Nigerian literature is again witnessing an upsurge in production and the creative industry is gradually regaining its vibrancy hitherto believed by many to have been enveloped in the shadow of previous generations of Nigerian writers. Not long ago, the recurring decimal had been that literature was dead in Nigeria, and this belief was generally accepted by many a scholar and literary critics alike. Today, however, new creative expressions have emerged, steadily taking over the literary space, and informing the direction of the discourse of new Nigerian literature. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Sefi Attah, Chika Unigwe, Teju Cole and others have kept the trail blazing prior to the coming of age of newer voices such as Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ayobami Adebayo, Obinna Udenwe, Maryam Bobi, Richard Ali, Elnathan John and so many others. (The listing here is not in any particular order of importance, neither is it conclusive). Today, Nigerian literature in the “new millennial” can be engaged using new names and narratives, a symbol of the growth of our literature.
It is significant to emphasise that the crux of this essay is not to appropriate the growth and development of Nigerian literature, but to engage with one of the millennial writers’ work: Elnathan John’s “Born on a Tuesday” and in doing so, this writer seeks to concern himself with two ideas and the way they have been represented by the author in his work, and to discern the import of this representation in the text. The ideas are “materialism” and “stereotype” in relation to man’s quest to survive, and how stereotyping determines our perception of others and endangers the spirit of nationhood.
Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday is a narration that examines questions about the essence of human existence in juxtaposition with the endemic conditions through which human beings have to pass to derive meaning in living. This is the picture that easily forms in the mind of the reader of John’s novel. A critical reader might simply ask after encountering the characters and actions in the novel, particularly the sorry fate of the narrator Dantala; why were we created? Was it to suffer and die and say that we once lived too? The eminent scholar and critic Charles E. Nnolim might as well have considered the issue when he posits in his inaugural lecture, “Redentem Dicere Verum: Literature and the Common Welfare,” that, “A study of various works of literature is, in fact, a study of various philosophies of life, for every author implants a little stamp of his philosophy in his story, novel, poem, drama.” (Literature, Literary Criticism, and National Development, 2012).
In John’s depiction of the meaninglessness of life, characterised by pain, troubles and death, he is simply telling us that life has no value other than the meaning or value humans add to it through their personal strides and desire to survive, to find joy and pleasure. This assertion is hinged on the factor that Dantala the protagonist survives a bastardized childhood defined by pain and suffering and hard life in Bayan Layi, turning into a prospecting Sheikh’s assistant. He becomes an assistant to Sheikh Jamal, an influential Islamic school proprietor and scholar. It is, however, when it becomes obvious that his hitherto wretched life has found a new meaning of peace and happiness that disaster strikes again to truncate his happiness, and gradual elevation into the elite circle.
The import of materialism as an integral element of the novel and one of the primary determiners of the essence of life can be perceived from two prisms; firstly, that man exists to survive by devising means of finding the satisfaction that he craves; and the second is that material possession is a means to a fulfilled life. This presupposes that man’s survival is motivated by the satisfaction deriveable from material accumulation. Therefore, man’s happiness is tied on earth to his material wealth and nothing more. The Holy Bible echoes this supposition in a verse that does not mean more than it says anymore: “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” This assertion no longer holds any truth even for those who regard themselves as disciples of faith and God’s messengers on earth, judging by the materialistic inclination of some of the so called men of God today. In Christianity, as in other religions of the world and particularly in Africa, materialism is the new gospel. This statement is creatively portrayed in the novel as we shall soon see.
The criminal acts perpetrated by Dantala and his cohorts in Bayan Layi in the first part of the novel can be linked to the absence of choice or opportunities for the boys on the street to earn a decent living and as such they are forced by circumstance to use the only means available to them to attain their materialistic cravings in order to survive. This is true in a way because when Dantala gets the slightest opportunity to earn a decent living with Sheikh Jamal, he does not hesitate to seize the chance and he diligently rises to become Sheikh’s assistant. What this depiction suggests is that man is susceptible to the prevailing conditions around him. Dantala becomes a changed man who is entrusted with authority because his new environment affords him a decent means of attaining his materialistic aspirations of a home, food and clothes, unlike in Bayan Layi where all he knew was street life with his companions who lived under the Kukah tree.
