SIMPLE READ, COMPLEX TRUTHS

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Yinka Olatunbosun

Africans must, by now, be mentally and emotionally exhausted from reading the media’s barrage of deplorable stories about irregular migrants. The imagery of floating lifeless bodies in the Mediterranean Sea always seems to drown out true accounts of bravery of migrants who are metaphorically trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The hunt for a cohesive African story about migration leads to Ouida Books’ latest offering, When the Sky Is Ready, The Stars Shall Appear.

With this book, E.C Osondu mastered the technique of developing a strong story with worldwide resonance from the carefree perspective of a young African child, and ending it almost in the same way.

Using simple language and a non-provocative narrative style, the Caine Prize-winning author carefully creates an unnamed character, Nene’s son, whose simple village life of contentment is interrupted by the visit of Bros from Italy. Bros, a self-made communal hero flaunts his newly found wealth in the small village known as Gulu Station. His arrival fuels curiosity in the “Italian dream”- to live, work and prosper in Rome. Gulu Station, in its contextual reading, may well be a metaphor for Nigeria or anywhere else that is a place of communal love lacking in basic amenities.

Far from being a propaganda literary tool, the author has made this work a book to brew conversations, raising questions about why the average Nigerian youth is willing to put his life on the line, just to be out of this country Economic hardship, war, and the pursuit of a better quality of life are some of the main factors that drive the desperate migration that had been crystallised into characterisations in this novel.

The character of Bros, in the bigger picture, tugs at the power of role models and influencers. The desire to migrate is highly influenced by what people hear or see on social media. Nigerians whose lot in life has changed for the better flaunt their wealth and other achievements accomplished within a few years of leaving the Nigerian shores while their contemporaries in their home country are at a high risk of reversal of fortunes which can be occasioned by job loss, underemployment, life-altering health challenge, crime amongst other unforeseen circumstances.

Quite oddly familiar too is the author’s character-naming. Nene as a substitute for Mother or Mama is reminiscent of Wole Soyinka’s Wild Christian character in the 1981 memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood. Although E.C Osondu’s work is situated in a contemporary African setting, it explores the use of traditional encrypted messaging which parents, particularly mothers use to create a communal system of punishment for a child who has misbehaved. “Talantolo” has its equivalent in many other African cultures. For instance, the Yorubas may use the word “Arodan” for a similar purpose. In this tech-driven period, cancel culture has taken the place of such communal punishment.

The representation of women in When the Sky is Ready is impeccable, giving the reader the impetus to empathise with Miss Koi Koi and her cautious step towards finding love again. But while showing this vulnerable side of a guarded woman, the author presents two strong women: Nene and Ayira. Even in death, Nene’s spirit and values are embodied in her son who chooses integrity over instant gratification. And Ayira is willing to risk her life for her family rather than be a victim of forced marriage.

Apart from the overarching themes of survival and migration, the linear plot story is layered like a woven mat with subject matters of communal love, family bond and resilience. With When the Sky is Ready, the master storyteller has given the world a piece anyone can devour at a layover and the complex truths that had resided with generations across borders.

E.C. Osondu is the author of a collection of short stories titled Voice of America and a novel This House is Not for Sale. He is a professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, USA.