Ěsokan*: Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons, Part I (by Áděsá Ájámú)
"Our way, the way, is not a random path. Our way begins from coherent understanding. It is a way that aims at preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate to each other, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surrounding. If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way”
Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons (TTS) is simultaneously a work of art, an oriki for Pan Africanism, a manifesto against white supremacy and an ancestral alarum—a reminder of the best of who we have been, who we have become, and who we still can—and must—be. As a work of art its contributions to African literature and literature more broadly are singular and unprecedented in the history of literature. That this is not acknowledged or even raised as a possibility has to do with the themes TTS takes up — Pan Africanism as the most vital and vibrant expression of African self love and self determination; Maat as the highest expression of the African moral code and social order; collectivism as the fiercest expression of a community’s spiritual development; that ego, individualism and division are the disease—love and connected consciousness the antidote; that African liberation and the quest to end global white supremacy are both human possibilities and responsibilities--and the writer’s uncompromising stance against Europe’s continuing onslaught on African humanity and progress. Appreciating what makes TTS an unprecedented artistic achievement can best be understood by placing it alongside a novel that many believe—rightly or wrongly—to be the best African novel ever written, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In this way we can see how these two African artists construct their art from two different íwŕgbayé (worldviews).
Art is always the outgrowth of a series of conversations, conversations between the artists and her/his medium— “I start to think and then I sink into the paper like I was ink…committed to page write rhymes sometimes don’t finish for days”--conversations between the artists and other artists, between the artists and society, and between the artists and their community of appreciators and appraisers. Thus artists, as conversationalist, and therefore masters of the arts of eloquence, are always, whether knowingly or unknowingly, engaged in a ritual of call and response. The question of whom the artist is calling to and thus from whom the artist expects a response are shaped by their cultural location and íwŕgbayé (worldview). Ancient African traditions understood and codified this conversational process as a form of speech. In the Nile Valley, it was understood as Mdw Neter-divine speech and Mdw Nefer—beautiful speech. Among the Dogon, it is known as Nommo, with differing manifestations of the word--Giri So, Benne So, Bolo So. And among the Yoruba as Ofo Ase and Ase. (While it is beyond the scope of this essay, it is important to note each of those are different from ritual speech (Heka/Eleda/So Dayi) in which each word carries a particular vibration, resonance and frequency, which when placed in a precise sequence are designed to harmonize with the listener and facilitate transformation in the listener/speaker at the cellular-molecular-neurological-spiritual levels—“How can I move the crowd, first of all aint no mistakes allowed.”) Thus in the African íwŕgbayé (worldview) art as speech is always a communal act in which the artists and the various communities are involved in an intergenerational dialogue which co-creates the art.
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (TFA) was written, in part, as a response Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, in an effort to correct Conrad’s racist depictions of Africa and Africans. Defending the image and interests of African people is always commendable, and it is clear that Achebe was defending the image of African peoples, but whose interests was he protecting? This raises a couple questions: 1) For whom was he speaking, that is, what community was Achebe representing? 2) To whom was Achebe speaking, that is, what community was he speaking to? In other words, as an African artist, writing a novel about African people, who was Achebe creating his art for and in whose tradition was he standing when created it?
