Aláánú*: Ayi Kwei Armah-The Healers Oriate by Ádìsá Ájámú
If we healers are to do the work of helping to bring our people together again, we need to know such work is the work of the community. The work of healers is work for inspirers working long and steadily, in a group that grows over the generations, till there are inspirers, healers wherever our people are scattered, able to bring us together again
--Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers.
Imagination is better than knowledge
The artist faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state—John F. Kennedy
Everywhere on the globe, across its nearly twenty-five thousand miles, African people, generally speaking, are in poor health—physically, mentally, spiritually, culturally and economically. The cause is as clear to see as sunrise on the Serengeti for those blessed with vision—the kind of vision only courage makes possible: we are living in the virulent age of misanthropy, under the aegis of Global White Supremacy. All around us the air is damp and heavy with evidence: rampant global poverty in the midst of unprecedented affluence; imperial wars fought to insure parochial and powerful interest; internecine tribal conflicts that have their root in imperial interference; the consolidation of corporate power fueled by a variant of greed which feeds on diminished opportunity; and international labor and educational practices that belie any notion of human interest or affection. This awful catalog is merely opportunistic infections spawned by this virulent age. The etiology lies elsewhere: a Yurugu virus parasitically replicating itself and devouring in the process anything that moves towards health and wholeness. The resultant toxicity giving rise to opportunistic infections that hold in abeyance the best possibilities for healing and regeneration. Nowhere is the virus and its attendant opportunistic infections (complexities)–literally and figuratively—more epidemic than in the African world.
When one considers the taut, dense, tumorous knot of complexities metastasizing throughout the African world, and the level of skill, will, intent and imagination needed to begin the move towards a healing humanism, it is clear—the Sesh (scribe) Ayi Kwei Armah is amongst the most essential novelists writing today. But why should a novelist, a writer of fiction, lay claim to our attentions? After all given our problems shouldn’t our attention be focused on writers who deal in facts rather than fiction? Wouldn’t our time and attention be better rewarded by science and social science, rather than by literature? And if literature is to reach for our devoted interest, why this novelist?
Literature (art) is vitally important not because it promises to reveal some heretofore undiscovered methodological nugget or some hieroglyphic gem posing as fact—a Rosetta stone for decoding the human condition. But because its aims are complementary with science: to seek (and sometimes uncover) truths about life’s myriad possibilities. Science is in effect wedded to what is; literature to what can be. And precisely because literature is not wedded to fact but rather is obedient only to truth, it can ask questions about human beingness that would be unfathomable as a mode of scientific inquiry, and thus it allows for the most colorful and varied bouquet of human possibility, each flowering possibility suggesting some insight into the la condition humanite. This is not to suggest some violent cleavage between the arts and the sciences, like the kind that C.P. Snow suggests in Two Cultures, but rather a collaboration.
For, while literature may allow the astute reader to ask better and better questions, it is only science that can codify those questions into replicable research frames. However, science will likely never give us as textured a glimpse of what it was like to be an enslaved African as Toni Morrison does in Beloved or as Charles Johnson does in his novel, Middle Passage. Nor is it likely to replicate the felt fear and suffocating ritual of incremental survival under repressive regimes as eloquently as Nurrudin Farah or George Orwell succeed in doing in Sweet and Sour Milk and Nineteen Eighty Four, respectively. In this regard, perhaps the linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky is correct when he suggests that literature will always tell us more about reality than science.
Novelists rely on intimacy, sentience, creative intelligence and the conscientious use of language to uncover truths that lie under the sediment of the human possibility (psyche). The best do so with a measure of grace and precision so subtle that it conceals the deep thought and rigorous erudition that drive their art. Those who excel in this regard are believed to be in possession of what the ancient Kemites called Mdw Nefer-beautiful speech, and they are masters in the art of eloquence. The scribe Ayi Kwei Armah is one of the world’s foremost masters of the art of eloquence. The gifts he offers in deference to his art are seemingly unequaled: a prodigious creative intelligence, scholarly rigor, a musicians understanding of rhythm, harmony and time, and a poet’s ear for balancing lyricism and language.
All of which harmonize in ways that make his novels singular in their virtuosity. His poetic and impassioned voice on behalf of Africa’s “wretched of the earth” and on Africa’s prospects for resuscitation has been among the most searchingly honest, clear and discerning of any deep thinker. And on the subject of the Maafa—Europe’s anti-human onslaught on African humanity, possibility and progress, its antecedents and posttraumatic effects—there may be no more conscious, graceful or prescient writer. For these reasons, he is one of the most written about, studied and controversial of all African writers.