This writer’s assertion is further concretized in the novel in this passage below where Dantala who is also the narrator of the story justifies his and his friends’ criminal lifestyles in Bayan Layi, when they queue to receive a paltry two hundred naira to go and burn down the Big party’s secretariat because of an election in which the Small party loses. “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 the votes that were stolen. Two hundred sounds nice I can buy bread and fried fish. I haven’t had fish in a while.” (13)
To an average man, ‘bread and fried fish’ might not provide enough justification or motivation to commit a heinous crime, but for the hopeless Dantala and his friends living under the Kukah tree, it justifies the need to steal, kill and burn down the ‘Big party’s’ secretariat. There are lessons to be learnt from this portrayal, such as the need for the system to provide social welfare and dividends of democracy to its citizenry in order to avert the catastrophe of youths controlled by their stomach and not their brain. After all, a popular maxim holds that ‘a hungry man is an angry man’, and another holds that ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’
Dantala and his friends in Bayan Layi are products of a dysfunctional society and political system that does little or nothing to cater for the welfare of the poor. To also highlight man’s essence in relation to his materialistic satisfaction, Dantala reveals the innate motivation of his Qur’anic teacher, Mallam Junaidu, who cares more about the bags of grains he receives as payment from parents of his students than his religious obligation to teach the children how to know God through the Qur’an and Arabic language. Dantala narrates:
It was three hundred naira from the park not too far away in Sabon Gari to get a space in the back of the trucks which carry wood to Sokoto. Instead, he gave me seventy naira, reminding me that my father had not brought any millet that year or the year before to pay for my Qur’anic training. (6)
Dantala further informs of the absence of material comfort in his mother’s life and the suffering and humiliation caused by poverty: “Alfa said my mother still left the village every Friday to beg by the Juma’at Mosque in Sokoto city”.(6)
The novel takes a humanistic approach to the suffering and abject lack in the society, and through Dantala’s eyes we encounter a community ravaged by flood and disease; the flood that renders many homeless in his village, including his mother; the terrorism brought about by extremist Muslims; the pains and sufferings suffered by humans; the death and detention of innocent persons…
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gives the following definitions of materialism:
(1)the belief that money, possessions and physical comforts are more important than spiritual values, (2)the belief that only material things exist.
Sheikh Jamal, Dantala’s benefactor, is a symbolic representation of religion in pursuit of existential needs. The discourse is that one of man’s chief incentives for living is to meet his existential needs, and Born on a Tuesday succinctly captures this notion through its various shades of covert representations. God has become the most saleable commodity amongst religious people of different belief systems. It is easier and cheaper to sell God today than ever before, a practice which has invariably led to the polarisation of spirituality. Many gullible folks have been indoctrinated into the belief that the purchase of God, through tithes and special offerings, can lead them to their own material wealth. However, many have remained poor and wretched in spite of this broad-day fraud, while their ‘pastors’ and ‘imams’ live the life they (poor masses) dream of every night in their sleep. The Dasuki-gate saga where many ‘men of God’, pastors and sheikhs alike collected billions of naira as payment for spiritual intervention in favour of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential aspiration in 2O15 is a resounding example that is still fresh in the public’s psyche. This diversion is simply to buttress the point of the marketability of God as a commodity, and to bring back home our point of the destruction that has eaten into the fabric of this nation’s religious leaders, and the gullibility of their impoverished followers.
