By Obi Nwakanma
Sanya Osha’s new novel, An Underground Colony of Summer Beesbegins with Jerome Akpata moving from Johannesburg to Durban. “He had become tired of having to live looking constantly over his shoulder wondering if someone was coming at him with a gun or a blade.”
We get thrown into the murkiness of that life of constant terror. We immediately know that Jerome Akpata is one of those fragile, destabilized, and constantly displaced and itinerant citizens of the world. But what is he searching for; why is Jerome Akpata moving from Johannesburg to Durban?
He is in search of kinship and community; for a foothold in a slippery, dangerous, and dynamic world; a rapidly changing and mercurial world of drugs, pimps and prostitutes. In Johannesburg “he had to run from street thugs, different drug lords and their minions as well as policemen both corrupt and upright.”
Akpata is moving, drawn towards an exigency, but also in search of survival and community. “Durban was calmer. The first place he went to was a run-down hotel near the beach front. There he found his kind of people. He loved the level of human energy at the beach front. It was not as frenetic as Hillbrow in Johannesburg but there was still a lot of swagger around the city.”
His career of forced peregrination mirrors the condition of the boundary-sundering Nigerian forced to “escape” into the ubiquitous life of crime and insecurity in Hellish exile. Sanya Osha does not tell us that Jerome Akpata is Nigerian; not in so many words; but we know; we suspect a primary link in some ways with the writer himself who currently lives in South Africa where he teaches Philosophy.
The effect is clever although not too satisfying. Jerome Akpata arrives in South Africa through epic journeying, almost heroic in its meanderings; first because he could not get legal visa from the South African embassy, he ventures by road and traverses many African countries until he arrives in Nairobi.
After three months in Nairobi, where he survives hustling and “hanging about taxi ranks” he sets forth to Dar es Salaam, then Botswana, and then he “slips” into South Africa – broke and certainly distorted. He had no morality left; he found no pity, not on the “brackish streets” where he resorts to selling drugs. Life is tough and he scrounged, and saved, and he became a denizen of the street and its liberal market that sold pleasure and death in a toxic concoction.
“The street is a chameleonic ogre that demanded and received innumerable daily sacrifices in blood, sweat and tears each day by heedless acolytes” writes Sanya Osha about that world into which Jerome Akpata is thrust. So Akpata arrives Durban and quickly establishes himself in its drug and prostitution underground.
With his savings he buys a bagful of “rocks” and proceeds to recruit and seduce two women of the streets – the human machines he calls them – in whom he invests to buy and lure the buyers of his drugs. With his partner and sidekick Teddy, Jerome Akpata creates an elaborate and ambitious business plan; efficient in its cold, pragmatic capitalism that dehumanizes its victims moreso by its unequivocal and plain impetus: to make money and survive by the suffering and degeneracy of another; to provide the enabling construct, attitude, consolation and environment, by which nothing prospers but by the dreary desire for a fix, quick, pointless and cold sex, and a Darwinian impulse that selects its victims.
So comes Tina and Zanele in the mix of this ploy, the two women Jerome Akpata lures to his service with a promise to be their protector, and in time, business booms. It is hard and dreary business. It is pitiless in its expectations. Jerome Akpata seduces the girls – his machines to work for him; he is their pimp; he buys them clothes, cheap lingeries, food, and he keeps them off the streets by installing them in his flat, and even cleans up after them.
He gives them their “wake up drugs” and all the time, we sense the utter misery of such left-handed charity; it is not charity borne of kindness or goodwill; it is cold, calculated kindness, almost inhuman in its equanimity. But Jerome Akpata cannot be called evil very easily because we sense the complicated kind of kindness and even a shadow of decency stirring deeper beneath the murk of his own crucial and inexorable survivalist certainties.
What the novelist inevitably paints as evil is the pointless force of a society and a world that compels ordinary people into extraordinarily complex forms of negation. In a world of slippery values and powerful transitions, we all become complicit. Nothing better illustrates the contradiction than the character Babongile, who feels ignored by Akpata. She stages a conflict that wants Jerome Akpata not only to take notice of her, but very clearly seeks an advantage in the relationship.
She too is cunning, calculating and xenophobic. “I will fuck you up” she says to Jerome Akpata, “I will go to Home Affairs and tell them that you’re an illegal immigrant and that you sell drugs,” tempting him, and daring him towards violence. But Akpata does not succumb to his innermost human urges to strike out; he takes a rather Zen-like position.
“Machines are costly to maintain” he thinks too himself; to him Babongile and the rest of the girls who now work for him – Cindy, Zanele, Tina, are mere objects; his relationship with them is sterile; devoid of redemptive human warmth; he does not even sleep with them because he insists upon a certain contradictory ethical relationship: one does not sleep with his machines. It is bad for business.
It is Sanya Osha the philosopher making the philosophical argument, arranging before us, the contradictory elements that forces us to re-examine the meaning of good and bad, and the possible futility of such a proposition in a fragile social order.