The African Library: Entry no 130
Jowhor Ile: And after many days
This debut novel has as much authority, weight and delicacy as the mature work of a long-established author. The text appeared in 2016, and most of the narrative is set in and around the city of Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State in Nigeria (often referred to as an “oil city”). The evoked events occur mostly during 1995, with reminiscences of earlier periods and a few final scenes set many years later. The year 1995 is described as the “year of the poor. Of rumors, radio announcements, student riots, and sudden disappearances. It was also the year news reached them of their home village, Ogibah, that five young men had been shot dead by the square in broad daylight,” even though the “sequence of events that led to this remained open to argument” (3–4). Many readers will know that, at this time, perhaps the most vicious of Nigeria’s many military rulers, General Sani Abacha, had secured virtually unfettered power for himself.
When the elder brother in this quite well-to-do family unexpectedly fails to return home one evening after supposedly going out to visit a nearby friend, everything changes. His siblings are sent off to bed long after midnight and beyond their usual bedtimes; everyone has kept vigil, made uneasy by Paul’s absence. Ajie, Paul’s younger brother and the narrative’s main focaliser, “climbed into bed but was unable to sleep. He saw for the first time how high the bedroom ceiling was, and how long the curtains were, nearly grazing the floor beside Paul’s bed. In the morning Paul will be home, he thought as his eyes scanned the half-lit space between his bed and Paul’s” (7). The point perplexing everyone is that Paul has never been the type to play truant. “They sensed something had gone wrong, but it was new, whatever it was, so no one knew how to hold it properly. Not Paul, everyone thought. It was not like Paul to get into trouble or give anyone reason to worry. He was the least scolded of the children, the most commended by teachers” (9). As time passes,
They sent word to family friends. Like the pendulum on their parlor wall, they swung to either end, dread and hope, but generally stayed in balance; no hysterical outbursts, no screaming and pounding the wall for answers, no silent bitter tears that soaked the pillow when you lifted your head in the morning. There was just stillness. Something quiet crept about the house, made you feel a sudden chill, and sprayed your arms and neck with unexpected goose-bumps. (10)
Bendic, the humane and dignified father of the children, is an esteemed lawyer; Ma (as they call their mother) is a generally calm, warm-hearted mother who is a high school biology teacher, courageous and enterprising. They are a sophisticated and politically astute couple; they are widely travelled, having worked abroad, and also in Lagos, until the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War [often referred to as the Biafran War] led to their returning to Rivers State in the east, taking up their professional lives in Port Harcourt, but retaining strong links with (and paying regular family visits to) their ancestral village, Ogibah, located in the fertile, swampy region of their state. They have strong links with many of the leading villagers (including the revered high priest of the Ntite shrine, Aduche). They have a village home where they go and stay for long visits; their three children speak the local language of the Ogba people (the ethnic group to which they belong) fluently, and have many friends of their own in Ogibah. But, in this oil-rich area, tension is building up between them and the unnamed foreign company that has been granted government permission to build the oil pipelines which now criss-cross village fields and waters; the company creates tension and division in the village when they make plans to exploit the natural gas found in the area. The majority of the (proudly traditional) village people and their spokespersons resent and resist these plans for further “development” and ruthless exploitation of resources that will bring profit to the company’s international shareholders and to Nigeria’s government, as it does to those villagers who accept the company’s bribes to support their plans. This tension builds up in the course of the novel; there is also a history of previous attempts to resist the oil company’s plans (and the colluding central government, along with the local co-optees) – battles that have ended in (honourable) defeat.
The novel’s enigmatic title seems to have been chosen to reflect some vague promise of eventual relief or rescue or return; it is unclear whether readers should link it with the villagers’ battle against exploitation or to the hoped-for return of Paul. It is, perhaps, also a hint that the narrative (which is really the younger brother Ajie’s) has the focus of hindsight – a fond and vivid recalling of how things used to be in the family and in the broader regional and national life of their society before the disasters that later overtook them.
