Beasts of No Nation
Uzodinma Iweala (John Murray; 2005 )
Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light
Tijan M. Sallah and Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala (Africa World Press, Inc; 2003)
A for Ayiiee! B for Beast; C for Sex: D for Dying dying. E for Itching small by small, F for… That is the world according to Agu, the 11-year-old soldier in Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, Beast of No Nation. From cover to cover, the novel is shockingly alive. It is a book that yearns to be made into a show-all-the-ugly-details movie like Steven Spielberg Saving Private Ryan.In Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light a biography, the authors Tijan M. Sallah and Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala give from an incorrect perspective an account of a real war that happened in a real time which took the lives of over 2 million people and whose consequences are still living ominously with the three major tribes and the oil producing areas of Nigeria today.
War is evil. War, throughout history and all over the world, is the condition that produces child soldiers whether in the war on Troy or the war on Rome in Haiti in Cambodia in Rwanda in the Arab jihads and intifadas, in Sierra Leone in the biblical bloodshed warriored by the young David against Goliath, to the war led by St Joan d’Arc of France against England and the wars on videogames.
Beast of No Nation captures the essential innocence of a child, despite the monstrosity of his actions. On a woman’s head,
“I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink.”
Agu does not see this act as slaughtering; to him he is bringing the machete up and down, and that is exciting; no blood, just the nursery colour pink.When he allows himself his humanity,
“Luftenant is saying don’t think. Just let it happen.Commandant is saying it is like falling in love. You cannot be thinking about it. And I am believing him. What else can I be doing?”
Revealed as a meta-flashback: a flashback within a flashback, Agu is a precocious mind in school and at home. He is curious, he questions everything, his interests illustrate passion for activities that have acquisitive relations to knowledge and a healthy mental life. Agu’s mother reverently calls him professor, who wishes to become a doctor or an engineer. Then the civil war came. Agu’s home is razed. His father killed.He is given a choice to either be killed or join the combat troops of extraordinary brutality. Of course in alternatives involving death, there is little choice. Agu too becomes a little killer. A rapist. He rapes during raids and he is raped by his overall boss, the nameless commander. His childhood suffers a complete corrosion of consciousness. When the boy opens his mouth to sing, the lyrics are all aboutkilling and killing. Initially his word for penis is ‘thing’- a child’s innocent word. Then it becomes a “soldier that stands at tenshun.”
Agu still retains some occasional sensitivity; he thinks a lot and interrogates himself incessantly. At times he even waxes philosophical: “I am standing outside myself and watch it all happen.” His mind prompts critical questions that would not dare march to his tongue lest his superiors flay him: “I am not going to be asking or he might be beating me.” Therefore, “the thing you are wanting most is always the thing that is not happening.”Stints of intense disagreements exist between Agu the killer and Agu the moral philosopher but because the former triumphs, the haunting narrative move forward taking the reader’s sensibilities into more abject depths.
Experimentation with the kalakuta English of Nigerian colloquy (street language) is a well-tested genre in African literature.Amos Tutola. Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy [soldier boy]: A Novel in Rotten English. Cyprian Ekwensi. Henshaw’s plays.Beast of No Nation pays tribute to them and at the same time, bids them a respectful departure.Each chapter reads like a hearse convoy, an enjambment, with a short concluding sentence or phrase that either delivers a bite, downsizes heightened emotions or places the reader in anticipation.The author writes with gravity and the effect is of enormous emotional force. He has a gift of the illustrating detail, the illuminating allusion and the telling metaphor. To say this how Nigerians speak is an unfair overstatement, what is obvious is that Uzodimma Iweala’s syntax-disturbing prose only takes inspiration from the Nigerian colloquy. At times he could be irritatingly delicious:
” She is sitting across from me in her chair. She is sitting in her chair and I am sitting in my own chair and she is looking at me like looking at me is going to be helping me.She is telling me to speak speak speak.”
“What is your future, she is asking to me.”
