I have just spent 6 beautiful hours very acutely concentrating and devouring Okey Ndibe’s words in his first book titled, “Arrows of Rain”. It is no doubt that this book signifies African literature at one of its finest points. And we can all choose to argue that Ndibe’s first print work is slightly reminiscent of that of his mentor and friend, as well as ceremoniously awarded African literature genius, Chinua Achebe.
In fact, I think Arrows of Rain stands its ground as one of the finest Nigerian fiction literature of the 21st century amongst works by other contemporary authors like Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Sefi Atta, Wole Soyinka, and other new but buzz worthy authors like Teju Cole and Chigozie Obioma. Perhaps this book also stands its ground because of Ndibe’s academic and professional career in the field of English & Literature as a Post-Graduate professor in the United States since his migration from Nigeria in 1988.
Either way Ndibe deserves to be talked about now.
Arrows of Rain begins with the description of a murder scene or what is proclaimed a murder scene by busy-body (Nigerian slang for nosy) spectators on B. Beach in the city of Langa of the fictionalized country of Madia. For any truly born and raised Nigerian, it clicks right away that B. Beach most likely represents Badagry beach, often referred to as the point of no-return, a name given during the slave trade era, and the city of Langa is modern day Lagos state, while Madia is a fictionalized description of Nigeria. This murder scene soon unfolds to reveal major characters of the plot, Bukuru, a man believed publicly to be insane, Gen. Isa Palat Bello, Madia’s head of state and ruthless dictator, Femi Adero, a budding journalist of the newspaper company, The Daily Chronicle, as well as other important characters like Iyese, Tay Tay, Ashiki, Violet, and Dr. S. P. J. C. Mandi.
To be honest, I finished reading this book without much satisfaction. It’s not because my questions weren’t answered – actually this is one of only a handful of books I’ve read that has a definitive closure in the end – but because it feels like I was being cheated all over again. Deceived to think one thing when something else was been placed in front of me. I felt this exact same feeling after I had read, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.
See, all the aforementioned authors – Coelho, DFW, Green, Nelson, Ndibe – have two things in common, they all exist on my ever growing catalogue of favourite authors of all time list. In addition, I have also read one or more of their works and every time, I was left with an overwhelming sense of reading something bigger than my mind or brain could decipher. I instantly felt small and unknowledgeable. Are the authors colluding against my intellect? Are they joyously sitting in the corners of the rooms that morphed their fictionalized plot and laughing hysterically at my inability to comprehend?….Or am I just overthinking the entire plot? I think of Magritte’s famous words in these times, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”…the treachery of imagery, meaning, plot, words. Is this all surrealism or is it not? …
These are questions I can’t answer right now, but maybe I will revisit them in the future. Perhaps I’ll return in a year, two or more to my reviews a little bit more enlightened or perhaps not. All I know is that the brilliance of the aforementioned authors is incomparable.
But for now let’s talk about Arrows of Rain by the brillant Okey Ndibe.
There are a few things I’d like to highlight. See below:
1) It recounts the political history of Nigeria through the generational journey of the characters in the book in their country of Madia. The journey began with Bukuru’s story set in a time when Madia had just achieved its independence from British colonial rule and had been appointed its first prime minister – much like the history of Nigeria. On the high from gaining independence and with dangerous optimism about the future, Madians trusted their leader and Prime Minister, Excellency Askia Amin.
However, it soon became clear the consequences of misguided power and political greed. So, it didn’t take long for violent protests and riots to ensue and envelop the country. This era ushered in a new form of government realized through an overthrow of the previous government – the military rule. It was also all too clear that power when mixed together with guns also doesn’t equate peace and harmony.
The military rule led by Major Gen. Isa Palat Bello soon turned the country into one run by dictatorship, fear of life, and human rights abuse. This history is a simple retelling of the all too painful political journey of modern day Nigeria and it was deeply enthralling to explore the country through those times of political unrest through Ndibe’s characters. It was extremely informative and transforming. It took me back to a time I had only read about but never witnessed as a kid growing up post military rule era in Nigeria.
