In The Bride Price, Buchi Emecheta is a capable surgeon; slicing right to the heart of what it meant to be a girl in Nigeria in the 1950s. With an uncompromising deftness and an artless charm, she explores the minutiae of life in South-Eastern colonial Nigeria; holding up to the light the many microaggressions that add to the framework of patriarchal oppression institutionalised as culture and tradition. Aku-nna is the conduit, and her life, as well as those of other female characters, explore the enslavement of women by traditional practices such as the payment of bride price, widowhood rites, courting games, marriage by abduction and the Osu Caste system.
It was with a giddiness that I settled into reading Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi, returning to Leopard Knocks to see how Sunny is faring a year-and-a-half into discovery of her Leopard identity and defeating Black Hat Okoto. There is no ease into this story: The reader is thrust back into the Leopard world as Sunny, at midnight, goes searching for tainted peppers to make the special Leopard Knocks pepper soup. She finds a great deal more than peppers; barely escaping with her life, after being attacked by a mystery lake creature.
The mystical takes centre stage in this book as Sunny is haunted both by the fearsome attack that opens the novel but also by vivid inexplicable dreams she fails to share with her fellow Oha Covena or mentor, Sugar Cream. The opening incident and the dreams are central to the journey Sunny will take in this novel as they point the way both to her nemesis, Ekwensu, and her destiny in Osisi.
The journey to Osisi — a place beyond succinct description — leads Sunny to further encounters with the weird and wonderful of her mystical world; the good and the downright terrifying. Okorafor also takes time out in this narrative to distinguish between the cruelty of human ideas of magic and the complex reality of mystical realms. This is done by exploring the bastardisation of confraternities in Nigerian Universitiesb by people who believe magic can only be tapped into through cruelty.
Nightmare Or Reality?
From the outset, Sunny is thrust into dangerous experiences. Okorafor is ruthless in her choices of the incidents the still-young Sunny faces in Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries, especially as many of these mystic creatures she comes up against are older and experienced. This tends to leave both Sunny and the reader fretting over her survival.
The description in this novel is captivating to the point that scenes described are capable of encroachment and becoming one's dreams/nightmares. Whilst initially sure that this was a book I would gobble up in one sitting, I was forced to spread it over two days; needing breaks to catch my breath and escape the terrifying encounters its characters kept coming up against. The world Okorafor creates for Sunny and co. is obsessive, enthralling and fearsome - so much so that I am baffled that this is a Young Adult (YA) novel.
To have Okorafor’s work exist today for the younger generation, especially African, is a call for celebration. Her perspective on the mystical is very separate from the Nollywood theatrics around representation of Native Doctors and the fear and cruelty with which certain communities treat children deemed supernatural. Okorafor writes about a world in which magic and mysticism are not sinful but cultural. Leopard Knocks is also a place where tribal conflict — a major Nigerian issue — is not much of a problem. Leopard individuals all speak a range of traditional languages as it better enables communication and learning.
Sunny’s uniqueness, her albino skin aside, is the fact that she alone in her immediate family is a Leopard person. Unlike Orlu, Sasha and Chichi, she has no one at home with whom to speak about the weird and wonderful journey she is on. Her only saving grace is her deceased maternal grandmother, who also was a Leopard person. This means that her parents are aware of her Otherness but also know that it is a discussion they can never have, further adding to Sunny’s sense of isolation in the real world.
Her older brothers, Chukwu and Ugonna, are too wrapped up in the business of being young men to notice their pubescent sister, that is until Chukwu goes to University and falls into the hands of cultists. Okorafor uses Chukwu’s university experience to highlight an important difference between the way Nigerian society thinks the magical works — cult abuse of power — against the ways the Oha Coven experiences the mystical.
Cults — as they stand today — are much different from their initial purpose. Their most famous originator Wole Soyinka in 1952, along with 6 other men, formed the Pyrate Confraternity while at the University of Ibadan. This group was to fight the power the elite had over the direction their Higher Education institution was going. Today, however, killings, abduction and lecturer intimidation are reportedly the legacy of University confraternities. They are also present in all Universitiesc in Nigeria.
Chukwu finds himself scouted by the Great Red Sharks, — a cult comprised of students and lecturers — where he is forced to begin an inhumane indoctrination process. The first, a thorough beating by all cult members — which one only passes if they live — is only an example of the depths of depravity Chukwu is being asked to descend to. To further drive the point, the land on which Chukwu receives this beating and is expected to endure further debasement holds the corpses of former unlucky initiates. His surviving the beating is due to the help of a friend, Adebayo, a recent successful initiate to the fraternity.
