THE THEORY OF LEARNED HELPLESSNESS IN HELON HABILA’S MEASURING TIME

Measuring Time revolves around the small town of Keti and the house of Lamang the womanizing father of the twins Mamo and LaMamo. Having lost their mother at birth, the twins find another mother in their father’s sister, Auntie Marina who has suffered a failed marriage and has returned to keep house and look after the infant twins. Fully convinced that he will die young owing to his sickliness, Mamo is determined to achieve fame and immortality (a project he drags LaMamo into) even though he is not sure how exactly to attain this goal. This crave for an extraordinary life drives the twins into conspiring and killing the old witch’s dog and applying its rheum to their own eyes with the belief that they will be able to see spirits. But instead, Mamo gets a bloated face and eye infection while LaMamo falls from a tree days later and fractures his left wrist. What is meant to be an adventure turns out into a long torture that lasts for days with the twins having mutual nightmares. Fantastic, isn’t it?

To the joy of the whole town, the empty shell of uncle Haruna miraculously returns home seven years after the civil war. But it is not long after the celebration of his ‘resurrection from the dead’ that he begins to act strangely. At first the doctor thinks “his mind had withdrawn into itself and would eventually recover with time.” And then not long after, the doctor thinks he is “losing his mind.” Eaten up by PTSD, Uncle Haruna fails the resilience test and finally hangs himself. Mamo and LaMamo’s “Eureka” moment comes at the burial ground as family members and friends drown Uncle Haruna’s corpse in eulogy. “We could be famous as soldiers”, the twins tell themselves.

In a number of ways Auntie Marina reminds you of Constanzia (Connie) the only daughter of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Connie suffers a failed marriage and returns to her brother Michael who has succeeded their father as the new Godfather. At the end, she not only begins to consent to assassinations but also takes up the task of executing Don Altobello. Quite early in Measuring Time, pain and suffering have baked Auntie Marina’s heart such that when she finds Uncle Haruna’s corpse hanging from the flame tree, she just cuts it down and moves it indoors. At Lamang’s death Auntie Marina doesn’t cry either. Even Mamo must have been shocked as “…he watched his auntie step forward and raise the sheets in a single motion and cover the body with it… and she went out to the verandah, her face calm and collected…” And when she finally breaks out in a wail, it is only to notify the community of what has happened.

Lamang is a schemer from his youth. He gets to marry the beautiful but sickly Tabita whose father not only waives the bride price but also showers him with gifts. Soon his father-in-law dies having willed his entire wealth to Lamang who goes on to become “the biggest cattle merchant in this state”. We are told that he is ambitious and always avoids whatever step will pit him against the community. When electric power reaches Keti, Lamang sets up a free TV viewing centre in front of his house where he also feeds the villagers that come around. We read that it is him “who first saw how electric power could be converted into political power” to the extent that his politician friends on visit from the State Capital out of envy gasps “Ah, see how the people flock to you.” One thing you can’t deny Lamang is foresight. He seems to have no doubt on where he wants to go and how to get there. He seems to have mastered the laws of “demand and supply”.

It is highly remarkable how Helon Habila fills up obvious vacuums not by what his characters witness or experience but by what they imagine. At age 22, Mamo masters the art of daydreaming which buoys him whenever boredom and melancholia threatens to drown him. From his room Mamo can imagine the gestures and thoughts and reactions of the people in the political meetings at the sitting room. During another expeditions Mamo takes us to the warfront back in 1967 where his uncle Haruna meets with Captain Okibgo of the Biafran Army, how the two soldiers escape the war to Cameroon from where they proceed to Dar es Salam and then to other parts of Africa before Haruna realizes ten years later that they have arrived at Keti. “I am home.” He says to Okigbo as they both part ways.

Presently, Mamo raises his tactics of daydreaming to the point of denial, most probably to absolve himself of all responsibility and guilt. He begins to convince himself that LaMamo has always been the one who calls the shots while he just follows. But facts prove it is actually the other way round. It is Mamo’s idea that they pursue fame and immortality. It is Mamo that brings up the idea of killing the blind witch’s dog while LaMamo asks “How?” When Mamo says they extract the rheum from the dead dog, LaMamo asks “How?” It is Mamo’s idea that they join the army. It is Mamo who insists that LaMamo and Asabar most go on without him when sickness holds him down.

At the border town in Katsina where LaMamo and Asabar hope to meet one of the scouts for the Chadian rebel army, he latter’s courage melts down leaving him with no option than to crawl back home. Although he goes about the town claiming to have fought alongside his cousin LaMamo in the Chadian rebel army, Asabar reurns to heavy drinking to numb the giant coward that boos at him inside his head. When his uncle Lamang will enter politics and make him Youth Leader, Asabar will take to dressing up in army camouflage and boots, feeling powerful and important.

