In recent times, African literature and story-telling, in particular, is witnessing a fruitful harvest of certain crops of voices which tell the African story in unique ways. For me, each time I decide to read any novel, I am left with one out of two options. It is either I am totally engrossed by the story and finish the novel sooner than I had expected. Or, I get very bored and find myself not getting halfway into the whole story altogether. Hence, the novel is abandoned and I quickly find solace in my music and poetry.
In my own opinion, no novel sustains a reader’s interest more than one with a well-developed plot, interesting characters, brilliant use of suspense and profound imagery. This era presents a complete shift from the mere telling of stories to showing them in many forms with well-defined plots, characters, imagery and suspense which keeps the reader glued to the pages. There is no gainsaying that several powerful stories are coming out of Africa, but apart from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun’, I am yet to read a novel from a contemporary African writer which thrums with heartrending war stories intertwined with friendship, passion, love, and romance just as Andrew Oki presents in this powerful debut. Considering the setting, development of plot and several characters in the book, one is left with no doubt that the book is well researched.
Set in Warri, Nigeria, Oki tells a daring story about an inter-ethnic clash between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri communities and skillfully narrates how the sudden chaos and bloodshed affects the lives of his characters. The author starts with a prologue written in the first-person point of view and narrates how John Doe gains consciousness in the hospital bed where he is being attended to by a sexy nurse amidst heavy rain and thunderclaps. He knows his fate is death; he would go to a place called Duwamabou and spend some time before proceeding to heaven or hell. He is wary of his grandmother who is already in Duwamabou and struggles not to go. At last, he finds his way to the land; it is death.
From the first chapter to the very last, each character is well defined and their engagement makes the reader want to know what would happen next. Andrew Oki must have practiced the art and skill of giving life to his characters as they are evident in his story. As one reads, each chapter brings new people and gradually educates the reader on the primordial cause of the war between the Ijaws and the Itsekiris in Warri at that time.
It is not new that when there’s an inter-ethnic rivalry brewing between two ethnic groups, one of the things it affects most is the marriage between people who come from each warring group. This happens in so many places where there are wars and unresolved issues even till date. This is evident in Oki’s story as two lovers, Tonye and Laju travel down to Warri to seek grandmother Oritseghene Dawson’s blessings for their marriage. Being a sophisticated woman who wields a lot of influence in Laju’s entire family and the Itsekiri community, grandmother’s consent and blessings are considered paramount if the marriage must hold. But then, she finds it rather disgusting and difficult to comprehend why her granddaughter wants to marry an Ijaw young man. She instantly refuses to give her blessings on that basis and their problems begin. In the excerpt here, Oki writes: “Laju my dear, it is just how it is. Heavens, he is an Ijaw boy for crying out loud,” grandmother’s nerves stood on edge as she spoke. Her voice was a little shaky when she resumed. “I mean who knows what they will do to you,” she added. (pg.31)
In all the subsequent chapters, Oki uses several characters to paint imageries and arouse feelings of tension, fear, friendship, love, and loyalty. Following the creation of a new local government area in Warri; the issue which would later result to discriminate bloodshed stems from where the headquarters of the local government is to be sited. The Itsekiris believe they reserve the right to have the headquarters in their town and the Ijaws also believe same. This results in a fatal war. Jonah receives information from his friend Preye about the invasion of some Ijaw militia in Warri and he decides to flee the city immediately. As this is happening, his two sons, Mogha and Seye are excited to be traveling down to Warri to meet their father after a long break oblivious of the fact that the city is on fire.
Here, Oki’s ability to weave a rich tapestry of tension and suspense is outstanding. In this excerpt, he writes: “I’m saying an Ijaw militia could very well be on their way to come and kill me if I don’t leave this town right now. And you tell me my sons are coming here. What am I going to do?” he slumped into the chair next to him clutching the phone receiver to his ears as he felt his legs weaken.” pg.39
I have a belief that when a writer is passionate about his/her writing, as one reads, there’s a tendency to move with the author’s emotion and the happenstance that affects the characters in the story. In “Bonfires of the gods”, Warri which is known for plenty of life, activities, and enjoyment is suddenly thrown into utter disarray and chaos. This affects both major and minor characters like Dr. Toritseju and Jolomi, Mogha and Seye, Jonah, Oyinmiebi and Zuokumo, Tonye and Laju, Chief Warebi, Chief Layemo Smith and several others. As one reads, one could feel the plights of these characters presented in distinctive forms. Andrew Oki’s choice of words in painting imageries and describing certain actions and reactions only leaves the reader in deep imagination and a chance of following the story passionately. Here, Oki presents a true picture of gunbattles and extreme bloodshed. In this excerpt, he writes: “The attack was merciless. Men with bazookas stood from an angle and just pressed the trigger. Whatever was in the direction of the bazooka didn’t stand a chance.” Pg. 166
As one is lost in the pages of the novel, it is rather surprising and most enticing how Oki is able to fuse a very rich romantic sensation amidst flashpoints. Following grandmother Dawson’s disapproval of Laju’s marriage to Tonye on ethnic grounds, and the war between the two rival ethnic groups, the two lovers still engage in romantic escapades until they lose contact and Laju later marries an Itsekiri. Most laudable is Andrew Oki’s ability to write sex so beautifully without indulging in vulgarism and still presents a clear picture of his intentions.