Iweala takes risks; well, the novel’s form is a risk- a successful one, but some of the other risks come out as an exaggeration:
“The sun is rising behind us so all our shadow is growing front from our feets and making the road very dark which is making it harder to be taking each next step.”
The novel highlights the progress of the modern-day Beast, engulfing and devouring and vandalising the innocence of today’s children.Child trafficking. Child pornography. Paedophilia. Child prostitution. Child soldiers. Agu, Strika, Rambo and other kids are exposed to violence as mere objects, they in turn become subjects of violence, meting it out again on their own psyches, on enemy soldiers, women, and children. Young girls are stretched out as prostitutes by a pimp Madam. ‘A small girl’ hints on the way to triumph. She plunged Luftenant with a dagger in the belly. “How can I be stopping him from doing.” She is saying. “I am only a small girl.”This was too shocking for the Commander to raise hell contrary to expectations. Rambo takes a cue from this perhaps. Soon after, he gives the Commander just one bullet in the chest. The children walk away free.
This work of fiction stereotypically, reinforces the notion of Americans as the custodians of the solutions to global problems.The narrative itself is Agu’s report to Amy, a white American psychotherapist as the opening spark shows: “It is starting like this.” The final paragraphs leave us with Agu the patient and his sessions on the couch.The story of these children commandeered into a war they know nothing about is set in an unnamed place on earth that is not America since we are told Amy is from America. Also, there is no evidence that the unnamed place is in Africa. However, the prevalence of I am. I am. I am. In this astonishing novel testifies to Existence; an existence of the Beast. That the narration is styled in the present continuous tense shows the Beast is still on the loose. The title of the novel, mined from Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian god of music and protest, alerts us that the Beast is global, it is of no nation.
This biography of Agu by Uzodinma Iweala is a wake-up call for all to challenge and resist war and all that makes it inevitable. It invites us to be like Agu’s mother who is “working to make the kitchen so clean that not even fruit fly is wa
nting to put egg inside.”This of course is an allusion to the office of Uzodinma’s mother as the finance minister of the Nigerian republic. In her book Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light co-written with Sallah, a Gambian who in his career as anthologies editor is like Pharaoh Ramses II who erected a magnificent temple to the gods at Abu Simbel in order to situate his statute amongst them.
In history according to Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light, the authors blame the Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, “whom Yorubas [sic] idolized almost as a saint” for betraying the Igbo people and their Biafran cause.Write Okonjo-Iweala and Sallah: On May 30, 1967, “The Igbos had made this secessionist move with the promise from Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the southwest that the Yorubas[sic] would follow suit.Awolowo, however, failed to honour his pledge, and the secession proved a nightmare for the Igbos. The Igbos interpreted this as a sign of bad faith on the part of the Yoruba leader, and trust was further eroded between the two ethnic groups.”
What is conveniently omitted in this myth that is still portentously sitting with us today and gaining converts is: in the meeting between Awolowo and Ojukwu in Enugu, the later tabled his separatist proposal and for a feedback, Awolowo asked for two weeks to consult with his people to which Ojukwu agreed. On his departure, just before Awolowo’s airplane touched down in the West, the selfishly ambitious Ojukwu declared the independent state of Biafra.In the eyes of Awolowo and the Yoruba, Ojukwu revealed himself as a man beneath trust. Rapidly again, in a matter of weeks, 9 August 1967, before war was declared on the secession, Ojukwu’s troops led by Victor Banjo, a Yoruba soldier, had conquered the Midwest including Yoruba terrains all the way to Ore and installed Major Okonkwo as the Biafran administrator. (Victor Banjo did not want a war of secession, he wanted a war of equitable restructuring of the political arrangements in the country. His Third movement lost and Ojukwu executed him together with some other soldiers.)