Nevertheless, the family holds firm under the stress of the elder brother’s enigmatic and terrifying “disappearance” – the children’s mother is particularly commended for her dignity despite anxiety by Ajie, who describes her conduct as it contrasts with the children’s irritating Aunt Julie’s (her sister’s):
Ma was not the type of woman, Ajie thought, you could find brooding with her hand under her chin or weeping silently into the kitchen sink. She was their mother, a biology teacher, the vice principal of a boys’ school that once was the most notorious in town. A school she had turned around single-handedly in a year. Twice, the parents’ association had opposed and pressured the Ministry of Education to reverse her transfer … [and] had canvassed and rallied funds to keep the parent/teacher scheme she’d set up from going under. (16–7)
There is a general context of civic unrest around this time: gradually escalating student roadblocks and other demonstrations, burning of police vans, and students predictably coming under retaliatory police fire, with some students getting killed, though no one is sure of the number of fatalities. Still, none of this seems to have directly affected their family. No one has any idea what could have happened to prevent Paul from returning to or communicating with his family. Ajie feels especially guilty; as happens so often in families, people seek a scapegoat. He is horribly shaken when his sister, Bibi, tells him that “he must have said something to you” (as the last family member Paul spoke to before leaving their home) – as if he could somehow have “spared Paul from going missing” (24).
Bibi and Ajie have a long history of fighting quite violently with each other (as many siblings do) and constantly putting each other down with taunts and jeers, Paul remaining the calm older brother and attempting (usually futilely) to stop these battles. Bendic, in his calm courtroom-style interrogations, is usually the one to apportion blame, not sparing Paul for failing to stop the fights. Yet, it is only when he finds their living room in chaos and an especially wild battle under way between the two younger siblings (when Bibi is nine and Ajie seven), that Bendic, fed up, simply and effectively declares: “It will never happen again” (30). Such is his authority that the fights never recur in this form. Ajie profoundly admires Paul; the older boy is also kind and generous towards the younger one, doing things with him and not excluding him from activities and excursions with friends closer to his own age (despite the four years’ difference between them). He reassures Ajie, for instance, when Ajie is rather terrified of following Paul and the neighbouring boy (their friend) in leaping down from a high branch in a big mango tree across a fence into a muddy field: “Ajie!” Paul shouts from below, “I’m here, nothing will happen to you” (37). And, following that protective reassurance, nothing does: the big jump is safely executed and the younger boy unembarrassed by a “cowardly” refusal of the dare. Anecdotes like this allow one to understand the huge chasm Paul’s absence has created in the family and in Ajie’s psyche.
The boys are called home by Bibi; visitors have arrived: their father’s friend, Mr Ifenwa, who has opened a community school and enjoys intellectual sparring with Bendic, and their “Uncle” Gabby (their mother’s young cousin, who, as a student, used to lodge with them). Mr Ifenwa and Bendic, in their ongoing arguments, occasionally label each other teasingly, Mr Ifenwa referring to Bendic as a “decadent bourgeois”, and he, in turn, labelling Ifenwa (mock-seriously) a “Communist” (43). Ajie’s astuteness notices details, such as the more “English” turns of phrase employed by educated, older Nigerians, who “said perhaps instead of maybe … [and] peradventure” (45). Gabby, who has recently started work and is a favourite with the three Utu children, is an entertaining teller of tall tales. He has a “thin shiny scar” across his scalp, the heritage of police brutality when a mean-spirited police officer stopped him in the street (near the Utu home) and deliberately delayed him so that he could be beaten up and detained overnight for supposedly breaking the 9:00 pm curfew imposed by General Abacha’s military regime. Mr Ifenwa is a campaigner against Nigeria’s horrendous road accident death rate; he is a lonely man, since his wife was killed in an accident on a return visit the couple had made to Port Harcourt some years earlier. The couple’s sons work in the USA, as he himself used to do. Then the scene shifts from Ajie’s recall of their family’s and friends’ easy-going and convivial times to the new reality: “their earlier feelings of discord between hope and fear had fallen away, and there were just horror and dread” (48).
