EE Sule’s Novel Makwala: A Labourious Journey Through A Weeping Town – Jerry Chiemeke

Publisher: Origami Books (an imprint of Parresia Publishers)

Year of Publication: 2018

ISBN: 978-978-964-298-4

“Small, in-front-of-house bars were coming to life. Cheap China-made stereos were now booming with songs. Workers were returning from work, most of them in factory clothes, some still wearing hand gloves and galoshes. Skimpily-dressed ladies, with heavy makeup, smelling of cheap perfume, sat around the bars, smoking, cracking jokes, laughing. At a wobbly low table sat a small, old woman and her companions. Her eyes were small, beady and rheumy, having been drinking ogogoro for quite a while…”

Characterisation in prose fiction is not always as simple as some would think. Characters need to have their key attributes, their respective back stories, their motives and (where their lives intersect) their points of conflict…but what happens when the place of narrative action becomes a character in itself? How do the streets, hills, buildings and swamps get described in a manner that sufficient life is breathed into them? How does the ground get integrated into the story to the point of active participation?

Sule Emmanuel Egya (pen name EE Sule) takes a break from his day job as a professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies at Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida University, Lapai to attempt a response to these posers with his second novel. He is not new to creative writing either, having authored the novel “Sterile Sky”, the short story collection “Dream and Shame”, and the poetry collection “Knifing Tongues.”

“Makwala”, a novel set in suburban Kano and covering a time span that runs from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, tells the story of two adolescents, Ende and Jackson, who share a tumultuous but strong friendship and have their childhood bedeviled by similar circumstances: Ende has had to grow up knowing only his father who is keen on concealing the identity of his mother for as long as possible, while Jackson never knew his father and is perennially irked that his mother makes a living from prostitution. Jackson attracts undue attention due to the colour of his skin – he is biracial and not-so-fondly called “Lebanese pikin” – and he enjoys the romantic interest of Kemi, a girl whose mother is well-known in Makwala and has borne several children with different men.

Ende’s father, Odula, tries hard to keep his past as a policeman and family man a secret, while he lives with the burden occasioned by the circumstances surrounding Ende’s birth. Jackson intensifies his dislike for his mother, Martha, and is further incensed by the blooming intimacy between her and Odula, but one night, he gets into an encounter that changes his life forever.

“He felt several hands working on his body at the same time. Jeans violently unzipped. Short-sleeved shirt fiercely wrenched off. His singlet. His shorts. His underwear. Almost immediately it began to rain. He was pushed roughly and turned on his belly, legs, pushed apart. He felt two palms gripping his buttocks, opening them. Something sticky was roughly rubbed in and then the hardness of a penis stabbed right at his anus, so harsh, so rough…”

The novel’s 328 pages provide an insight into the less-discussed conditions of existence in Northern Nigeria, with as much detail as the intricacy it deserves, and with a flavour that is significantly different from what obtains in the national dailies. Here, Sule takes it upon himself to elaborate on multi-religious relations, the irony of Sharia legislation in the face of lecherous politicians, public sentiment towards constituted authority, colourism and the sad reality of expatriates subjecting natives to sub-human conditions in terms of paid employment.

The author also, in haunting prose, delves into a number of touchy subjects, including the existence of sexual minorities (with specific reference to the dan daudu), paedophilia; mental health, sexual abuse as well as the accompanying psychological trauma; human trafficking and inter-communal tensions.

In all this, Makwala town, the centre of events, acquires enough living form to be regarded as a character in the story. The interaction between individuals and the ripple effect caused by their respective actions add up to form emotions felt by a town that exists as a “breathing” entity in itself. Makwala laughs, weeps, dreams and also becomes capable of feeling frustrated when its existence is threatened. It moves languidly, not in the glamorous manner Lagos struts in Toni Kan’s “The Carnivorous City”.

“Human figures, some alone, some coupled, swayed around the pit. Some of them held joints to their mouths, red fire glowing as they smoked. Some clutched bottles of alcohol. They were either naked or half-naked, touching or holding each other, visibly settled into various moods of sex. They spoke in low voices, loud songs from beer parlours muffling their voices. Around the pit, men and women from both sides found an incredible atmosphere of desire and pleasures. The rich of the Layout and the poor of the slum traded flesh in the great anonymity, abandonment and recklessness the pit offered…”

Sule, in scribbling this narrative, is guilty of erring on the side of the superfluous. There are needless adjectives, unnecessary verbs, many paragraphs that have no business floating around. The switch from third-person to first-person narration is distracting, to the point of grating more than a few nerves, and an impatient reader could face the temptation of flinging the book against the wall. Sure enough, some flashback is necessary, and at certain points, it becomes important to view things from a character’s perspective, but the transition could have been a lot smoother.

For all its hiccups, “Makwala” remains a relevant, even if a labourious, work of fiction. It struggles for pace, but flowing with the melancholy of Edify Yakusak’s “After They Left” and the vulnerability of Richard Ali’s “City Of Memories”, it manages to take shape into a story whose compellability is debatable, but which needs to be told nonetheless.

Jerry Chiemeke is a widely published culture critic, editor and lawyer. A lover of indie rock music, Jerry lives a secluded life in Lagos. 

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