Losing Connections: A Review of Gloria Minage’s “Boyi” by Emmanuel Dairo
Losing Connections image by Tee Jay Dan
The more prizes there are in the African literary landscape, the merrier—so goes the received wisdom. If the almighty Caine prize is the main event of yearly literary festivals and awards season, there are nonetheless other prizes designed to help their winners shrug off the cloak of obscurity and enter a kind of limelight. If winning these prizes does not always result in international acclaim, there is always the next best thing—continental repute—to offer.
Enter the Writivism Literary Festival and its important appendage, the Writivism Short Story Prize. Now in its fourth iteration, the organizers describe it as “an annual award for emerging African writers” and this year’s longlist fits that description to a tee. None of the five shortlistees fit the mould of an established writer, not even nationally. This year’s stories are varied and variegated in terms of themes and tropes and technique. Joseph Aito’s “The List” tells of the clash of worldviews between the families of a prospective couple that ends up destroying more than just the marriage introduction ceremony. “SunDown” by Acan Innocent grips the reader with an absorbing post-apocalyptic tale told by an albino, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty. “The Swahilification of Mutembei” by Abu Amirah explores what it means to lose your identity and what it costs to assume another. And Kenyan Writer Gloria Mwaniga Minage’s entry “Boyi” is about lost connections—interestingly, the theme of this year’s Writivism festival is “restoring connections.”
Gloria Minage’s “Boyi” follows the narrator-girl as she tells how her family is thrown into disarray when Boyi, the boy of the family, is taken away by the SALADEF Militia. The family gets targeted because Baba lent “panga and makonge ropes to the government surveyors” who came to demarcate the land and settle a boundary dispute between the Soy and Ndorobo tribes—an action the SALADEF considers as betrayal of the Soy cause. Her son’s absence pushes Mama closer and closer to the precipice of sanity even as news filter in that Boyi has become baptized and hardened by battle. To resolve the escalating land insurgency, the government is forced to send in the troops, an action which precipitates the catastrophe that ends the story.
“Boyi” revolves around disconnection: familial, communal, national, psychological. But in order to restore connections, it is important to know how the connections were severed in the first place. As part of her writerly functions, Gloria reviews pieces for the East African Newspapers, and in “Boyi” she reviews how these connections are severed, piece by piece: the Soy and the Ndorobo become estranged over land; and the forced SALADEF conscription divorces Boyi from his family. The latter results in the alienation of Mama from Baba—“Mama, who had always sided with Baba”—and also gradually disconnects her from reality. Even the villagers, horrified by the atrocities committed by the SALADEF, end up withdrawing their tacit support from the group— “they forgot that they were to protect our land from being given to those lazy Ndorobos. Now, they even cut off our necks.” Hidden behind this story of a family torn apart by strife that escalates from communal disagreements to national crisis is a lesson on where the rain began to beat us, to borrow Africa’s preeminent proverb.
Remarkably, “Boyi” does not need to devolve into the overt proselytization common in social fiction, a major turn-off for me. By leaving the narration free of authorial intrusion, including doing away with a characterial mouthpiece, the writer invites the reader to make their own deductions about how crises on the continent are allowed to escalate. So here’s one: when SALADEF first started fighting for land, and ostensibly, and perhaps truly, on behalf of the community, why didn’t the elders retort, “Who send you”? A cursory glance at the history of insurgencies in Africa reveals one thing of common salience: these groups are initially tolerated, even encouraged, by a majority of the recruiting community. Red mats are spread and they are proclaimed heroes of the communal cause. Until the groans begin, by which time the people realize, along with Baba, that “this thing should have ended a long time ago, but puoot, war is a maggot that nibbles and nibbles at the hearts of men.” The problem with this sort of comprehension is that it always, always comes after the fact.
