’s motif of sleepwalking, it is fitting that the first pivotal scene in the novel occurs when the bus conductor feels judged by the eyes of a man who, it turns out, is actually asleep.
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