It is completely astonishing how all the elements in The Healers are so superbly woven together. How enjoyable this novel is. How creative and visionary the story is. How the (re)- telling of a familiar story can delight in its newness. Set in late 19th century Africa, it covers a period of great change and destruction in the continent’s history. And yet, its issues and conclusions resonate in 21st century Africa.
Events in the childhood and early adulthood of Densu, the main protagonist, at are the heart of the novel. The story is set during the colonial period (in Ghana) when the Asante, the Fanti and the Assen regularly fought each other. Members of the royal family of Esuano have separated into two factions. A palace coup is in the works and Densu is approached by Ababio, his guardian:
If we do not help the whites, we shall be left by the roadside. And if we are such fools as to stand against the whites, they will grind us till we become less than impotent , less than grains of bad snuff tossing in a storm. That is the choice before every one of us. I myself, I have already chosen. And those who think like me have chosen. We shall be on the side of the whites. That is where the power lies. We have chosen power because we find impotence disgusting. What I am doing now is inviting you to be on the same side.
Densu refuses and is subsequently framed for the murder of the murder of the heir-apparent to the throne of Esuano. At age 20, Densu is clear about one thing; he wants to leave the world of manipulation and deception. He is drawn to the world of healers and so he flees Esuano to take up an apprenticeship with Damfo, a healer in the Eastern Forest. At Damfo’s place, he meets Asamoa Nkwanta, the general of the grand army of Asante. Due to a devastating loss caused by the Asante royals, Asamoa Nkwanta deserts his position and comes to the healers disillusioned and broken. In Cape Coast, the coastal seat of colonial power, the British have successfully manipulated the Fanti kings to provide men for their battle with the Asantes. The Asantes, led by the healed Asamoa Nkwanta, will go to war against the British-led forces and in the devastating aftermath, a people and a kingdom will be changed for ever.
The Healers is an epic tale of good versus evil, manipulation versus inspiration, creativity versus destruction and unity versus dis-unity. It is Armah’s contention that Africa and its people have lost their way because fragmentation and dis-unity have prevailed. And that the ruling class, Africa’s royals, has colluded with the British to destroy the continent. And here, Armah’s judgment of the ruling class is quite damning. They constantly fight each other in their never-ending desire to hold on to their own small spheres of power and influence. As a result, they fail to recognize the colonial invading force for what it was.
Among our people, royalty is part of the disease. Whoever serves royalty serves the disease not the cure. He works to divide our people, not to unite us … to the royals the healing of the black people would be a disaster since kings and chiefs suck their power from the divisions between our people.
It is the role of the healers to help the people find recliam their days of unity. They must achieve this without resorting to force and without using their special knowledge to manipulate people. This means that the work of the healers will be slow and that it will take decades, perhaps centuries, before the desired unity is achieved. When a colony of healers grows restless with the slow pace of change, Damfo says:
…this is seed time, far from harvest time. Healing is work, not gambling…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. It cannot be done by any individual. It should not depend on any single person, however heroic he may be…
The Healers is really a call for revolution. And its message is quite apt in this new century in which several African countries will be celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. As we whip ourselves for decades of misrule and underdevelopment, we need to remember that it took centuries of selfish rule, of betrayal and of oppression to create the Africa of this century. That our recovery to unity and health will take even longer if we allow self-interested and corrupt people to rule the continent and if we continue to espouse ideologies based on separation and fragmentation.
The treatment of slavery in The Healers deserves special mention. Ama Ata Aidoo and Ayi Kwei Armah are the two African writers who have dealt quite boldly with the issue of the culpability of Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Both were raised in towns in Southern Ghana, in the shadow of former slave castles and forts, where it is hard to escape the reminders and legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, In Aidoo’s seminal play Anowa, Kofi Ako, the male protagonist, becomes a very rich man by trading in slaves. In The Healers, Ababio says:
“If you didn’t know it before know it now. Every royal family is also a slave family. The two go together. You don’t get kings without slaves. You don’t get slaves without kings.”
Armah also points out that the practice of keeping slaves created an environment that encouraged the disrespect of human life, an environment that lent itself to increasing violence and human sacrifice. Through the healers, he calls for a society without kings and slaves, a society founded on respect between, and for, its citizens.
The Healers is not without its flaws. Chief among these is the portrayal of women. The female characters in the novel are present solely to assist and help the male characters. Araba Jesiwa, the mother of the murdered prince, does not move nor speak for a significant portion of the novel because she is traumatized by her son’s death. Conveniently, she recovers in time to provide the crucial testimony that will exonerate Densu of her’s son murder. Then there is Efua Kobri, the queen mother of the Asantes, who is portrayed as the devious mastermind behind the events that contribute to the demise of her kingdom. Damfo’s daughter, Ajoa, serves mainly as Densu’s love interest.
The story is narrated in the third person. At times, it felt like I was sitting in a gathering listening to a linguist retell this epic tale. There were moments that the narrator would stop telling the story and instead address his remarks to the characters in the book or to chastise the speed of the narration. Here is an example:
Let the error raise its own correction. The speeding tongue forgets connections. Let the deliberate mind restore them. Proud tongue, child of the Anona masters of eloquence, before you leap so fast so speak, listen first to the mind’s remembrance. Did you remember to tell the listeners of what time, what age you rushed so fast to speak? Or did you leave the listener floundering in an endless time, abandoned to suppose your story belonged to any confusing age?
Armah is really a master storyteller. The Healers is quite an exciting read. Densu’s exploits, his work with Asamoa Nkwanta and his attempts to get to the truth about Appia’s murder were all gripping. Even though the fall of the Asante Kingdom to the British is a matter of historical record, I nonetheless was at the edge of my seat as Asamoa Nkwanta and the British forces prepared for battle. The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah’s fifth novel, is a complex book yet accessible book. It is sure to be a classic of African literature. Highly recommended.