By Araba Amuasi
Class of 2007
Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) is a generally pessimistic novel describing the aftermath of the birth of the nation Ghana in March 1957 after years of struggle for independence led by Kwame Nkrumah. Armah uses detailed descriptions of filth comprising human excrement, garbage and dust to paint a bleak picture of post-colonial Ghana and post-colonial Africa as a whole. The story, though based on a period of over ten years, seems to cover merely a few days of hopelessness with only one flashback. This “blast from the past” is presented to the reader in the sixth chapter of the novel and is highly significant in enlightening the reader about the causes of the decay, deprivation and poverty within the state of dystopia that Armah describes so explicitly.
Chapter Six is a chapter of reflections and of reminiscence on the part of ‘the man’, who is the nameless main character of the novel. However, in some ways these thoughts seem to be more of Armah’s personal experiences and opinions, cunningly presented through the thoughts of the man. The chapter’s opening question – “Why do we waste so much time with sorrow and pity for ourselves?” – portrays a general sense of lost hope and acceptance of plight and the writer continues from there to point out a number of issues, all with the aim of revealing the roots of this plight.
These are the main events that the man’s reflections on the past reveal to the reader: There has been a period of colonialism during which the Gold Coast is ruled by white men (the British), a period of great disparity between the rulers and the ruled; these differences lead to the springing up of various Gold Coast intellectuals whose aim is to convince the masses to give them their support in a quest to claim power from the white men. While these intellectuals are busy “entertaining” the poor people with their big talk and big promises, an ordinary, seemingly down-to-earth young man (Nkrumah) appears, playing a different tune – “We do not serve ourselves if we remain like insects, fascinated by the white people’s power. Let us look inward. What are we? What have we? Can we work for ourselves? To strengthen ourselves?” He captures the attention and subsequently the trust of the people, for as the man puts it, “Here was something more potent than mere words…the whole crowd shouted. I shouted, and this time I was not ashamed.” As recorded in history, Nkrumah leads the Gold Coast to independence in 1957 and the nation Ghana comes into existence.
Now, the issue that concerns the man (and Armah) is what happens in Ghana after the achievement of independence, when people are full of hope for a brighter, more comfortable future. Early in the chapter, the speaker mentions a peculiar picture that his school mate Aboliga the Frog shows the rest of the class in their childhood days. This grotesque picture of the old man-child who completes all stages of the human life cycle in seven years, parallels the eagerness with which high hopes are built before independence and how early they are dashed, resulting in a hopelessly decadent situation. Another interesting point to note is that the man arrives at the conclusion that perhaps people’s disappointment and feelings of betrayal are unwarranted. This is because the attainment of independence and subsequent disappointments are unprecedented and could therefore be natural phenomena in themselves because “only those who have found some solid ground they can call the natural will feel free to call [another phenomenon] unnatural.”
A very vital question that the man (or Armah) raises in this chapter is this: “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?” This question, found in this novel written in 1968, is still pertinent for most Africans and their sympathizers even as the world enters the twenty-first century because the issues which led to the asking of such a question have not been resolved in Ghana nor in most of the rest of Africa. The man speaks of “a hired place paid for by the government”, of Koomson living “in a way that is far more painful to see than the way the white men have always lived here” and of the fact that after all the talk, men are only looking for their own comfort and pleasure. Even at the time that Nkrumah gives his speech at Asamansudo, everything seems to be going well until, as the man puts it, “he spoke about himself. If it could have remained that way! But now he is up there… not a man with equals in life.” In other words, in the end, all African politicians are self-seeking individuals.
In Africa today, citizens are bombarded with election promises – promises of free education, free health, reduction in unemployment, construction of good roads, improvement of education systems, reduction of inflation and clean streets. The vigor with which politicians propose these solutions is so convincing that it is impossible for the masses to disbelieve what they hear. However, as soon as a political party wins elections and assumes power, these promises are forgotten. And through the control of some ‘invisible hand’ the masses seem unable to hold their governments to task in spite of long periods of strikes and a lot of talk on radio networks and in newspapers.
The people’s inability to push their governments to act in their favour can perhaps be compared with Teacher’s excerpt on Plato’s cave in the sixth chapter of Armah’s novel. In most places in Africa, for each person who sees through these leaders that Africa is cursed with, there are five thousand people who refuse to accept the truth of the matter because they are neither educated nor exposed enough to understand the politics. Another dimension to the issue of Plato’s cave is that those in positions of power also often make a conscious effort to silence those who have an opinion about their ways. Once in a while, one may hear rumours of people disappearing mysteriously for questioning and then reappearing still quite healthy but with their zeal to oppose quenched almost completely.
On the whole, this chapter in Armah’s novel is extremely important as a way of explaining the problems that faced the nation Ghana at the time that the novel was written. These can be extended further to explain the roots of the current problems in most African countries. Greed on the part of African leaders who want to be the “dark ghost of a European”, the confidence with which ignorant men speak of leading the continent to ‘salvation’ with “Plan R. Plan X. Plan Z”  and the ignorance of poor, illiterate people who are not concerned with anything other than food and shelter, will continue to lead the continent in the general direction of doom unless a level of awareness and a change of attitude among Africans is attained.
Armah, A. K. (1968). The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Oxford: Heinemann.