This is a transcription of Episode 19 — Nigeria: Jollof Rice, Nigerian Pidgin, and So Much Hustle”.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today, we get curious about Nigeria.
Melissa: And we had to be very curious about Nigeria because we had never been there. We don’t know anyone who’s Nigerian. We had not previously read any books set in or about Nigeria.
David: Yeah, my ignorance of Nigeria was near complete. The one thing that I thought I knew that Lagos is the capital of Nigeria is wrong twice. [laughter] Not the capital. And they pronounce it Lagos (LAY-gos), not Lagos (LAH-gos).
Melissa: I also had to learn that lesson.
Melissa: To be fair, Nigeria does not show up on must travel visit lists from magazines or websites. But it is a fascinating place and the literary scene is booming.
David: Yeah. Particularly if you’re into fantasy or sci-fi. There is some fantastic work coming out of Nigeria right now.
Melissa: Yeah, there are awesome books and poetry both in Nigeria and from Nigerian authors in other parts of the world. So this is our mea culpa that we are starting definitely from scratch with Nigeria. We did a lot of research and in addition to the books we read, we watched tons of YouTube videos which were wildly entertaining and informative.
David: Yeah, for sure.
Melissa: And so now I think we are ready to give enough background so that we can all appreciate the books that we’re recommending today.
David: All right. You want to get into it?
Melissa: Yeah, let’s jump into it.
David: Let’s go.
Melissa: Nigeria is the seventh most populous country in the world, and one in six Africans are Nigerian. To orient you, it’s located on the west coast of Africa, just under that kind of bulbous part of the continent. Africa has a nose on the West Coast, it’s right underneath the nose. So that means it’s on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea. It shares borders with the Republic of Benin on the west, Chad and Cameroon on the east, and Niger in the north. And that’s important because those border countries share lakes and rivers with Nigeria. The lagoon in Lagos is the port city for all of those landlocked neighbors; 80 percent of imports enter the country through Lagos. So let’s talk about Lagos for a minute, because it is amazing.
Melissa: It’s the largest city in all of Africa, 21 million people.
Melissa: Yes, it is by definition, a megacity. We watched a video of a traveler who, bless his heart, looked like he probably smells like patchouli and had a whole bunch of string bracelets on his wrist and was just exclaiming how much he loves megacities. And he was jumping out of his skin. So excited to be in Lagos.
David: Yes. That seems like the proper traveler for Lagos. Somebody who is very much OK with the hustle and bustle of the market and the loud music and you’re not really sure what’s going on and everybody going every place and all of that.
Melissa: Yeah, he was into it.
David: If that’s you, Nigeria might be your place.
Melissa: Ok, so Lagos was originally built on a group of islands and then expanded onto the mainland. And all of those things are connected by bridges. Loosely speaking, the islands are the center for commerce and government. So kind of buttoned up kind of activities. And the mainland is better known for industry by day and music and parties at night.
Melissa: So Lagos is famous throughout Africa for his music scene. It’s the home of Sakara music, which is based on a native Yoruba musical tradition but is often now songs of praise. We’re going to talk about religion in a minute. Very integrated into society there. There’s also Nigerian hip hop and Afrobeat, which combines traditional West African music with American funk and jazz. Lagos is also the center of the Nigerian movie industry, which is sometimes referred to as Nollywood. It’s the second largest movie industry in the world. They make 1500 movies a year.
David: Yes, it’s amazing. And you can find examples on YouTube.
Melissa: They are entertaining.
Melissa: And maybe not in the way they intended.
David: I feel like they are entertaining in the way they intended.
[audio clip of movie: I think just like an art form. And I am like Picasso on steroids.]
Melissa: There are also many, many, many festivals held in Lagos every year for music, film, photography, food. The theme of celebration comes up over and over in the books that I read and the research that I did. Everything is big and loud and boisterous and over-the-top. Despite its size and importance, Lagos, however, is not the capital. The capital of Nigeria is Abuja, and it’s located almost exactly in the center of the country and it was built in the 1980s specifically to become the capital.
David: One of the books I read suggested that Abuja — Nigerians look down on Abuja because it has no soul.
Melissa: I read it in a couple of places that it was purpose-built, which is the fastest way to suck the soul out of anything. So let’s talk about history just a little bit so we have a little bit of background. In the 1600s… This is bad. I should preface this by saying it’s bad. In the 1600s, an estimated 14.6 percent of all slaves were taken from an area that’s now part of Nigeria. That is three and a half million people.
Melissa: In the 1800s, the British came in and defeated many of Nigeria’s tribal kingdoms and created a colony which they ruled until 1960. And then on October 1st, 1960, Nigeria became independent. Three years later, it adopted a Republican Constitution, but they actually chose to remain a member of the Commonwealth and still are today. So they’re still associated with the UK.
Melissa: Let’s talk about climate. OK, we’re reezing through. Nigeria has a tropical climate with both rainy and dry seasons. And by all accounts, it’s humid all the time and quite hot a lot of the time. But despite that, it has pretty diverse geography. There are plains and plateaus in the middle of the country, tropical forests, some deserts, beaches and really amazing national parks. The photos of the national parks are so beautiful. And of course, you have all the greatest hits of African animals: elephants, chimpanzees, big cats, birds, lots of great nature.
