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THOUGHTS ON CHUMA NWOKOLO (JNR)’S DIARIES OF A DEAD AFRICAN

THOUGHTS ON CHUMA NWOKOLO (JNR)’S DIARIES OF A DEAD AFRICAN[1] by Su’eddie Vershima Agema

Chuma Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African is a good post-colonial text that weaves a story across two generations, that of two brothers and their father. It depicts a story of poverty, affluence, anger, bitterness, the Nigerian society of today and over all, the struggle to live or die. It is centred on Meme Jumai and his two sons, Calamatus and Abel. It is told in a unique diary style that sees the hands of the writing move from father to son, to brother and in the end, you – the reader. It is so to say, a three-piece diary. The entries are deep and totally different due to the various circumstances that the characters find themselves in. Well, that is not the mention the obvious differences that would come from point of view of the type of character, persona, age and the like. But to get to the point…

Enter chronicler one, Meme Jumai, a forty-nine year old farmer, father and husband in Ikerre-oti who loses his wife to a ‘vulcaniser.’ She leaves with all the yams that he has, leaving him with simply three tubers which he trains himself to treasure, beginning to cook it by inch. Hunger spills forth through his notes as he struggles on waiting for harvest which is a few days away. Meanwhile, Meme also tends to his pregnant goat in the hope that it would soon give birth to kids that would take his pains away. Unfortunately, the goat dies from a serpent bite. The man who didn’t cry at his wife’s departure, cries at his goat’s passage. He tries to hide a part of the goat so that he can eat it. To test to see if the meat is not poisoned, we later get to discover that a part of the goat is given to a neighbour’s dog which dies. Meme throws the meat away in fear and cries more than before! He comes to discover later that the dog was actually hit by a car! He swallows hard at this bit of sad information but is man enough this time to eat his sorrow silently. The rest of his days are spent trying to dodge the pangs of hunger while trying to be as dignified and sometimes, not so dignified. Meme begs different people for just a little to survive, all to no avail. The village laughs at him making him the new idiot while his children get to suffer from the aftermath of his goat episode: His son, Abel is sent away from a place where he goes to ask for the hand of his pregnant girlfriend, Patie, in marriage. The courageous Meme continues his struggle through life with little, hoping to get to harvest when he would get his rich yield and become fulfilled. When it seems all is lost and he would die, harvest comes! With the strength of determination, our chronicler goes to the farm despite the faces of the fellow villagers to note that the village yields have been attacked by pests that bore holes into the very fabrics of every yam. The yam farmer has spent all his sorrow and tears which leaves him with little indifference. He goes back to home, takes the gun that he inherited from his father, and goes for the men who could have changed it with a little… He is not going down alone…

Chronicler two is Calamatus ‘Calamity’ Jumai, conman and second son of Jumai. He comes back with a vengeance, and some money. He uses his money on the villagers making monkeys of everyone from the Igwe to the least in the land. In a society that worships money more than anything else, there is little that he needs to do to make them all do his bidding except throw a few wads which he does. Meanwhile, he cons a particular American, Billy Barber and rips him of a lot of money. Calamatus builds a storey building in the stead of his father’s ramshackle building. He is a proud man whose major vex in life is that he does not have the gift of a penis due to a mistake that a nurse made when he was being circumcised: a simple cough and the razor turned a circumcision into a castration. His ambition is to finish the person who did the big error, if only he could find out who. Calamatus restores his family pride by taking revenge on the entire village for all they did to his father. He gives them all have diarrhoea when he throws a big occasion for them. They accost him as he calls the person who he gave the food contract to. She swears by everything she knows with repercussions of death on her and her daughter that she did not poison the rice that they all ate. She decides to twist the same swear into a curse on the people of the village if indeed she did not poison the rice but the people quickly tell her it is okay and go off, satisfied at least with her explanation – their ailment remaining. It turns out that the poison was in the goat – did she lie? Calamatus also organises a traditional wedding for his brother, Abel and has the in-laws pay back for disgracing his brother earlier on by refusing him on grounds that his family were eaters of dead animals. A bat head is found in the soup offered by the in-laws! Patie, Abel’s girlfriend does not find this funny and does not forgive him. Calamatus gives Abel a carton of money and also shows him an old letter of their mother that vexes Abel, who travels back to his town only to have an accident. Abel’s companion, Tendu loses his leg. Calamatus continues expanding and making monumental strides in his business becoming a greater man clashing with traditional authorities while finding his way out with money and making monkeys out of the same people who did same to his father. Then, in a burst of anger one of his ‘monkeys,’ reveals the secret of why he would never marry. It is a revelation that also entails that the man’s wife, a nurse, must have been responsible for his ‘calamity.’ There remains little to be done other than to fulfil the promise of his life to end the cause of his greatest problem. He carries his father’s gun, but can’t get bullets as none of his boys help him. He decides the way of inferno, for better for worse…

