Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Armah clearly states his central theme, which is in fact a thesis, in the opening words of the first chapter: “We are not a people of yesterday.” Whites, whether Arab or European, have attempted to erase the African past and force the African into their cultures. Armah’s history attempts to re-create that past, claiming that the link to it never died; an unending chain of griots has preserved its knowledge. Not only that, but ancient prophecy and recent events show that while Africa for centuries moved in the direction of foreign influence, the momentum has shifted and Africa is beginning to assert its own proper identity. A definition of African culture is the core idea of the novel. It is found essentially in the word “reciprocity.” Unlike the European and Arab civilizations, which encourage individualism, personal aggrandizement, and power relationships (or rivalries), the African ideal assumes a communal aspect, mutual respect and obligation, a connectedness with the group. That one person should be “king” over the group or that anyone would look beyond the community to “serve” a master-god is absurd. The narrator is amazed that the two white religions would take seriously its fables, which are fit only for children and which attempt to depict who God is. The African cannot live apart from the community; only there does he have a soul. The individual alone is the smaller self that ends in madness and the loss of soul. Only the strongest...

(The entire section is 554 words.)