Melissa: Let’s talk about culture a little bit, because this is the foundation, I think, that is going to come up a lot in the books that we’re discussing. We already mentioned that Nigeria is a country of contradictions. There’s incredible wealth because of their natural supply of oil. But there is also rampant poverty.
David: They have like a ton of oil. They have something like a third of the oil of Saudi Arabia.
Melissa: They also have a third of their population living below the poverty line.
David: If you’re looking for an argument against trickle down economics, yes, that’s a strong one.
Melissa: Yes. You can literally see a big fenced estate with a swimming pool and BMW in the driveway right down the street from a neighborhood of shacks living right next to each other.
David: There’s no zoning to speak of, so people in Nigeria will frequently build wherever they can. Right. There’ll be shacks next to a mansion because there are no zoning laws.
Melissa: There’s no city planning. It’s also quite a religious country: 50 percent Christian and 50 percent Muslim. And there’s not a divide between religion and the rest of life. So, for example, a business meeting might begin with a prayer. It’s kind of woven through all of society. But as you mentioned, that does not stop raging corruption in the government and the police. Despite all that or I don’t know, maybe because of it, Nigerians are very boisterous and colorful and loud and exuberant.
Melissa: If you look at the pictures of the city markets or even the rural villages, it’s very colorful and parties and weddings are a big deal. Music is everywhere. And food, oh, the food is a big thing. We can talk about the food for a little minute. Nigeria is the largest producer of yams, cassava, and taro in the world. I am into this carbohydrate situation. There’s a dish called fufu. That’s a combination of cassava and green plantain. So that is starch heaven. And the way it’s made requires lots of pounding of these root vegetables into a paste. It is an effort to make fufu. I’m going to put a video in the show notes because it’s really amazing. It is a workout.
David: What do you think it tastes like?
Melissa: Starchy. Cassava is the plant that tapioca is made from. So it’s just kind of a bland, starchy flavor. And green plantains taste like… not sweet bananas. Like if a a green banana and a potato had a baby. So starchy goodness. But they’re also very big on meat. Nigerians eat every kind of meat, every kind of meat. And all parts of it, especially in soups, so we’re going to put a video in show notes of some street food from Lagos and the bowls of soup have — yeah, pieces of meat that you’re,like, ‘Wow, that is a part that I have not seen on my plate before.’
David: Or previously considered edible.
Melissa: Yeah. I’m going to talk about food a lot with two of my books. There are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, but there are three prominent groups. The first is the Hausa-Fulani , which are in the north, and they are primarily Muslim and they make their living in agriculture. If you are thinking about traveling to Nigeria, most blogs and travel recommendations advise you to not go to the north.
David: It’s dangerous.
Melissa: It is dangerous. In the southwest, we have the Yoruba and they are the most westernized and they’re known for their celebrations called owambe. And then the Igbo are in the southeast and they are considered to be the most industrious and well-educated and they are mostly Christian. Even though the country is a federal republic with a president, there are still monarchs attached to those different tribes that live throughout the country. And even though they don’t have political power, they are very influential in their communities from a cultural perspective.
David: Yeah, that was one of the things that I read about was how difficult Nigeria is to rule because it’s hundreds of tribes who all have competing ideas about stuff. And then even the part you mentioned where there is 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian. That creates problems because if you include too much of one, the other side gets upset. And so there’s this tremendous balancing act that’s going on all of the time.
Melissa: Very complicated.
David: Started, of course, by England.
Melissa: Which brings me to my next point. English is the official language, even though there are more than 500 languages spoken in Nigeria. English is everywhere. Nigeria is, in fact, the third largest English-speaking country in the world. After the United States and India. Most people in Nigeria also speak Pidgin, which is a Creole language and that combines local dialects and slang and English words. It is the common language among Nigerians, and it comes up in the books that I read quite a bit. Lots of times a sentence will end with ‘o,’ which just adds the kind of musicality and lilt to the sentences. I really like it. I found a really good video about Pidgin that I’ll put in show notes.
Melissa: So even though I don’t feel like I will be adding Nigeria to the top of my must-visit list, I have to admit that I really enjoyed doing the research, and I loved all of the books I’m going to be talking about today. One of the things I think is — that I found really cool about this particular episode is… I’m not putting Nigeria on my list, but I wish I was the kind of person who would put Nigeria on my list. [laughter] I wish I could be the kind of person who could set expectations aside, go to the place, and see what unfolds. That’s Nigeria.
David: Awesome. Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
David: OK, I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is a lie. Here are the three statements. So first, as you mentioned, there is a language West African Pidgin, which melds together a bunch of different languages: Portuguese, English, African, tribal tongues, that kind of thing. I will play you a sample now. If you listen closely, you can hear the English whizzing past your ear.
[sample of pidgin]
David: According to Abuja Wikipedia, about 75 million people speak West African pidgin. So here’s the statement: The BBC has a new site that’s written in West African pidgin. Statement two: Nigeria consumes more Guinness than Ireland.
David: My statement three: Nigeria has the largest diversity of butterflies in the world.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice. Ok, I know that the first statement is true.