Ajie explains why Bendic is relatively elderly for a father of teenage children. The only one of his parents’ eight sons to survive past 19, he married late. His own father had been a Christian pastor, and when he died, just after Bendic and Ma discovered they would soon become parents, Bendic briefly became a practising Christian – hence the name given to Paul, in contrast with his siblings’ Ogba names. Another major factor in the “delayed” parenting was that during the Civil War, a malicious neighbour had falsely accused Bendic of being a spy for the Nigerian side in this devastating conflict. He was arrested by soldiers and taken for questioning – resulting in the first “disappearance” to which Ma had been subjected. The wicked neighbour thereafter claimed that he had witnessed Bendic’s death in front of a firing squad. Weeks later, word came that detained civilians had been set free in Port Harcourt. Ma told the children that “[n]obody there looked like Ben”. It was only when one of the skeletal bodies quietly said her name that she understood that he was her husband, whom she took home in a taxi, “weeping all the way” (57) and holding him on her lap. It was eight years later that she became pregnant for the first time, and Bendic converted. Ajie attempts to find an “explanation” for Paul’s inexplicable departure in the family’s oscillation between adherence to Christianity (exemplified by his paternal grandfather and Ma) and, on the other hand, tolerant respect for different religions (exemplified by Bendic, who particularly respects the traditional, spiritual beliefs of his people, who continue to worship at the shrine of Ntite).
When Paul was allowed to attend a prestigious boarding school some years ago, his siblings were mightily envious; Ajie, especially, set himself to read all his brother’s textbooks. To Ajie’s regret, Paul, after his first return from the new school, withdraws, to an extent, into leisure and educational reading, and even (to his initial amazement) begins to find newspapers worth reading, rather than boring. Paul starts commenting on the corruption that is rife in Nigerian public life, and (as Ajie puts it):
[T]his was what [he, too,] wanted, this way that Paul had of becoming something after he had read about it; this way he had of claiming things for himself. He had joined himself to a we, an us. A corrupt official had been exposed … for misappropriating pension funds, and Paul was expressing betrayal, even anger, about it. (75)
Of course, Ajie also wonders what the fat books with sexy covers that Paul often reads, contain, “but whatever there was to know about desire and its costs was beyond Ajie then” (78).
The next section of the narrative is set in Ogibah, the family’s ancestral village. We learn that while the village may seem remote and sparsely populated, any sign of trouble or distress in a household will generate an immediate response from “a band of able-bodied young men” (84), the Ogibah Youth Front (OYF). As the family reaches their “tall, white” village home, many excited children show up. A four-day village festival is imminent, and preparations are under way. Their father’s friend, Ogunwa, appears and starts relaying the local gossip; next comes one of Ma’s oldest friends, the wonderfully named Application Master (his real name is Mark; his proud mother gave her son the name when he returned to the village for life, unable to secure a city job, despite good qualifications and eloquently worded letters to potential employers). Soon, Bendic is holding court in their living room. Prominent village men come to talk to him about serious challenges to their lifestyle. Aduche, the high priest of the Ntite shrine, has a great love for Bendic, who, in turn, deeply respects and likes him. When Aduche arrives, the boys’ task is to conduct him ceremonially into Bendic’s presence. The small procession somehow recalls (for Ajie) the Biblical Abraham, walking with his son, Isaac, after God has ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his devotion. He cannot help wondering whether Bendic would sacrifice Paul, or kill him instead in order to save Paul, but then he realises that Bendic would reply, “Leave my boys alone. If you want someone dead, by all means, here I am, and please do the killing yourself, don’t make someone else do the dirty job” (94). Of course, these thoughts are especially poignant in the previously established context of Paul’s fateful disappearance.