First let’s consider the title of Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart. The title of a book is like naming a child, the name a parent chooses for tells us something about the nature of the parents and their vision for the child. So from whose tradition did he derive the name (title)of his book, the African tradition or the European tradition? Did he look to Ptahotep, the writer of the first book ever? No. Did he look to the book of Khun Anup for answering inspiration? No. Does he reach for any of the ancient masters of the arts of eloquence, dielis like Mamadou Kouyate, Tiondi Magassouba, Sogolon Djata, or Balla Fasseke? No. Does he reach for any Igbo traditionalists? No. He reaches for Yeats, a European, writing out of his own Irish cultural tradition, and uses his poem, The Second Coming to provide the asili (seed) for his “African” novel:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
THINGS FALL APART; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
From whose classical tradition does Achebe’s novel derive its narrative structure, the Kemetic tradition? No. He employs a European classical form, the Greek tragedy for his narrative foundation and upon which he then overlays the Igbo story. In effect, he dresses Sophocles in kente and a kufi offers it as African narrative. The destructive and disrupt clash between Africa and Europe is told through the eyes of an individual (Okonkwo) and not from the perspective of the entire Igbo community. Okonkwo is positioned as the prototypical tragic hero in the Greek tragedies. The Greek tragedies are comprised two basic elements: 1) Hamartia, which are basically a character flaws such as arrogance or impetuousness which proves to be harmful to others; and Peripeteia-a fall from grace as a result of the character flaw. It was Aristotle who noted that peripeteia was the most powerful part of a plot in a tragedy along with discovery—Okonkwo doesn’t lead a victorious quest to remove the Europeans that have defiled his culture, instead he kills himself, which is a violation of his own culture. Once you understand symbolic significance of that gesture, it is not surprising that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has been celebrated in the West as a great work of “African fiction”, because it is within the western literary tradition that the novel intentionally places itself and thus defers to. And it is toward the European community that the novel is intended to be in conversation with. Africans, however, are allowed to eavesdrop (lol).
Armah’s Ěwŕgbayé: Two Thousand Seasons
In Armah’s Two Thousand Season we encounter a radically different notion of African fiction. From the first sentence of the first chapter, we are clear that this novel is operating from a different íwŕgbayé: “We are not the people of yesterday.”
Right away Armah is signaling the reader that this story will not be told through an individual “I” but through the collective “WE.” This marks a signal achievement in the history of modern literature, never before had someone attempted to write a novel in a collective—WE—voice before. But who is Armah’s audience? In the interest of Maat, let us ask of Armah’s novel the same questions we asked of Achebe’s novel. 1) For whom was he speaking, that is, what community was he representing? 2) To whom was he speaking, that is, what community was he speaking to? In other words, as an African artist, writing a novel about African people, who was Armah creating his art for and in whose tradition was he standing when created it? A passage from the prologue provides our answer:
“Our way, the way, is not a random path. Our way begins from coherent understanding. It is a way that aims at preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate to each other, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surrounding. If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way”
Like Achebe, Armah’s novel is also written in part as a response to another novel, Le Devoir de Violence (Bound To Violence) by the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem (1968). Yambo Ouologuem novel was a severe critique of African nationalism, and little more than an apologia for neocolonialism. Like Things Fall Apart, it was well recieved and celebrated in the west, winning Prix Renaudot one of France’s highest literary awards. TTS was shaped by Armah living in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania which was engaging in a African socialist project. Both “conversations” with Ouologuem and with Nyerere’s ujamaa vision shaped the animating vision of Two Thousand Seasons. Armah in constructing TTS chooses to write an Africanized form of English, then builds his narrative on the ancient African prophesy of Anoa which forecast two thousand seasons of tulmult eventual triumph, and two Akan narrative traditions to drive his story Anansesem –history of a people as told through the family and Abakosem- history of a people as told through the history of a nation. In so doing he is consciously employing Sankofa time--which can best be conceptualized as a circle in spiral form—rather than linear time.
Two Thousands Seasons takes place over a one thousand year period of African history—500 year seasons in which the maafa precipitates Africans descent into the desert (white supremacy) and 500 year season crawling towards the spring water (Pan Africanism rooted in Maat). “Spring water flowing to the desert, where you flow there is no regeneration.” The story revolves around a group of twenty teenagers—11 males and nine females—who are captured, sold into slavery and later escape. However instead of returning to their families, they make the fateful decision—as a collective: to move along the slaving coast and risk their freedom and their lives by freeing other Africans. In other words, they make a conscious decision to place collective survival ahead of individual survival; to become freedom fighters. The notion of personal sacrifice in the interest of revolutionary struggle is soft nod to one of Armah’s biggest influences, Frantz Fanon: “If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way”
Nothing with Armah is accidental, so one must ask, why 20 teenagers, why not ten, fifteen or twenty-five teenagers? To answer the question of the twenty freedom fighters we have to look further into the vision that animates Armah’s art. Armah is a Pan Africanist in this regard he sees Africans as one people, and thus rejects the idea of micro-nationalism, viewing national identities as part of the disease of division that afflicts African people. Thus Two Thousand Seasons is written from a Pan or ALL African perspective, and Armah uses names, mythologies and oral traditions from across the entire continent to inform his artistic/ political/ moral vision. Including the Yoruba, here in a fist bump to Wole Soyinka, Armah uses the twenty teenagers as the living embodiment of the 21 roads or life paths of the Yoruba orisa Esu, the messenger and the owner of the crossroad. Each of 20 freedom fighters represents a possible road to liberation. But now we have an algebraic conundrum: there are only twenty teenagers and we have just noted that Esu has twenty-one roads, so we are missing one person. We must solve for X. Where is the missing 21st person, or rather who is the missing 21st person? Ah, we have our first mystery. In order to solve for X and unlock the first mystery, the reader has to know something about Yoruba mythology or Ňrěsŕ /Ifá, specifically they must know something about the relationship between Esu and Yemoja.