David: Oh, do you?
Melissa: I found that in my research.
David: So the British government gave the BBC a grant of about 290 million pounds or 380 million dollars to expand their coverage. And they use part of that money to set up a Pidgin site. The amazing part about that effort is that until now, Pidgin has only been a spoken language. There are no rules for writing pigeon down.
David: They have a website in Pidgin where you can see the news and the news headlines written in Pidgin. The history of West African Pidgin is fascinating. It started as a language so Portuguese traders and African slavers could talk to each other. It has since grown into the language of resistance and anticolonialism.
Melissa: That’s cool.
Melissa: Although, is it weird that it’s the Brits who are documenting and codifying the spoken language of resistance —
David: For their own resistance, commercial use? Yes, a little bit.
Melissa: Sure, because part of me is like, that’s really great. That is an awesome acknowledgement that there are millions of people who are speaking this language. But I wish —
David: Yeah, I don’t know. They’re both promoting the language and putting it in a cage. The fellow who’s running the program — and I’m going to butcher this — Bilkisu Labaron says that Pidgin is so expressive it brings people together and it reaffirms a shared African identity.
Melissa: I like that.
David: So that’s his argument for it. So that gets us back to the other two: Guinness —
Melissa: Guinness and butterflies.
Melissa: I’m going to say the butterfly statement is true.
David: So Nigeria has a ton of animals, as you mentioned, and a whole bunch of different habitats. It is shocking how many habitats that they have. They’ve got everything from deserts to mountains and coasts, and they’ve got swamps and they’ve got forests. It is breathtaking what they’ve got, and they have a lot of different animals that go there. There’s something like 22,000 different vertebrate and invertebrate animals.
David: Yeah. From simple things like barnacles and cows and donkeys all the way to elephants and lions and zorse.
Melissa: What’s a zorse?
David: It sounds like a setup for a joke, doesn’t it? A zorse is an offspring of a zebra and a horse.
Melissa: Are these striped?
David: Yeah, yeah, a little bit.
Melissa: Sounds like something made up by a children’s author.
David: It does.
Melissa: We’ll put a picture in show notes.
David: Among the many animals that Nigeria has, those are the sexy ones. It also has 20,000 species of insects.
David: Everybody wants to talk about the lion; nobody wants to talk about the 10,000 kinds of beetles that are crawling around.
Melissa: I do like beetles.
David: So, many people report that Nigeria has the most butterflies anywhere. But according to an article on Africacheck.org, it’s not true. They do have over 1100 different species of butterflies, which is over 10 percent of all the butterflies on the planet. So if you’re looking, they’ve got a lot. But for the largest diversity of butterflies anywhere, you have to go to our next destination, which is Peru. Yeah, Peru, because they also have coastline, mountains, and they also have the Amazon. Yes, they have over 4300 kinds of butterflies, which is almost 25 percent of all butterflies everywhere.
Melissa: That’s amazing. Yeah. You know, who would know that? Deanna Raybourn, the author of the Veronica Speedwell series. Because Veronica is a lepidopterist, and she has all kinds of adventures all over the world collecting butterflies.
David: And then finally, the Guinness thing. If you don’t know Guinness, Guinness is a dark stout that has been brewed in Ireland forever. It is almost ubiquitous. It’s got a very brown — looks like a piece of wood when it’s sitting there in the bar. It’s just very solid. It eats like a meal. They have been brewing that stuff in Dublin since 1759.
Melissa: Right on.
David: It is possible that Ben Franklin had a Guinness part for him when he visited in 1771.
Melissa: Let’s just assume that’s true.
David: I think we have to. And it is today still the best selling alcoholic beverage in Ireland. But there are two nations that drink more Guinness. The first, less of a surprise, is Great Britain and the second is Nigeria.
Melissa: I will say that a Guinness alongside a spicy stew would probably be a really good combination.
David: Yes, I agree. Strongly.
Melissa: Cheers, Nigeria.
David: That’s Two Truths and Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Let’s do it. All of the books that I’ve chosen for this episode feature strong women, and I’m very excited to talk about them.
David: Both of my books do, too, actually now that you mention it.
Melissa: Right on. All Women episode.
Melissa: My first book is My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. This is a super smart, snappy, fast-paced literary thriller and by ‘literary thriller’ I mean, it’s a thriller written with kind of a literary style, not a thriller set in the world of literature. And the set up is right there in the title. I’m not giving anything away by saying this is about a woman who kills her boyfriends when they become problematic and her long-suffering sister who bails her out over and over again. The entirety of the first chapter are these three sentences: ‘Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.’
Melissa: I was, like, ‘Those are perfect sentences’ because you know what’s happened. And now you know this has happened before.
David: And you want to read the next chapter.
Melissa: Yes. So let’s get a few things out of the way, right off the bat. This is not a grisly serial killer story. And it’s not really a crime novel. It’s an investigation of what we will do for the people that we love. And that’s explored through this very tricky relationship between the two sisters. Ayoola is the killer, and she’s the exact opposite of her sister. She’s flirty and she’s curvy and very bubbly. And she has kind of a devil-may-care attitude, which you might expect from a serial killer.
