Soza Boy- book review

MENE was just a young bumpkin from the Nigerian village of Dukana spending his days as an ‘apprentice driver’ aspiring to acquire his licence and assist his mother, a single parent, in the day-today upkeep of their household when one day soldiers appeared from nowhere – thus marking an abrupt end to his own and folks’ idyll!

Prior to the sudden disturbance, the rural location composed of a chain of nine villages had been enjoying an agricultural boon in maize, cassava, plantains, yam, pawpaw, banana and pears – with its placid existence administered by the obsequious, ageing and bald-headed Chief Birabee, a.k.a. the king of Dukana!

Whilst Mene and his ‘master’ ferried commuters between Dukana and the township of Pitakwa in the latter’s lorry (called ‘Progres’, and the only one in Dukana), they’d encounter an unscrupulous character in the porson (person) of Inspector Okonkwo always intending to extort traffic bribes, whilst about their business.

Skulduggery appears to course the gravel roads of that backwater as not only was it the inspector’s wont, but that of the chief’s too who’d constantly be requesting money, livestock, cloth (clothes) and tombo (palm wine) from his subjects – for one reason the other!

(Birabee’s modus operandi entailed instructing the blockading of roads out of Dukana the night before a town-crier assembled villagers to the town square – in anticipation of the eloping of dodgers against any further imposition of levees!)

During peacetime, Mene was in the acquaintance of four fellow villagers, viz, Duzia, a disabled demagogue, Bom, an indigent given to knack tory (gossip), Terr Kole, an elderly and wealthy polygamist, and Zaza, a maverick who’d be spotted topless around the neighbourhood as well as an erstwhile soldier who claimed to had fought in Burma in opposition to Hitla (Hitler) during World War II!

Zaza’s alleged exploits described in grandiose terms it would be which stamped a compelling impression upon Mene enough to turn his hitherto naïve existence on its axis and lead him into a terrifying diaspora – inadvertently, all the more at the urging of a new lover (who had momentarily stayed in the big city of Lagos) who informed him that she’d only become a wife to a strong man who’d defend her when trouble came!

In reviewing Sozaboy (soldier boy), Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s novel, it’d be amiss not to showcase the pidgin English (the lingua franca of West African ex-colonies) permeating throughout the fast-paced narrative dosed with risible prose – some of whose words and phrases are contained in a glossary segment towards the tome’s tail end.  

And whereas I could had located this passage at the review’s cul-de-sac, I assumed the liberty of indulging in some of the rhythms of a Nigerian accent (even though no one in Nigeria speaks or writes like this – as the writer, William Boyd points out) as limned in a tavern scene which preluded Mene’s rendezvous with the afore-mentioned new lover from Lagos: “So one night I went to African Upwine Bar in interior part of Diobu. Inside inside. We use to call this Diobu New York. I think you know New York. In America. As people plenty for am. Na so dem plenty for Diobu. Like cockroach. And true true cockroach plenty for Diobu too. Myself I like the African Upwine Bar. Because you fit (can) drink better palmy (palm wine) there. And there are fine babies there too. And you can chop okporoko (and you can eat stock fish). Or ngwo-ngwo (mutton in pepper soup delicacy). And it will not cost you plenty money.”

Unbeknownst to Mene on the very night he became smitten with Agnes (the girl from Lagos who happened to work as a bartender thereat and who had enticed him by flashing her bobby at him, and thus provoking his manhood to stand up and thereafter teased him by calling him “a small boy” for becoming so easily aroused whilst he danced with her closely), it would be at this speakeasy, also called Mgbaijiji (the place can bring plenty flies), that fate would also introduce him to a lanky and talkative patron he would later refer to as, Manmuswak – a ubiquitous character who would feature perpetually throughout his ravelling ordeal (as well as the novel’s segments) as either a mosquito buzzing around his ears of a humid eventide or would-be ally!

Now, away from the protagonist’s cynicism about the cause of his village’s Pastor Barika’s Sundays lies from the pulpit directed at the women of Dukana and him not liking helele (thoroughly) at all his preaching that the world will soon end before he gets his driver’s licence through bribing the VIO (Vehicle Inspection Officer) with very big money, the emergence of the sozas resulted in his enlisting, for a fee paid to a Mr Okpara, in an army assembled to kill the person called ENEMY – leaving behind his now wife, Agnes with J.J.C. (Johnny Just Come – denoting a girl with lovely pointed breasts) and mama (who paid the dowry for his bride and Mr Okpara to make him a soldier)!

From thereon in the narrative ups the ante as Mene them (Mene and others) descend into experiencing the misery of manning pits, dry or soggy, on the war front located at a place known as Iwoama with the express instruction of preventing the enemy from reaching it. If enemy go dey do formfool, there’d be plenty palaver – he’ll see pepper, ha! ha! (if the enemy fools around, there’d be trouble – he’d see red)! In some lombers (numbers – chapters of the novel actually) Mene narrates extensively on the exploits of a fellow enlistee and troop leader referred to only as Bullet, through whom, as fate would have it, his path crosses once again with Manmuswak’s – who was then entrenched on the enemy’s side!

Cunny (tricky) fellow Manmuswak is, as he entered the conflict arena by one day raising a white handkerchief of surrender as he emerged out of his pit to offer cigarettes and ginkana (locally brewed gin) to his nemesis whilst reconnoitering on their state of preparedness. From then on Mene’s world spirals out of orbit as the brutal side of war is brought mercilessly to bear upon his whole psyche as he became subjected to a protracted chain of occurrences which, inter alia, included internment at Kampala (a prisoner-of-war prison); eloping from an enemy’s camp and recapture; witnessing mass death through an outbreak of kwashiorkor and being mistaken for a ghost as he returned to his desolate village in the hope of reuniting with his beloved Agnes and his mama!

Dedicated to the author’s father, Chief J. B. Wiwa, in the introduction, Boyd describes Sozaboy as a war novel set pending the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) in which from the period 1967 to 1970, over a million people died, mostly civilians, mainly from disease and starvation – and Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni tribe was trapped in as part of eastern states which sought secession from the Nigerian federation.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian novelist and environmental activist. He studied English at the University of Ibadan and briefly taught at numerous universities before the onset of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967.

Trapped within the boundaries of the Biafran state’s independence bid from Nigeria’s Federal Government, Saro-Wiwa escaped through the front lines to the federal side where he was appointed civilian administrator of the oil-port of Bonny on the Niger River Delta where he served until the collapse of the secessionist forces.

In a note he penned from Port Harcourt in 1985 (the year the novel’s first edition was published), Ken Saro-Wiwa describes the style of writing he applied to Sozaboy as ‘rotten English’, a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English.

From 1991, Saro-Wiwa devoted himself to political and ecological causes, becoming president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people – which fought against the irreparable environmental damage that oil corporations were causing to Ogoniland.

After years of non-violent protest against the Nigerian government’s inaction, Saro-Wiwa was unlawfully detained under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha which – despite written protests by writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri – had him, along with eight of his colleagues, judicially executed in 1995.

Sozaboy is a paperback published by Black Star Books and distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Available at leading bookstores countrywide, it retails for R285.

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