The prologue thrusts you sharply and precisely into the fray, beginning in the West India Docks of London, 1803. A kidnapped black woman recounts her harrowing time hiding on a slave ship in a bid for freedom for herself and her unborn daughter, before the rotting smell of a corpse gave away her location. Such an opening solidly sets the scene; introducing readers to the multilayered narrative. From the juxtaposition between London and Owobi, Nigeria to the temporal shifts, this book is illuminating in so many different ways.
We begin with the ghost of a slave; born in the Owobi village, she tells us not only of how she died alongside her lover Wind in the London docks after they were sentenced to death, but also her search for her daughter and her first born Ezo, who she hid in a shrine during her kidnapping.
“My heart cries out for the two, Uzo, my baby boy, and my baby girl, taken from me that morning while I lay dying over there among the barrels of sugar, spices and tobacco, the feel of the cold hard floor against my back.”
It is through her lens that we are told the stories of Michael and Ngozi, who live very different lives, but remain victims of the same prejudices. Before we meet Ngozi, we are thrust into Michael’s world; after his brother murders his stepmother, financial pressures and discrimination forces him to take a path that many young boys in London do: dealing drugs. Not only does Amaka detail his story with all the important contextual nuance it deserves, but also displaying the suppressed emotional turmoil swirling inside a lot of young men today that they’re reluctant to talk about.
Whilst Michael is off using the drug dealer lifestyle as a means of escape, we meet Ngozi who lives in Owobi. As the ghost retakes the narration, she informs us of how little the village has changed since, bar some differences. Mementos of conflict from the Biafran War that linger over 200 years later serve as a stark reminder of how different the culture is to the UK on a societal level. Unlike Ngozi, very few of us have had to move villages to continue our education. Many of us might not even be able fathom the notion of sacrificing for an education that is so freely provided to us in the UK. Even pieces of artillery left behind such as a tank only further highlights how small of a blip it is in the occidental world - swiftly removed from the scene and easily forgotten in our fast paced society.
Both the story of the slave and the relationship between Michael and Ngozi function as a multifaceted exploration into the black struggle over time. The poetic style of writing might throw you off balance at first, and might even be a little hard to get into, but it is the poetry in the syntax that creates a serene undertone underneath all of the violence and injustice, to carry the reader through the book. By chapter five, when we are shown what it’s like to be a young girl in a Nigerian village, I was completely hooked. I devoured the rest of the book in a few hours after that.
Amaka reminds the readers of one thing: we know so little about African history. And perhaps by extension, we don’t spend enough time sharing knowledge about our history. As a Nigerian myself, insight into our histories is beyond intriguing for me. Whilst the Biafra- Nigeria Civil War is a well remembered and important piece of Nigerian history, I have never heard my parents mention it amongst my friends. The generational gap of information makes it such that a lot of us in the diaspora might not be aware of the war at all.
As a result of this book, I did a little research of my own into Nigerian history and discovered the story of Alaafin Ajiun Orompotoniyun of the Oyo Empire who is considered to be the first person to successfully undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1540. Shocking what you uncover isn't it? Though not a replacement or a crash course into black history by any means. Amaka paints a vividly enchanting picture that asks you to think about black history at the very least, if it doesn’t entice you to do a little research of your own.
Amaka’s almost lyrical articulation of the harsh experiences of black people in society might not encapsulate the black experience in its entirety, but pulls back the curtain just enough that you catch a glimpse of the breadth of Nigerian history that has, in a way, been lost to us. This love story teaches as well as entertains, and it’s the learnings of Ngozi and Michael that illustrates the breadth of Nigerian history that those of us in the western diaspora world have yet to uncover.