If you think Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi have exhausted all the layers of cultural motifs, Evans Ufeli’s The Gathering of the Tribes offers a refreshing kind of kebab to savour to the fullest.
Fictional setting teeming with backwater barns, cawing birds and tom-tom beats no longer holds a fascination for many Nigerian writers like in the past century, as the intrigues of city life dominate modern narratives. But, if you think Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi have exhausted all the layers of cultural motifs, Evans Ufeli’s The Gathering of the Tribes offers a refreshing kind of kebab to savour to the fullest.
Revolutionary literature always strives to take the wind out of the sails of the bourgeoisie class by concerted efforts. Deployed by the generation of Thomas Paine in American literature during the Revolutionary Period, in the lead up to the US independence from Britain, and taken to a new height by the Marxist writers at ideological war with capitalism, the quest for political independence in Africa in the middle of the 20th century and the ensuing disappointment in the new black ruling elite saw many African writers, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, disparaging Babylon with their quills. The flaming quill isn’t dead, nevertheless.
Ufeli’s new novel fits into the revolutionary artifice, albeit set in a rural area, where the modern is having a dangerous intercourse with the ancient. Sad as it is, the local government administration here has failed the people, with the boss always thinking of the number one and sanctioning a reign of evil.
What does a free society do in the face of oppression? The Anieze tribesmen offer all the answers in this fiction. Roused from their lethargic contentment by a returnee leading light from Egland, Ike Ibe, and an emerging political voice, Nze, the youths endure humiliations, brutalities and murders to change a strangulating status quo. The Anieze crisis, no doubt, verges on the political zero sum game that has become emblematic of our democracy.
In fact, political betrayal runs deep into the narrative. Elected to govern their people, our political leaders abandon the electorate. Any dissenting voice is either settled or crushed.
Chief Onyeonu, the local government chairman, in the novel, tries to do the same against the reactionary youths of Anieze; but they stand their ground. Martyrs like Puze and the gang-raped maiden, Amaka, are among those constrained to give all for the future of others. The importance of the sacrificial lamb for a worthy cause reverberates here.
Set against the background of a rich cultural heritage, the reader is immediately led into the marvels of the Ukwata Festival celebrated in Anieze, the elegance of the Atilogwu dancers swaying their hips and performing acrobatics to offer maximum trills, and the savvy of the Okwa custodians of tradition (octogenarians working in concert with the Obi). The idyllic is venerated by a writer exploiting the bucolic universe. But here is a universe with a binary exterior as it pans out. Ufeli introduces the fiesta thus: “It is Ukwata Festival, and Anieze is in high spirits. It is the period when men felicitate in one accord and wine and dine, giving toast to the soul of Anieze… Anieze has displayed its harvest for the festival. There are big tubers of yam, cassava, and produce of many cash crops” (p.20). It is a season when indigenes travel home to their ancestral home, Utagba Uno; but not Nze!
A different matter is troubling his mind. He isn’t interested in merrymaking this season. He has gathered all his friends to discuss the full participation of the community in the electioneering process to enable the youths take control of the government. This meeting marks the beginning of the movement to upstage the constellation of evil forces in Anieze. Even the involvement of a dibia afield is required to present a common front because of the risk involved in the struggle.
Of course, we are used to the familiar excuses of non-performance by elected politicians in Nigeria, exemplified by Chief Onyeonu’s speech at the gathering of Anieze folks: “We are taking our time to revive the structure of governance. The past administration left nothing in the treasury; that is why we have not seen much development in the last two years…” (p.37).
But he is quickly challenged by the outspoken local champion, Nduka: “… Chief Onyeonu has failed us. His administration is trailed by lies. All he has said here today are lies –lies which he has been telling us before he was elected.” The dagger is now drawn. Nze gradually awakens political consciousness in the people, leading to protests at government house.
To cow the opposition into submission, the politician resorts to blackmail, intimidations, sponsoring cultists, police arrests and downright elimination of enemies. At this juncture, the author imbues his protagonists with uncommon valour and candour.
Policemen are presented in this fiction as a willing tool in the hands of power-drunk politicians against the people who are supposed to protect. Here, they are taking sides, unfortunately. Expectedly, it boomerangs on the political fortune of Chief Onyeonu, as he loses the chairmanship election, his tugs having been poisoned by Amaka. And Nze, riding on popularly support, wins the election, with a promise of a new dawn in Anieze.
Noticeably, there is a creeping languor in the narrative as it hits the middle of the tarmac, with the author failing to distance himself from the story and trying to work in too much realism into the fiction, leaving scant room for smooth levitation of plot. But the limpid undertone is an enticing proposition in this clime–youths rule your destiny –besides the overt thematic preoccupations of righteous indignation, violence and retribution. Simply, it is a political Armageddon!