This novel was published in 1968, shortly after the coup in Ghana in which Nkrumah’s government was overthrown. The unnamed protagonist is disillusioned and disappointed at the endemic corruption after independence had promised so much. He refuses to engage in corrupt practices so falls further and further behind in the game of life. Parallels with our situation in South Africa are inescapable where a very high percentage of the population live in poverty. Apartheid is dead but its structures live on and the government seems unwilling to tackle this head-on.
The novel is bleak and depressing as well as being quite a grind because of the denseness of the language and the minute details that are painstakingly described. Despite this, it is an important and beautifully written text. The stench of decay is palpable to the degree that you will block your nose while reading. Excrement is both a metaphor for the stink and mess of corruption and a fact of life. Nothing is as much an indicator of poverty like access to flushing toilets. The communal latrine outside the man’s home features in many different situations.
The man also has to bear scorn from his own family who cannot understand why he will not jump on the bandwagon; he has to bear the resentment on their faces when he comes home every day and therefore often escapes to Teacher, his confidante, who does not engage in life at all but lies on his bed, naked, in a darkened room. His nakedness speaks of someone who has nothing to hide in stark contrast to Koomson, his childhood friend, who is portly and overdressed. Koomson is part of the government and lives in a fancy apartment with a snooty wife and Westernised children. It is a strange phenomenon that when a person is true to themselves and goes against the grain of society, that person is seen as the immoral one or as the uncooperative, rude one who is making everything in life difficult.
The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. A simple touch of the banister by the man leads to a detailed description of its genesis, why it feels so repulsive, the people who had held on to it and what they had been doing with their hands before holding on to it. It is visceral and tactile; a remarkably skilled use of language. One of the most evocative images in the book is the chichidodo bird; this is a bird that “hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory.” A Ghanaian mythical bird denoting a typical Catch-22 situation before anyone had even heard of Catch-22. The man’s wife, Oyo, says he himself is the chichidodo when he speaks of the life of his friend as having more “rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump.”
The element of Afro-pessimism in the novel is undeniable as he asks, “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?…we were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs.” Looking back from 2016, we can see that this is not only an African problem; politicians are corrupt the whole world over. However it is exacerbated in Africa because of colonialism-created poverty. In my opinion, this reinforces the need for the decolonisation project; then and now.
The deliberate mis-spelling of the title is another intriguing question; is the distortion of beauty in Africa by corrupt practices represented by the subversion of the spelling? is it a recognition that the cycle will repeat itself until there is re-birth? is it a subversion of the English language itself because of its association with the previous oppressors as well as the black elite who aspire to whiteness? Read it and decide for yourself.