Hope and purification in the writings of Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo


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Taban Lo Liyong sees the task of the African writer as one of "reconstructing Africa from the imperial wreck of the last two thousand seasons" (Liyong 1990, 171). The erosion of the African culture by modernization and colonialism has deprived indigenous peoples of their religions, their traditions, their mores, and in some cases their languages. It is not clear, though, what form Liyong's "reconstruction" is to take. Other commentators, like the Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide, seem more specific in demanding that the African artist should take a moral, political line in asserting that his/her active role is to "remedy a bad situation" (Ojaide 1994, 17). The object would be to purify an African way of life that has been tainted by invasive, self-gratifying, materialistic attitudes. But, again, what is that "remedy" to be? While recognition of Africa's postcolonial malaise is widespread, and its cause axiomatically and correctly assigned to the experience of colonialism, African writers have been somewhat tentative in suggesting what exactly it is that should be done. It is one thing to identify a problem, and to express it in the most forthright or damning terms, but quite another to locate and postulate the possible means for its resolution. The two Ghanaian artists whose work this paper addresses, Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo, have been all too frequently accused of the pessimistic recitation of African ills. Molly Mahood has spoken of the "almost total disillusionment" (Fraser 1980, 15) of Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born; and Liyong has described the work as one of those "tearing down exercises" (Liyong 1990, 176). Adeola James has identified a "certain somberness" (James 1990, 17) and Arlene Elder a "pessimism" (Elder 1987, 117) in Aidoo's short stories; and Femi Ojo-Ade has styled the Ghana of No Sweetness Here as "hell" (Oje-Ade 1987, 174). The optimistic dimensions of their work have often gone unnoticed. Even contemporary readings that have attempted to soften the gloom of the two texts have sought in some way to qualify their observations. Tsegaye Wodajo's excellent study of five Armah novels, Hope in the Midst of Despair: A Novelist's Cures for Africa (2005), perceives The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born as a literature of protest that finds a hopeful riposte in the later novels. And while Nanna Jane Opoku-Agyemang's fine 1999 essay brings a valuable comparative dimension to No Sweetness Here, her insights fail to lift the pall of despair that is customarily judged to hang over this collection of eleven stories. This paper will argue that Aidoo's No Sweetness Here and Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born offer greater scope for optimism than many critics have hitherto suggested; and that both articulate a process of purification that actively opposes the dystopian settings of their respective narratives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-148
Number of pages15
JournalOrbis Litterarum
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2010

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory

User-Defined Keywords

  • Corruption
  • Fiction
  • Ghana
  • Hope
  • Postcolonial
  • Purification


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