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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Amu Djoleto: Hurricane of Dust

Annie Gagiano - 2009-10-28

Title: Hurricane of Dust
Author: Amu Djoleto

Amu Djoleto's Hurricane of Dust (first published by Longman in 1987 and reprinted in 1991) is a reminder that Ghana, nowadays politically stable and prosperous, all too recently went through a terrible period of political upheaval and repressive violence. An extract from the novel which vividly encapsulates the "flavour" of this time (roughly from the early seventies to the end of the eighties) occurs at the beginning of chapter four, describing an actual city scene that reflects the state of the nation:

I got to Kotobabi. To the dusty lorry and taxi station near the Kingsway Supermarket and the big BP petrol filling station. The place was as helter-skelter as that forlorn eyesore of the desolate remains of the demolished Makola Market Number One in Accra Central. The dust billowed into the mouth, eyes, ears and nose as those dinosaur articulated vehicles rumbled wastefully along, greedily taking up the roadway and were mostly half or wholly empty. Fully laden vehicles with manufactured goods or farm produce would make you think of a thriving nation, but such could hardly be seen in Accra after four coups in ten years with a two-year interlude of elected government not to mention attempted coups.

The soldiers, unwashed, shabby, half-wild, with the ever-present guns in hand or slung over their sweaty backs were stopping all vehicles just beyond the station to check whether they carried arms or the kinds of persons who would topple the new government which had toppled another. Everybody was quietly angry with the point of it all and with the dust, heat, congestion, stagnation and indefinite hold-up. Idling engines which went silent under the strain, were pushed out of the queue ... (18)

The voice in the above citation is that of Djoleto's narrator. His name is Doe Hevi; evidently chosen to indicate his status as an "ordinary" Ghanaian. Doe is a labourer in the construction industry, with a huge chip on his shoulder. He is the author's main instrument of satire in this text, spouting inane, vaguely "revolutionary" rhetoric at the drop of a hat, but clearly entirely responsible for most of his own troubles; invalidly resentful of his very decent and honest employer of the moment (Mr John Wudah, a top civil servant whose private house is under construction) and no better than he should be. He has fathered eight children by no fewer than four wives even though he is no Muslim; he is, in addition, constantly ogling and contracting liaisons with younger women whom he finds attractive. Joe dabbles in petty crime and, because a victim of his latest role in a scam involving the theft and resale of stolen car parts is in the military (who now rule the roost), he is a man on the run. Doe's real nature and hidden motives are only gradually revealed as the novel progresses; the man has little insight into the blatant contradictions between his proclaimed principles and beliefs and the actual conditions seen around him, or his own conduct. He has achieved petty authority in a part of Accra as "the Chairman of the Dzorwulu People's Protection Committee, the boss of all the cadres under the Committee" (61) and, far from protecting anyone, has used this position to persecute sexual rivals for the favours of any woman he fancies.

I fully appreciated and supported the philosophy of the revolution. And though I was sorry for their misguided existence, I had no pity for the owners of those vehicles. People of my class, the workers, were rightly supposed to condemn, hate and eliminate those who owned cars, lorries, trucks, buses, houses, businesses, just any property, movable or immovable including refrigerators, deep-freezers, TV sets, sound systems, name it. Any person capable of employing another human being or was a landlord or landowner was not a worker but a thief, an idler or a criminal who of course belonged to the class of exploiters of the masses, the people. (18-19)

This kind of speechifying (a "public" voice, even if it is only in his own head) reveals its secret hypocrisy to the alert reader even before one learns (later in the text) that the narrator wants to be an owner of exactly such commodities and that he mimics any bad boss's behaviour towards anyone who seems to be weaker than himself. Astonishingly, Doe maintains this rhetoric despite occasional irruptions of reality - right into jail, where he ends up, sermonising in the same style to a fellow inmate of the military garrison where they are being held (after interrogation and violent assault):

"Watch your language, man!" I told Amiable and stressed: "This is the people's revolution, the awakening of the masses, the pursuit of one's natural rights to the finish, the eradication of bureaucratic delays, allegations of favouritism, suspicions of corruption of the traditional courts; justice delayed is justice hanging. Fast justice with everlasting regrets later is another matter. Nonsense! The tribunals of the people's revolution however tempted with money will never succumb to a man and will forever speed up justice like concorde aircraft on full throttle and dispense justice hard and swift allowing no legal technicalities to befog them in the first place; thus the instruments of hanky-panky employed by the elite to escape justice and thereby inflict general injustice upon the land and the poor will be eliminated for ever! How long these tribunals can last better though after this timely hurricane of truth has passed is one more problem." (133)

Evidently and richly comic, these ridiculous and absurdly confused statements of course serve the purpose of exposing not only the foolish narrator (who may believe that by sounding "loyal" he will induce the soldiers and officers guarding and later sentencing him for his criminal conduct to be less hard on him), but indicate the whole chaotic collapse of values that is endangering Ghanaian society in its entirety at this time. By the time the reader encounters this passage, even the toadying narrator has been shocked by certain events that played a role in his present incarceration. Several scenes of horrifically unjust violence, as well as the sagely critical comments of almost every character - other than the narrator - on the way Ghana is being run, or rather abused by greedy and half insane military men and others who fish in these troubled waters, provide the necessary check on Doe Hevi's ranting. Even though they are not characters in his novel, the family members to whom the author dedicates this text are clearly people who, in an earlier time, could live according to the moral and social values that Amu Djoleto subtly or maybe stubbornly advocates in this novel - his late grandparents are said to have "Had Freedom" and his Great-Uncle is thanked for "His Kindness" (no page number).