Sheikh Jamal is an Islamic scholar highly respected in the Islamic community and amongst politicians with an international connection that funds his foundation. But Sheikh Jamal is just another opportunistic creature trying to survive through the means he knows best, religion – Islam. Dantala the narrator, who is Sheikh Jamal’s assistant, observes the underground irregularity that goes on at the foundation such as homosexuality, betrayal, stealing and corruption, as well as cover ups for friendly politicians in the society with large bank accounts. For example, Dantala narrates that Abdul-Nur, Sheikh Jamal’s erstwhile deputy, steals money from the donation box to meet his own survivalism. Although Sheikh Jamal is aware of this, he does nothing about it and this action befuddles Dantala. As it is to be expected, Sheikh Jamal advances quite logically his reasons for doing the things that he does under the cover of worshipping God. Sheikh Jamal philosophises his materialistic indulgence to Dantala thus:
“Good. I see our relationship will last long. The money. About the money. When I started, I used to reject money. All of it. Even from Alhaji Usman. But you know what I have learned, Ahmad? Poverty does not make a man decent. Poverty is not piety. In this same vein, money does not make a man evil. A man’s character is not defined by what money he has or does not have, but what decisions he takes in spite of having or not having. There are people who have lived a life of abject poverty who will be the first at the gate of hell”. (168)
It suffices to submit at this juncture that, although it is not possible to exhaust the discourse on materialism in the novel, enough has been said. The focus shall now be shifted to another major concern of this exercise; the representation of stereotypes in the novel.
Charles E. Nnolim, to quote that brilliant scholar-critic once more, posits in his essay “A New Writer in a New Context: Camillus Ukah’s When the Wind Blows” that, “The best hope for the redemption of our society, now in anomy, where individuals have lost their moral bearings, lies in good serious literature. (159) By good serious literature, Nnolim refers to a literature of national consciousness.
One of the major gridlocks of contemporary Nigerian literature has been the problem of stereotypes. However, stereotyping as an offshoot of “ethnic nationalism” is not entirely a new concept in Nigeria’s discourse of nationhood and integration. It has in fact been one of the major encumbrances to Nigeria’s unsuccessful drive for national cohesion. The astute historian Toyin Falola traces this ugly trend of division to colonialism as the mother of disintegration in Nigeria. In his keynote address to the Association of Nigerian Authors’ international convention entitled, “Literary Imaginations and Nation Building in Nigeria Since 1914.” Falola reiterates that,
Nigerians inherited those assumptions regarding the Division of people into races, places, ethnicities, and states. The idea of the “ethnic nation” and the Nigerian Nation emerged simultaneously. Literature and performance have responded to this dual identity, thereby embracing and promoting fractured nationalism, the Nationalist project, identities, and related notions, even if many of such leading works have become part of world Literature.(12)
From one writer to another, one region to the other, there have been accusations and counter accusations of writers stereotyping people from other regions in their writings, particularly in fiction. And this in turn breeds contempt in the minds of the misrepresented “ethnic nationals”.
Nigeria cannot thrive neither can it become a strong united nation of a united people, if her citizens refuse to learn to love and forgive one another, especially if they continue to document in eternal media like the novel, their sentiments and resentment towards one another. We, therefore, cannot refer to books nay novels that propagate and accentuate ethnic stereotypes as good or great literature. For such books cannot speak for unity. For example, Adichie has been accused of Igbo propaganda in her narratives and particularly in Half of a Yellow Sun where it is said she painted a stereotypical image of the Hausa-Fulani people of Northern Nigeria. When Ahmed Maiwada’s novel, Musdoki, came out it was regarded and described by some as a rejoinder to Adichie. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the author of Season of Crimson Blossoms, has been accused by this writer elsewhere as having written a novel that is in part, a subtle counter-narrative to the conventional image of Northerners.
Elnathan John has also been found wanting by this writer of perpetuating stereotypes of the Yoruba people. John’s assertion through his characters that Yoruba people are betrayers and hypocrites is an unfortunate representation. No truth is absolute, and that is why there are different beliefs to service the different truths of the different peoples of this world.
