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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

African Library: I Do Not Come to You by Chance

Annie Gagiano - 2010-10-28

I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Author: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

This highly entertaining and high-spirited novel by a young Nigerian author is the most recent co-winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region. Its main topic is a serious one, namely the well-known confidence trick of sending out e-mails with “desperate” appeals for immediate financial assistance to all too often gullible and mostly foreign recipients – appeals which also fraudulently promise sizeable to enormous financial rewards to the recipients. Of course this is a worldwide practice, but it has come to be associated for some with Nigeria and nicknamed “419”, after the number in the Nigerian Penal Code pertaining to confidence-trickery and fraud, and presumably also because this type of trick has been attempted so often by, and perhaps succeeded more often for, Nigerian scammers than for those in other countries. By chance (or not?), within a few days of reading Nwaubani’s novel, the author of this review received an e-mail of nearly identical pattern to those outlined in the text, purporting to come from the Former Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Co-Operation (!), and promising a 20 percent cut of “about” eleven million in US dollars for helping to find “a safe place or bank account” where the sum could be deposited, presumably before transfer or collection. Indeed, the wittily titled novel cites the opening line of the first major successful scam practised by the initially upright and morally conservative main character, Kingsley Ibe. At one point in the text he is lightly teased about his first name by a sophisticated young woman who points out that the name is made up to sound British without being so, but for this very minor fraudulence he cannot be held responsible.

Although in some ways a comic novel, Nwaubani’s text is memorable because of the balance that it maintains among shrewd social insight and wry political knowledge of the local situation (Igboland and more widely Nigeria); awareness of family dynamics in an educated but tight-budgeted middle-class family like the Ibes; sharp satire; humour and compassion. Portrayal of character, often in only a few broad strokes, is Nwaubani’s forte. The novel opens with a vignette showing how Kingsley’s parents met – his father a “been-to” engineer regarded in his time with awe because he qualified in Britain, and his mother a very bright young woman whom his father married because she met his condition that she continue her studies. It follows that in this family, despite all the signs that it has brought them very little prosperity, education is a summum bonum at least as important as religious observance. When as a little boy Kingsley shows an interest in soccer, his father hauls him over the coals, solemnly declaring that “Even the Bible says it, ‘Wisdom is better than gold’” and that “you could safely say that a human being is not in his correct senses until he is educated” (17). And being educated means having at least a degree. However (and despite never daring to doubt his family’s trust in the value of education), the main narrative opens with the rejection of poor Kingsley’s umpteenth application for an appointment as chemical engineer (his qualification) with one of the many international petroleum companies operating in Nigeria. He knows very well where the problem lies: despite having graduated at the top of his class, his undoubted merit will go unrewarded because he has no “connections” with powerful people who could pull strings on his behalf. The Nigerian term for such “connections” is long-leg: “You needed to know someone, or someone who knew someone, before you could access the most basic things” (28). A remark like this about the way the social system functions is neither satirical nor presented as a tragic lamentation, but it does begin to expose the naïveté of the Ibe family ethos.

Kingsley has a very personal reason for feeling despondent about still not having landed a job more than a year (it seems) after graduating so brilliantly. He is devotedly as well as passionately in love with Ola, a young woman who is still studying, but whom he met on campus. Her family is even poorer than his own, but for that very reason Ola’s single mother requires an unmistakably prosperous partner for her daughter. When Kingsley goes to visit Ola on campus, hoping to be comforted, he finds only the disquieting signs (not that he allows himself to read them quite yet) that Ola is turning away from him and has found herself a wealthy admirer. The humiliation of his “professional” rejection is compounded by his beloved’s coldness rather than being alleviated.

And at home, Kingsley’s family’s situation is steadily deteriorating – relatively well off while his father was state employed and while his mother’s dressmaking business did well, they are now living in distinctly straitened circumstances ever since his father contracted diabetes. “For a poorly paid civil servant to dabble in an affliction like diabetes was the very height of ambitious misfortune,” comments Kingsley; since the “expenditure on his tablets and insulin alone was enough for the upkeep of another grown child” (13-14). Kingsley is deeply burdened with a sense of guilt that he, the opara (the eldest son of the family, who is expected initially to share and as soon as possible to take over the father’s role of provider for the family), is unable to contribute to his family’s income and at 25 is still dependent on his mother for pocket-money – especially galling to a conscientious young man so aware of the sacrifices his family had to make to pay for his university studies. And the three younger Ibe siblings will soon need to have their tertiary studies funded too – for an Ibe offspring not to graduate is unthinkable.

