Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country
by Nnamdi Oguike:
Book Review by Frank Eze
The stories in this collection are like baskets brilliantly woven. The beauty of these baskets is drawn from their colourful, fibrous materials—pines, straws, willows and wisterias: antithetic, yet selfsame stories of squalor, hope in the face of hopelessness, and of love, which describe the slums, the host communities of most of the stories. The book’s uniqueness is in its multicultural disposition and ability to draw from the philosophies of the characters in the stories, and in so doing, present to its readers the assonance of the humanity of people who live in the slum, notwithstanding the geographical differences.
“Camp in Blikkiesdorp”, the first of the stories in the collection, subtly reveals the true situation of poor South Africans as the nation wrapped up preparations for the FIFA World Cup, as seen through the lives of upright Ruth and her children. The character, Ruth, cuts a figure of strength and resilience in weathering the storm of irresponsibility on the side of her partners—fathers of her children. Her strength is ably demonstrated in her shock-absorbing quality and in her ability to strike a balance in a family of children with contrasting personalities. Told through reserved Sindisiwe, this brutally honest story points out that the beautiful places that adorned our television screens during the global showpiece did not encompass the whole of South Africa and that government, in their customary act of deception, hid the poor and the slums—poster boys of their failures—from the eyes of the world. The strength of this position is backed up by Ruth’s unhidden resentment and silent protests, which took the form of disinterestedness in the World Cup.
“A Nice Job in Antananarivo” is an encapsulation of love, loss and hope. Rasoa picks us up from the slum to the sleek streets of Madagascar alongside his wily, little sister, Lala. The dejectedness and deep sadness of the character, Ranomenjanahary, show the emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one, a term brilliantly compared to an amputation by Ken Follett. The story leaves one appreciating the uncanny nature of children, as clearly demonstrated by little Lala, to endear themselves, effortlessly, to the most difficult of persons. In becoming the light that warmed Ranomenjanahary out of his shell, unburdened his mind and rescued him from the gallows of grief, Lala secured her future and that of her resilient brother, Rasoa.
“Kumba’s Sister” takes us to the slums of Sierra Leone where we are treated to a rich plate of pidgin with a foreign flavour, an elaborate exposition on the fluidity and nuance of language. Finda, the main character in this tragic story, battles shyness and the feeling of inferiority, and the loss of her inspirational, daring sister, Kumba—who got sick of Susan’s Bay, had her fill of their parents’ endless fights and fled to the luxuries of Freetown—didn’t help. Finda’s fiery loyalty to her lover, albeit transient, which initiated a slow but steady disappearance of her complex issues, reveals to us the unmatched ability of love to liberate the body of its ills once it takes centre stage. The gruesome events marking the end of the story leave one heartbroken. The title of the story places emphasis on the unknown sister, thereby giving the writer the opportunity to introduce us to this person, revealing her and slowly unravelling her into a full fledged and known character.
“Prophet” ferries us to the notorious Makoko slum where Fela fights for his identity as a Nigerian. The story exposes the dangers of organized religion when piloted by the likes of Prophet Ogunfowokan and Baba Tutuola. We are left drawing inspirations from young Fela’s survivalist philosophies in the face of irritating questions of his belonging to the community and his nation of birth.
In the tragicomic classic, “A Little Private Get Together”, Oguike shows the gradual loss of grip on religious tenets responsible for the faithlessness—from a puritan’s lens—sweeping across the lands like a plague with unmatched virulence. The moral of this story to the Christian faithful is drawn from the need to not be yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14), as a breach of this instructive verse leads the Ochiengs back to their old ways, resulting in dire consequences minutes after their confirmation. One is left wondering if the accidental death of morally bankrupt Bwana Odede is retributive, considering he was paedophilic and had capitalized on the slightest chance he got to abuse the eldest of the Ochieng daughters.
