Title: Promise of the Future
Author: Towunmi Coker
Extent: 159 pages
Publisher: WriteHouse Collective
Celestina (a.k.a Ajoke a.k.a Joke), orphaned at a very tender age, ends up in the house of Mrs. Arinze (a.k.a Madam), a cantankerous task master who drives the poor girl to the brink of her might until she wishes she had died in the fire accident that wiped off her entire family. Ngozi and Uju (Madam’s daughters) are not much different from Cinderella’s stepsisters, even though Ngozi is more humane than her sister. Life is less hellish when Mr. Arinze (a.k.a Oga) is around. Besides, Celestina gets to keep the change anytime he sends her to buy him condoms which he uses on her. Somehow, she will find a surrogate family in the Okonmas (the people next door) whose second daughter, Amaka, will become her lifelong sister/friend. But her greatest source of relief and consolation is Kunle, some guy she runs into one afternoon during a short walk out of the house. They become close friends and then lovers. We learn in page 6 that Kunle has been her boyfriend from when she was 12. We have no idea how old she is at the beginning of the tale. Perhaps, under the circumstances, it is understandable and forgivable of Celestina to think that Kunle is:
“heaven sent. Just for her. Often times she wondered the turn her life would have taken had she not met Kunle. Frustration would have been her middle name. Perhaps she would have died of boredom, frustration and maltreatment… his promises to her, his assurances and comforting words always whispered hope. He was the reason she still had faith in something called ‘Future’…” Page 7.
All this is until she discovers that he is a sham.
In this book, because the wheel of time isn’t cogged, the narrative freely spins forward and then backwards at random. There are times that Towunmi Coker appears as an overexcited croupier who resorts to spinning the roulette clockwise and then anticlockwise with little or no warning for her dazed readers who keep wondering where or when they are at a particular point in time. It is worse for those who have not watched and understood the serial movie LOST which also flings viewers through time in like manner.
A little leap into the future, Celestina becomes more of Ajoke or Joke who thinks more in Yoruba than in Igbo. But things have happened so fastly that you are left panting along the track in so short a time. In page 51 Celestina is still contemplating sitting for GCE, even though she is not sure how she will outwit Madam and leave the house for the number of days it will take. And then in page 59 she has sat for the exams and the result has come out. Page 63 is four years after she written JAMB and post-UME. Through her chat with Aunt Yemisi (a blood-relative she eventually reunites with miraculously) we get to know that it was Amaka’s mother (a.k.a Mama Nkechi) that bought her the GCE form and that she wrote the exams when something unexplained just happened to keep Madam out of town for that entire period. Miraculous, isn’t it?
It is good that Towunmi Coker eliminates the use of footnotes and endnotes just by following local phrases and sentences with their translations immediately. I however believe that “O kwa o oru gi” translates better as “it is your job, isn’t it?” than as “it is not your job.” (page31). Moreover, the reader will not miss the occasional employment of the ‘Nigerian’ English: “who put your mouth?” in page 21 and also “this one Mama Emeka is taking her time to greet me this morning I hope it’s not trouble o!” in page 38.
At first, one is shocked to the read that Celestina gets to feel good “after Oga used the rubber thing on her (pp22) and then one reads again that she “cried whenever she remembered the experience” (pp30). This book is full of such complications, or contradictions. In page 4 we read about a particular night in which “Celestina took a stroll around the compound”, a ritual she engages in “after each day’s stress.” And then the third paragraph of page 5 tells us that “This (same) particular night, she neither took a stroll around the compound…” Another paragraph in page 5 tells us that “There were four rooms… upstairs… Madam, Oga and the children slept in the rooms upstairs. The children had toys in one of the rooms upstairs, which they called ‘Playhouse’. Madam also had an extra room upstairs were (sic) she kept some of her clothes as the cupboard in the room she shared with Oga could not contain all her clothes. This left two extra rooms aside, one called visitors’ room and the other without a name…” By the time you add the children’s bedroom you’ll end up with nothing less than six rooms. I think it’s commendable of the author that the book is woven with simple words and sentences for even a child to read and understand. But the same way that hotdog is best enjoyed hot and not over-cooked, a prose work risks becoming unpalatable once its fluidity becomes too fluid. And Promise of the Future cannot be said to be entirely free of this offence.
In one of those absurd turns that life is known to take occasionally, Celestina discovers that she is the inheritor of the sizeable wealth her dead parents left behind. Suddenly, she can afford whatever she wants. She can do whatever she feels like. In other words, she becomes born again in a new world. She regains faith in God and in return is rewarded with the acquaintance of Jomi during a church program. She will finally accept to marry him after she becomes convinced that he is the real deal.
It would appear that fortune serves a class of people like pornography. First they start small. And by the time they get hooked, they will need something more ‘heated’ to elicit the same level of excitement. At the begining, Kunle is enough dose to knock Celestina off her misery. The mere thought of meeting with, and spending time with, Kunle keeps her alive. She reunites with Auntie Yemisi just before Kunle loses punch. And just before Auntie Yemisi turns to another normal, Jomi is thrust into her world. Most would envy Celestina who obviously is in the good books of fortune which obviously is on the ready to send her a new and reinforced fix just before the previous one wears off.
The thing with most Cinderella stories is that the ‘happily ever after’ theme hardly convinces even the optimists. But Promise of the Future is somehow different. Unlike Cinderella, Celestina doesn’t get to ride with Prince Charming into the setting sun where all sorrows are washed away. Rather, like Apostle Paul with his affliction, she has HIV to keep her joy and liberty in check. We can’t say how that happened. In page 147, Oga thinks “it was Madam that transmitted it to him as he did not trust her activities when she travelled; yet she blamed him…” And in page 154, Celestina feels “Kunle infected her and then she infected Oga, or Oga infected her and she infected Kunle. Or both of them had infected her together.”
The book is about tenacity and resilience. It takes an iron will to swim against such powerful currents that beset Celestina and still make it to the shore alive. Orphaned at a very early age, subjected to domestic and sexual abuse, denied education, Celestina still ends up a university graduate, a wife and a mother of a set of healthy twins. The book is a mix of rock and blues; of rice and beans. The book is flavoured with poetry (or music, just like Cinderella) which Celestina resorts to when she is at her peak and also at her trough.
Any bettor with the least discernment should know that Towunmi Coker (who won the ANA/NECO Teen Author Prize in 2007) is worth keeping an eye on. Promise of the Future is her debut novel. Perhaps that should explain why many readers will find the book a bit difficult. Now and again, the reader is tempted to abort the race midway and just dump the book. But then, the same way Ariel’s music leads Ferdinand on in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Promise of the Future has this ‘thing’ that keeps you going till the very end.