AUTHENTIC NOTES FROM A LIFE ON THE FRINGE
A Book Review by Lindsay Barrett
TITLE; BORN ON A TUESDAY
AUTHOR: Elnathan John
PUBLISHER: Cassava Republic Press, Abuja
This remarkable and unique work signals the debut of a new star of not only Nigeria’s but all of Africa’s literary culture. Elnathan John’s novel is noteworthy for its air of authenticity as well as its audacity in depicting both the visible physical conditions and the invisible inner psychology of one of the most marginalised segments of Nigerian society, the almajiri or Northern Nigerian underclass. That this work is appearing at this time lends a contemporary resonance to John’s story that is both exciting and impressively prescient. One could hardly do better than read this novel if one were seeking to understand the origin of the Boko Haram outrages that have devastated large swathes of North-Eastern Nigeria in the last seven or eight years. However the author’s purpose is clearly not only to document the unstable nature of the society that has given birth to this underclass. His story exposes the historical neglect of humane responsibility by the wealthy ruling class of the welfare and education of those on whose bent backs the wealthier classes continue to ride. This is a classic tale of proletarian ambition and distress, redolent with the social realism that emanates from profoundly considered factual observations about the nature of life in the territory that he has chosen to depict. In building this tale John has chosen to have a precocious young man’s coming of age narrated in his own words. He challenges his protagonist with the task of overcoming almost insurmountable difficulties in the course of a period of political turmoil and unrest that is recognisably similar to Nigeria’s most recent transition to a democratic era. In spite of the territorial authenticity of its setting this is a work of universal beauty and relevance. At the heart of the tale the dilemmas that challenge the protagonist’s aspirations present the reader with a tale that is more than just a simple pedagogical fable about contemporary injustice.
The tale opens with the adolescent anti-hero Ahmad Dantala (the surname means Tuesday-born in Hausa) narrating impressions about life in a ghetto called Bayan Layi in which he lives on the outskirts of one of Northern Nigeria’s large metropolises. As he reflects on the discomforts and trials that face himself and his fellow squatters it emerges that he belongs to a gang of homeless ex-Koranic-school students who have been press-ganged into service as political enforcers for a politician who pays them negligent amounts and supplies them with both food and the ubiquitous narcotic “wee-wee” (marijuana) that fuels their fury whenever needed. It is revealed that many of the youth have become so attached to the inhuman demands made on their services that they are little more than animals in their instincts and habits. Ahmad Dantala’s resistance against descent to this level of inhumanity sets him apart. He is especially compassionate and rational when he reminisces about his family, especially Umma (his mother) whom he left in his remote Sahelian birthplace the village of Dogon Icce. We learn from his musings that his elder brothers have become attached to a Shi’ite sect that is taking hold in some communities around the Northern states but which his own Koranic tutors had preached against. This sets the stage for greater challenges for the young Ahmad when the lure of more money than he ever expected to fall into his hands leads him to participate in an operation in which he involuntarily commits murder. Horrified by his own brutality and fearing for his life he absconds with the funds that were entrusted to him by his master who has been killed in the operation that leads him to escape from Bayan Layi.
This traumatic experience sets him on the path to personal restoration however when, during his journey home, he meets a Koranic scholar, Sheikh Jamal, who advises him to visit his village and return to work at a mosque in Sokoto that he (the Sheikh) heads, if Ahmad’s family agrees to that decision. The author’s profound knowledge of the workings and the moral presumptions of the Islamic clergy is a surprisingly well handled aspect of this narrative. There are indications that suggest that he must have undertaken stringent research and intelligence work on this subject in developing the tale. This gives the details of the story an essential credibility that lifts the work into classic relevance. When the environmental devastation, which is the normal condition of existence in the rural communities of the Sahel combines with the brutal customary conduct of his father towards his mentally unstable mother, to drive him away once again it is into the arms of the group led by Sheikh Jamal in Sokoto. John’s convincingly mature depiction of this organisation and the main characters involved in the dramatic developments that are to follow Ahmad’s joining it is one of the most significant elements of the overall impact of the novel. The veracity of the conceptualisation is enhanced by John’s convincing characterization of key subordinate players such as Jibrin the nephew of Sheikh’s deputy at the mosque in Sokoto Malam Abdul Nur. In fact whereas Jibrin is to emerge gradually as a major influence on Ahmad’s adolescent objectives and aspirations he is also to become a foil to his absolute loyalty to the missionaries. When it becomes obvious to Ahmad that Malam Abdul Nur’s constant tyranny over his nephew Jibrin is the exact opposite of what he believes to be the obligation of faith he first loses respect for the missionary and then develops a deep hatred for him.