In “In Our Father’s House”, Taata’s somewhat inordinate practicality pushes his family to the brink and his drive to tighten his grip on his family injures his fragile relationship with his son, James. This story lays bare the realities of those who live in the slums: unmet physiological needs and the death of the most elementary of dreams, even before their birth. The writer’s treatment of James is quite unjust considering his brave, oppositionist role in the face of Taata’s tyranny. His welfare is treated with such casualness unbefitting of his persona.
“My Beloved Infidel” is a sublimely written tragic story of love in its purest form, and loss which hovers around with a gaping mouth swallowing beautiful things. It treats us to two major malignant sides of religion’s body: divisiveness and extremism. Hassan’s heroism is drawn from his burning desire to pursue true love and, in so doing, cross those heavily mined boundaries of religion. He, however, narrowly escaped the carnage that wiped out half his family and friends on their happiest day. This story points out the universality of love and the beauty it bears, especially in those events where it is mutual.
In “A Passage Through Libya”, Diallo and his accidental companions, with bags full of hope, lead us through the minefield that has become the Sahara desert to war torn Libya where the ghost of Gaddafi hangs in the air, en route to Europe—the promise land. This story, despite its fictitious claims, captures all that is wrong with contemporary Africa: terrorism and militancy in the North; poverty, resulting from decades of anarchy and misrule, in the South. Africa is battered and badly needs some saving. And, in this case, we cannot help but appreciate the writer’s ability to capture almost all of Africa’s problems in a short story.
“The Message” highlights the folly in stopping a man in pursuit of his passion. Sufian was a sacrifice; his death was the catalyst to the cold reception and subsequent resistance to insurrection. Baragsen and his men’s lack of diplomacy, the bloody path they trod in a bid to restore the old order, is a pointer to the world’s unending crises. One cannot help but admire the character, Amatsan, for his sheer bravery, his readiness to place his life on the line in the pursuit of his right and that of his community. This story has the potential to inspire people suffering oppression.
“Breaking News” illustrates that in the face of tyranny and anarchy, patriots are worst hit, as friendships and loyalties weigh little on the scale in comparison to love for country and willingness to sacrifice for it. The writer delves into the twilight of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and leaves one wondering how bad things became that a patriotic family would be left with no choice but to celebrate the ousting of a democratically elected government by the military. Deductively, walking the path of truth, even at the risk of losing it all, remains the most honourable option.
“Honouring Kamehameha” is a deeply philosophical story with an intercontinental touch, capturing the beauty of friendship, art and nature as made possible by communication. The mutual respect and love for one another, despite contrasting races and religious beliefs, further enrich the story. However, the death of the angelic Luana, leaves everyone heartbroken.
In “Miracle in the Favela”, Ovidio Roberto’s survival is catalytic: initiates positive changes in his community where hope, faith and trust in God were like balls rolling down a steep slope. The community’s act of acceptance and seamless integration of Father Zezinho, after breaking his Melchizedek vows to marry Roberto’s widow, as the story makes us believe, is a bit uncharacteristic of slum communities known to hold unflinchingly to dogmas. But it also shows how unpredictable and unexpected life and people can be among slum dwellers.
Summarily, most readers would be left wondering how Nnamdi Oguike managed to capture the realities in the slums and other destinations portrayed in this collection. But we should not underestimate the benefits of sound research as embodied by the stories in this book.
Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country dwells more on slum stories, with few exceptions. The writer almost eliminated the spice that comes with variety, yet one could see that he focuses his lens on a part of the community that is often ignored due to its unappealing sight and sound. Through these stories, Oguike gives voice to these often ignored people, so we can know them, empathise, understand and come to respect them.
This collection would not sit well with those who seek to remove African literature from the focus of what has come to be known as poverty porn, but within the stories live a world that is as real as the one where I sit to type this. Oguike has swayed us with his quality diction and effortless command and combination of languages. We can only hope for more beautiful and warm stories from this young and powerful new voice on the scene.
Frank Eze’s works have appeared in Praxis, Gnarled Oak, Antarctica Journal, Brittle Paper, Scarlet Leaf Review, Lunaris Review and elsewhere. A 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee, he won the 2016 edition of the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize and works currently on his debut poetry collection.