The English author Graham Greene, in his novel, The Honorary Consul (1974), offers a perspective on the nature of truth and the perception of same by those other than ourselves. Through very interesting characters — Doctor Plarr, a medical doctor and Doctor Humphries, a doctor of letters — we are shown the hypocrisy of truth. Doctor Humphries, suspecting himself of having an eating disorder, complains to Doctor Plarr, and so prompts the following conversation:
If you really wanted the truth I would have to examine you, take an x-ray
Oh no, no. I only want the truth about other people. It’s always other people who are funny. (20)
The truth, as Doctor Humphries explains in the passage above, is that human beings are only interested in the truth about other people because it is other people’s reality that they really find funny. In other words, John’s portrayal of the Yoruba people in such a bad light have been for merely artistic or aesthetic effects but its truest import cannot escape the discerning reader.
Mallam Abdul-Nur is portrayed as an Islamic convert who betrays his original Christian beliefs by becoming a Muslim after being lured by Sheikh Jamal. Abdul-Nur betrays Sheikh Jamal by taking to extremist ideologies against Sheikh Jamal’s Salafism. After Mallam Abdul-Nur’s sojourn to Saudi Arabia, he returns to plot the murder of his benefactor, Sheikh Jamal, and engineers a Jihadist movement that ushers in terrorism. Here, too, Abdul-Nur is considered a ‘bloody convert’ not fit to be a true Muslim, hence his betrayal of Islam by taking to extremism. It is the totality of the above that makes the ‘Yoruba man’ a betrayer and a hypocrite, according to the narration.
Dantala’s Shi’ite brothers belong to the extremist ideology which he finds repulsive, but they are not described as betraying Islam because they are considered ‘Original Muslims’ meaning that they are Hausa-Fulani Muslims. A grave misrepresentation abounds in the portrayal of the Yoruba Muslim as being a hypocrite and betrayer for taking to extremism. In reality, it is the Hausa-Fulani Muslims that are the betrayers of Islam, since the Yorubas are not known for propagating violent or extreme Islamic philosophies in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world. And when they do, it is likely because they have undertaken tutelage from non-Yoruba fanatic scholars.
What is the truth in a misrepresentation of reality? One might have excused the author’s blunder as a quasi-attempt at psycho-drama, an action strategy used in counselling psychology to dramatise psychological problems in order to promote a change in behaviour. But this is jeopardising the integrity of one group in other to send home a message which is a negative thing in itself. And in counselling psychology, such a depiction might aggravate the conflict rather than prevent it because it is derogatory. Sheikh Jamal postulates thus:
Everyone told me but I thought I had him under control. A Yoruba man is a Yoruba man. No matter how Muslim they become. They stab you in the back. That is how they are. Hypocrites. (210)
Jibril, Abdul-Nur’s younger brother, is also not left out of the saga of betrayal. First he betrays Dantala, his best friend, by putting the red mark on the mosque and school that ignited the beginning of the war to come. The mark is believed to be a provocation by members of the Shi’ite and this results in a conflict that is finally settled by Sheikh Jamal, but Jibril never says anything about it to anyone, except, of course, his brother who asked him to put the mark there in the first place. This truth is uncovered only when Jibril apologises to Dantala later on in the narration. Secondly, the depiction also suggests that the Yoruba is not only a betrayer of others but of himself too; Jibril reveals to Dantala that Abdul-Nur’s wife’s pregnancy belongs to him and Dantala also sees them together when he goes looking for Jibril at his brother’s apartment in the narration.
