Book Review – Coming of Age in Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile (Farafina)
And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile Credit: DianaAbasi

Book Titile: And After Many Days

Author: Jowhor Ile

Publisher: FARAFINA / 2016

Jowhor Ile’s book, And After Many Nights, brings love’s fierceness and delicateness to the fore with emotion-packed punches that one is unable to ignore.

In the mould of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, this is a coming of age story told principally through the eyes of Ajie – the prepubescent, sensitive, intelligent boy whose family is hit by a sudden unprecedented tragedy when their first son goes missing.

Like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird, Benedict Utu, father to Ajie, Bibi and Paul, is a lawyer who defends the helpless – in manner of speaking. The people of Ogibah (their  hometown) are helpless before ‘Company’ the oil firm whose business brings destruction to their land. Benedict Utu, fondly called Bendic by all his children, fights a selfless, relentless battle on his people’s behalf, but he also plays lawyer when settling disputes among his children – this is in itself a delight to read.

In the first three paragraphs of And After Many Days we learn unceremoniously of events that led to Paul going missing:

Paul floundered by the door as though he had changed his mind; then he bent to buckle his sandals, slung on his backpack, left, and did not return.

At least this is one way to tell the story.”

Paul — whom one comes to envisage as a hoodie-wearing gangly teenager — litters the book without him really being present. We see his coming of age and we grow to love this smart and dependable teen, through his neighbourhood escapades with his baby brother Ajie, his love for the hip hop of the 90s, and his level-headedness. The 90s is the rave in the book, so when the walkman and the relationship between pens and cassettes make an appearance in And After Many Days, we are reminded inadvertently what pop culture was like in the 90s.

When Paul returns to his family on a wave of loss so poignant and powerful, one can almost smell the teargas, and see the police truck where it had all ended. His return is well anticipated from the first page, through the times he appears in fleeting wafts of Ajie’s memory and pseudo-hallucinations, till finally his return is solidified on the heels of a retired officer’s confession. It may however not be the return one had hoped for.

And After Many Days lays unmistakeable emphasis on the Niger Delta, the despoliation of the land, the loss of her ecosystem and the loss of innocence and harmony among her inhabitants who were once unified by common heritage, blood and commonwealth. Yet this emphasis does not so much choke as much as it illumines and draws empathy, even as the scenarios are painted through the brush strokes of a child’s memory.

The swamp is not there. The ponds are dried up, all the trees felled. No slowworms, no bamboo, no bracken, no blackbirds pecking on a rotting palm trunk. He walks on in what is now a rough stretch of land that he can see from here to there, and farther away new buildings being erected.

He walks through the length of it. When he returns home the sun is cooling and he can hear people talking to each other as more people return from the farm. He decides against a shower, opting for bed instead. There is a stone in his heart, and the weight of it sinks deep and makes his legs weary.

Although the story is told in third person, I found myself in Ajie’s head the most, and his quirks both amuse and shock in turn, showing us glimpses of our past selves, or others we once knew. A personal favourite is where Ajie contributed to morning devotion thus:

If Cain and Abel were the first children of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth, who then did Cain marry to father the rest of the human race? If Adam and Eve had other children later, that would mean he probably married his own sister?” Ajie had his hand on his chin, one leg drawn up on the couch. “Was that how they multiplied and replenished the earth? ” He paused for a while … “That would just be disgusting,” he concluded.

Paul hissed at him as he was saying the final word. “It’s like you are going mad, Ajie,” Bibi leaned back on her chair, unconcerned, the way you do when your advice ad recommendations have been ignored. She once suggested to Ma that Ajie needed to be given five strokes of the cane every morning when he woke up, and that would set him straight, because in her opinion, he was becoming something else these days.

We encounter Bendic’s lukewarm and sometimes taciturn relationship with religion, and his wife’s unflinching belief – she prays over his meals whether they eat together or not. Her love for him is shown as resolute, from the days of her youth which she lustily recalls with sentences beginning with “Those days in Lagos…

And After Many Days marks different eras of Nigeria’s history, through the pulse of the events that the Utu family encounter, the serenity of village life from over a decade ago, descriptions of post military era Port Harcourt, and later on as the book nears its end, one can contrast all these with what an adult Ajie – returning home from studies and a sojourn in the UK – finds in Port Harcourt and their once rustic village of Ogibah. It is heartbreaking what becomes of Ogibah, years after Bendic passes – the effects of Company’s continued plunder. In this the book is quite true to the reality of present day Nigeria.

And After Many Days is really about a family’s desperate struggles to come to terms with the disappearance of their first son. As the family suffers through the search, a reader suffers along with them, pining for his return and possibly moved to shed a tear or to whenever Ajie sees Paul in his hallucinations, or as Bibi breaks down, reluctant to return to boarding school without knowing her elder brother’s whereabouts, or as Ma begins to seek diviners and charlatan prophets in the firm belief that ‘God can use anyone’ to bring her son back to her.

Stoic as they try to be, this experience in And After Many Days does not leave the Utus the same, the book did not leave me the same either.

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