The cult leader, Capo, described by Sunny as “a lamb version of Black Hat;” the Leopard villain she defeats in the first book of the series — leads the Sharks in their meetings which consists of heavy drinking and calling on the devil in Yoruba. Sunny, along with Chichi, accosts them from the shadows as revenge for their cruelty to Chukwu. They introduce the cultists to real mysticism that leaves them all shaken. Where Capo and crew have used physical cruelty to re-inforce ideas of their magical abilities, Sunny and Chichi are able to terrorize from a safe distance without causing lasting damage.
This addition to the novel is important, not only as a discussion about a huge problem on University campuses in Nigeria, but also a chance to explore the place of human cruelty in our understanding of other supernatural ideas. Leopard Knocks and all its characters are multi-dimensional in their representation of the mystical, which is in direct opposition to the one-dimensionality of cult mysticism.
Creepie Crawlie City
Undeniably present in Okorafor’s series are a myriad of imagined insects: so well detailed, sometimes loveable, and other times terrifying. The insects contribute to the mysticism of the novel while also giving, in a way only Okorafor can, a credibility to the world she creates. In this installment of the series, there is careful determination that the reader meets and engages with these creatures both great and small. Anyone who follows this YA author on Twitter will be familiar with her proclivity to post unique insects that do exist in the real world, and as such, will not be shocked by their prominence in her writing.
These creatures are additionally fascinating owing to their functionality, history and presence. Nothing in Okorafor’s world exists without purpose or deep roots in Leopard history. A reader will come across the wise Ogwu and her many legged children, the terrifying, crafty Udide, and the mischievous Grashcoatah, amongst a bevy of interesting creatures as the Oha Coven journey to find Osisi. Sceptical about the possibility of being enchanted by creepy crawlies? Be rest-assured that the personalities Okorafor endows these creatures with will have a lasting effect on your feelings towards them.
Book Three? Yes Please!
Rather than say that the writing of Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi is consistent with its prequel, What Sunny Saw In The Flames, I will say that Okorafor has grown as a writer. The places, people, insects, battles, history and culture were better fleshed out. Though the focus is more on Sunny and Leopard Knocks, Okorafor delves into issues in the real world, bringing up such an important and often ignored conversation on confraternaties. The reader feels more grounded in the mystical world and, like Sunny, is no longer a newbie to Leopard Knocks.
Okorafor is brilliant because she leaves spaces in this book from which the narrative can, and will, be continued. On finishing this novel, I engaged in a twitter conversation with author where she confirmed that though not yet written, a third installation is in the plans. Patience is a virtue I have long sought to acquire. Now is a good time to start practicing. Whenever she chooses to deliver, my very un-young adult self will be first in line to revisit Sunny’s universe.
An Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Cassava Republic, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Niki. Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries will be released March 26, 2018.
a The Oha Coven comprises of Sunny, Sasha, Orlu and Chichi - all adolescents connected to the magical world otherwise referred to as Leopard Knocks. Meet the squad in our review of the prequel here.
b An article by Wellington (2007) on the emergence of student cult groups in Nigeria and their rampant menancing/criminal activties.
c A research article by Arhedo, Aluede and Adomeh on the 'Predictive Factors in Undergraduates' Involvement in Campus Secret Cults in Public Universities in Edo State of Nigeria.'
A review of Ishmael Beah's Radiance Of Tomorrow.
In 2009, around the time that I had just read Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah’s first book - a memoir titled A Long Way Gone - I watched a film, Ezra, by Nigerian filmmaker Newton Aduakaa. Both were about child soldiers and provided my first real understanding of what war does to everyday people. Until Radiance of Tomorrow, I had not read any full-length text that delved into life after the war. In spite of being fiction and not a memoir, the novel felt like an extension of A Long Way Gone — a natural follow-up to Beah’s personal experiences that were chronicled therein.
The Sierra Leone Civil War lasted from 1991-2002; leaving tens of thousands of people, both civilian and military, dead. Like wars often do, it left infrastructure, institutions, and systems in complete collapse - although many, including the educational systemb, had already collapsed before the war due to widespread corruption and poor leadership. Though the war lasted just over a decade, the troubles faced by those who experienced them often extended long after the gunshots have died down, and into the process of attempting to rebuild their lives.
Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow opens with an old woman, Ma Kadie, returning to her village, Imperi, years after she fled from war. As she links up with Pa Moiwa and Pa Kainesi - two other old returnees - in subsequent chapters, the beauty of their memories of Imperi has the reader filled with hope, and anticipating the restoration of the village. Hope for the characters returning weary bodies to the last memory of stability and familiarity, after years of war. Hope for the restoration of this fictional place that has been thoroughly devastated by war — a war that was in no way fictional.
Personal And Collective Trauma
As the characters head back home after the Sierra Leone Civil war, each comes bearing scars - physical and/or emotional - and Imperi is filled with people marked through and through by personal and collective trauma. They return with a desire to rebuild what they can of their lives and go to work doing what they can — farming, reopening the school and selling firewood. There is urgency to rebuilding and recapturing their sense of home and community. Yet, held against their memories of old Imperi, their efforts seem paltry, and one’s heart breaks for the devastation that has left their homes burnt or riddled with bullet holes.
Sila, one of the villagers, has returned with two of his children. All three of them have been amputated at different parts of their arms, and some steps behind, the child soldier responsible for this, Ernest, has followed them to Imperi. Marked by the guilt of his act, he tries what he can to make their lives easier from behind the scenes. Other child soldiers have also returned, and they band together; living under a self-appointed leader, Colonel, who also keeps watch over Imperi.
While they attempt to restore their old ways of communality, all of them, young and old, have to learn ways of navigating their new realities. A young boy holding a machete for cutting firewood inspires terror; an old man tries to find a new way of greeting a younger man who has lost his right hand; people try to avoid awakening others’ memories of loss. Whether in little ways like that or big ones like trying to eke a living again in a poverty-filled land, their daily lives continue to be marked by loss and pain.
Aftermaths Of War
In a Ted Talk, Margaret Bourdeaux cites a landmark study on post-war public health systems, and concludes: “The most dangerous time to be a person living in a conflict-affected state is after the cessation of hostilities.” While her talk focuses on health systems, the devastation of Imperi and the things that lead to post-war deaths in the novel, include yet extend far beyond health care.
After the war comes the vultures. However, in Imperi’s case, the vultures are not birds. They are miners who have secured a long-term lease from the government and proceed to tear up the land, pollute the water, and employ hapless residents in unsafe conditionsc that kill many. Of course, along with this comes the impunity of their workers who are not from Imperi, and soon, rape, manslaughter, and other ills move into Imperi.
Sierra Leone has a rich deposit of mineral resources — from Rutile (the first being mined in Imperi) to Bauxite and Diamonds. The very things that should be a source of wealth to the people who own the land end up thwarting their efforts at rebuilding and chasing them off land that is rightfully theirs. While the capitalist gutting of Imperi is clearly immoral, the residents of Imperi are forced into grey areas of morality to survive. For instance, the school principal inflates the number of teachers and collects their salaries, yet pays for new uniforms for poor students when the government insists on it.
Two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, blackmail the principal into doing good and eventually leave their mostly unpaid teaching positions to work in the mines. As some characters die, leave Imperi or are moved off their lands, I realise that I wanted Radiance of Tomorrow to be easy, neat and restorative. What I got instead was real and raw — the fragmented process of rebuilding lives, and the fact of evil still existing.
Extending The Richness Of African Languages Into English
The language of Radiance of Tomorrow is very lyrical. While the words are in English, it is clear that they were conceived in another language first. English, in its normal use, does not have the effect that Beah’s descriptions have. The breeze, the land, trees, and lake are all alive in this book. Nature is animated in the same ways that the characters are. In the author’s note section, Beah says he drew on the oral traditions of his mother tongue, Mende.
In spite of the rich imagery conjured by Beah’s use of language, one cannot escape the subject of Radiance of Tomorrow: Trauma. Perhaps the language amplifies it, as it draws the reader into the intimate thoughts and lives of the characters, their land, and their culture. However, if one needs the comfort of knowing that they are going to be fine in spite of the horrors they continue to experience, one would not get it from Radiance of Tomorrow. In that way, the tomorrows of the characters are as uncertain as real life often is, but the journey Ishmael Beah takes one on is a priceless one.
a An emotive Ted Talk by Newton Aduaka in which he shares a clip from his film, Ezra, that tells of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
b As of 1980, the rate of illiteracy in Sierra Leone for people aged 15 years and over was set at 80.5 percent by UNESCO.
c Though fictional in the conext in which Beah wrote the novel, the plights experienced by the characters are fairly reflectant of those involved in the (informal) industry of Diamond mining, in Sierra Leone, till date. Read this paper by Johnson on the history of Diamonds and resource-led conflict in Sierra Leone, and on working conditions here.