Ancestral Memories Aid Modernity’s Inevitable March: A Review of Okelani Aworabhi’s ‘’Language of the Sun’’. – By LINDSAY BARRETT

About the author: Okelani Aworabhi is the novelist and author of the book, ‘’Language of the Sun’’. She is a passionate environmentalist and women’s right activist with a keen interest in academics. Her stories and poetry center on core societal issues concerning the environment, politics, race, gender and more. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from the University of Port Harcourt Nigeria, and two Master’s degree in Renewable Energy Technology and Environmental Engineering respectively from the Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. Language of the Sun is her debut novel.

Lindsay Barret is a Jamaican Born poet, novelist, essayist, journalist and photographer

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 The saga of the discovery of oil and the transformation of life in the rural communities of the Niger Delta can provide a profoundly fertile source of material for imaginative storytellers. This has been proven by this simple but gracefully recounted narrative.  Set in the early twentieth century during the height of the colonial penetration of the ancient communities of the territory this tale narrates the encounter between modernity and tradition from an unusual perspective. It is written in a very articulate and accessible style couched in a format that is direct even while being allegorical. The plot and the core of the characterization lean heavily on cultural manifestations of traditional customary practice that in themselves give the work a profoundly historical resonance. This latter characteristic is particularly heartening coming from the pen of a young author whose work appears to be aimed at young readers. Okelani Aworabhi has produced an inspirational work that is easy to read and almost impossible to forget.

 The core protagonist of the tale is Agbana the Queen of Efeku a community in the Niger Delta that is either blessed or cursed with a pond that leaks a black substance that the elders fear but the expatriate colonials and their native collaborators appear to love. The queen is a highly intelligent though illiterate ruler whose prowess as a warrior is legendary and was responsible for her being chosen to lead the community. It is suggested that the times are already in a state of flux when this unusual choice is made and so some of the ancient customs, such as the annual pilgrimage of young men and women to two special groves for the rituals of initiation have been halted. The story rings with authenticity as the narrator describes the customs and attitudes that at first supported the practice of expeditionary initiation, and later the events that led to the discontinuation of the practice with commendable credibility. The author’s special talent for accurate observation and descriptive phraseology make these elements of the story uniquely exciting and enlightening for the reader.

 This story is not however one in which the main protagonist is portrayed as the only heroic figure. In fact it is really a study of a family of strong women whose role in the community has been defined and in some ways proscribed by ancient marital customs. While Agbana is the central figure whose decisions appear to be the motivational force for change in the community the life experiences of her mother Obai and the ambitions of her daughter Ogogo are the countervailing forces that depict the inevitability of social transformation in the community and the irrevocability of the triumph of modernity. In fact as we read this novel it emerges gradually that these are the major themes of the author’s concern. Eventually the story touches on the theme of spiritual renewal and conversion. These attributes strengthen the Queen’s decision to support the colonial authority’s wish to exploit the resource represented by the mysterious seepage in the pond, which the traditional elders had always regarded as the forbidden property of the gods of the land.  Okelani Aworabhi’s juxtaposition of these values is effectively utilised as an important aspect of the resolution of the tale when the demise of Obai, Agbana’s mother and Ogogo’s grandmother, brings matters to a head in Efeku.

 The story is told through the prism of ancestral memory as the author deploys an innovative fictional device to set up the narrative. In the early sections of the tale we see the community in contemporary mode as Ogogo, who has been in exile for several years, returns to answer the funereal summons of Agbana’s death. This sets the solemn tone of mourning mixed with reminiscence that pervades the entire story. As a consequence it turns out that the reader is actually constantly being drawn into the world of spiritual recollection since the entire tale is being related by Agbana through the instrumentality of an elder who is possessed by her spirit when Ogogo returns to the family home. Although this might sound complicated the author has established the parameters of the style and rhythm of the narrative with such competence and effortless linguistic confidence that the reader is easily persuaded of the veracity of the tale. In spite of this Aworabhi’s descriptive and detailed allusions to customary practices that often appear to be based on atavistic beliefs that pre-date the spread of modern Christian faith gives the tale a mysterious tonality that will engage the imagination and expand the interest of the average reader.

 This tale is crowded with the persona of incidental characters who, in spite of their marginal roles, play important parts in the resolution of the events that are being narrated. Prominent among these are the elders who symbolise the attempt to prevent progress from taking hold. Eventually it is one of these same elders who allows himself to be possessed by Agbana’s spirit to tell the story of her life and that of her mother and daughter. His blindness is the consequence of this possession and thus symbolically Queen Agbana wills the progress that she dreamed of for her people in life to the community after her death. This denouement is reinforced in the final chapters and the Epilogue in which Ogogo undergoes a remarkable change of heart. Having been in exile and having transformed her life to that of an alien she has an epiphany as she attempts to return to the city after the funeral and reverses her plans. It would be unfair to tell more than this to those who have not read the book because the outcome of this revelatory action provides the most unusual but also most inspiring message of the work in its very closing lines.

 While this is clearly a young reader’s novel both in its thematic concerns as well as in the adventurous formula of its style and technique, it deals with serious and relevant issues that will engage the concern of readers of all ages. The bold assertion of female independence that her main characters represent is also one of the most refreshing revelations of this work. Okelani Aworabhi is a fresh and dynamic new voice in Nigerian literature and a true advocate of the self-determinate originality of the youth of the Niger Delta in particular and Africa at large. Although her debut novel focuses closely on events that shaped the lives of a small community in the Niger Delta the issues and concerns that she has used this circumstance to illustrate and deliberate upon are universal. This work gives new meaning to old values seen through the eyes of a young woman who respects the past but understands that the future cannot be halted, and deploys ancestral memory to explain why modernity is inevitable.

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