By Ozoro Opute
IT was Distinguished Professor of English at University of New Orleans, U.S., Niyi Osundare who recently declared while reading to an audience in Lagos from his new collection of poetry Green: Sighs of an Ailing Planet: ‘Diaspora is not relocation but dislocation. No gold waiting for you to pick on the streets of Europe or America. No. Diaspora is not unproblematic!’
Perhaps, many are still in doubt what the eminent man of letters said or meant, the sheer gamut of experiences, sometimes ugly, that diaspora Africans undergo while trying to eke out a living after escaping from the hardship back home in Nigeria or other African countries. The challenges become dire especially for most Nigerians because of their socio-cultural backgrounds that impose all manners of unreasonable expectations on them, with a dose of superstitions that sometimes emasculate them in their limited choices.
Yejide Kilanko’s new novel, A Good Name (Narrative Landscape Press, Lagos; 2021), aptly captures Osundare’s take on some telling and disquieting aspects of the diaspora question. In spite of the allure, the promise of the good life that home does not seem to offer, diaspora is fraught with danger for those who carry or are persuaded that their village superstitions supersede everything else and refuse to drop them at the airport gate before flying out.
Eziafakaego (Eziafa for short) leaves his homeland after bagging a first class degree, but in America that degree does not mean much, as he cannot find a job in Houston. He settles for a factory work where he would have one of his fingers chopped off by a machine. He has to get another less strenuous job; he settles for taxi driving and learns the tricks, with his bosom friend Felix providing support. But the job isn’t paying much and he’s living from hand to mouth and unable to really enjoy the good life America promises.
Kilanko’s story is an old, familiar one but told with verve and charm. Unable to get a good job after leaving and settling for taxi driving, Eziafa cannot return home to give his father a befitting burial as his first and only son. He’s getting on in years but he’s unable to marry because of his small income. Meanwhile, his mother back home in Nigeria forbids him from marrying any woman apart from their own village. Not even a woman like Jovita, who is living in America with her parents, but who hails from a neighbouring Umuonyeori village, is good enough for mama’s golden son, Eziafa. Umuonyeori is the village of thieves and killers still bearing the infamous tag of notoriety and stigma for championing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that nearly decimated Eziafa’s people. Eziafa must return to Nigeria to get a wife mama recommends; that’s the only condition he must meet to give her grandchildren at her old age.
Eziafa, too, is enamoured of the freshness of an untainted wife. Jovita is a woman of the world who has seen it all in men. Although reasonably mellowing down after years of wildness, Eziafa believes Jovita’s former wild lifestyle would haunt him if she becomes his wife; men she freely co-habited with would taunt him for marrying a used product. This makes mama’s express wish to marry a villager appeal to Eziafa; he dumps Jovita and returns to Nigeria to get a wife.
In spite of protests from his friend Felix, Eziafa bends to his mother’s wishes, goes home to marry Zinachidi (Zina for short), who is fresh from secondary school. It is Zina’s wish to further her education, but marriage to Eziafa knocks off that desire; her parents are struggling to make ends meet; Eziafa is seen as their sole ticket to a measure of good life an American in-law can guaranty. Zina, however, manages to extract a promise to continue her education in America from Eziafa, as small consolation for agreeing to marry an old man. She is 18; Eziafa is 38. Eziafa’s finances are tasked to the limits in keeping up with the expensive marriage rites; Felix comes to his friend’s rescue.
Back in Houston, Zina and Eziafa settle down to live their own version of American dream. Rather than send her to study business as is her desire, Eziafa conjures and projects his own failed dreams onto his young wife who would now be his ticket to the good things America denied him. He insists his wife must study nursing, a profession believed to be very lucrative. After a long fight, Zina grudgingly accepts to study the course, graduates and begins to work. With his young wife now working, Eziafa has finally achieved a slice of his American dream and settles into some sort of indulgent retirement. He has no desire to drive his taxi again; he lists on the couch all day long while his wife works oppressive shifts to finance the monstrous mansion Eziafa is building back in the village, with the help of his uncle who conjures up a most hideous architectural design.
Eziafa’s rigidity becomes his undoing; in spite of his Americanness, he fails to modernise his thinking, stubbornly holding onto outdated beliefs of the man being the centre of the universe into which a woman must revolve at all times. This is in spite of his friend Felix advising him from his own experience as a married man: ‘Nna, the marriage drums of these times are speaking a different language. If we want our marriages to survive, we must learn these new dance steps.’ But Eziafa stubbornly insists: ‘The language these drums speak is not ours. Why must we dance to it?’ By refusing to dance to it, he is forced to pay the price…
But when Zina finally gets financial freedom, what does she do with it? How does Eziafa fit into her new dreams of a woman capable of being independent of a man still wired in his village ways even in America? These are at the core of Kilanko’s A good Name, how diaspora sometimes alters an otherwise reasonable man into some sort of soullessness. Eziafa and Zina then collide, as they battle to assert themselves in their newfound situations.
Kilanko here feeds on a tragedy that has made the headlines in Europe and America for sometime now: husbands who bring young wives from Nigeria, sends them to nursing school, who then earn larger pay cheques than the husbands, with such husbands seeing them as their retirement ticket. And then these wives begin to assert their financial and emotional independence to the dismay of the husbands who still unreasonably demand unalloyed gratitude and loyalty. Fatalities have often resulted from such ensuing toxic relationships, as is the case with Zina’s friend and countrywoman, Elinma who is shot dead by her husband, which should have warned Zina about the possibility of coming to harm herself for provoking Eziafa while making her move.
Zina has African-American Nomzamo who she met in nursing school and became a workmate to thank for opening her eyes to Eziafa’s unflattering schemes; there’s also Titilope who she met on her way to America, women who provide her with basic knowledge how to deal with the new, wild world she finds herself away from her days of poverty and innocence in Oji village.
In A Good Name, Kilanko has told a believable story even if set in a geography and background different from her own Yoruba. She tells the story of Eziafa’s failed American dream and the dire consequences it engenders. Told in simple, beguiling but charming prose, A Good Name sizzles with humour and vitality, even if dealing with a dark, sombre theme. Kilanko’s use of Igbo words and how they meld into the narrative canvass is unbelievably convincing and alluring. This is a book to read and reread for its heartfelt warmth in threshing out the contrasting fortunes of the American or European dream, with many promising young Africans falling into its deep, dark hole and never able to claw their way back. Kilanko’s A Good Name is a great addition to the growing tradition of diaspora Nigeria/African literature on the migration question and its impact on the African psyche.