Gloria Minage’s story highlights the tension between literature and cold reportage. In discourse terminology this tension is between the tendencies of individualization and assimilation respectively. Assimilation robs the individual of their unique story by subsuming them under a collective. In the typical newspaper a militant, however young, is a militant is a militant—“Sabaot Land Defence (SALADEF) Ragtag Militia Leaders Killed by Kenya Army Forces,” goes the headline of the Nation Newspaper which Baba unceremoniously dumps into the pit latrine. Literature provides individualizing context: How old is he? How and why did he become an armed dissident? Who and where are his family? How do they feel? Viewed this way, even the title becomes a means of reclamation, a successful rescue of Boyi and his story from the contextless newspaper-headline aggregation, an affirmation of the individuality of the titular, if silent, character—it is a way of resisting the collectivization of casualties into nameless, faceless, statistics.
“A short story is a photograph,” writes Lorrie Moore. “Boyi” is basically a series of heart-rending high-res snapshots, like the ones incorporated into PowerPoint presentations where one family’s woe is used to illustrate the suffering that crisis spawns on the continent. The sense of tragedy deepens as the reader views slide after slide. Nor is the heartbreak the kind occasioned exclusively by the by-now familiar murder and rapine that attends conflicts on the continent; there is despair triggered by the utter helplessness of the villagers who, “forced to send their boys or pay protection fees,” are reduced to sellers of gossip and tattletales.
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Significant happenings in Boyi are bookmarked by natural or biological events, with suspicious regularity. “The long rains” and “mountain winds” herald the arrival of Kenyan troops sent to quell the insurgency, the mass migration from the war zones begin the day the narrator’s adolescent mammas become “painful stone-hard lumps” and news of Boyi’s exploits as a battle-tested SALADEF officer arrive “with the dust devil that whirls in January”. By the time of the story’s tipping event, the reader should expect the token thunder and lightning; the reader will not be disappointed. A cynic might claim this is evidence of formulaic box-ticking. The cynic would have a point.
“Boyi” is a story of child soldiery like few others. In African literature, the child victim story template is simple: show them becoming soldiers, show them suffering and fighting, show them dying. The point-of-view is mostly fixed and fixated on the conscript. Gloria Minage skips along the path less travelled: in lieu of following the child victim around, she explores the spaces left behind by his absence, deftly constructs a stirring tale, not of what leaving home means and does to the protagonist—though we do learn, offhand, of the latter in the story—but of the emotional toll it asks of his family. Minage’s story shares some similarities with Petina Gappah’s The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize-shortlisted story “The News of Her Death.” Both feature characters peripheral to the narrative action but central to the plot. However, while Kindness’ absence (due to her death) is necessary for the progression of the plot in the latter story, Boyi’s near-total absence—along with his complete silence—though integral to the technique deployed, is presented as the culmination of a set of entirely avoidable events.
The girl-narrator in the story spends most of the time talking about what is happening within her family. The reader is fed information about what goes on outside the home through the reports of characters who are older and presumably more connected to the action. Thus the story jumps over some of the pitfalls of unreliable narration and the narrative technique succeeds because the narrator, being a part of the home, is a reliable witness of its disintegration.
In “Boyi” the humans are breathing metaphors. If Mama stands for Africa—as she usually does—then Boyi is representative of Africa’s greatest natural resource, its human capital misused for projects that profit nobody in the long run. Madness began to enter Africa’s eyes the day her youths began to be wasted on battlefields of blood and hate. From communal crises, as in this story, to vituperations on social media, Africa’s youths have become willing instruments in the hands of those who wield the real power and watch proceedings from a safe distance.
The sentences in “Boyi” are fresh and firm, edible and earthen. Proverbs and superstition, village talk and village thought find welcome here. The author demonstrates a firm command of language of the sort that only comes from familiarity with local idioms. Like one of Poe’s dicta stipulates, these sentences build towards a single mood, one that screams Danger! Do Not Approach. Even before the final tragedy and the mother’s descent into insanity becomes complete, we know how it will end. We see it everyday. We read it everyday. Still, when we reach the cliff’s edge there is no hesitation: down to the rocks below we fall—along with the mother and the father and the daughter. This is possible because we possess both feeling for and knowledge of their pain—some of us are fathers or mothers or daughters in the families of myriad Boyis innumerable within the boundaries of crisis-ridden Africa.
Emmanuel Dairo lives and writes from Lagos