… captured in Dr. Ugoji Egbujo’s gripping tale about life in megacity
By Prisca Sam-Duru
In the words of Wilfred Peterson, it is “Through books you can orient your life to the world you live in, for books link the past, the present and the future”. This is a truism when one considers the content of Dr. Ugoji Egbujo’s debut novel; “The Spirit of Danfo”.
Published by Parresia Publishers in 2022, “The Spirit of Danfo”, appealingly lures readers into life in Lagos, a city known for its anarchic nature; a feature which has seen the State, ranking third worst city in 2018 and most stressful city for humans to live in, in 2021.
In general, the book is presented as a familiar portrayal of the Nigerian society. Egbujo’s book blends the class factor, power, the legacy of the Nigerian Civil War, corruption and other burning issues, through the story of a fatherless young man, Ebulu.
Written in the third person narrative style, the plot structure revolves around Ebulu, son of late Alfred Mbadike, a native of Umudim, whom one can say in the country’s parlance, ‘Lagos happened to him’. Flashback on how Mbadike is killed in a fatal motor accident, sets the pace and mood of the novel.
His widow, Nkoli is ostracised from her late husband’s community for unfounded allegations of promiscuity, and his brothers confiscating her husband’s properties. She is left with making their residence at no 17, in Ajegunle, her eternal abode with her sons- Ebulu and Kamsi.
‘The Spirit of Danfo’ is a very captivating and timeous tale that also, mirrors the Nigerian political space as the 2023 general elections draw closer. Readers will enjoy the exposition of the wiles of Arogunmatidi and his goons who represent some despicable politicians jostling to occupy Aso Rock and other key positions in the country, come 2023.
The title is apt, with ‘Danfo’, which ordinarily, is a name given to a particular kind of bus known for notoriety, employed as metaphor of the metropolitan city of Lagos and the country in general. While the book has a simple plot that revolves around the protagonist and the forces against his destiny, its style and structure speak to a wide range of audience, making comprehension easier in spite of obvious grandiloquence in language usage.
However, the infusion of local tongues such as Yoruba, Igbo, pigeon English, etc, makes the flow much easier and enjoyable for readers. Also, the 361-page novel is structured into 35 chapters with each chapter bearing a subtitle that offers a glimpse into its content.
The dream episode that opens the novel is a confirmed bad omen, as we find Ebulu, struggling against all odds to get to the top in his life ambition, only to come crashing to an unpalatable bottom.
The young and very brilliant Ebulu sets out to the university armed with a strong determination to get to the apogee of learning, become successful and, restore his mother among his kinsmen in the village. But his dilemma begins when he makes the tragic mistake of switching majors from Medicine to Philosophy. Conflict in the fiction work erupts from this point when his path crosses with Arogunmatidi’s, a commissioner in the state who assists in obtaining scholarship for him.
Against subtle warnings of his first Vice Chancellor that, “anyone exposed early to the tutelage of politicians would become blind to moral sunlight and deaf to the sound of rationality, and develop moral rickets”, Ebulu soon learns the hard and bitter way that, whether with a long spoon or not, he shouldn’t attempt dinning with the devil.
The scholarship from the state becomes a bait to lure him into perpetual slavery. But as a son of his father, Mazi Alfred Mbadike, Ebulu refuses to be used as a tool for politicians’ dirty politics. On the other hand, Arogundatiti who aims for political elevation and needs Ebulu’s testimony as one of the beneficiaries of his philanthropy as a supposed well meaning politician, is livid and, without inhibitions begins to fight dirty. He ensures Ebulu’s scholarship is withdrawn.
Subsequently, he engineers a shameless accusation bothering on sodomy against the VC who helps Ebulu with accommodation when he is evicted from the hostel. The matter escalates and Ebulu is attacked by Arogunmatidi’s willing tools – the president and treasurer of the University’s Student Union Government.
The beauty and essence of honest friends as seen through the character, Binta, is worthy of emulation. It could however, be juxtaposed with that of the Barber aka Entity, who though has been of assistance to Nkoli and sons, does so for a personal interest. In spite of how honest and helpful Binta is to Nkoli, this widow must be blamed for allowing herself to be led by a ‘blind’ friend (Binta), whom she is more exposed and enlightened than.
She pays dearly for lacking the will power to withstand the pressures of widowhood. The enthralling tale of young Ebulu, who is unable to maintain true love or make progress without glitches, for Nkoli, is due to spiritual forces. The large-hearted Binta, who is of different religion, believes Ebulu’s matter must be addressed by engaging the services of spiritualists. She readily offers help. Sadly, the end of the two women leaves a terminal sore in the hearts of the readers.
Meanwhile, their entanglements with the spiritualists in prophets’ cloaks, picture Africa as a continent where every misfortune is attributed to spiritual problem; reason, many are defrauded of their life earnings. As though fate is not yet satisfied with dealing ruthlessly with Nkoli, she falls prey to the Deputy Vice Chancellor- a chronic womaniser, against the wish of her son, Ebulu.
