A Sunday afternoon w/ Ayi Kwei Armah

One of the greatest African writers EVER. Melvin put me up on the fact that he's got a new book of memoirs out. I'm telling you, this is a great man -- Two Thousand Seasons changed my life. I've listed a bibliography after this short essay.
(Molara Ogundipe) A Sunday afternoon with Ayi Kwei Armah (August 2002)

It is easy to get to the village in which Ayi Kwei Armah lives in Senegal, some two hours from Dakar, “un genie qui se cache” (a genius who hides himself), as one of my accompanying friends said after our visit. The fastest way to reach Armah in the village of Popenguine is to take a taxi from Dakar for 20,000 CFA or thereabouts (about 30 dollars), and be driven there through some other towns. I was fortunate to be driven down by some friends in a land rover that is perfect for Africa, as we know.

As we drove down, I was struck again by how different yet similar parts of West Africa are. At the towns where we stopped, hawkers selling different wares crowded our land rover, as they would in Lagos, Abidjan or Accra. The fruits for sale were, however, were more gorgeous than those you would find in Lagos. I am struck by the agricultural wealth of Senegal, the field produce of different sorts, and the wealth of fish available in these days of drought, structural adjustment, and the abandonment of farming in other countries.

As I drive or am driven on, the landscape becomes more like Northern Nigeria in its topography, buildings and people - the same red earth, houses of grass of similar shapes, granaries of straw and wood, and similar plant life including the ever present baobab. I think of home and all the other places in West Africa I have been,

where the baobab trees
Twist their arms in anguish…
(Senghor, “All Day Long”)

I remind myself that this is just the Sahel like Northern Nigeria so why would there not the same patterns of survival, the same tall lean people whose diet is grains (especially rice here)? I perceive and re-live,

…the smell from a millet field
When two full ears collide beneath gold and flying dust…
(Senghor, “Mediterranean”)

I laughed to think that younger scholars and verbal artists might think that my generation is still caught in a time warp in our obsession with Senghor. But how can we, people foreign to the country at any rate, think of Senegal without Senghor? How can we not, in Senegal, think of him, the great pioneer who lately passed to join his ancestors of Sine, singing more beauteous poems now and eternally? I laughed at myself again to remember Cyprian Ekwensi teasing me once in Nigeria and saying: “the problem with you, Omolara, is you think that literature is life. Literature is not life…etc.” But for those committed to this life of the imagination that is tenaciously ours, literature can be life in some ways.

So we enter the village of Popenguine armed with only Armah’s e-mail address and the name of his publication house, Per Ankh: the African Publication Collective, but assured that we will find him. Needless to say, everyone we met, some sitting under a pavilion and just relaxing, knew him immediately. One of the men offered to lead us there, and did. You pass along the brownish blue Atlantic to reach his part of the village. There Armah was, waiting to meet my party at the bottom of the incline on top of which is his house, and behind that, farther up the hill, the house of the publishing collective. Armah was a little grayer than when I saw him in the eighties, but that is more than a decade ago. He was in casual denims while we were all dressed up in the spirit of the constant Senegalese elegance. He walked towards the jeep, smiling shyly, a mellowed and dignified elder. He took us into a local restaurant by the sea. From this restaurant of the people or bukateria (from the Hausa word, buka, for eating house) as we would say in Nigeria, simple and pleasing in its decor, everywhere you looked you saw the sea. The beauty of that quiet sea insists upon your gaze and mind so that the news of hundreds of people dying later in a boat from Gambia in that same usually quiet sea becomes unbelievable.

Armah had ordered for us the best of Senegalais cuisine, the national dish called “Tiebu-diene” (and there may be “errors of the rendering” in the words of Okigbo), a feast of rice cooked in yellow oil, wreathed with vegetables of different kinds and sweet potatoes. During the meal, he spoke by responding to enquiries. He discussed why he chose to stay in Africa to work and develop the continent rather than flee to live in a foreign country. He indicated with satisfaction the present-day proofs of his predictions or insights about modern Africa expressed in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, for which critics cannibalized him. I ate away furiously at this point, letting my friends soak up Armah’s views for I was in the mood of the three Chinese monkeys: “See no Evil, Speak no Evil, Hear no Evil!” Armah was emphatic in his view that African intellectuals need to stay on the continent and think independently and creatively, not planning for Africa in thoughtless imitation. That viewpoint explained his conviction that an independent press was in demand in Africa. It would be more useful than foreign-owned ones for Africa and her thinking progeny who would wish to build the continent up in a creative manner.