Since the publication of his first novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968)—for which he received high critical praise and international renown—six other novels have flowed from the stylus of this sagacious scribe: Fragments (1970); Why Are We So Blest (1972); Two Thousand Seasons (1973/2000); The Healers (1978/2000); Osiris Rising (1995) and KMT: In the house of life (2002). Of these, three—The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968); Two Thousand Seasons (1973); and The Healers (1978)—are the most widely read and well known.
To understand the importance of this unique artist, his approach to his craft, and why his art should lay special claim to our attentions, it is important to gain an appreciation for social-cultural-political womb that gave first occasion to his unique aesthetic sensibilities. Born in 1938, in Ghana, in the seaport city of Sekondi-Takoardi, Armah came of age at the crossroads of British colonial rule and Ghana’s rise to independence under Kwame Nkrumah in 1957. And like many Africans who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Armah was profoundly influenced by the trivia of colonization, African and Third World independence movements, and the subsequent failures that have become Africa’s current postcolonial nadir. Armah sits comfortably among the generational coterie of artists/activists/intellectuals who similarly situated, came to prominence as the afternoon sun of African decolonization/independence was setting, and the nighttime of neo-colonialism was beginning its predatory sprawl across the horizon. Notable among this group were: writers—Chinua Achebe, Chinweizu and the eventual Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenya), Bessie Head, Peter Abrams, and Eskia Mphalele (South Africa) and poet and critic Taban lo Liyong (Uganda); Visual artists like the auteur Ousmane Sembene (Senegal) and the photographer, Seydou Keita (Mali); and intellectuals and scholars like the formidable Hampate Ba and polymathic Cheikh Anta Diop, among many others.
Each of these of these artists/activists/intellectuals has made grounding contributions to our understanding of the contours and complexities of the African world. However Armah’s artistic reach is distinct: Armah’s art is not so much political as it is moral, and as such, his writing and his vision speaks in a particular way to the essential challenges and questions that have animated African human beingness: Who are we? Who have we been? And who must we still be? He rests easily amongst a small cypher of artists who consciously employ their art in the interest of social—and in Armah’s case, moral—transformation. Armah is distinct in yet another way— he consciously rejects the ossuary of Western aesthetics in which art for art’s sake is the raison d’etre, in favor of an African aesthetic tradition that values creative contribution, both in terms of its pure beauty of form and its complementary clarity of function. Writing in the tradition of a dieli (griot), Armah’s writing makes clear that the goal of the storyteller is to “link memory with forelistening;” to bring African people into stark confrontation with the best and worst of their past and present in the hopes of introducing them to their better selves.
There are certainly other African writers whose literary contributions are part of the arsenal in the ongoing struggle for African self-definition and self-determination—Ngugi certainly comes to mind. But Armah is again unique—the expansiveness of his vision, the rich indigenous sources he employs, the ways in which they are deployed and goal to which they are directed. The emi (spirit) of his novels are unmistakable, a parabolic gift for storytelling, his understanding of rhythm, harmony and balance, a poet’s ear for the lyricism and power of language, all laced over a luxuriant African inflected prose. Think: Cheikh Anta Diop, Hampate Ba, Romare Beaden, Sonia Sanchez and Miles Davis in a deeply knowing conversation about the intricacies of Black love and the myriad possibilities for human resuscitation, redemption and renaissance, and you begin to get a sense of the power and transformative beauty of Armah’s stories. For these reasons—among others—Armah is amongst the most written about, and yet least understood of all the African writers.
Armah’s more recent novels while situated in the present, have been rooted in an examination of the past, in which the narratives are spun along a phenomenal axis of time exist in which the past, present and future are not so much circular as they are spiral—the past, present and future are not different manifestations of the same reality: they are the same reality. This allows Armah to dance in Sankofa-time—to revisit the past as a means of engaging the present in the hopes of re-envisioning and altering the future of Africa and Africans. Ayi Kwei Armah is a “sport of nature” (to use Nadine Gordimer’s phrase)—that rare artist who believes that art ought to engage the world in the hopes of changing it—for the better.
There may be better writers, technically; there may be better writers in terms of imaginative story telling. What the scribe Armah does better than any one else is to transform the spirit of his readers into spirit-papyrus, inscribing on their souls sacred odu that can be read through their actions. And like the scribes of ancient KMT his hope is in writing through us that our collective actions will be read for eternity.
1. Aláánú-the spirit that helps shape or transform consciousness
2. Oriate-responsible for conducting importance spiritual rituals that lead to transformation.
Taken with kind permission from the author: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=185150324553