Thursday, July 18, 2024

A Loom and Star-Crossed Love


By Tade Ipadeola

  • Title: Between Two Worlds
  • Author: Amma Darko
  • Publisher: Sub-Saharan Publishers
  • Number of pages: 524
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

Generations of novelists from Ghana have added to the variety of styles and substance of African fiction in many ways. From Ama Ata Aidoo to Ayi Kwei Armah to Kojo Laing and Amma Darko, no two styles of writing are even remotely the same and the paths each have chosen have found followers from all over the continent. A certain pith, a certain depth and scope characterise the best fiction from Ghana and the land has not failed to yield new discoveries to date.

Amma Darko’s Between Two Worlds is a large novel spanning more than three centuries even though most of the action occurs in the last seventy-five years of the 20th century. The author harks back to the migrations within Africa that populated her lands, to Amo (one of the earliest of Enlightenment thinkers from Africa to find a place for himself in European institutions of higher learning) and to the metaphysics of reverse-migration, bringing back the first set of Africans that migrated out of Africa into Europe about a hundred thousand years ago.

Though the author herself identifies Ursula as the protagonist of her book under review, the identification is a little misleading. There are two lead characters, Ursula Reitz, a German lady, and Jofri Amo Teiko, a man born into interesting times and circumstances in Ghana and who does not fail to deliver the usual African mystique. It is as if Water were to be the protagonist and only Hydrogen were to be identified as such. Water is not just hydrogen. It is hydrogen and oxygen. From the interactions between Ursula and Jofri, the story builds in scope and momentum into what becomes the entirety of the novel.

Between Two Worlds is not pure fiction. It is not faction either. It is an experiment in weaving. On the face of it, the novel is very plain, not ornate in any recognisable way, with prose as uncomplicated as simplicity itself, flirting with tedium. But on closer reading, the novel is a dense latticework of metaphors and symbols. It is a story of love, prima facie, but it is a story of the practical world in which magic occasionally happens as well. The telling may be shorn of idiomatic epiphanies and the showing may be slow – but patiently staying with the plot yields some profound insights into life in Ghana, in Germany, in love and out of love.

Ursula and Jofri meet while both are in a German school studying textile making. The symbol of the loom looms large in the bringing together of the two main characters. The protagonists are literally spun from different yarns, one is cotton and the other is wool; they emerge from the dyer’s hand in different colours but, for a reason and a season, the weaver brings them together to form the fabric which literally covers the nakedness of the narrative. The lovers marry in Germany, move to Ghana and have beautiful twin girls. Then their tale unravels, however, and we are the audience before whom it does.

The unravelling is the main subject of the author in the humble opinion of this reader. It is not just the unravelling of a love and marriage but the unravelling of a nation and a continent. To start with, there is the irony of Jofri, from Ghana, a country famous for the Kente, one of the most distinct, beautiful and aesthetically various designs in the world, going to Germany to learn how to make cloth. He meets with Ursula, beautiful and strong human being, whose technical expertise in clothmaking would never be utilised back in Ghana because the mill in Ghana pays only lip service to scientific methodology, relying on trial and error and intuition for the most part.

The lead characters have a whole history behind each of them shaping how the future human relationships of each pans out. Jofri’s genealogy is examined in great detail and the picture that emerges explains to some extent the man he becomes. Ursula encounters her first black soldier as a child and this also shapes her receptivity to the idea of marrying a black man later in life.

In this world, there are children of rapture and children of rape. Jofri was a child born out of rape. Ursula cannot be described as a child of rapture either but the union of Ursula and Jofri produces twins who can properly be described as children of rapture. Unfortunately, the marriage between Ursula and Jofri does not last. The character flaws of Jofri, in the main, and the centrifugal forces of the two cultures from which Ursula and Jofri emerge see to the early demise of the marriage.

