Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is, perhaps, the most popular among a small body of Nigerian novels that try to think seriously about violent events that have taken place in the nation’s past. Adichie has said in interviews that the novel comes from her unease about the fact that an event as catastrophic as the Biafra War had been sort of repressed. I agree with her. There ought to be more novels not just about Biafra but also about the other dark moments in the nation’s past. We certainly need more Nigerian, as well as African novels, that refuse to abandon old wounds that have been hastily covered over for whatever reason. As Adichie has often suggested, we can’t just pretend that these events did not happen and should find it odd that a war that took millions of lives has been somewhat absent, even as background material, in the history of the post-war Nigerian novel. Why are Nigerian novelists not obsessing about the Biafra War and other conflicts that are very much a part of their distant and immediate past? Why are there so few novelists attempting to give accounts of the many violent conflicts–religious, political, etc–that define their contemporary reality?
This is why I’m looking forward to reading Achebe’s memoir on the Biafra War and why I was quite delighted to receive the first chapter of Andrew Oki’s Bonfires of the Gods (2012) from the publishers. Oki’s novel is about the Ijaw-Itsekiri conflict of 1997 that took place in Warri, an oil-rich city located in the Delta of the Niger River. The novel is Oki’s attempt to give his own account of a conflict that may seem minor compared to the war in Adichie’s novel but that nonetheless brought much suffering and loss to the lives it touched. I’ve read the first chapter. It definitely drew me in, so I’m curious about what follows. Whether Bonfires of the Gods turns out to be a griping read or not, it is certainly a work that should be given its due significance for taking on the much needed task of urging Nigerians to remember those events in their past that though unhappy should not be forgotten. The novel is fresh off the press. Enjoy the excerpt below. There’s information on how to purchase the book at end of the excerpt.
Excerpt of Andrew Oki’s Bonfire of the Gods…Enjoy!
IT RAINED THE DAY I DIED. It was a kind of rain I had never experienced before in my life. Every drop that fell on the zinc roofing sheets sounded like pebbles landing on top of my head. I felt a quiver. It almost felt like the building was shaking, or was it my body shuddering?
I often wondered what the phenomenon behind it was. Perhaps God was crying up in heaven. Who knew? I wondered why He would choose a day like that to cry. I couldn’t say anyway. Sometimes I didn’t even remember He’s up there.
The rain poured on with such ferociousness. It poured on like it would never stop. Perhaps a leak in heaven’s water banks had busted wide open and earth, being down under was suffering the consequences. Whatever it was, I didn’t know. I decided to leave it to the rainmakers to decide.
It never stopped raining the day I died.
I always knew Warri was a no-go area when it rained. I turned to look at the window thinking I would see a bit of the city outside. But instead I saw streaks of rainwater flowing freely on the window glass. It caught and arrested my attention in totality. They looked just like tears, the streaks of rainwater. Even the windows were crying for me! I smiled inwardly. My eyes were almost closing now and still I could count the streaks of flowing rainwater on the window glass. It was a funny feeling. I thought I could see myself laughing.
One, two, three, four… I kept counting but they kept on rolling down, and each time a new streak replaced the old one. I knew it was foolish to account for such things, but somehow it gave me hope. It gave me something to do. It kept my mind busy. It was as if it could take the pain away and I held on to it with more faith than I had in the doses of morphine that had been pumped into my frail body.
The rain poured on. Loud cracking thunderclaps chased after flashes of lightning like children playing catch-a-thief in the hot-and-cold sand banks of the River Niger in Patani.
I remembered when I was a child, my childhood friends and I used to say it rained when God cried; and that thunderclaps were a result of applauses in heaven; and that wars happened because the gods of the earth felt a little cold and so stopped watching over us to gather large trees to make a little bonfire around the earth to keep themselves warm. How childish we were! We knew these theories were baseless and sounded stupid but we believed in them anyway.
My eyelids closed and then opened again. It was a slow-motion blink, at least it felt so. I looked around and for the first time I really realized I was in a hospital. I could not move my body but it trembled in pain involuntarily. How I got there was still quite a mystery to me. My memory was still in fragmented pieces locked up somewhere within me. I didn’t remember much but I did remember breathing fresh air the morning I woke up in my own bed at home, looking forward to a great day. I did remember the warm shower I had had since the rains had brought with it the usual cold and chills. I remember hating the shirt I picked out to wear for work but still going ahead and wearing it anyway since I didn’t have so many of them. I remember having the best breakfast my mother had ever cooked. I also remember the screams, and then there was running, as if we had a particular place to run to. And then the fire; consuming everything in its path. And then there were sounds of gunshots and then the darkness came.
From my periphery I could see a nurse speak to another nurse. I had no idea what words they spoke to each other but I guessed it was about me because the second nurse soon came over to my bedside.
