Onyeka Nwelue’s ‘Strangers of Braamfontein’ will make you shiver – Olukorede S. Yishau
At the beginning of Onyeka Nwelue’s ‘The Strangers of Braamfontein’, a nameless girl, who acts as if the world was created for her, is killed in Johannesburg. The last person seen with her is Caucasian, who the author deliberately describes as Pink man. In her apartment, the murderer leaves behind blood and brain matter splattered on the wall of her small sitting room. After this murder, the story jumps into Emerald Courts, a facility famous for housing Nigerians. It is not impossible that at this stage a reader may begin to wonder if there is any relationship between the girl and the Nigerians in Emerald Courts.
It is one of the many things you are likely to wonder about this book that is seemingly Nwelue’s most entertaining so far and this will keep you turning the pages. And on the pages, you’ll meet Osas, a Nigerian from Edo State, who flees to South Africa and expects the country to favour him at all cost. He gets employed at De Bliss Grub, whose owner is a devilish capitalist who is happy not paying his employees.
Through Osas, we are introduced to Chike, an Igbo man, who will change the course of Osas’ life and also grow envious of him. Osas later meets Papi, a drug lord who values money more than human life. He helps Papi deal ruthlessly with his many enemies and he does so with a brutal touch that queries his humanity. The creed seems to be: The enemy needs to die for our life to continue.
The author writes about characters who are, raw, lusty and murderous and filled with gore. It is difficult to find a saint on the pages of this book. Even unintentional incest finds space on this beautiful piece of art. The book also sheds light on sex trafficking.
Nwelue tells us without fear or favour about post-Apartheid South Africa, where the after-effects of white supremacy are grim and terrible. His lines shock and excite in equal measure. It is really horrific and better imagined than experienced. He unveils a nation soaked in violence induced by drug wars and prostitution syndicates, aside from actual armed robbery. Nowhere is sacrosanct for rivals to hunt each other. Territories are marked. Criminals from different countries have jealously-guarded territories and one camp is not expected to cross the other to operate and when that happens, blood is bound to flow.
The author also references Xenophobia, homo-phobia, anti-Blackness and sundry themes that seem to give the impression that it is for these vices that South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation instead of the fact that it is a diverse nation where tongues and skin colours differ.
In this book, unfaithful lovers, corrupt policemen, bad citizens and minions without scruples roam like angels cast down from heaven.
Nwelue shows that South African Immigration officials are not immune to corruption. He uses Osa’s arrival at the O.R. Tambo International Airport to draw attention to this anomaly. The airport scene also paints a picture of how visitors get easily and regularly robbed.
One thing you’ll find about this book is that it gives the feeling of sitting in a cinema, with popcorn and drink to boot, watching a well-made movie. This perhaps cannot be divorced from the fact that the author is also a filmmaker. It’ll be good to see this as a Netflix series soon.
The structure of this novel also adds to its appeal, the syntax is top-notch and the suspense and flashbacks help set the book apart as a true thriller. This bloody immigrant tale is peopled by nationals of Nigeria, Togo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Congo who see in the Rainbow Nation the opportunities their home countries cannot offer. Of course, there are many immigrants in South Africa that are good ambassadors of their countries, but those are not the ones that interest this author so you’ll not find them on this page-turner. The ones here like blood, not because they are nurses and doctors who help bring babies to life or fix brokenness but because they have to spill blood to remain alive. When they discuss how to kill a fellow human being, they do it with so much ease that you wonder if blood flows in their veins. A case in point is when Chike is telling Chamai to kill a man.
‘You no dey fuck this one.’
‘You’re going to kill him,’ Chike says flatly, a cruel smile on his lips.
Not every criminal in this book set out from his or her country with the intent of becoming a bad ambassador of his or her nation, some are actually forced to commit murders. It is like a case of kill or get killed.
There is also social commentary aplenty. The author does not flatter politicians. He deals them blows that if done physically they will spend days in intensive care units. He holds them accountable for plundering their nations and forcing their citizens into other lands in search of greener pastures.
Nwelue has written a very important work, one that puts immigrant experience in South Africa in a perspective never seen before and it is also a warning to the political elite that things cannot continue the way they are. The blatant stealing of the commonwealth must stop, the book seems to scream. This is a book that will make you wonder why Africans consider themselves strangers to themselves, especially when together on the continent.
This book is unashamedly Nigerian with Pidgin English running through almost all the pages which actually adds to its originality and a true representation of the characters it is depicting. Aside from Pidgin English, there is also an abundance of street lingo.
There are so many scenes that are memorable; one of them is in chapter fourteen. In that chapter, which has so much cinematic appeal, Nwelue says so much with fewer words, but the image he paints is so vivid it can be touched. The scene where a Buccaneer man guns down Big Maskotoe, an Aiye man, is grisly. His death coming when he has just concluded talks on how to kill Osas adds to the momentousness of this scene.
On a final note, Onyeka Nwelue’s ‘The Strangers of Braamfontein’ is heavily peopled with characters as dark as the night who are cohabiting in a brutal place where death is cheap. Raw, gritty, fast-paced, this is not a book you can glance through because it will force you to keep turning the pages. It will make you shiver with trepidation. It is such a searing read. This is a book to love.
**Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In The Name of Our Father’ and ‘Vaults of Secrets’.