Godmenai! Amis andgus. Rubiesu… Aiyegun Yesi Yemanagu…
I find myself mumbling a language I cannot understand as I drift in and out of the pages towards the end of Chuma’s riveting epic – The Extinction of Menai.
I am not sure I can say this is a feat for Chuma especially because of his storytelling history – The Ghost of Sani Abacha, How to Spell Naija, and Diaries of a Dead African; also, because the poetry and stories I follow on his social media as well as blog but more still because of his profession as a lawyer.
Chuma’s dance with language is enviable. And this is not because of the sometimes very sophisticated words but the easier ones, how they arranged and make sense.
And perhaps it is this respect for and knowledge of and experience with -language- that informs this book.
It opens with the “Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (Article 10.1) All language communities have equal rights” then a dedication to the less-equal half of the world’s 6000-odd languages, which will be extinct in another hundred years.
Clearly, Chuma has an almost spiritual relationship with language – and what it means in terms of identity, culture, dignity for those speaking these languages. His is an exposition of the connections that language holds, not to just people but to histories.
However, enough of my fascination with the author’s fascination with language. Let’s talk about the book without trying to give away much.
The Menai are dying. They are running out of time. This is the idea we are brought to deal with as the book starts. How it plays out is the journey that Chuma expertly takes us on, him – an omniscient narrator, giving us magnifying glass views as well birds’ eye views of the process of the extinction.
However, this is not a journalistic narration. The writer was akin to an angel taking one through visions, through pasts and futures, a back and forth giving context and reason and then painting a bigger picture. This was done exemplarily well through an expertly crafted cast of characters who seem thrown over different parts of the world but are connected by events that at first glance seem not at all connected.
A half-naked procession of mourners. Unexplained deaths. Failed coup attempts. A doctor and his wife’s designer drugs. A mock burial. An author’s messianic book deal go wrong and more…
The events are primarily set in Kreektown and Sontik State in Nigeria; however, the journeys take us to Scotland, England, Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan even China if not to prove a certain point about roots and connections.
In as much as the few chapters that detail the thoughts and experiences of Chief (Dr.) Ehi A. Fowaka give an introduction and thought about the Menai people and their perceived absurdity and strange customs but more generally a look down on cultures that are getting extinct- it is the chapters that have the stories of Zanda, Badu, Humphrey Chow, Tobi Rani, David Balsam, Amana, Penaka Lee, and Mata Nimito that give this story its heart and soul and take you on a journey of discovery of what the Extinction of Menai really means – why and how all language communities have equal rights.
There are love stories, international-level political plots, terrorist attempts, mystic occurrences, scientific explanations that all connect together in what seems the dying of the Menai.
It was masterful how Chuma took on top-level happenings while at the same time giving eye to individual, interpersonal happenings and exposing many of society’s inconsistencies, conflicts, sins while at it.
It is in questioning strong topics like sexism, corruption, greed, capitalism, with great use of language.
“Women and children, always women and children! As if men that died there are donkeys!”
““Bastard! Were. Aje! You take one million US dollars and give me a hundred thousand naira!” I was angry myself, “What did you bring? Was it not ordinary photocopy form? Hundred thousand for a fifty naira paper, was that not enough?”
“‘Goodbye, Humphrey,’ and her voice was as cold as the kiss had been warm.”
“‘We’re burying a nation, David…Not just a man…’”
“After all, eyeswater is not for drinking.”
It is hard to tell after a while when reading the book whether this is fiction or a true story. You want to look up places and see whether they exist, companies like Trevi Biotics, IMX; names of famous people – Malcom Frisbee, Phil Begg, because for a while inside Chuma’s tale, everything is alive, as big as it is small, as compelling as it is hard to believe. And moreso because he has overlapped worlds. More than overlap, it seems like a perfect amalgamation.
And when you do get to the end, you realise why Chuma goes to the lengths and depths. He is making a plea for language but not just language, cultures on the brink of extinction and he is also asking us how well we know who we are. He asks for introspection, asks for an inquiry into our religion, our sociology, our financial systems.
His main characters seem to be living on different sides of the world but are connected. We are as some would put it, living in a world of six degrees of separation.
It is written very much like an Ousmane Sembene God’s Bits of Wood book but with a wider plane of influence. It is a modern day epic that is intriguing as it is teaching. It’s epic scale is in no way confusing for those with the patience to follow through to the end, to the extinction of the Menai to wonder whether the race, the language, the customs, the wisdom, the songs, have come to an end or maybe could be saved.
On reaching the end of the book, and reconciling his first words, you realise you have just read one of Africa’s best writers. His ability to create the world that is “The Extinction of Menai” was ambitious because of the seeming scale but Godmenai it was enjoyable and unforgettable.
Perhaps because of what language means to him, he went to the lengths of an epic to relay a message that a story can better tell than a declaration, and while declarations have their space, the story should awaken us to a deeper appreciation of our roots and identity as African regardless what shade we are. And that we are human no matter what language we speak.
An epic that doesn’t shy away from the cultural, spiritual, financial, political and sociological influences on people, this is my best read this year of our Lord, 2017.
P.s As a writer, there was a lot to take from the chapters that had Lynn Christie, Grace, Humphrey Chow, and Malcom Frisbee in terms of writing. Especially the Malcom Frisbee and Chow lunch. So much. Every writer, every emerging writer should read it.
This review, of Chuma Nwokolo’s The Extinction Of Menai, a 2017 publication, was written, for Turn The Page Africa, by Joel Benjamin Nevender.
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