Hierdie is die LitNet-argief (2006–2012)
This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Annie Gagiano - 2007-04-24
Normal price: R165.95
Publisher: Double Storey
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This brilliant, charming and moving novel immerses the reader from the start in the sights, sounds and smells of the teeming city of Lagos. The text functions like an unusual, subtle kind of Bildungsroman in which the personal, moral, intellectual and political growth of the main character is a process of learning about the dimensions of life in this southwestern urban Nigerian environment and about the arduous process of finding and making a liveable space for herself, within it.
Following the death in early childhood of her sickly younger brother, Enitan Taiwo grows up as a privileged but thoughtful and lively (only) child in a house set in an acre of ground on Lagos Lagoon, where she loves to sit, pretending to fish and listening to the real fishermen “yodelling across their canoes” and speaking in “the warble of island people” (7). The time is 1971 and we soon learn that this type of peaceful moment is snatched from a family life of constant, bitter parental bickering and tension, Enitan’s parents having grown severely apart since the death of her little brother. One strong source of strain in her life is her mother’s evangelistic zeal – “Holy people had to be unhappy or strict, or a mixture of both” (19), Enitan concludes, uncomprehending until many years later of the forces that drove her remote and moralistic mother to seek refuge in her strange church.
Enitan resents her parents’ fighting, most often about her own upbringing, but she has a distinct preference for her father: a prominent, Cambridge-educated lawyer. She glamorises his personality and role, while the reader is given the first glimpse of limitations to his political liberalism when he banishes one of his two cronies from their regular evening gatherings for defending the Biafran cause – for this is during the period when Eastern Nigeria had attempted to secede from the rest of Nigeria. (Her family is Yoruba.) At Enita’s school, we hear:
You were teased for being yellow or fat; for being Moslem or for
Being “yellow” as a target for teasing means being sufficiently light-skinned to reveal that you have one white parent. In fact, the person who will play a role as prominent as Enitan’s parents do in her life is the new friend she has just made, a girl named Sheri who has come to live in the Moslem family next door and who is “yellow” in this local sense. Sheri’s father is an Alhadji and a chief and she has two Moslem stepmothers (co-wives), but her own mother was a white Englishwoman. Sherifat (her full name) was brought up by her paternal grandmother and is as streetwise, bossy and sassy as Enitan is quiet and well-behaved.
Both eleven, and with the spice of secrecy to flavour their friendship (which Enitan’s mother would not allow), their alliance is Enitan’s first adventure. Sheri wears lipstick and "Cressun Dor" perfume and loves to show off her dancing skills. Enitan, whose recent sex lesson from her mother has left her “no longer sure of what came in and went out of where” (24), is breezily informed by Sheri that sex is simply a matter of “banana into tomato. Don’t you know about it?” (32).
Though sent to different high schools, the girls keep contact by letter. During one holiday Sheri entices Enitan to join her at a party. Enitan is sidelined while Sheri thrives under the teenage boys’ attention. The hardcore group drinks a laced punch and eventually smokes hemp. The seeming glamour turns nightmarish as Enitan goes to call Sheri to leave for home – the "cool" boys have ganged up to rape Sheri, bruising and bloodying and degrading her. Enitan has to support her on the long walk home, “wonder[ing] if the ground was firm enough to support us, or if our journey would last and never end” (63).
The terrible aftermath involves not only Enitan’s parents hearing about the scandal and forbidding any further socialising between her and Sheri, but Sheri’s panic-stricken abortion which lands her in hospital with a womb so damaged that she will never be able to have a child.
Enitan’s sex anxiety and Sheri’s food fetishism both stem from this time. Nigerian political instability around the same time (a precarious democracy, the oil boom, seriously corrupt politicians) leads to the first military take-over. Sheri is sent to high school and then legal studies in Britain. In the meantime, her parents divorce. Even though she catches a glimpse of Sheri representing Nigeria at the Miss World pageant, the two have lost touch.
Enitan retains her characteristic wry, light touch in the second part of her narration. “The first person to tell me my virginity belonged to me,” she says, “was the boy who took it”. Underneath this apparent flippancy, however, her “muffled rage stalks like the wind” (73). Tired of thinly-disguised racial contempt in the British law firm where she works, she decides to return to Nigeria. She also attempts to reopen communication with her acerbic mother, who still blames her for “trailing in [her father’s] footsteps” (93). Lagos, she decides, is “a hard city to love, a bedlam of trade” and “fester[ing] with … drivers, sellers, shoppers, loiterers, beggars. Madmen” (98–100).
