Ayi Kwei Armah’s TWO THOUSAND SEASONS, is ‘a deeply profound and monumental text’ projecting a pluralized communal voice [we] speaking through the history of Africa, its wet and dry seasons, from a period of one thousand years. The title itself represents the enormous arc of time covering the long and awful years in African history that were traversed and endured. This pan-African epic sums up the African experience for the past two thousand seasons reduced effectively to ‘a thousand seasons wasted wandering amazed along alien roads, another thousand spent finding paths to the living way.’ Written in allegorical tone, it shifts from autobiography of disconnectedness and reconnectedness and realistic details to philosophical ponderings, prophesying a new age of hopeful regeneration. This wide span of African history reduced to just two hundred pages has given rise to doubts as to its authenticity as a novel even though it interpretes history creatively.
Ayi Kwei Armah was born in the twin-harbour city of Sekondi-Takoradi in Western Ghana in 1939 to Fante-speaking parents. On his father’s side, he hails from a royal family in the Ga tribe. His secondary schooling was at the prestigious Achimota College. In 1959 he proceeded on a scholarship to the GROTON SCHOOL in Massachusetts. Next at Harvard University he received a degree in sociology. He moved to Algeria to work as a translator for the magazine Revolution Africaine. Back in Ghana, he got engaged at the Ghana Television as a scriptwriter and later taught English at the Navarongo school. He became editor of JEUNE AFRIQUE magazine in Paris from 1967-8. He then proceeded to Columbia University where he obtained his M.F.A. in creative writing. In the 1970’s he taught at the College of National Education, Chang’omgo, Tanzania and at the National University of Lesotho. He lived in Dakar, Senegal from the 1980’s and taught at Amherst and University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Armah’s writing career started in the 1960’s. He published poems and short stories in the Ghanaian magazine OKYEAME, and in HARPER’S, THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, and NEW AFRICAN. Then in 1968 he published his first novel THE BEAUTIFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN which emerged as a modern African classic.
TWO THOUSAND SEASONS is a novel of loss and redemption. ‘Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a highway not of regeneration but a highway to its own extinction,’ he warns and goes on to trace the paths taken: the many false ones and the true ones.
The place of origin, the home, is an unspecified sub-saharan African country. The story truly begins with the coming of the predators who bring in ruin. First, we have the Arabs, then the Europeans – ‘White all. And always the weak and complicit locals keep showing from the first a ‘fantastic quality […]: fidelity to those who spat on them,’ thus helping to bring ruin from within.
The first predators appear as beggars. Their pitiful appearance is misleading. Cunningly and patiently, they took hold using their religion to inspire and hold sway over the weak, turning them against their fellow Africans. The predators reduce them ‘to beasts’ by starving their minds with their foreign religion and ‘indulging their crassest physical wants. These beasts- the perfidious askaris, who keep the locals subjugated throughout the thousands of seasons – are pathetic, but though the others contemptuously call them ‘white desert-men’s dogs’ they become the willing and often very effective tools of the predators.
Armah thus keeps showing the African to have contributed to the demise of his own culture by being ever so willing to deal with the [white] devil and by selling out to his fellow man.
The ‘white man from the desert’ patiently makes inroads, returning stronger and wiser each time. The locals do not know how to protect themselves:
This time again the predators came with force – to break our bodies. This time
they came with guile also – a religion to smash the feeblest minds among us,
then turn them into tools against us all. The white men from the desert had
made a discovery precious to predators and destroyers: the capture of the mind
and the body both is a slavery far more lasting far more secure than the
conquest of bodies alone.’
Revolts of great ferocity were common. The predators’ gluttony leads to their own
undoing – yet that undone is never enough. Success is limited. The next wave of predators are seemingly always at the ready. But the local never seem to get any wiser.
Leadership is as much a problem in this text as it is in BOUND TO VIOLENCE. The rulers for whom Armah reserves nothing but contempt are the worst. ‘The quietest king, the gentlest leader of the mystified, is criminal beyond the exercise of any compassion.’ This holds perfectly true for his prime example, the greedy fool, Koranche.
The whites, coming after the Arabs, are not merely predators but destroyers – the armed colonial European powers. And Armah is certain: ‘There is nothing white men will not do to satisfy their greed’-or: ‘Monstrous is the greed of the white destroyers, infinite their avarice.’ Fortunately for them then, there is little Koranche and his flatterers won’t do to satisfy their greed either:
Among the white destroyers there was no respect for anything we could say.
