THEY THAT WAIT (A Review of Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel)

Three friends: Lomba, Bola and an unnamed fellow, set out to the beach to see a fortune-teller who prefers to be seen as a poet rather than a marabout. And just like the four brothers in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, these three friends get to be told what will befall them in the near future. Some six months later, the unnamed fellow dies. Not long after, the superstitious and excitable Bola loses his parents to a fatal autocrash, loses his mind and then is rendered bed-ridden by men of the State Security Service. Of the 161 pages, (the edition published by Cassava Republic Press 2007), 6 are about the unnamed fellow; 24 are about Bola, and the rest are about Lomba.

The book opens at the end of the beginning, with Lomba already in jail as a political prisoner accused of organising violence even though he insists that he was only covering a peaceful protest. A school dropout, he tries his hands on a few tasks including teaching English and Literature at a School Cert preparatory class before he lands a job at The Dial to cover the Arts Page. It is shortly after covering the peaceful protest at the Secretariat organised by the residents of Morgan Street that he is caught and sent to jail.

At first encounter, the prison superintendent Muftau is the last person one would think should appreciate a thing as abstract as poetry. But it will be difficult to say who he truly is if one can’t discern when his behaviour should be attributed to his predisposition, and when to the situation. Success in his duty as the ‘King’, requires that he be stern and, to some extent, ruthless. To the incredulous Lomba he says: “Perhaps because I work in prison… you think I don’t know poetry, eh?… I write poems too.” And then shortly after their exchange, we see him (through Lomba’s imagination) with his date at a Chinese restaurant where he tries very hard to impress her. Still, it is amusing, isn’t it, how the Superintendent’s attitude towards Lomba changes immediately the former discovers that the latter is a poet. It calls to mind the book of Acts 22:27-29 where the army Commander who ordered the arrest and whipping of Paul did a total turnaround at discovering that Paul was a Roman citizen. According to the linguist Robert Oliphant, Athenian prisoners who could recite in full The Illiad and The Odyssey were spared from slaving away in Sicilian stone quarries because it was thought that they deserved a better life. True to his words, the superintendent makes life ‘easier’ for Lomba (by providing him cigarettes and newspapers and books), as long as the latter keeps writing poems for him which he passes to his girl Janice. That is, until it dawns on her that the superintendent couldn’t have been the one writing those poems.

This book is about Lomba as much as it is about Joshua. It is easy to suspect that the two men are the same person changing their names and looks depending on time and place. Lomba teaches English and Literature in a school cert preparatory class, Joshua teaches English and Literature at the Secondary School. Joshua writes newspaper columns on literature and politics just like Lomba does. Both of them are having a hard time with love. Lomba even admits to have lived in Poverty Street in some time past. They both say something brilliant about dreams and dreaming. Lomba is writing a novel.

“My teacher, Mr. Joshua, is also writing a book,” Kela confirms.

Lomba is a giver of hope to the hopeless and an inspiration to the disillusioned. “Everything will be alright”, he tells a weeping cellmate in page 10, almost the same thing he tells Bola in page 43. We also see Joshua in page 123-125 risking Hagar’s love and his own safety rather than disappoint the masses who look up to him to lead the anti-government protest. Because they fit so right like the two sides of the same coin, one continues to hope that they are the same person until one gets to page 133 where the two of them actually get to meet face to face. Lomba happens to be one of the people holding a recorder to Joshua’s mouth while the latter is reading out their demands to the government.

Reading Waiting for an Angel is like engaging on a multi-orgasmic sex. Just when you think you have climaxed, you sight another peak just around the page. And there is no lack of comic relief. At the party inn Emeka Davis’ house, we meet Helon Habila and Toni Kan who get so drunk they rush out to the balcony to throw up, barging in on Lomba and his new lady friend who are locked in an embrace. The killjoys keep appearing. Mike Jimoh, Nwakanma, Maik, Otiono and Chiedu. We later learn that even Odia Ofeimum is at the party.

The book is about people waiting for something to happen. But while some of them already suspect that this angel might never show up, others continue to hope it does. Aunty Rachael keeps and adores the polished portrait of her husband who was killed in the Biafran War. Nancy, a single parent who got impregnated by her college darling daily waits and dreams that her ‘Man’ shows up at the door and takes her away. Brother, a one-legged retired driver continues waiting for that day Allah will give him a million.

