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The Travails of the Niger Delta: The Unending Story. A Review of Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Far Away.

An average Nigerian is aware of the troubles that the oil rich Niger Delta faces in regards to pollution and poverty. Despite being the place where Nigeria derives its riches, the inhabitants are left to battle with the consequences of having oil on their land where the managers of these resources care less about the well-being of the people. Hence, polluted waters, air and environments are daily realities that the people live with.

Christie Watson

Many authors like Helon Habila, Chimeka Garricks, have done well to bring these matters to light and to send strong messages to those it should concern and push them to make the necessary changes. Though, these changes seem not to arrive. Christie Watson, a British writer takes the story of a family and uses their story to bring to the platform of public discourse how societies can help build a family or help destroy a family.

Though the story opens in Lagos with Timi having to leave her husband with her two children because he was found cheating on her with another woman, most of the story later occurs in Warri where Timi takes her children to live with her father, Alhaji. Blessing who is the 12 year old narrator cannot but talk about her confusions and fears as she moves from the neighbourhood she is familiar with to Warri, a town her brother Ezikiel (this was the spelling in the book, quite baffling though) kept saying is unsafe.

As they adjust with the move, from a prim school to a shoddy school where the toilets stink and are swamped with files, Blessing begins to discover herself and her roots. Though her naivety is quite obvious, she narrates the events around her beautifully. Ezikiel her brother struggles with feeding because of his allergies and asthma but settles into the life in Warri. Alhaji is a petroleum Engineer who is unable to secure a job in Warri because according to him the jobs are given to expatriates and not indigenous people of the land who are also qualified for the same jobs.

Grandma begins to train Blessing to be a birth attendant. At the young age of twelve, Blessing enjoys bringing a child to the world but is taken aback when her grandma performs circumcision rites after telling Blessing that she is opposed to it. This aspect of the story also shows that this culture is still being practiced in some cultures because the women are steeped in ignorance. The realities of the Nigerian hardships are well described such as epileptic power supply, bad roads, lack of water and then these harsh realities breed boys who are called Sibeye Boys who have grown to become a plague in the society by brandishing guns in the neighbourhood and kidnapping in the name of fighting for the freedom of the Niger Delta.

The book addresses so many issues but more importantly is the depth of human emotions and feelings that is aroused in the reader as he/she follows Blessing on her journey. The reader feels compassion for two kids whose lives have just been uprooted from stability to an unknown world. The reader feels the pain of motherhood as Timi struggles to feed her family and keep afloat. However, Ezikiel does not deal well with his father’s absence. He channels his energy on becoming a doctor and his anger is deeply awakened by the presence of Dan (a white man) in his mother’s life.

The crisis in the Niger Delta is one that is disheartening and unnerving. Through the eyes of Blessing, the reader sees into the depth of deprivation and how poverty opens young people to crimes and murder. The Sibeye boys are just teenagers who have a twisted ideology as to what true freedom really is. Watson does a wonderful job, as she portrays women as important in lending their voices to social issues. For instance, the protest led by Grandma. Timi, is a woman who strives to keep her family together even with an absent husband who we later discover is a drunk.

The language of the novel is supposed to be that of a twelve year old but one cannot but see that the narrator is portrayed as more mature sometimes. However, the movement of the story is quite impressive as the reader flows with events that happen in the story quite seamlessly. The themes in the novel are enormous as they move from poverty to abandonment issues and even mental health issues. Alhaji’s absurd behaviours can’t but make you question his mental health. For example, his deep belief in a medication called Marmite, and his sometimes erratic behaviours which one can point to as stemming from societal problems.

One may be shocked to see how well Christie Watson who is British almost flawlessly tells a Nigerian story. The research was well done and the infusion of pidgin English was quite impressive. The book does not lack humour with Celestine’s character who is a town mourner (another wife of Alhaji). This book will keep you reading and enjoying every page. In terms of flaws, the book isn’t devoid of any as the narrator Blessing, isn’t much of a twelve year old in speech all the time but more matured. You can’t help but hear the author’s voice in her, which might not be a bad thing as it is a matter of perspective.

In all, this is a really good book and greatly recommended. Well done, Christie Watson.

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