Where Are You From? By Lola Akande; Kraftgriots, Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan; 2018; 306pp
Restructuring is all the rage in the Nigerian political space. Prominent Nigerian politicians always mouth the ideals of “One Nigeria” but they happen to be the greatest apostles of clannishness, nepotism, prebendalism and all the sundry isms that divide the people. Being a so-called indigene trumps being a bona-fide Nigerian citizen in many parts of the country. It is indeed a daring venture by the irrepressible novelist Lola Akande that she presciently puts Nigeria’s fault-lines on the front burner in her novel Where Are You From? From the first sentence – “Optimism was my friend” – Lola Akande presents a plucky protagonist, Anjola Adeniyi, who dares to engage her beloved country Nigeria in all multiform dimensions.
A sprightly graduate of English from the University of Ilorin in her native Kwara State, Anjola Adeniyi embarks on an eventful National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme in Anambra State. The challenges of the Nigerian ethnic mix of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo are sucked into the demanding whirlpool of survival in a dire landscape.
Starting from her place of birth, the identity question rankles given the history of Ilorin, and indeed, Kwara, in the 19th century when Afonja “liaised with the Fulanis, who were Jihadists led by Alimi, to help him fight Oyo in revenge for his technical expulsion from the Oyo dynasty… After killing the Afonja, the Jihadists fully established the first administration in Ilorin in 1837 and began to overrun, one by one, all the towns and villages in Kwara.” It is thus incumbent on the young one to ask the father: “What about us, Father? What and who are we? Fulani? Yoruba? What?”
The identity issue cuts across the Nigerian terrain. People must perforce change their bona-fides to fit into the needs of divergent moments. For instance, Anjola’s boyfriend and eventual husband, Ifeanyi, Ify for short, and his entire family, originally from the Igbo state of Anambra but born and bred in Jos, Plateau, “had to hide their links with Anambra to be approved. They were educated to believe that they had to renounce their father’s native name and state of origin and acquire Plateau State Citizenship certificates before they could advance their interests. They had also had to discard their Igbo names – at least officially – and adopt Plateau-sounding English or Biblical names.” She thus becomes Mrs. Anjola Jeremiah upon her marriage.
In the hunt for a job in Kaduna, Anjola is made to undergo the problematic process of going to the Kaduna High Court to swear to an affidavit of Change of Name, thus becoming Angela Adnoyi of Zango Kataf in Kaduna instead of Angela Adeniyi of Kwara! She discovers that she even needs to go further by claiming to become a Muslim with hijab to be fully accepted, whence her adoption of the name Hajia Zainab Abubakar! Of course the move goes awry as her tribal marks easily give her away. She confesses to coming from Kwara State and it is put her face thusly: “You are obviously Yoruba by descent.” She is compassionately not arrested and prosecuted for forgery but gets this advice: “Go o Ibadan. I have it on good authority that Oduduwa International is on recruitment drive and will hold a selection interview in December.” Getting to Ibadan to vie for the job she gets this ouster: “This is Oduduwa International. This interview is for applicants from the western region, not for northerners.” She is dismissed as an alien, only for the outraged Anjola to cry out: “You called me an alien in my country?”
Anjola can only wallow in lament: “I can’t find a job, Father. Nobody seems to know where to place Kwara in the comity of states in Nigeria; and it tears my heart to think that I’m lost in a country of my birth, I’m a complete stranger in my own country.”
The novel Where Are You From? by Lola Akande spans the period of July 1985 to September 1998. Divided into five sections, the first four sections are narrated in the first person point-of-view by Anjola while Part Five is rendered in the omniscient view. The General Ibrahim Babangida coup of 1985 and the embargo on employment somewhat shape the life of Anjola Adeniyi.
A patriotic Nigerian per excellence, Anjola dares all travails to forge ahead with her inter-ethnic marriage to her Igbo lover Ify despite the evil machinations of Ify’s elder brother Cajethan. She triumphs in the end as a teacher of the community in the dear “home” of Magaji Njeri in Kaduna State.
Where Are You From? is not all about grim politics. Love softens the harder edges. Anjola’s dalliance with her mother’s cherished “tribesman” Deinde Komolafe ends at the point of violence. In the NYSC camp Anjola enjoys the charms of Cyprian Ugbechie, aka CY, but it’s the devotion of Ify that trumps all. The novel spans the age of love letter writing in Nigeria, and Anjola gets this missive from Chukwudi Wonder: “Dear Sweetie, Ditto… Time and ability plus double capacity have forced my pen to dance automatically on this benedicted sheet of paper. I hope you are swimming in the wonderful pool of Mr. Health over there, if so, doxology!”
At the other end of the spectrum, the brain drain highlighted in the letter from Anjola’s supervisor in the university, Dr. Christopher Agbebi, after his car was stolen underlines the years of the locusts spanning Lola Akande’s very necessary novel.
The schisms in Nigeria point to the fact that Lola Akande’s Where Are You From? needs to be made recommended reading for students and political leaders alike across board. In getting married to Ify the Nigeria of Anjola’s dream runs thus: “In my mind’s eyes, I saw how our union would offer hope and engender greater harmony between our different ethnic identities just as the marriage between the parents of Maj-Gen Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu did. Nwachukwu was born to an Igbo father and a Hausa-Fulani mother and he grew up in Lagos. In no distant future, Ify’s blood and mine would form a formidable connection and we would have adorable children who would be true specimens of Nigeria. Through our children, a new generation of Nigerians with a common identity would evolve and it would be difficult for people to take up arms against one another.”