With a gift of four attractive books written by Chuma Nwokolo, I was caught in the pleasant dilemma of which one to devour first. The final testament of a minor god looked natural with the picture of a tree and a promise of 100 poems telling how small gods die. The cover page of How to spell Naija with its two volumes of 50 tales apiece was strongly testing the patriotism in me. The Ghost of Sani Abacha conjured up the memories of the late autocratic general with a promise of some sizzling political stories. Then the Diaries of a Dead African in its noble colour caught me. I must admit my affection for anything with the word ‘Africa’, more so my excitement for reflective writing which any novel in a diary structure often is. In truth, I sentimentally choose the Diaries of a Dead African. Was I disappointed? No! It was absolutely a remarkable read and I can’t wait to read the others. In Diaries of a Dead African, the author Chuma Nwokolo drives readers on a journey through the collective memories of three different characters spread across one year and five months of their lives. Calamatus and Abel two brothers and their supposed father Meme Jummai all got a chance to tell their story in an incredibly comical way. As their lives end tragically, each man hands the baton to the next surviving character to finish the story. Meme Jummai’s house is made up of a poor farmer father and a mother notorious for adultery. They all had a faithful pet whose name was Poverty and shared an ancestry they couldn’t take liberty with.
Calamatus was the extremely sincere conman whose life was a journey of revenge for everyone he thought owed him. Castrated by the sudden sneeze of the mid-wife who circumcised him, he was determined to identify this nurse from hell who sentenced him to a life of private shame. Dead at 25 in a fire like his father, his short-lived success as a 419 conman gave him the money he craved for to alter the shameful pedigree his father’s life and death had bestowed to them. More so, he lived to mock every constituted authority and tradition of the Ikerre people. His elder brother Abel an unsuccessful writer, who though plagued with poverty and hard-luck was totally disenchanted from wealth even when it fell on his lap as an inheritance from his late brother’s fraudulent deals.
Within the context of fiction and development, the character of their father Meme Jummai struck me most. I met Meme as he was almost dying of hunger. His barn had two poles strung with yams a week before, but they all disappeared when his wife Stella left him for a Vulcaniser, taking with her ten yams for every son she gave him, even the dead ones. Its two weeks before the village harvest season, Meme is left with a pregnant goat and two tuber of eight inches piece of yam. His farm implements, a gun, an inherited TV with broken dial and his diary were his only asset. These he guarded like his own life, but for his diary, all others were later lost.
Adopting the poverty scorecard often used to determine impoverished targets for development intervention, Meme Jummai’s will be classed as poverty personified. Even the poor called him poor. The author aptly uses imageries and synonyms to project his poverty in a moving way. Meme Jummai slept on a clay bed, no more owned a radio or a fan; he nursed his crop waiting diligently as no man could eat of his crop before the collective village sacrifice was made on harvest day. Yet this harvest was eaten up by termites and beetles. He moaned;
Hunger is a terrible thing…
Hunger is a demon…
In hunger, larceny was justifiable…
Even when shame struggles with hungers, hunger consumes my shame…
I am looking face –to-face at starvation and I have to confess, he’s an ugly beast.
Hunger hung in the air. Food scarcity altered the meal-time hospitality traditions of the village. Days were when the only thing that moved in Meme’s mouth was his tongue. Suspense arouses each time Meme was close to getting food, yet most times he never did. Hunger sent Abel to jail, hunger provoked Meme Jummai’s tragic death. His diaries of these experiences had some thought provoking questions on the relationship between hunger and morality.
‘In all my adult life, I have never stolen another man’s thing. Could hunger change me, or was I a thief all along without knowing it’? Meme asked.
This novel captures the reality of the poor rural farmers as they negotiate between nature, society, the law and their human need to sustain well-being. It highlights with great details the reality of individuals within farming household relying on rain-fed agriculture in the tropical African country. My teacher Robert Chambers researched extensively on the Concept of Seasonality. In this, he propounds the seasonal dimensions to rural poverty, appreciating the seasons when subsistent farmers suffer food insecurity; that season when farmers have to tend their crops with empty stomach scrapping the earth for household survival. These are seasons when everything is stingy; even the rain and the soil. The wealth of social capital which often makes up for lack of social security in Africa does not save one in this season. Mark Hudson in his book our grandmother’s drum reviewed here, was intrigued by the fact that there was indeed hunger and a season of hunger in a landscape of richness in Dulaba, Gambia. According to him, ‘the most disquieting thing about this hunger was that its effects were not easy to see’. ‘Was hunger depressing?’ he asked the women. Perhaps the characters in the Diaries of A Dead African has given detailed answers to Mark Hudson’s question; yes hunger is depressing.
Broadly speaking, there are many ways of learning about social development issues and in this case, household food security for rural farmers. One of them may be from reading research papers which reflect statistics and superficial information from diverse sources. The other one is in reading individual experiences devoid of statistic but vividly bringing us into a close intimacy with the situation and the experience as they are felt by people. The character of Meme Jummai has done just the latter, making a case for the 12.5% or 1 in 8 people of our global population who are chronically under-nourished. While he helps us understand hunger, his reality gives credence to the Rome declaration and World Food Summit Plan of Action focused on halving the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015. Likewise, The Millennium Development Goals included a commitment to a further 50% reduction in the proportion of the world’s population who suffer from extreme hunger by 2015.
In Diaries of A Dead African, Chuma Nwokolo explores in very detailed way how hunger and poverty can rape the mind. He did this with such wit adopting an English language that uses a walking stick, giving amazing humour that will make a reader laugh at life’s tragedy right from the first page. I could have titled this novel ‘a laugh at hunger’ but in reality, it is hard to laugh at a hungry man. This author did an excellent job; I couldn’t help laughing at Meme Jummai and I couldn’t stop crying with him either.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye.