With sweeping themes like poverty, mob violence, army brutality, religious indoctrination and intolerance, corruption and love, Elnathan John’s debut novel is an ambitious story told in enchantingly simple language through the voice of our lovable protagonist, Dantala, who is equal parts, innocence, religious fervor, intelligence and youthful curiosity.
Born on a Tuesday opens under a Kuka tree in Bayan Layi, a small town in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria. The boys under the tree smoke wee-wee (a hilarious slang for marijuana.) and boast about the number of people they’ve killed. They are almajiris – the street children of northern Nigeria, sent away from their homes for formal Quranic education, but more commonly known for begging and sometimes violence. Even in the first paragraph, in the unadorned language of the author, we first come in contact with a heartbreaking disregard for human life.
For many of us who only know the north through the romanticized stories of authors like Cyprian Ekwensi, and more recently through news reports of carnage and gore, it is the latter that is soon confirmed, when the boys under the kuka tree are paid paltry amounts to unleash violence after an election. Dantala, who possesses an ability for self-knowledge and evaluation that seems to be absent from the other boys, takes part. He’s not as eager as the others, sometimes expressing regret at the horrors he commits, but he takes part all the same, a loyal assistant to his mentor from under the tree, a local tough called Banda.
The riots end with soldiers shooting into the crowds of rioters. Banda is killed, and Dantala escapes, buying a ride on a lorry to take him back to his village in Sokoto. On the way, he first encounters the kindly Sheikh Jamal and his assistant, a convert from another part of the country, Malam Abdul-Nur Mohammed. They offer hope, and even when Dantala reaches his villages and finds his mother a silent testament to the devastation of extreme poverty coupled with a recent natural disaster, he holds on to that hope, finally returning to the sheikh to begin a new chapter of his life.
“Insha Allah, when I come back she will see me. One day, insha Allah, I will take her out of this place to the city, where there are hospitals and bright fluorescent lights. ~ Dantala.”
Under Sheikh Jamal’s tutelage, Dantala starts to learn more than he ever did in Quranic school. The tout from under the kuka tree is gone, and now we have an inquisitive boy, eager to improve himself, even as he reaches the peak of adolescence. Dantala’s experiences here give us hope for him, and form him in a way his adventures as a street boy in Kaduna don’t. He reflects tentatively on the deeper questions of his faith, has his first uncomfortable experience with homosexuality, makes a friend, and ponders the hypocrisy of the people around him, even the ones he/and we admire. The three people who influence his life the most at this point are perhaps the true triumph of this book, Sheikh Jamal, who is gentle and kind, perhaps naïve, and not in any way perfect; Malam Abdul-Nur, whose fervor in his adopted religion echoes the greatest villains in history, he is violent in his personal life, and it translates into his religion, with his desire to punish all ‘unbelievers’ with violence. There is also Jubril, Abdul-Nur brother, who becomes the greatest influence on Dantala. They help and teach each other and develop a close and admirable friendship.
This stage of Dantala’s life is one many of us can identify with, learning, maturing, sexual curiosity, falling in love, and hope for the future, but trouble comes in the shape of increasing religious intolerance and bigotry, which threatens the life Dantala has found and the people he has come to love.
This book shocks from the very beginning, with the violence and the poverty, and yet the reader cannot help being moved to pity for these boys, the instruments of violence who don’t know any other life. In another region, in another world, Dantala would have a chance to make something of himself, but in the lowest rung of society in northern Nigeria, everything conspires against him.
Though the major arc of the story is somewhat tragic, Born on a Tuesday is actually a very hilarious read. I’m not new to reading Elnathan John, and I already know he has the gift of exploring details and highlighting the comic (and the poignant) in his writings. In reading Born on a Tuesday, I found myself laughing out loud multiple times. I feel like I have a better understanding of some issues in Northern Nigeria from reading this book and I look forward to more books from the author.
Born on a Tuesday is available for sale in bookstores all over Nigeria. I got mine at the Patabah Bookshop in Surulere, Lagos. You can also buy it on Amazon here.