Enitan reconnects with Sheri, who is now the kept woman of a Muslim brigadier. She is disappointed that the feisty friend she remembers now puts up with this man’s restrictions and demands, but Sheri reminds her of how limited the options are for a “barren” woman in this society. From this point on the friends’ mutually supportive yet continuous debate about how to live with dignity as a woman in Lagos evolves as their circumstances change. Enitan takes stock:
He is probably both.
Enitan cannot close her eyes to the sexism that permeates her society. Sheri’s extended family, for instance, has been effectively disinherited by her late father’s brother. At last, a chance phone call reveals her own father’s clay feet: he has a secret second family; she has a half-brother she never knew about. She notices, now, that the guilt never shows in her father’s face, since this was “how he won cases”, but now she realises that “it was how he’d driven my mother to distraction. I’d seen that also” (150). She denounces her father for his duplicity and for the cosy patriarchy of his home (where she has been living), where “asinine behaviour is passed off as manliness” (151). Leaving her father’s home in fury, she decamps to her boyfriend’s quarters, where her unexpected arrival reveals that he has been "entertaining" another woman. Sheri’s (brigadier’s) flat is now her only refuge, but she does begin to mend fences with her mother, now that she better understands the nature of her parents’ rift.
The next rift occurs even more melodramatically, this time between Sheri and her brigadier. Having lifted a hand to his mistress, he is forcibly taught that his apparently compliant girlfriend hits back and is stronger and much more determined than he. Sheri has no regrets. Having to find new accommodation again, Enitan turns to her mother. Only now can her mother tell her that it felt like swallowing broken glass to live with a husband who reproached her for neglecting him (and her social duties) when she stopped dressing smartly under the combined pressures of a dying son and an unfaithful husband. In their society, “women are praised the more they surrender their right to protest” (179). The church to which Enitan’s mother turned was the only legitimate comfort available to a neglected wife. “Her fixation with religion was nothing but a life-long rebellion” (180), Enitan concludes.
She herself has in the meantime turned a low-key relationship into a marriage. Her husband Niyi Franco (whose ex-wife and teenage son now live in Britain) is an unassuming personality, also from a "legal" family. However, he has some deeply ingrained beliefs about marital and gender roles that lead to clashes with Enitan. Though the marriage is generally sound and they are hoping to have a child, there is a level of mutual resentment. Niyi resents Enitan’s refusal to accept a traditional role (the "serving" wife); Enitan resents Niyi’s refusal to abandon a traditional role (the "served" husband). It is when the different bases of their most dearly held beliefs involve decisions about political action that the marital crisis occurs.
The build-up to the crisis begins to show when Enitan, "properly’" but somewhat precariously pregnant at last, dashes off past roadblocks (at a time of increasing repression) to warn her father about the danger he is incurring by his outspoken criticism of the authoritarian regime. He fends off her attempt to caution him and hits back by complaining about women’s abstention from politics. “Oh yes,” is Enitan’s rebuttal, “bring on the women when the enemy is the state. Never when the enemy is at home” (196).
The above kind of sparring takes on a much darker shade when Enitan’s father is jailed, detained without trial for criticising the military regime that (in his view) illegitimately jailed one of his clients, a flamboyant political activist. Feeling compelled to fight for her father’s release, Enitan now encounters Niyi’s resistance. Of course he is necessarily and appropriately concerned for her safety and that of their unborn child, but he takes exactly the wrong line concerning Enitan’s decision to co-operate with the handful of people who are protesting against political oppression. “I’m not going to let you,” he says (238), reverting to precisely the type of condescending assumption of male domestic authority that Enitan abhors. She knows, too, that it is exactly Niyi’s type of “let-us-make-do-despite” conservatism and timidity that allows repression to flourish. But on this disagreement their already fraught alliance flounders. Niyi refuses to talk to Enitan while she lives in the spare bedroom and talks to her unborn child. Acting, later, on advice from Sheri, she makes a heartfelt appeal to Niyi for his understanding, but he rebuffs her.
Not long afterwards Enitan is invited to a gathering of activists protesting against the detentions – a reading by creative writers. She decides to attend and is caught up in the ensuing security police raid on the meeting. Along with the only other woman arrested, a journalist-cum-novelist whom she respects and who has supported her, she is almost literally thrown into jail.
