Arrows of Rain
An academic, writer-in-residence, magazine editor and columnist, Okey Ndibe is one of the large group of Nigerian (and other African) émigré intellectuals who work in the United States. Reading Arrows of Rain (his first novel, published 2000), one is shown yet again why so many talented Africans leave to further their careers elsewhere since the novel is a very thinly disguised and slightly adapted account of life in Nigeria during the period of the Abacha regime. Yet this is a novel in the fine tradition of Ndibes famous compatriots Achebe and Soyinka (both of whom, incidentally, are identified by the author as exerting an encouraging influence on his work): while delineating in horrifying detail the harshness, menace and criminal violence of warlord-style rule, the text makes equally clear that such rule engenders and relies on moral compromises, spinelessness and betrayal of duty among those in a position to resist and oppose such power abuse. Ndibe is not as fine an artist as Achebe or Soyinka, but his novel is a brave, deeply felt and absorbingly interesting narrative.
Ndibe (similarly to the Somali author Nuruddin Farah in his Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy) uses the technique of the detective novel, beginning with an unsolved crime the political roots of this deed being gradually uncovered in order to analyse and expose the social malaise prevalent during the dark period of the military dictatorship in Nigeria. The crime referred to is the gang rape and death by drowning of a young woman known to have been a prostitute. This death is one of a long series of such rapes and killings, all unsolved and neglected cases.
The event brings together a supposed madman known to some as Bukuru who is a beach vagrant and who, as the chief witness, is unjustly charged with the murder, and (on the other hand) a young reporter named Femi Adoro, whose first assignment this is. Femis reports are among the few to indicate a sympathetic sense of the possible innocence of the madman. Because of this, the accused man entrusts Femi with his lengthy life story, written down on paper smuggled in to him in jail by a sympathetic psychiatrist assigned to his case. This document, printed without interruption in the middle section of the novel, forms the bulk of the text. It shows the reader that Bukuru, whose real name is Ogugua, although an apparently chance observer of the gang rape and drowning of the young woman whose corpse was found on the beach, has for a long period been witness to such abuses crimes which (he knows) stem from the very head of state himself, the grotesque General Isa Palat Bello, self-proclaimed president for life in their country (17 compare 80; 122).
Oguguas responsibility goes further than this, however, as he acknowledges at the first meeting in his jail cell in the terrible, isolated prison to which he has been consigned as an awaiting-trial prisoner. He tells Femi: I was weak: I never wanted to be touched by anything that quickened the heart or made the soul sweat (48-49). Now, when it is almost too late, he wants Femi to be his voice. For, as he now understands, he can only throw his story … a feeble weapon against the power of the state. It is a government in which something went wrong early and never let up. Alluding to the recurrent image of politicians as mosquitoes, Ogugua declares that they sucked [the nations] blood until it became dry and anaemic. Overnight cabinet ministers puffed out protruding bellies they themselves called PP, for Power Paunch (81). An idealistic and patriotic young man when he left his village for life in the capital city as a reporter, Ogugua soon discovered the rate of social spoliation prevalent in his country. He tells the story of his earlier life in the present tense ...
On his first visit home Ogugua is met by his ancient grandmother. Even though she is blind and very old and has always lived in rural isolation, this woman is a powerful and insightful social commentator. Profoundly sensitive to the currents of both family life and public affairs, she rebukes his now city-bred ignorance and condescension because youve traveled too far from your hearth, she admonishes him, you have forgotten the language of your soil (89). Ironically (given that for twenty three years he will keep silent about a terrible crime, and about his own abandonment and betrayal of the woman who was its victim), his grandmothers words to him on this occasion the last time he will see her alive emphasise that he comes from a line of speakers: his grandfather was a town crier, his father a broadcaster, and he a journalist. His grandmother in a profound expression captures the ethos of speaking up that she wishes him to maintain: Remember, this: a story that must be told never forgives silence. She adds to this: … speech is the mouths debt to a story (97, emphasis added).