Ahmad is constrained to conceal this emotion until Malam Nur eventually reveals the full extent of his tyrannical ideals to his leader Sheikh Jamal. In the interval Ahmad grows close to Jibrin who not only guides and advises him in matters of the flesh but also in his intellectual growth. Through him Ahmad learns to speak English and improves his skill in writing the language. One of John’s most ambitious devices in this work is the inclusion of some handwritten notes from a notebook that Ahmad kept when he was learning the rudiments of English from Jibrin. These are strange but highly authentic expressions of a struggling mind caught in a dilemma of wanting to learn but also seeking to accommodate and justify the precepts and principles that he has been conditioned to accept from childhood. When the political situation grows increasingly confused the links between public office and religious institutions and customs become blurred. As he makes the effort to understand the world around him Ahmad becomes symptomatic of the entire generation of dispossessed youth whose hopes and desires have given Nigeria’s attempts at managing political change in recent years a special character. It soon becomes clear that while Ahmad is deeply loyal to the principles promulgated by Sheikh he is also prepared to question the logic and fairness of the conduct of the mosque’s affairs under Malam Abdul Nur. This pits him against the elitism of the organisation and as he grows more enlightened in his consciousness his ability to serve the organisation becomes intertwined with his attainment of adulthood. When Malam Nur eventually absconds and becomes the founder of an insurgent organisation (not unlike Boko Haram) Ahmad is vindicated and becomes a close adviser to Sheikh who grudgingly acknowledges the value of his common sense approach to life.
John displays his expertise as a storyteller most succinctly in handling the complexities of the process of the entry into maturity of a young man who is also finding that the way of life he has been given to believe is inevitable is actually profoundly susceptible to change. When his personal desires begin to impinge on his relationship with Sheikh, especially as he develops a crush on Aisha, Sheikh’s daughter, the aspect of the tale that makes it a classic coming of age narrative is strengthened. From this point on the author undertakes a most difficult task as he mixes a series of anecdotal references to events arising from public conflict with the inner musings of a besotted young lover. This technique exposes the vulnerability and persistent naiveté of Ahmad as being the source both of his moral strength and his emotional vulnerability. In handling this extremely sensitive aspect of the tale John exhibits a mastery that belies his status as a first-time novelist. This novel is all the more exciting as a purveyor of the experience of growing up under a system that continually seeks to undermine and subordinate the adventurous initiatives of the young because it portrays a character whose will to overcome this systematic containment is predicated on simple desire rather than complex assumptions.. For this reason the final sections of the tale tend to work even more effectively as the location switches from the urban ghetto to a brutal detention camp. Here the realism of observation that he showed in the early sections of the work and the impressive surrealism of his imagination come together to provide one of the most amazing literary depictions of the abuse of human rights that this reviewer has ever encountered anywhere.
John’s tale is a cautionary one because it depicts a situation that is based on recognisable reality even as it deploys a display of extraordinary imaginative writing and conceptualisation. This book is notable not only for the freshness of its style but also for the fact that it reinforces the virtues and contemporary adaptability of age-old techniques and standards. The pace of the tale grows ever more frenetic towards the end like a good thriller but its denouement is neither simplistic nor predictable. In fact the end of the story leaves the reader somewhat in suspense because Ahmad the protagonist is himself also left in suspense. In a way this is the most telling commentary on the social circumstances that it depicts that the novel makes. It suggests that there is no easy solution to be found for the problems that confront the younger generation in the encounter between the customs of the past and their desire to build a new future. Although this novel is based in Northern Nigeria it resonates with relevance for the entire nation and for different national entities throughout Africa. Its universality is one of the best reasons that the Rainbow Book Club can elicit for having chosen it as recommended reading for the month of March 2016.