He then proceeded to show us the publishing house, sited on a hill. From the Per Ankh offices you can see a wider expanse of the sea and mountainous islands in the distance,

…in this languorous beauty of Sunday
The world’s riches, the tip of the Almadies
In the saltwater expanse!
The immense sky is clear, and my soul has no worries.
Each thing in the limpid air has its double.
The weather is good and time stops, and the heart lives twice…
(Senghor, “Returning from Popenguine”)

You will pass Armah’s personal house, also overlooking the sea, to reach the publishing house. The grounds have a huge ankh shape in cement that holds water for other beautifying purposes. Young trees and flowering plants dot the area in a promise of a fruit grove. To the left of the publishing house, when facing it, is the dug out foundation of a resort house for writers. Armah’s collective is building a house with rooms for writers who will be looking for a hideout to produce. He spoke proudly of how the villagers met and, when they heard his plans for the village, decided to give him the wide expanse of land that he has. His programs consist, among others, of writers’ workshops, classes in learning to read and write hieroglyphics, computer classes and sessions for village kids, and the production of books for children and adults. A little pamphlet I acquired was a pamphlet that teaches children the Kemetic alphabet. So our “genie qui se cache” is quite busy producing with the restful sea around him.

The greatest product for now is his new novel, KMT: the House of Life, described as an epistemic novel and completely produced in Africa as he says proudly. He wrote it there and used a local printer and press to bring it to completion as a very neat and well-produced text. It is a novel written in the voice of an African woman, Lindela (hmmmm! presages of future feminist wars on the limits of episteme and the ability of a man to represent the consciousness of a woman). The book’s blurb says: “Mourning a lost friend, Lindela, the narrator of KMT, plunges into history, seeking meaning in life’s flow. Loving companions-an Egyptologist and two traditionalists- show her secret hieroglyphics texts left by migrant Egyptian scribes millennia ago. As Lindela translates them, old questions animating her search for knowledge of self and society acquire a sharpened urgency: How best can Africa’s multimillennial history be envisioned as one continuous stream? Why did the society that invented literacy sink into the misery of illiteracy, ignorance and religion? What creative African values lie buried under the lethal debris of slavery, colonialism, structural adjustment and globalization? And why did the ancient scribes call the concept of Maat our best promise of regeneration? KMT is the narrative of an African woman’s life quest, and of the answers she uncovers.”

This new and challenging novel is available* through writing to perankhbooks@sentoo.sn Armah is able to achieve these impressive ends by making himself independent mentally and technologically to a high point. He does not depend on the national and local energy supply but has solar plates in place that are his source of energy (see pictures below). So the Per Ankh publishing house stands on its own, a symbol of the independence and creativity of spirit about which Armah was disquisiting at lunchtime and in testimony to the way he lives his life. As we drove away from this exhilarating spot of life, I thought of how the time is never enough to visit with people like Ayi Kwei Armah, “un genie qui se cache” and his indomitable spirit. Senghor’s prayer for Africa also came to mind.

…Lord, Oh, make our land an endless Sunday…
(Senghor, “Returning from Popenguine”)

2006 Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature
2002 Hieroglyphics for Babies
2002 KMT: The House of Life
1995 Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa, Past, Present and Future
1989 Doctor Kamikaze (short story)
1986 Dakar Hieroglyphics
1985 The Caliban Complex
1985 The Festival Syndrome
1978 The Healers
1973 Two Thousand Seasons
1972 Why Are We So Blessed?
1970 Fragments
1969 The Offal Kind (short story)
1968 The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born
1967 African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific

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