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Jacques Depelchin, "Once Upon a Time…"

"Once Upon a Time…"

Jacques Depelchin

Reviewing Ayi Kwei Armah's
KMT: In the House of Life, An Epistemic Novel

[Jacques Depelchin, PhD, is
Executive Director of the Ota Benga International Alliance for Peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Visiting Scholar, University of California, Berkeley]

The twenty four chapters of this novel are divided into three unequal parts. Part one (the scholars) starts with the narrator (Lindela) confessing to the contradiction she had lived through: on the one hand trying to run away from her mission in order to achieve peace of mind, and on the other hand, so to speak, the mission constantly presenting itself and calling on her to act. What had caused her to seek forgetfulness was the loss of her best friend while attending a school (White castle school) set up by well-meaning white colonizers to train future native leaders. Her dilemma is a familiar one: a witness of a crime who cannot help but respond to her conscience and speak the truth, whatever the cost.Lindela's friend is named after the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa under Apartheid — Biko. Just like his namesake under Apartheid, Biko the young student, is intellectually brilliant, so much so that he becomes a threat to the teachers. The parallels between the BCM leader and Armah's Biko are striking, and the end is sadly predictable: in the confrontation between knowledge and power, the latter cannot but win and crush knowledge. To be intellectually superior to those who considered themselves at the top of the pyramid can be considered by the latter as one of the worst possible offences. And, thus, punished in the most severe form.

In the second chapter — entitled the Abattoir of Minds — Lindela continues her attempt to explain to herself why Biko was expelled from the school. In fact, the word used by the school was "rustication", i.e. sent away to a place which is not home, the bush. This was considered the ultimate punishment. As Lindela puts it:

" We were being trained, through our education, to occupy specific places, subordinate stations in a hierarchy. It was a requirement that we make a habit of subordination. That would prepare us to occupy the places set aside for us in an established structure…." (p.54)

As one reads further into The Abattoir of Minds, it is difficult not to think of the collective punishment inflicted — should one say for life? — after the slaves overthrew slavery in Haiti two hundred years ago. By definition the slaves could not know what freedom was, and certainly not achieve it without the approval of the slave masters.

"From our status of apprentices in that middle position, Biko had moved without waiting to be ordered to move. That was the nature of his transgression. He had not kept his place. He would be a danger to the system if allowed to become an active example. So the possibility of his maintaining contact with the rest of us was broken. He was isolated. Eliminated. I remained in the structure, safe, subordinate."

In those few paragraphs, through Lindela's thinking, Armah shows how the system ensures that the Bikos of this world disappear. Lindela's description and analysis of the impact of Biko's elimination on his classmates is worth quoting because it shows us how the impact replicates itself over and over:

"Thinking back, I've found it hard to understand the way I reacted to my friend's destruction. Something protective inside me, I suppose, paralyzed me that day.
I do not know I felt something stronger than shame. Self-blame. As if I could have, should have defended him. The whole class should have. But we sat, passive spectators in the unfolding drama at the center of our lives."

In our own lives, each one of us has faced moments of choices like the one being described by Lindela, and failed to stand up for what we would have been proud of, instead of feeling shame. And again, it is difficult, reading those lines, NOT to think not only of Haiti, but also of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the shame of having refused to do the obvious, to do what was called for. The refusal by the signatories of the 1949 UN Convention Against Genocide to do what they were expected to do was confirmed again at the 2001 UN Conference Against Racism (held in Durban, South Africa) when the major powers refused to acknowledge their own crimes Against Humanity.

The second part sets the stage for showing how the modern scholars reconnect with a pair of traditionalists. The latter have been waiting for these modern kindred spirits so that they could share their knowledge. Knowledge can be enslaving or emancipatory, at all times, in all societies. Any reader will find no difficulty recognizing both trends and how they are well and live in our current context.

The third and central part of the novel brings out the knowledge of the real scholars, the ones who are keeping alive the tradition of putting knowledge at the service of all members of the community, without discrimination. It is presented as the discovery of ancient texts which explain how the civilization of pharaonic Egypt eventually collapsed. The values which were fought over then and now are the same. We all know of the pyramids in Egypt, but do we realize that those who defended the pyramids triumphed over those who stood up for a form which had neither top nor bottom, i.e. the sphere (chapter 17). A form which could be moved more easily than the heavily static pyramid. While celebrating the pyramids, are we aware that a great opportunity for an even greater civilization had been missed?

This lucidly written book seeks to reclaim knowledge about Africa in a way which goes far beyond Africa. It is a response to Cheikh Anta Diop's call on African scholars, artists, scientists to carry on the battle for emancipatory knowledge.

For Cheikh Anta Diop, the late and great Senegalese scholar, it was not sufficient to be proud about the greatness of Egyptian civilization, one still had to explain how such a great civilization eventually collapsed. And one way he pioneered, later to be emulated by Armah who taught himself Egyptian hieroglyphics, was to go directly to the texts without intermediaries affected by the "interests of personal survival". KMT is Armah's sharing of what he has learned so far in his scholarly journey and endeavor to respond to Diop's call.

Ayi Kwei Armah is one of those rare scientific artists who has vowed to live according to what he advocates: a life at the service of a cause: emancipate the continent from the cycles of defeat, of Falling Apart.

For those who are looking for an Africa which was once pure and free of all the current ills and problems, KMT provides a sobering and yet inspiring and healing story, one which is not different from most of his novels, namely that Healers shall prevail over Destroyers: it has never disappeared, even when it looked like it had, it actually survived all of the vicissitudes of life whether looked from the point of view of a single life, an empire or an entire civilization. Each step (each of the chapter in the 3rd part) is an illustration of how this has been accomplished against all odds.

Armah's writings about Africa can be looked at as keeping the line of healers alive. The subtitle of the novel, in the House of Life may look preposterous against the current situation of the Continent as a whole, but it illustrates in no uncertain terms how he, personally, sees the way out of the unrelenting and systematic destruction of life. It is a continuation of his healing work which can be seen through all of his novels, but most clearly in The Healers, which cannot but be read as a response to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

Yet, as the beautiful poem points out at the end, the process of healing is going to be long and arduous. The poem sounds like an invitation to the reader to participate in the work. Having been welcome, the readers are given a sort of summary of what has been going on:

Now accept this offering

of caution from departed companions

to companions on arrival.

The voice you hear as you unroll this menahad

and read the signs we've left here

is not a voice of prophecy. It is a voice

offering hope,

and hope is a plant growing far from certainty,

since to live it requires work.

If you come seeking a narrative of kings and queens,

princes and nobles with servants

and slaves in their train to magnify them,

go seek elsewhere.

Our offering to you is a narrative

of the creation of knowledge,

of its confiscation by men of greed and violence,

and of the defeat of women and men

whose dream was to work

to make knowledge abundant as air.

since their defeat, destroyers have danced

on the ruins of the house of life

thinking Maât lay buried there,

never to rise again

As in all the works of Ayi Kwei Armah, the poem at the end of the book ends on a note of hope and conviction that the healers shall be, once again, at the rendezvous of their destiny taking all of us "beyond the range of discouragement, to goals we choose together." (p. 350)