A young man moves from being a student under a Malam to becoming a street kid moving with other bandits who brag about killing others. He actually didn’t like killing but his crew got recruited by a political party to cause chaos after they lost an election. He then storms the opposition party’s office with his friends and ends up killing a man. He was paid two hundred naira to be a part of this. This is where as a reader, you get pulled into Dantala’s life. You hear his thoughts, his confusions, fears and his desires echo through every page and you cannot but feel compassion. Sometimes, you are afraid for him.
Any person who picks up this book follows the coming of age of a young boy (Dantala, which means Born on a Tuesday) in Northern Nigeria but it is the circumstances that surrounds his development and growth that is troubling and disturbing. As a reader you are exposed to the gory violence a young boy is exposed to at such a tender age and you can’t help but shudder and feel immense pity for Dantala who narrates his tale moving from Bayan Layi to Sokoto.
The book takes a realist style because it shows the reader what exactly happens in the Northern part of Nigeria which we can enlarge under a microscope to see that it can be examined as a problem in Nigeria as a whole. Insecurity in Nigeria is a major issue that practically has remained unsolved.
However Elnathan John does a fantastic job in exposing non-northerners to the ideologies and culture that is in the North and shows us that Islam has its sects and varying beliefs. Through Sheikh (an Imam who is Dantala’s teacher and mentor) and Abdul-Nur (an Imam) we understand the debate about what people believe should be practiced in Islam. While Sheikh stands for tolerance and peace and the need for muslims to be strategic in ensuring the propagation of Islam, Abdul-Nur preaches violence and the end to Western education which is Haram (sin). Throughout the book, Abdul-Nur’s cruelty speaks deeply of heartlessness and his unyieldingness to reason and his refusal to allow for peaceful co-existence.
The story also opens us up to the poverty that prevails in Northern Nigeria that would make young boys become thugs who carry out the biddings of corrupt politicians and use hard drugs. We are also exposed to the dysfunctionality in Dantala’s family that pushes him and his brothers away from home so that at a young age he is made to fend for himself. We also see the devastating effect of poverty when many die of Cholera. People living in poor conditions without proper hygiene die in numbers and the lack of proper medical care makes the whole story even more sombre.
Dantala narrates his story which makes the reader sympathise with his sorrows and also smile/marvel at his ignorance. The love he had for his mother is so endearing that her death causes the reader to feel Dantala’s sorrow and pain. His relationship with his brothers is also strained because they identified with the Sunni Islamic sect which differ from the beliefs of Dantala who was now under the tutelage of Sheikh: an Imam who took him in when he escapes death on his way from Bayan Layi and because as kids they had been separated a long time.
There are so many themes in the book that ranges from love, friendship, loyalty, violence and kinship. We see economic troubles that pervades Nigeria daily and how Dantala wades through them all. He had his money stolen for a number of times, He almost dies about thrice and his brothers are far from being brothers in the real sense of the word.
However, one cannot but marvel at Dantala’s growth. He learns to read through the help of Jubril who becomes his close friend. His exposure to sex at a young age was when he saw two men have sex (homosexuality) and the memory haunted him for a long time. This is quite interesting considering that homosexuality in Africa literature is quite a touchy subject and more interesting it happens in the North where such can be punished by death. This can also let us see that African literature is beginning to broaden its scope to touch on subjects that are global and what was once a forbidden matter can be discussed even if it is subtly.
There was no one to guide Dantala and give him proper advice as to how to manage his sexuality. He is then taken to a brothel by Jubril for his first experience which was a disaster by the way. He practically had to learn life from observing his environment and listening to what he was told. His naivete shows his innocence especially when he did not know how to woo Aisha (the girl he loved). In his discussion with Aisha which is one of the humorous part of the book, Aisha practically teaches him how he should woo a lady. “ So if you like me, is that not what you should have said first? How do you tell a person you want to marry them first and then after, that you like them? Me I do not understand this. A man woos a woman…” (214)
The book has so many issues but one cannot ignore police and military brutality. Elnathan John describes this vividly and one cannot but wonder why those who should be protecting the citizens are the ones the citizens should be protected from. The prison cells are synonymous to hell as they pack prisoners there and leave them to die and don’t even remove their bodies immediately. Dantala has seen no atom of friendliness or care from the military as every encounter has been marred with violence and death. His own arrest showed the deep brutality of the military in Nigeria. He was literally thrown into a pit! The tales are numerous in the book of how soldiers have resulted to beating and arresting anyone they deem guilty of any offence.
With Nigeria at the brink of elections, there is no better time to discuss this book than now. Dantala’s story is the story of many others in the North. The Boko Haram insurgency must be tackled immediately. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the citizens. Elnathan John did not provide any solution but just painted the situation as it is for us all to come to the realization that our nation needs help and needs it FAST! This book is worth every penny spent on it. Well-done, Elnathan John.