The enigmatic comparative literature scholar, Chidi Tom Maduka, in his inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Port Harcourt, entitled “ACROSS FRONTIERS: COMPARATIVE LITERATURE AND NATIONAL INTEGRATION” paints a detailed picture of the nature of stereotypes ascribed to different Nigerian ethnicities by Nigerians themselves:
In the echo-chamber of the sensory perceptions of the Nigerian peoples, it is firmly believed that the Igbo man is greedy, aggressive, selfish, dishonest, clannish, arrogant and crudely materialistic – it is even said that he so likes money that a simple way of determining whether an Igbo corpse is really a corpse is to put money by its side; if it does not turn to pick it up, it can safely be concluded that it is in fact a corpse; the Hausa man is lazy, servile,. Beggarly, credulous, simple-minded, conservative and happy-go-lucky, although he is gradually being associated with arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy; the Fulani is haughty, overbearing, egoistic, intolerant, feudalistic and aristocratic; the Yoruba is crafty, noisy, cowardly, clannish, extravagant, untrustworthy, reliable and mendacious – it is believed that being very wily he is a knife that cuts both ways…(10)
It was this kind of sadistic representation by European writers that led to some of the world’s famous myths about Africa being a ‘forest of beasts’, ‘savages and cannibals,’ ‘a heart of darkness’ etc. One of the fundamental paradoxes of narratives or any artistic misrepresentation is that it gratifies the ego of the one doing the representation, whereas the misrepresented race or ethnicity feels mortified by such brute insensitivity. A thorough reading of the elegant Edward Said’s Orientalism provides the reader with a profound insight into the politics of representation and the appropriation of the contextualisation of truth. The metaphor of truth-telling is the self-mockery inflicted by the truth teller upon himself by limiting his knowledge of others to the particulars that satisfy his sentiments.
Chinua Achebe’s rebuttal remains one of the greatest legacies of African letters. Things Fall Apart will forever be a charming bride that emerged to answer the question of whether Africa was a continent of cultured people or simply a forest of primates.
And in conclusion, this writer would graciously refer once again to the submission by Maduka:
Literature enhances man’s awareness of the interlocking relationship between human freedom, self-determination of people and progress in society and the necessity of erecting systems that sustain the life of social institutions. Each national literature encodes values which guide the people towards the development of effective mechanisms of response to the challenges of civilization in the modern world through the acquisition of such qualities as grace, poise, finesse, patience, gentility, urbanity, tolerance, benignity, sense of fair play and justice. Our national life is in chaos because there is no poetry in the hearts of our leaders. We need a vibrant national literature that will nurture such values in the populace. (15).
The writer is definitely more than just someone who represents society in his fiction, poetry or drama; the writer appropriates and charts the direction that society should follow. In other words, the writer is like a shepherd that provides direction to his sheep. If he leads them astray, they go astray. If he leads them home, homeward they troop. This is symbolic of the grave duty of the writer to his society and to himself.
Charles E. Nnolim, “Ridentem Dicere Verum: Literature and the Common Welfare”, an inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Port Hartcourt, July 13, 1988. in Literature, Literary Criticism, and National Development, University of Port Harcourt press, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 2012.
Charles E. Nnolim, “A New Writer in a New Context: Camilus Ukah’s When the Wind Blows”, in ANA Review, Journal of the Association of Nigerian Authors, New series 1, Oct., 2012,
Graham Greene, “The Honorary Consul”, 1974, Book Club Associates, London, Great Britain.
The Holy Bible; King James Version: Mark 8:36.
Toyin Falola, “Literary Imaginations and Nation Building in Nigeria since 1914”, a keynote address presented at the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) international convention November 8, 2013, Diktaris publishing, Ibadan, Nigeria,
Elnathan John, “Born on a Tuesday” (2015), Cassava Republic Press, Abuja, Nigeria,
Chidi Tom Maduka, ACROSS FRONTIERS: COMPARATIVE LITERATURE AND NATIONAL INTEGRATION, an inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Port Harcourt on 21 April, 1994, found online via google search,
Oxford Advance Learner’s Dictionary, “Materialism”, International Student’s Edition, New 8th Edition, Oxford University Press.
Images: elnathanjohn.com remixed