The pain that Ursula feels in her marriage is not entirely of her own making. If she has blame in the suffering that becomes her home life with her husband in Ghana, the structural violence of colonialism and capitalism of which the white people carry the most blame is responsible. Ursula, like every woman, wants to see her home prosper but is also conscious of the shifts in power between herself and her husband. If there is a flaw in Ursula, it is in her failure to recognise that Jofri’s behaviour is not meant to destroy her personally but is the expression of unstructured protest against a world order that has imposed itself on his dreams.

Darko had initial laudatory views of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana but also shows in telling detail how the renaissance that should have been Ghana petered out. From the initial high-mindedness that informed the ambitious change of Ghana from the status of a client state in a colonial arrangement – the new home to intellectual giants such as W E B Du Bois and Maya Angelou – Ghana dissolved into an irresolute nation pursuing every whim with limited resources. The way in which Darko lists the misadventures of Ghana under Nkrumah: putting Ghana’s resources into a gliding school, erecting statues all over Ghana, pursuing real and phantom political foes from within the ranks of allies, philandering, nepotism, cronyism, seaport inefficiencies, and confused foreign policy among other acts of unwisdom, inexorably doomed the dream that was Ghana.

How the author portrays the stacked house of cards fated to finally fall is one of the real delights in Darko’s art of fiction. Darko lays some of the blame at the feet of Jofri, some at the feet of Nkrumah, some at the feet of the society they have failed to wean from shamanism, at the feet of their tardiness in overcoming the challenges of geography and so on. The final product is the painful demise of a dear dream.

The story builds and we see that the ordinary African is in many ways a much better human being than the ‘African elite’, who can no longer tell where his loyalties lie. The list is long but whether Darko talks of Jofri’s adopted mother or Ursula’s closest friends in Ghana or even the girls cutting fabric in the textile plant, the predisposition to malevolence in the ordinary African is far smaller in degree than the predisposition to evil in the elite. This is a very important point in the analysis of Darko and her criticism of her own context. What Africa needs is a higher breed of elites who are focused on what is important and not on the apples of Melanion meant to lure the rousing African Atalanta, as W E B Du Bois so aptly rendered it.

Melanin is not a curse, heedlessness is. Africa, so aptly symbolised in Darko’s fiction ordinarily cannot be defeated in a foot race but as examples from human history and mythology abound, can and indeed has been defeated by cunning. There is no substitute for focus, no replacement for staying the course in the evolution of a culture that triumphs over the many material and non-material distractions of life in the 21st century where capitalism is as fully developed as it is ever going to be.

All it would have taken Jofri to overcome his demons was a steady aim. All, perhaps, it would have taken for the marriage of Jofri and Ursula to survive was a better awareness of what they were getting into when the two of them decided to settle in Ghana. It is a matter of some shame that the biracial alliances in Europe tend to survive more than those in Africa where society is allowed to dictate so much that should be in the domain of the partners in a marriage. Indeed, biracial marriages located in the heart of empire have the advantage of power but must also contend with the resistance of the imperium. The moral of the story is that these special alliances come with special challenges.

When Darko tries to explain the beliefs of Jofri’s people or the failed attempts to resolve Jofri’s own metaphysical dilemmas, the novel loses steam. Like Jofri’s name (corrupted from Geoffrey) the identity crisis is never quite resolved. Would the crisis be resolved if Amo, Jofri’s adopted middle name, were to be his main identity? The answer is in the negative. Amo, from recent discoveries in the history of ideas, is one of the earliest Enlightenment thinkers but remained luckless in love.

Amma Darko has become adept at using the relationship between the sexes to show how power really works, what are the limits of religion, why the problems persist and who most likely has the solutions. The individual has a lot to account for in the reckoning that must happen for unions like the brief candle in the wind that is Ursula and Jofri. The generation that pioneered the re-membering of Africa cannot possibly finish the task but the succeeding generations must know what went on before and be aware that the pursuit of wholeness cannot be attained without respect for self and the other.

Photograph: ‘Undone’ by Wil Taylor

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