Awolowo as the Vice Chairman of the Federal Government and the Commissioner of Finance during the Nigerian Civil war/Biafran war ensured tirelessly that Nigeria remains irrevocably united though the idea of conscious starvation as an instrument of war against the Biafrans is condemnable.Today, Okonjo-Iweala is the Minister of Finance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and she says she is proud to be a Nigerian yet she finds it worthy to bundle untruths on and pillory Awolowo for defending the Nigerian Idea against tribal plus sectarian extremists who insisted that bloodily, things must fall apart. Simply put: Okonjo-Iweala and people like her are at least being Chichidodo.
The substance of the massacre of Igbos in the North of Nigeria and what lead to the secession bid and the war is neither examined nor adequately considered. Two chapters in Teacher Of Light: “A Great Fearful Thing: The Nigerian Civil War” and “The Biafran Tragedy” are reduced to Awolowo.the Yoruba.Wole Soyinka. Besides Chinua Achebe, in just 5 out of all the 14 chapters that forms this 160 page book, Wole Soyinka is the most mentioned personality. His frequency is over and above Emeka Ojukwu, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Christopher Okigbo, General Gowon, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and even Things Fall Apart.
Chapter 13 that celebrates fulsomely Achebe in his critical exchanges with others deploys a powerful allusion: The Eagle and the Hunters.Achebe is the Eagle. Wole Soyinka, his protégés/supporters and other Achebe critics/enemies are the Hunters who want to shoot down the Eagle.Chapter 14’s title tells us that this Eagle is on Iroko tree, the tallest and the mightiest of all the trees in the forest.In another modest but significant work, Chinua Achebe: Pure and Simple (An Oral Biography) by Phanuel Akubueze Egejuru whose style is collating information on Achebe from interviews from friends, colleagues, students, family members, and teachers, Soyinka is quoted as saying: “the so-called bad blood which seems to be between us was created by his [Chinua’s] acolytes.Chinua must accept a little of the blame for the escalation of the verbal warfare between their adulators.”In Egejuru’s opinion: Soyinka “felt that Chinua should have intervened to stop his adulators’ attack on him but he didn’t.Chinua’s silence led to unnecessary counter attacks and insult on him by Soyinka’s supporters.”
Inventorying the life of the great storyteller Prof Chinua Achebe from cradle (‘Childhood in Ogidi’) to the top of a tree (‘Eagle on Iroko’), Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light is determined to be slim so it neither substantiates on some claims nor dare to be insightful in others. Unnecessarily, the authors are creating anonymities. This is either research laziness or regular timidity.Yet these matters would have given the book at least an edge or a weight.”Dr Michael Okpara, Chief Osadebay may have received advanced warnings and gone into hiding.” May have? “Some people argued that Achebe is jealous. Some people argued that Achebe did not get the Nobel Prize because of his refusal to. Some Yoruba interpreted the prize [Soyinka’s Nobel prize] not as continental or national celebration, but as ethnic celebration. Achebe’s poet friend, Christopher Okigbo, wanted to participate in the Institute [Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka], but some members of the staff objected.” Who are these ‘some’? Crosscheck at the endnotes, the source of this later information that Okonjo-Iweala and Sallah summon so confidently, it is Labyrinths, a collection of poems by Christopher Okigbo.Poems? To present and justify matters of reality?Poems like other genres of literature have licence to take liberties with facts and yet retain their literary richness. They may address real concerns but they are tangentially historical. Reality: Okigbo was suspected of not being Igbo enough, of being a saboteur like Victor Banjo. His manuscript and effects were found in a plane coming from Paris but crashed in Cameroon. As a Biafran, he was not expected to be on that civilian plane travelling to Lagos.
This biography has no unique information to present on Achebe neither does it offers the old with fresh perspectives. No doubt, the book is an outcome of a cut and paste research. All of its core arguments and their explanations where any, are extracts from other works of note.Compared to Ezenwa Ohaeto’s Chinua Achebe: A biography, this is a footnote in the praise literature on Chinua Achebe idolized as a saint.
Damola Awoyokun is the Managing Editor of Fawi Publications. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org