by Ugochukwu Anadị
“She loved the idea of putting together people from different countries in Africa in one house.” Sindisiwe, the narrator in ‘Camp in Blikkiesdorp,’ the opening story of Nnamdi Oguike’s Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country, observed of her mother, referred to as Mama in the story. “But eish, she hated the smoking and drinking and girls showing their bums like prostitutes,” Sindisiwe continued. The topic of discussion here was Mama’s reaction to Big Brother Africa, a show that had had housemates from at least nineteen different countries in Africa.
Like Mama, Nnamdi Oguike loves the idea of putting different countries in Africa in one house, and this he did in this collection of short stories, just like Uwem Akpan before him had done in his Say You’re One Of Them, where he, in five short stories, looked at different countries in the continent through the eyes of children. For Nnamdi Oguike, both children and adults count and hate it as he may, he never shied away from showing the prostitution of poverty and miseries in these countries even while finding a way of balancing the stories – something he referred to in an interview as “the big challenge in writing a true story.” Hear him:
“I think it can be very easy to write a story that is one-sided, say about poverty or misery or negativity. It can be very easy to write about utopia also. But the big challenge in writing a true story is in gathering, as much as one can, the complexity of human existence and phenomena.”
This rare feat of gathering these complexities in Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Madagascar, Libya, Zimbabwe etc and even in non-African states like Hawaii he pulled off, exhilaratingly so, in this collection that reminds us that no matter the national boundaries separating us, humanity is always the same everywhere, an actuality that pulls down boundaries.
In 1998, Pope Saint JohnPaul II visited Nigeria to beatify the Nigerian priest, Cyprian Iwene Tansi. While it was all glamour and joy and a strengthening of faith for the thousands if not millions of Catholic faithfuls in the country, it was, on the other hand, a nightmare for a group of people who the society thought shouldn’t be seen by the Holy Father and his entourage. Those people were the wounded veterans who fought on the Biafran side during the Nigeria-Biafra war, who, rejected, had resorted to roadside begging to feed and survive. They were removed from the streets to present the picture of a Nigeria devoid of suffering neglected and rejected people to the visiting Pope.
This is not only ridiculous but also obscene, especially considering that the Church, vicariously headed by the Pope, is supposed to be on the lookout for people like those veterans, the rejected ones of the society. Even if this sort of thing had only happened once in Nigeria, it would have still been one too many. Unfortunately, that is not even the case. As the other eleven stories in this collection, ‘Camp in Blikkiesdorp,’ shows that the enthronement of atrocities is not in the exclusive power of one country – likewise the ability to be compassionate. South Africa thus has its history of driving away the country’s lowest from the eyes of visiting foreigners and tourists. While the Nigerian wounded veterans-turned-beggars were cajoled and bribed into the backyards, the South African beggars had the police unleashed on them, in 2010, when the country became the first African country to host the world cup. Recounting this in the story, Sindisiwe had said: “We had armed policemen to keep the poor beggars in leash so that the tourists coming for the World Cup will not see them.” Like their Nigerian counterparts had discovered that the blessing of the Holy Father is not for some poor wounded beggars, these South African beggars realized that the joy of the 2010 World Cup was not supposed to be shared in by people who cannot feed themselves.
But ‘Camp in Blikkiesdorp’ is not replete only with tales of poverty – tales of children swaddled in Shoprite bags so as not to get cold for their mother lacks the resources to get proper clothing for them, or of the “disappointment everywhere in South Africa like the air we breathe”; same way ‘Breaking News’ wasn’t just about tales of the evils of dictatorship but also the hopes that accompanies its defeat; same way ‘Miracle in the Favela’ wasn’t just about sickness and dying in the slums, but also of unexplained, unexplainable, miraculous healings and how stories, when well conceived and luxuriously delivered can be sources of income. ‘Camp in Blikkiesdorp’ was also a story of hope and the emotional connection to home. Such that even while Sindisiwe was happy leaving their tin house behind, she at the same time “couldn’t stop thinking about Mama and my little brother, Thabo, shrieking in the tin house so far away.” Because the country is a home. Even while it is on fire, the citizen leaving it behind for another country never really gets all his heart out of her.
Nnamdi Oguike didn’t leave anything to chance in this collection. His attention to details shows throughout the book. From the depth of the research he did to get names and common expressions and stories and histories of the places inhabited by his characters, some of which he had never been before, to the arrangement of the stories, the reader sees this careful attention and delicate handling of the human story by the author. An example that will suffice here is how ‘Kumba’s Sister’ was immediately followed by ‘Prophet.’ Kumba’s sister, Finda, was a victim of love and the trust that comes with love which her lover, Bobo, the first person to tell here that “she is beautiful and pretty” who was not an “old drunk,” sold for “just Le 200,000.” While Finda, Kumba, Bobo and Kamara may be considered the major characters in the story, there is a minor character who is both at the margin and at the center of the story. That character is Pastor Siaka of Fishers of Men Church. Like most pastors of his ilk – men who deceive their congregants in the name of God – he had succeeded in making himself the father in Kumba’s life, in displacing Dadi, Kumba’s biological father, and making himself a father whose only duty is to always collect from his children, but never to give. When Finda had asked Kumba whether she had bought the Ferragamo shoes for Dadi, she observed that while Kumba thinks “it is bad to give Dadi Ferragamo shoes” worth “[o]ver three hundred thousand Leone!” she had no qualms with giving it to Pastor Siaka. In fact, the shoes were bought specifically for him. This deceptiveness of some religious leaders that has gotten the name “pulpit banditry” by the Nigerian social media users, hinted in ‘Kumba’s Sister’ became the central focus of ‘Prophet.’