Abel Meme-Jumai takes the last part of the ever continuing Jumai diary, flowing from where his brother stopped. He is an aspiring fiction writer but near accomplished pen for hire with a past filled with secrets, including being an ex-con. He is determined to live a very long and near boring life. Patie refuses to come back. He tries to compensate Sikira, Tendu’s girlfriend. The girl takes the money and flees to Lagos while giving her parents a better life. Tendu does not forgive Abel. Meanwhile, Calamatus’s boys try to con Abel out of his brother’s huge estate left in an account that he was now a signatory to as administrator. He calls their bluff as he gets a call from a publisher to get his work published. He stands up to his mother who curses him. He gets a contract from the publisher and a politician to write a book against another politician, who is a fellow ex-con. As he goes back to the publisher, he discovers that his genius is not really of matter to anyone. It is just a ploy of the publisher and fellow cohorts to swindle him (Abel) of Calamatus’s money in the bank. Like the boys, he calls their bluff. At home, Tendu comes to beg him early in the morning to kill him. He goes for a walk and decides to give Tendu a change with money. When he gets back, he discovers Tendu is dead and their co-tenants calling for blood, the murderer’s blood – Abel’s blood. A lynching awaits. While Abel wonders who would have done it, Tendu or someone seeking his blood, common sense tells him to run. He does so, picking all he can and the remnants of the money Calamatus gave him.

There’s so much more, including a meeting with Billy Barber. What happens next? Would he go the way of those before him? How does it all end? The outcome is sure suspense-filled and unexpected. It creates ground for more thoughts and several behind the scene looks. The book flows on leaving the story at a height that is both thought provoking and inspiring…

In all, the book is a complete post-colonial novel, connecting the various realities of present day Nigeria in a lovely weaved tale. It goes from the perspective of the illiterate old father in the village with the full traditional value replete with the wisdom and proverbs of yore to the semi-literate con son, Calamatus who doesn’t need an education for respect or comfort. Money does it all as he shows the side of the Nigerian hustler while showing the 419 view. Abel takes the rear, the true picture of the hustling intellectual who hopes to make things work against all odds with chances playing dirty tricks on. Between them, gaps are filled and the tapestry properly weaved showing the entire Nigerian tale. In this way, there is something for everybody, from the traditional lovers or Achebeic type to those of rather trendy narration. So to say, there are basically three distinct voices, unique and captivating in every light that anybody can identify with. In a way, the author seems to seam popular fiction with literary writing creating something unique and not without beauty at all.

The language used by the author is simple and near elementary. He employs ample use of humour to spice up his tale, making you to laugh at cases that would ordinarily seem dreary. In the book, Nwokolo creates a realistic tale which is totally believable and conceivable. He also finds a way to create empathy for his characters. Furthermore, through the use of the diary form, he makes the reader to feel as if they are the ones in the situation. The reader is made to look at things from the perspective of the major actors, feel their pains and in that light, make an informed judgment. The use of other writers to review what had been said by others passed also allows the reader to have varied thoughts while sharing the sentiments of whoever is in charge of narration at any point.

The treating of gender in the book makes for good postcolonial discussion. There are no particular women on the protagonist list. Most of them are given the traditional roles we know; as wives and the like. Some critics might look at the author’s handling of women as a big downer. Manism would be the right word to use for Chuma Nwokolo’s approach to Diaries of a Dead African and why not? For a very long time, it is always women taking the top burner when it comes to every literary works. Nwokolo shows that most of the problems that come to man in one way or the other can be linked to women. He shows men who love or try to accommodate their wives in the best way possible exemplified by Meme Jumai, Tendu and Abel but have their hearts broken, souls crushed and lives sapped. In a way, he is being philosophical and showing that women play vital roles in the lives of man and in a great way determine the direction of their destiny. In the end one notices that Nwokolo is not trying to castigate women but to show them that they are very important and can bring about a complete turn-around in the life of any man. Note: Women do not really take central roles in the work but seem their actions largely – more than anything else – determine the outcome of the men’s lives.In essence, rather than being manist or chauvinist, Nwokolo seems to be showing that the carefree nature of a woman or a simple mistake such as a sneeze during the circumcision of a child can have adverse effects that can be fatal. If only they would listen.

The absence of a dominant Christian religion as is evident in several Nigerian societies would also form an issue to some people. This seems to be replaced in the book with the great religion of money worship which anyone would readily identify with!

The book concentrates on the hypocrisy of people; the tradition of worship of money as the overall and basic denominator of all things; the important role of women in the scheme of lives of men and the direction of destiny that their actions or inactions can point one to; the world of corruption; politics; poverty; among several others. Above all, it is about survival and a struggle to live well and for a reason.

In concluding, one would advise that for the book to be enjoyed as the lovely piece that is, it is best read with an open mind (whatever that means!) Who knows you might just be inspired or get a new view to death, living, Africa, Africans, all of them, or simply just start your own generation of Diaries of …


[1] Published:     Lagos; Villager House, 2003. The author’s name, Chuma Nwokolo, Jnr is also the Editor and Publisher of African Writing. he blogs at African Writing.

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