Waiting for an angel is like waiting for a train that might not come. With time, some of the characters finally learn to stop waiting for angels and to start acting by themselves. Aunty Rachael finally summons courage to destroy her late husbands’ memorabilia, curb her alcohol addiction and cleans up her house. Muda sells up his business and leaves with his family to the village. Nancy steals Kela’s Four Thousand and runs away, most probably to look for her ‘Man’. Mao plays an active role in the protest which is short of the full revolution he has been clamouring for but runs away to God-knows-where. Brother disappears in the government interrogation room.

The book is also about broken hearts and unrequited love. Janice walks out on Superintendent Muftau until whenever he gets Lomba out of jail which he insists he cannot. Aunty Rachael marries two times and loses both men to cruel death. Lomba loses touch with Alice (whom he calls the love of his life), and years later when they run into each other again, she is already betrothed to Ngai, a much older man whose money helps keep her mother in the best hospital in the country. Lomba falls in love again with one Sarimam who eventually walks out on him saying, “It won’t work”. Like Hagar tells Joshua, she is leaving him because he is too good for her. Hagar the prostitute breaks it to Teacher Joshua that it can’t work out between the two of them because he deserves better. But she still shows up at the protest ground to lend him support but ends up paying the supreme price when she is knocked down by a hit-and-run car.

The book is a cryptex. You think you have almost arranged the pieces only to have to scatter them again and start all over. The story is told in varying tenses and in no chronological order. It can be a difficult read. A crucial question that remains un-answered is the source of Lomba’s writing materials. Who is it that slips the pen and papers into his cell? Could it be that Superintendent Muftau, having read Lomba’s file, knows fully well that the latter is a poet, but needs to make the discovery appear accidental? We may never get to know.

In all, only two persons can be said to actually get their angels visit them: the unnamed fellow whose angel appears at the beginning of the beginning in the form of Israfael the angel of death, and Lomba whose angel appears at the end of the end in the form of Liberty.

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THIS ROAD AND I

Another heavily-laden lorry drawls past. I think it is the sixth that I have counted in ten minutes. I think this one is carrying baskets of tomatoes or bags of onions, or tubers of yam. Or something else. But certainly, not cattle nor sugarcane like the previous ones. The driver keeps honking the horn either to keep himself from drifting into sleep or to ward off lesser elements that might want to challenge his claim to the fast lane.

Continue reading “THIS ROAD AND I”

OF BARBERS, SOUL MATES AND SURGEONS

Whenever I set out to visit my barber for a shave, a number of thoughts begin to run through my mind in rapid succession; a number of thoughts that always leave me shaken to my very bones, chief of which is the harrowing fear that I might not find my barber due to one reason or another. Believe me, there is nothing a guy hates like not having a permanent barber. There is nothing more tiring than having to explain to every new barber how low you like your cuts, how sharp you like your carves, and whether you fancy aftershaves or not.

My preferred barbershop is just down the road by the corner. Nothing extraordinary for the slum I live in. A room barely two metres long and three metres wide. A miniature ceiling fan that squeaks like a rat caught in a trap; a television that needs to be slapped several times before the picture steadies; a wall mirror with more cracks than the scars on a Terminator’s face, and a swivel chair that doesn’t swivel. Orzaoh, my barber, is from Edo State. He is a good man who, I would swear, would not hurt a fly unless when it can’t be helped. I enjoy his funny talks said in a funny accent, an extra services which I don’t have to pay for. Which is why I get a heart attack whenever I arrive in his absence and find that I would be sitting under the operation of one of his boys.

Just the other day, I began to see connections between the barber and the surgeon. They put on special clothe before they start work. The one puts on a lab coat, the other wears an apron. They both sterilize their tools before they cut. They both ensure that you feel comfortable before and during the operation. The difference is that while the surgeon would sedate me before the operation, my barber doesn’t so that I get to feel the entire thrill and pain. Once the humming electric clipper begins to tickle my powdered chin, it is difficult (if not impossible) not to chuckle. Once I sit on that stiff chair with my eyes closed while the barber holds a newly sharpened blade just under the soft skin of my throat, I can’t help but remember all the animals that get slaughtered during festive periods.