The enticing offer by the Deputy VC, reflecting in Nkoli’s earlier physical transformation proves how much he takes advantage of Nkoli’s status as a needy widow to exploit her naivety. This exactly captures the trend in this treacherous part of the clime where the poor and hapless are preyed upon by people in power. They first of all impoverish them, dangle bait before them and then, take advantage of their innocence. The Deputy VC’s encroachment into Ebulu’s family however, places him at daggers drawn against the Barber who has been making frantic efforts to be in a romantic relationship with Nkoli. The Barber goes berserk and attacks the Deputy VC.
In “Potbellied Idiots See Me As Food”, which is title of Chapter 2, the author beams the light on the plight of widows. In addition to the ill-treatment usually meted on most of them, especially during and after the burial of their husbands in the name of keeping to traditions, they are surreptitiously denied peaceful existence by their in-laws and the larger society. If the woman dresses well after her mourning period is over, the gossip in town will be that she couldn’t wait for her husband to die before having a new lover.
Also, every womaniser sees her as ‘available’ while the women guide their husbands as though every widow is a hawk. Nkoli’s conversation with her bosom friend, Binta in page 23, sums up the dilemma of being a young widow in this terrain. “Binta, you won’t understand. To be a young widow in this community?, potbelied idiots see me as food. And those watching them and their foolery call me a slut. I had thought I had seen it all…in those burial rites, but…I live with it. Every day. Men, and even women, sniffing, talking, always judging.”
The story progresses to Chapter 3, exposing how some corrupt individuals both in the circular world and the religious have over run the polity. It is a country where stomach infrastructure determines who occupies one exalted position or the order; a country infested with corrupt politicians calling the shots and controlling the lives of the masses.
While this chapter begins to expose the high level of moral decadence among the political elite, Ebulu is presented as the conscience of the society as he questions the sanity of individuals who have dragged the country down its nadir in depravity.
The author also exposes the rot in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions with regard to sexual exploitations. In ‘Dead, Mummy Dead’, through dialogue between Ebulu and his new found companion- Ofe, Egbujo exposes one of the major reasons the society is infested with half-baked and unemployable graduates.
As Ofe narrates, students either sort their scores by sleeping with the callous lecturers or pay with cash. She confesses she offered sex as a ‘jambite’, but now pays money to cover all her subjects. The devil’s gift is never without strings attached; and so are Animashaun’s and Aromatimidi’s. The cover-up on the sex scandal is eloquent indication of how Nigeria’s tertiary institutions have been badly battered by sexual immorality. The appointment of a prime suspect to head investigation further captures the depth at which corruption has eaten into the fabrics of the country.
The novel at this juncture, mirrors how some callous academics aid and promote truancy and sexual exploitation of female students who lack interest in what the tertiary institutions stand for.
No doubt, Ebulu’s string of ill luck is daunting, clearly indicating that the essence of father figure in children’s upbringing cannot be overemphasised. The author did not fall short of making that explicit in his first literary offering, as vividly, the poor lad displays incapability to survive in the face of adversarial forces. What is not clear is why Ebulu would not ‘run to God’ in time of affliction like most people do.
The novel also encapsulates topical socio-political issues especially regarding national unity and hostilities between different ethnic groups in the country. Commentaries on the legacy of the civil war are embedded in the work of fiction as well. Many years after the avoidable war, the impact is still being felt in the lives of the Barber and his likes, who wobble to survive with the notorious 20 pounds given to Igbos to begin life afresh after the war. Progressively in Chapter 34, (‘Farabale’), the author delves into a form of exhortation for his tribesmen
This he does through the conversation between Ebulu and the Registrar. “The Igbo man has seen things in this country. Your generation must gird its loins…”, he says. All Ebulu’s attempt at ecstasy as seen in his relationship with Bunmi, is punctuated by anguish. And as his life is shattered with calamitous occurrences, the thrilling and adventurous master piece climaxes in his taking the most unpredictable decision that leaves readers wondering what becomes of his tomorrow.
The novelist’s vivid description of events and carefully crafted sentences with figures of speech such as personification, hyperbole etc, make most of the sentences to sound poetic and the book, un-put-down-able.
“Many more questions conspired to rob him of sleep’, (pg 69), and “The waking sun sat at the margin of the sea” (PG 87); and many more lovely expressions, make the chapters quite interactive, relatable and enjoyable.
The book embodies too many life lessons for the reader’s benefit and without doubt, is a useful addition to the body of African literature exploring and reflecting diverse aspects of Nigerian life. There’s a wise saying that “A room without books is like a body without a soul”. “The Spirit of Danfo” makes an excellent read and should find a space in every bookshelf.
Dr. Ugoji Egbujo is Saturday Vanguard’s columnist