By Ifesinachi Johnpaul Nwadike
When in October 2017, the judges for the ANA literary prize made an honourable mention of Lucky James’s Tales from Our Past, those who have read the work at that time will readily agree with them that it was a deserved encomium. One may even wonder why it wasn’t adjudged the winner but since we are not abreast with the judges’ yardstick for judgment, an argument may be unnecessary. The book is a collection of fifteen momentous short stories that readily serve as windows through which we see the many facets of our existence. In its sweeping settings, reference is made to both the urban and the rural, cutting across villages, states and countries; hence, the collection could boast of being the first major literary work of sorts that involves, as in characters and settings, many African nations and citizens. The stories are told with great artistic verve that does not really portray the author as a new comer. Borrowing the words of Achebe therefore, in his praise for Chimamanda, Lucky James “came almost fully made”. The narrative candour is highly remarkable, making the characters teem with life such that they are almost like real humans we can see and touch. The characters’ experiences are reflective shadows of our very selves, our day to day lives, quests, conquests, failures and triumphs, portraying, as it were, the frailties of human kind, idiosyncrasies and all. The narrative techniques swing, like a controlled pendulum, from the first-person point of view to the third, as well as the omniscient, where and when the author feels it is convenient for his style and intended message. Through this multiplicity of narrative styles, we are escorted into the recess of the remotest part of the society, where humanity is laid bare for our uncensored comprehension.
The very first story, “The Terrifying Canopy Walk”, is one story any phobic person can easily relate with, especially an acrophobic. The setting is in Kakum Canopy Walkway in Ghana, where Georgie, the narrator went through a pitiable but funny bout of phobia that nearly led to a cardiac arrest. His companions, Adwoa and Kosi are Ghanaian and Togolese respectively, and he was visiting from Nigeria to follow up on his application to the University of Cape Coast. The three friends had gone to the National Park to catch some fun, and then the idea of a canopy walk came. They had barely paid for their tickets and begun the ascent when Georgie discovered that “the rope bridge was not as fixed in place as it appeared” (12), making his “crippling phobia for heights to set in” and knotting his stomach (13). The reader can only but feel sorry for this reluctant adventurer whose hunger for tourism made him discover his innate gift for emergency prayers, and of course, Psalm 23 is readily available. There is a lesson to be learnt here, which is to know one’s limits and live by it, especially insurmountable ones. Georgie is a handy instance here, he who has done all he could to be friendly with heights but to no avail. He has been on the roller coaster ride, tried climbing trees to pluck fruits, but still cannot nest a breakthrough; even the stone he hurled at trees to bring down fruits, came flying back at him empty, perhaps, in fear of height like its hurler. In its metaphorical sense, the story is an allusion to man’s existential problems, some of which can never be totally overcome, they are supposed to be there, starring menacingly at you in the face.
Following closely is “The Eclipse”, set in an imaginary Wussa, a rural community not too far from the Niger River. Little Ado is our main man this time. He is the compass through whom we traverse this rural village, their sensibilities, their beliefs and dim-witted naivety. A lunar eclipse is about to take place, and Ado’s school teacher, Mr. Johnson Adeko, who taught every subject and every class, had brought it to their attention. In fact, he told the pupils that it was only a natural occurrence; a time in space when the sun and the moon clashed momentarily. But the people of Wussa are not to be taken in by such scientific hogwash. For, as long as Ofege, the village sage, King Shefule of Wussa, Batiga the seer, and indeed all other villagers, except Mr. Thomas, the village drunk, are concerned, “the sins of the world had grown so gross that the spirits were disgusted with humanity. The encounter at midnight was a purging process meant to correct a people that had gone astray.” (23). Through Ofege’s admonition of the children that usually gather around him by nightfall for stories, we see a people with a superficial notion of themselves as the chosen race for the redemption of mankind. The people of Wussa believe that they have been destined to avert the coming calamity, hence, at the instance of Batiga and King Shefule, the warriors of Wussa ready themselves for a fierce battle in the night, but with whom exactly? Day breaks and we see a jubilant Wussa coming to the palace to congratulate King Shefule and Batiga the seer for the timely intervention. The moon and the sun had disengaged as soon as they had collided, but the Wussas believe that their intercession and that of their ancestors saved the situation. I felt like caning this silly people but when I remembered I was only reading a book and as such cannot flog imaginary characters, I diverted my annoyance to the author for creating such dim-witted people, only to quickly forgive him because Ado’s doubtful mind and Thomas’s dismissal of the people is a consolation from the seemingly irredeemable stupidity of a people clinging wholeheartedly to irrational superstitions, a religious trait not far from our very selves, and may have been the author’s source of inspiration. Through Ado’s ruminations, we even discover that Wussa is not as holy as Ofege claims, for debauchery, thievery and other vices reign supreme therein. So, it is either Ofege is not in the know or he knows but chooses to pretend otherwise; whichever way, the actions and beliefs of the people of Wussa is stupidity taken too far.
“Destitute Friends” is one of the most heartrending stories in the collection. In this story, the rotten soul of a nation’s health care system is dissected for us to see its hollowness. The death of Wilson, a native of Douala in Cameroon but resident in Lagos, Nigeria, is the precursor to this discovery. Not like we don’t know any way. Before Wilson’s painful demise in the hospital, where he was left unattended for twelve painful hours, he was a humanitarian at heart; the kind of philanthropist who didn’t ring the bell to announce his little but sacrificial good deeds, yet, his goodness resonated with the destitute that benefitted from him. Through Sidi, one of the destitute in the slum, we understand that unannounced good deeds have a way of sticking with the beneficiaries as against the siren blowing philanthropists who splash the pictures of their good deeds on internet for the world to take note of. Gbenga was to realize also that he couldn’t step into the big shoes Wilson left behind, for no matter how much money and time he spent on and with the destitute, the void Wilson created only but yawns wider. But he was soon to win them over, after putting in too much energy and honest dedication to the service of the poor without making a show of it.