Ogugua finds his father, who brought him up single-handedly (his mother having died not long after his own birth) on his deathbed. Not long after his subsequent return to the city (and his newspaper job there), Oguguas grandmother also passes away. By now, he is no longer the naive country-boy reporter, but fully aware that his society is in the stranglehold of the most vicious kleptocracy anywhere on our continent (117) and this is the regime that precedes the military dictatorship of Isa Palat Bello, with whose career his own life will become fatally entwined. To illustrate the quality of elite life in this (earlier) period, a longish passage may be quoted in which the reporters voice is Oguguas and the ministers that of the least corrupt member of the political elite in their country:
Yes, yes. I paused. Umh, forgive me for changing the subject, but I thought to ask, what does your ministry do?
In the course of his journalistic activities, Ogugua gets to know and befriend a former schoolteacher who is now a prostitute operating among the elite of the country. Her professional name is Emilia, but as their relationship deepens he learns that she is actually called Iyese.
When she gives him a long interview, Ogugua learns a lot more about this secretive woman, with whom he has gradually fallen in love and he also learns to what extent the position and role of prostitutes serve as an index of the corruption and hypocrisy so rife in their country. She explains the difference between her two names as follows: All my bruises and soreness I take as Emilia. Its the name that takes the rapes of my body so that Iyese may go unhurt (133). Prostitutes customers, she explains, also want this type of anonymity from them, so that they can think of the women whose sexual services they use as creatures of the night, belonging to a different category from other women (131).
The interview between Ogugua and Iyese is interrupted by a visit from a vicious bully, one of Iyeses (or rather, Emilias) patrons. This proves to be Isa Palat Bello, whose drunken, vicious possessiveness Ogugua witnesses at first hand before the visitor rushes off, uttering threats. Ogugua and Iyese, left alone, acknowledge their mutual attraction and make love for the first time. Failing to keep his promise to return the next night, Ogugua goes back to Iyese only the following morning. He finds her in a state of suicidal despair, bleeding profusely from the vagina: Bello had come back with other bully-boys, raped Iyese, and then stabbed her repeatedly in her sexual organs. Ogugua arranges transport to hospital for Iyese, but never sees her again so afraid is he of himself being assaulted or killed by Bello that he stops going out altogether. He says that he could not bear to see [Iyise] again (171).
Iyese writes a series of pathetic letters of love and appeal to Ogugua (all quoted in full). In the course of these letters she reveals that she is (first) expecting and (later) has had their child, a boy but Ogugua ignores all her pleas. When Iyise holds a naming ceremony for the little boy and refuses to give it Bellos name, insisting that the child is Oguguas son and not Bellos, the latter kills her and injures the baby. Ogugua discovers this crime without taking action. This is because (at this time) Bello, having been on a military course in another country, has participated in a coup that toppled the former regime and is subsequently chosen to head the military state. Ogugua goes into hiding, terrified because he knows too much about the most dangerous man in the country (who thinks nothing of flogging a university vice-chancellor in public).
It is at this stage that Ogugua starts his life as a beach vagrant, witnessing many permitted gang rapes and murders by soldiers, who are evidently targeting prostitutes for this purpose. When he sees the last of these crimes, the murder described in the opening pages of the novel, something prompts him to speak out at last, and in his imprisonment and prosecution he pays the price for his courage in implicating the head of state in such grievous misdeeds.
There is a somewhat bizarre twist in the narrative at this point, with yet another (or perhaps the supreme) irony being revealed: the journalist Femi, an adopted child, learns that he is the son of Iyise who had been abandoned before his birth by Ogugua. Femi writes Ogugua a letter in which he makes this clear. Painfully confronted with such devastating knowledge of his betrayal of his own son and of the woman who had loved him, Ogugua hangs himself in his cell. His final message to Femi, not only his son now, but the inheritor of his story, is summed up in the following words: I live with the shame of that abdication in this cell. I am here because many years ago I fooled myself that the counterfeit coin of silence was good enough to buy peace of mind. I forgot my grandmothers wisdom that the mouth owes stories the debt of speech (245).
Ogugua entrusts his story to Femi: I know that power dreads memory, he writes, and that memory outlasts powers viciousness (248).
This cleverly contrived although bleak and terrible tale is a worthy addition to the African library. Its movement from the early morning beach with its abandoned, drowned corpse, through the citys dives and glittering parties, to the festering prison cell with its dangling body is captured in the titles of the novels three sections: Mists, Memories and Malaise. Its keynote is that of lamentation, within which we hear, very faintly, the challenge to those who can, to show courage in principled opposition to the cruelties of power abuse.
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