Enitan’s harrowing spell in jail is, in the end, no more than the one night. But this is probably the most formative of all her experiences and one of the most vivid passages in the novel. The two have been tossed into a cell crowded with women, but these are dirty, abusive, ill, foul-mouthed and frighteningly near-mad or insane women. Their dialogue in the pitch-dark, stinking cell is brilliantly evoked. Enitan, especially prone to nausea because of her pregnancy, immediately earns the contempt and animosity of the hardened dictator of this tiny, enforced community, nicknamed Mother-of-Prisons because she has been an awaiting-trial prisoner (for murder) for six years. An educated woman who had a middle-class job, her husband’s family accused her of having caused his death when he died as a result of his gluttonous lifestyle. They took her twin children away from her. Half maddened by this, she ran into the streets, where a stranger attempted to molest her. She took a stone and battered him to death when he threw her to the ground. Jailed, she keeps (relatively!) sane by refusing to hope (like her cellmates still do). From her perspective a woman like Enitan is a mere “butter-eater” (270) whose legal references to due process ring like mockery in a country where the constitution itself has been abolished.
Niyi knows and Enitan knows, too, that “[her] life means nothing to them” (the authorities) and that it is her (and their child) that he cares about (283), as he tells her after her release. Enitan falters momentarily in her political resolve, not only for the sake of her husband and child, but because she knows now that she cannot speak for all the women of her country, so many of whom she knows so little about. Yet “there are no more ivory towers in Lagos”, as her mother’s tenant tells her. “The waves just keep coming … when they do, you raise your head higher” (292).
Enitan begins to realise that, even though she can say that “privilege never did blind [her] eyes” (299), there are huge tracts of Nigerian life she knows nothing about. Talking to her father’s gardener about their rulers, he tells her in a quietly shocking statement: “It’s as if they hate us” (314).
Then the next wave hits her. She finds her mother, who had been suffering for years from hypertension, lying dead in her flat. Examining her mother’s medication, she discovers that it had passed the expiry date – but had been redated, no doubt, by the street seller from whom her mother had brought it at a cheaper price, or by the multinational supplier.
Soon after, Enitan’s daughter Yimika is born. The narrative tone rises to meet this joyous, precious moment, as idealising as it is physical, for the baby seems “like a pearl”, while Enitan simultaneously feels, “I could have licked her” (319). She makes Sheri her daughter’s godmother. Soon afterwards, Grace Ameh, the writer with whom she had been imprisoned, visits to congratulate Enitan – and also to ask her to lead a group of women, all of whose loved ones have been detained, in agitating for their release. To do this, however, she has to leave her disapproving husband and their home. For Enitan, the decision to take up this duty is tied up with the dreadful loss of her mother, into whose house she now moves with her baby. “One life has gone and I could either mourn it or begin the next,” she thinks. “How terrifying and how sublime to behave like a god with the power to revive myself. This was the option I chose” (333). Although Niyi visits his daughter every day, he remains bitterly furious with Enitan, who now shares baby-care with Sheri.
Suddenly, two months later, Enitan’s father is released. Driving to see him, she stops in the middle of the traffic to honour her irrepressible urge to express in a dance the upsurge of joy that fills her. It is a beautifully contrived and fitting moment of closure to the arduous journey Enitan has been on. At last evoking the title, she senses that “the sun sent her blessings” and adds, “My sweat baptized me” (336).
Sefi Atta’s novel is an endearing, inspiring and challenging work. Enitan’s is a convincingly developed, tested and interrogative feminism. She is a most memorable character whose flaws and weaknesses are as clearly exposed as those of the men and women around her – as are their vitality and strength. The wit and verve of the writing, and its occasional deep poignancy, provide an enriching reading experience. The foregrounded characters are vividly individualised, but Atta never quite loses sight of other members of the society: the political predators and their victims – who range from those unjustly detained to the “backdoor house boys and house girls, child hawkers, beggars”; all those who are more comfortably ignored because they are “poor, illiterate” or denounced for being “radical, subversive”, or simply “not us”. Every so often, “the authorities said hush and we hushed [or] … looked the other way” (231), she reflects, before deciding to play a more socially active role.
Humorous, wry and harrowing by turns, this novel is neither "light reading" nor "women’s writing". In the way in which writing that matters always does, it engrosses with its skill, its finely observed particularities and carefully achieved generalisations in order to interrogate and test us, educating the reader along with the protagonist to rise to the challenges of our time and place.
The African Library: Entry no 57