Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Duodu's Gab Boys

In 1967, ten years after Ghanaian independence and within a year of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in a military coup in 1966, Cameron Duodu published The Gab Boys (he went on to a long and distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist, most recently criticizing Robert Mugabe's destructive clinging to power in Zimbabwe). Duodu simultaneously represents two currents in West African literature of the time, on the one hand the exploration of cultural conflict and political corruption in post-colonial African society associated with novelists and playwrights such as Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo, and on the other hand the optimistic affirmation of African cultural strengths found in poets of the time such as David Diop and Frank Kobina Parks. These themes come together in a very compassionate discussion of the way that individual people, rich and poor, are pushed to compromise themselves as they try to navigate a near-chaotic transitional society.

Unlike a lot of politicized African literature, however, Duodu writes in a comic spirit, and presents a world where young people cannot be prevented from having fun: a celebration of the indestructible joy of youth. Kwasi Asamoa is one of the "gab boys" (the name refers to their expensive gaberdine trousers), local youths who have been educated in the early years of independence, only to find themselves idle as the economy slips into kleptocracy. Both economically marginalized and despised as snobs by the uneducated, they loll about Pusupusu, their rural village, making wisecracks and causing trouble. Eventually the local lawmen devise a plan to drive them away by holding them liable to a tax that these teenagers obviously cannot afford, and Kwasi must run away first to a friend who drives a taxi in Accra and then to a job as a cleaner on the railroad. Trouble with the law, with money, with tough guys and with alcohol dog him as he tries to establish the most basic arrangements of work and shelter.

Tough as this is, Kwasi's narrative is the story of a young man having fun with his friends, with girls, and with discovering the world. The interlude with the taximen on the streets of the big city is particularly good, four men sleeping in one room and working all night are nonetheless having a grand time of it and acting as if they owned the city. Even the death of one of the gab boys in a railway accident is an occasion for a raucous road trip back to Pusupusu, as everyone comes together after various differences and the village elders are forced to admit that they were wrong to try to drive away the youths.

The mechanisms of informal democracy based on familial and tribal loyalty are well-depicted. The ending is unabashedly happy, with the young people learning to understand the traditional village drumming. There is good, sustained attention to the welter of local dialects and overlapping languages, with much discussion of words and rhythms. A most enjoyable book.

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