I lived in Nigeria for 6 years and it was only in the last decade that I’ve realised how little I know of the country, the people, of the civil war – despite moving there when it had been going for a year. Unlike India, Nigeria wasn’t home. It was where I lived, when I wasn’t in boarding school that is. It was a great place to be young – the weather was tropical and there were extensive opportunities for water sports. But I was always aware of an underlying current of fear at home, so our lives revolved around our parents and their ex-patriot friends. It was never discussed this fear, never explained, but it was always present. As a result, I never sought to read about the country, despite a decided preference for books written by international authors.
Until recently that is. I’ve now read four – all outstanding – and I would urge you to do likewise. For these are huge talents and wonderful story-tellers, not just writers of Nigerian literature.
First up was “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015 and I read it as part of my annual Man Booker read-alongs. The tale of this Igbo family’s five sons took me back to my first year in Lagos, when a group of us children used to run free, entirely without the supervision of adults. We didn’t get up to anything actively wrong, but we certainly got up to stuff our parents wouldn’t approve of, much like the boys did in “The Fishermen”. The local madman/seer in the book reminded me of the man with the chicken farm who used to rail at us for climbing into his enclosure – not to take chickens, but simply as a dare. The innocence in this behaviour – of both my group and the boys – was bittersweet, for it wasn’t long before we all had to grow up, to face puberty and real life. The superstitions and the seemingly overwhelming drive in males towards violence and vengeance whilst present in Nigeria, can also be found in many other examples of African literature.
I then persuaded my book club to read “Americanah” by Chimamande Ngozi Adichie. Whilst the majority of the story takes place in America, it is filled with musings on the life of the black american – as seen from the perspective of a black african. And oh are the differences striking, especially to anyone who has experienced life in Africa. Whilst some in my book club found the focus on hair – and how it is dressed – repetitive and irrelevant, I found it the perfect metaphor for the huge gulf which exists between the two. When our heroine, Ifemelu, returns to Lagos, her joy at being home and her discomfort with the female role within Nigerian society all struck strong chords with me. That was the Lagos I remember seeing and hearing about – and although I was only 11 when I arrived, I’d reached my 16th birthday before we left.
“We should all be Feminists” then followed. I won’t dwell on this one long, as it’s a brief book and builds on the thread in “Americanah” of how the female gender is regarded in Nigerian society. Whilst clearly a subject that Adichie feels strongly about, it was all the more powerful as she did not tip into anger and bitterness, but rather demonstrated the love and affection she feels for her country and its people.
“Things Fall Apart” by the man – Chinua Achebe – came next and what a treat. A truly astounding novel. Beautiful, subtle, layered. Absolutely no lecturing, no hectoring, simply gorgeous story-telling. A story repeated throughout Africa, actually throughout the world wherever european imperialism has reached it’s tentacles. An important reminder that many of the world’s ills have been created by the drawing of boundaries to suit the european “owners” of overseas territories. How the fervence of missionaries was all too often backed by the military power of the european invaders. Whether you regard the tale of every day life depicted by Achebe as desirable or not, it was their life and we, the British, imposed our ways, our views, our religion and our ambitions upon them.
Lastly, “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Adichie again. Finally, the story of the civil war. I knew pathetically little and what I did know, came only from the British media, or from what I heard around the ex-pat community in Lagos. Some years ago, I met a man on a dating site. He was Nigerian who’d lived in England for many years because, as he told me “being Igbo, I had to leave after the war.” Knowing I’d lived in Lagos, he assumed I knew the significance of that statement. Feeling ashamed, I didn’t enlighten him of my ignorance. This book finally put that right. Here is the tale of the Biafran war told by Biafrans – the Igbo. I realise that there’s another side to this tale, as there always is, but the significance of foreign interference (or support – depending on your perspective) is unavoidable.
When I sat down to write this I realised – with some surprise – that all three of these authors are of Igbo origin. But rather than ignore the fresh insight these books have provided me simply because they come from only one source, I’ve made a decision to seek out Nigerian authors of varying origins -such as Wole Soyinka & Helen Oyeyemi (both Yoruba), Lola Shoneyin (Remo), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Ogoni) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Hausa) – to add to my knowledge of Nigeria. To that end, I’m also following New Books Nigeria where I’m sure to find recommendations to challenge my toppling To-Read list with some great offerings. And, as always, I welcome your recommendations.
Sometime in the future, I plan to revisit this piece to express yet further #secondthoughts of this unique country where I was fortunate to have spent my teenage years.
© Debra Carey, 2018