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Ayi Kwei Armah (1939-)


Ghanaian novelist and poet, known for his visionary symbolism, poetic energy, and the extremely high moral integrity of his political vision. Ayi Kwei 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.

"Forgetfulness helps the diseased cross over the time of greatest pain. It is a sort of sleep, like the sleep brought on by herbs to help a sick man rest when his disease has exhausted him. In that case forgetfulness works toward health. But when the period of forgetfulness is prolonged unnaturally, then it doesn't work toward health. I works toward death."
(The Healers: A Novel by Ayi Kwei Armah, Per Ankh, 2000, p. 97)

Ayi Kwei Armah was born in 1939 to Fante-speaking parents in the twin harbor city of Sekondi Takoradi, in western Ghana. On his father's side Armah was descended from a royal family in the Ga tribe. Armah grew up in this British colonial port, in a multilingual environment. His early education Armah received at the prestigious Achimota College, a secondary school in Accra; its alumni have included Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, and the writer Kofi Awnoor.

In 1959 Armah went on scholarship to the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. After graduating, he entered Harvard University, where he changed from literature to Social Science studies, receiving a degree in sociology, with honors. His friends during this period included the future poet and novelist Fanny Howe, whose home north of Boston he visited with his then-wife, the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, who became a writer and sociologist. "The talk steered invariably toward politics and race," recalled Howe. (The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life, 2003, p. xvi)

While in Harvard, Armah published a short story, entitled 'The Ball,' in Harvad Advocate. Upon moving to Algeria Armah worked as a translator for the magazine Révolution Africaine. Falling seriously ill, he was hospitalized in Algiers and Boston. Armah then returned to Ghana, where he was employed as 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. In in the village of Popenguine, some 70 km from Dakar, he has established his own publishing house, Per Ankh: the African Publication Collective. His first three novels, writted during his time in East Africa, were published by Heinemann, a multi-national company, with which he had a complex relationship from the beginning.

Armah began 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. Partly the work was written as a reaction to the betrayal of the ideals of Uhuru by the Nkrumah government, which was toppled in a military coup in 1966. 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 "a brilliant Ghanaian novelist", but regarded the novel as "a sick book"; the hero is "pale and passive and nameless", and it was a mistake to set the novel in Ghana, not in some modern no-man'land, because "just as the hero is nameless, so should everything else be." (Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, 1997, pp. 170-171) 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. Armah explored some of the experiences – and racial insults – he had encountered on American campuses. The story focused on a student, Modin Dofu, who has dropped out of Harvard. Disillusioned Modin is torn between independence and Western values. He meets a Portugese 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 O.A.S. 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 pluralized 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". Armah's approach is allegorical, the point of view shifts from autobiographical and realistic details to philosophical pondering, prophesying a new age. It is widely believed that Armah wrote this work as a refutation of the thesis of Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (1968, Bound to Violence), which took a revisionist look at the myth of a glorious African past. Armah himself portrayed the ancient Ashante empire more of an inspirational model for the future.

The Healers (1979) mixed fact and fiction about the fall of the celebrated kingdom of Ashanti or Asante. The healers of the title are traditional medicine practitioners. One of them, Damfo, argues: "Sometimes a whole people need healing work. Not a tribe, not a nation. Tribes and nations are just signs that the whole is diseased." (Ibid., 2000, p. 97) Among Armah's targets of satire are colonial fiction and Henry Morton Stanley's reportage on the Anglo-Ashanti war, in which British army commanders are cast in a heroic light. One of them was Captain Golver: "He was general-in-chief, quartermaster-general, commissariat officer, military secretary, pilot, captain, engineer, general supervisor of all things, overseer over all men, conductor of great and small things, and in short, the impellent force of his army", Stanley said. (Coomassie: The Story of the Campaign in Africa 1873-4 by Henry M. Stanley, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1896, p. 71) "Here indeed was the white man in action," Armah mocks. "Glover the godlike, Glover the white man descended among the black people to do magical wonders. The white man looked immensely happy, fulfilled this Saturday morning. Why should he not be? Here was a god, a god among mere men, a beloved father figure among infant-men." (Ibid., 2000, p. 291)

Differing from other major African writers, Armah refused to give interviews, he didn't go on lecture tours and didn't accept invitations to go to writers' conferences.As a novelist Armah remained silent for a long period until 1995 when he published Osiris Rising, about an educational reform group, which reinstates ancient Egypt at the center of its curriculum. The central characters are Ast, an African-American woman searhing for love and self-knowledge, Asar, her old college mate and a radical literature professor, and Seth, also her old school mate, who works for the security force, and represents forces of evil. Basically in Osiris Rising a typical sample of Westerns literary characters have been replaced with new archetypes whose interaction is drawn from African mythology and whose inner nature cannot be explained within the frame of the standard reading.

