‘For the boys who will never be known
And the girls who become numbers –
Stars without a name’
There are many people who think that Northern Nigeria has only the adherents of one religion, only the people of one tribe and that the experiences of one person is the experience of all in the region. Many times, the people of Northern Nigeria are thought of as just faces or, worse, numbers. Perhaps this is what informs Elnathan John’s book dedication in Born on a Tuesday, which is quoted above.
Born on a Tuesday is a book about contemporary Northern Nigeria as seen through the eyes of a young man who learns violence and disappointment, unlearns them and then has to live through same. The novel speaks of the Northern region’s beauty, its ugliness, its heart and its soul, but more than anything else, it speaks of violence and carnage. The pages of Born on a Tuesday give news of the region from an angle more personal than one sees in the papers.
Born on a Tuesday is similar to E E Sule’s short story collection, Impotent Heavens, with its evocation of crises and violence. Its Northern feel also evokes memories of Cyprian Ekwensi’s classic, Burning Grass. However, in style and orientation, particularly in the focus on Islam, violence and in the use of an English dictionary and a notebook by the protagonist, it is closer to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged.
Told in the first person, from the point of view of Dantala, aka Ahmad (perhaps a nod to Kourouma), we experience floods, cholera, religious and political violence, the insecurity and terror in some parts of the North, amongst other things. We are introduced to various characters, their worldviews and their interactions with the narrator, which help to make the world of the novel more diverse.
The plot line of the novel spans 2003–2010, and the book is broken into five parts, which are subdivided into unnumbered but titled chapters. Most of the stories in the latter parts, while continuing the tale of Dantala’s coming of age, seem to be only loosely connected to the first of the five parts. The book divides fully into two parts, ‘Bayan Layi’ and the rest. The author noticeably makes a great effort to tie the two parts of the book together by making references, in the latter parts, to what is related in the first.
In essence, it seems everything that happens in the book is predicated on that first part, ‘Bayan Layi’. Dantala mentions Bayan Layi more than any other place or thing and his deepest thoughts come from there. It is in that first part, set in 2003, that we meet our young narrator, who is an apprentice to a Sunni Islamic cleric.
The cleric’s apprentice soon loses his way and joins a group of ‘bad’ boys to whom violence comes easily. We are told that these boys ‘who sleep under the kuka tree in Bayan Layi like to boast about the people they have killed’ (p 1). They are street urchins who smoke wee-wee, run around and are the tools politicians use to wreak havoc.
After a particular election, the boys are involved in a bout of violence that turns really bloody. Dantala’s pals and his best friend are killed, and he has to flee. He finds himself in a different state, Sokoto, and that is where the rest of the book begins.
In Sokoto, Dantala gets to a mosque, where he rests. He later becomes an apprentice to the imam, Sheikh, and his assistant, Mallam Abdul-Nur. Sheikh is a man of peace who advocates for everyone to work together in harmony. Mallam Abdul-Nur is a man who calls for militant Islam to be entrenched in the society and every unbeliever crushed.
Along the line, tragedy keeps befalling Dantala and he finds himself learning that there is more to life than kindness or evil, purity or defilement. He finds out also that kinship is more about relationships than blood. Dantala’s brothers, who are Shia, are distant and he feels closer to Jubril, Abdul-Nur’s brother, and Sheikh than to anyone else.
Elnathan John’s spitting satire shouts on most pages of the book and is particularly evident in the passages that relate to the security forces, the military and the police. Also, one learns much about the differences within Islam, about Sunni and Shiite, about the advocates of violence and the advocates of peace, about the contradictions that even the strictest religious leaders have to face in order to allow development and progress come forth.
While one can say that on some levels the book has that undertone of sociology, which many books in the African literary canon possess, one cannot say that Born on a Tuesday is not an entertaining read. The reader might get bored at some points, where there are tedious explanations, but one finds that the excitement of adventure, trials of loyalty, romance and even sex (from an innocent’s point of view) keep one going.
