The corruption quagmire in Armah’s ‘The beautiful ones are not yet born’
By John Chukwuma Ajakah
Renowned and prolific Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, in his famous novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, presents the corruption quagmire as the bane of a typical African society. In the novel published by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd (1968), Armah reveals moral depravity in every strata of the society, using vivid descriptive images suggestive of stench and repugnancy. The writer focuses on the politicians who usurp the power vested in them to pursue their pecuniary interests.
The novel exposes the antics of the political elites as they manoeuvre their ways into juicy public offices with promises of exterminating corruption and revamping the economy only to leave the treasury worse than it was before the change of guard. The writer bemoans the complicity of the public in the economic carnage and moral depravity as virtually everyone directly or indirectly aids and abets corruption. Besides the political players, civil servants – even those at the lowest cadre, entrepreneurs, artisans, housewives and home helps indulge in sharp practices. Bribery is accepted as normal as many crave for filthy lucre, envy the highly placed and nurse secret ambitions of advancing themselves fraudulently. The system itself is contrived to suit any government in power. So, a change of guard rarely translates to a corresponding change in the behaviour and welfare of the people. The society mocks the upright. The protagonist exemplifies this rare class of people. Rather than get commended, the patriot is derided as a naïve, perverse and foolish person.
The setting of the novel is Ghana in the twilight of the reign of Kwame Nkuruma and the early days of the military regime that succeeded it. The novel is a satirical attack on the Ghanaian society during this era. The civilian political actors had abandoned the socialist ideals upon which they leveraged to come to power. The Pan-African philosophy of Kwame Nkrumah during this period, was also evidently thwarted to serve the pecuniary interest of his cohorts. Corruption reeked to high heavens. After the change of guard occasioned by a military coup, corruption remained the bane of this typical African society as revealed in the novel. The setting is also contemporary as the ugly situation remains unabated in most African countries with those who claim to be fighters of corruption turning out as the worst culprits. The society lampoons nonconformists, as ‘… chichidodos …whose entrails are not hard enough for the national game.’(p.55)
The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born revolves around an unnamed railway freight clerk who faces intense pressures impelling him to compromise his values and patriotic convictions by joining the corruption train, which seems to have everyone else on board. The protagonist struggles to reconcile his personal convictions with the expectations of his loved ones and society. He faces unwarranted attacks, even as he commutes to work. On a particular occasion, a bus driver contemptuously spits at him. At the office, his patriotic disposition – as he dedicates himself to assigned duties and refuses to give or take bribes, makes him an irritant to co-workers. Although ‘the man’ remains an uncelebrated hero all through the story, a twist that vindicates him occurs towards the end of the narrative. The military seizes power as it overthrows the overtly corrupt civilian government. The once detached friend, Koomson, runs to the man’s poverty-ridden house and escapes through a smelly latrine which he could not condescend to use during a visit in his days of power. On this occasion, the potbellied politician oozes a stench that is so unbearable that Oyo, his erstwhile admirer, remarks, ‘He stinks…’ and says to her husband,’…I am glad that you never become like him’. (p.165)
The novel portrays the central theme of corruption as the bane of the society. The theme of corruption is explored along with other sub-themes such as poverty, social inequality, hero- worshipping, political instability, economic sabotage, solitude and retributive justice. The writer explores corruption as a central theme through the use of imagery, creating the repulsive picture of overfed politicians whom he describes with derogatory words such as ‘constipating’, ‘farting’, ‘a group of bellies’, ‘flatulent’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiots’, et cetera. Corruption is revealed in the lifestyle of self-serving public officers, the complicity of the general public in corrupt practices and an eyesore with unsavoury images of filth and decay. The entire society is presented as being irredeemably corrupt and stinky. The streets, public places, offices and private homes, particularly where the poor reside, are depicted in nauseating images to reveal the deplorable state of the nation.