At the meeting, a fierce quarrel soon erupts as the villagers (wanting Bendic to be aware of these issues) accuse Nwokwe, a wealthy and prominent citizen, of having been bribed by the oil company – it wishes to expand operations to get the abundant natural gas from the local terrain. The fiercest voice of criticism is that of a truculent man named Jonah. Ever the sage legal presence, Bendic raises his voice to say that since the claim against Nwokwe is very serious and he is (after all) present, the man should be given the opportunity to respond formally. They can initiate the discussion and, if necessary, resume it the next day. Application Master gets to his feet to sketch a brief history of the interaction between the company and the village landowners. There was, it seems, a very serious clash in 1971, but: “We have managed since then with the Company – not friends, not enemies.” Yet, he adds, concerning the company’s plans to install further (gas) pipelines: “If the ones they built for oil are killing us now, why should we allow them to put up new pipelines when we don’t know what damage they might cause?” Nwokwe immediately leaps to the company’s defence, shouting out: “If not for Company! … [D]o you think we would have been anything that we are today?” (97). He lists the benefits: a secondary school for their own and other villages, a primary school, a tarred road to the village, a water pump and tap water (these greatly reduce the mosquito population). Bendic asks him: “So you have not accepted money from anyone?” Nwokwe evades the question, reminding the village men that they are a small “minority tribe” in Nigeria, and that the Company’s presence affords some protection from the politically dominant groups. He acknowledges that “what they are offering may not be the best”, but the villagers need to be aware of the dangers of insisting on their rights in a situation where this might lose them most of the benefits earned so far. A man of about 50, Ikpo, stands up, pronouncing in a level, hard voice (pointing his finger at Nwokwe): “They have offered you money, and you may have accepted, so that their gas pipes can run past behind your house. You think we are fools?” (98–9). The meeting continues inconclusively, but Ajie and Paul grow bored and go outside. That evening, when the boys are in bed, Paul explains to Ajie that the company holds a lot of power: “These people have [the] government on their side. They look like they are asking us, but they are not; they prefer to indulge us, at least. … Everyone here knows you cannot fight government” (105), Paul gloomily concludes.
On the edge of sleep, Ajie muses:
There were the three of them … Paul, Bibi, and him. Before the beginning of his memory … there had always been the three of them. Paul and Bibi were the first people he saw, the first he touched. [All that] he resented and liked, everything he knew, thought, and felt, his smile and the angry pounding in his veins were all from them and now, for the first time, taking notice of this made him feel incredibly lonely. … [H]e sensed it that night, it hung about the room, the feeling that things may not always be like this, that they would one day grow up and live [apart] … or even die … (106–7)
We might simply call it Ajie’s realisation that love creates dependency and vulnerability, but the boy is too young for these terms.
The next day, as Ajie walks with Paul to go and visit a friend outside the village where there is to be a party, his village friend, Ossai, joins them. He tells them that “[t]here is going to be trouble in town today” (108). It seems that the company is giving their village a “gift” of 20 cows for the New Yam Festival. The company trucks bringing the cows have stopped in the street at Nwokwe’s house. Many villagers are asking who, besides Nwokwe, was consulted on whether to accept or refuse the cows; the quarrel is intensifying. The youth brigade, the OYF, is also divided, one third of the young men in it supporting Nwokwe’s son, Ogbuku. An especially belligerent OYF member (Morgan) has sent a message to Ogbuku, stating that “if any of the cows’ blood dropped on Ogibah’s soil … human blood would drop, too” (109). The boys forget about the uproar about the donated cows during their day’s visit at their friend’s house. By the time they return, the village has calmed down; the cows have been slaughtered, and the meat cooked and shared out. None of it appears in their own household’s kitchen, however. The next day, it is the ceremonial re-narration of the history of the founding of the village and their settlement of Ogba land, their ancestors having had to flee the mad fury of a prince.
