Nigerian author Stephen Buoro’s debut novel The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is a coming-of-age story set in Kontagora, a city in north west Nigeria. The book was published about two months ago on April 18 by Bloomsbury and will be published on June 28th in Nigeria by Ouida Books. The novel revolves around the life of Andrew Aziza, a precocious 15-year-old. It follows him as he navigates the complexities that come with being young, gifted, and frustrated with the seeming impossibility of finding a way out of poverty and every shrinking opportunities.
Andy lives with his protective single mother and mostly spends his time as an altar boy at church, studying in school, or roaming around town with his friends wishing to become one of “Africa’s first superheroes.” His first love interest is a white girl he meets at a church welcome party named Eileen. But the party is interrupted by a violent anti-Christian protest and a man who claims to be Andy’s father, upsetting Andy’s understanding of his identity and his place in the world.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is not your usual coming-of-age story. Andy is a strange kid. He has opinions about the most unusual things. He notices everything going on around him. He loves math and has a lot to say about religion. He writes poetry encoded with mathematical concepts. There is essentially nothing that he can’t articulate in the form of math equation, including all the many misfortunes in Africa’s past. As you can imagine, he is as complicated as they come. One minute he is reflecting on the many ills facing Africa in the most poetic and philosophically nuanced way. Next minute, he is obsessing over blonde white women, a fascination he develops from having watched “a million Hollywood movies.” One minute he is full of himself. The next he is being vulnerable. You get to see him in his all-too-human complexities, which makes the story powerful.
Interesting people have interesting friends. Andy is no different. There is Fatima, Slim, Morroca, and Zahrah, who is particularly interesting. One of Andy’s teachers, she tries to inspire her students with new ways of thinking about Africa. She tries to get them to open their minds to some delightfully wild ideas. She is working on a mathematical theorem “to prove that black power is thermodynamic.” She spent a whole week talking about something she calls “anifuturism,” a blend of animism and Afrofuturism. It’s the idea that the world is more connected than we imagine and that non-living things have a life force in them and so matter in ways that we have become used to ignoring. “We wouldn’t have climate change if we were all animists,” she once said to a student. She’s probably right. Zahrah’s fierceness seeps through the page. She is full of fascinating ideas that make you pause, think, and exclaim “wow.”
The book is divided into five parts or mysteries with interesting headings: The Agony in the Garden, The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crowning with Thorns, The Carrying of the Cross, and The Crucifixion. Mysteries are secret knowledge about the world that we learn, not from reading books or going to school, but from undergoing painful experiences or having a mystical experience. With each section, Andy grows and learns something new, in preparation for the last mystery of all, an eye-opening experience at the very end of the book that changes his life.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa falls under the genre of philosophical novels. But Buoro is one of those writers who can blend humor and big ideas. As much as the characters talk about math and grapple with the challenges of coming of age in Nigeria, they actually don’t take themselves too seriously. There is a lightheartedness about them, especially in the way they embrace their eccentricities, which makes them charming and relatable.