The Power of The Spoken Word (Review of Urichindere)

Dike-ogu Chukwumerije has been described as several things including ‘master of the spoken word’ and he gets it right with his new novel Urichindere. He appears to have put the words together with ease and as the pages turn, I swell with laughter that I cannot hold in anymore. I search my brain comparing Pips’ experience to mine and find that they are similar. Yes, once again he has preserved history.

            A 319 page novel filled with wit and humour, Urichindere takes us back to our school days touching on the parts that affect us. In the 90’s, Nigeria experienced a change in power from military government to civilian and this is aptly described in those pages. The choice of words makes the book an interesting read. The heat in my room right now reminds me of St. Michaels box room and our inefficient power company which also affected a school like Pips’. Mosquitos are a plague from which Africa still suffers, so much so that those young boarders learnt the art of using broom sticks to patch torn mosquito nets.

            The book is conversational as the young boy writes in simple words about his joys, his failures, his pranks and his stupidity. Unlike the established African novelists who think big words make a book acclaimed or perhaps, it is in a bid to compete with foreign literature. I cannot say for sure; all I know is that this book is easy to follow till it ends. Pips was not always smart in some cases in as much as he prided himself on being a proper Lagos boy. Thankfully, the molue menace is in the past but truth be told: if you have not boarded a molue bus (at least once), you are not a true Lagosian.

            The tempo of the book is steady all through and he did not oscillate from one thought to the next without preparing us. Once upon a time in our past, we attempted to write like the colonial masters after all it was from them we got our independence but Chukwumerije has shown that there is much to be gained from telling our own story our own way. This jaunty junior boy who acted like a complete JJC in school was king over his siblings. Although he might not have been a straight ‘A’ student after all the donkey works for eighteen hours and yet is not king over the jungle but the lion that sleeps for eighteen hours is king. So being a mere form one student did not deter him from handling his siblings after all he ‘was not their mate’.

            Chukwumerije with this book has demonstrated that story-telling and indeed writing is an art. It is not everyone that has a story to tell that tells it well but in Urichindere, the character made us pay attention while he spoke without coercion. His baby-soldier brother, Onyema, who thought he could commandeer their fright just because he wore a make-believe uniform, was as strong in character as his uncle Ima who stood up for what he believed in. The few who attempted to do that in our own past (those still alive) still tell the story. Their voices (or pens) that were not ready to quake into silence found a quiet place to think when they were placed under lock and key. Those still alive can explain it better. I vacillated between anger at Onyema for being such a brat and then love for his strength of character.

            Uchenna was his immediate younger one who was introverted. I would have liked it if he featured more but it is just as well!

            Ogechi with the ‘machine-gun mouth’ sounded a bit too familiar to me. As a child, I was sharp-tongued that it was difficult to get the last word in so I empathised with her brothers who had to put up with her. He spoke truth when he said ‘it is madness to strike a woman’ and their mother Amaka did a good job of making sure they all turned out proper gentlemen who never raised their hands against their sister. Naturally as the only girl, she enjoyed the protection of her big brothers who ensured that no boy took advantage of her.

            No longer are twins regarded as devil’s spawn although these twins- Okwudioramma and Obinwanne were troublesome children. They ensured that there was never a dull moment especially when they were termed ‘witch-doctors’ in school. They enjoyed their junior days with their wits and they always watched out for themselves because of the close bond they shared.

            On the other hand, their parents did a fine job raising them. Their father was firm but he had the right balance and above all, he was approachable, willing to die for his beliefs. Their mother was witty and with her strength, she revived them back to life even when her spirit had gone out. She rose to the occasion when her soul mate was incarcerated, staging protests and generally making sure that she was seen and heard. I applaud her doggedness.

            Chukwumerije employed the use of short and simple sentences that were easy to follow. His main character-Pips was brilliant in that way. On his first night in school, his naïveté cost him his mattress and from then on, he progressively became smarter. He understood the value of friendship with Mac-Jimmy – his northern friend who was street smart. Although he played into his hand time and again (almost costing him his father’s life), he still found it in his heart to forgive his friend. When tragedy found his household at the death of his brave uncle Ima, Pips broke down and failed his exams. The house became sombre as things gradually spiralled downwards.

            With this book, the author showed that Nigerian culture is deep. Our belief in dreams (his dream of bloody footprints at their door), our religious inclinations (quotes from the Bible), our names (his use of native names rich and filled with meaning), our uncanny memory (Pips always, always backtracked sometimes telling two stories in one whole), our music (he enjoyed high life like Shina Peters from the looks of it since he credited him with the invention of the Periodic Table), our lifestyle (convoys are kings of the road and woe betide anyone who does not head into the bush at their approach), in short; our culture is thigh deep every angle you look at it. He made the book so conversational that even mumu’s could follow the story. And when the story was getting a little mixed up like a brain twister, he slowed it down:

“Mimi’s is Dad’s half-sister’s second daughter. Her father is from Jos, so she is from Jos; but she is also from Umuagu, that is my village… As God would have it, Mimi’s cousin, that is Mimi’s father’s sister’s son, that is my second cousin, was also a form one boy in my own school. But, of course I didn’t know him because he was from Mimi’s father’s side and so had no real connection to me- except that his father was the brother to the man that my father’s half-sister was married to.” – page 86 (italics mine). He concluded it with, “I hope you understand”.

That was complicated and I wondered how he cooked it up! It made me laugh to think of it. Even with this, his sharp mind did not mix plots and all who have read it can attest to that. I related to all the parts of the story and though grief is not easy to explain as he pointed out, he did his best using word pictures to drive the point home. All in all, Uri was smart, dumb, slow, angelic, forgiving and above all-human. Except for a few spelling errors and omitted punctuations, this book is a five-star page turner. With this book, Chukwumerije drives home the point: we should not forget to live while we are living!


  **this review was published in The Nigerian Pilot and The Sun newspapers respectively**                                                                                                         


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