They had come determined to see nothing, to listen to no one, bent solely on the
satisfaction of their greed, of which we had ample news. But the king was
infatuated with the white destroyers and would not heed the people’s will, as
quick in its expression as it was clear to tell the white men to go.
Among the destroyers are missionaries, too, with a different poisonous religion.
Wise Isanus warns time and time again of the dangers ahead but no one listens.
‘Have we forgotten the cause of our long wandering? Did we not learn near the desert how priests and warriors are twin destroyers, the priest attacking the victim mind, the warrior breaking bodies still inhabited by resisting wills?’ ‘All honest people who have come to us have come because they sought to do themselves good among us, as part of our people, and they said so. These white men, they do not want to be part of us. But here they have come claiming they have crossed the sea from wherever it is they come from just to do us good. They are pretenders. They are liars. We have asked them for nothing. We should not have let them come among us. They have no desire to live with us. They will live against us’ [p153-154]
”The whites intend a lasting oppression of us’…He told us in the town Poano he had heard a white man, a missionary whose white greed was so subtle it looked forward to the ending of the open trade of human beings, to the beginning of a subtler destruction. This white missionary thought there would be far greater profit in keeping the victims of the trade here on our land, having the kings and courtiers use them to mine and grow whatever the whites need, then offering the product to the white destroyers… Isanus said this white missionary would be busy finding ways to eternalize our slavery through using our leaders in a cleverer kind of oppression harder to see as slavery, slavery disguised as freedom itself. The whites intend a long oppression of us.” [p163]
[The narrator] ‘Our choices in the life we were ready to begin would not be many: we could fit into existing arrangements, abandoning our dreams of that better world, dreams of our way, the way. Or we could try to realize the way. That would mean fighting against the white road, the white people’s system for destroying our way, the way.
We listened to Isanus. We did not know that the knowledge contained in his words was immediate, urgent knowledge. We thought we would have time to absorb it, time to adjust to its meaning. We had none.
Isanus tried to warn us but we misjudged him. We thought there was a distance between his words and reality, a space for us to manoeuvre in. There was none….He warned us to stay completely clear of the new arrangements, the positions which had already become mere jobs for parasites.’
[Isanusi] ‘The way things have become, if you do not want to be parasites you need time in which to think of what else there is to be. And above time, courage to do what you conclude you ought to do which is more difficult….’
[Isanusi] ‘If you knew who you were, you would accept no invitations from [B]lack men who call white people friends. Bloody interests feed such unnatural friendships. You will live to be their victim.’ [P164-166]
Later, after they have been sold into slavery by their king and escaped ‘his words came back an echo to what we had lived to know.’ Finally, they are determined not to look into the past, or ‘return to home blasted with triumphant whiteness.’ They would ‘seek the necessary beginning to destruction’s destruction.’
Isanusi seeing how long the road ahead is, warns that this generation ‘would not outlive the white blight, that only the groundwork could be loud, the beginnings undertaken. Despite the treachery of chiefs and leaders, of the greed of parasites that had pushed us so far into ‘the whiteness of death’ there is some hope for the future – though not an immediate one, ,
Despite unspeakable horrors, oppression and betrayals as in BOUND TO VIOLENCE, this novel unlike the latter is a story of the triumph of the human spirit and the will. Enslaved, there is a daring escape from the ship followed by the rescue of the others. The white predators are thus beaten at their own game. Arms stolen from them are then turned against them. Inspite of continuing treachery, successes along with small movements emerge along the way. Much of this is dramatically related. It is a stirring often horrifying, often touching read.
The shared norms, values and ancestral background reposed in BOUND TO VIOLENCE are retained in TWO THOUSAND SEASONS. This could be best examined in the style of the opening paragraphs of the first chapter with its preponderant communal’we’.
We are not a people of yesterday. Do they ask how many single seasons have
flowed from our beginnings until now? We shall point them on the proper
beginnings until now? We shall point them on the proper beginning of their counting. On a clear night when the light of the moon has blighted the ancient woman and her seven children, on such a night tell them to go alone into the world. There have them count first the one, then the seven, and after the seven all the other stars visible in their eyes alone.
After that beginning, they will be ready for the sand. Let them count it grain
from single grain.
