AiW Guest: Kufre Usanga
This week, we will feature reviews of the five stories shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize winner will be announced on Monday 3 July. Today’s review is of Nigerian author Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’.
You can read yesterday’s review of Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ here.
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ is a beautifully gratifying story from a skillful storyteller who not only has a captivating imagination but is conversant and adept with the demands of the genre. With vivid picturesque sentences and a tightly woven structure, every word is tailored for the primary purpose of showing not telling. Set in a surreal Lagos – where women must first fabricate a child out of earthly materials and care for the fabricated child for one year before it comes to life – the author uses its linear plot to criticize the baby-craze prevalent in contemporary Nigerian society. Arimah’s craft is well honed, and she presents a compelling alternate creation story. However, the degree to which the women are obsessed with babies borders on overkill at times.
In this alternate society, these hand-crafted babies need a special ingredient – the words of elderly women – to breathe life into them. This pivotal agency and potency given to women embellishes the story as each chant imbues the fabricated child with the needed stamina and constitution to metamorphose into a living baby. Interestingly, the call and response chants show that childbearing and rearing is a communal affair involving women only.
“Where are you going? I am going home.
Who will greet you at home? My mother will greet me.
What will your mother do? My mother will bless me and my child.”
The protagonist, Ogechi, manufactures her child out of the mundane materials available to her like candy, yarn and even abandoned hair from the salon where she works. Mama, the elderly woman who owns the salon, chants life into the handmade baby for a price. Mama overwhelms and exploits Ogechi and other girls with an unfair trade advantage; for there is no scale to measure joy, empathy, and other essences taken from the poor by the powerful. In her desperation to outrun her past and meet up societal standard, Ogechi pays too high a price to be a mother, unsuccessfully. It is seemingly conflicting that a character who boldly slaps her mother repeatedly and abandons ship is feeble enough to be inhumanely exploited by a stranger. But Ogechi’s final resolve to destroy the child rather than ‘mute and subdue and fold away parts’ of herself for the hair baby, shows a commendable amount of growth and strength.
Although magic plays at its periphery, this story is buoyed by the horror of cannibalistic children unleashed on unsuspecting victims. This outcome, whilst not bereft of suspenseful horror, was not a surprise. For this reviewer, the shock element resides in the conscious absence of men except for the misplaced ‘yarn boy’ who unraveled. Hence the question: in this one-gender society, what prototype informed Ogechi’s choice? With so much emphasis on the practicality of a sturdy baby, the absence of male babies but for the mention of a failed attempt is befuddling. Could this singular mention therefore be a mistake or an afterthought?
Arimah’s fantasy Lagos reads as a microcosm of a Nigerian society where the search for wholeness and approval by women primarily through childbirth holds sway – a vision of society that is vehemently rejected by the author. Ogechi is a woman driven insane by this society. Nothing else is proffered as cause of her obsessive mental state, but the author’s portrayal of every woman as a zombie baby fanatic feels hyperbolic by the end. Nevertheless, this enticing appetizer demands a savoury main course.
Kufre Usanga is a researcher with the University of Lagos. Her research focus is on Postcolonial Ecocritism with emphasis on African Narratives.