No wonder, then, that Kingsley describes his state as “perplexed and stupefied and woebegone” (28). Being a member of a family with very high principles, good qualifications and excellent vocabularies in English does not make up for being without girl-friend, a job, good food or fine clothes, despite his father’s unremitting example and reiterated sayings! As he sits beside Ola’s mother being berated by her for his foolishness in thinking that true love and promises of marriage are enough, Kingsley begins to think differently about the “full brain, empty pocket” (43) situation he is in, remembering his ne’er-do-well Uncle Boniface, his mother’s boisterous younger half-brother who was taken in by her when the rest of their family abandoned him, but who abused their charity by beginning even as a youth to play confidence tricks and was eventually shown the door. Notorious he may be, and widely suspected of making his money in 419-type scams, but Uncle Boniface has earned the nickname (proudly borne) of Cash Daddy for the fabulous amount of wealth he has accumulated. While Kingsley is a long, long way from reconnecting with his disreputable but rich relative, Nwaubani indicates convincingly how the groundwork for the transformation of Kingsley the incorruptible to Kingsley the conman is laid. Indeed, so desperate is he feeling that after his parents have left for Mass the following Sunday, he turns for succour to a Revivalist church service, described in rich and somewhat comic detail by Kingsley, who leaves disillusioned of even the forlorn hope that a blessing from this type of congregation might turn his luck for the better.

Then the next disaster hits the family: Paulinus (Kingsley’s father) has a stroke and has to be hospitalised – expensively, since Nigeria is no welfare state and patients’ relatives pay steep fees for hospital treatment and have to supply from the most basic necessities for care (such as cotton wool) to “disposable catheter bags” and “intravenous fluids” (75)! When the costs start mounting, with little sign of a speedy recovery for Kingsley’s father, his mother’s cousin and best friend, the flamboyant Aunty Dimma, shows up. When Kingsley raises the dreary issue of unpayable and steadily mounting medical expenses, Aunty Dimma immediately suggests asking Uncle Boniface for help. Despite his mother’s demurrals (knowing how her husband detested and despised Boniface for his dishonest tricks), Aunty Dimma insists that Kingsley must be delegated at once to go and ask Boniface for financial support so that the family can pay for Paulinus’s treatment. She insists: “You can go on calling him names like ‘nouveau riche’. You own the big grammar, he owns the big money” (86). In this way, Kingsley gets his first impressions of how Uncle Boniface runs his businesses and of his flamboyantly opulent lifestyle. The descriptions are both factual and (told from the perspective of the still uninitiated Kingsley) rather dreadfully amusing, yet fascinating. Though he seems so crude, Uncle Boniface is also immensely generous; disbursing an enormous amount of money to aid the man who booted him out of his home and requiring that Kingsley be bought a pair of “properly” expensive shoes before he will deign to speak to him! His nickname Cash Daddy begins to make complete sense.

Not long after this, Kingsley has to take another appeal for financial help from his family to Uncle Boniface: his father has to be transferred at ruinous cost to another hospital and Boniface is their only resort. This time, Cash Daddy is receiving supplicants and delegates while sitting on the toilet, unabashedly proceeding with that side of “business”! This time he insists that Kingsley be bought an expensive shirt and again he dishes out a huge sum for Paulinus’s treatment without batting an eyelid. Later, he even goes to see the sick man; luckily for the family, Paulinus is still in a coma! Uncle Boniface leaves a message that Kingsley must come and see him at his home. He wants Kingsley to come and work for him. But since Kingsley is still strongly under the influence of his parents’ ethos of uprightness, he rephrases the offer: “Uncle Boniface, are you actually asking me to join you in 419?” (126). Even though Uncle Boniface patiently explains that he, too, has his principles (he will not kill anyone or sleep with another man’s wife) and argues: “Please don’t close my ears with rubbish talk about education. Me, I don’t believe in film tricks. I believe in real, live action” – and despite his acknowledgement that his uncle “sounded almost as convincing as the multiplication table” and that Boniface, too, can cite scripture (“Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard” – quoting from Ecclesiastes 9:14-16), Kingsley takes umbrage at Boniface’s perceived slur on his father and vehemently declines his uncle’s job offer, almost fleeing the scene in a fury (127-30).

