“And After Many Days”
Nana-Aisha Salaudeen is passionate about Literature, gender equity, Economics, good governance and politics. Her work has been published on various media platforms in Nigeria and internationally. For InterKontinental she reviews the latest books from Africa and by African authors.
This year’s winner for the prestigious pan- African Etisalat prize for literature, Jowhor Ile, pens the setting of his debut novel around postcolonial Nigeria. Under the weightiness of a corrupt government and political instability, he conceives a middle class family battling with their own tragedy — the disappearance of a seventeen-year-old son.
Paul floundered by the door as though he had changed his mind; then he bent to buckle his sandals, slung on his backpack, left, and did not return.
The Utus, living in Port Harcourt, a major city in the oil rich south of Nigeria, found themselves thrown first into confusion and then anguish in September of 1995 as Paul goes to visit a friend and never returns. At first, the novel appears to portray clues surrounding Paul’s mysterious vanishing but a closer look depicts that the events swerve in pace and focus. The story is more about what happened before and after the disappearance.
Jowhor’s takes the reader through what part of being a Nigerian is like. He writes about student riots and University strikes, which are norms in the country. And the lack of power supply, which often leaves Nigerians switching to alternative power supply modes or staying in complete darkness.
Jowhor adopts prolonged details in telling the story. On one hand, it is captivating as it indulges the reader in the most random feature of every character and scene. On another hand, the effort to intertwine too many intricacies into the plot makes the book strenuous and exhausting to read. The ‘back and forths’ around Paul’s disappearance also make finding a concrete link between the concluding revelation and a large portion of the story tiring. So, by the time the book loops back to Paul many readers may have already lost interest.
Being a child of the 1990’s, I find how Jowhor’s ink takes us through the Nigerian civil war of the 1960’s in bits and pieces interesting. He explores the bigger picture — squeezing in how most of the casualties of the feud were innocent civilians who had no hand in beating war drums. He writes, for example, about how Paul’s father, Bendic, almost died after he was taken wrongly as a war criminal.
On a larger scale Jowhor’s narrative of the Nigerian civil war is relatable within and outside Africa. For example, the divide of East and West Germany during the cold war is comparable to that of southern and northern part of Nigeria during the civil war. The wall built by the Soviet cutting off access between the East and West can be representational for how residents of both regions in Nigeria also found themselves suddenly cut off from family and friends on the other side.
More captivating is another kind of drive in the book as Jowhor pens reflections on issues surrounding the Niger Delta area of the country after oil discovery in the region. He uses Ogibah, the hometown of the Utus, to symbolize the exploitation of oil producing communities in Nigeria, by powerful oil organisations.
The Swamp Is Not There. The Ponds Are Dried Up, All The Trees Felled. No Slowworms, No Bamboo, No Bracken, No Blackbirds Pecking On A Rotting Palm Trunk. He Walks On In What Is Now A Rough Stretch Of Land That He Can See From Here To There, And Farther Away New Buildings Being Erected.
Jowhor’s description of what became of Ogibah provides a mental image of what many local communities, till today, experience in the hands of multinational oil corporations. The strategy of the oil companies after plundering lands is to stoke divide and rule tactics among the inhabitants of the communities. Like in Ogibah, the people are set against themselves – lives and properties are eventually lost. Today, nothing much has changed in my home country. There’s still an eye for disruptive powers corrupting innocent communities after contaminating their ecosystem.
Sandra Philpott writes in her review of the debut novel that there are typical issues of the family that are applicable to readers from all parts of the world embedded in the book. I think this is perhaps the most striking part of the read. We read about Paul, Ajie and their sister Bibi growing up, developing their identities and experiencing typical sibling squabbles. It is nostalgic as it brings about memories of contesting for the attention and affection of my parents, figuring out what I wanted to study in University and who I wanted to remain friends with — pretty much like the Utu children did.
In the blue moments ending the book, Jowhor reveals the mystery surrounding Paul’s disappearance. With Paul’s ‘return’, I could mentally picture the police truck where everything ended for him. Jowhor’s penetrating and unhurried description made it easy to transmit Paul’s fate to something like that of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and Charleyna Lyles. All black Americans slain by the forces that swore to protect them.
In all, the book and revelation around Paul’s vanishing hinge around what comes with life in Nigeria – uncertainty.