Feb 12, 2021, 12:16 PM
"Nigeria is a country located in West Africa”: so begins the prologue of Abi Daré’s debut novel. The prologue is a brief excerpt from The Book of Nigerian Facts, supposedly published in 2014. Though this book is fictional, the facts it gives are real. It states: “As the 6th largest crude oil exporter in the world, and with a GDP of $568.5 billion, Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day.” It seems a curious place to start a novel. Imagine a book set in London opening with this quote from a 2019 article on the BBC website: “Overall, London remains the most dangerous part of England and Wales.” Why choose to begin with these facts in particular? Nigeria’s creative industry is worth billions of dollars and provides jobs for thousands. Starting with poverty statistics forces the reader to draw conclusions about Nigeria before they have even begun, telegraphing that their response should be one of pity.
Nevertheless, I turn the page and meet Adunni, our protagonist. Adunni is a 14-year-old girl who lives in a small town several hours’ drive from Lagos. Although she is a minor, she is about to be illegally married off to raise money for her father. Her bride price will be used to pay the family’s rent, among other things. In many ways, her tale is one of woe. Her mother, who championed her right to an education, is dead. She is raped by her “husband”, who has a daughter her age. Through a series of unfortunate events, she ends up in Lagos as the servant of Big Madam. Although called a “house-girl”, she is really a slave because her wages are withheld from her and given to her procurer.
Despite her hardships, Adunni is determined to become a success, and believes that the surest route is by securing a western education. This is a trope used in classic Nigerian children’s books such as Onuora Nzekwu’s Eze Goes to School, and is deployed to good effect here. The reader is given a reason to root for Adunni as through the ups and downs of her journey she rarely loses sight of her ultimate goal of becoming a girl with a “louding voice”.
What is a louding voice? It appears to be a coinage of Daré’s for a young woman who confidently shares her perspective on the world, backed up by a sound western education. Daré has said of the language in which the book is written: “Nigerians speak something called pidgin English, and I knew I didn’t want to write in pidgin English because even the very educated people speak pidgin English. I wanted it to be nonstandard English. I could make it Adunni’s. It could be her own English, so to speak.”
The results of this invented English are uneven. Sometimes it yields original and humorous imagery: Big Madam has a “chest wide like blackboard”. At other times, Adunni’s mangled dialect seems to turn her into an object of fun, both to the reader and also to the book’s other characters, as though she is the butt of a joke she is not aware of.
The narrative is written in the first person. The reader is privy to Adunni’s thoughts and one wonders why she needs to invent a language to think in when she already has one in which she is fluent: throughout the novel she sings in Yoruba and at one point even acts as a Yoruba translator. Why couldn’t Adunni’s interior life be translated from fluent Yoruba into fluent English?
The novel is strongest when dealing with interpersonal relationships, especially between characters of different classes. Kofi, Big Madam’s cook, takes Adunni under his wing. He cowers in front of Big Madam but bosses Adunni around. Adunni also forms a friendship with Tia, a wealthy environmental consultant and doctor’s wife who lives nearby. Tia is privileged and well educated, but naive about the harsh realities of Adunni’s life. Their friendship, in which they exchange knowledge, is one of the highlights of the book.
The story told in this novel is an important one. The trauma of girls forced into marriage and the blight of domestic slavery in Nigeria are both issues that must be brought to light. As Adunni wonders: “Why are the women in Nigeria seem to be suffering for everything more than the men?” The Girl With the Louding Voice joins a long and fine tradition of issue-led novels that have sparked conversations resulting in social change. Social justice is a laudable intention when writing a novel, yet one also reads them for subtler and less concrete gains.
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Some months ago, in a ditch beside one of the main streets of Bunia, a dusty, war-battered city in northeastern Congo, I noticed a small, broken-down, dull green armoured car, the gun barrel in its turret tilted awkwardly toward the sky.