Later, when boarding school has resumed for both boys and their sister, their mother comes (without their father) to visit them, bringing a picnic lunch and tuck for the rest of the term, and bearing a letter to each of them from their father. Their father has been ordered to rest by his doctor, she tells them; that is why he was unable to join them. Ma does not tell them the full story, that Bendic had suffered a collapse in his office and remained unconscious for two days, hence remaining in hospital, before he revived. Numerous tests had to be done to determine the degree of seriousness of his condition. Bendic’s letter to Ajie is the usual kind of admonitory caution to his son; it does not divulge anything about his clearly weakening health to the boy (nor does his letter to Paul, it seems). There is an interlude concerning a very short-lived friendship between Bibi and a brash neighbouring girl, Wendy – it is suggested that this girl and Paul might also have had a flirtation. The goodwill comes to an end when the girl bursts out in fury at Ajie, who has crashed to the ground on her new bike. She had very reluctantly allowed him to use it when the two older siblings wanted to teach Ajie to ride. Both Paul and Bibi angrily defend Ajie and commiserate with his slight injury; Wendy is only concerned about her bicycle having been scraped. When Paul apologises to Wendy, expressing concern for Ajie, she roars at him, “It’s all your fault! … Stupendous ignoramus!” and, as if to dispute her term of insult, Paul, in turn, calls Wendy a “nematode” and labels her a “stupid creature” (132). Utu blood is distinctly thicker than water!
Application Master (Mark, their mother’s old school friend) turns up unexpectedly at their home. He is being threatened with police arrest, it seems. It is Ogbuku, Nwokwe’s newly powerful son, who has ordered the arrest. The background is that Ogbuku, by promising largesse to the village youth, has been elected local government chairman for their area. He is known to siphon off huge slices of the donations to the town (mainly for building a state-of-the-art school) by the oil company. Application Master made use of his eloquence to write a strongly worded petition against Ogbuku, which he sent out to important officials. Soon after, a band of policemen arrived in the town and arrested four youths who were simply sitting chatting by the roadside. They first blasted them with Taser guns, then hit them with batons, before spiriting them away. By the time other townspeople showed up, there were only bloodstains left on the ground. Prior to this act of obvious power abuse and police brutality, Ogbuku (now mockingly nicknamed “Chop-I-Chop” to recall his promises of sharing bribery profits, or “chop”) had sent two policemen to Mark’s house to arrest him. Fortunately, he was not home at the time, and the villagers had moved in on the suspicious strangers to demand that they divulge the nature of their initially undisclosed status and mission. The villagers grew progressively angrier when the “visitors”, at first, refused to disclose the reason for their wish to see “Mark Alari, the owner of this house”. Pressurised, they had owned up to being policemen and said that Application Master was wanted by the police “for questioning”, and that they had been ordered to fetch him and bring him to their station. The two policemen accused the villagers of “obstructing justice”. When the villagers continued to show aggressive resistance, one cop grabbed a village man. The other locals came to his aid, and the other policeman to his colleague’s. The scuffle was not too serious, yet, but then a young “mover” and “agitator” in the OYF, self-named “Agility” because he was very strong and assertive, ordered the policemen to release the villager – an “order” that was not complied with and resulted in one policeman being tossed bodily into the air, the villagers then letting him fall heavily to the ground. The other cop quietly took to his heels and, after a while, the (presumably badly bruised) other one also arose and ran off. It was three days later that a police van arrived in the town and took away the four arbitrarily chosen young men, whom they first assaulted, as Mark reported (143–4). Bendic’s advice is that the two of them go to his friend Mr Ifenwa’s house the next morning, since Mr Ifenwa’s brother knows the police commissioner, who can be asked to look into the matter.
Bendic writes a number of judiciously worded letters to various authorities to appeal for intervention in the Ogibah conflict – the military administrator of Rivers State, the divisional police officer and so forth. He has, on a previous occasion, fought a long court battle on behalf of that community: “a story his children knew to its finest details, even though none of them had been born at the time” (148). A devastating oil explosion causing incalculable environmental damage was the cause; Bendic sued the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on behalf of the Ogibah villagers. Following two years’ protracted legislation, with known bribery of many officials bedevilling the situation, Bendic lost the case. Bendic’s irrefutable evidence of “swamplands and ponds covered in grease, ruined cassava farms burned to a frazzle” (149) carried no weight. When the judge delivered his verdict, the Ogibah people attending the hearings erupted in protest, of course to no avail; one man was detained because he yelled at the judge: “You are a liar and a thief! Agbra awe eya! Blind devil” (150). One knows, without being told so by the narrator, that the more recent letters, too, will be ignored.