And then, I extend this connection between the barber and the surgeon to include soul mates and tailors. Commonsense insists that it is best to stick to one sex partner (at a time), just the same way it is preferable to stick to a particular doctor who is already familiar with one’s medical history, just the same way it pays to have a permanent tailor who already knows your measurement by heart.

I like what visiting my barber (or my doctor or my lady or my tailor) does to me. It makes me know that I can be selfish and self-centred. It convinces me that despite my pretensions to reasonableness and civilizedness, I am no different from any other human. And that realization humbles me. For instance, I hate to find a long line of people waiting outside my doctor’s door, just the same way I hate to meet a long line of others waiting to get shaved at my barber’s, just the same way I hate to stroll down to my lady’s place only to find a couple of other guys waiting in line to see her. Again, while I expect my barber (or my doctor or my lady or my tailor) to spend the whole day with me, I begin to get uneasy when they are doing that with someone else before me.

It is a curious thing how seemingly unrelated things end up having a lot in common. It makes me begin to wonder if the world wouldn’t be a much better place if only we would pay more attention on finding common grounds than differences. Like someone I know very well would say, “Most things are not really what they seem; everything is what you make of it.”

SERVIO’S BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS

(A Review of Servio Gbadamosi’s A Tributary In Servitude)

One is tempted to say that A Tributary In Servitude is a tribute to the Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam’si (1931–1988), whose works are basically on the (mainly negative) effects of foreign religions and traditions on Africa. Three out of the six sections that A Tributary In Servitude is divided into open with quotes or excerpts from Tchicaya.
On the one hand, Servio Gbadamosi delights in playing the griot and curator of the nation’s history/ traditions. On the other hand, he stoops under its crushing weight and bursts out in frustration because he doesn’t seem to have many, or even any, compatriot(s) willing to share his burden. And one of the wonders of this book is the way the poet fuses these two states of mind without seeming to suffer any cognitive dissonance.
A Tributary in Servitude is a dirge from a crushed spirit and a broken heart. I have wondered why or how Servio Gbadamosi could even afford to sing (albeit a sad one) bearing this crushing load. I remember the book of Psalms 137:4 where the captives at Babylon asked: “How shall we sing (the Lord’s) song in this strange land?” But then, I also remember Samuel Beckett’s: “When you are in the last bloody ditch, there is nothing left but to sing.”
The poem IRRITATIONS IN THE OYSTER is the outburst of pent-up anger and frustration. Indeed, every messenger despairs at one time or another in their prophetic career? The prophet Jeremiah has this confession to make: “… Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in his name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” Jeremiah 20:9
The burning passion and zeal locked up in the heart of the persona in IRRITATIONS IN THE OYSTER eventually bursts and pours out in a wake-up call to the wayward country, nation and people:

“… the waters tumble

out with armoured fists to tame

a prodigal.

My country wobbles

fumbles, tumbles, crumbles…”

While showering encomium on the revivalist who diligently and tenaciously fashions out a new generation, he dismisses the present turbulence as labour pains that precede the birth of something good:

Hurray for the potter foraging clay

by the burrows of crab…

who, drawing from the ticktack

interpreted the friction within as

irritations permeating an oyster

just before a pearl is born.

He then calls on the new creation(s) to in turn liberate their brethren who are still in bonds of iron:

“O hatchling, o fledgling

crack with thine feeble beak

the bonds of their iron-

come taste the newness of dawn. “

The nostalgia in this book knows no bound. Even when in love, the poet doesn’t desist from looking back to the very beginning when he was still innocent; when he was “still holy to the bone”. By then, a woman was more or less something to be laughed at and teased; a hand to be shaken condescendingly. In the first movement of the poem TORRENTS FROM SILENCE the poet argues that it is not always a butterfly in the stomach “when two look at two”, be they civilizations or opposite sexes. For some people, it can be a rumble. Or even a hurricane. Which is why the persona begs this queen of hearts to desist from tantalizing him because “my passion jumps at your fickle light”. The persona is such a die-hard that despite being in love with this charming lady whose fickle light he cannot help but trail even to the point of dashing his toe and bleeding, he still mourns that:

“… suddenly

they now appear the guide

piloting the music of my dreams…

where is my innocence?”

