35 pages 1 hour read

Ayi Kwei Armah

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1969

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Summary and Study Guide


The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, published in 1968, is a debut novel by Ayi Kwei Armah, one of the most noteworthy writers of postcolonial Ghana. Armah was born in Takoradi, Ghana, in 1939. He was educated at schools in Ghana and private institutions in America, including Harvard University. He has also worked as a translator, scriptwriter, and a university lecturer.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born focuses on life in post-independence Ghana and takes place between Passion Week in 1965 and February 25, 1966 (the day after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president). It tells the story of an unnamed man, referred to as simply “the man,” who struggles to reconcile himself to life in a new political order. Much of the book’s central action focuses on the man’s attempts to resist corruption. Large segments of the book are composed of long internal dialogues wherein the man reflects on the materialism, moral decay, and disillusionment of a newly independent Ghanaian society. The man also reflects on the recent colonial past and the traumatic legacy of war and violence.

Plot Summary

Working as a railway clerk, the unnamed protagonist refuses a bribe at work. On his way home, he runs into his old classmate Koomson, who is now a corrupt minister in Nkrumah’s government. Upon returning home, he is confronted by his wife, Oyo, who does not understand why the man refuses to participate in financial dealings which would better their family’s life. Oyo comments on a deal Koomson has mentioned to her involving fishing boats that she believes will make their family rich. The man feels guilty, even though he knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong. He slips out at night to meet with his friend Teacher, who helps him to discuss his feelings of guilt and shame. Teacher, although he has given up all hope himself, encourages the man to remain steadfast.

The next day, the man goes to work and encounters many forms of bodily waste—including excrement and vomit—as well as physical environments which are molding and deteriorating. Later, the man goes to buy expensive imported food for a dinner he and Oyo are hosting for Koomson and his wife, Estie. Even though he

cannot easily afford the food, he is filled with happiness and satisfaction that he can own such things—and garner admiring looks from the other people in the shops. For once, he feels satisfied with himself.

The man and Oyo clean their house in preparation for the dinner party. The man takes his children to his mother-in-law’s house for a break and is subjected to his mother-in-law’s disappointment in his refusal to become a man like Koomson. During the dinner party, the man notes how much his old classmate has changed—his hands are flabby and soft, and he refuses to use their latrine. Koomson reveals that the fishing boat deal is not intended to provide any profits to Oyo and the man’s family—Koomson needs a signature to mask his involvement in the corrupt money-making scheme, and in return, they imply that Oyo and the men will receive fish.

Koomson and Estie return a dinner invitation to Oyo and the man. The man is once again bombarded with feelings of guilt and shame when he sees the material differences between his children’s lives and that of Koomson’s daughter, Princess. He chooses not to sign the fishing boat deal, but Oyo signs the documents.

The fishing boat deal turns out to be largely inconsequential to their lives—for a while, they receive packets of fish, but only for a short period. One day, the man leaves work only to learn that there has been a military coup, and Nkrumah’s government ministers are being arrested and placed under protective custody. When he reaches home, he finds Koomson waiting for him, asking for help. Men arrive at the house looking for Koomson, but the man helps him to escape by crawling through the latrine which he had previously refused to use. They find the boatman, who takes them out on the fishing boat that Oyo’s signature had helped make a reality. Once they clear the harbor, the man prepares to jump into the bay. Koomson tells him that they will meet again someday, but the man finds this childish and leaves without feeling much for Koomson. He swims to shore and falls asleep on the beach.

When he wakes up, he sees Sister Maanan, a friend from his past, but she does not acknowledge him. As he walks home, the man sees a bus with an inscription on the side matching the title of the book. This, along with an illustration alongside it of a beautiful flower, gives him a momentary feeling of hope for future generations. But when he remembers the day-to-day drudgery of the life to which he must return, he falters and walks more slowly towards home.

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By Ayi Kwei Armah