A short time later, Paulinus dies in hospital on the eve of his discharge. Nwaubani movingly evokes Kingsley’s mourning and deep sense of loss. Ola brings her condolences, but she is now irrevocably committed to the (rich) man she is soon to marry. Like weddings, funerals are hugely expensive, inter alia requiring the completion (in this case) of the construction of the family’s country home; and yet again, Cash Daddy has come to their aid and it all proceeds in grand style. Without filling in the implied and so by now unnecessary in-between steps, the second section of the novel begins with Kingsley on Uncle Boniface’s/ Cash Daddy’s staff, working in the command centre of a worldwide scam operation – what Uncle Boniface has quaintly dubbed the Central Intelligence Agency, where “the ringing of a phone – whether cellular or land – was the sound of music” (159), since it indicates that another “customer” has been hooked. Kingsley comments matter-of-factly: “Gradually, it occurred to me that I had … a hidden talent. Over the past year, I had … settled into my new life” (151). With the perquisites of spending money, good clothing, a fine home and a flashy car and (most importantly) the resources to pay for all his siblings’ education and some luxuries for Augustina, his beloved, disapproving and ageing mother, this process of adaptation had not been difficult for Kingsley, despite his mother’s retaining her moral reservations and insisting that he find different employment.

We read Kingsley’s first major scam e-mail in full. It is written in capitals and begins (supplying the novel title): “DEAR FRIEND, I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE” (152). As in most of these scams, the sum offered as bait is enormous – suffice to say that it supposedly belongs to the widow of a former Nigerian head of state, that she is desperately needy and that she is unable to access the funds (supposedly all of it in Amsterdam, as will be added later). Neatly and fiendishly, the primary appeal is to greed on a grand scale, but with the moral coating of coming to the aid of the distress of the bereaved and the deprived functioning to mask cupidity as charity!

The sums extracted from the duped victim of each scam will slowly, steadily mount, as the pile of dough that blinds the targeted person to the fact that they are being steadily fleeced, seems to come ever closer to possession. What also emerges is that only “real’ white people are proper targets. One of Kingsley’s less skilful colleagues who has skimmed money off an Iranian, is (presumably, on being somehow found out) lured to death or some equally dire form of punishment in Iran. Cash Daddy explains that this is what is bound to happen if anyone tries to fleece money from people who are themselves too “like” Nigerians to be duped for long! In ironic juxtaposition to the way Cash Daddy’s operation functions, Nwaubani inserts a citation of Nigeria’s National Pledge as Kingsley recalls it (cited 164):

I pledge to Nigeria my country
To be faithful, loyal and honest
To serve Nigeria with all my strength
To defend her unity
And uphold her honour and glory
So help me God.

Kingsley’s mother steadfastly and resolutely begins refusing his gifts to her, even though he attempts to mask from her how he actually earns his money. Other relatives (like his siblings and an array of aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces) have no such qualms. Kingsley, however, revels in his new-found power and skills, even declaring that, while “it was not stem cell research or landing a man on the moon, … packaging a mugu was a science of its own” (172). While Kingsley thus operates in a sort of stratosphere of duping American or European scam victims (for schemes proceed simultaneously and evolve as they go along),  Nwaubani throughout the text interweaves references to and several cameo sketches of Nigerian street and political life (where hustling, competition with and even assassinations of opponents occur) with Kingsley’s family, private and professional life. Cumulatively, her novel is a much larger portrait than the small group of main characters might indicate. We learn, for instance, that Cash Daddy has the front of a glamorous wife (who was formerly his mistress: a diamond-hard woman who despises him, but brings up their children in impeccably British upper-class style!) and that, on the other hand, he dispenses charity copiously – pays for the upkeep of over 200 orphans; for road tarring and boreholes and classroom constructions; he gives bursaries, shares profits fairly and does not fleece (though he certainly bribes!) his compatriots, only foreigners! He even impeccably plays the role of a Nigerian minister of state (a Hausa, and of course a Muslim to boot) when they travel to Britain to meet a very rich potential fleecing victim named (probably with a glance at Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) Mr Winterbottom – the director of an international bank, no less. Above all, Cash Daddy is a brilliant “businessman” in an illegal business, who understands the need to take calculated financial risks and to spend copiously to keep things going. As if he’s picking up his uncle’s speech patterns, Kingsley intones a proverb-like pronouncement: “This business of ours was expensive to run. You had to have the financial ammunition to keep the cannon booming” (205). Though Kingsley is initially taken aback, he soon begins to respond with admiration at how well Cash Daddy plays the role when the latter decides to run for the state governorship. But now the danger levels escalate for Uncle Boniface and he has an equally rich and powerful competitor who is, of course, a compatriot and not a foreign mugu.