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 "epitomize an era of intense despair." Especially Armah's later work have evoked strong reaction from many critics. Two Thousand Seasons has been labelled dull and verbose by some reviwers, or called as product of a "philosophy of paranoia, an anti-racist racism – in short, Negritude reborn." (Bernth Lindfors, in Critical Perspectives on Ayi Kwei Armah, edited by Derek Wright, 1992, p. 271) On the other hand Wole Soyinka has argued that Armah's vision "consciously confronts to no inherited or imposed religious doctrine and attendant ethics, frees itself of borrowed philosophies in its search for unifying, harmonizing ideal for a distinctive humanity." (Myth, Literature and the African World by Wole Soyinka, 1976, p. 110)

As an essayist Armah has dealt with the identity and predicament of Africa. The main concern has been for the creation of a pan-African agency that will embrace all the diverse cultures and languages of the continent. In the mid-1960s, Armah and other scholars, such as Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, began to call for the adoption of Kiswahili as the continental language. Dismissing Senghor's Negritude as essentially contrary to the needs of Africans, he joined Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi, Chinua Achebe, and other English-speaking writers and intellectuals of the 1960s, who felt uncomfortable with an ideology that was created in Paris in the 1930s. Twenty years later, reinforcing his stand in an essay entitled 'Battle for the Mind of Africa' (1987), he argued that the African élite "still refuses, out of sheer inertia and habit, to do its own thinking."

For further reading:  Complicity and Responsibility in Contemporary African Writing: the Postcolony Revisited by Minna Johanna Niemi (2021); The Politics of Translating Sound Motifs in African Fiction by Laurence Jay-Rayon Ibrahim Aibo (2020); 'The Female Body Politic: Literary Inscriptions of Mothering, Violence, and Dis(-)ease in the Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah' by Valerie Orlando, in Unraveling Gender, Race & Diaspora, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka and Jennifer Thorington Springer (2016); 'Confronting Politics Through History: a Reading of the Historical Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah and John Edgar Wideman' by Sule Egya, in The Critical Imagination in African Literature: Essays in Honor of Michael J.C. Echeruo, edited by Maik Nwosu and Obiwu (2015); Early West African Writers: Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi and Ayi Kwei Armah by Bernth Lindfors (2010); Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature by James Currey (2008); Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast by Ode Ogede (2000); 'Ayi Kwei Armah (1939-),' by Samuel A. Dseagu, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); An African Focus - A Study of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Narrative Africanization by Leif Lorentzon (1998); The Existential Fiction of Ayi Kwei Armah, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre by Tommie L. Jackson (1996); The Wisdom of the Ages by Yaa Oforiwaa, Akili Addae (1995); Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah by K. Damodar Rao (1993); Critical Perspective on Ayi Kwei Armah, edited by. Derek Wright (1992); Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa by Derek Wright (1989); The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah by Robert Frase (1980); Myth, Literature and the African World by Wole Soyinka (1976)

Selected bibliography:

  • 'The Ball', 1964 (short story, in Harvard Advocate)
  • 'The Night Club Girl', 1964 (short story, in Drum, repr. as 'The Offal Kind, Hamer's Magazine, 1969)
  • 'Contact', 1965 (short story, in The New African)
  • 'Aftermath', 1966 (poem, publ. in Okyeame)
  • 'Asemka', 1966 (short story, in Okyeme)
  • 'African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific', 1967 (in Présence Africaine 64)
  • 'Yaw Manu's Charm', 1968 (short story, in Atlantic Monthly)
  • The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, 1968
  • 'An African Fable', 1968 (short story, in Présence Africaine)
  • Fragments, 1970 - Pirstaleita (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1971)
  • 'Aftermath,' 1971 (poem, publ. in Messages: Poems from Ghana, ed. Kofi Awoonor & G. Adali-Mortty)
  • Why Are We So Blest?, 1972 - Mistä meille tämä armo? (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1979)
  • Two Thousand Seasons, 1973
  • 'Black Star', 1974 (in Black World)
  • 'Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali', 1974 (in Black World)
  • 'Chaka', 1975 (in Black World, repr. as 'The Definitive Chaka, Transition, 1976)
  • 'Larsony, or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction', 1976 (in Asemka, repr. in New Classic, 1977, and Positive Review, 1979)
  • The Healers: A Historical Novel, 1978
  • 'Halfway to Nirvana', 1984 (short story, in West Africa)
  • 'One Writer's Education', 1985 (in West Africa, 26 August)
  • Flood and Famine, Drought and Glut', 1985 (West Africa, September 30)
  • 'The Caliban Complex', 1985 (West Africa, March 18 and 25)
  • 'The Festival Syndrome', 1985 (West Africa, April 15)
  • 'Dakar Hieroglyphics', 1986 (West Africa, May 19)
  • 'Battle for the Mind of Africa', 1987 (in South, August)
  • 'Seed Times,' 1988 (poem, in West Africa, 13 February)
  • 'The News', 1988 (poem, in West Africa, 23 May)
  • 'Speed', 1989 (poem, in West Africa, 13 February)
  • 'Doctor Kamikaze', 1989 (short story, in Mother Jones, repr. as 'The Development Agent', CODESRIA Bulletin 4, 1990)
  • Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa's Past, Present and Future, 1995
  • Hieroglyphics for Babies, 2002 (with Aboubacry Mousa Lam)
  • KTM: In the House of Life, 2002
  • The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature, 2006

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