Book Review: ‘Under The Bridge’ – The Story of a People Living in Bondage

by Obinna Edeh

“The  Society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a very humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in Philosophy because Philosophy is an exalted activity will neither have good plumbing or good philosophy. Therefore, neither its pipes, nor its theories would hold water’. John Gardiner (1912-2002)”

At the outset, I would confess that it was not particularly easy to start this review. The first reason is that ‘Under Bridge’ is a book not like every other book. Unlike other books with a single theme running through various chapters, ‘Under Bridge’ gives birth to new themes in each chapter, yet, it ensures a beautiful marriage of all the themes as the chapters develop. The second reason stem from what I have noticed in most book reviews. Most book reviews actually do a critique of the writers instead of the book, thereby dissipating the energy that could have been invested in investigating the theme and discussing the plot. Truthfully, it took a bit of time to resist the urge to begin this review with a critic of James instead of his book. I am sure I will talk about James in subsequent paragraphs.

Although, ‘Under Bridge’ could be said to belong to the family of fictions; anyone who picks up the book would hardly remember its fictional background until the end. The author used the very engaging paragraphs to introduce the main protagonist in the book, Victor Ekwueme and to tie up the several themes and ideas projected in the novel. In the initial chapter, Victor is introduced as a local boy in the remote village of Umuege,  Ngor- Okpala in Imo State, Nigeria. The lucid description of the setting of novel is one of the many beauties of this book. The reader is told that Victor is the first of four children born to another poor couple in the poverty stricken Umuege.

However, Victor would have been better if poverty was his only problem. Victor’s father, Ekwueme was a serial wife beater. He would batter ‘Mama Victor’ even before his children and insult her in front of the villagers. On the other hand, Mama Victor isn’t any better. She is shown as that woman who would always match up to her husband, word for word; a woman with a heart of stone, who would take ‘no shit’ from any man. Therefore, the result of this was constant crisis in the family which led to her banishment by her husband. Thus, this parental abandonment forced the boy Victor to become a man. He was tasked with the responsibility of providing for his younger ones and taking care of his aged grandmother. Victor resorted to all kinds of improvisation in order to put food on the table. However, due to lack of means, most of the soup used as meal was mere water  with a little ingredients which in local Igbo  parlance is referred to as ‘Ogba n’aza aka’.

Most non Igbo speakers would find it a bit difficult to understand the meaning of ‘Ogba N’azu aka. However, there are also Igbos, the very privileged ones, who although might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but not the contextual expression. The first thing that is activated once you approach that title is your imagination. Literally, Ogba n’azu aka means ‘something that  flows at the back of the hand’. In the context of the book, it means a kind of soup, without any content apart from water. Soups and Stews are normal delicacy for Africans and Nigerians. People take soup with a kind of cassava paste called Garri, Pounded Yam, or semolina. It is expected that a soup should at least have other condiments to make it thick and nutritious. However, when the soup lacks the basic condiments necessary to make it a soup, what is left is simply colored water, taken  not for nourishment but to prevent starvation. This was the situation of Victor and his siblings.

Beyond the literal meaning  of ‘Ogba n’azu aka, comes another hidden theme in the story.       Ogba n’azu Aka, represents poverty. It represents lack, it represents abandonment;  it represents total neglect. It speaks more about the infraction in the society when it fails in her duty to take care of its own. The normal trajectory of a soup is that when it comes in contact with the food paste, it should not run through the back of the fingers.   However, where soup is so watery without any nutrition, it is then taken mainly for survival.

This is a representation of a society in bondage, a society in bondage of poverty caused by a more superior bondage of corruption and avarice.   This is why every effort put in place to cure the sorry situation in Nigeria have continued to run through the back of the hand. Nigeria does not value ingredients. It does not care about the admixture in a plate of soup. It cares not about the quality of what it is bringing forth. It is only concerned that it mixes up whatever it can find and serve it on the table. Even when it decides to cook a better soup, it would introduce inappropriate and unqualified ingredients in the name of a fraudulent Federal character scheme to exclude the very qualified ingredients, the qualified persons that could move the nation forward. This is why the ship of the state has continued to sail backwards. This is why every plate of soup, prepared and served to Nigerians by the government ‘ji agba n’azu aka’ (runs through the back of the hand).