In the midst of his campaigning, Uncle Boniface takes the trouble and time to set up Kingsley (celibate ever since he lost Ola, the first great love of his life) with a mistress and also urges him to get married, appalled that he is living a sexless life. Cash Daddy, of course, has hordes of women who dance to his tunes. He easily keeps fit sexually, he proclaims, because of his “secret”: regular consumption of “404”, which, Kingsley knows, is dog meat! This practice, Cash Daddy proclaims, protects him from any sexual infections his women may be carrying and even, he adds (ironically, as it turns out) from the various machinations of his enemies (228). But though so busy campaigning and enjoying his wealth in outlandish pleasures, Boniface does not fail to see that his cash income from 419 scams proceeds – even if now mainly in the skilled, trusted and by now experienced hands of his nephew Kingsley. The narrator describes in quite fascinating detail how in Amsterdam they engage in the mumbo-jumbo of literal “money-laundering’ when the top and only genuine layer of real but purposefully blackened dollar notes of a crate full of dollar-sized paper pieces is washed by applying a chemical solution – all of which is anxiously but gullibly swallowed by the American scam victim, Mr Hooverson, waiting to cream off his 20 percent of the millions of dollars supposedly in the two crates.

As a measure of how fully Kingsley is by now committed to his uncle’s business, a small scene shows him encountering an abundantly degreed former classmate, very prosperously employed by IBM in the USA, who lightly mocks Kingsley for not working after all as a chemical engineer and not having obtained any further degrees:  

“Honestly, there are so many great minds in this country. Yet once you mention that you’re from Nigeria, all they think about in the States is 419. It’s sad.”
His voice had turned burgundy with nationalistic fervour. I felt like tipping him over a cliff. Were the minds of the 419ers any less great than the minds of the Masters degrees and PhD holders? It would have been interesting to see what would have become of his great IBM mind if he had remained here in Nigeria.         (245)

With this kind of remark, Nwaubani implicitly insists that while 419 practices are neither honourable nor proclaimable as fine skills, they exhibit Nigerian ingenuity and adaptability in a context that does not adequately reward its own graduates, and that staying in the country despite these odds exhibits a type of (perhaps disreputable) patriotism in contrast with the brittle claims to love of home by the type of Nigerian (like Kingsley’s ex-classmate) who make their lives in other societies and are quick to swear at and rant about Nigeria when something goes wrong.

Another encounter of Kingsley’s at this time is with a now matronly Ola. While she reveals that she has worked out that Cash Daddy’s 419 empire is the source of her formerly penniless ex-boyfriend’s present prosperity, Kingsley for his part sees that Ola in turn betrayed her former commitment to him for a rich but dreadfully ugly husband. He even makes final, half hopeless overtures towards Ola, flashing his own present prosperity, but Ola is (as she says) not about to make yet another mistake.

As his uncle’s campaign intensifies, so do the fierceness and dirty trickery of the rival candidate; he organises Cash Daddy’s arrest and overnight imprisonment for “money laundering” (!), but the police cannot keep him, for want of proof. Still, Kingsley is badly shaken by this, though Boniface remains unfazed. Kingsley is also suddenly aware of how intense an affection both he and the other employees have for Cash Daddy and how dependent they are on his panache and protection. Touchingly, when Kingsley hands him a few inexpensive books he bought as gifts for Boniface, his uncle, “smil[ing] like a delighted child”, tells him that no one has ever bought him any presents (277). Yet Augustina (Kingsley’s mother) remains profoundly opposed to the association – even more so now that her half-brother has entered Nigeria’s political arena.

In the meantime, Kingsley has at last met a young woman who might take up the place in his heart from which he has at last ousted Ola. Her name (oddly, yet appropriately) is Merit and because she, like his mother, makes no secret of her disapproval of vulgarly spent and illegally made wealth, he hides from her the fact that he, too, is a 419er, pretending that he merely serves as his uncle’s investment broker.

Cash Daddy does actually advise Kingsley that it is high time he branched out into some legitimate business (Boniface suggests IT), both to make his money grow and to serve as cover for the 419 scamming activities. Before Kingsley can make such a move, however, Merit finds out what he actually does for a living and drops him like a hot (or smelly) brick, disgusted at this occupation and that Kingsley had deceived her.

