Year of Publication: 1968
‘The light from the bus moved uncertainly down the road until finally the two vague circles caught some indistinct object on the side of the road where it curved out in front. The bus had come to a stop. Its confused rattle had given place to an endless spastic shudder, as if its pieces were held together by too much rust ever to fall completely apart.’ – Page One.
Right from the start of the novel, Ayi Kwei Armah journeys the reader through incidences in a bus as the man (The Protagonist) is on his way to work. In fact the writer makes his intentions clear right from the first chapter (but symbolically) to demonstrate the theme of corruption in a country struggling with the veracity of post-independence.
I will highlight some of the incidences that occurs in the bus and which Armah uses to demonstrate a country grappling with the ill-effects of corruption by the use of filth and rot and smell. The first instance being that, a cedi note offered to the conductor smells so badly that the persistent smell forces itself onto him. The cedi note which is a Ghanaian paper currency has a smell that is so old, strong and very rotten and this is in a country at post-independence just after Ghana has gained independence and at a time of the last stages of the first president –Nkrumah’s regime.
The Protagonist is unnamed – he is simply called ‘the man’. The man struggles to remain clean and innocent in a country full of corruption. Yet, could he? Armah symbolically uses a scenario when the driver of the bus gathers huge phlegm in his throat and throws it out at a time when ‘the man’ is getting down from the bus. The phlegm comes out as a form of spray and only a minute amount settles on the cheek and on one side of ‘the man’s’ upper lip. In essence, it is a demonstration that ‘the man’ who thinks himself clean, innocent and uncorrupt cannot run away from corruption – even if he does escape, there is this little corruption that would settle on his cheek.
When the man has finally alighted from the bus, he notices a pile of rubbish overflowing from a rubbish box meant for waste. Interestingly, written on the box were the words:
‘Keep Your Country Clean
By Keeping Your City Clean’
Yet, so sadly, people had thrown all kinds of rubbish in the box and now overflowing onto the ground. People could no longer go near the rubbish but rather stood at a distance and threw their waste which often ended on the ground. The man (the protagonist) who struggles to be clean throughout the novel even when every other person around him has given up to ‘rot’ fell prey to the behavior of the masses – he at last throws old tickets from his pocket onto the rubbish heap. Hard! Hard! Hard Indeed! – To remain clean in a country of rottenness!
At the work place, the man is offered with bribe yet he declines the offer and his wife becomes furious when she hears of it. The man wanting to prove his innocence and remain clean is looked down upon and criticized even from his own close associates – his wife and his mother-in-law. This leaves ‘the man’ with frustrations and guilt throughout the novel until there is a coup when his wealthy classmate and politician seek refuge in his house. What judgment does ‘the man’s’ wife finally make during the heat of the coup when Koomson seek refuge in their house? Are the Beautyful Things of Africa Born Yet?
This is a good read. Although the novel is written so many years ago – in 1968 – Africa is still grappling with the same issue of corruption.