Frankly, I decided to read The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, not because I particularly wanted to, but because my dad hasn’t shut up about it in all the years I have known him, and because it has been hailed as part of the canon of African literature.
For someone who hoped for a ‘good time,’ it was not a very enjoyable book. Ayi Kwei Armah set out to take a stand, make a political statement, and it is evident everywhere in his book – the pages are filled with the weight of hyperbole, simile, allegory, pontification. After all that, one cannot miss the author’s point.
He wrote this book in 1968, eleven years after Ghana’s independence, when the joy of freedom had given way to hopelessness and corruption was running amok in the country’s affairs. Our protagonist is a struggling civil servant, earning wages too low to allow for any kind of a good quality of life. But he refuses to join in the corruption-free-for-all. It seems everyone hates him for this choice. The people who offer him bribes are offended when he refuses to take it, telling him that he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s not willing to falsify documents to get some money, so his wife resents him, because if he’d only just stop acting like he was better than everyone else, they’d actually have enough money to not live hand-to-mouth!
“You have not done what everybody else is doing,”…and in this world, that is one of the crimes.”
What kept me reading was how well Armah captured the situation in Ghana: corruption, greed, and theft among the leaders, and a sense of utter hopelessness among the struggling masses. Not much has changed in the forty years since the publication of this book. Over 70% of Ghanaians still live on less than $2 a day. Corruption is still woven into the very fabric of society, and many days it appears so much easier to do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing. There is censure of people who attempt to adhere to the proper procedures instead of taking shortcuts.
“Corruption is the national game; many had tried the rotten ways and found them filled with the sweetness of life.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. A few passages stood out to me because even though this book was written in 1968, many of the same things happen today.
There’s a scene where Mr. Armah waxes on about how after people fought for independence, they still tried to “act white,” for lack of better phrasing. They pretended only foods and goods from Europe were worth having; they disdained anything ‘local’; they took on English names or Anglicized their names, or changed them entirely, just so long as it was something European. Although the tide has recently and slowly began to change, it is still mostly true. forty years, and not much has changed.
I almost fell out of my seat when I read this passage in the book. Here, the unnamed protagonist is talking to his wife, who has brought out the hot comb and is straightening her hair:
“That must be very painful.”
“Of course it is painful. I’m just trying to straighten it out a bit now, to make it presentable.”
“What is wrong with it natural?”
“Only bush women wear their hair natural” [being call ‘bush’ in Gh is NOT a compliment]
“I wish you were a bush woman then”
This is major. Ayi Kwei Armah was espousing natural hair in 1968? It’s take a while, but the movement for natural hair has begun.
Personally, one of the most important consequences in reading was realizing what it means to read a book with people just like me in it; with peculiar turns of phrases I know about; with names I recognize as part of my culture: Adoley, Oyo, Ayivi, Maanan. You see, I know of very few African authors who write anything other than literary fiction, and none who write urban fantasy of any kind. So I don’t see myself much in the books I read. Because I rarely come across fiction that reflects back something familiar to me, I often forget the power of recognizing oneself/one’s cultural identity in literature.
I can truly see why this book is considered a classic and essential African literature. You can literally feel the weight of its merit as you read it. It is a seminal work that deals with important, salient themes of African corruption, African identity, personal integrity, disillusionment, hopelessness, accountability, and African leaderships. Almost everything that Ayi Kwei Armah wrote about, almost everything he supported/opposed you can see in the fabric of Ghanaian/African society today. It was an important work then, and it is just as important and valid a work now.
It left me with a lot to think on and a new respect for Ayi Kwei Armah. With all my heart I recommend this one, especially for Ghanaians, especially for Africans. I did not enjoy myself while reading this book, but it was soooooooo worth it.