And after they have reached the end of that counting we shall not ask them
to number the raindrops in the ocean. But with the wisdom of the aftermath have them ask us again how many seasons have flowed by since our people were
As Ngara states, the preponderance of the first person plural ‘we’ throughout the story points the narrator out as ‘a collective voice in the true tradition of African communalism.’ Armah’s narrator, speaking for the group, exemplifies one of the book’s important messages – the truism that strength, survival and even beauty are to be found in togetherness. We therefore have the continuous emphasis on their common background throughout the text by means of such phrases as ‘our people’, ‘our origins’ and ‘our history’. With the first person, the writer immediately creates the illusion of a speaker actually addressing a listener – in this case a reader, as posits Mensah. But then we also get the impression of a teller involving an audience in his narration as he keeps asking: ‘Do they ask how many single seasons we have flowed from our beginnings till now?’ This also gives the narrator a more than usual degree of immediacy of a direct address of a living voice.
This effect is enhanced by the rhetorical use of repetition in ‘On a clear night when the light of the moon has blighted the ancient woman and her seven children, on such a night tell them.’ The most recurrent repetition is that of ‘the way’, ‘our way’, and ‘reciprocity’. This sometimes lends the tale some philosophical twist as could be sensed in: ‘Its farthest meaning, that meaning large enough to hold all other meanings, was the meaning of the way itself: the call to reciprocity in a world wiped clean of destroyers innocent again of predators. What was the meaning of the way? Its clear meaning was destruction’s destruction. It’s closest meaning: the search for paths to that necessary beginning.’
Here, ‘meaning’ has been often repeated. But we also detect the use of another rhetorical device, that of rhetorical questions as exemplified below:
Which shall we now choose to remember of the many idiocies our tolerance
has supported? Shall we remember Ziblin the heavy one, heavy not like a living elephant but like infirm mud, he who wanted every new bride’s hymen as his
boasting prize, but turned the tears of women into laughter when they found
massive would-be king had not the blood in him for entering the widest open
door? Or shallow remembrance be of Jezebo, he who for the solace of his
shriveled soul wanted all coming into his presence crawling on their knees. Or of Bulukutu, he who gave himself a thousand grandiose, empty names of praise
died forgotten except in the memories of laughing rememberers?
Through this device we are given the feel of a communal experience with the narrator involving the audience by asking them questions. But indeed the questions themselves are disguised statements for they in fact do what they ask to be done.
The recourse to proverbs at a time when the need for consciousness is being emphasized is significant:
Of unconnected consciousness is there more to say beyond the clear recognition this is destruction’s keenest tool against the soul? That the left hand
should be kept ignorant of what its right twin is made to do… That the heart detached should beat no faster even when limbs familiar to it are moved to heinous
acts. That our left eye should be set to see against its twin not with it… That the sight of the eye should be unconnected, cut off from the mind’s embracing consciousness – what is that but death’s white in delirious triumph?
The wisdom of the sayings is warped to shock the audience into realizing the destructiveness of unconnected consciousness.
Armah sustains the effect of recreating in writing the speaking voice throughout the work thus making it one of the most oral works ever written. It is not just any speaking voice. It is formal and dignified and invested with authority. This is in the tone, the contemptuous tone in which the narrator discusses questions about the antiquity of Africans. ‘Just as only a fool would endeavour to count the stars or the grains of sand on the shore or the raindrops in the ocean, so only a fool would wish to count the years in order to arrive at the immemorial epoch when the African people originated ,’ It is a tone suggestive of wisdom as well as impatience with the folly of Europe’s ways. This passage also exemplifies another device Armah uses to invest the narrator with authority which is the deep knowledge displayed about African things. The reader is throughout the novel overwhelmed by the narrator’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Africa’s rivers, trees, peoples, names and its history thus recreating the voice of the court historian, the griot or at least sagacious grandparents telling the young of the village tales of yore. AS Robert Fraser observes: ‘where before we searched in vain for an instance of recognizable authorial intervention, the writer here takes upon himself a role of obtrusive commentator from the very first sentence.
Fraser, Robert, THE NOVELS OF AYI KWEI ARMAH, London, Heinemann,
Ngara, Emmanuel, STYLISTIC CRITICISM AND THE AFRICAN NOVEL,
London, Heinemann, 1982
Palmer, Eustace, THE GROWTH OF THE AFRICAN NOVEL, London,
Lindfors, Bernth, ‘Armah’s histories’ in AFRICAN LITERATURE TODAY no 11,
Mensah, A.N., ‘Style and Purpose in Armah’s TWO THOUSAND SEASONS’ in
AFRICAN LITERATURE TODAY no 17 ed. Eldred Jones
Omotoso, Kole, ‘Trans-Saharan Views; mutually negative portraits’ in AFRICAN
LITERATURE TODAY no 14, 1984
Wright, Derek, ‘ Ayi Kwei Armah’s TWO THOUSAND SEASONS: A Dissent’