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Elnathan John: Born on a Tuesday

The hero/narrator of our story was named Dantala (which means Born on Tuesday) but is known throughout this book as Ahmad, except by his immediate family. When young he was sent away to Koranic school. He was meant to go to the local one, like his older brothers, but the school was full so he was sent to one in Bayan Layi. He was there six years but seems to have had little or no contact with his family during that time. He seems to think he and the others boys were treated fairly badly, regularly beaten and made to do unpaid labour. On finishing, he joins a local gang of boys, led by Banda, whom he very much reveres. At the start of the novel, it is election season with the Big Party versus the Small Party. Bayan Layi heavily favours the Small Party but the country as a whole supports the Big Party.

A considerable part of this novel is how Nigeria is in a mess and we see this almost at once as it is clear that elections are bought and sold and that violence, threats and bribery are key parts of the election process. Banda is given a considerable sum of money. With this money the boys in the gang put up elections posters for the Small Party and tear down the ones for the Big Party. But they go further, intimidating Big Party voters and officials, destroying cars and damaging buildings. Things will be better if the Small Party wins Ahmad says but they won’t win.

Meanwhile, he learns that his father had died. He does not know how and does not really care, not least because his father never asked after him and, apparently, did not make the payment that he was meant to make for Ahmad’s schooling. He is happy to stay with Banda and the gang, smoking weed (which they call wee-wee). However, Banda seems to be getting ill and is spitting up blood. Things take a turn for the worse, when the boys attack a Big Party office. The old caretaker tries to resist and he is brutally slain, with Ahmad assisting in the slaying and justifying his behaviour by saying that the caretaker should have got out of the way and let the boys burn the building down. However, this time the police react in force and start shooting indiscriminately. Banda is shot and killed and Ahmad decides that this might be the best time to go and visit his family.

Only when setting out does he learn that Dogon Icce, his home town, has been devastated by flooding. Many houses have been destroyed. There is no food, no medical aid and no assistance from the government. When he arrives, he finds the place where his house had once been completely destroyed. He learns from a neighbour that his mother has moved to a nearby village to stay with his aunt. When he arrives, he is shocked to find his mother is in such a state that she does not recognise him. He learns that his twin sisters had been killed in the flood and that his mother had not recovered from the shock. He also learns that his older brothers have gone off to join a Shiite sect (he and the rest of his family are Sunnis). His aunt thinks that they were brainwashed.

He heads back to Sokoto, where he goes to work for Sheikh Jamal, a kindly man who runs a mosque there. He has grown tired of hanging out with the boys in the gang and wants to be more serious and more religious. The Sheikh is assisted by Malam Abdul-Nur who is fairly kind to him but also much stricter. Abdul-Nur’s brother, Jibril, comes to join the group and Ahmad becomes close to him. It is Jibril who teaches him English – he is a quick study having been the only boy in the school who could speak both good Arabic and good Hausa. However, he also learns that Abdul-Nur is brutal with his Jibril, frequently viciously beating him. Ahmad also sees Abdul-Nur beating and hitting other boys in the mosque. At this time, he also learns that Abdul-Nur is stealing from the mosque.

Things take a turn for the worse when Abdul-Nur seems to be getting more violent. Jibril tells Ahmad that Abdul-Nur has guns stored and has talked about attacking the Shiites. When Ahmad’s mother dies and he goes to the funeral, he meets his brothers and they try to persuade him to become a Shiite. He declines. However, back in Sokoto, disputes between the Sunni and Shiites become more violent and the Sheikh is shot. He survives and tries to tone down the violence, not least, as he tells Ahmad, because he is not sure that it was the Shiites who shot him. However, Malam Abdul-Nur goes off to Saudi Arabia and comes back even more radicalised and, more particularly, opposed to the Sheikh. He leaves the Sheikh, taking many young people with him and becoming more violent.

This book, though not mentioning them by name, is clearly based on the rise of Boko Haram. Despite the brutality and violence of Malam Abdul-Nur and his group, the other side are not saints. Ahmad is responsible for more than one death and while he justifies them, they clearly are nothing to be proud of. Equally, both he and the Sheikh are party to financial misbehaviour. Both the Sheikh and Ahmad are very much in favour of making Nigeria an Islamic state, though recognise that half of Nigeria is not Muslim (in 2010, 49.3 percent of Nigeria’s population was Christian, 48.8 percent was Muslim, and 1.9 percent were followers of indigenous and other religions, or unaffiliated). The Sheikh is adamant that outright violence cannot change this though clearly Malam Abdul-Nur disagrees. Ahmad is obviously not the first narrator/hero of a novel who is far from being saint and it is certainly interesting seeing him justifying and rationalising his behaviour (generally, because it is for the greater good of Islam and Allah.) This is probably not the first novel to write about Boko Haram (albeit obliquely) (see, for example, this one) but is the first that I have read and I did find it interesting to see how the Sheikh, Ahmad and Malam Abdul-Nur justified their actions. However, John does write well so this is a good novel to read as well as having a fascinating and topical subject matter.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Cassava Republic Press