This afternoon I finished Elnathan John's novel - Born on a Tuesday. This fiction was published in 2016. Elnathan, an odd name, is a Nigerian novelist, satirist and lawyer whose stories have twice been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
This debut novel set in contemporary Northern Nigeria is a story of Dantala, a kid who is thrust into a life of family imbalance, political upheaval and religious extremism. For me, I see it as an attempt to explain the beginning of the religious crisis which eventually metamorphosed into Boko Haram; the emerging and evolution of religious fundamentalism in Northern Nigeria. Written from a first person perspective, this story is an eyewitness account of the unraveling of a society as it descends into anarchy and violence.
For anyone looking to have a glimpse of life as Islamic factions seek to topple one another in search of followers, this book is a good start. Many people think Islam, unlike Christianity with its many factions, has one and only one group of followers. In this book, Elnathan introduces us to the Mujahideens and Shiites, with mentions reserved for the Izalas and Dariqas. As someone who grew up in Ilorin, I could relate as he narrates the debate of two scholars from different sects who left Nigeria to engage each other in Saudi Arabia on whether Western education is haram (forbidden) in Islam or not.
#DoYouKnow There is a Muslim sect which prays only three times a day, instead of five.
This is also a story of horror inflicted on children whose parents are too poor to take care of them. Sent away to Almajiri schools for Islamic education, many of them are neglected and have to fend for themselves through begging and awaiting the food leftovers of strangers in roadside 'eating sheds’.
"I hate it when people ask me my age because I don’t know. I just tell them I have fasted nearly ten times."
The limitation of prospects for them in life as they are at the mercy of political actors who seek them for their political usefulness, and religious leaders using them to get grants from Arab foreign donors and as body shields for religious wars.
"Banda tells us there are machetes, daggers and small gallons of fuel in the back of the truck. We will get two hundred naira each for taking back the votes that were stolen. Two hundred sounds nice. I can buy bread and fried fish. I haven’t had fish in a while."
It is also a story of goodness. The kindness and benevolence of people to total strangers. It also cuts into the stereotype that all Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists who are unwillingly to live in harmony with people they disagree with. Kindness is not bound by any ism.
"‘Let your women study,’ Sheikh said, ‘and let them vote. Let them learn how to read. The wives of Christians read and write and our wives cannot even read the Quran."
It is a story of transformation. Dantala went from a boy who was sleeping under the tree and hanging out with the street boys to one who rose up to self-educate himself to read and write in English language and become the second in command to the leader of the local Islamic sect, a certified good man, in the process. As Dantala is transformed, the reader is led to myriad of issues like sex, love, betrayal, cholera, and the grieving of a dead parent.
#Humour A bra is an interesting piece of clothing. I wonder who came up with the complicated idea.
This was a difficult book to read in some places. Not because it is not well written. No, it is very well-written. The character development, if you can get past the first two chapters, is superb. It is difficult to read because of the harsh reality of poverty and violence portrayed therein. The violence depictions were particularly disturbing. Beheadings, amputations, burnings of people. I couldn’t get my imaginations off the horrors of Boko Haram and ISIS gruesomely distributing deaths.
The situations in this book are real, and the struggles true. I read books like this from Africans under the umbrella of fiction and I feel like we shortchange ourselves. This is history. Why do we, in my own estimation, demote books like this to the category of fiction? With due respect, we have fictions in loads and not enough history. Or is it a question of the economics of distribution and sale of the books? For what it is worth, Africans should write more history about their continent.
It is because it is history that the reader is unable, unlike many other fictions, conclude on the moral of the novel. And that is fitting, for as the Sheikh asks Dantala after telling him a story, "Were you wondering what the moral of the story was?" Dantala by the expression on his face is of course curious. To which the Sheikh's replies, "There is no moral. I just felt like telling you a story."
I see Elnathan telling the reader wondering what this is all about as she finishes the book, "No idea. I just wanted to tell you the story of a young boy at the start of the Boko Haram insurgence." While I see a lot of foreigners gosh about this book, Nigerians would profit more from reading the history of a part of the place they call their country.
This book is history and that is how I choose to see it. Solid book!