David: Yeah, you might . Melissa: Charming and problematic. Her sister Korede is angular and responsible and less confident. And this is how Korede actually describes herself and her sister: ‘Ayoola’s skin is a color that sits comfortably between cream and caramel, and I am the color of a Brazil nut, before it is peeled; she is made wholly of curves and I am composed only of hard edges.’
Melissa: So their physical appearance comes up frequently throughout the book, and it’s kind of used as a shorthand for desirability and value and how other people feel about them. Korede is the person that everyone turns to for help and stability. She is the one you call when you need a big bottle of bleach and a scrubbing brush. [laughter]
Melissa: But also if you need to get something done at work or to manage a difficult conversation.
David: She’s the fixer.
Melissa: She’s the fixer. And Ayoola is the one who is adored and admired.
David: That seems like a challenging relationship.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, it’s great. It’s really good stuff. I really like this for this show because it really subtly explores the culture of Lagos. It’s not like some of the other books that are very travelogue-ish. This is much more this is what it would be like to live in this culture. There’s an admiration for people with money and good looks. Of course. There are people who just really want to have a good time. There’s the really oppressive heat that almost becomes a character — like, you can feel the pressure of Lagos kind of pressing down on people.
Melissa: So we get to know these two women through them cleaning up some murders and there’s a really messy love triangle. And as the current action is taking place, we’re also slowly getting their back story, and we come to understand how they became the women that they are. And we understand why they have such a strong bond to each other and why Korede doesn’t just tell Ayoola to clean up her own messes or, you know, turn her into the police. It’s really, really darkly fun read.
Melissa: And if people in our audience are thinking, ‘I don’t like serial killer books.’ This is really not like that the violence happens off of the page and the vast majority of the action is really taking place through conversations and inside the characters’ heads.
David: That’s cool. So it’s sort of a relationship book, more than —
Melissa: Absolutely. It just so happens it’s a relationship between a serial killer and a fixer.
David: Who are sisters.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. We love each other very much.
Melissa: The writing is really like slick and rhythmic and punchy and the story moves really quickly. I am an older sister and I was born with a very strong sense of responsibility and justice. It is baked into who I am.
Melissa: So I related very strongly to Korede, that feeling that you’re doing everything right and that flibbertigibbet over there is getting all the attention and all the adoration and doing whatever she wants and getting away with it. So I really related to Korede — as she’s scrubbing the bloodstain out of the bathroom floor, thinking to herself, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this again.’
Melissa: The author Oyinkan Braithwaite was born in Lagos and she spent her childhood in both Nigeria and the UK. And she said that before she wrote this book, she was in a little bit of a writing slump. And she sat down and just banged this thing out in a month, and it has been wildly successful.
David: Good for her.
Melissa: Yeah, it was the winner of the Los Angeles Times book prize, and it was shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize and long-listed for the Booker — her debut novel that she banged out in a month.
David: Good for her. That’s amazing.
Melissa: I really enjoyed this book. That is My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
David: My first book is Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa. This is a travelogue by a woman who goes to Nigeria, but there’s a whole level that description just ignores. So let’s start there now. Noo Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria in 1976. Her father was a Nigerian human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. He’s famous in Nigeria. The way she describes him in the book makes him sound like a very serious, very dedicated man. And there’s a lot about him in the book for reasons I’ll get into in a second. Here are a few data points on him. First, he was a writer. He wrote plays and novel, but he was also an activist. He took on Shell Oil.
David: Yeah. He led a nonviolent campaign to gain awareness of how Shell destroyed his homeland and took a pretty good run at his people. Ultimately, that effort led to a 15 million dollar settlement for his tribe.
Melissa: Right on. Rabble-rouser!
David: Yes. Here’s another bit. Ken had five kids on each kid’s birthday, he’d call them up to a study to his desk. He’d take out a blank birthday card out of a drawer, sign it, put it in an envelope, seal it, and give it to the child. [laughter]
Melissa: That’s very unusual.
David: He was a stern father, but he wanted his children to have a great education, so he sent them and their mother to London when they were young. And then once a year during the summer, the kids would come back to Nigeria, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes belligerently, and they’d travel around with Dad. And when they got bored staying in hotel rooms, he’d say, ‘Write an essay.’
David: So in the ’90s, Ken Saro-Wiwa took on the military dictatorship that was, at the time, the Nigerian government. And in 1995, they arrested him, had a kangaroo court, and they hung him.
David: Yeah. His daughter Noo was 19. She finishes university and she goes to Columbia in New York, and studies journalism and she decides that she wants to be a travel writer and she ends up writing for The Guardian and The New York Times and all that. And then about 15 years later, she decides she’s ready to go back to Nigeria and see what that’s all about. So this book describes that trip.
Melissa: So she’s not going in there with rose-colored glasses on by any stretch of the imagination.
David: In any way. She’s got history.
David: So the book is a travelogue. You just follow her from London to Lagos and through Nigeria. She reports what she sees and smells and eats. And because she’s an accomplished travel writer, you hear that. You see it. It’s all there. But she also doesn’t romanticize it at all. She has a complicated relationship with Nigeria. She’s affectionate for it, but she also sees the problems. She’s a Nigerian herself, but she’s also not a Nigerian.
