Left with Shadows by Udemma Chukwuma; Topseal Communications, Lagos; 139 pages
Udemma Chukwuma’s debutante’s novel, Left with shadows, has thrown open again conversations on some social vices which many agree had deepened the society further into decadence.
Among these are contemporary issues like rapes; women trafficking, child labour and abuse, domestic violence and the endemic challenges of joblessness as they affect fundamentals of families and the society at large.
In all these, the girl child is at the receiving end. This does not mean that the opposite sex; the boy child, her own brother, is the better for it.
There are assumptions that these are the signs of the times, in a new normal and in an environment of political, economic and social deprivations and depressions. Not quite feminism in its deep structural usage, Udemma is standing up as a tribune, an adjudicator and provocateur lending voice to these vulnerables especially the girl child and has found thematic expressions in roles she assigned to the major protagonist and victim of the book, Nwakaego.
Of course, in recent times, stories abound of ill-advised and ill-fated journeys of better life and economic adventurers through Tripoli and Litoral Town bordering parts of North Africa to Europe. Some of them ended up as slaves and prostitutes
We have seen governments and philanthropic missions to bring them back, distraught, dismayed and dishevelled. Many told stories of woes and sexual assaults. Some came back with babies who will never know their fathers. These also belong to the dejected with quashed hopes and left with shadows.
Udemma’s ‘left with shadows’ is a story well told and like a story teller in the Achebeic school, she has arrived well prepared.
Using flash backs and many exploded chronology techniques, the story line goes back and forth between a village tucked away after Umuahia in Igbo heartland and the big city of Lagos. The book opens on a tragic note and with tragic scenes. Safejo market had burnt down with a lot of conspiracy theories about what happened and whodunit as in the case of the burning down of Tejuosho market in Lagos.
A lot of fortunes went with the inferno and with that, people’s livelihood. Iya Laide and Aunty Ndubunma, both victims of the inferno exhibited that sense of hopelessness and helplessness, Ndubunma whose chartered accountant husband had earlier lost his job may never know how to recoup, her breadwinner referring to the husband having turned to bread eater.
The scene changes to this rustic girl Nwakaego, a village nine-year-old, called Nwaka for short in much of the book. Growing up as a normal child with the bucolic simplicity of life. Cocooned by forster parents (parents of Ndubunma) simply called papa and mama, this girl child had checkered history.
She was of lowly birth and estranged parents. She was an archetype of that child anywhere who day dreams and aspires for better life and the best of Cinderella existence. Having passed through filth, slum and the village conditions, she had yeaned for the township that Lagos represents; a possible Eldorado seen by her as an escape to a quality life.
Though she had the strength to survive, there was something sinister in her; the stuff that makes for the tragic heroine or hero. Mama Ndubunma, her adopted mother did not share her enthusiasm about going to Lagos. Mama’s cry and altercations proved at the end both a premonition and prophetic irony.
In Lagos, though temporarily captivated by the ambiance of her surroundings and latitude of calm, she suffers a lock-down. She could not achieve her yearning which was about going to school and becoming educated. She thus was locked out of the English Language and the concomitant idioms of Lagos. Here was the dilemma: would she have fared better in the village? The answer becomes one of the if(s) of life. The least she wanted to be was a house girl tied down by filial affiliation with Ndubunma. Yet she became; replacing the deprived, used and abandoned house girl, Uduak.
The book raced swiftly to a tragic end as Nwaka suffered a loss of innocence and became maiden no more at the beginning of her adolescence having been raped by Uncle Ojo, a man who ought to have protected her. From here she became more suicide bound. Caught between child pregnancy and death, she chose the latter.
Here, there is the echo of Thomas Hardy’s Theresa of the urbevilles. Like Nwaka Theresa had also wished she had not been born, having also been raped by a useless relation that had proved most intrusive in her life. In the sense that echoed Thomas Hardy, Nwaka’s short-lived life seems to have a didactic purpose indicative of happiness as an occasional episode in a general drama of pain. A talent grossly misused, at the end Nwaka did not win. She did not lose either. From the novel it seems that the easiest way to regenerate like the grain of wheat, is to die. Also the only way to go to paradise and enjoy latitude of bliss is through death. So Nwaka of cause must be chaperoned by an invisible hand into purgatory and heaven’s gate to achieve this equanimity.
Uncle Ojo represents most professionals and artisans who lost their jobs and are in no positions to fend for their families. Most of such men are either henpecked or nagged by their spouses. This category of men also suffer verbal violence as could be seen in such scenes between uncle Ojo and the wife Ndubunma. Such men may drown their sorrows and frustrations in alcohol and drugs. Deprived of love, they descend on the vulnerable like house helps, girls under their care and even their own daughters.
Nnenne was cast as a minor character in the book. She is the mother of Njoku who Nwakaego later discovered to be her Biological father Nnenne is an archetype of the aged in society sick, abandoned and die un-coffined and unsung.
All around her were imageries of blindness, excrement, filth and rot. The author uses filth here the ways Ayi Kwei Armah drew our attention to societal decadence in The Beautiful Ones are not yet born. Nwaka must have had a glimpses into Nnenne’s suffering and that may have affected her pathos and influenced her outlook as to living and dying.
Aunty Ndubunma represents some affluent and semi-affluent ladies in society compelled to be bread winners as their men suffer jobs loses. Beneath her façade of beauty are lies and wickedness. She doted on her daughter Tolu, buying her ice creams and biscuits. She also attended the best schools. Her ploy was to make Nwaka a house girl and not to send her to school while Tolu got the best of everything. She met Ojo not quite long after she lost her first husband. She had also had a child in that first marriage; facts she hid from Ojo. The way she used and dumped the house girl, Uduak left much to be desired. Though she was a beauty to behold, she displayed infidelity as she went after other men. Her insensitivity to the yearnings and aspirations of Nwaka led to the many travails of this girl child.
Here are some lessons that may have heuristic values for all agencies that deal with protections of victims of rape and child abuse in all their ramifications. Most times, in the words of the author, these victims have nobody but their own reflections and are left with shadows. They need love. They need guidance. They need counselling. Without these, loneliness and sense of guilt will crush them.
These agencies should lobby and or lobby to enact laws addressing issues of pretentious ‘benevolent promises and protections’ which deny the girl child and vulnerable women the right to quality of life and freedom.
Finally, the author has to be commended for the density of actions that made this a tragic-novel and a success. She has promised to fight on with literary fervour these many anomalies in the society.
I hope the book finds the wonderful readership it so much deserves and that it attracts the attention of civil rights and liberties group as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations that deal with children, girls, women and the most vulnerable in society as well as libraries and your own bookshelves.
-Ugbede, former managing editor at Daily Times and ex-director of Times Journalism Institute Lagos, is now a full-time media consultant and political analyst