By Henry Akubuiro
An orphaned child living with extended family members often has a bogeyman to contend with. How does he rise above ingrained prejudice? That’s the challenge for Emeka, the main character in Ijeoma Onyejison’s intriguing novella, Through the Dark Tunnel.
In the lives of heroes buffeted by adversities, there have been instances when a dimmed star suddenly hogs the limelight. Onyejison’s juvenile protagonist, from his heroic testament, tells us once again: destiny can be delayed but never denied.
In this novel, the author revisits the theme of the orphan boy and alienation by interrogating familial relationships in an affluent home. The theme of providence also echoes in this narrative and reward for hardwork is another overt theme. The author, in addition, x-rays juvenile delinquency, using Collins, the scion of the Stephen dynasty, as an archetype.
Through the Dark Tunnel is an attempt to encourage dispirited orphans undergoing trials elsewhere: there is hope with hard work. Emeka distinguishes himself in his new class, and, despite the hatred of his aunty and plots to unsettle him, he is never frustrated. Luck smiles on him eventually, as he earns a foreign scholarship to crown his academic excellence.
In contrast, Collins, the over pampered son of her wicked aunt, Janet, turns out to be the black sheep of the family. Though a kleptomaniac, his mother prefers blaming poor Emeka for his unbecoming conducts. When you spare the rod, you spoil the child, inevitably. As it turns out, the doting mother is left to gnash her teeth at the end when his cherished son becomes a posterboy for infamy.
The plot of Through a Dark Tunnel follows a linear progression, but there are occasional flashbacks to reconcile the past with the present. When the story opens, we are told that “Emeka had long got used to being addressed as ‘a thing’, especially when his uncle or the wife was not in a good mood, and they both treated him that way. In fact, it had become synonymous with his name, that he responded to it any time he heard it” (p. 1).
The conflict in this work is man vs man: between Obi and the world around him. The setting is contemporary Nigeria. Onyejison’s expository details allow Uncle Stephen to initially buy into his wife’s cock and bull stories of Emeka’s criminal tendencies. While her own children —Collins and Sandra — dine with the parents, Emeka can only watch from the floor with sour mulberries. While her own children smile elaborately, Emeka grimaces at will. For him, everyday is a pall of gloom.
Emeka’s father, Mr. Onyema, was Stephen’s half-brother, we are told, and, despite the mounting pressure by his wife to get rid of Emeka from the house, he is conscious of a backlash from the villagers, though he isn’t ready to offer him the same privilege as his own children. While his children attend an ultramodern private school, Emeka is sent to a local public school after much pressure from a kinsman, for the couple don’t want him to challenge their own children.
The transformation of Emeka at Abaloma High School is the ace played by Onyejison to rewrite this sad story. Right from his first term in form 3, there are glimpses that he is about to go places. For the first time in the history of the school, the high riding Ikechukwu Diribe has a rival to contend with. But Emeka goes ahead to earn the bragging right as the “Ultimate Mekus”, a title given to him by the class for becoming the best of the best within a short time.
If Emeka thinks his successes in school would make Janet show him a modicum of love, his problems are just about to spiral at home. Yet he is undeterred. The author uses Emeka as an archetypal Spartan given to self restraint.
To resolve this plot, Onyejison offers the protagonist a ticket to escape the molten magma raging under his feet at Stephen and Janet’s home via an NGO scholarship to study in London. The story ends on a high for Emeka, and the antagonist, Janet, is zombified. This is a compelling read for young adults and a valuable lesson for all to assimilate: nobody knows tomorrow.