Title: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born Author: Ayi Kwei Armah Publisher: Heinemann (1958) ISBN: 978-0-435-90540-8
AYI Kwei Armah’s classic novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, has proved to be a classic offering, transcending the realities of post-colonial Ghana to encompass probably the whole of Africa, where political independence has proved to be a delusion.
Between the Lines: Beniah Munengwa
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born depicts a grim and despondent picture of a post-colonial society in which honesty, selflessness and transparency are scarce.
Armah unravels society’s template for the ideal and shows how it influences the individual’s bias in the conflict of decision making. The unnamed narrator confides, “Somebody offered me a bribe today” (p43). Upon sharing his experience with his wife, he is further mocked, “And like an onward Christian soldier you refused.”
Societal expectations, as shown by his wife’s contemptuous reaction to his upright behaviour, demonstrate that society does not celebrate men who let a corrupt opportunity pass them by.
The struggle with meeting perfection and selfless behaviour is proven to be man’s futile attempt. He writes, “Was there not some proverb that said the green fruit was healthy, but healthy only for its brief self? That the only new life there ever is comes from seeds feeding on their own rotten fruit? What, then, was the fruit that refused to lose its acid and its greenness? What monstrous fruit was it that could find the end of its life in the struggle against sweetness and corruption?” (p145) In other words, there is no one who, in his own capacity can stand to become incorruptible when corruption is mankind’s primary flaw.
Frantz Fanon (1961: 111-2) hints, “The people, who for years have seen him or heard him speak, who have followed from afar, in a kind of dream, the leader’s tribulations with the colonial powers, spontaneously place their trust in this patriot. Before independence, the leader, as a rule, personified the aspirations of the people — independence, political freedom, and national dignity. But in the aftermath of independence, far from actually embodying the needs of the people, far from establishing himself as the promoter of the actual dignity of the people, which is founded on bread, land, and putting the country back into their sacred hands, the leader will unmask his inner purpose: to be the CEO of the company of profiteers composed of a national bourgeoisie.”
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Armah’s revelations are just a preamble to the bigger picture of the African problem for the context of patriot grew on to include those that who were to rise to become voices speaking against the seemingly patronising “liberation” movements. “New people would use the country’s power to get rid of men and women who talked a language that did not flatter them. There would be nothing different in that. That would only be a continuation of the Ghanaian way of life.” (p158)
Armah constantly alliterates the metaphor of disillusionment to demonstrate that there is no hope to be anticipated following military interventions. Also accompanying this disillusionment is the close reference to images of filth and dirt.
In yet another depiction of an incident that may as well have played out at any police roadblock in Zimbabwe, Armah writes: “The policeman looked with long and pensive dignity at the licence folder and at what was inside it. With his left hand he extracted the money, rolling it up dexterously into an east little ball hidden in his palm, while with his right he made awkward calculating motions, as if he were involved in checking the honesty of the document he held. In a moment, he walked with the driver to the bus, looked cursorily into it, then gave the all-clear (p182).
Many decades after the book was first published, political life continue to unfold across Africa, and chillingly, in the manner that Armah predicted. It is as if it is all playing out from Armah’s political script — so much hope here and so much disappointment there, but nothing to put in grandmother’s granary.
The yearning continues, but up until the beautyful ones are born, hymns of sorrow shall remain on the lips of the majority.