Another plan had been for him, once (or if) his uncle got elected as governor, to take on state employment. Then the next onslaught hits Kingsley: when he reproaches his younger brother for wanting to stop his studies to go into business, the latter tells him:

“Kings, you’re the last person I’d expect to be making such a fuss. Look at you. After all your education, you’re not even doing anything with your degree. What  was the point? Do you think I don’t want to make my own money for myself?   You’re just being hypocritical.” (322)

Nearly apoplectic with rage at this accusation, Kingsley insists that he had never wanted to live the kind of life he now does and shouts in furious indignation as he slaps his brother around: “I am the opara! I did it for you people! Do you understand me?!” (322). He destroys half of the things he had given his brother, packs the clothes he had bought for him and drives him to their mother’s house, where he unceremoniously drops the cowed young man. (With incidents like these, and worse to follow, Nwaubani demonstrates that her text is a more complex investigation of psyche, familial and socio-political realities and moralities than might at first appear. Her narrative is not a frivolous one for all the humour with which she endows many of its details; the hurts shown are real and deep and occur for both the 419ers and their critics.) Kingsley’s mother arrives to reproach him for assaulting his brother, and when he at last bursts out that the father whose memory she says he has insulted, might have been alive if he had been less principled, his mother in turn slaps and denounces him, saying that she will never set foot in his house again and wants him, unless he renounces 419, to stay out of her life, too. When Aunty Dimma, too, adds her denunciation, Kingsley speaks in Cash Daddy’s voice: “All this talk … Does it put food on the table? Does it pay school fees? Me, I don’t believe in film tricks, I believe in real, live action” (328). But for all his bravado, Kingsley is badly shaken by the “loss” of his mother, so soon after Merit told him to get out of her life.

And even as he contemplates the magnitude of these losses and how wealth and luxuries are insufficient compensation, the news is phoned to him: his uncle has been murdered, probably at his political rival’s instigation. Now Kingsley reflects on “[t]he man who had taken me under his wing. The man who had given me a new life. The man who had given me an opportunity to prove myself when everybody else kept turning me down. I had not just lost an uncle and a boss, I had lost a father” (332).  

For perhaps this is the underlying subtlety of Kingsley’s story: that in Cash Daddy he had found a less principled, but warmer and more paternal figure than his own, unbendable father. In Cash Daddy’s exuberant, boundless vitality and refusal to be bogged down, Kingsley had found an inspiration and a model. He also reflects that Uncle Boniface would have made perhaps the best governor the state could have wished for; his nickname was no accident and he did indeed have a profoundly paternal quality, more vividly discernible now that he was dead.

He also discovers that “Unlike my natural father, who had left me nothing but grand ideals and textbooks”, Cash Daddy had left him a flourishing business, and at this thought feels both “touched” and “proud” (335). Yet as he is about to take the office keys from Uncle Boniface’s “Protocol Officer”, he remembers Merit’s and his mother’s attitude to 419 activities and declines to take them. His uncle’s death, he realises, has given him the opportunity to change his lifestyle and be in charge of his own life for the first time.

The Epilogue shows a married, prosperous Kingsley, CEO of an IT empire, being visited by his adoring mother Augustina. There is a little twist in the end, but having revealed most of the novel’s complex narrative, the present outline must leave this final, delightfully amusing detail to the reader to discover. Suffice to say that Nwaubani remains true to the ultimately morally fair and balanced, but resolutely non-moralistic, quality of her novel – to the satisfaction, one hopes, of most readers of this text.

It might be mentioned in conclusion that the narrative is borne along throughout by an enjoyable linguistic vitality, some examples of which can be cited here: When Kingsley as a very shy young man first dares to speak to Ola (whom he has been eyeing), he is described as being so tongue-tied that he is “smiling like a portrait” (25); an unknown woman next to whom he sits at a revivalist church service eats a huge meat pie and her “chewing made soft, mushy sounds like footsteps on a soggy carpet” (49); Mirabelle (one of the scam victims) “sang dough-re-mi to the tune of about $23,000” (156); and Cash Daddy declares (after his brief imprisonment) that “If a person bite you on the head without being concerned about your hair, then you can bite him on the buttocks without being concerned about his shit. Is that not so?” (273). These examples show the earthy and rooted quality of the author’s vision and the intelligent, “educationally” humorous quality of her writing. She is indeed to be commended on having written this text and on having addressed a tricky topic without false shame or obfuscation or rationalisation.