We live in distressing times. There is inequality in the world around us. The wealthy places of the world are like islands of prosperity in a sea of insecurity.  Millions of people have been forced out of their homes by sudden death and slow poverty. The global economy runs on undervalued resources and unpaid or underpaid labour from all over the world. It’s more obvious if you live in a poor country but even in rich countries its clear that privilege is being defended with arms.

Within the islands of prosperity in each country, ethnic and racial minorities are treated with special nastiness. Arrest rates, death and injury to brown and black people caused by police, in the prison system, in hospitals, schools and at home, are always much higher than for the majority. It’s distressing but its not new. But this generation is more connected than the last one. Many people of African descent share a feeling of “enough”! “Enough” of walking around feeling like the target practice dummy at a shooting range. There is a sense of “something must change”. On the outside of the Black communities or on the inside. This is a one way street and it is time to plan a collective exit.

Black “minorities” are created. Many have been forced out of countries which were and are not heavily armed enough to protect their people in the global game of “kill takes all”. Most African economies can’t fully employ their people in economies that are set up to deliver raw materials at cheap prices to the former colonial powers. This leads many diasporic Africans to live as permanent nomads in dangerous white spaces. Ayi Kwei Armah is a writer who has struggled with the marginal position of African societies in the world. Using a historical/mystical perspective his books give a clue to why many African governments are silent today while Africans are drowning in the Mediterranean and people of African descent are being killed all over the world.

Armah’s novels are about African societies before and after the Maa’fa or African Holocaust.   He’s written five. Some describe African communities in the distant past. The best known is probably The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which was a set text for the Advanced level literature syllabus in many former British colonies.  The Healers is set in the 19th century, an era when the African states we know today were being invaded by European countries who used forced labour to remove gold and other free resources for European economies.  

The hero of The Healers is Densu,  a skillful fighter from a small kingdom in Ashantiland. Densu faces a important choice at the beginning of the novel: he can seize the throne and collaborate with the British, who have been spotted moving forces towards the Ashanti, or he can live as a little known but socially indispensable healer.  When Densu is invited to become King the corrupt kingmaker Ababio says:

We shall be on the side of the whites. That is where the power lies.

Importantly Densu rejects political and military power, for love. The kind of healing that Densu is being trained to do, has the potential to save the way of life of the whole Ashanti people. In Densu’s absence from the palace a corrupt, materialistic upper class can’t resist the British military invasion which destroys the Kingdom. Ayi Kwesi Armah uses the character of Densu to show one way to resist longterm against overwhelming odds that African societies face after slavery and colonisation.

Armah’s vision of healing comes from the natural environment, from people who are deeply spiritual but who are regarded by the elite as powerless. The traditional healers who train Densu have spent their lives trying to resolve the conflicts between people and to restore heath to the Ashanti polity. Their healing work is small scale, longterm and hard to see but Armah sees this as the only way to transform the many African countries in marginal positions.

We face a similar situation to Densu’s. During colonialism European countries worked to replace African cultural values with western ones. Using very broad brush strokes, the ways in which people in rural African societies pool assets, network and organise collectively were dismissed as worthless. Now we compete and in many societies, only the elite can have a decent secure life. The rest just get sick.  We have free markets but the benefit of opening African markets isn’t as yet being shared by the 300 million people living under 2 dollars a day on the continent.

Our task is to restore the balance in our societies but its hard to see how this kind of healing vision would work now. There is no way to go back to a rural premodern state and many people would not want to even if they could.  Africa is urbanising at the fastest rate of any region and its young population is emigrating to countries where they are unwelcome. Its up to us to put into action a personal vision of healing for instance by building spaces for revival and regeneration, new forms of community in the diaspora and places of permanent return on the home continent.

This post is part of our quarterly theme “Contemporary African Stories.” Click to learn more about this series.




Clementine Burnley
Clementine Burnley was born and raised in Cameroon. At the moment, she lives and writes in Berlin, Germany.
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3 Comments on "Ayi Kwei Armah: The Healers"

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Nung Mabelle
Clementina, I really enjoyed reading this and seeing the comparisons and contrasts you made. I’ve been thinking a lot about colonialism and its effects on my country (Cameroon) a lot more lately. I need to pick up a book by Ayi Kwei Armah; I actually hadn’t heard of him before. And you’re right, we are more connected in this age and there is indeed that sense of “something must change;” I’ve noticed it within my community of friends, the older we get, the more we seem to move towards community building and growth, and restoration specialties/activities in our various fields… Read more »

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