Title: Imminent River
Author: Anaele Ihuoma
Publisher: Narrative Landscape, Lagos
Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro
A historical novel attempts to convey the spirit and social conditions of a particular period in the past with realistic depictions of historical facts, laced with fiction. Anaele Ihuoma’s Imminent River does exactly that. It enjoys a historical fidelity to the transatlantic slave trader era of 19th century to the 20th century, capturing a family saga in the heart of Igboland that lasted from generation to generation, as warring family members searched for a medicinal formula reputed to prolong life.
The nucleus of this fiction revolves around the matriarch, Daa-Mbiwii, who runs a healing home where nobody dies once brought there. But age is no longer on her side. First, she recruits Jesse as an apprentice and Opuddah. But the greed of the latter, coupled with the conspiracy of Sayeed, a slave merchant, makes him to murder Jesse, the custodian of the longevity formula. What a big loss!
The language of the novel is fast paced and poetic, with a sprinkling of Igbo words. The plot of Imminent River shows Daa-Mbiwii trying to salvage the hopeless situation after Jesse’s death, the first in her healing home, by embarking a journey to Afor Origwi to inform Edidion’s father, whose daughter is married to the deceased.
The greed and bestiality of slave traders know no bounds. Daa-Mbiwii narrowly escapes being caught and enslaved, even Opuddah’s trades off the entire premises of her healing home, together with all the inmates there for a pittance. He, too, is subjected to a humiliation by Sayeed and his men.
Of course, Daa-Mbiwii’s two children, Dioti-Ojioho and Chinamem, aren’t the best of friends, and the matriarch has been looking for a way to settle them. Dioti-Ojioho narrowly escapes being apprehended by climbing a tree, and his father, Okpuzu, escapes another hunt on his way to the healing home to find what is amiss.
It turns out to be a bountiful harvest for Sayeed with the 77 inmates/captives, no thanks to the Opuddah’s treacherous bargain. Sayeed’s father, the novel tells us, hails from Braga in northern Portugal. A slave merchant himself, he died of wounds inflicted on him from the arrows of fleeing slaves.
The slave route in Igboland in the 19th century, as revealed in this book, passed through Arochukwu, the home of the Long Juju, where the slave merchants would buy the slaves and resell at huge profits to the merchants at the Calabar coast.
Imminent River has many conmen to make you laugh at human foibles. The shaman, Bukar El Zaki Zaki, is a badass dupe. He defrauds Sayeed of good money by preparing fake charms and amulets for him to penetrate the heart of the Aro confederacy. Again, the efficacy of the ancient malaria remedy, the achara steam bath, practiced by the Igbo, Ibibio, Efik and Izon, and other people of the lower Niger, is hinted here, as Sayeed becomes a major beneficiary.
Again, the adjudicatory role of Ibini Ukpabi is showcased in this novel, evidenced in the way people from different parts of Igboland throng to the Long Juju in search of solutions and valid judgements.
Imminent River also has room for fantasy. We get to learn about the forest dwellers of Ollor Ollor’s New Rain Festival, where they proudly reenact the Chichochor Dance. It is in this dark community that Okpuzu goes to, disguised like the primitive men, in search of a lost gem. There, unfortunately, he meets his waterloo after killing some of the warriors out to hasten his demise.
Imminent River follows the trail of the slave vessel on the West African coast. The Dutchman, Van der Shiet, is the captain of the slave vessel, Travewavves. Mentions are made of Ghanaian slaves ferried from El Mina Castle. Travewavves is a symbol of oppression of the black race. Inside it, black slaves are dehumanised.
When the story moves from mid-19th century to the 20th century, Captain Jaan van der Shiet has arrived the Boston Harbour in the United States with the African slaves, carrying a day-old baby in his hands, born of the black woman he raped on board Tradewavves. Ownership soon becomes a tug of war between him, the man in straw from another vessel and the consignee for the “cute little devil”, before a group of all-white anti-slavery campaigners launches an attack, freeing slaves with their chain cutters.
Meanwhile, Dioti-Ojioho’s son, Opoko, has continued the search for the longevity formula, trying to crack the secret contained in the insibidi writing formula, from Mama Ego, a member of the famed griots, who hints that the treasure trove may be located at 38-0-37N and 90-0-11W.
Opoko is to learn that the 38-0-37 cubits north fell right inside Wopara’s share of his grandfather’s Ukwuoji forest, thus begins a new scheme to get the land. The fantasy continues with Wopara’s encounters with Obinikpa creature and the bogey man bugh bugh. High Chief Nnanyerugo Ojiono, the son of Opoko, makes a fortune from selling the land said to be containing the longevity formula to a British company to explore the elusive gem.
In the third part of the novel, family feud continues in southern Nigeria in the 20th century, with Chief Nnanyerugo scheming to have the successful Ezemba Wopara to relinquish majority shares of the flourishing E & J Ventures. There is also a controversial kidnap case.
Methinks the story ought to have ended earlier than it did. The last 100 pages of the 350-page novel barely do justice to Daa-Mbiwii’s legacy that spurred the narrative. The discovery of the medicinal formula ought to portend a new lease of life to a society desirous of an elixir. This digression, I suspect, comes from working too many facts into a work of promising fiction. But don’t take it from Anaele: Imminent River is bold interpretation of a lacrimal epoch in Africa by a seasoned hand.