“Summer Reading”… a chance to catch up on important books you feel you should have read? Or the only time of the year you can get away from it all? I don’t know about you, but when I go on holiday I’d rather take a novel with me than a heavy development book. So here is my recommendation for reading this summer: * Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days. It’s already been showered with praise by the big shots of contemporary African fiction including Taiye Selasi, Binyavanga Wainaina and Igoni Barrett. But does the first novel by Nigeria’s ‘new star’ live up to the hype?
And After Many Days starts with a disappearance. Paul, the 17-year-old eldest son of the respectable Utu family from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, tells his brother that he’s going out to visit his friend next door – and never comes back. But rather than taking this as the starting point and exploring what the disappearance does to the Utu family (as Chigozie Obioma does in The Fishermen, for example), Ile chooses to go backwards, to tell the long back story of how Paul, the Utus and Nigeria got to that point. Paul was after all not the only one to disappear in 1995 – it was the year, the narrator says, of “rumors, radio announcements, student riots, and sudden disappearances.”
The journey Ile takes us on goes back into the Utus’ past, starting with Paul and his siblings’ childhood, their friendships and fights, their troubles at school, their secrets and loves. We get to know Paul, his sister Bibi and brother Ajie intimately, and learn something of their father’s and grandfather’s lives too. But it is not only the Utus’ past that Ile wants to explore – he also takes us to their ancestral village of Ogibah, in the Niger Delta, where life is being turned upside down by the oil business. A mysterious entity referred to as ‘Company’ is combing through forests, digging pits, laying pipelines, and destroying farms in the process. The Company gets its way through offering cows and small development projects to villagers, buying off a few prominent local people, and through its evidently cosy relationship with the Government, which sends in the police to burn houses and beat up anyone who protests or resists the Company’s plans. The poisoned atmosphere of the village seeps into the city of Port Harcourt, until violence is in the air everywhere. By the time we come back to Paul’s disappearance in the 1990s we have a much better idea of the kind of person he is and the political climate he is living in.
Ile’s decision to take the story back rather than forward has won him some critics as well as admirers. Obioma’s review in the New York Times was lukewarm, praising the dramatic tension of the opening and the moving depiction of the family’s grief, and criticizing the decision to abandon the narrative of Paul’s disappearance and to go back into the past. But Ile is trying to do something very different from Obioma. He is not trying to tell a story of a family’s collapse but how a particular political climate developed in Nigeria – specifically the rural Niger Delta region and the city of Port Harcourt – and how this affected individual people.
In fact the whole book shows very effectively how the political and personal are intertwined. The Utus seem to see Sani Abacha, the military dictator of Nigeria in the 1990s, as something of a personal enemy: “It was as if the head of state were doing these things to thwart them in particular”. At one point, there is a debate about whether Nigeria’s problem is more about leadership – about bad individuals at the top – or about systems. Paul’s father Bendic argues that “the problem is obviously systemic” and that “resolving it will require more than removing people from positions. It’s about developing processes, checks and balances, and organizing ourselves in a good way”. But Bendic’s friend Ifenwa finds the talk about systems “crazy”: there is a “maniac in power, murdering ordinary citizens, people are disappearing every day. Someone should first make him disappear”. In the end both are right. Abacha’s dictatorship in 1990s was a particularly grim time for Nigeria, but it was also a formative time. Even after Abacha died in 1998, unequal economic growth accompanied by increasing violence has continued unabated. When Paul’s brother Ajie goes back to the village of Ogibah at the end of the book, perhaps around 2010, he’s warned “People no longer write strongly worded petitions to voice their dissent. If you disagree with someone these days, you simply go over to the person’s house with your face unmasked and shoot him.”
There are a few nice lines mocking the development business in And After Many Days. Newspapers carry stories of “revenue allocation, think tanks set up for community development, and governors cutting ribbons for commission projects with much fanfare.” A contract for a “community development project” gets awarded to a corrupt local politician who builds a few shoddy classrooms instead of a promised “ultramodern learning centre” – and pockets the difference. But taken as a whole, the book is also about ‘development’ in a broader sense: the way a country changes over time. The “Company” brings schools, roads and a water pump to Ogibah, but it also cuts up land, dries up rivers and contributes to an atmosphere where the state and the economy’s survival is dependent on open, unchecked violence. The significant economic growth of Nigeria since the 1990s, Ile seems to be saying, is not an unmitigated good. Certainly it doesn’t seem to have benefited ordinary people in the Niger Delta.
So why did Paul disappear – for personal or political reasons? You will have to read the book to find out, but I would recommend the journey. Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back from the ‘facts’ of the present, the numbers and statistics, and delving into people’s stories of how we got here. And when better to take that step back than on a summer holiday?
* Recognising that it is only ‘Summer’ over the next few months for those who live in temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere! It’s Kiremt (heavy rains) here in Ethiopia and Kipupwe (cool season) in Tanzania, for example – and Winter for much of the Southern Hemisphere…