Snapshots of sex are found at different points of the book, and one of those deals with homosexuality, which is not a popular topic of comfortable discussion in many parts of Nigerian society. Dantala catches two men having sex and is tormented by the image as he finds himself thinking amorously about men.
There are instances of masturbation, prostitution, adultery, unrequited love and even of learning to woo a lady, presented in contrast to just getting a wife through an arranged marriage, which is more popular in parts of the North.
Sheikh has to coach Dantala at different points on how to get a wife. Jubril is also concerned about Dantala and forces him to try some sexual adventures. For his own part, Dantala decides to be a man and so makes a proposal to the girl he likes directly, through a phone call. She chides him and an interesting dialogue ensues:
‘So if you like me, is that not what you should have said first? How do you tell a person you want to marry them first, and then after, that you like them? Me, I do not understand this. A man woos a woman. It is not like I do not have options. How do I know that you are serious?’
‘Forgive me Aisha that I have gotten the other things wrong but I thought to go straight to the point since you hardly ever take my calls. And if you let me, I will woo you.’
She is silent for a while. ‘My mother needs me, I have to go,’ she says.
‘So, will you pick up the next time I call?’
‘I don’t know. Won’t you have to try to find out?’
‘This is true,’ I say. (p 214)
Elnathan John shows that the people of Northern Nigeria, including the Muslims, are humans who love as well as hate, people who want peace and people who fight, people who have blood running through their veins, consumed with lust, wants and needs. In essence, he tries to paint varying pictures of humanity in all forms, to show that there is more than one view of Islam and the people of the North.
The novelist introduces certain elements that even a casual observer of recent Nigerian history will find familiar. Easy examples include the political riots in the North, the cholera outbreak and the spread of fundamentalism, reminiscent of Boko Haram. In the novel, the Governor of Sokoto dies along with a former Inspector General of Police, similar to the death of Governor Patrick Yakowa who died along with a former Chief of Army Staff, Andrew Azazi.
Dantala learns English from Jubril, and begins to keep a journal in which he writes down words that fascinate him. He also uses the words to tell stories that expand the novel’s narrative. Most of the journal entries are deep and sincere, sometimes funny and at other points serious. One thing about them is that the reader gets to feel Dantala more in those entries than in the narrative foreground of the story. In one instance, when he is talking about the word ‘why’, he brings in an example using his crush, Aisha:
Sometimes a man somebody is asking me why I am doing something or why I say something and I don’t like it… Sometimes there is no why. Like if somebody ask me why Aisha is making my chest do somehow do I know? I just know that when I see her then I will feel something in my chest. (p 151)
There are cancellations, like that of ‘a man’ above, which is the author’s way of making the journal seem more realistic.
Significantly, in a bid to properly localise Dantala’s tale, which is narrated in Hausa but recounted in English, as we discover later, Elnathan John spices the work with a lot of Hausa words. Arabic words and Islamic prayers also find their way into the novel. The author’s use of certain Hausa words and phrases, like kosai, koko, Dan Daudu, Tozali, and Dambe, without giving an explanation to them might leave certain readers puzzled. For koko and kosai (pap and bean cake), the reader knows it is food but which food? There are a few cases where one gets an idea of the meaning in context, like Dambe which one gets to think of as wrestling.
Some readers might have issues with the graphic violence that is splashed across the pages of the book. Also, one will feel as if certain chapters in their episodic rendition are not particularly relevant. Furthermore, the discontinuity between the first part, ‘Bayan Layi’, and the rest of the book is noticeable in the tone of the narrative voice, which may cause some readers to question the construction of the novel.
Certain readers might question the right of an ‘outsider’ to write such a book. To such readers, it does not really matter that Elnathan John is from Northern Nigeria, the practice of Islam being their criterion of exclusion.
Born on a Tuesday is a book worth reading, and will give useful insights into a people, their cultures and an idea of why certain things are the way they are in a part of Nigeria today. It will help a great deal though to remember that the work is fiction. No matter how closely related to events in history, it is simply a play of the author’s imagination, which should not be taken for the whole truth about the North.