By James Tar Tsaaior
Like the ripened kolanut that volunteers its beautiful lobes in ritual celebration, Gift Amukoyo’s debut novel Efemena represents a creative possibility and festival event which compels celebration. It is a seminal fictional rite which unveils the author’s craft as a promising writer all out to tease the reader’s imagination.
In the main, Efemena celebrates African womanhood. The narrative weaves into existence the eponymous heroine Efemena Aruegodore who is beautiful, friendly, enterprising, industrious and familial but also bold, tough, strong and sometimes self-opinionated revealing a somewhat feminist trajectory in her character portraiture.
The narrative unfolds in a multiplicity of settings ranging from the heroine’s Niger Delta milieu, Lagos and Ibadan bringing her into a tangle of relationships some of them fleeting and ephemeral. She is from a family whose cohesion is not in doubt and which serves as a foreground definitive of her character. The father is into international business and the mother a matron in a government hospital. Her brother, Akpos, married to Chinwe is also doing well.
She is a corps member who owns business chains, dealing in clothes and foot wears. She admirably combines the two in a manner which speaks eloquently of her resourcefulness and spirit of enterprise. Even when she is rejected in her place of primary assignment by the shifty principal of the secondary school she is posted to, she responds with measured emotions drawing inspiration and hope from her willingness to make the best out of the service year.
The experiences of this heroine in a fictional landscape defined by tradition and modernity, continuity and change forms the bulk of the narrative. It is an integral world where traditional religious worship exists side by side with Christian ethos and practices. In this world, reverence to totems like pythons and superstitious/ritual practices compete with Christian piety which is sometimes compromised by ecclesiastical hypocrisy as seen in the case of Boyoboyo, the psychically challenged who is neglected by Pastor Henry and dies in straitened circumstances.
Here, too, the traditional idea and expectation that a young woman should be pure and chaste before she finds a place within the comfort and sanctuary of marriage is upheld and Efemena’s parents are desirous of this ideal. Her father is particularly distraught when this ideal is subverted. Also on the converse, homosexual young men like Dennis nourish and imbibe alternative sexual habits and orientations which pervert the normative practice of heterosexuality. Efemena, therefore, constructs a universe redolent with contradictions which throw into relief the realities of modernity and its accompanying paradoxes.
Conceived and executed as a testamentary statement which witnesses to the physical attractiveness, inner beauty and courage of the African woman, this novel gathers its narrative energies from the imperative of idolizing womanhood and the incredible potentials which are locked in her heart and bosom for the redemption of society.
This thematic preoccupation is not alien to African fiction and letters. Indeed, it has been over-determined by the historical trajectories which necessitated the idealization of the Black woman as the mother of the nation whose womb and birth throes brought into being numerous children who now populate the nation. It was the same woman who stood stolidly side by side with the men in the nationalist struggle to transcend Western imperialism and colonial stranglehold.
To appropriate Ali Mazrui, it is this woman, the African woman who presides over the triple custodial roles of fire, water and the earth. The woman, in traditional and modern settings in Africa presides over fire for domestic fuel, water for cooking and purification rites and earth which symbolizes her fertile womb and the productivity of farmlands which she works.
In Efemena, there is a fresh perspective to and re-imagining of this role. The role is centred around modernity and how to prosecute the new status women have become consistent with through an affirmative action plan which enables women to get empowered so that they contribute meaningfully to societal engineering and developmental processes. Even though discriminatory practices and prejudicial treatment still persist in a phallic-dominated world, the novel demonstrates that the boundaries are shifting in ways that privilege women.
This new ideal allows women functional education which enables them to participate in economic and cultural production as partners with their men. Efemena has completed her tertiary education and is fully equipped to contribute to society. Even Chinwe, within the portals of matrimony is willing to change societal patterns through her commitment to the poor and vulnerable in church activities.
Efemena, therefore, comprehensively maps the terrain and inserts the image of the African woman within the social, political and cultural landscape as an indispensable vector whose contributions are strategic to the well-being of society. With her Cancer Prevention Foundation at the end of the novel, her towering achievement as a woman of substance who is willing to contribute to society is fully realized.
Every text, it must be understood, has its context and contests. It is the context with its sometimes interminable and definable contests that gives the text its essence and framing significance. In the case of Efemena, the text springs from the Niger Delta environment, an area that is blessed with prodigious human and natural resources, an area that provides sustenance for its inhabitants, nature and other life forms. It is this environment that features significantly as the background to the novel and its heroine.
Efemena is not just a narrative whose motions reflect society and its yearnings. It is also an intensely personal yearning which propels and galvanizes the heroine towards the materiality of life and that of self-knowing.
Within this social and cultural schema, it stands to reason that the narrative possesses autobiographical potentials as it unveils in skeletal form the bold profiles of the novelist.
This reality is discernible from the cover illustration which thematizes the novelist and makes her the centre of attraction. It is at once a story of self-testifying and also that of communal celebration of innocence which graduates into self-knowledge. The sexual encounter between the heroine and Jamuike, a court clerk, disruptive of the future as it might be, gestures towards possibilities of self-knowing which can sometimes secrete disparate emotional states, initiate psychological tensions and wreck dreams. This encounter perhaps speaks to the surrealistic dimensions the novel can be productively engaged as it happens in a sleepy, subconscious state.
Much of the narrative pendulates between the coming-of-age of the heroine and the entangled circumstances which like a sticky web construct the concrete outlines of the self-identity of the heroine as she enters full womanhood. It also represents an intricate transition from a moment of relative inexperience about the things that are and ought to be and the coming to terms with the realities she is confronted with. This delicate balancing is definitive in the narrative as it provides the pivot on which the unfolding proceedings revolve and gather elemental energies.
What is outstanding about this narrative is the quality of its vision which is penetrating and searing and which privileges the cause of womanhood in Nigeria and Africa. It is a vision which grows and conquers space with its contagion that unlocks the visceral powers and potentials that are constitutive of women’s agenda for liberation and empowerment.
It is the eagle’s vision which sees clearly where others do not; a vision which liberates, ennobles and empowers in an uncommon and generative manner. It is a vision which propels or galvanizes on the path of new beginnings for the transformation of social and cultural patterns. This new beginning also benefits from history which is why much of the narrative is a retrospective look at Nigeria’s past. This retrospection begins with the ancient empires like Oyo Empire which bloomed long before the colonial encounter. But aspects of Nigeria’s colonial history leading to national independence also get recounted in the narrative to serve as a veritable framework for the present corpus of realities. Much of the history which get enacted is that of the Nigerian Civil War, which is sometimes called the Biafran War.
This is perhaps where the novelist’s descriptive prowess has been best displayed as she describes in minute details the war museum and its relics in Umuahia.
But it is also part of its undoing. Particularly, the details of the description dealing with the Oyo Empire are redundant and significantly slow down the narrative motions. Greater care also needed to have been exercised in the syntactic structures, the tense shifts and the integrity of the overall diction.
On the whole, Efemena reads well like a masterfully crafted story that it is. Amukoyo combines a graceful style with a sometimes measured and, at another, a fast-paced narrative kinesis which shifts seamlessly from page to page, chapter to chapter. The language is racy and compelling and the vision urgent and insistent. This is a story which waits to be told any other day because of its impressive credentials and persuasive appeal.