However, it is also salient to note that even with his careful use of words; the tendency to offend any reader depends on the reader’s emotional response to Oki’s powerful imagery. In this excerpt, he writes: “Both naked; both in fiery passion; Tonye gently let himself in and Laju held herself from screaming out in utter passion. He was big and strong, and hot and she wanted him deeper than ever before. She grabbed his back and pulled him even closer as he rocked her on the old creaky bed.” Pages 78-79
It is one thing to be a writer and another thing to be the readers’ writer. It is not enough to just write. To me, writing without considering the reader is rather selfish and oftentimes, a futile engagement. The readers validate the writer. When I was much younger, I grew up in an environment where the use of the library was almost compulsory for every student. Even when reading became very tiring and boring, sometimes one had no option than to open the pages and just stare at them. That way, I grew up first being a reader even before having the urge to start writing. Till today, there is a saying that black people do not read. Well, as it is, my heart goes out to those who still believe in that nasty and hasty generalization. If anyone had seen the mammoth crowd trooping into the Terra Kulture hall when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stormed Lagos to launch and read from her newest novel-Americanah, it could be easily ascertained that there are people who still read and embrace literature with open arms.
On that note, people who read very often know what tickles them most each time they set out to read any writer’s work and that often become a base or platform by which the writer’s work is appraised. For me, Andrew Oki’s profuse use of what I prefer to call ‘poetic sentences’ and certain figures of speech distinguishes his art and makes him an ardent writer whose use of words attracts a certain crop of readers. While I was reading, I came across this path and caught myself reading it over and over again. Here in this excerpt, Oki writes: “The rain poured on. Loud cracking thunderclaps chased after flashes of lightning like children playing catch-a-thief in the hot-and-cold sandbanks of the river in Patani.” Pg.14
In conclusion, Oki’s ‘Bonfires of the gods’ is not only thrilling and informative, but it is also one of the best war stories ever told in recent times as it beautifully weaves love, friendship, loyalty, and intense romance into a heartrending war story. With this debut, Andrew Eseimokumo Oki boldly pens his name in the list of burgeoning contemporary African writers.
In Oki’s debut novel, set in 1997, an ethnic conflict disrupts the lives of a disparate group of Nigerians.
The Itsekiri and Ijaw communities clash in the city of Warri, Nigeria, and Oki’s narrative follows a group of initially unconnected characters whose paths intersect and diverge as the violence intensifies. Laju and Tonye are engaged, but their love isn’t enough to overcome the objections of Laju’s grandmother, an Itsekiri chief, who doesn’t want her marrying an Ijaw man. Brothers Mogha and Seye, who live in the United Kingdom, were hoping to surprise their father with a visit, but when they arrive, they realize that he’s fled—and that his home is now the target of a local militia. Physician Toritseju and her journalist husband, Jolomi, find that their jobs make it impossible for them to avoid the conflict. Law student Oyinmiebi is drawn into the situation by his cousin Zuokumo but tries to avoid the violence near his home. Over the course of the fighting, coincidence brings characters together (Mogha and Seye end up in Toritseju’s hospital; Oyinmiebi and Jolomi end up at the same battle), and their stories offer moments of tragedy and heroism. The book’s final section takes place six years later, bringing resolution to the various character arcs, just as ethnic tensions rise again. Oki does an excellent job of bringing the reader into a piece of recent African history. Local dialect (“I sidon house dey wait for my cousin wen wan begin make-up like a girl before leaving the house”) is interspersed with standard English in a manner that will allow readers who may be unfamiliar with Nigerian Pidgin to follow along. Although occasional flashbacks sometimes complicate the timeline, they offer valuable character development and give emotional resonance to the various relationships. Oki also shows the political and interpersonal aspects of the conflict within communities, driving home the tragedy of widespread violence.
An engaging novel of personal stories within a broader conflict.
Duwamabou is a name for one’s private hell or possible purgatory. The characters portrayed in Bonfires of the Gods are each living through their own hell as tribal warfare has beset the city of Warri, Nigeria. The Ijaws and Itsekiris are battling for supremacy and unleashing bloodshed and atrocities throughout the city. The ties between those on the opposing sides are being fractured, some permanently. The fog of war is blurring the lines for those who are merely witnesses to the chaotic devastation or enactors of war crimes. The first two characters introduced are in love and set to get married, but when the woman’s family meets her fiance, they disapprove of his bloodline. Will love prevail or will blood prove an even stronger tie? Then we cut to a father who has gone from ecstatic over his two sons’ imminent visit to desperate to escape a growing violent mob. The father, unable to reach his boys, is wracked with fear of the consequences of them meeting the mob with tragic results. Can a long-time friend aid him in his flight and alert the boys?
A journalist has been a spectator in various war zones, each assignment diverse in location but similar in brutality. His wife frets over his current assignment and the dangers inherent in carrying out his job. Is anyone truly safe when bullets are ample and anger and bloodthirst are rampant? A lawyer has been out of the country when the new unrest greets him with swift ferocity. Do you take part in settling scores, taking back what was once your people’s? Do you try to stop your family from participating in the bloodletting?
A pair of brothers arrive home to their father’s house. Shock is their feeling as the place appears to have been ransacked and their father is clearly absent. They find a note warning them of peril, and soon the peril comes to their doorstep. A dear friend of the family is dispatched by the unruly mob, a fire is set, and gunshots are exchanged. Is there truly a safe haven in the human wreckage of a war-torn country?
Bonfires of the Gods is a heart-stopping and emotionally fraught tale told with newslike precision but also with empathy. No sides are taken in the author’s descriptions–each character is unique in their story, the ground zero of war being their unifying factor. The reader is treated to the view of both parties to the conflict, and the futility of bloodshed and the emotional toll wrought are illustrated in almost poetic nature. This is a book to be read with an open heart and mind, and both will come away deeply affected by the end. An excellent work by Andrew Eseimokumo Oki.