What is African?
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What is African?
Ayi Kwei Armah. Osiris Rising. Popenguine: Per Ankh, 1996.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s new novel—based loosely on the Osiris myth cycle—is a dramatic, cautionary tale of the lingering troubles and unfulfilled dreams of independent Africa. At the novel’s core is a strong, centered critique of continuing colonialism and a concerted attempt to develop a local solution. Although the novel disappoints in some ways, its ambitious task and the creativity with which Mr. Armah has set about it are impressive.

Osiris Rising begins as the main character—named only Ast—arrives in an unnamed country, intent on “coming home” to Africa and lending her skills to the continent’s renewal. Ast was a respected history professor in the U.S. but feels compelled to return “home” to Africa (which she has never before visited). In short order, she runs across two former students: one, Seth Spencer Soja, is now the Deputy Director of Security for the country—clearly corrupt and drunk on power and lust; the other, named Asar, is a committed activist and organizer, currently teaching at the Teachers Training College at Manda, on the country’s coast.

Upon her arrival, Ast is stopped by customs for possession of subversive material—a pamphlet bearing the mysterious, African sign of the Ankh, mailed to her anonymously in the U.S. She is whisked to Soja’s office, in a futuristic high-tech security building, where Soja offers her substantial support for her research in exchange for her political complicity. Refusing his offer, Ast insists on making her own way—bringing on verbal and physical attacks from her former student.

Between leaving Soja and finding her other student and lover, Asar, Ast comes across the other major political figure of the tale: former American civil rights leader Sheldon Tubman, now aptly renamed Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano, a grotesque amalgam of dreams of African royalty, and his associate, Ethiopian Prince Wossen, a former New York drug dealer turned Afrocentrist. Jomo, whose character is a clear reference to civil rights leaders’ idealized notion of African purity, symbolizes the danger of simply valorizing colonial ideas of pre-colonial Africa.

After rescuing a scared fourth wife from Jomo’s grasp, Ast makes her way to Asar at the College at Manda. Ast soon becomes one of the most vocal voices in a group of Manda faculty determined to overhaul the eurocentric curriculum, making it at once African in focus and relevant to the struggles of contemporary Africans. The controversy that results brings hope, as the insurgents manage to head off the standard tactics of conservative expatriate faculty members; eventually, though, it also brings tragedy.

Ast’s “return” requires the successful navigation between the twin sirens of post-colonial Africa: the sheer corruption of the security apparatus, and Jomo’s idealized image of Africans as Kings. Her choice—and that of Asar and his group as well—is a thoroughly Gramscian insistence on knowing and understanding the realities of history as part of the path toward producing social and political transformation. The Africa she encounters brings up the partiality of revolution—and the limited potential of armed conflict and national upheaval to rectify the violence of colonization. [End Page 247]

In a certain sense Osiris Rising is an inspiring, even hopeful, novel. Clearly the most vibrant state promising political direction is neither Seth Spencer Soja’s security, nor Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano’s fake regency. It is rather the collective of intelligent revolutionaries operating in the countryside, from Manda to the ancestral town of Bara, centered on Asar and Ast’s group of comrades on the Manda faculty. Successfully organized by the energies of the book’s two heroes, the group contains the potential for a grassroots rebirth of an organic African future.

In another, equally important, sense, this is a dark cautionary tale. Ast encounters as much corruption, violence and apathy as she does political energy, and the strength of the pitfalls symbolized by Jomo and Soja is ominous. The tragic end of the tale, which makes the story believable, leaves open the central question: can an organic, grassroots approach to the daunting problems of neocolonialism...