The Herald (Harare)

18 June 2012

Zimbabwe: Know Your Author - Ayi Kwei Armah

Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian novelist and poet known for his visionary symbolism, poetic energy, and the extremely high moral integrity of his political vision. Armah's first three novels were hailed as modernistic prose, while his next two challenged the Euro-centric notions of history.

Armah has lived and worked in the different cultural zones of Africa. Much of Armah's earlier work deals with the betrayed ideals of Ghanaian nationalism and Nkrumahist socialism.

Ayi Kwei Armah was born in 1939 to Fante-speaking parents in the twin harbour city of Sekondi Takoradi, in western Ghana. On his father's side Armah was descended from a royal family in the Ga tribe.

Armah attended the prestigious Achimota College. In 1959 he went on scholarship to the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. After graduating, he entered

Harvard University, receiving a degree in sociology. Armah then moved to Algeria and worked as a translator for the magazine Révolution Africaine.

In 1964 Armah returned to Ghana, where he was a scriptwriter for Ghana Television and later taught English at the Navarongo School. Between the years 1967 and 1968 he was editor of Jeune Afrique magazine in Paris. In 1968-70 Armah studied at Columbia University, obtaining his M.F.A. in creative writing.

In the 1970s Armah worked as a teacher in East Africa, at the College of National Education, Chamg'omge, Tanzania, and at the National University of Lesotho. He has also lived in Dakar, Senegal from the 1980s and taught at Amherst, and University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Armah started his career as a writer in the 1960s. He published poems and short stories in the Ghanaian magazine Okyeame, and in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and New African. Armah's first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born (1968), was an allegorical story of the failure of an African ruling.

The protagonist is an anonymous railway office clerk, simply called "the man," who struggles in the slums against poverty on one side and material greed on the other. He is pressured by his acquisitive family and fellow workers to accept the norms of society, bribery and corruption in order to guarantee his family a comfortable life.

His virtues go largely unrewarded, his wife thinks him a fool, and his relatives prosper. At the end of the novel, the moral strength of "the man" is contrasted to a once-powerful politician, who has been deposed in a military coup.

In the essay "Africa and Her Writers" (1972), presented at the Eliot House, Harvard University, Chinua Achebe perceived Armah as a brilliant Ghanaian novelist, but an "alienated native" and argued that it was a mistake to set the novel in Ghana, not in some "modern, existentialist no-man's land", because if "the hero is nameless, so should everything else be". As a reaction to the criticism, Armah replied with several abusive letters to Achebe.

In Fragments (1971), the protagonist, Baako, is a "been-to", a man who has been to the United States and received his education there. Back in Ghana he is regarded with superstitious awe as a link to the Western life style. Baako's grandmother Naana, a blind-seer, stands in living contact with the ancestors. Under the strain of the unfilled expectations Baako finally breaks. As in his first novel, Armah contrasts the two worlds of materialism and moral values, corruption and dreams, two worlds of integrity and social pressure.

Why Are We So Blest? (1972) was set largely in an American University, and focused on a student, Modin Dofu, who has dropped out of Harvard. Disillusioned Modin is torn between independence and Western values. He meets a Portuguese black African named Solo, who has already suffered a mental breakdown, and a white American girl, Aimée Reitsch.

Solo, the rejected writer, keeps a diary, which is the substance of the novel. Aimée's frigidity and devotion to the revolution leads finally to destruction, when Modin is killed in the desert by OAS revolutionaries.

Not many African authors have dealt with the slave trade in the African past. However, this subject was touched on by Armah in Two Thousand Seasons (1973), an epic, in which a pluralised communal voice speaks through the history of Africa, its wet and dry seasons, from a period of one thousand years.

Arab and European oppressors are portrayed as "predators," "destroyers," and "zombies". The novel is written in allegorical tone, and shifts from autobiographical and realistic details to philosophical pondering, prophesying a new age.

The Healers (1979) mixed fact and fiction about the fall of the celebrated Ashante empire. The healers in question are traditional medicine practitioners who see fragmentation as the lethal disease of Africa.

Armah remained silent as a novelist for a long period until 1995 when he published Osiris Rising, depicting a radical educational reform group, which reinstates ancient Egypt at the centre of its curriculum.

Armah has often been regarded as belonging to the next generation of African writers after Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

At the same time he is said to "epitomise an era of intense despair." Especially Armah's later works have evoked strong reaction from many critics. Two Thousand Seasons has been labelled dull and verbose, although Wole Soyinka considered its vision secular and humane.

As an essayist Armah has dealt with the identity and predicament of Africa. His main concern is for the creation of a pan-African agency that will embrace all the diverse cultures and languages of the continent. Armah has called for the adoption of Kiswahili as the continental language. -- www.africansuccess.org.

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