Thursday, 24 April 2014
Arrows of Rain By Okey Ndibe – A Review
Arrows of Rain is a fascinating satirical allegory that reveals in gory details the terrible effect of military rule in a country named Madia in the novel, but which is, in fact, a thinly disguised Nigeria. The book opens in captivating fashion with the story of the dead body of a woman sprawled on the sandy shores of B. Beach on New Year Day. The police arrive but do a terribly patched-up work under the guise of investigation. The only person who can give a credible eyewitness account is a maverick vagrant named Bukuru; he is a highly educated former journalist, but presumed mentally unstable. As he reveals that soldiers caused the unknown woman’s death and discloses that a highly decorated Army officer has done unspeakable violence to women, the police begin to hatch a cover-up, discounting Bukuru’s account – and accusing him of multiple homicides.
The novel’s opening pages limn the poignantly detailed story of oppression, corruption, egregious human right abuses, brutal killings and other ills visited on the Madian populace by the higher echelon of the military. After reading it, one is left with nightmares of the total evil called militarism in Nigeria, and governance in general.
A book filled with spectacular intrigues Arrows of Rain is, in my view, a book for everyone’s library. I read the book by pure accident. I was ordering the much-talked about memoir of Professor Chinua Achebe, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, and saw this book listed. Being a great fan of Ndibe’s erudite weekly commentaries on the litany of Nigeria’s social issues, I ordered a copy. I am rather surprised that the existence of such an important book, rich in the history of class struggle in Nigeria, was unknown to me.
The plot of Ndibe’s novel sounds at once prophetic and realistic. Some of the book’s dramatic events will be familiar to most Nigerians, but Ndibe’s flair as a novelist enables him to avoid the trap of recreating the staid realities of Nigeria’s political history. Yes, the novel offers an all too familiar canvas of corruption and massive looting by politicians, which occasion military intervention in a coup d’état. The military regime offers lots of promises that keep the expectant populace relieved and happy. However, the military soon becomes dictatorial, triggering once again a yearning for the corrupt elected politicians. The cycle continues again.
This book will be of immense interest to a variety of ideologically driven minds. From the women’s rights advocate, who wants the world to understand the plight of women under a military dictatorship, to the historian who wants to grasp the nature of military rule in Nigeria, to a law student who wishes to gain an insight into the real drama of cross-examination, rules of evidence and expert testimony – there’s a treasure trove in this fine novel.
The beauty of the book is that many readers will finish it and then spend days discussing many of the social issues that the author has adroitly embedded in a short book of 247 pages. If you haven’t read the book yet, but want to debate which is better – a very corrupt civilian democracy (in the case of Nigeria, government by looters) or an equally corrupt military regime – you should probably stop the debate, run out and order a copy of the book first. Part of the story centers around the unspeakable crimes committed by General Isa Palat Bello (IPB), a very powerful and dreaded military ruler of Madia.
Elected but rather corrupt civilians, who squandered the wealth of Madia in a most reckless manner, are at first Madia’s rulers. The elected president, Askia Amin, is both clueless and indulges excessively in sexual liaisons with women as well as hedonistic consumption of alcohol. The massive looting and lavish lifestyle of these elected officials leads to the country being ranked as sixth on the list of countries rated as “disasters in waiting” by a world organization. Dr. Bato, a brash Ivy League economist who heads Madia’s Economic and Planning Ministry, dismisses the report as “misleading” and actually puts a spin by calling the rating as “good news.” In total disregard to the true state of Madia, Dr. Bato swears that nobody in the country is dying of hunger. He also justifies needless death in Madia, arguing in Malthusian terms that people need to die and be replaced by newborns. Dr. Bato is summoned by Madia’s legislators to explain his statement; he talks down to the lawmakers. His insolent manner triggers a huge parliamentary row. All bets are off, and pockets of protests erupt all over Madia. University students take to the streets to demand the firing of Dr. Bato. Instead, security agents slaughter hundreds of the defenseless demonstrators, triggering more and wider protests.
The disruptive atmosphere enables General Isa Palat Bello, an emir’s son, to sack the elected government and assume office. The corruption-ridden administration of Askia Amin is consigned to the rubbish heap. Bukuru’s already difficult life takes a turn for the worse with this development. He knows too much about the new dictator. He knows about the general’s rape and murder of Iyese, a former teacher turned prostitute who once got entangled in a three-way relationship with Isa Palat Bello and Bukuru. When Iyese got pregnant and bore a son, Isa Palat Bello, who has a long history of unspeakable violence against women, wrongly assumes that the male child is his (he has no male child with his wife and badly wants one). When Iyese insists that the child is Bukuru’s, IPB kills her, leaving the new-born baby an orphan.
Terrified, Bukuru never accepts responsibility for the child. When General Isa Palat Bello becomes president, Bukuru fears that his days – as someone who knows too much about the new military ruler – are numbered. He develops a deep paranoia and even starts hallucinating. His terror gets worse when two men show up at the newspaper where he was a member of the editorial staff, and demand to see him. The fear of IBP literally drives him to the brink. He calls off work, and then starts a long but sad journey that sees him take refuge on B. Beach. In the end, he makes a home on the beach. And it is there, years later, that he witnesses more violent rapes and the killing of prostitutes by Isa Palat Bello’s soldiers.
Life eventually takes a more terrible turn for Bukuru when he testifies in court about the death of the young woman who dies on B. Beach at the outset of the novel. His revelations in court about the heinous crimes committed both by soldiers and the dictator, General Bello, create an international sensation. He becomes the victim of a conspiracy featuring a corrupt high court judge, dishonest police officers, and a terrified psychiatrist. The machinery of state power is mobilized to provide false testimonies implicating Bukuru for the murder. Since Bukuru’s truth is all too frightening, the judiciary as well as other officials conspire to portray him as a mad man and to depict his own indictment of General Bello and soldiers as figments of his deranged imagination. Reading this novel, I recalled a statement by Karl Max and Engels in their slim book, The Communist Manifesto: “the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, and the man of science, into its paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”
The best part of Arrows of Rain is that, despite the seriousness of the issues in the book, Ndibe uses his great gifts as a writer to weave in stories that illustrate the richness of Igbo culture as well as relationships and funny tales. There are such vignettes as traditional marriage rites as well as a sampling of the type of advice given to young women about to enter into marriage. A grandmother advises her bride-to-be-granddaughter: “a wise woman can take any man and mould him into the husband she wants.” The title of the book, Arrows of Rain, is also taken from an enthralling folklore, which holds that rain brings life to things and people, but its arrows can also create such problems as floods and death.
I think Ndibe's portrayal of the manipulation of power jives with an already-established mythology of extreme corruption and careless attitude towards the plight of “the masses.” The point he makes in the novel is as compelling as the techniques presented are accessible. His style of writing is alluring, crisp and lucid. Even when he uses unfamiliar words, the context always lends them clarity, rendering the words easy to understand.
Ndibe’s views are stacked heavily against the ruling class, and in favor of the downtrodden in society. This is likely to make him a target of right-wing apologists who argue that he is too egalitarian, even socialistic in outlook. But he is a novelist who portrays his characters, whether poor or rich, weak or powerful, with great complexity.
Book link: http://www.amazon.com/Arrows-Rain-Heinemann-African-Writers/dp/0435906577