Title: Desert Breed
AUTHOR: Obinna Oke
Publisher: AMAB Books, Minna
Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro
Sometimes, the vagaries of life place humans on a cliffhanger, leaving them without an augury of hope. Never-say-die: that’s the right attitude to adopt when buffeted by unspeakable misery, no matter how old you are. Uche, the protagonist in Obinna Oke’s novel, Desert Breed, never gave up, even when in the throes of death. Like a solitary ranger in the wilderness, he redefined resilience and emerged triumphant.
Oke’s Desert Breed is a bildungsroman, which traces the moral, psychological and social development and growth of the main character in the fiction, from childhood to maturity. Thematically, this fiction is predicated on the perils of living in contemporary Nigerian society as an orphan, antics of desperados, martyrdom, comeuppance for evil, and what not.
The setting is contemporaneous, with cities like Onitsha, Awka and Abuja at the epicenter of social convulsions. There are also rural locations in Ebonyi created by the author to firm up the narrative. But it is the loneliness of a rejected child in the city that keeps our hairs on end for most parts. It is, at once, an indictment of familial segregation.
Told in the first person point of view, we follow the plot from the lens of Uche. He is accused of stealing pieces of meat. “It’s Nweke and Amaka,” he defends himself. Subsequently, we see Nweke and Amaka’s harsh reactions against Uche. Not only the wicked Mama, whom he has been staying with following his parent’s death, is his headache in the house but also her children.
“Alone in the room, my mind flashed back to the early days when my mother was alive. I thought of how my mother treated me with love and affection. How she promised to train me up so that I would be rich, popular and become a great man among my peers in the village,” he recalls in the heat of his trials.
At 14, Uche tells us that he is used to doing all chores and running errands while Mama’s children laze about. When disaster strikes, and Papa is brought terribly sick, Oke informs us about the resort traditional medication by the herbalist, Okanga. Among his accoutrements include ikiribi, and old egg; aro, a pink kolanut; akpunto, oboroto, a blackish powder, etcetera.
He makes us know how the medicine man looks like: “One of his eyes was painted white, round up to the eyelids with nzu” (p.21). When he comes to, Papa tells the lad, “I said, if I don’t recover, please, never make the type of mistake I made in life by marrying a bad wife,” (p.23).
Through his recollections, we are made to see the effects of polygamy. Papa eventually dies, leaving a big vacuum in the life of poor Uche. He recalls: “I became disenchanted with life after my father’s burial. I saw no hope again, and my future seemed bleak” (p.38).
Suddenly, there is a glimmer of hope, as Uncle Umai sends a lifeline for him to follow him to the city, having complained that he looked like someone with kwashiorkor. Ogubata has done her worse, no doubt. However, very little changed when Uche travels to the city. Uncle Umai’s wife is another wicked woman lording it over her new family at Fegge, Onitsha. She doesn’t allow him to enjoy the good things of life he has seen briefly in Onitsha.
Like in the village, Uche has a plethora of chores to do: waking up around 5 am daily to boil eight kettles of water, preparing food for Uncle Mai to eat before going to his shop, washing the clothes of Samuel; helping another child, Stella, take her bath. He will also mop the floor every Saturday, wash clothes and utensils, to mention a few. Yet Uncle Mai’s wife is cold towards him, starving him, too.
More than a year after he landed Onitsha, Uche is yet to be sent to school by his guardians. At last, his Uncle feels obliged to register him in the evening class of Destiny Comprehensive Secondary School, where he happens to be the youngest in the midst of many adults. Because he does a lot of house chores daily, he becomes a regular sleeper in school while classes are going on. Chigozie, Uche’s best friend, is also maltreated by Madam, the woman he is living with, and is, unfortunately, thrown out of the house, sent back to the village.
Despite the trials he has undergone, Uche continues to study hard, and passes his Senior Secondary Certificate Exams in flying colours. But that doesn’t delight his benefactors, who, shockingly, send him packing from the house for no apparent reason.
At this point, the plot of Desert Breed teems with twists and turns. With nowhere to go to, Uche becomes a vagabond. In the process, he meets an angel, Lilian, whose mother owns the shop where he just passed the night, and who offers him a little financial assistance. Uche is to become a gala hawker, through a new friend, Jude, in the streets of Onitsha, still, without a roof over his head. He can’t but eke a living in the city instead of returning to the village to meet an aggressive anaconda.
The author of the book allows Uche to undergo more tribulations in Onitsha before relocating him to another setting –Awka –the Anambra State capital, to begin his hawking business. Just when we think Uche’s business is flourishing, the reader encounters a telling twist that sees Uche arrested by the police for hawking. Even when an alibi gets him off the hook, he plunges into a deeper mess by being kidnapped by a gang who kidnap for ransom and rituals purposes.
To resolve the crisis in the plot, Oke creates a young man of valour in the young protagonist whose deft moves approximate the best of coup de theatre, bringing tears to the eyes of the reader: he escapes from captivity hours just before he will be butchered and his body parts sold to buyers. He alerts the police the next morning, who spring to action, engaging the criminals in a gun battle that claims the life of the retiring DPO and the arrest of members of the gang. For Uche, there is now hope in the horizon. He has achieved fame and fortune in a hard way.
There is, however, evidences of slipshod editing in Desert Breed. Mechanical inaccuracies manifest, especially, in the area of marking off quotes in sentences. In the work, quoted speeches are wrongly marked off with full stops, instead of commas, in places where pronouns (he, she, they or it) or individuals are being attributed the preceding quoted speeches. “Okpoko” in Onitsha is wrongly described as a hamlet instead of a slum or a squalid neighbourhood.
However, the author deserves kudos for revisiting the issue of child abuse and the highhandedness of today’s wives who treat other children with contempt, casting a blight on the future of these unfortunate children who don’t have the nerves to overcome a motley of juvenile privations and adult persecutions.