Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
The novel opens with a lyrical prologue in which the narrator, who assumes the role of a griot, the poet-historian of the village, calls out to other gifted voices to realize their proper “vocation.” They must understand that the past one thousand years (two thousand seasons) in Africa have been, first, a movement toward death, and then, a movement away from death, that Africa has been following alien ways—which are death to the black culture. The prologue announces the purpose of the novel: to retell the story of Africa, in particular the story of Ghana, from the moment in history when the people first abandoned the “way” to the coming of the Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century.
The first third of the novel traces the migration of the Ghanaian people from the semi-arid regions of the Western Sudan to their present home. It insists that there was a time when Africans (Ghanaians) lived under a communal code of mutual respect. The fall of the ancient way of life began when the African community, through a “ruinous openness,” welcomed strangers into their midst, the Arabs of North Africa. These “predators” gradually began to force their culture, including their religion, on their hosts and enslaved their bodies and their minds. The consequences became visible when black men began to consider themselves superior to women, who eventually assumed the tedious daily chores and hence a de facto responsibility for the society. The prophetess Anoa arose to warn of two thousand seasons of suffering. The women revolted against the Arab elite in a bloody orgy and drove them from their region, but the predators returned to reestablish their authority. Since the only hope seemed escape, a large number of the population secretly left their homes to journey to the South in search of a new land to settle. The pilgrimage, with its fears of pursuit, conflicts with hostile peoples along the way, and doubts of success, ended after many years in a region quite different from the desert, a region close to the sea with water and vegetation.
It was like the old, however, in that it was far from being the promised land. Not only had the people brought with them the memory of the Arab culture, which they again, in the luxury of the new world, imitated, but also they faced a new danger from the sea: The Europeans were just beginning, toward the end of the nineteenth century, to make inroads into West Africa via the waterways. These “destroyers” were to take advantage of the inner weakness of the society, already tainted by Islam. The historical panorama ends with the enumeration of weak kings, “ostentatious cripples” whose weak souls sought power over others. The last of these kings, Koranche, ruled toward the end of the nineteenth century and was responsible for permitting the sovereignty of aliens—a repetition of what had happened a thousand years earlier in the desert.
The latter two-thirds of the novel treats in detail two generations of Ghanaians, living in the village of Anoa around 1900. In the older group, only Isanusi and his beautiful companion, Idawa, prove to be strong defenders of traditional African culture. Idawa is alienated from this society because she refuses to marry Koranche, and Isanusi is cast out because he publicly denounces the king’s policy of dealing with the English, who, he insists, are there only to exploit the land and the people and to destroy their souls. Twenty among the younger generation, who pursue the rites of initiation up to the final stage—“the knowledge of a craftsmanship of the soul”—come to realize that power is now in the hands of “rotten souls.” During the initiation ceremony, they escape into “the fifth grove,” where they encounter Isanusi, living in exile. Though he warns them of the danger of returning, they still believe that they can live within the community. Koranche, however, tricks them into boarding an English ship, claps them in irons, and sends them on to a slave ship that will take them to America. After some gruesome descriptions of the “Middle Passage,” this particular trip is aborted before the ship can leave the African coast. The slaves revolt and some of them decide to make the long journey back to the fifth grove outside Anoa. They train themselves in guerrilla warfare and, in their first major offensive, infiltrate the English fort, slaughter the guards, and transport guns and powder back to their hideout. Koranche eventually manages to assassinate Isanusi, but the guerrillas kill Koranche in turn and begin a series of raids in an open war with the British-run colony.
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