The children’s parents, during one of their school breaks, go on a fortnight’s trip to the USA. At first, the children were going to stay with Uncle Gabby, but since he cannot take off from his job, they are to sojourn with their Uncle Tam and Auntie Leba, presumably relatives of their mother’s. The children are surprised that the adults (both academics) are away all day long, and that there is a “housegirl” who works for them – a young woman named Barisua, whom Ajie resentfully characterises as being “bossy” and haughty. She assumes authority over the boys, and Bibi teams up with her in a type of female solidarity. Barisua enjoys flaunting “superior” knowledge concerning the adults’ activities: she indicates that Tam and Leba are involved in anti-government protests caused by the Ogibah and Ogoniland environmental abuses and exploitation (backed by misuse of police authority). Soon after their arrival, even on the very morning that they know their parents are taking a flight from Port Harcourt to Lagos, the terrifying news comes that such a flight has crashed, killing all aboard. The children and their hosts can get no reply from the Lagos hotel into which their parents booked for an overnight stay. To their abundant relief, a mutual friend soon arrives to say that he was phoned by Benjie to give the reassurance that they had taken an earlier flight and were safe; they had tried to no avail to reach Tam telephonically, and so asked him to bring the reassuring news. Almost ill with relief, Ajie overhears the messenger, a Dr Idonyibe, telling Uncle Tam that the doomed fight exploded in mid-air, and that it is rumoured that the Rivers State president “wanted some people on that flight dead” (169). He adds that more than 20 important spokesmen from Rivers State had been on the flight – their voices now silenced.
The siblings, on a more domestic level, quarrel with Barisua, who does wield what seems like arbitrary authority over their household activities. After a time of unpleasant tension, especially between her and Paul (who is closest to her in age, though she is almost as young as he), the dissension is resolved “physically” – in a rambunctious pillow fight between all four youngsters. Auntie Leba walks in on this slightly chaotic scene and, although she says nothing to Barisua, her disapproval is clear. All the same, Barisua watches the Mexican telenovela which nightly glues Auntie Leba to the television with them, and, as usual every night, joins in the family’s lively comments on the show. One day, when the children (and Barisua) are all to be taken to the zoo by Uncle Tam, Ajie is out of sorts and has to stay home; Barisua (quite unresentfully, it seems) has to remain home with him and look after him. Later on, as she lies down on the bed with Ajie, she asks him questions which make Ajie feel that she has paid real attention to him and that she finds him interesting as a person in his own right – something about which he often feels insecure. “Why do you like making trouble so much?” she asks first, and, as Ajie notices that she is “really looking at him” with her “big steady eyes”, she adds: “You always say what you are thinking. I like it” (181). He pretends to be asleep. After a while, Ajie quietly places his hand on her shoulder; and, although Barisua asks him what he is up to, she allows him to continue touching her tenderly, then rolls over to lie close – face-to-face – to Ajie, and runs her hand down his back. “In that moment, all Ajie could think was[:] So, this is what it means to touch another human being” (182). These “first intimations of desire” (78), as the adult Ajie later calls it, lead no further at this time; the next day, their father comes to fetch them home, and, as he sits in the back seat, Ajie for the first time notices his 67-year-old father’s now greying hair.