David: And the locals know that. as soon as she starts talking, people are like, you’re not really from here. And then there are moments where she’s, like, introducing herself and people recognize your father’s name, that kind of thing. She makes Nigeria sound loud and difficult and challenging, both in the minute and as an experience. As a place to go, there are about two moments — two in this 300-page book — where I was, like, ‘oh, that, be cool.’ And the rest… Wow. For instance, I think it’s the second day she’s there, she’s talking about taking the bus across town. She describes getting on the bus and she finds a seat and a preacher enters the bus and he starts bellowing, ‘Brothers and sisters, before we complete this journey, let us pray.’ And everyone bows their heads. And then he calls for the blood of Christ to cover the bus and protect us from thieves.
Melissa: Wow. That would be a very dramatic bus ride.
David: And she wrote that by the time the bus pulls out, they’d received a full service with a hymn, prayers, and a sermon. Then he finishes and another guy gets up and he starts promoting a medicine he wants everyone to buy and he itemizes — He’s selling a tea and he itemizes the tea’s healing powers for about 30 minutes. At bus stops, street hawkers literally shove their wares into her face and she describes the smells that that brings some of it’s food, some of it’s socks. One of the vendors uses a looped recording of a baby crying to get attention. Sometimes the bus has thieves, so they board and they just start taking stuff. So the the priest was right to say protect us from thieves.
David: Nigerians frequently remove their SIM cards from their phones when they get on the bus because of that.
Melissa: I used to get upset when I rode the bus and I’d be reading with my headphones on and someone would ask me what I was reading.
David: Yes. Way, way, way past that.
David: So she fights her way through all of that, and she gets off the bus and she enters the National Museum. And the National Museum is dingy and dim. And there there are staff members who are sleeping. There are items there, but there’s nothing but a description of what the item is. So a label might say ‘Camel saddle’ or ‘Yoruba drum,’ and there’s no indication of the items’ age or rarity or its cultural significance. It’s just there. And she’s standing there looking at the Yoruba drum, wondering about it when the power goes out.
Melissa: That would be shocking.
David: This level of experience never stops. Through the book, the author visits a bunch of things that might call to a tourist like an ape sanctuary and a dog show the Transwonderland of the title, which is a broken-down amusement park that opened in 1987 and has apparently had zero upkeep since then. So it’s rusty and spooky. She declines the roller coaster.
Melissa: Probably smart.
David: Yeah. She gives you what feels like an honest portrait of Nigeria. It’s a rough land and you get a really good portrait of endemic poverty and crime and corruption and what that means to the people there. And you also get the heat and exhaustion and crumbling infrastructure and the horrible customer experience. But she’s such a lovely guide for it that the book itself is compelling. She herself is fascinating and funny. And I wanted to find out how this was going to go for her. And she takes us into places that you can’t go. She hangs with her family and you hear about her relationship with her father. It’s a really good book. It works both as a travelogue for Nigeria, but also as a journey of identity and memory. It’s a good struggle and it’s well written.
Melissa: That sounds really good.
David: It is. It’s really good. That is Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa.
Melissa: My next book is The Girl with the Loudest Voice by Abi Daré. This is a coming-of-age story set in a Nigerian village called Ikati and a mansion in Lagos.
It is the story of Adunni who, more than anything, wants to get an education because she wants to become a teacher and help other girls get an education so they can improve their lives. We meet her — she’s 14 years old and she’s living in the village and she has just found out that her good-for-nothing father has promised her and marriage to a taxi driver. He is three times her age and he is marrying her to become his third wife because the first two were unable to give him his son.
David: When is this set?
Melissa: Modern. It’s contemporary.
Melissa: In exchange, her father gets paid a bride price, which he wants to use to pay rent and buy a new couch and a new TV. And at the wedding, her father says to her new husband, ‘This is your wife now. From today till forever, she is your own. Do her any how you want. Use her till she is useless. May she never sleep in her father house again.’
David: Wow, that’s not particularly enlightened.
Melissa: I spent a big chunk of the beginning of this book so angry, so incredibly angry. And then we learn the really heartbreaking part, which — besides being a 14-year-old married off to a forty five year old — we learne that Adunni had been going to school and she was doing really well. She loved it. And she was a really good student. But her mother died, and when her mom died, she lost her advocate and her protector. Adunni says, ‘I tell you true, the day I stop school and the day my momma was dead is the worst day of my life.’
Melissa: It’s a really rough beginning of the story for Adunni. But even when she’s sad, she is a spitfire, she’s very brave, she loves books and learning, she’s really, really curious. She questions everything. And she’s devoted to her little brother. And somehow she values herself, even though everything and everyone around her is telling her that she’s nothing. She has this core of belief. That’s in large part due to her mother, because her mom instilled in Adunni the belief that education would give her a voice, her louding voice, the voice that she can use to speak for herself and for others.
Melissa: And she holds on to that belief through everything that happens to her,. Through a series of unbelievable but very believable circumstances and hardships, which I will not ruin by enumerating them here — But some stuff goes down — she eventually finds herself working in a mansion in Lagos for a very wealthy woman. And she learns way more about the way the world works than a 14-year-old should.
