When Enajite Efemuaye, editor of Farafina Books heralds someone as the next big revelation in wordcraft; you drop everything you’re doing and read. I read Adoara’s review of Jacqueline Agweh’s A Pelican Of The Wilderness, done for a competition, with begrudging respect that someone so young could have such mastery of language and such introspection. She is a delight and I am honoured to publish her.
The title of Jacqueline Agweh’s third and most recent novel, “A Pelican of the Wilderness”, is from a bible verse in Psalm that describes the prayer of a weak and an afflicted person. In the book, it is stated that “a pelican symbolizes selfless sacrifice.” The revelation of this contrast was at first confusing, but one soon comes to the realization that the meanings of the title are not contrasting but rather complementing each other. It symbolizes what the story is really about: a man who becomes weak as a result of his selfless love for his community or people. One goes into the book thinking that this book is mainly about the Niger Delta insurgency but then we, the readers, come away with the story of a man, Tonpre, who tries to save his people from the abuse of their land but fails.
Tonpre, the Pelican, is a privileged young man who is driven by his rage at the injustices he sees around him into joining a gang, the Signet Brotherhood. The rage of our protagonist stems from the inability of the government to address these injustices, and it seems to the reader that his joining a cult is not as great a sin as it really is. The author tries to exonerate the protagonist from joining a gang by making it a corrective gang but still manages to communicate his wrongs, which lead to his downfall. The gang leads him into situations that he may have been able to fathom before his initiation. Tonpre, towards the middle of the novel, begins to feel a huge disconnect with his family and loses touch with everything outside his mission as he goes on lengthy trips and never answers phone calls. He finally informs his father of his gang member status, which is in many ways his short-lived redemption.
Throughout the novel, we are introduced to different gangs and how they function. Agweh draws contrast from the rival gang “BGF” and illustrates a cult that acts solely on the whims of a delusional man, Spotless. The Boar, the leader of the Signet Brotherhood, is a more rational and thoughtful character who sincerely looks out for the people around him. The approach of the Signet Brotherhood towards the adversities is how the author tells us her stance upon the real gangs and militants in the Niger Delta. She understands their rage and believes that the militant groups could have got their way with little or no conflict and the vigilante repertoire, which she gives the Signet Brothers. The bond which the brothers share is much different from the bonds of their rival gangs whose members are mostly driven by fear or are in pursuit of a sense of belonging. She dabbles in the grey area of the situation as no single character is completely in the right or wrong, giving a nuanced feel to the characters and disregarding the archetypal good or bad characters.
Set in the newly Democratic Republic of Nigeria, the book illustrates a political landscape in which the people in power are not held accountable for their crimes. We meet governors with no real concern for their own people and who only pay attention to the damages done to the large multinational oil companies. We are also presented with members of the upper class of society that show no interest in the plight of the native people affected by oil pollution. These injustices are one of the many things the author highlights and she also calls attention to the lackadaisical attitude that drove the region into such chaos. From the first line of the novel, we are thrown into a murky and dilapidating forest in the dark of the night, and this paves the way for the tone of the events that will occur later in the novel. The fear and uncertainty of the protagonist in the opening scene is akin to the emotions of the people of the Niger Delta trying to find peace in their motherland.
A recurring and implicit theme in the novel is hopelessness as we see that nothing wraps up nicely with a bow on it. Almost everything is left in shambles or characters are left in a state of confusion. We see this in Tonpre’s relationship with Doyin that can never truly be rekindled or the demise of the Signet Brotherhood or even the BGF. The ending of the novel itself is not satisfying as it leaves one jarred and thinking of the world Tonpre leaves behind and how it will invariably end up badly. Even though in reality, the militant problem was hushed up by the Nigerian government, despite the lack of proper compensation from the oil companies. Agweh leaves her characters in situations that have the reader almost begging the words to be good to the characters. But at the end, the novel gives us no hope for the situation it presents to us.
Despite the renaissance in Nigeria’s literary landscape today, the thriller genre is not commonplace. The action-packed, suspense-filled world is foreign to traditional African storytelling as the use of myths or legends were the norm. Recently, the narrative has been changed to establish African literature as a respected part of the art world or to make political statements. Agweh manages to use the thriller genre while making her own statement on the Niger Delta oil spills and the rise of militancy. We, the readers, see the plot develop from the fascinating life of Tonpre to a fast-paced thriller. The second half of the novel, specifically from the fantastical kidnap, was where the uncertainty arrests one as one follows the protagonists through the events that were hardly foreshadowed. This scene leaves the reader lost in an unfamiliar world. She illustrates the circumstance of her characters with clarity and leaves no room for any misinterpretations to be made about the characters’ demeanour or actions unless concealed for the purpose of advancing the plot.
Often, stories with such ambition are not executed deftly enough, and interest is lost as even the appeal of the plot fades away. But Agweh gives us a story that is relevant to the times as many Nigerians fail to recall the tragedy of the Niger Delta while at the same time entertains and leaves a mark on the reader. The up and down experience of reading the novel is a testament to the author’s talent for storytelling. Even though most Nigerians will react to the book like a certain sergeant in the novel who asked, “What has oil bunkering, looting kidnapping, killing and senseless destruction got to do with a struggle for freedom?” I hope that Tonpre and Signet Brotherhood awaken in Nigerians a drive to act especially in the face of their indifference towards political mayhem as they hoped to do in this wonderful novel.