ARTS AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE: REVIEW OF DUMEBI EZAR EHIGIATOR’S WRECKED

 

 

Title: WRECKED

Author: Dumebi Ezar Ehigiator

Publisher: Winepress Publishing

Number of pages: 201

Year of publication: 2016

Category: Fiction

 

 

 

“Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism. Continue reading “ARTS AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE: REVIEW OF DUMEBI EZAR EHIGIATOR’S WRECKED”

Psychoanalysing Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms

Season of Crimson Blossoms is another complex story told in the most simplest of form. In summary, the story is about Hajiya Binta whose withering life finally gets to blossom at age fifty-five when she starts going to bed with a certain miscreant popularly called Reza, who reminds her very much of her late son, and how their love affair finally crashes under the barrage of censorious society and a number of independent factors. From the very beginning of the story, the reader becomes aware of a thick blanket of grey cloud over-hanging heroine’s head, indicating that the tale will end in no other way than tragic. Seeing that Hajiya Binta’s premonition– symbolized by the pungent smell of cockroaches– and tragic events have a perfect positive correlation, it would be understandable if one thought that perhaps if she had taken out a little time to pray rather than scouring her room in search of the non-existent cockroaches, things would have played out differently on that fateful day. Continue reading “Psychoanalysing Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms”

DANTALA, THE CAT WITH NINE LIVES: A Review of Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday

Title: Born on a Tuesday
Author: Elnathan John
Publisher: Cassava Republic
Number of pages: 261
Year of publication: 2015
Category: Fiction

The problem with such books as Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday is that they set higher standards for debut works thereby making things a little bit difficult for aspiring and yet-to-be-published writers. Not a lot of writers can boast of the ability to write in English in a way that readers keep imagining they are dealing with a Hausa story. Continue reading “DANTALA, THE CAT WITH NINE LIVES: A Review of Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday”

THE ILLUSION OF THE ‘HEALTHY IMMIGRANT’: A Note on Rudolf Ogoo Okwonko’s This American Life Sef

  • Title: This American Life Sef
    Author: Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
    Publisher: Winepress Publishing
    Number of pages: 94
    Year of publication: 2016

You behold America the beautiful. The triple-decker burger and the giant cup of coke and cars that are wider than your village road and you wonder what took you so long to get here. You get on with schooling… you study the things people who came before you say brings money– the things Americans do not want to study– to prepare you for the job Americans do not want to do. You hear nursing, bloody, nursing. You say, bring it on (‘This American Life’, p 39) Continue reading “THE ILLUSION OF THE ‘HEALTHY IMMIGRANT’: A Note on Rudolf Ogoo Okwonko’s This American Life Sef”

DEATH IN VARYING FORMS: A REVIEW OF OLUBUNMI FAMILONI’S SMITHEREENS OF DEATH

Title: Smithereens of Death

Author: Olubunmi Familoni
Genre: Short Story
Format: Paperback
Extent: 124 pages
ISBN: 978-978-52838-5-3
Publisher: WriteHouse Collective

 

BE WARNED: Olubunmi Familoni’s SMITHEREENS OF DEATH is a bouquet of roses with deathly thorns beneath their lurid gowns. It is a pack of woes and death told beautifully and sometimes humourously.

The book is a collection of twenty-five stories the longest of which (A Man of Himself) is around or just a little over 4, 000 words. Much of the stories are told by a third person, a voyeur, whose eyes pierce through concrete walls and human bodies to the minds of individuals and groups. Continue reading “DEATH IN VARYING FORMS: A REVIEW OF OLUBUNMI FAMILONI’S SMITHEREENS OF DEATH”

FAITH vs. FATE: A REVIEW OF SU’EDDIE VERSHIMA AGEMA’S THE BOTTOM OF ANOTHER TALE

 

 

Title:The Bottom of Another Tale
Author:Su’eddie Vershima Agema
Genre:Short Stories
Format: Paperback
Extent: 142 pages
ISBN: 978-978-525-95-6-8
Publisher:SEVHAGE Publishers

 

 

THE BOTTOM OF ANOTHER TALE is a collection of short stories over 98% of which is told in the past tense. They are about disillusionment. They are about loss: loss of hope, loss of life and loss of the mind.

In this book, life is lived in retrospect. Many of the characters yearn for the lives long lost. Not that the past is paradisiacal, but it somehow has something the present hasn’t. Perhaps, it is sheer nostalgia. Besides, time has a way of romanticizing the past.

The most striking, for me, of the themes in this collection is that of faith. In The River’s Testament, we meet the educated Tombo who has become so westernized to the extent that he no longer considers himself the “sort of African who believed in such nonsense” as traditions. To him, “Traditions were old pieces of caution and action that had been created for specific events. Ignorant people continued them even when the importance had long faded.”

Tombo will easily represent all the National Youth Service Corps members who don’t pay attention at the Orientation Camp when they are being told to respect the cultures and traditions of the host community they are deployed to. Being a teacher of English Language and Literature, it is most probable he has read Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God and has been impressed by the colonialist who pulls over by the highway to pick out British currency from a pot of sacrifice.

