Descriptions of village life and bare-bones survival in war-torn Nigeria frame this debut novel.
Ikekwe immerses the reader in the lives of families struggling for survival. In contrast to what most first-world readers take for granted, in Nigeria, the basics—education, health care, simply securing food and water—present a constant challenge. A journey to a river or a search for nuts can result in conscription into the local Biafran military. Families are torn apart by the armed conflict raging throughout the region. Young and old are forced to fight with little regard for age or station. Based on a true story, the narrative follows Ebo and his 14-year-old nephew, Emeje, as they’re kidnapped from their village and forced to fight for Biafra, a secessionist region in Nigeria. They undergo military training, struggle with limited rations and suffer the nightly torture of sleeping naked with bed bugs. The new recruits are shuffled from command to command and post to post, moving through trails and jungle with meager rations. As the war intensifies, Emeje and Ebo are drawn into armed conflict. Later separated, they lose a friend as they experience the horrors of war. Emeje’s life experiences present fascinating revelations into the customs and mores of rural Nigeria. In one chapter, skilled salesmen captivate crowds with music, dance and acrobatics, only to then fleece onlookers with cure-all medicines. In another scene, a clan ruler believes he can stop a train from running through his land by rushing headlong into its locomotive with a smoking clay pot. Despite bouts of clunky syntax, the novel admirably communicates humanity and pathos. Other challenges, though, are the Nigerian village terms, which require some research to understand. That said, the story delivers colorful characters and a memorable storyline.
A poignant journey that leads to an emotional conclusion.