Tuesday, March 31, would have been a landmark day for the Nigerian literary scene and, of course, the Enugu-based Delta Publications (Nigeria) Limited. But, the onslaught of the Coronavirus disease – a. k. a. COVID -19 – has forced the helmsman of the book publishing company, Dilibe Onyeama, to shelve whatever grand plans he had for that day to a more auspicious time in the future.
That would have been the day Delta Publications would have presented its latest fiction title, Prince of Mali, to the Nigerian public at the NUC’s 800-seater Idris Abdulkadir Auditorium in Abuja.
For the author, Bauchi-born Mukhtar Balewa, this would have been a grand entry in the literary scene as a novelist of serious contemporary fiction. Indeed, there have already been parallels drawn between his style and plot-structure, by his publishers, to those of the British literary legend Graham Greene.
A statement from the publishers’ online editor, Manuela Charlotte, describes the successful bid to engage Mukhtar Balewa as “the kind of scoop that every publisher would dream of in this depressed economy plaguing the book industry, the only way out of which is to find an outstanding new literary luminary who has an exceptional story to tell. The developed story-line of Prince of Mali is a monument to the ancient art of story-telling, with a style and descriptive power that is as compelling as the theme of the story.”
As a scion of Nigeria’s late prime minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the author’s name would already have struck a chord with many a Nigerian reader. Expectedly, his personal life experiences as a living witness of Nigeria’s bloody coup d’état of 1966, which saw his father, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa assassinated, enriched his armoury of inspirations. Added to this were his numerous trips to the gold-mining province of Kayes in western Mali, his background in social psychology, love for his continent Africa and a deep interest in its development, which have joined forces to inspire the writing of Prince of Mali.
As for his writing talent, it was discovered and nurtured from an early age while he was at Epsom College, an elite public school in England. He had grown up in Britain’s rural Kent and Sussex for nearly a decade, attending Westbrook Hay Preparatory School in Hertfordshire for five years before his years at Epsom College in Surrey. The support by his literature master went a long way in whetting the young lad’s appetite for fiction as well as later preparation of research papers. The lattermost was punctuated when he served both the Federal Government administrations of Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan as Special Adviser on Social and Economic Development.
On the novel, whose central theme is the West African slave-trade, Mukhtar Balewa says wistfully, “I wanted to remember those heroes of Africa who, for centuries, were scarred by the experience of inhuman bondage. The story takes place during the waning years of the transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest periods in human history, between the 15th and 19th centuries, when mankind – black, white and brown, high and low, from king and queen to boat-builder, politician, soldier, knave and plantation owner, sold their conscience and dignity in a vulgar orgy of incredible cruelty, in order to acquire the huge riches it spewed up. Many became infamously rich, but the memory, the stain of the horrors of rape and pillage, has continued, in one dark form or the other, to haunt a beautiful people on both sides of the ocean, still trapped in a futile struggle to free themselves of its residual agonies.
“I also wanted to portray the impact on the peoples of Africa, those who were left behind – all of the victims of that hurricane that ripped through their lives for nearly 400 years. And even after that, there was yet more to come.”
Perhaps, as a possible defence for Prince of Mali’s exploration of what has become a well-worn theme in both European and African literature, which would appear to indict the author with lack of originality, Onyeama argues: “The story of slavery, in this case, presents the facts from the perspective of a Westerner who grew up in the traditional atmosphere of prejudice, built-in arrogance of ignorance, and self-deception. The highlight of the story involves the hero Didier, a French slavemaster, who suffers the misfortune of getting captured in one of his kidnapping forays in Africa and subsequently enslaved by the natives. Understandably, it’s a tale of pathos and bitter irony, in that the slavemaster-turned-slave is now forced to take a long, hard look at himself in bondage and confront his conscience through moralising on the sheer evil of his chosen way of life. The book has a deep message for every society.”