The Nigerian/Biafran civil war from a minority perspective: A review of Sam Omatseye’s “My Name is Okoro” -Olukorede S. Yishau
The descriptive first paragraph is inviting.
It has blood, dust, sweat and all the violent imagery they often conjure. And there is the promise of a saucy story, whose end could be complicated. There are also hints of pain and death.
Welcome to the world of My Name is Okoro, Sam Omatseye’s second published novel.
This catchy introductory paragraph lures the reader into the world of Okoro. This Okoro is not Igbo. He is Urhobo, a proper Niger Delta ‘pikin’.
The novel is the story of the Nigerian civil war. There are many civil war fictions, including Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, which has been made into a movie of the same title. But, there is something different about Omatseye’s civil war novel. Yes, like the others, it is violence-filled. What is different is what appears like a protest in the book. It is from a minority’s point of view. Instances abound in it of efforts to properly situate the feelings of the minorities of the south.
At a point in the story, Okoro asks: “Why do the newspapers keep writing about Igbo pogrom when they killed everyone who was southerner except the Yorubas?”
In chapter five, a woman from the South who has come to the North in search of her son. She is married to an Ukwani man and narrowly escapes being wasted because she has Yoruba tribal marks.
“Ukwanis are not Igbos,” she says.” The animals are killing everyone… Ukwanis can understand Igbo language but they can distinguish who is speaking Ukwani and who is speaking Igbo. The Igbos know who is speaking Ukwani as distinct from who is speaking Igbo.”
Then wait for this from Okoro: “But is it not worse when the language is not even close but seems to sound the same but is not Yoruba or Hausa? For instance, the Anang and Ibibio.”
Chief Subomi, who hides Okoro in his Kaduna house after he escaped Lieutenant Abdullahi’s bullets, adds: “They were not spared. They were lumped together with the Igbos in the slaughter.”
Then the ironic situation of these minorities is worsened at the point where Okoro returns home and Okungbowa is briefing him about the imminence of war.
“His father, you know, lived in Aba and there is this thing going on there called ‘leave town’. It began with criminals and never-do-wells out of the city. Now, they are asking those who are not Igbo enough to leave. It included those across the Niger. So, he heard that his father and his other relations from Asaba had been forced to leave town.”
To Okungbowa’s statement, Okoro raises a poser: “What did they mean by not Igbo enough? In the north, everyone, including people like me were haunted and killed for being Igbo.”
There is also the Barclays Bank lady who loses her Isoko uncle in the ‘Igbo pogrom’ in Kaduna who wonders why no one was talking about that.
My Name is Okoro shocks and excites all at once. The elegance of the language adds to its appeal. It is filled with beautiful expressions such as: “The warrior about his loins would have found rest in Nneka”; “He shot when she was not looking”; “It took about seven months into their sojourn in Umunze before Okoro unlocked his dam”; “He let himself loose in the curves and dips of Clara’s body”.
Beneath the protest in the book lies the story of passion, love and lust in a time of war. It shines light on what it means to be human in war-time Igboland rived by man’s inhumanity to man. Okoro finds Clara and with time, the warriors in his loins exhibit his prowess. Again and again, even when they try to stop, failure stars them in the face. The brute called Lieutenant Abdullahi also falls in love with Nneka and for love, he surrenders almost all.
Omatseye does not resolve everything and leaves room for the reader to reach certain conclusions. An average reader is likely to wonder how Clara, Okoro’s war-time lover, handles the truth of how her sister’s daughter Florence is killed during the war when she was making so much sex-induced noise with the potential of leading the Nigerian soldiers to their hideout. Will she tell the truth that she watched while one of the men with whom she was hiding from the Nigerian troops strangled life out of the poor girl? Or, will she just lie about it and they all live happily ever after? What will she tell them about Victory, the boy she adopted during the war and sees as consolation for the girl killed for her and others to live?
There is also the question of why Clara is vomiting and feeling nausea after leaving the war zone and returning to her hometown. Has the pregnancy she was afraid of getting for Okoro find her?
Another question that will look for an answer in a reader’s mind is what happened to Lieutenant Abdullahi. Did he kill himself after Nkechi, the girl who made him experience circumcision, committed suicide because she did not want to lose her chastity to a brute?
A reader is allowed to figure out who Captain was despite the fact that the question was not answered when Udeze, the Biafran spy, asks his sister Nneka, who was pregnant when the war started and was separated from her husband all through but returned with two biological children who are not twins. Captain must have been the strong man’s shield Nneka hid under. Who is Okoro not to understand? Not with his experience with Clara whose letter he said he would be awaiting. I wonder about the content.
The novel emphasises the futility of war. Okoro’s wife says: “That (time wasting) is the meaning of this war. People died, families destroyed and cities on their knees. We have returned to where we started without all the things we started with.” –Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In The Name of Our Father’ and ‘Vaults of Secrets’