W'ŕiyé**: Esu and Yemoja’s Divine Conversation
Esu’s number is three—representing the three dimensions of reality, that is the most rudimentary understanding—and we have already established that there are 21 roads of Esu. However these roads are comprised of three separate dimensions of seven roads of each, which speak to different paths that exist at different dimensions of reality: 1) seven roads of Esu on the physical dimension; 2) seven roads of Esu at the metaphysical dimension, and 3) seven roads of Esu that lay beyond the human comprehension of time and space, combined they provide us with the 21 roads.
Yemoja’s number is seven; seven in the African tradition represents a type of complete-incompleteness. At first glance this appears to be an oxymoron, but only if one views it from a western perspective. In the African worldview all possibilities exists and don’t exist, simultaneously. What makes a possibility exist or not exist is the relationship that is in play. This is, in part, what Armah means by the following passage: “There is no beauty but in relationships. Nothing cut off by itself is ever beautiful…All beauty is in the creative purpose of our relationships”
Consider Yemoja who represents the depths of the ocean, the ocean is in one sense a complete aquatic system, until you consider the whole ecosystem, and then you realize that without the earth and the sky the ocean is incomplete, it is their relationship that gives each their force. Esu and Yemoja work well together because Esu is the only one of the orisa that can exist on all three dimensions simultaneously, in other words Esu helps keep Yemoja connected and balanced, keeps her from living solely inside herself, and Yemoja keeps Esu focused on the matters that matter (being the messenger) instead of playing with all the possibilities (the trickster). Think of it this way, the moisture from the ocean becomes rain which provides water for life and also returns to ocean. Esu facilitates that conversation. Here again we return to Armah reference to water (Yemonja) as the source of life and Esu as the choices one must make in life: 3x7=21
“Spring water flowing to the desert, where you flow there is no regeneration. The desert takes.”
Esu provides the path to regeneration. So now we know why the number 21 is important to Armah; but we also know that there are only twenty protagonists when there should be 21. However we still don’t know who is supposed to be the 21st person. Another passage from the prologue provides our answer:
“You hearers, seers, imaginers, thinkers, remembers, you prophets called to communicate truths of the living way to a people fascinated unto death, you called to link memory with forelistening, to join the uncountable seasons of our flowing to unknown tomorrows even more numerous, communicators doomed to pass on truths of our origins to a people rushing deathward, grown contemptuous in our ignorance of our source, prejudiced against our own survival, how shall your vocation’s utterance be heard?”
So who is the missing person, the 21st freedom fighter in the novel? YOU. You, the reader are the missing person; you make up the 21st road, the road to liberation, the road to the future. Armah has included the reader into the story because the goal is for the reader, after having read the book, to do—“to link memory with forelistening” and to make “your vocations utterance heard.” By using the collective WE rather than the individual I, the goal is to draw you into the story so that when you emerge you are moved to action. Armah by relying on the collective voice is asking the reader to write the rest of the story, to answer the ancestral call, and continue the quest for liberation, with their actions--to rediscover and recreate the way, our way.
Part II will focus the essentiality of African Women in the African Liberation in TTS 11/1/2009
*Ěsokan (unity)—creating a unified whole out of separate parts.
** W'ŕiyé--The gateway between Orun (heaven) and Ile (earth)
Taken with permission of the author from facebook http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=194798359553