Melissa: So, things I loved about this book, because I don’t want to give too much away about the plot because it’s very suspenseful and wow, does some stuff happen. Things I loved about this book: It presents a very unvarnished look at life in Nigeria. It sounds similar to the book you just talked about. There is corruption and poverty and fathers selling their children into marriage and physical abuse, but there’s also love between friends and siblings. And she does find allies who help lift her up. There’s a very deep-seated belief in the power of education to help people change their circumstances. That is a really strong thread through the whole book.
David: Yeah, that was strong in my book as well.
Melissa: There are a lot of details about everyday life in the village and in Lagos that create very vivid mental images of what her daily life is like. And there’s also this really sweet mechanism that the author uses. Each chapter starts with a fact about Nigeria, and that kind of sets the theme for what that chapter is about. And the facts are all true. But in the novel, they’re attributed to a fictional book that Adunni is reading, and it’s called The Book of Nigerian Facts. The book doesn’t really exist, but she’s working her way through that book in the library of the house where she’s working and learning things about Nigeria that she didn’t know because she lived in this little village.
David: That’s a cool framework.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really awesome. Another thing that I really enjoy that makes Adunni come to life is the version of English that she speaks. The author Abi Daré said that she didn’t want Adunni to speak Pidgin because in Nigeria, even very educated people speak pidgin. It’s not broken English. It is a fully-fledged language. So she wanted Adunni’s English to be her own kind of thing based on the fact that she’d only had some education. So Adunni’s English doesn’t quite get the verb tenses and articles right. The way she arranges the words almost becomes poetic and very emotional and it makes her voice really, really strong. She is the narrator of this story. It’s written from the first-person perspective through her words and her voice. And it’s just really powerful. One night when she can’t sleep, this is what she says:
‘I rub my chest where the too many questions is causing a sore, climb to my feets with a sigh and walk to the window. Outside the moon is red hanging too low the sky be as if God pluck out his angry eye and throw it inside our compound.’
Melissa: So everything she says just feels like it has like this rich emotion in it because it’s so poetic. And a lot of the content in this story is hard to read. Adunni and the other women endure some really terrible things, but the writing is very beautiful. And even when it’s devastating, it’s very hopeful. It’s a magic trick that the author is pulling off. She somehow conveys these awful things while also making us feel like it’s going to be OK somehow. Even when things don’t go as planned, it’s going to be OK. So if you want to go on a journey with a young girl with a fire in her heart, this is the book for that. It’s called The Girl with the Loudest Voice by Abi Daré.
David: My second book is Rosewater by Tade Thompson.
Melissa: I thought about reading this one! I’m excited to hear you talk about it.
David: This is a science fiction novel set in Lagos and an invented town in Nigeria. The town is called Rosewater, which is where we get the title. It’s set in the near-ish future of 2066. It’s a story about an alien invasion. It’s a very slow alien invasion. And when the book happens, it’s already underway. The aliens are microscopic fungal spores.
Melissa: Oh, that sounds harder to deal with than little dudes coming down in a spaceship.
David: And weirdly parallel with our current times. . These spores have released into the Earth’s atmosphere. There are some places like the town in Rosewater where there are alien biodome that have appeared, which is basically a domed greenhouse for the alien fungus they’ve set up. Once a year, the biodome opens and when it opens, it heals all the nearby sick people and sometimes raises the dead.
Melissa: So the alien spores come out of the biodome and heal people.
David: Yeah. So there’s it’s almost like a blooming event. It heals everybody. In this book there are zombies, but it’s almost an afterthought. There are also creatures that have been healed in unexpected ways that we would find grotesque.
Melissa: Hmm. It’s like a _Pet Cemetery.
David: A little bit like Pet Cemetery).
Melissa: By Stephen King.
David: Yep. So humans have set up a town around this biodome. There are people there who want to be healed. There are people there who want to study and there are people who want to worship the biodome. In the middle of all of this is our hero Kaaro. And I might be butchering his name, but let’s go with that. Kaaro is a thief, or at least he used to be. And he’s an agent for a secret arm of the government.
Melissa: Secret agent!
David: Kaaro has powers.
Melissa: What kind of powers?
David: Kaaro can see into the minds of others. And he can do this because when the aliens landed, they set up a network of spores that have landed on everyone and everything. And some people are sensitive to this network. And because of that, they can see into people’s minds. Kaaro is one of those people. This is so prevalent this ability, that Kaaro’s day job is working at a bank is a psychic guard.
Melissa: Oh, that’s awesome.
David: Yeah. He prevents other psychics from getting access to people’s passwords when they think about them. So that’s the first act. That’s just the normal everyday of this book. The baseline. Welcome to the story. What’s going on.
David: Then Kaaro discovers that someone is killing all the people who are like him. And then what we have is a combination of weird science fiction and another plot line with a Nigerian sensibility.
Melissa: That sounds awesome.
David: It’s pretty great. It’s pretty great. It’s Blade Runner and Afrobeat and a little biological apocalypse all happening at the same time.