The writer decries the pecuniary disposition of most people as their leaning towards materialism erodes them of the values that account for meaningful development in any society. The entire Ghanaian society is so engulfed in the corruption quagmire that only the corrupt are celebrated. The novel reveals that corruption is the bane of most countries where as a cankerworm, it feasts on the fabrics of every segment of the society. The protagonist is relegated to the background even in his family. His wife adores his corruptly enriched former classmate, Koomson, wishing her family could live in such opulence with exotic cars and unrivalled affluence. Her mother berates the man as a pathological failure, comparing him to the same Koomson. Ironically, it is revealed in the novel that Koomson was dull and stupid in school. He becomes an instant success the moment he joins politics, becomes a minister and begins to embezzle public fund. Armah spares no strata in his condemnation as he reveals that flatulent politicians like the Minister, Joseph Koomson, are not only buoyed by greed, but tacitly encouraged by majority of the populace and sycophants who sing their praises. Honest persons like the railway freight clerk are ridiculed for refusing to conform to the norm – accepting a life of bribery and corruption, and compromising their value system. Generally, the people pay lip service to the fight against corruption. They excitedly welcome a new government, knowing full well that the coup plotters would be worse than their predecessors.
The protagonist is an unnamed railway freight clerk. He is portrayed as a lone ranger in his stance against corruption. He faces intense pressures to compromise his self-entrenched value system. The uncelebrated hero lives like a stranger in his own home where even his good natured wife, described as, ‘ a very polite woman…’(p.55) makes him ‘feel like a criminal …’ for failing to do what everyone else does in order to get enough money for their upkeep (P.54). His wife calls him, ‘the Chichidodo’. That is, a bird that feeds on maggots, but hates the excreta, which produces the worms. As he weighs her words, he develops low self-esteem and occasionally seeks succour from Teacher, the only man that seems to understand him. Sometimes, he is bogged down in self-pity, as he wonders at his pathetic condition and berates himself for being a mediocre. The hero is openly despised for his uncompromising stance against corruption. The writer presents him as a nonentity without a name. The villain, Joseph Koomson, his former classmate, has accolades such as ‘His Excellency,’ ‘the Minister,’ ‘Brother Joe’ and so on. The protagonist is a queer character. His personal philosophy appears inexplicable, but can be deduced from the maxims he keenly identifies with such as the lyrics of the song on page 51:
Let them go.
I will travel slowly,
And I too will arrive.
However, the hero doubts the possibility of his arrival as he weighs the odds against him. Another such maxim is the one that forms the title of the novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born which is drawn from an inscription on a vehicle. He feels alienated from the society as others consider his convictions quixotic. His wife, Oyo, merely tolerates him, but idolises his rich friend, the corrupt politician, Koomson. The mother-in-law taunts him for failing to cater for his family like a ‘proper man’. She makes a caricature of him, as a dismal failure. Teacher, the only man that seems to understand him lives a cocooned life, refusing to venture out of his shell into the decadent society. Despite his obvious intelligence and uncanny ability to discern situations, the protagonist resigns to fate, accepting defeat.
The predominant technique in the novel is the omniscient narrative. The writer narrates the events from the perspective of an all knowing observer with ‘the eye of God’, as he relates the stream of thoughts, secrets and idiosyncrasies of the characters. This technique enables the narrator to pry into the inner recesses of characters and reveal things that would otherwise be concealed from a mere observer. The narrative style include the use of symbolism, which includes the commuter bus that symbolises a corrupt country, the passengers as citizens, the driver and conductor as political leaders with the stinking collected fares representing the economy. The ‘chichidodo bird’ is also symbolically used to represent hypocrisy. Other narrative devices such as the third person narrative, use of inversion, suspense and imagery, are deployed to make the narration forcefully compelling. For instance, the writer uses imagery to reveal the deplorable state of the society as he creates vivid pictures of repulsive scenes, despicable characters, dirty places and things. The diction reveals overt use of words that appeal to the reader’s sense of sight or invoke putrid smells as the following ‘rotten’, ‘scum’, ’shit’, ‘flatulent fear’, ‘vomit’, ‘stench’, ’decaying refuse’, ‘ mucus’, ‘spittle oozing freely’, ‘excreta’, ‘dried urine’, ‘pit man latrine’ and ‘filth.’ The writer deploys these to create repugnant sights that reflect the various shades of corruption. He describes his subjects – human or materials, with graphic details. The description is so intense that the reader is compelled to visualise corruption and perceive the putrid odours emanating from the eyesore.
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