In this debut novel, Edify Yakusak establishes herself as a word artist, painting her story with a wide brush of vivid descriptions. The city of Jos comes alive on the pages of this book as she takes us through a tale of sorrow, pain, anguish and despair. She chronicles the all-too-familiar story of ethnic tensions common in Nigeria, which often boils over into full scale conflicts. Edify throws her readers right into the plot, unmasking her characters for them to see, hear and touch.
I was raised in the Plateau State of Jos for a large part of my childhood. So this story brings back memories. Writing about Jos, Edify said:
“Jos is a mysterious city; it seemed like a bland banal municipality in terms of social structure, culture and emotional stability when compared to other cities in Nigeria. Nevertheless there was something about the city that one could not quite place…”
This heart-wrenching story chronicles people getting slaughtered by their neighbors, the neighbours they have lived with for years; women getting raped by monsters; and babies getting snatched out of the arms of anguished mothers. A lot of this is familiar; we had a family drill on what to do in the case of a mob action. Everyone in my family had a getaway backpack which contained the essentials, and my father’s car was always parked facing the road, ready to make a getaway any minute. Not since I read Say You Are One Of Them by Uwem Akpan did I cry over a book; Edify made me shed a tear or two as I read this story. Everything she had to say tugged at my heartstrings.
She also chronicles the structure of families and parents who want to live vicariously through their children, making choices for them (mostly out of selfishness), and believing they know what is best for their children at all times. One thing however that stood out for me was the sheer perseverance displayed by a few characters, chief amongst them being Kim, the little girl of eleven years, who was determined not to be consumed by the crises and who had a steely resolve to get herself and her brother to safety, no matter what it took.
After They Left elicited a visceral response in me; I was up until 3 am reading this book right to the end, with my heart rate increasing at more than a few points.
However, Edify fell short of the mark several times in the book with her storytelling. Referring to African traditional religions, they were described by one of her characters as “mere idol worship with trees, animals, food stuff or utensils being worshipped”. I don’t think I have ever read a narrative sillier than this; she continued: “the concept of a god that watched over them and protected them from evil was calming and interesting at the same time”, with the character alluding to the fact that this was why it was easy to switch to Christianity. Again I found this very silly because the traditional religions had supreme beings that watched over the people and protected them from harm and danger. The people worshipped several deities and they kept them safe, so this narrative was very laughable to say the least.
Edify also demonstrated a penchant of springing things on the reader without any background, and not by way of a pleasant surprise, but in a way that leaves you sort of confused and wondering where they came from. There was a hint at Bot’s abuse without any background or substance to it; it just came out of nowhere. Also the mob action that opened the story should have lurked in the shadows for a bit before getting sprung on the reader. It was a bit confusing. Again the change in Mafeng was fast, way too fast, from submissive wife who had accepted her fate in an unhappy marriage to a raging alcoholic. To me, she did not fit the profile, but then again, despair can bring out the worst in us.
There were also several inconsistencies with the story. Bot apparently was a senator in his mid 30s but he had also been previously elected to the senate three times. So essentially he was on his fourth term – and still in his mid 30s? (And the minimum age requirement for election into the Nigerian senate is 35 years). I get that this is fiction and it is the writer’s prerogative to be imaginative, but to me, characters should also be believable. There were some other contradictions; on the one hand, the birth of Mafeng’s daughter did not change her husband’s emotional attitude towards her and still, down the page, the same husband became more affectionate after the birth, which begs the question whether affection is not an expressed emotion. Again, what are the odds that you have family living in a city and you hear of widespread killings in that area and you never bothered to check on them – even if you had a fight with your sister? Essentially Lydia didn’t care to check on her family until her sister called her? Nope, not buying it!
Madam Mati fascinated me to no end; here was a woman who was profiting from the crises while pretending to do good. On the one hand, she appeared to be providing a safe haven for people who had to flee their homes because of the crises, and on another hand, she was selling off the young girls into sexual slavery as well as keeping a huge chunk of the aid she received for herself. She reminds me of Joshua and his refugee centre in Nairobi Heat, a book by Mukoma Wa Ngugui. And honestly, I cannot wrap my head around how people seek to profit from the misfortune of others.
I wish Edify Yakusak had provided a background to the crises that she wrote about. I get that the book wasn’t about the crises but more about the people it affected and how they dealt with it. However if someone who has never lived in Nigeria or heard about Jos should read this story, he would most likely be confused. Half of a Yellow Sun was another story that happened in a time of crises, and while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie focused on the people whose lives were changed by the Biafran war, she gave some background to why the war happened in the first place. Edify should have done that. It was too big to ignore; it is almost as if she did not do any research for this story, or she did and just refused to share the nuances with her readers. She also had very high moments which would have shaped the story and resonated with the reader, but she watered them down. Prominent among them was when Mafeng got word that her children were indeed alive and looking for her. I expected to see more emotion and theatrics.
This is a book worth reading; a story that reminds us of what is going on in our country and how we could all be so easily consumed by our privilege that we are blind to the sufferings of others. Edify Yakusak is not afraid to tell a story, no matter how horrific it is. She takes us through this dark path with the casual ease of wise older one and still endeavouring not to water down the story. She makes sure you see the horror and the devastation, but most importantly, she makes sure that you see the people whose lives were changed forever.
I will hand this book 6/10. Not many debuts attempt to flow seamlessly like this and I look forward to reading more from the writer.
Written by Franklyne Ikediasor