David: I really thought it was great. It is a carnival ride of a book. Stuff comes at you fast. Like I said, that’s the first act, and it gets weirder from there. It is also told in parallel time frames. So you get little bits of Cairo’s youth and then we’re back to the present and then we’re bounced to a mission that he ran as a young adult and you kind of meet characters through time. I’m not normally a huge fan of this kind of construction, but it works really well here.
Melissa: I really love that jumping around in time, which is kind of unexpected, I think. If you think about the things I like. Yeah. But yeah, I really like that.
David: I was worried about this book as a Strong Sense of Place pick for a bit because I wasn’t sure about how true it was to its location and it spends a solid chunk of its time in an imaginary city. But then I realized the book’s about colonization. There’s a bit where one of the characters argues why the alien came to Nigeria. And she says: ‘We have more experience than any Western country in dealing with first contact. What do you think we experienced when your people carved up Africa at the Berlin conference? You arrived with a different intelligence, a different civilization, and you raped us. But we’re still here.’
David: Yeah, and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks for smacking me over the head with that.’
David: Portions of this book are dark and upsetting. So warning, if that’s not a thing for you. Also, Rosewater is the beginning of a trilogy. All three books are out now. I should mention that the author is a working psychiatrist.
David: Yeah, he works in a hospital in the U.K. helping people who have mental illnesses and physical problems. He says it helps with his work. In one interview, he said,’If you’re writing science fiction, often people are expecting astronomy and spaceships. I’m more interested in the human being who has to go up in the rocket. What does the loneliness do to him? How does he keep his head together while he’s in orbit? What really interests me are human emotions.’ Last year, he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is the United Kingdom’s most prestigious prize for science fiction. For this book. If you’re looking for a wild ride that takes you through a near future in Nigeria, I can’t recommend it enough.
Melissa: That sounds great.
David: Yeah, it was really good. That’s Rosewater by Tade Thompson.
Melissa: My final book is a new book.
Melissa: Just came out about two weeks ago. I know I’m usually strongly backlist.
David: I’m kind of shocked.
Melissa: I was able to sneaky grabby hands get an advance copy.
David: Good for you!
Melissa: Yeah. This book is great. Yeah. So let’s say what it’s called because I keep dancing around it. It’s called Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi. This is an intergenerational saga about three Nigerian women: twin sisters and their mother. It’s set mostly in Lagos with side trips to Canada. And it is a novel about food, family and forgiveness. And food is the fourth character in this book.
David: It’s hard not to love a look where food is the fourth character.
Melissa: Yes, I’m going to talk about that in a little bit more detail in a minute. But let’s get into the set up of the story. The story begins when we meet Kambirinachi. She is the mother of the twin daughters. She believes that she’s a magical being from folklore called an Ogbanje.
Melissa: Yes. An Ogbanje is kind of a dark creature. Ogbanje is an Igbo word. Remember we talked about the Igbo in our introduction? It’s an Igbo word that refers to spirits that plague a mother by being born and dying in childhood over and over again.
Melissa: Very dark. It’s a little bit similar to the notion of a changeling in European folklore. That’s where a baby is swapped for some kind of supernatural creature. So Kambirinachi believes that she’s an Ogbanje, and at one point she decides to live. She’s going to break the cycle of dying over and over, and she chooses life. And that has repercussions throughout her life. As she gets married, has her children, ages, moves through her life, she has to make an effort to ignore the voices of her kin who speak to her and try to call her back towards the realm of death. So there’s the shimmer of magic over her part of the story.
David: I was going to say, so how far into the magical world are we?
Melissa: I mean, it’s presented very matter of factly as part of the world when we are talking about Kambirinachi. The rest of the novel does not have any of that. So it’s really interesting, compelling juxtaposition.
David: Ok, so if it was a movie, there might be part of the movie that’s set in just modern cold reality and there might be chunks of the movie that are animated, fantastical little views into the world.
Melissa: Yeah, OK. That’s how I mean if you visualize that as we’re talking about it, that will definitely work.
Melissa: So then we meet her identical twin daughters. They are Taiye and Kehinde and they’re really, really close when they’re young because they’re identical twins. They’re inseparable. Taiye is very quiet, so Kehinde even speaks for her. They are two parts of one whole. But after their father dies, a very bad thing happens and it busts up their family.
Melissa: So the sisters who were so close become estranged from each other and from their mother. And Taiye runs off to London and Kehinde goes to Montreal, Canada, and they basically get as far away from each other and from their family home as they possibly can. Then, after more than a decade of living apart, the two sisters return home to their mom’s house and Lagos and the three of them finally have to face themselves and each other. And that’s kind of where the book takes off. We see them when they are coming back to their mom’s house and there’s all of this emotional baggage kind of in the background. The bulk of the book is learning what happened to them, what caused this estrangement, and how are they going to find their way back to each other now?
Melissa: I loved all of these women. They are so different from each other and they are not trying to be likeable. So it feels very much like real life. It’s raw and funny. And like sometimes you’re 100 percent on their side and then they do or say something. You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so angry with you right now. What are you doing.’ And the structure is great; the chapters alternate among the three women. So we get the points of view of each of them. And as I already said, the mother’s chapters have that sheen of folklore about them and they’re told in the third person, but they have the voice of a fable almost.