But the problem with Nigerian is not same as that of the lad, Victor. Victor prepares an empty ‘ingredient less’ soup because of lack of resources. Nigeria prepares such soup because of corruption and corruption. Even if we pardon Victor, we cannot pardon Nigeria and those who fleece her. The problem with Nigeria has never been the lack of resources. It is the failure of successive leadership to face the truth about corruption and institute a system of wealth redistribution that would favor the majority. Indeed, it would seem that the state benefits from keeping the masses in the bondage of perpetual backwardness, while the masses seem to have inhaled an opium that weakens them from questioning the actions of the state.

However, Victor Ekwueme was able to recover from such Opium when in the second chapter of the book he challenged his father and requested him to do something about the sorry situation in the family. But such honest protest was to earn him the nomenclature of a rebel and a member of the opposition.  Victor’s father represents everything a father should not be. He represents tyranny, irresponsibility, and total disregard for the welfare of his wards. Ekwueme represents a leadership that lacks the ability to listen to constructive criticism, reflect on such criticism and act to amend. Ekwueme is the proverbial ‘Eze onye agwa nam’ the King who insists he would not hear even from his advisers. But as the Igbo’s would say, the fly which refuses to listen to counsel would soon follow the corpse to the grave, Ekwueme was to feel the karma of his actions when he was sacked from his job in Port Harcourt and he returned to the grim realities of the poverty he has instituted in his household. In our context, Ekwueme is that politician who reviled in the beautiful arms of the capital city, enjoying the warmth and caressing  pleasures of the moment and forgetting in a hurry that even  from creation, no condition has ever been permanent. At the time he was removed from power or impeached and sent back to the village, he gets to realize that all these years he has forgotten that something cannot be built on nothing.  Ekwueme returned to the village, empty; there was no report of any improvement in his life as he has wasted his fruitful years on the laps of ‘nwanyi mba mmiri’.

However, the story of Victor was different. The very sorry state of his siblings coupled with the rejection by his father began the process of releasing him from bondage. But the lad did not realize that bondages are not removed by the same process that put them in place. There is always need for a pragmatic effort, beyond the very energy that keeps bondages in place for one to release oneself from bondage.  To some people, it comes through a deep spiritual experience, to others it might be an academic sojourn, whereas to some others a change of environment could the trigger  the needed energy  to release oneself from the shackles that held him bound.

In the book, Victor had a combination of these experiences. We see in the third chapter how Victor left Umuege for Lagos   after he had refused the nudging from his mother to go and learn auto mechanic from another poverty stricken townsman. He took his destiny in his hands, desiring to venture into the large and unknown city of Lagos, instead of living within the same environment that inflicted and  cursed him with poverty.

But Alas! His first visit to Lagos was a disappointment as his aunt in whom he had reposed deep confidence disappointed him. Upon arriving at his Aunt’s house in the Mafoluku area of Lagos, he was served with the news that his prophetess-aunt  (Monica) could not accommodate him in the house because her husband would not hear any of it.

However, the reader is told that the house is also used by Auntie Monica for religious and spiritual events. Indeed those who presently live in Nigeria or Africa should be familiar with the concept of prayer houses and prayer warriors. Prayer warriors are a group of spiritualists who claim to have the gift of praying for people in bondage. They receive prayer requests from people mostly for a fee, and then organize prayers for them either in the prayer houses or in the houses of their ‘clients’.. To become a prayer warrior, one needs no qualification. In fact, a qualification is a disincentive to the ‘business’. The only requirement is to amass several Psalms in the bible which deals mainly on witchcraft, ancestral curses, spiritual attacks and prosperity. Unfortunately, it was in the hands of one of these prayer merchants that Victor met his first disappointment in Lagos.

The next morning, he left for the house of another Townsman. Okey we are told is a newly married man, living in the squalor called Ajegunle and a works as a security man. In spite of his own penniless state, he accepted Victor and it was in this one bedroom apartment, shared by three adults that Victor began his ‘transformation’ in Lagos. At first, Victor imagined that arriving Lagos was the solution to all his woes. But Lagos was to introduce another type of problem as the harsh realities of life hit him at that stage.

