Racism, con-games and fate of the few

SUNDAY MAGAZINE |

Since The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, written from the Chi’s point of view is the closest I have come to an atypical narrator that I can relate to.

The Chi is the guardian spirit which according to Igbo cosmology, every living thing contains.

An Orchestra of Minorities tells the story of a poultry farmer from Nigeria named Chinonso. In the grand scheme of things, he is a happy man until one night, on his way back home from the market, he sees a woman about to jump off a bridge.

His first instinct is to save the woman, Ndali, by convincing her not to jump. But how does one do that to someone hell-bent on ending her life?

With shaky hands, a beating heart, and two of his prized chickens in hand, he approaches Ndali and hurls two of his prized chicken off the bridge in an attempt to show her the fragility of life. 

At the bridge, she is stopped in her tracks by her recklessness and thankful beyond words by the kindness of the stranger. She decides to marry Chinonso.

One problem though. Her wealthy father will not let her marry a non-educated, poor good-for-nothing man, because the family has a status to uphold. The father will however consider if he secures a university degree. So he sells up everything to pay upfront for university education in Cyprus.

Unknown to Chinonso, his saving act will be his undoing as it sets off a series of events that take him around the world and back; returning home penniless, homeless, and further away from an education and his dream of proving himself worthy of the woman he loves. “He wept for the dreams washed down the pit of life.”

Among the concepts the novel explores is one of scamming, one similar to 419 – an email-run scam popular in Nigeria – that is explored in-depth in I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.

When Chinonso decides to go to university – of course, one based outside Nigeria as it would take forever to graduate from a Nigerian institution, if at all – he seeks help from an ex-classmate who claims to have studied in Northern Cyprus, to whom he hands over lots of money.

We all know how it goes from there; cat and mouse games coupled with racism and shock on the discovery that you have been duped.

The choice of Cyprus as a location on which the novel is based is not by chance. The author was himself a student in northern Cyprus, from where a duping incident that happened to his friend Jay, who was later found dead inspired the novel.

The rot in the education system, both in Nigeria and abroad comes out clearly. Completing a course in a Nigerian public university within the stipulated time is difficult, given constant strikes. But that only affects the poor with no money to send their children abroad.

But even when one manages to send their children abroad, you risk losing your hard-earned or fundraised money to middlemen as Chigozie’s friend did.

“When I left Cyprus in 2012, there were about seven universities. Now there are about 15 because it is so lucrative. I hear that Cameroonians are flocking there because of the war,” said Chigozie in an interview with The Guardian.

It is indeed true that there exist “minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”

The cliffhangers in this novel keep you at the edge. While the African proverbs and the folk stories from, the fathers of the old, at the beginning of each chapter give the book some African authenticity and a much-needed break from the fast-paced narration, it gets old, fast.

After the first few Chi rants, which comprised numerous chapters of the 512-page book, I skipped the rest and it did not take from the story.

The constant reference to “I have seen it many times” by the Chi, to explain things that were not understood, or did not make sense was tedious. The author admitted that it was difficult writing from the Chi’s perspective.

“It entailed a lot of research, even down to actually going to shrines and interviewing the last adherents of Odinani, the Igbo religion, now that most Africans convert to either Christianity or Islam.”

rkwamboka@standardmedia.co.ke

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