The fourth story, “Baby Tara” is a riveting foray into the corridors of man’s many absurd lifestyles that are not worthy of the importance culturally or socially attached to them. Two friends, Lana and Tijani are among the guests at a child naming ceremony. Through their side discussions, we come to terms with the absurdity of elaborate naming ceremonies. The financial implications, the noise pollution from music speakers, the meaningless and often unnerving sermons by pastors, the baby’s painful tour from one hand to the other, accumulating names that are longer than most annoying medical terms. It is the contemplation of Lana and Tijani that a ceremony such as this is supposed to be a quiet event devoid of stress and the whole face-saving pomp. This is especially for a baby like Tara whose paternity is questionable, for baby Tara’s mother is a staff with a commercial bank in Ajah, where she is dubbed “the most reckless female banker” who has a roll call of male customers she sleeps with, all in a bid to meet up with stipulated targets. Tijani, being her colleague, is aware of her ways and can almost vow that her husband is not baby Tara’s rightful father. With their heads locked in deliberation, Lana and Tijani are startled by the shouts of someone in the crowd whose phone had gone missing. They search themselves to make sure they are okay. At some point during the ceremony, Tijani pulls out his wallet, sorts through it and produces an old paper he has been keeping. The paper has thirty-one names on it, being the names given to a newborn in a naming ceremony he had attended two years earlier. Baby Tara has accumulated thirteen, and Tara is an abridged version of Oluwataramisore, just as Lana recalls that his is also a contracted form of Oluwalanafunmi.
“The Newsroom” x-rays Mr Daisi Joseph, an anxious jobseeker who is disoriented with the disorderliness of the newsroom, his supposed office, when he eventually gets one. Being a person of order and protocol, his new office, which he shares with a lot of staff, is the direct opposite of his dream office. His disillusionment nearly saunters into disdain for the highly coveted job, which he had even proposed to begin immediately he was informed, due to idleness. The secretary, Laide Thomas, hands him over to Mr Aremu, the features editor who is cocksure that Joseph will adjust in little or no time. But Joseph is not even sure, especially as Mr Aremu’s table is a vivid example of the publishing company’s dissonance, it “seemed the perfect place to lose typed reports.” (51). However, as a consoling measure, Joseph begins to nurse the intention of flirting with the secretary, Laide Thomas, “Mrs or Miss”.
“Chased” is one of the funniest stories in the collection. Who wouldn’t agree, when it is about some enthusiastic and adventurous young lads who keep getting into trouble all the time? If a herd of angry dogs is not in chase, it is a choir of bees or a group of angry farm owners who have, for countless times, suffered the insensitivity of the community terrorists. As expected of such narrative, Lucky James follows up the plot with matching humour and racy narrative style that is befitting of such adventurous tale. Segu is our character around whom the story revolves. The story opens with his return from school one hot afternoon with his gang, when one of them, Hamidu “did something to annoy the already bad-tempered dogs” (53). And so began the chase. Lucky James’s sense of humour is at its peak of alertness henceforth and the reader will laugh out loud with tears streaming helplessly from the eyes:
The drooling savages swiftly sprang upon the lot. Three hounds took a particular interest in Segu’s fleeing form and tore after him! As the dogs gained on him in a relentless chase, he grew frantic. His mind raced faster than his legs and bobbed on a hundred thoughts, the most prominent of which was how his family would take the news of his death which seemed so imminent. (53-54)
And to think that this was barely three days after they were given a hotter chase by a swarm of deadly bees is to imagine how stubborn and restless our adventurers are. In an attempt to escape the bees, Segu, as usual, had veered from the group, only for a stream of bees to break from the swarm and face him squarely, as did the dogs. The narrator here explains that “flapping his hands furiously over his head to ward off the insects, he had looked like a miniature windmill on wheels.” (54). But Segu was not to repent until he had, with his gang, raided a sugarcane plantation one Sunday morning, even when he knew it was wrong to do so. Just that he “loved the kick he got from escaping when chased; enjoyed the thrill he felt for being daring.” (57).
“The Sunday Bus Ride” is set in the ancient city of Ibadan, Apata to be precise. In this story, a nameless female narrator takes us back and forth her experience in the church and in the home. The family has just lost Tiono, the narrator’s fourteen-year-old younger brother, and the family is still battling with the weight of his loss. The father now spends more time at work to escape the hanging memories of the boy at home. The mother has grown more spiritual in her pursuit for peace of mind and more protection from God. But our narrator and her other younger brother, Emma, are not viewed, by the elders, as being capable of feeling any loss, hence their feelings are not important and no one cares to ask them how they’re taking it. This makes our narrator withdraw into the dark recess of herself, her room, and her phone because she misses her brother and playmate. So, on this Sunday, she got tired of the endless niceties between her mum and her spiritual friends in the church whose headgears and heavy make-ups could be the reason why the “spiritually” bubbly women did not take notice of her and Emma. She obtains permission from her mother to allow her, for the first time, take public transport back home. What the mother failed to understand is that if her daughter could find her way home, unguided, using public transportation, she is equally capable of feeling a loss. She didn’t know that, they just didn’t know that.
- Johnpaul writes from Ibadan. He can be reached through Nwadikejohnpaul@gmail.com