Happily though, it was not all a tale of woes for Victor as the reader is introduced to the very beautiful Calabar girl that had a crush on Victor. Prior to this point in the book, Victor has been presented   as a struggling young man with the singular desire is to eke out a good life in the world. However, the introduction of Nse in page 42  exposed another side  of victor.  The reader is told that as Victor set his eyes on Nse the Calabar Girl, his lustful ‘members’ were activated and it did not take long before he unleashed his carnality on her.

Victor’s host and his wife were expecting a baby so the days of Victor in that household were numbered from the first day. But this did not deter him. After some honest but fruitless efforts to get a ‘decent’ job without school certificate, Victor settled to the reality of life. He joined Okey as a security man and was outsourced to different offices in Lagos at various times.

But from the stories thus far, one cannot but appreciate the fact that Victor represents astuteness with a ‘never say die’ spirit. As poverty continued to bite hard on him, the young man began the process of questioning the essence of life itself.  He gradually started to realize that life was deeper than what he has been told both in his school and in church. He used the solitude of the moment, the constant interactions with his mind and the his growing love for reflections and meditations to pierce through his immediate slum and stagnant environment. Victor found liberation in the pages of the Philosophical books which he constantly bought from vendors at a place called  Lagos under bridge. These books opened him up to the treasures of the mind and began the process of liberating him from the chains of ignorance. Victor began to realize that man was created for a higher purpose than he is presently pursuing. The books taught him that the essence of life can be found in loving one’s neighbor, living a life of honesty,  and thus, living free from the bondages of materialism. This was the turning point for Victor as it heralded the process of releasing him from the ignorance (or wrong knowledge) that kept him down.

In other to put the things he read into practice he began to think about business as an exit point from the very harsh security job. Thus, he wrote business proposals and sent out to different companies. Victor believed so much in himself, in his ability to bring change to his life. Indeed, faith is the first asset needed to liberate oneself from bondage. The ability to face life squarely no matter what results that comes. That sense, that in spite of the dire situation, one has the ability to bring change to one’s perspective and then to one’s situation in life; the refusal to live in a present hell because of the expectation of a future heaven. Victor represents a breed of young Nigerians who unfortunately are negligible in number. He represents those who would not choose a university course due to some parental influence… Victor represents the youths who believe in the beauty of their dreams and would make whatever positive sacrifice required to bring out that future. Unfortunately, in the present ‘get-rich-quick’ Nigeria, the likes of Victor are not easy to find. It is difficult to find a young person with a constructive life vision working towards actualizing that vision. The harsh realities of the economy have created a band wagon effect, most young people run after what is reigning; but this is not for Victor as he continued to walk around Lagos selling his proposals and believing in the beauty of his dreams.

However, this process opened another problem for Victor. As he got the purchase order to make supplies to a construction company, Okey his landlord,  who had initially promised to bankroll the request began to withdraw. He refused to give the money he promised, and also refused to loan Victor some money in order to make the supplies. This was to become the height of Victor’s frustration as his first business deal was heading for the rocks because of funds. Again, he did not give up. The reader is told that Victor met a certain guy whom he had known from his village and narrated his situation to him. The guy not only loaned him the money, but took him to the place where he made the purchase at a lower cost thereby earning his first profit as a business man in Lagos. This was to continue as he continually received Purchase orders from the company.

Again, Nse, the Calabar girl makes an entry into the book. This time, she was not observing Victor, but was ready for him. The girl had noticed that Victor had become accustomed to ‘staring’ at her within the chest region, and she in turn has religiously left that ‘window’ open for him to stratify his optical lust. However, on this day when Onyinye, Okey’s wife was not at home, Nse makes her entry as Victor was home alone. A few conversations were to follow before Nse noticing the bulge in Victor’s mid-section wasted no time to assume position, and the rest as they say is left for imagination.

However, this constant amorous union between the duo would not endure as  Nse who obviously  was  inexperienced  in such matters began to  show signs of pregnancy. Again, Victor was in another trouble, this time self inflicted. This situation was to cause problems between Okey, and Nse’s brother when the matter blew open. At this point, Victor was ready to damn the consequences of his actions and as the Nigerian would say…the guy don gather liver.  However, to quickly remove the mess, the pregnancy was aborted and Nse packaged back to Calabar. Thus ended this episode of Victor’s life..

Subsequently, Victor sat for the school certificate exams, cleared it, and got admitted into the City University. In spite of the intractable problems in the university system, Victor graduated Magna Cum Laude and thus began the process of upgrading his life.

