Ayi Kwei Armah Biography
Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah attained international renown for his fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite his fame Armah maintained an intensely private life and rarely gave interviews and distanced himself from discussions of his craft. Though critics disagreed about the literary merit of his English-language works, his six novels and numerous short stories provide a glimpse of life in Ghana in the tumultuous years following its independence from Britain.
Armah was born in 1938 in Takoradi, a seaport on Ghana's coast. His heritage was Fante, one of the major ethnic groups in the country, and he came from an elite family. At the time of his birth, the West African nation was a colony of Britain, but the first twenty years of his life coincided with Ghana's long battle for independence. On March 6, 1957, Armah's land became the first colonial African country to win the sovereignty struggle. Around this time, Armah was a student at the Achimota College, a secondary school in Accra, Ghana's capital, and in 1959 won a scholarship to the Groton School in Massachusetts, a prestigious boarding school for boys whose alumni include President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as numerous Wall Street titans. From there, Armah went on to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in sociology. His first published short story appeared in a 1964 Harvard Advocate issue.
During this period of his absence, Ghana descended into political chaos. Its socialist, one-party rule was overthrown by an army coup, and years of internal wrangling and instability followed. Keeping his distance from the turmoil for a time, Armah lived in Algeria and worked as a translator for Révolution Africaine magazine in 1963 before coming back to take a job as a scriptwriter for Ghana Television. He also taught English at the Navrongo School in Ghana's city of the same name in 1966 before leaving for Paris to edit Jeune Afrique ("Young Africa"), a French-language weekly news magazine, for a year.
Armah's first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was published in 1968. It begins with a bus ride taken by its anonymous main character through Accra, where he sees this inscription that serves as the title. "By implication it refers back to the Teacher's story of Plato's cave," according to an essay on Armah's work in Contemporary Novelists, "where the one man who escapes from the cave and returns to tell his fellow sufferers of the beautiful world outside is thought to be mad by those in the 'reassuring chains.'" The man in question is a railway clerk, but refuses to take bribes, which keeps his family in poverty and incites their scorn. His old friend Koomson, meanwhile, has become wealthy as a government minister thanks to the endemic corruption. In the end, the man helps Koomson escape certain death when he becomes one of the hunted in crackdown on corrupt officials.
In his next novel, Fragments, Armah once again cast a critical eye on modern Ghanaian society. The protagonist in this 1970 work is Baako, who had been living in America but has returned in order to become a screen-writer in his homeland. His family and friends clamor to see genuine proof that he has gone abroad and prospered, but Baako is disillusioned by their rampant new materialism. His grandmother, Naana, represents traditional village ways, and he worries that the wisdom of the elders will soon vanish in the rush to attain consumer goods. "Traditional ceremonies, such as Baako's baby nephew's outdooring, have lost their spiritual significance and become an opportunity for ostentation and avarice," noted the Contemporary Novelists essay about Fragments, and "the plot suggests that Naana's fears for the baby as the victim of this irreligious display are justified, for he dies in the course of it."
With Ghana still mired in political chaos, Armah kept moving: he taught at the University of Massachusetts and then settled in Tanzania in 1970. For several years he taught African literature and creative writing at the College of National Education in Dar es Salaam, the capital city. After 1976 he taught at the National University of Lesotho, a country located within South Africa. He continued to produce essays for various journals, including Black World and West Africa, on literary and political topics, while working on his third novel, Why Are We So Blest? The work was issued by Doubleday in 1972, and centers on Modin, who has been educated abroad and comes back to Africa eager to take part in its new revolutionary struggle. His involvement with a white woman, however, contributes to his horrific mutilation in the midst of a guerrilla war. Aimée and the other white women in the novel are not sympathetically presented, and instead seem to be depicted as sexual predators.
Critics often group Armah's first three novels together, for their literary style and themes seem to reflect the writer and exile's struggle to understand his homeland. They also contain a dark humor that betrays Armah's less-than-favorable appraisal of what happened in Ghana after independence. "Bereft of any sense of community or direction, the educated élites and the masses are shown as actively engaged in their own betrayal, collaborating in the neo-colonial plunder and impoverishment of their national heritages," summarized S. Nyamfukudza of Armah's early works in a critical essay that appeared in the New Statesman in 1980.
Armah's fourth book, Two Thousand Seasons, published in 1973, featured a new style of prose that borrowed more heavily from folk tales than of Western literary constructs. Its time is hard to place, but its setting is Africa, and the plot centers around a group of people who are fleeing some Arab invaders. The Africans head south, only to meet European slave traders making raids. Some of the group are taken, but later escape from the slave ship. The story seems to grapple with the idea of Africa and its destiny as shaped by outside people's forces. Armah's next work, The Healers, also deals with the past: in this case, the fall of the once-mighty Ashanti empire in Ghana, as does Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future. Though written in English, it was not published in the West after its 1995 issue by a Senegalese house. Armah lives in the capital of Senegal, Dakar.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Fragments, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Why Are We So Blest?, Doubleday, 1972.
Two Thousand Seasons, East African Publishing House, 1973.
The Healers, East African Publishing House, 1978.
Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future, Per Ankh, 1995.
African Writers, vol. 1, Scribner's, 1997.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, eds., Gale, 1992.
Fraser, Robert, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, 1980.
Ogede, Ode, Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast, Ohio University Press, 2004.
New Statesman, March 7, 1980, pp. 362-363.
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