She had a very pretty face, the nurse – oval-faced like an almond pear, dark-skinned like a brew of hot chocolate, lips as red as cherry, smooth- skinned like that of a new-born baby’s nyansh, an almost-pointed nose like a burnt golden whistle. Underneath the snow-white crown on her head, her beautiful black hair was in well cultivated African corn-rows. She had little or no make-up on but her face shone like pure black honey. I could hardly notice the tiny beautiful gold pins she had for earrings neither could I notice how kissable her lips were. Her slim neck was bare and smooth like the road to a new world. A world that I might see when I die.
I absorbed all these thoughts in what seemed like forever, as she quickly looked down upon my face. If only I wasn’t so dead on that bed, what all I could do to her…
I could give her pleasure that would send her to heavenly highs.
I could kiss her lips to nothingness, replacing them with that of the goddess Athena’s and she would keep wanting more every minute of every passing day.
I could touch her body and love her like no man had ever loved her before.
I could make sweet love to her and cause her to shiver, and when we would be done she would agree to be my wife.
What I could do to her…
She bent over me to properly examine my frail body, her sumptuous breasts dangling invitingly right in front of my face, as she checked my vitals. I knew I was going to die, but again I realized that there was a part of me that wasn’t so dead and weak after all, and that part cheered and nudged in agreement in the midst of my thighs. I felt it certify its solidification. It was just as eager as I was. I wished I could lay claim to the bounty set before me.
If only I wasn’t so sick, the things I could do.
Her firm breasts hung over me like the certain death that hung over my head. I began to think of what my passing would feel like and where I was going to end up. Was I going to heaven or hell or was I going to spend some quality time in Duwamabou with my grandmother sitting right beside me to help me think about what my life could have been? I shivered at the thought. As much as I could not feel my legs anymore and as much as I wanted to give pleasure to the beautiful young nurse right in front of me, nothing mattered to me as much as the fear of going to Duwamabou.
Duwamabou! That is what my people called the world of the dead – still passing through the halfway house I would imagine. I remember I was just a little boy when I first heard the word; it must have been about the funniest Ijaw word I’d ever heard. Of course that was before I knew its meaning. I liked the musicality to the pronunciation of the word. We didn’t speak much of our native Ijaw dialect, my siblings and I. Pidgin English was the order of the day; so like most young learners, the quickest and easiest words we picked up were those of acute vulgarity. Duwamabou was one of them. At first it sounded like ‘drummer boy’.
Duwamabou was neither heaven nor hell, at least according to what we grew up believing anyway. It was a place, an indeterminate state, where the spirits of the dead went to handle their “unfinished” business before passing on to the afterlife, wherever else that was if neither heaven nor hell. As for me, I never really got to understand the whole concept of Duwamabou but as I lay there dying, I thought of Duwamabou for what seemed like hours.
Was my dead grandmother still there? I mean, she’d been dead for ten years. Surely she must’ve settled her unfinished business by now and moved shop from ‘halfway house’. Could she really still be there? Was I going to see her when or if I get there? And when or if I get there, what would I tell her? ‘What brings you knocking on Duwamabou’s door?’ I imagined her asking me with her ever-so stern voice but with all the love in the world reflecting in her eyes. I suddenly realized that I did not want to die.
Of all the reasons of why I didn’t want to die, surprisingly, I didn’t want to die because of the fear of not having a reasonable explanation to tell my granny if she asked me what I was doing in Duwamabou.
The nurse began to say something to a woman wearing a white coat. I had not seen the white-coated woman there before. I could not decipher what my beautiful nurse was saying but I noticed that the white-coated woman suddenly began to run towards my bed. I could feel nothing at this point; I could only see blurry images before my eyes. I turned to look at the window. It was still raining, I guessed. But I could not hear the rain drops anymore. I looked for my streaks of flowing rainwater on the window glass but my eyes found it hard to adjust. I began to panic. Thoughts of Duwamabou still raced through my head, and so did thoughts of wild sex with the beautiful nurse.
God, what was I?
The white-coated woman suddenly pushed the nurse away from my side and placed her two palms on my chest. She began to push hard. I could not feel anything. Neither could I see, hear nor move any part of my body but I knew I was still alive. I was afraid to close my eyes. I feared if I did they would never open again. I was looking up at the ceiling now but in its place I could see the clouds. Clear as the day and not a sign of rain. It was a beautiful mixture of blue and white clouds. I smiled. Well, I thought I did. I could not hear the commotion around me but I could see the doctors fight to save my life. Now I could only hear the chirps of birds. I could see a fleet of birds flying in the clouds above my bed. But just when I was beginning to smile at the beauty of nature set before me, the beautiful blue sky began to darken and fade away. It happened so fast that I could not comprehend it. I looked on still as the sky became pitch-black. I panicked even more.
I had lost my streaks of rainwater on the window.
I had lost my beautiful nurse with the pair of sumptuous breasts. I had lost my magical white-blue sky.
I had lost all hope.
Then I knew: I was dead – dead and on my way to Duwamabou. God! What would I tell grandmother?
Post and feature Image via Publishers.