A Case for Empathy : A review of Odafe Atogun’s “Wake Me When I’m Gone” – Amatesiro Dore

For Chukwuemeka Akachi

A death to end all deaths

In a village of 400 people, 1,000 cattle and one white horse, Ese refuses an advantageous marriage, is estranged from family and soon loses the love of her life in mysterious circumstances. Her predicaments, the traditions of her people and the archaic laws of her homeland are recipes for self-harm, triggers for depression and reasons to believe it will never get better.

Unlike Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Odafe Atogun’s Wake Me When I’m Gone is a hopeful novel, faith-filled testament of second chances and a call to arms against oppression, discrimination and stigmatization in a world where orphans are othered, abused and deprived of human dignity.

A childlike narrator weaves a story of pain, perseverance and eventual victory against draconian systems and discriminatory laws in an afro-village style reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Exotic like Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and speculative like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, this eccentric tale is written in plain Nigerian English devoid of acrobatic sentences and western literary techniques. It appears better written than Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard yet evokes the same literary pathos because it is deliberately underwritten to reflect the naïve, nubile and afro-traditional imaginations of the narrator. Ese questions draconian laws, interrogates the communal causes of her private grief and ensures that her sufferings and those of others do not outlive her lifetime.

Clarissa Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself: a Big Man’s wife will exercise her agency and perform a task meant for servants because she can. Ese is akin to Mrs Dalloway: well-off, besotted and influential. Unlike Mrs Dalloway, she refuses the institution of marriage as the only avenue for social good and rehabilitation. She refuses to perform goodness based on pre-established social norms and expectations. She insists on the other side of the story, another book within this novel and by faith transforms her society like Mandela after many years of struggle and communal activism.

Most importantly, Ese shows us how to run and fight another day. This book insists that self-preservation is also an act of courage. It shows us that waiting, at the right time, is also a form of activism. It proves that the universe will always aid the brave, make way for the broken-hearted and ensure that our stories can end well, if we insist on a happy ending. “The secret of happiness is that we must be happy at all times even when the whole world is sad,” the book says.

Nevertheless, as Kewe said: “we will no longer watch poor children die while the aged continue to walk about with sticks, bent over with bitterness.” Even if our laws are made by priests, “it is up to the people to accept or reject them”. We must break every draconian law and the gods that enable them. This is the realm of men; our gods do not live here. And sometimes, our laws can be unjust, inhumane and devoid of empathy. Most times, our parents can be wrong and our gods may be crazy. It is the responsibility of human soul defenders to say no, never again, and insist like Christopher Okigbo: they shall not pass!

By faith, we draw a line on the sands of time. Like Esther in the Bible: if we perish, we perish. We fight and refuse to die without an honourable ending. Why pile our bodies as bonfire when we can just journey to the truth, one step after the other. Bad as e bad, we got rid of Abacha. This too shall pass. We found a way; we fought and created a path to democracy. Against all odds, Ese tried and tried again like Mandela until she got rid of oppressive laws, relationships, systems and everything that stops her from being happy when the rest of the world is sad. She inflicts the world with joy. Not sadness.

Imagine a world where it is unlawful to love an orphan. Where everyone knows it’s bad not to love them but tradition has endorsed hate as culture against minorities. Our society, Atogun seems to opine, has made many of us orphans. Without professional and emotional forerunners, every orphan is a pioneer with a distinct grief and personality. Yet all orphans are not the same; an oppressive system is the only thing that stays the same.

Atogun insists that we must that it must not pass our era. The shame ends with us, the stigmatization must become a testimony and we all must insist like Atogun: this story must end well; there is always another side of the coin. And when we turn it around, we all shall understand that not one man owns the coin. You must acknowledge my back for me to preserve your front. Or else, we die here…we shall pile up bodies as witnesses against you and insist with our blood and sweat: this story must end well.

At first you may feel this is not Ese’s story to tell; definitely not from a first person perspective. However, every grief is our story to tell. You wear the shoes of a victim and run with it, that’s the meaning of empathy.

Atogun makes us see that we are a nation of storytellers. We do not dance around for the sake of beautiful sentences. We have morals and we seek wisdom. Hence we must always interrogate our morality with fresh wisdom. We should ask questions: why is it immoral to love orphans and fight for their rights?

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