Of Midlife Crisis and Family Secrets

The past few years saw the remarkable rise of young Nigerian writers to global recognition. They are trailblazers who are gaining the interest of many a global reader. Among them are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chigozie Obioma, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Akwaeke Emezi, Ayobami Adebayo. Following on in the steps of Nobel Laureate in Literature (1986) Wole Soyinka and heralded writer Chinua Achebe, these up-and-coming writers are slowly taking the world by storm with their own brands of prose and storytelling. They have also been earning accolades left and right. Adichie’s second novel Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance, won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) while Ben Okri’s The Famished Road won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1992.

Another up-and-coming Nigerian writer is Chibundu Onuzo. Born in Nigeria but currently residing in the United Kingdom, she made her literary debut in 2012 with The Spider King’s Daughter. It was warmly received by both critics and readers alike, even earning Onuzo the 2013 Betty Trask Award and a slew of shortlisting and longlisting from different literary award-giving bodies. She followed up her initial success with her 2016 novel, Welcome to Lagos. She has also been cited several times as one of the rising figures in literature. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. At a young age, she has certainly accomplished a lot. This, however, is not stopping her from weaving more tales that captivate the world and in 2021, she made her literary comeback with Sankofa.

At the heart of Onuzo’s third novel is Anna Buin Graham, a mixed-race woman. Just two years shy of reaching her golden birth anniversary, she found herself suddenly thrown off course after her life started to unravel. After more than two decades of marriage, Anna was on the cusp of divorcing her adulterous white husband, Robert. Meanwhile, their only daughter, Rose, was a workaholic and strong-headed young woman. On the surface, she seemed fine and capable of taking care of herself. Her strong sense of independence, however, did not stop her parents from worrying about her state of health. Rose was again exhibiting signs of bulimia, an eating disorder she suffered from for a long time.

“The world will always have people like this, trying to press guilt on you, forcing pamphlets with gory pictures into your hands, holding you personally accountable for wars, famines, genocides. Why not be of use to those around you?”

~ Chibundu Onuzo, Scankofa

However, the biggest change in Anna’s life was the recent passing of her mother, Elizabeth Bronwen. Not only did it affect her emotionally, but her mother’s death also opened Pandora’s box. In the opening pages of the novel, Anna uncovered a decades-old journal hidden under a false bottom in her mother’s trunk. The journal, written in the 1960s, belonged to a man named Francis Aggrey. Born in the fictional Diamond Coast, Aggrey moved to London to study. As a student, Aggrey, once shy and reserved, became actively involved in an independent movement comprised of fellow young African scholars, led by Ras Menelik. Through Menelik, Aggrey experienced a political awakening. He learned about the various forms of atrocities British colonizers subjected their colonies. These students were calling for the end of colonial rule in their respective homelands.

Francis’ journal was an eye-opener to Anna. Through excerpts of Francis’ journal, Anna learned of the discrimination that he experienced as a Black African student in the 1960s. Everyone Francis went, he dagger-like stares. Many a time, he was called the N-word. He was turned down by many old landladies who quivered at the sight of him, only opening their doors expecting to meet a Scotsman based on his name. These were important details as they mirrored Anna’s experiences while growing up in London. Anna’s mother, in countless instances, has downplayed her experiences, thinking that in doing so, she is protecting her daughter. Racism is a prevalent social concern not just in the United Kingdom but all over the world. In her early years of motherhood, Anna was once assumed to be the nanny of her white-passing daughter, underlining how this concern continues to reverberate in the contemporary, something that Onuzo was able to capture vividly.

There was a bigger revelation that the journal contained: Anna’s lineage. When Francis was studying, he boarded with a white Welsh family. During his stay, before he got involved in the political rigmarole, Francis found himself romantically involved with the younger daughter of his landlord. This younger daughter would be Anna’s mother. Francis, without knowing about his daughter, returned to Bamana, his homeland, after learning about his dying mother; the novel’s Bamana is a fictional country although historically, there is an African kingdom of the same name. This revelation came as a shock to her. She was raised without knowing about her father or half of her provenance. Her father’s absence left a gaping hole in her. An opportunity to learn more about herself when she learned that her father was still alive.