Doe may have a bit of a point in saying that Mr Wudah (the civil servant whose home he is helping to build) lives in a "cocooned world" (14), but refuses to concede Wudah's point that he too is a worker and that he "serves" the people by doing his work with integrity. Nor can Doe actually handle the challenge to his "revolutionary" rhetoric in Mr Wudah's quiet questions: "What happens when we've [ie all who aren't manual workers or own property] been destroyed?" and later on, "And if the seized houses aren't enough to go round ...?" (22).

Other characters whose words and experiences expose Joe's inadequate and shallow ideas (although his posturing hardly deserves that term!) include the lorry driver and owner Komla Agorvi, of whom Doe says "he was always cheerful, open and pleasant to me" (23) - like Mr Wudah, in fact! Also like Mr Wudah, Komla worked hard to achieve his modest wealth and remains a hard-working, useful member of society. The reader is assisted to discern that Doe involves Komla in an act of theft without the latter's knowledge - dragging them into a dangerous situation which will end with both Komla and his nephew being killed while Doe makes his escape. Komla's own social analysis eerily predicts his end:

"Doe, our troubles are unnecessary. Our lives are so valueless now. Groups with guns, groups without guns for the time being, each with its own ideas and ideals groping without compromise; neither side having any patience for the other. Violence finishes the argument, and there's no end to it." (24)

Komla believes that "Someone has to speak their minds somehow"; he even declares defiantly: "Let them snuff out my life like that of a rabbit" and asks, "You won't be my undoing, will you, Doe?" (25). His life will be snuffed out just as carelessly and ruthlessly as that and it will be Doe's doing - if not quite directly by betrayal of his outspokenness to the authorities, then by Doe's exposing Komla to the lunatic violence of a vengeful military officer. Komla knows that, for all Doe's pious belief in the army as the "People's Militia", soldiers like these "never protect anybody" and that at a time "when you've stolen nothing and a revolution calls you a thief [as Doe has in fact, been saying!], you fear" (28). Doe may laud the "revolution" because "we got what we wanted", but Komla knows (here clearly critically echoing a well-known saying of Nkrumah's) that to go for "politics first, food later ... cannot be the natural order". Perhaps recalling Armah's criticism of the Nkrumah era (in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, discussed in one of the early African Library entries), Komla states that with that credo, "the foundations were laid for political lying, suppression of information, the presentation of only one side of the argument just to win the day, selective publication of news, deceit, self-deception and self-aggrandisement in public affairs" (31). His and his absurd nephew's terrible deaths at the hand of a half-crazed soldier indicate where unthinking yea-saying to half-baked political thinking (as illustrated in Doe's words) may lead.

The best commentary on these killings and what they indicate about the political climate of this time and place is in the words of a kind and sensible market-woman, Maamie Plantain-And-Cassava. Taking the horrified, fear-petrified Doe by the hand and warning him to run for his life, she tells him:

You get out of here! These fellows maim and kill for pleasure. They love blood. They lick it. They live for blood. What they want is no waybills. They take through blood. They survive on the spill of blood. You get out of here! Let them take. Go! You have your wife and children to feed. You come along or they'll kill you. Don't you see that man is dying? Nothing happens to them if he goes. It is revolution. You come along. Run! (43)

Following conversations demonstrate that, despite this shock, Doe has still not learnt anything, most likely because he still thinks that he may get away with his crimes undetected and (as his friend shrewdly says) because he believes himself protected by his very minor "revolutionary" authority as chairman of a small informal residential section of Accra. He also tries to pretend to himself that Komla (the lorry driver) could have survived the soldiers' battering.

When Doe is at last apprehended by the military for his part in the stolen car parts trade, the presentation is almost comical. Even after one of his big toes has been burst by the pressure applied by a pair of pliers wielded by a soldier who had been robbed by Doe's gang, followed by stinging, deafening slaps to "persuade" him to divulge more incriminating information, Doe declares: "I knew Ghanaian soldiers and policemen are the best, happiest, earslappers in the world" - Doe believes that this is a "tradition" going back to the period of occupation by the British, who established the practice and belief, once a person is in custody, that the mere fact "that they have him at all constitutes sufficient ground ... to render [the person arrested] half-blind, half-deaf or permanently injured for the rest of life" (71). Doe appears to have a moment of insight into the poetic justice of his present parlous state when he refers seemingly ironically to having so "dutifully", and "without looking back", "supported the ideology and the coup or the revolution as we now happily call it" - but in another moment he reverts to the twisted logic and tired rhetoric he has mostly been employing by pronouncing: "Mr Wudah and his cushioned, parasitic elite had ruined all life in Ghana forcing me and the masses into cleansing the body politic; and now these soldiers have my body to torture and destroy" (75). Never is anything that happens really his own fault - in his own eyes, of course.

