“Ikenga’s self-imposed isolation had made him everything apart from a normal human being. Sometimes, he engaged himself in lengthy conversations and laughter but maintained a worrying silence and irritating behaviour with his black brothers, and when out in the open, he saw every white man or woman as an undercover agent and a potential enemy.”
– Excerpt from Woes Of Ikenga
Many who are born into austere living conditions often tend to follow one of two paths: despair and live in despondency or be possessed of an extreme obsession to liberate they and their family from the grip of poverty’s tightly clenched fist. Whatever path they choose, they explore to the heights of extremism. Not all who choose to be liberators end up achieving their goals. Some end up right at the other end of the extreme divide, despondent; others die trying.
One cannot fault the young Ikenga for his ‘Germany-mania’. After all, it is common knowledge in his village that Germany is the land where used cars are dumped on the road for whoever wants and when not claimed, those same cars are disposed as trash. Even if this sounds incredible, what else explains how Ray, the headmaster’s son could afford to send a Mercedes Benz to his father within few months of arriving Germany. This furor begins as a small seed in his young mind and grows into the egregious convictions that the grass is surely greenest in Germany, and that his -no lack- destiny is definitely having a ball, while waiting for him to come claim it. Not that he does not try in his own way to explore other options, but after the bus episode, one is not sure if the gods still know how to fight for themselves, talkless of their faithfuls.
After a childhood of dire lack, collywobbles must be cast aside to get to the other side where greener pastures lie. He is sure that the hardest feat is getting there. Surely, once there, destiny will reward his resilience and quickly fall into place for him. Armed with these thoughts, he sets off for Germany. It does not matter whether he starts off by road, and has to cross the desert: it is a small feat to have to beg and clean car windows on the streets when stuck in an unknown town where a strange language is being spoken. The goal is to get to the promise land where fate awaits with a smile. Even the near death sea-experience does not waver his courage. Maybe fate is testing him to see what stuff he is made of. Fate must have a weird sense of humour, expecting him to give up when he is almost there.
Finally Ikenga arrives Germany where all the treasures with his name on them await him. He has come in peace, he tells himself. Oh no! He is not greedy. All he wants is just a teeny weeny tad, just enough to return home in a few years time as a triumphant hero who has brought honour to his family name.
He, however does not bargain for what Germany doles out to him -from jail terms to a slapstick marriage. Through all his adventures, the reader cannot help but sympathize with him and unconsciously encourage his endeavours while hoping that he somehow strikes gold so his efforts do not go wasted. At the end of the novel, the reader’s right-and-wrong divide lines are blurred; the most important thing is Ikenga’s welfare.
When in later times one ruminates on the noble hero, Ikenga and his many close-shaves, one cannot help but muse along different lines:
Ikenga should have stayed and followed his grandfather’s original plan of taking care of the shrine…
Ikenga should have joined Mascot at the train station from the get-go…
Ikenga should have turned a blind eye at Vannesa and her shenanigans. ..
Ikenga should have joined Pastor Ray…
There are many conclusions or ways the book could have gone that may inspire hope for heroic Ikenga in the reader’s mind, but each cast aspersions on the reader’s own morality or displays his lack of it, thus drawing us to Ikenga’s woes and showing clearly that there are indeed no easy options.
Ikenga emerges a hero not because his is a Cinderella story but because he becomes for the reader a microcosm of the average man’s struggle to rise above his birth ranks. Whether he succeeds or not, it does not matter, what counts is that he dared even death to try, explored as many options as life thrust his way, and did not simply resign himself to fate.
Ndubuisi George concocts a story that does not just question our definition of “greener pastures” but redefines the heroic character.
Woes of Ikenga is available for sale at the following bookstores in Lagos,
Patabah Bookshop- Shop B20 Adeniran Ogunsanya Shopping Mall (Shoprite), Surulere;
Terra Kulture, Timaiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island;
or click here to buy and have it delivered to your doorstep anywhere in Nigeria.