And then, as if on second thought, he admits that not only does he enjoy loving her and that “she still leads the way to my morrow…”
There are times that A Tributary In Servitude reads like the transcript of a griot’s notebook. Or put more precisely, there are times the book reads like the transliteration of Yoruba incantation.

.

“I salute each nut

with a wand of rock.

I salute each nut

with a wand of rock.” (pp 44)

hus begins the poem, PRELUDE TO TEARS, which talks about ‘us’ and ‘them’; how ‘they’ robbed ‘us’. It is a mourning of lost pride and heritage; a mockery of naivety and gullibility. If the poems in this book were to be arranged chronologically (and who says they aren’t?), perhaps PRELUDE TO TEARS would come first. For me, it traces the very beginning of the end.

“Dreams die to the glory of famished gods”

Basically, there are two reasons why people abandon their gods: (a) when the gods under-supply peace and prosperity; (b) when the gods over-supply peace and prosperity. An instance of the first case is in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God where the people of Aninta destroyed their deity, Ogba, when it stops doing what it is looked upon to do. The Old Testament section of the Bible is full of accounts where the people become lax in their devotion to God once they begin to enjoy peace and prosperity for so long. But for whatever reason, once the gods are put away, calamity is bound to befall the people to the delight of the abandoned God(s).
A people in disarray is a people heading to the rocks. They get busy making so much bang with little impact; so much flash with no fire.

We were busy shouting

We were busy swearing

And things are busy falling apart. Will Durant (1885-1981) couldn’t have been more apt when he said “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”

“If you examine the stories

And force them through a sieve

You will see what I see-

The pot was leaking before it broke.”

And then:

“They laughed, we laughed, and they laughed

we cried, they laughed and laughed and laughed;”

This calls to mind some lines from David Rubadiri’s Stanley Meets Mutesa:

“No more the burning heat of the day

But song, laughter and dance…

The gate of polished reed closes behind them

And the West is let in.”

And then, things began to fall apart.
The most dangerous wolf is that which comes in sheep’s clothing; those who wave white flags while hiding daggers under their trousers. Perhaps, the situation would not be hopeless if not that:

“We walk backing the sun that makes us proud

We sleep looking the sun in the eye but

Receive no illumination for our awkward hearts.”

We walk away from our heritage. Even when we manage to look at them it is to spite them, no wonder we become lost. That is the danger of throwing away the baby and the bath water. The children of the world (referred to in this poem as “the tortoise”, an animal famed in folklore for its acute cleverness) has always been wiser than the children of the kingdom.

But do you see them

my story-telling fathers

they adore the surface

and swear at digging.

If they see a thing

a line of puzzle

they do not understand

they will cook a myth…

It is interesting to note that A Tributary In Servitude is Servio Gbadamosi’s debut. It is a daring move which, though might not have hit the bull’s eye, but is surely not far from it. I must warn prospective readers to brace up; to ensure they’re equipped with a complete set of cutleries before diving into the dish. The unprepared is bound to experience turbulence here and there. In some places, one might sense a strained effort to create metaphor and excessive use of colours in painting of imageries. A chain of words bound together by hyphens might be crystal clear to the poet but they can easily make an average reader lose track.

“Icing-sugar-laced” (pp29)

“The king-on-bundles-of-leaves” (pp44)

“Jesus-Christ-of-Lazarus

Father-of-the-bulky-albino” (pp48)

“pope-amongst-all-kings” (pp52)

“king-on-bundles-of-leaves” (pp81)

“the-breeder-of-life” (pp81)

One of the offences that virtually every poet makes is assuming that other people have their kind of mind and therefore ought to understand their poems even when it is written in codes. I suppose it is the same thing with every other guild. Soldiers are wont to forget that they are of a different mould from the civilian. One of the ways out of this is to make poems as simple as they can be without losing the qualities that make them to be called poems.

NOBODY HANGS A CALENDAR ANYMORE

Once upon a time, a room was not complete without a calendar hanging on the wall. Back then, you could be forgiven for not hanging a current calendar even after the fourth month of the new year. Better an out-dated calendar than a plain wall, it would seem. Not even a wall crammed with family photos would be enough excuse to not squeeze in a calendar, it would seem. Today it is mostly offices that endure the presence of calendars on their walls more because it seems to be a part of office fixtures than because of its perceived usefulness.

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