the pyramid people v. the people of the sphere & circle

Excerpt from Ayi Kwei Armah's, KMT: In the House of Life. Chapter four: The Way to Yarw:

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/ / / "According to the court traditionalists, our people knew days of great glory thousands of years ago, when there were kings of godlike power. They still dream of calling back those ancient days of so-called glory."

"What do the traditionalists here in Yarw have to say about the dream of ancient glory?" I asked Astw.

"Sweet food for rotten spirits," she said, "that's what we call the glory of kings, the pride of nobles. The people at the court pretend they don't see that to be a king you must have people under you. Some see it but don't care, as long as they themselves are close to royalty. In this town we call such people the pyramid people."


"They look at the pyramid and admire it, seeing it as a symbol of power that at some time was ours. They ignore the real meaning of the pyramid: the huge injustice, the lack of balance. Balance is the main measure by which we in this town judge what we do. Pyramids are part of our history, but in Yarw we're not people of the pyramid. We remember something better, a symbol holding greater hope."

"A better symbol than the pyramid?"

"The sphere, the circle. The static symmetry of the pyramid oppresses the great world underneath. The sphere is a natural sign of balance. It moves, and no part of it is set up over any other part. It's about balance, movement, change. Can't you see the beauty of the sign?"

"How long have people here preferred the sphere to the pyramid?"

"Legend says we came here already loving the sphere, knowing the ravages of the pyramid. Our people, those who stayed in the great centers and those who chose to come to Yarw, came here together with the first great migration, traveling from the parent of rivers to the sea here. The pyramid people saw the Joliba and said its behavior reminded them of the other great river they know. They thought it was a sign that they could call back the days of royal power time had swept behind us. The few who wanted to try a different beginning, the people of the sphere and the circle, came this way."

"Was it ever clear what the different beginning might be?"

"No. Everything we know about it says it was not something ready made and definite, like a pyramid. It was a hope, an idea, something unfinished, perhaps not even really begun. A dream."

"Of what?"

"Life without the brutalities of caste, without people who know and people not allowed to know, without those who work and those unable to work. No poverty, and no massive riches. The sphere is about a world without the terrible injustices we now call natural."

"An attractive world," I said.

"Yet strangely powerless in the confrontation with this other world, this world of injustice in all its ugliness. The pyramid. Castes. The rich and the poor. The informed and the ignorant."

"Why do you think an idea so attractive has remained so powerless?"

"This is what so many conversations here are about. It often comes down to a question of speed. The good dream is too slow. What the traditionalists in this town want is to turn knowledge into the property of everyone, like air. But everyone sees it would take ages to bring about such an outcome. Meanwhile, the nightmare life is faster, and easier. So we live it. Intimately, many of us are too numb even to wonder if something else might be possible. Think of this as a riddle: the training of expert traditionalists always ends with an oath. The new master of knowledge must swear never to reveal what he knows to the people, only to other initiates. So those responsible for knowledge in this society swear to keep it hidden from the people, and make it a plaything for nobles."

"Did Hor also take the oath of secrecy?"

"All trained traditionalists take it. Hor is not simply trained. He's a master at this work, a teacher of masters. Yes, he took the oath."

"And, having taken it, stopped asking questions?"

"That might have made life simpler. But Hor couldn't stop asking questions. The man has never been able to stop thinking and asking questions that matter to him. Most of his adult life, the oath stood confronting him as an injustice too great to do anything about. Yet somewhere in his being he never gave up looking for a way to defeat the oath. From the time I first saw him, I knew here was a man obsessed with the search for a solution to the riddle of the traditionalists' oath. What happens when the keepers of knowledge are under oath not to share it? Imagine the keepers of granaries filled with food, forbidden in times of chronic famine to distribute it except to a chosen few. What happens to human beings placed under the absurd supposition that some are chosen, other damned? What happens to the society thus deprived of knowledge -- knowledge of self first, then knowledge of the real nature of the world? Part of the reason Hor and I found each other is that he has always been struggling to find answers to these questions."

"You share the obsession?"

"Let's say it lives at the center of my life. When Hor and I met, he was preparing himself for a lonely life, with no one to talk to about his deepest dreams. Then he heard me asking why women had been pushed out of the work of traditionalists, when it happened, how it happened. He told me he had been thinking those thoughts for years, not knowing he'd find anyone to share them with."

"Did he say, though, that he really hoped to find answers to the riddle of the traditionalists' oath of secrecy?"


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