The passage of time, however, has changed several things. Over in Bamana, Francis Aggrey changed his name and became Kofi Adjei. Kofi was then elected as prime minister of Bamana. After thirty years of increasingly authoritarian rule, Kofi finally stepped down from his post. It was in this state that Anna first met her father. Confronting the obscured part of her heritage was a step out of Anna’s comfort zone, a life lived in consideration of others. When she got married, she gave up her artistic ambitions to focus on her family. She was perceived as a housewife who grew dependent on her husband. In traveling to Bamana, she was pushing her boundaries and taking a leap of faith.

“No you came to meet a man in the past. There is a mythical bird we have here, Anna. We call it the sankofa. It flies forward with its head facing back. It’s a poetic image but it canot work in real life.”

~ Chibundu Onuzo, Scankofa

In confronting her past, Anna has become the personification of the Sankofa. The titular Sankofa pertains to a mythical bird that, according to the lore of the Ghanaian Akan tribe, “flies forward with its head facing back.” For Anna to move forward, she must learn to go back to the past. However, in reckoning with her past, Anna must also confront several growing concerns that continue to hound contemporary Africa. Her father’s authoritarian rule, for instance, underlined one of the major concerns not only of the African continent but of most countries in the world. African history is riddled with names of politicians who rose above their obscurity and have declared themselves rulers for life. Onuzo need not look too far as her own home country, Nigeria; its contemporary history is riddled with names of dictators and strongmen who continue to wrestle against each other to gain control over the oil-rich country.

But despite their compunction for violence, rulers for life are often popular, often with a significant number of followers. Their brand of populism is bordering on cultism. They can both be feared and adored. Authoritarian regimes are also known to be riddled with corruption. Rulers for life, with the influence and power they have accrued, reap the benefits, and worse, empty the coffers of their country. They are also known for their extravagant displays. Kofi was rolling out the red carpets for her oldest daughter, even transporting her to his personal playground, Gbadolite. It is a theme park built in the middle of the forest. It had all amenities and features of a theme park, including museums, a cinema, a television studio, a zoo, a water park, and even a cable car ride.

Referred to as the Versailles of the jungle, Gbadolite, however, turns into a microcosm of most societies. The opulence that Anna experienced and witnessed within the estate was a stark dichotomy to the conditions that existed outside of it, and in Bamana in general. The lively and colorful handwoven clothes the villagers wore belied the dark realities that continue to disrupt harmony. Reliance on traditions also remains strong, to detrimental or pervasive effect. One young girl, for instance, was bound to chains by her uncle because the uncle believed that his niece was causing his business to fail. Women are often accused of witchcraft, which often leads to untimely death. These are stories often hushed down because of limited media coverage. Kofi, on the other hand, was pushing for his daughter’s initiation into the tribe by letting her go through the rites of passage his other children went through.

The exploration of individual and national history was but one of the many layers the novel was wrapped in. As the story moves forward, we read a story that extensively explored the meanings of home, identity, and belongingness. Like many individuals born with mixed heritage, Anna had challenges in identifying with one culture. In London, she experienced racism and discrimination because of her skin color. In Bamana, her father kept referring to her as an obroni, or a white person, a foreigner: “You are my daughter, but at the end of the day you are still an obroni.” Even the locals and her siblings treated her as such: “Obroni were always looking for Africans to rescue. We were no use beyond that.” It seemed that she belonged to neither. The parallels and contrasts of this thorny intersection were vividly captured by Onuzo.

“A sense of rightness, a sense of self. It was nothing when you had it. You hardly noticed. But once it was missing, it was like a sliver of fruit on a long sea voyage, the difference between bleeding gums and survival.”