The final section of the novel is unusually constructed in that it adds, from the perspective of the jail, several additional, briefer narratives. The technique the author employs is to get the small group of incarcerated men, all awaiting (at best) a probably brutal and brief military hearing, to tell one another their life stories, with the focus on how they landed up where they find themselves. In this way the reader gets to "hear" the story of a few other parasites and exploiters of the "revolution", like Doe, such as the printer Felix Purity Kofi Agbadakpi who, very like Doe, through his own greed, ingratitude and cunning, profiteering inclinations ended up causing (if not himself committing) the murder of a very good man and productive citizen - in this case, his own father-in-law, in whose home he had been comfortably living for years. He attempts to take over his father-in-law's house by denouncing him to and having him summoned to appear before a local "revolutionary committee" - clearly resembling and conducting itself like the one chaired by Doe.

But the cocky men who thought they had the elderly Paa Mai (Felix's father-in-law, a hard-working and prosperous pharmacist) by the short and curlies had not reckoned with his sharp tongue and political and social vigilance. At the "hearing" he floors the committee by saying (among other things):

You are all young which should be a guarantee for the most productive if not the best time of your lives. Most of you have been unemployed and have all along engaged in acts of spying on others, informing against them, prescribing what life they should have led or should lead. Anyone who does well in life is either a crook or a capitalist and must be brought down. You have a grand lifestyle now, holy warriors. Tell me, how is it that you all feed well, drink well, smoke well and wear expensive, trendy casuals now. Casuals are expensive. How do you get them? You condemn those who buy and use imported items and yet you do the same. Where do you get the cash to support your new-found wardrobes? (105)

It is to this character, Paa Mai, in a tale within a tale told in prison after his life has been violently snuffed out by a stabbing during a faked robbery (in which his son-in-law Felix had participated), that the author attributes what may be the most important line in the whole novel. In it, Paa Mai comments on what he, a sensible and long-lived person, believes to be the essence of the Ghanaian "national character"; an inclination against which the entire bogus "revolution", the coups and counter-coups and short-lived regimes of this time, have offended. Of his compatriots he says, "Everybody wants to be useful with their own contribution, don't you know this? It is our tradition, our deep silent life." In view of this truth (if he is right - and we are, of course, shown plenty of evidence to the contrary!), Paa Mai loudly pronounces the conduct and creed of the young men manning the tribunal nothing but "Useless foolishness!" (108). Several other stories are told that flesh out Djoleto's diagnosis of a Ghana in thrall (he implies) to alien ideologies and mad violence, but enough has been said to convey the clever construction and probing sociopolitical analysis as well as the lively dialogue and vivid characterisation of this (unfortunately, if not so much for Ghanaians any more, then for several other African societies, as yet) very far from outdated text.

One more killing must be mentioned. As the men held in the military enclave narrate and discuss their stories, one man emerges as by far the wisest and most worth listening to among them. He turns out to be a lawyer with a passion for justice; a fine and upright man. Not only is he the one singled out for beating up by the more brutal of their two military guards, but his insights are constantly rebuffed, especially by Doe (the narrator). He is the one man called out early in the morning and (as those left inside surmise after hearing a volley of gunfire) is probably summarily executed by a firing squad. He is yet another of this novel's moral, educated and insightful martyrs to the "revolution".

The incident that concludes the novel brings further irony. The morning after his capture, Doe sees Mr John Wudah, for whom he had worked and whose house he had intended confiscating by denouncing and ejecting him and even quite possibly organising his death, turns up at the counter in their room. Mr Wudah has come to help Doe, naively believing him to be an innocent victim and entirely reluctant to believe that Doe had begun stealing from him (the theft that brought about the lorry driver and his nephew's deaths). Even after he learns this - and ignorant of how much worse a fate Doe had intended for him - he gives Doe all the money he can afford. He himself, he reveals, is about to leave Ghana. He is departing from his motherland because of "the possibility of my being dismissed from my job without previous notice on radio, television and the government press" - a practice, he says, which has "become a relentless, endemic instrument of government" (154).

Under such frightening circumstances, when a state starts destroying its own structures (the revolution devouring itself?), it is time to leave. Even the Ciskei in South Africa, where he is headed to teach Business Management at the university there, now offers him a better prospect.

The novel concludes with two brief paragraphs:

Mr Wudah left.

I do not know what came over me. I began to sob. Fever. (154)

To a man like Doe, truths that shatter his "revolutionary" house of cards can only bring delirium.