The beautiful ones are not yet born is a phenomenal modernist novel written in 1968 by the Ghanaian scholar and essayist, Ayi kwei Armah. The novel generated controversy upon its publication. It stirred literary debates all over the world and spawned volumes of criticisms which greatly enhanced the Image of the then emerging African literary tradition. The novel which dealt with graft and corruption, moral decadence in post colonial Ghana and the 1966 coup that toppled the Nkrumah’s’ regime was hailed in the west as one of the most profound African novels ever. The New York times admitted that the novel was in the first rank of recent novels anywhere and literary critics and academics poured volumes of articles on the literary merits of the piece.
The novel was said to have heralded modernist innovations in African literature and Armah was recognized as a writer of genius.
The misspelt title of the novel, The Beautyful ones are not yet born itself was a cause of controversy. Most literary critics propounded that, the beautiful ones symbolizes the few morally upright people who inhabit the world of the novel as against the corrupt ones.
The origin of the title which for decades remained a cryptic labyrinth impenetrable in the literary world due to the silence of the author, and this caused quite a significant writers and literary fans to ascribe their own meanings and prejudices to the numerous symbols in the novel and the origin of the title.
In this article, I will illustrate how Ghanaian colloquial expressions and watchwords, anecdotes and slogans furnished one of the most illustrious sons of the soil a title for his most critically acclaimed novel.
In one of his essays written recently purporting to provide authorial insights to the understanding of his novel, Armah explained how he mysteriously came across the maxim which eventually adorned the title page of his classic work.
One day I went to Accra from the Legon University campus, where I had been living with an Egyptian friend while re-planning, drafting and polishing the book, and there I saw a minibus with the slogan painted on it: “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”.
I knew at once I had my title. It was an uncanny kind of serendipity. Just when I was ready for a title, here was a perfect suggestion. No other words, no other image, could express my theme as precisely as the driver’s slogan. Even the misspelling brought a positive contribution, suggesting a deeper meaning than the flat word “beautiful”. I was curious as to where the minibus driver had found the words. I looked forward to seeing him again one day, and asking him to let me photograph his bus and slogan for my book cover. I intended to find out from him where he had encountered the enigmatic Osirian figure, the Beautyful One, if indeed that was the inspiration for his slogan.
I wondered if he, or the owner of the vehicle, might be connected in some way with a Masonic lodge, since it seemed altogether unlikely that he had come upon the words by simple accident. I asked a skilled photographer friend, the Barbadian scholar Orlando Marville, to accompany me on a search, but though I talked to people at the bus station who had seen the vehicle on its routine trips, I never saw the minibus again.
Still, I had had the incredible luck of finding the perfect title for my theme; I was naturally interested in having the jacket blurb express it as accurately as possible. Had I been close to the publishing process, I would have wanted the blurb to reflect at least some knowledge of the cultural background.
For decades, Ghanaians have expressed their deep philosophical yearnings in short catch phrases and slogans. The maxims expressed mostly have affinities with political, social, religious and economic thoughts and concepts. They are witty in nature and striking. They range from the philosophical to the farcical. Some are extremely humorous and may bother on the nonsensical, mostly written in incorrect idioms and expressions, the bulk been direct transliterations derived from local languages / parlance and inverted English proverbs.
How those phrases and witty maxims originate is uncertain, but mostly, it is associated with the place where the phrase or maxim has been inscribed.
Most of the inscriptions carrying or propagating the thoughts of the typical Ghanaian man is mostly found in front of plaques hung high above stalls and local inns which also serve as signboards.
The most famous practitioners of the art are the commercial drivers. They are the unrivaled masters and since they are mobile, traveling from one place to another, they are able to effectively disseminate their crude and unschooled ideals and philosophies to all and sundry.
Initially, they used acrylic paints and wrote their elaborate statements of life – it could be on any topic or issue at all but has the pervasive notability of expressing issues of grave importance in appealing style and calligraphic simplicity. Now, the trend is fast changing or rather has been superseded by stickers. The stickers, I realized is maneuverable and could be changed so easily. Unlike the paint which has to wear of by itself, the stickers could be changed at anytime, in case the philosophers find cause to bring another provocative or profound maxim to bear in the national psyche. The stickers also has the knack of been flexible and could execute the thoughts of the local philosopher in just seconds! It could also adorn the windscreen where its visibility to the public is greatly enhanced.
The simple maxims have varied themes. They could make an intelligent comment on life in general or make a sharp reference to a practice that is endemic. It could also express desires and wishes. Most are didactic in nature and the majority in Akan language extols the virtues of good friends and philanthropists, women. The ones that engender reverence most and are deemed as sacred are the ones that invoke a quality or aspect or nature of God in relation to humans.
The lessons that are at times derived from the expressions with selfless devotees who might have been some of the best writers of the land had they the opportunity to pursue education to the highest level.
Majority are semi literates but they are unabashed should petty mistakes be pointed out to them. They are content to learn and hear that their erratic watchwords or slogans have been understood by the public.
I began counting and gleaning meanings and purports of the slogans that adorn the bonnets and windscreens of our commercial vehicles years ago after reading The beautiful ones are not yet born. I was jostled to take notice of a practice that has the potential of feeding the illiterate masses or the village simpletons with less or little education food for thought. Arming them with little philosophies that will remind them of some simple fact about life which in the end reinforces their believes and worldview or their determination to strive harder.
Mind your own business, God will provide, No hurry in life, Fanta too can booze, Unless God, Cry your own cry, To be a man, Life is hard are some of the slogans that comes to mind now.
I found out recently that these slogans have a particular appeal to the underprivileged in the society. Those on the fringes of the social structure. Street hawkers, idle youths, prostitutes, Drivers’ mates, market women. The slogan has the energy of reasserting their sense of belonging – they are fond of reciting it to their peers.
Just like how The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born inscribed on the bonnet of a simple rickety commercial van impressed upon the imagination of one of the foremost writers of our generation, another phrase, more potent and defining the present hurly burly and, confounding economic hardship; which upon been spotted on a rickety minibus quickly found its way to the hawkers and is now ringing in all quarters of the city.
BY KOJO OWUSU