~ Chibundu Onuzo, Scankofa

The story itself had promise but it was ultimately predictable. Nevertheless, Onuzo redeemed herself with the quality of her prose. There was a lyrical quality to her prose that made the story flow effortlessly. Her prose, particularly in the first half, perfectly captured Anna’s personality. This transformed the story into a character study, at least for a stretch. Onuzo walked the readers through the mind of a woman approaching her fifties, which was another crossroad Anna found herself in. Onuzo vividly painted the follies and intricacies of this inevitable junction. This character study, however, was never fully able to reach its potential as midway through the story, Onuzo subverted the story, shifting it into a political and social satire. Kofi was an equally interesting character and the book’s exploration of his relationship with his unexpected child was one of the novel’s triumphs.

Parts-satire, parts-character-study, parts-political commentary, Sankofa is a multilayered narrative that reels the reader in with its lyrical prose. Through the parallels and contrasts between Anna and Francis/Kofi, Onuzo painted a rich tapestry that grappled with a vast territory of subjects that spanned politics, family dynamics, history, racism, colonialism, and authoritarian rule. These were all captured in the story of Anna. Sankofa is, on the surface, the story of a woman at a crossroads in life. Anna was like the titular bird, flying backward while looking forward. As the story approached its conclusions, a moment of enlightenment settled on Anna. While understanding the past will help resolve some of Anna’s predicaments, the solution to her current predicament lies within her.

Rating

68%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
18%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

Prior to 2021, I have never heard of Chibundu Onuzo nor had I encountered any of her works previously. Towards the end of the year, while browsing through an article about the best books of the year, I came across Sankofa. The title itself was enough to capture my interest and tickle my imagination. What is the book about? What is a or the sankofa? Without further ado, I obtained a copy of the book and made it part of my 2021 reading catchup earlier this year. While reading the book, I learned Onuzo was Nigerian which is a nod to the book since, in the past two years, I have been reading quite a lot of the works of Nigerian writers. Needless to see, I relish the experience. So anyway, I was looking forward to reading Sankofa and being able to experience the work of a new writer, at least to me. While I find the book’s premise promising and it had several bright spots, the inconsistency and the predictability of the story somehow impaired my reading experience.

Book Specs

Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publisher: Catapult
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 294
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

After years of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother, Anna finally has the time to wonder who she really is. But the only person who can tell her – her mother, the only parent who raised her – is dead.

Searching through her mother’s belongings one day, Anna uncovers a few clues about her father, whom she never knew. Student diaries chronicle his involvement in radical politics in 1970s London, involvement that eventually led him to return to Africa, where he became the president – some would say dictator – of a small nation in West Africa. And he is still alive.

When Anna decides to track her father down, a journey begins that is disarmingly moving, funny, and fascinating. It raises universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for a family’s hidden roots. Masterful in its examination of freedom, prejudice, and personal and public inheritance, Sankofa is a story for anyone who has ever gone looking for a clear identity or home and found something more complex in its place.

About the Author

Imachibundu Oluwadara Onuzo was born in 1991 in Lagos, Nigeria, and is the youngest of four children of parents who are doctors. When she was fourteen, Onuzo moved to England to study at an all-girls school in Winchester, Hampshire, for her GCSEs. In 2012, she received her first-class bachelor’s degree in history from King’s College London. She earned her master’s degree in public policy from University College London. In 2018,  she was awarded a Ph.D. in History from King’s College London for her research on the West African Students’ Union.

When she was 17 years old, Onuzo started working on her first novel. Two years later, the book was signed by Faber and Faber. The book, The Spider King’s Daughter, was published in 2012 when Onuzo was just 21 years old. When she signed with the publisher when she was 19, she became the youngest female writer ever taken on by the publisher. The book was warmly received by the reading public and critics alike. It earned Onuzo Betty Trask Award. Apart from this, the book was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Her second novel, Welcome to Lagos, was published in 2016. Her latest novel was Sankofa which was published in 2021.

Onuzo was also a contributor to the 2019 anthology New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby. In 2014, she was selected for the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list. It is a list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 seen to have the potential and talent of defining future trends in African literature. In June 2018, Onuzo was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in its “40 Under 40” initiative. She also co-wrote and co-produced the short film Dolapo is Fine (2020). The short film won the 2020 American Black Film Festival’s HBO Short Film Competition and was longlisted for a BAFTA in 2021.