Soon, there is another eruption of the Ogibah troubles. As usual, the villagers turn to Benjie as the one person who may assist their cause. Moses, the son of Ikpo (a steadfast opponent of the company’s depredations, and the fiercest local critic of Nwokwe – the alleged company bribe-taker – and his now powerful son, Ogbuku), arrives at the Utu house to bring horrifying news. He tells Benjie and Ma: “Soldiers drove into town this morning. They shot down five boys” (189). Many villagers, Moses tells them, have fled into the bush to escape the mayhem. The context is a dispute that occurred the previous day, when some local youths took issue with what workers on the new gas line pipe construction were doing. When the police arrived, one policeman was hit on the head with a plank and ended up in hospital, grievously injured. The next day, Bendic (with Mr Ifenwa) leaves very early to try and get an audience with the police commissioner, returning only late at night – a pattern that is repeated throughout the ensuing fortnight. At this point, the soldiers finally leave Ogibah, and Benjie immediately drives there to assess conditions, spending three days in the village. Upon returning, he tells Ma: “Nothing is left. They brought the whole place down.” There were rapes, killings, house burnings and other abuses, the evidence of state-backed terrorism too much for Benjie’s camera battery to allow it all to be recorded. That night, Paul tells Ajie: “Anything can happen to everyone. What if they come here to take Bendic and Ma, what will we do?” (191). It may seem inappropriate to say this to so young a boy, but, on the other hand, the words confirm that Paul wants to warn Ajie of the real dangers of their parents’ work and their family’s links with the Ogibah people, and also that he loves and trusts his young brother and shares his deepest fears with him.
Paul’s preparation for his important high school finals is the next big family preoccupation. He has filled in the necessary forms and made his university applications. As the younger siblings make their own preparations for returning to boarding school, “they talked about the student riots, the lack of funding for universities, and how lecturers had to go on strike to get their salaries” (194). Mr Ifenwa comes on another of his visits. During the conversation, “Ma … brought up the case of the mysterious disappearance of a journalist who was a colleague’s relative, and Bendic said that perhaps it was high time everyone took to the streets, or else they ran the risk of being plucked off in isolation one by one” (199). Some days later, as Ajie eventually recalls it: “Here was Paul, in shorts and singlet and a Carl Lewis haircut that needed shaping up, on the day when he would eventually disappear” (204), listening to a broadcast in a familiar voice on News in Special English from Radio Rivers II, talking about “the things wey dey happen for this country” (204). The next broadcast Ajie describes is seeing Paul’s photograph on the local television to announce his disappearance and appeal for information that might help the family to find him.
That evening, the announcements came up for the first time; they had told Bendic when the announcements would be aired. Ma looked at the television and then stood up and walked into the kitchen once Paul’s picture came up on the TV screen. The background noise in the studio and how Paul’s picture shifted slightly on the screen now and then made it feel exactly like the obituary announcements that came on Friday evenings. (206)
So desperate does Ma (who used to look down on Catholics for what she called their “idolatry”) grow to find Paul that she accompanies her sister to a different state to see a “reverend father” who is “famed for praying down solutions”. Ajie soon realises that “she would have gone to an imam, a native doctor, an Indian shaman, a marabou in Cotonou, even” (209) – to anyone who could give her hope for recovering her lost son. The terrible news soon comes that Abacha has had the nine Ogoni activists (including the writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa) executed. Bendic, who has expected the “international community” to rescue them, somehow, can only shout repeatedly at the brutal, absent head of their state: “Animal! Animal!” (212). It is not long after this that Ajie is fetched from his boarding school by his mother before the end of term. He has no idea, initially, that it is because his father has died.
