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Jowhor Ile: And After Many Days
The novel starts on a Monday afternoon in the rainy season of 1995. Two brothers, Paul and Ajie Utu, are at home in Port Harcourt, while their parents are out at work. Paul says he is going to the next compound to visit his friend. He does not come back that afternoon nor that evening. Their father, Benedict, whom they always call Bendic, goes to the police station and checks with the neighbours. Both he and his wife, known simply as Ma, phone whomever they can think of. There had been student demonstrations, with a certain amount of violence but Paul had not been involved in the demonstrations at all.
The rest of the novel recounts the lives of the Utu family prior to Paul’s disappearance and the waiting, investigation, worrying and gradual reluctant acceptance that he may not be coming back. Bendic was a successful lawyer but was often opposed to the government and often had to work late. He was quite strict with the boys at times but was a loving father. Ma was a biology teacher and vice-principal. The two brothers are somewhat different with Paul having more bravado and Ajie more cautious. The two brothers do fight but generally get on. Bendic had been through a Christian phase (hence Paul’s name) but soon abandoned it to return to his roots (hence Ajie’s name).
As the family lives in an Igbo area, the Biafran War does make an appearance. Bendic was not Igbo and was arrested as a Nigerian spy and thrown into prison. Ma spends a lot of time and effort looking for him, to no avail, and, eventually, learns that he has been executed. At the end of the war, she learns that there is a prison where relatives can go and collect their loved ones. Ma goes and does not recognise him, as he has been starved and is very ill but he recognises her. He makes a full recovery.
This section indicates the background to the novel, namely the violence that has engulfed Nigeria almost since independence. As well as the Biafran War we follow events after the war. Bendic is from Ogibah, an area where oil has been found. The foreign oil companies, with the assistance of the government, brutally exploit and abuse the local population, which is virtually powerless to stop them. Bendic tries to help but there is little he can do. As our people say, when the elephants have a wrestle, it’s the grass below that feels the stampede, one man comments. The oil companies look like they are asking us, but they are not; they prefer to indulge us, at least. If any commotions come out here, then you will see who will come to battle. Everyone here knows you cannot fight government. No medicine can kill government. They will burn a holy shrine and go scot-free. Bendic eventually sues the government. The case takes two years and Bendic loses but it is the villagers who will pay the price.
The difference between the two boys, the attempt (generally successful) to bring up their sons the right way, the violence that prevails throughout the country and the system whereby the rich can trample over the poor without any problem, and, of course, Paul’s disappearance are the themes of the novel. Ajie goes off to England, sure that he has lost his brother. Ma never gives up, though she knows in her heart of hearts that he is dead. Naturally, the three of them want to know what happened and why and they want to bury him properly, if he is indeed dead. For a first novel this is an excellent story, very well written by Ile, who clearly has a future as a novelist, and one that brings to life Nigeria of the past thirty years or so. It works well as, even when Ile tells us the past of the Utu family, we are always wondering what happened to Paul and why.
First published 2016 by Random House