From the very beginning, Tombo doesn’t plan to stoop low to the lesser civilization he has been involuntarily thrust into. We learn that he “exchanged the hell he found for a bit of bliss provided in the opportunity to learn more of the language and traditions of the people- more for literary material to aid his writing than for acculturation.”

Even though Bantaje is “a peaceful village with good people”, Tombo cannot stop reminiscing about South Africa where he had spent his formative years; a place he likes to think of as “the lands of better thinking people”.

“You don’t believe in our traditions?” Rekia, the local beauty that has charmed his heart asks him one night.

“Not at all,” our enlightened Tombo grins. “I think they make for good humour, great laughter and all but that is it…”

The local belief he finds most amusing is that the river has the power to kill on nights of full moon. Of course, Tombo doesn’t doubt that someone can drown and die in the river. That is natural enough and has scientific explanation. But the problem arises when the villagers try to ascribe supernatural tendencies to the river. And to prove them wrong, Tombo runs to the river for a swim in one of the nights of full moon.

Humans have rebelled against God and laws. Humans have always wanted to be master of both their lives and universe. Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were forbidden to touch. Drunken with success, Odyssey declared his autonomy from Posidon the god of the sea who reminds him that “man is nothing without the gods.”

Barely twenty four hours after his challenge to the gods and rites of the land, Tombo is revisits the riverside once more this time around to search for the lump of money he is sure he must have dropped the previous night. Only, he ends up running mad. And by the end of the story, he has become a convert.

While The River’s Testament is about an enlightened soul being converted into a believer of superstitions, Luashie’s Doctrine is of a believer becoming disillusioned. Lushie has seen it all, from the bizarre miracles in Pentecostal churches to the calmness and serenity of mass and communion in the Roman Catholic Church. Attending early morning mass becomes his escape from the harsh realities of (family) life and a bullying wife. He feels so fulfilled in this faith that “there was no way he was ever going to even think about changing his faith.” But he returns home that same day and engages in a fight with his wife, an incidence that leaves him hospitalized and shakes his faith to the point that he becomes sure he’s not going to stay with the church much longer.

In A Lust Intervention, Amina fails to entrap Tarlumun with food and sex in order to steal his prosperity and his luck. She first makes his acquaintance at a construction site which he is supervising, where she approaches him ostensibly to “inquire if she could get a contract to supply some building materials”. Eventually, she sets a perfect scene and mood for seduction and only fails because Tarlumun’s fiancé, Nnenna, is busy that same night in intercessory prayers on behalf of her man.

The Gaping Void takes it a notch higher. It proves faith can reverse fate and that all things are possible if only one believes. I have hardly read through the first two paragraphs when these lines from J. P. Clark’s Abiku ran through my mind:

“Coming and going these several seasons

Do stay out on the baobab tree

Follow where you please your kindred spirits

If indoors is not enough for you…”

 

You cannot but feel sorry for the family of Ebuka and Adaora who keeps having Ogbanje babies that die only to be reborn eventually. The sestet embedded in the story says it all:

“Ogbanjes die

They will delight you with a cry

Then, in early childhood die

Locate your tear bank, prepare your cry

They might deceive you a few years but by and by

Ogbanjes die”

 

Like Tombo in The River’s Testament, Ebuka has little or no regard for customs and tradition. We are told that he views “custom as simply a course to which people willed that which would befall them.”

According to Cacious in Julius Ceaser, neither “stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass/ nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron/ can be retentive to the strength of spirit…”

Ebuka goes on to name the baby Victor, insisting that the child will live despite that the others are clamouring to scar the baby in order to identify him in his next coming. By the time the boy Victor is old enough to go play football in the street, his father is unexplainably absent. Adaora has given birth to another repeater child, a baby girl. Adaora proves to be the antithesis of her husband. Rather than replicate what Ebuka did in the past, she resigns to fate and says to Victor: “Your sister has decided to leave us. There is nothing we can do.”

But Victor, the redeemed Ogbanje, refuses to give up without a fight. He picks up the baby and does to her what his father had done to him in his own time.

While a mere phrase can hardly be said to be devoid of message in whatever way, some of the stories in this collection doesn’t seem to merit their place. You either find them too short for a quickie, or quite fleshy but tasteless. The reader comes out from them suspecting that they were just used to make up the pages. The Pen and Sword, which is approximately 223 words, is still vague even as a facebook status update.

Su’eddie Vershima Agema does something remarkable in THE BOTTOM OF ANOTHER TALE. Faith and fate are ascribed equal powers, the only determining factor being the individual for whom it is left to either let the former overrule the latter or vice versa. Things aren’t necessarily what we think they are. Everything is what we make of them.

ONE OTHER CITIZEN OF CINDERELLA-LAND (A Review of Towunmi Coker’s Promise of the Future)

Title: Promise of the Future
Author: Towunmi Coker
Genre: Prose
Format: Paperback
Extent: 159 pages
ISBN: 978-978-52838-4-6
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.

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”

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.