At this time, he has moved out of Okey’s house in Ajegunle, and after some spirited attempts to secure accommodation in the high brow areas of Lagos, he settled for the medium class districts. The reader is told that Victor begins to encounter some half educated neighbors who saw his lifestyle as unconventional and strange. However, it was not his to bother as he continued to pursue his business and his academics. At this time, Victor has begun to supply goods to Italian Engineers in Lagos from whom he made a fortune. But unlike his father Ekwueme, Victor did not forget home. Although he had lost his lovely grandmother when he was still struggling in Lagos, he traveled to the village when he was able to raise some money to see his family. Unfortunately, his only sister had become terminally ill to the point of death and Victor could not help shedding tears as he saw the infirm body of his sister.  From the narrations and flashbacks in the book, the reader gets the picture that the sickness came as a result of the serial neglect of the family by their parents. The theme here portrays how corruption, ineptitude and dishonesty on the part of leaders brings misfortune to the society in general. The death of Victor’s sister was a grand culmination of the failure of parenting and a  failure of leadership. But this grief did not deter Victor as he moved on, reconciled with his father and reunited with his mother.

After seeing the high level of poverty in his community, Victor resolved to do whatever he could to bring succor to the needy. Therefore, with the support of a few friends, he set up a foundation in Lagos to take care of the homeless and the poor children. Interestingly, .this charity home was devoid of tribal or ethnic sentiments.  Again the theme here shows an altruistic young man and his desire to do well irrespective of the tribe or religion of the beneficiary.

There are several lessons that the reader learns from the life of Victor. Chief among them is that, every attempt at gaining freedom from poverty must be preceded by the liberty of the mind. One cannot succeed to set himself free by using the same mindset that pulled him into poverty. Therefore, Under Bridge is the story of one who liberated his mind first, and then his life was liberated.

In Africa, we have an entrenched system of recycling thoughts and ideas. The same level of thinking that put Africa in the backstage of history is the same that are still recycled in the Universities and other educational institutions. The worst aspect is that, some of these backwater ideas have been spiritualized by the ever growing African churches; meaning that if one misses such negative indoctrination in the school, he is sure not to avoid it in places of worship.

Therefore, the process of liberating Africans will not start from the current system or Education or Religion in Africa. The system lacks ingenuity, pragmatism and any sense of purpose. One cannot remember the last time Universities in Nigeria effected a holistic change of curriculum. Africa has failed to realize that the world is today divided between those with knowledge and those without it; and in the coming years, influence in world affairs would not be calculated by high population of a nation but by the number of the population with knowledge of the changing global dynamics. It is regrettable that countries in Africa have not taken up the challenge of changing the course of their future. Africa still grapples with terrorism, corruption, gross abuse of  human rights, bad governance and  a sit tight syndrome of leaders. There is no future for any country that does not place value on the rule of law. There is no future for any country that does not place value on human rights and human capital development.

 

The author of Under Bridge, James Immanuel Anywawu, has given us some foods for thoughts.  At his young age, he has romanced philosophy to understand that every man must look into himself for solutions to his problems. The hitherto religious admonitions to look up to heaven may not be very true since God is actually closer in us and not necessarily far away in heaven. It is his opinion that if the libration of a man starts with the discovery of that God within us and the knowledge of the fact that there is no separation between himself and this God, then we shall be unstoppable. This is the sort of teachings that religion would not let out as it does not serve their purpose of inflicting fear for the purpose of  fleecing the sheep. However, a more critical thinking and study would open up any person to the truth of the fact that God is not found outside but inside. He is neither found in religious houses nor in mountains. God lives in us, and the quality of our individual lives is determined by how much we are willing to discover this God in us, and liberate ourselves from all sorts of bondage. Thousands of Africans still throne to places of worship, yet they return with the same void that led them to these places.

In his book, James Immanuel presents a young man who filled this void not by endless visits to worship centers, but by discovering his purpose for living and living for that purpose. There is no problem with going to places of worship, but worship must come with awareness, worshippers must know whom they worship; else they would be living and repeating generational falsehoods.

The debt we owe ourselves, and our generation is to release our minds from the bondage of old knowledge and crass ignorance. We must constantly seek the truth, because once we contact it, it would reveal the deep treasures that lie untapped within us.

 

To James, I say thank you for reiterating this timeless, ageless truth.

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