In ‘Prophet,’ we are introduced to Prophet Do-Miracles Ogunfowokan in Makoko Community who is as fake as the pool of water in a mirage. In a community dominated by people who make their living catching and selling fishes, Fela the narrator grew up seeing “that one croaker or barracuda out of her [his mother’s] ten croakers or barracudas belonged to the prophet, and Baba [Philippe the Beninese, Fela’s father] was responsible for most of the wood the church building and benches were built of,” being a sawmill worker himself. No matter what your job description is, Prophet has a way of tithing you – in this context, an euphemism for extortion.
The name of the prophet’s temple, The Brodahud of the Botul & Kross, is not the only funny thing about Prophet. It gets funnier when one sees his ‘delivrans list’ and requirements. “Go home and bring all your red pants and one packet of matches, one cup of sugar, one crate of eggs, and one white chicken,” he asked of Iyabo, Aderopo’s wife who had come to him to be delivered “from her wild desires for men.” But, it didn’t stop there: she was also to dip her hand in her husband’s right pocket and bring to the prophet whatever her hand finds there.
Apart from showcasing Nnamdi Oguike’s thoughtfulness in his arrangement of the stories in the collection, I chose also to discuss this story because, even without the story ever mentioning it, it is also an exposition of the importance of education in our society. It is an example of how education can make the educated less susceptible to deceptions. Who reads the name of Prophet’s temple, sees the spelling errors and willingly walks into it to be deceived if not one who doesn’t know better?
Nnamdi Oguike’s attention to details in the collection can only be matched by his unapologetic Pan-Africanism. He chose not only to tell what is majorly an African story but to also tell it in an African way. The book assumes its reader lives where each of the story is set; that the reader understands the native tongues and dialects and accents and the history of the geographical settings that it refuses, defiantly and wonderfully so, to explain that which may be foreign. Well, in the trademark of a story well told, one does not need to know every non-English word used in the collection to understand what any of the stories is about. But the critical reader is bound to find his/herself searching for some of them online and with this, they embark on an educational trip through different peoples and cultures, languages and history. And the histories are told as they are, without any attempt to deodorize, glamourize or rationalize them. When in ‘A Nice Job in Antananarivo’ Lala asked Monsieur Rano Menjanahary where people go when they die, the answer a smiling Monsieur Rano provided was: “They are buried, Lala, [a]nd then, after seven years, we dig their bodies out for famadihana ceremony and bury them in a new place so that they can continue their journey into the next world.”
For one not already familiar with this Malagasy funeral practice, famadihana, also called the turning of the bone, is a ceremony observed every five or seven years, by the Malagasy people. During famadihana, people dig up the remains of their late ones, dress them in new perfumed clothes, and ‘celebrate’ with them. This beautiful, maybe macabre practice, also provides an opportunity of generational linkage; stories of the dead are told to the living and, that of the living ‘to’ the dead.
In simple yet profound and supple language, Nnamdi Oguike pulled in original metaphors, imageries – and this is important considering how gloomy the African story can get – humour, to tell his African stories. This humour permeates the totality of the book, like when in ‘Camp in Blikkiesdorp,’ Mama, who had been described as “a tough woman who never married and yet brought Chocolate and Jabulani and me and Thabo into this world” advised Chocolate to not “let anybody without a condom say hello to you”; in ‘A Nice Job in Antananarivo,’ we saw how humorous metaphors can get when the narrator prayed that “the weather should not turn his [Monsieur Rano Menjanahary, who he had applied to work for] mood inside out like a shirt and also that nothing should upset his stomach and make him throw me out”; or, in ‘A Little, Private Get-together’ where a Nairobian flavour was added to Jesus’ miracle where “he fed five thousand people with five loaves of chapatti and two Mombasa fish.”
Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country is audaciously ambitious. Not so often do a reader get such an ambitious work which somehow, from its very beginning to its final fullstop, does not fail in its ambition. Juggling through different themes of: poverty, slavery, misery, sex and prostitution – where one bares her breast for a gallon of petrol; job-hunting, deception both by men of the church and men of the government; exile, intercontinental and intracontinental migration and xenophobia, the book never failed to entertain as much as it educates; to edify even in muddy settings; to assert without pontificating and to preach without sounding preachy. In its preaching, the reader is invited to reevaluate his/her understanding of what a country or nation is. We are asked to interrogate how we draw boundaries and how we engage in identity and inclusivity politics even as we uphold nationalism. In ‘Prophet’ for example, when the character Fatai asked Fela to “[g]o to your father’s country,” the book got delightfully philosophical. Hear Fela’s rumination:
“That got me angry. Mama was from Togo. Everyone knew that. Baba was from the border country, Benin. But I was born here in Makoko–the floating slum–in a wooden hospital on the lagoon, not too far from Makoko-Asejere Market, where my mother sells her fish. So, I AM NIGERIAN (emphasis mine). When I looked at myself in a mirror and I looked at the other kids who said I was not from this country, I did not see much difference. Except for my brown hair, I was dark like most people here.”
And like Fela, we’re all invited to look at our mind’s mirror to see that beyond the colours of our skins and hairs, we all have beating in our chests, a human heart. I cannot think of any better way Nnamdi Oguike would have debuted except through Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country.
Ugochukwu Anadị is a reader who sometimes writes. His fiction, poetry and nonfiction can be found in Afritondo, Brittle Paper, Afapinen, Afrocritik, ANA Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Kalahari Review, and a few other places.