2) Journalism was used as a political tool in the book and it was incredibly empowering to read. This was a time that journalism was regaled and people were prisoners of the words of journalists. The print industry boomed and newspapers served as people’s refuge. We can’t say so much about that now but it was incredibly interesting to witness the power of the ‘mighty’ pen in action, as well as the government’s ‘fear of words’ in Ndibe’s book. He referenced several major newspapers and distinguished writers in the book that opposed bad forms of government through their journalistic prowess.
It also appeared that Ndibe referred being a journalist during the military rule both in Madia and in olden day Nigeria meant going on the battlefield against the government. It took me back to a time when I had read about the Zik (The First President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikwe) and how he was regaled as the father of journalism and print pre-independence in Nigeria, as well as his work to unite Africans to contest for independence by the mere use of his words on print.
It also revealed the all too painful history of the execution of past journalists who chose to reveal their truths and stand for what they believed in; Ndibe described the fear for one’s life and the consequence of going against the military rule back in those days. In fact in Arrows of Rain, a journalist was driven to insanity by paranoia of being hunted by his government while the other was driven to silence and seclusion.
3) The evolution of Bukuru’s perceived Insanity. It’s interseting how the mind’s psyche works. Reality and Thought, Concrete vs Abstract. Where do we go when we think? Do we exist in two dimensions? – One where we wake up, interact with people everyday and live our day to day life or is there also another isolated dimension populated by just us and our minds? No one has these answers. But I found it interesting how Ndibe took us on a journey towards insanity, how a split dimension is realized, and how societal norms are threatened by the mind.
As a result of fear overwhelming reason, Ogugua, an esteemed journalist ran away from his life both literally and figuratively and hid himself somewhere deep in his mind’s world and for 20 years was perceived to be an insane man who lacked adequate forms of societal standards of grooming, ate from dirt, and slept by the beach every night. Ndibe gave us a glimpse into this slow progression as well as what truly goes on in the minds of people perceived to be insane. It made me curious, it made me think, and most of all, it gave me context.
4) Is there a symbolism for all of the prostitutes mentioned in the book with the central plot revolving around most of them? I honestly don’t know. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment…or maybe a year…or maybe a few. Who knows? I can’t decipher this right now.
5) What is the essence of the name, Arrows of Rain? In the book, Ogugua (aka Bukuru)’s grandmother had described a parable of a village suffering from intense famine as a result of drought. So, the villagers reached out to their spiritual leader and he mentioned that a sacrifice to the sky needs to be made for rain to fall. However, he stressed that this sacrifice has to be made by a creature that’s brisk and should be made hastily. So they sent, dog.
During the journey, dog got distracted meeting new people, finding food on the road, and losing sight of the task at hand. He eventually got to the point to meet with sky but he was extremely tardy. Without acknowledging his tardiness and in hesitation, dog threw the sacrifice at sky and immediately turned back looking forward to the journey home to once again enjoy the distractions of the road. Upon returning home, he noticed a huge flooding that had enveloped the village and every single villager had been killed. It was in that moment he realized the true anger of the sky from his tardiness and lack of respect. So, dog soon realized that even though there are the sweet trances of rain in its provision of food and new growth, it could also use its rain drops as arrows to kill.
Ndibe described this parable as the malefic side of rain.
I immediately thought this was an interesting title, as it ushers in a slew of thoughts of things having both a sweet and a malefic side. How many times has love led to hatred? Money to greed? Peace to conflict? Difference to division? Everything has a good and a bad, we just have to decide for ourselves what we perceive it as.
Arrows of Rain is a great book; it’s enthralling, captivating, impactful, knowledgeable and it bleeds pure writing genius by Ndibe. It clearly depicts the cumulative suffering of both a man and a people, and recounts the power of greed and what led Nigeria to what it is today. It is dipped in historical and cultural significance and if my retelling of it above is not enough to get you to pick up the book, read the Los Angeles Times review of the book by David L. Ulin, titled, “Okey Ndibe’s ‘Arrows of Rain’ Splits its Powerful Message.”