After boarding school in Nigeria, Ajie does a final year’s schooling in the UK, then qualifies in London as an engineer and starts working there. Throughout his 10 years abroad, Ma phones him once or twice a week, eventually to summon him home urgently. A “pastor” has shown up at their home with news about Paul; Bibi is also coming with her fiancé – a newly qualified doctor like herself. The pastor has told Ma that, long ago, he used to work in the mobile police force. His words were: “[D]uring the student riots that year, ’95 to be exact, an accident happened with a boy. He was not among those rioting, but one of my colleagues stopped to search him. It was just the work of the devil.” Ma cannot stop herself from attacking the man, flinging a vase at him and slapping him, repeatedly shouting, “My son! My son!” Ismaila, their gatekeeper, has to intervene to get further information from the pastor, whose “eyes [are incongruously] gentle like a dove’s” (226). The subsequent detailed information that emerges is that Paul, who was listening to music as he walked past the police and rioters, did not stop when a corporal (during a brief absence of their commanding officer) ordered him to do so. “The corporal rushed toward him in a fit of rage and whacked the boy from behind with the butt of his gun at the base of his neck, and the boy went down at once” (227). The inspector returned and established that Paul, “an innocent boy” (228), had been killed. He had nothing of either a “suspicious” or “subversive” nature in his backpack, but there was a video club card with his name and address. The inexcusable deed hushed up, Paul’s corpse was quickly buried at the back of these policemen’s station. Ma fought fiercely and unceasingly to have the terrain dug up and Paul’s remains returned to their family for a dignified burial next to his father’s grave in the village. All of Ogibah’s remaining inhabitants attend the solemn event. All of them honour this family’s loss, despite the fact that in Ogibah, things are far from peacefully settled; warring factions handle disputes with murderous attacks, bringing further violent retaliations. But, at the funeral, all is peaceful. Ajie feels a desperate thirst, though, as if it has built up over the 13 years since Paul disappeared – a psychic longing and loss he had repressed. He longs for a cold Guinness or a huge whisky, or even just a cigarette, knowing that “there is no quenching” the real longing for a peaceful past in a full and loving family. “The dead will not be consoled; neither will those who live in the skin of their dead,” he thinks (242).
The beautiful swamp pools in which Ajie used to swim with his village friends, like Ossai, are gone, wiped out in the environmental damage caused by the oil and gas extraction from the soil in the company’s ongoing activities. “The swamp is not there. The ponds are dried up, all the trees felled. No slowworms, no bamboo or bracken, no blackbirds pecking on a rotten palm trunk” (237).
But you can’t buy up a stream, Ajie wants to say … You can’t just buy up a stream or a swamp, a river, or any communal water body. Nobody has a right to do that. It surprises him – this spark of rage in his chest. Right now he would like to snap away something from someone … He would like to strike down whoever made this happen … reduce them to trivial and useless things. [He wishes he could get hold of one of the Company people] senior enough to have been part of the decision to dam the river. … He would make them lie on the ground … [making] sure their faces were rubbing in the dirt, and they would shiver with fear and maybe piss their pants, begging [he fantasises, imagining holding a gun to such a man’s head]. How do you make someone feel like a stupid worthless thing that has never mattered …? [Ajie wonders]. (237)
We do not know Ajie’s future plans (if he has any). On the evening following the funeral, he overhears Bibi and her fiancé discussing their plans for living in Port Harcourt – leaving Ibadan, where they met and studied. He also hears Ma, who is “in the back garden, reading aloud to herself from the lesson for next Sunday school”. Going further into the house, Ajie sees his mother’s stacked manuscripts for the book that she has nearly finished writing, a botanical study titled Ferns and faunas of the Orashi plain – life forms that she deems in danger of extinction. Continuing, the novel concludes with the following thoughts:
[Ajie] thinks of the specimens in the book: even if they become extinct, at least a memory of them has been preserved and can be called to life any day. He wonders if there is a bigger volume somewhere, a roll of every living thing, past and present, gathered, standing in their cohort: fungi, plants, animals, in families, genera, species, and variants. (244)
Jowhor Ile’s own book may, of course, partially serve the same kind of purpose in its unique way. Amidst Ajie’s musing thoughts, he hears Ma’s voice coming from the back of the house, where she stands looking towards their home and calling out: “It’s evening already, Bibi. Please put something on the fire. We have to eat.” As if in acknowledgement of the irrepressible, courageous life force in Ma’s words, “Ajie reaches for the light switch on the parlor wall and turns it on” (244).
And after many days contains a terrible and beautiful narrative of enduring family love, principled conduct and horrific power abuse and the greed it permits to destroy lives. Quietly told, it is a story that will linger in the mind of any reader, long after they have closed its back cover.