Melissa: And then one of the sisters is told in just straightforward third person and the other is in first person. So you’re going inside her head and getting her point of view through her eyes. It’s really, really effective and it makes each of their voices really distinctive. I love stories that are composed of different perspectives of the same event because I feel like that’s how people in real life experience events. There is not one true story. It’s all how it’s perceived by the people who are part of it. And this novel just captures that really, really well.
David: That’s really cool.
Melissa: So I said the other characters food, and I was not exaggerating. Food plays a really important role in the lives of these women, but also in the story. So Taiye is a train cook. She uses food to connect to herself and to other people because she’s the one who was so quiet when she was a child. She had a hard time expressing herself through words. So she uses food and it is used to express longing and loneliness. In some cases, it’s like a plea for mercy and sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s lust. There are all of these different emotions bound up in the food at different times in the story. There are really, really loving descriptions of what Taiye is cooking and why it’s not just tacked on because people like to read about food. It’s integral to understanding these characters and the plot. Food brings people together and pushes them apart in really interesting ways. So if I can, I’d like to read an excerpt. It’s a little bit long, but it’s really good.
Melissa: ‘This is how you make Mosa with your sister on the day she returns home. You are happy to occupy yourself with this task, as it keeps you from asking if she read the letters you wrote over the years but never intended to send. You will need the following ingredients: several overripe plantains, six heaping tablespoons of ﬂour, four teaspoons of fast-acting yeast, a quarter cup of warm water, Atarodo peppers to your heat preference, a tablespoon of salt, and vegetable oil for frying. First things first, you’ll have to activate the yeast. You can do this while failing to share with your sister the fact that Banke, a foolish former lover, took it upon herself — without your consent or any sense of boundaries whatsoever — to mail the shoebox full of letters that you had poured yourself into with no intention of sharing ever ever. Taiye had never spoken to anyone with as much loathing as she did to Banke after the girl presented her with the mailing slip like it was a gift. Second, step aside to keep from getting mushy plantain splatter on your kaftan as your sister enthusiastically mashes the plantains in a bowl. Third, add the salt as your mother sifts the ﬂour into a large stainless steel bowl. Fourth, let your sister add the yeast solution and mashed plantain to the bowl of ﬂour, as she seems the most excited of all three of you about this Mosa situation. Fifth, cover the bowl and let the mixture rest for ten to fifteen minutes.’
Melissa: I really love the way she works the emotional state of the characters into the steps of the recipe.
David: Yeah, it’s really cool.
Melissa: And I’ve cooked with my family that is legit. There’s a lot going on. This novel is very, very sensual in the definition that means ‘of the senses.’ There’s sex and food and the heat of Legos and you can feel all of it as you’re reading. And there are some pretty dark moments in the narrative. The event that sent the girls to opposite sides of the globe is terrible. It has to be to break them up. But the overall vibe of this novel is love: romantic love, sisterly love, motherly love, love of life. It’s really beautiful and very moving.
Melissa: The author is from Lagos and this is her debut novel. Another first-time author who just, like, nailed it out of the gate. This book was long listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which recognizes excellence in Canadian fiction. And she’s also a filmmaker. She has a documentary called Black and Belonging that screened in festivals in Halifax, Toronto, and Montreal. So she is a super-talented overachiever that we should probably keep our eyeballs on. This book was wonderful. That is Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi.
David: Those are five books we love set in Nigeria. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you talk about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I am all about the food this time. We are going to be sharing a recipe for Jollof rice, which is practically the national dish of Nigeria. That came up in every single book I read, every food video, every article: Jollof rice. And we’re going to be sharing a recipe for Suya, which is a spicy like meat-on-a-stick that’s a very popular street food. And I was also really excited to find there are some great Nigerian Instagrammers. We’ve curated a list of Instagram accounts that celebrate Nigerian fashion and food and street photos and bookstagram. There are some really awesome Nigerian book-related accounts. So we’ll be sharing all of that in the next two weeks on our website.
David: Fantastic. Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. I don’t know if you know, but Mel’s been here and out of the park with the newsletters.
Melissa: Thank you.
David: Yep, they’re awesome. The last one last Friday made me tear up a little bit. [laughter]
Melissa: And we should quickly mention we have two types of newsletters. We’ve been updating our website three to five times a week, and if you would like to be notified, you can sign up to get a newsletter — it’s very short. Every time we update the site, I’ll send you a little note that says, ‘Hey, hi. This is what you mean for you today.’ And then on Fridays we have our epic newsletter where I write a letter about something that’s on my mind and highlight the things that are on the website that week.
David: If you enjoyed the podcast, please write it and review it and tell somebody you love. And don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode.
Melissa: If you need help knowing how to leave a review on Apple podcast, which is very, very helpful to us, we have step-by-step instructions on our website in the FAQ. So even if you’re not listening on Apple podcasts, if you’re listening somewhere else, you can still leave a review on Apple and that helps introduce us to other people.
David: Mel, where are we going in our next show?
Melissa: We are heading to South America and the Andes Mountains to get curious about Peru, the mystical land of Incas, Machu Picchu, and the Nazca lines.
David: Thanks for listening, and we will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Alucardion.
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