In the Freudian fashion the twins develop intense hatred for their father to the point of wishing him death while loving and venerating their (surrogate) mother (Auntie Marina). In LaMamo’s letters to Mamo, there is never a mention of their father; there is no interest in his welfare whether he is dead or alive. But eventually Mamo realizes that he has become “too old… to hide in the fantastic architecture of her stories and songs…” He will find a new anchor in Zara his childhood friend, who will return to Keti as an adult and become his lover. She is strong-willed and resolute just like Mamo’s indomitable uncle Iliya who is a two-time war veteran and an amputee; who midwifes the community school which he heads until the government takes it over and runs it aground; who continues sending protest letters to the Ministry of Education years after the community school is closed down, even though its signboard now “lay face-down on the ground, its wood eaten away by termites…” Zara challenges her former husband in court over the custody of their only son but fails, and then she moves from one career to another and from one place to another in search of that inner peace and fulfillment. But it is only a matter of time before this spirit is broken. At the end Zara is bedridden and losing her mind.

The problem with most people is not that they don’t have principles but that they cannot afford the luxury of living principled lives. They may try to swim against the waves but without support from family and friends they either learn to play along or sink. The man in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born readily comes to mind. His mother-in-law calls him the Chichidodo, a bird which hates excrement with all its soul and only feeds on maggots which grow best inside the lavatory. The man surmounts all the hurdles displeasing loved ones in the process only to offer bribe at the end of the road- the very thing he has fought against all along. Mamo has an epiphany the first time he attends the Council Meeting of the traditional rulers in his capacity as the Secretary. At some point it dawns on him that “were he to be honest to his heart, he’d right now put down the pen and walk out and never again return.” But his desire for fame and immortality cautions him. “People don’t interpret the truth literally… One looks only at the big picture.” On Election Day when he runs into his father’s political thugs who insinuate that his father is privy to their possession of election materials and thumb-printing of ballot papers, Mamo chooses country over family; he sends a letter through a lad to inform the police of the electoral offenses. That is, even after Asabar tells him that the opposition party is most likely doing the same thing at their own camp. But Mamo lacks the courage to act beyond that. He hates his father and his style of politics but continues to live in his house and enjoy the benefits that come with being his father’s son. He hates his father’s friends (the three widows) but continues eating the food they help cook occasionally. And then ironically, he too resorts to back channel connections for personal gain. He pulls strings from the palace where he now works as the Secretary to get his father out of detention.

It is a broken Lamang that returns home. A number of forces bombard and humble him until he learns to give up fighting. He will suffer stroke and eventually die. And as for Asabar who likes to jump about and make things happen, what can be more helpless than being confined to the wheelchair where he knocks himself out with alcohol even before noon?

Having fought through several North and West African countries during which he loses one eye, LaMamo returns home in the same fashion his Uncle Haruna had done. This time around, he is the one that gives the directives which Mamo follows unquestioningly. “Start the fire”, he orders Mamo as he heads to the chicken coop to grab a bird. LaMamo survives several deaths abroad and returns home to lead a revolt against oppression and injustice only to be shot by the police the following day. It seems that the same destination awaits both hero and villain in Helon Habila’s kingdom. In Measuring Time, as well as in Waiting for an Angel, there is no reward for being brave or saintly. There is hardly any incentive to make one want to play by the book; to make one want to shun vices and pursue virtue.

It has already been observed elsewhere that Helon Habila seems to be at his best when it comes to works shorter than Measuring Time which sometimes begins to read like a soap opera with short chapter-episodes which often close sensationally leaving the audience grudgingly staying tuned for the next scene. One cannot help but suspect that Measuring Time was deliberately and unnecessarily stretched out to hit 300+ pages. No wonder one or two scenes taste too watery. Just days after Professor Batanda of Makerere University writes to convince Mamo to do biographies instead of the biographical history he is thinking of, the Waziri offers him a job as a palace secretary and also contracts him to write the traditional ruler’s biography. The word fight between the Waziri and Mamo after the latter has unraveled the former’s grand plot to hijack the throne is not more impressive than a match between two paralyzed wrestlers.

It was the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov that first observed learned helplessness in a living organism. Learned helplessness is a condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events. This retards or prevents learning in subsequent in subsequent situations in which escape or avoidance is possible. It would seem that Helon Habila’s message in Measuring Time is that fighting the system like Lamang and LaMamo and Iliya and Zara only leads to bitterness and death. Only those that master this theory of learned helplessness get to live to see the next day.

At the battle field during the Roman civil war news reaches Brutus that his wife has committed suicide back home. He must have smiled as he says:

“With meditating that she must die once,

I have the patience to endure it now”

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