Elnathan’s ‘Born on a Tuesday’

Here’s why you should buy, and read this book.

I like Elnathan. I like the sarcasm and the satire of his blog. I am not here for his twitter rants, but I can understand the need for social commentary. I read Born on a Tuesday because I think Elnathan is a brilliant writer, and because I am passionate about new stories from Africa and supporting African writers.

I like to think that my background makes me less likely to prove any negative stereotypes, and more tolerant of people who think or sound or look different from me in my country. In truth, we all have prejudices, whether inherited, observed or acquired through personal experience.

I’m an Igbo girl who grew up in Lagos. I am also the daughter of a woman who grew up in the north. Growing up, my siblings and I would visit my grandparents up north during the long holidays, and I have some of my best childhood memories from those times. I have always felt an affinity for the North, albeit tenuous. So every-time I met someone from the north, I would immediately try to connect by telling them my grandparents lived there. I even made up a Hausa name for myself — Laraba, which I think means, Wednesday.

Fast-forward several years down the line, my grandfather had to return to the East because the place he had called home for more than 70 years was no longer safe. I had also experienced the injustices of federal character — which meant that an Igbo girl who scored 450/600 in the Common Entrance Examinations in the 90’s might not get into a top Federal Government College, but her classmate from the North who only scored 190 might; even though they had both grown up in the same city, and were from the same socio-economic background. Or that she might not get a job in the federal civil service even though she had scored high marks on the interview, because there were already too many people from her state in that Ministry.

By now every Nigerian has felt the impact of Boko Haram. For some, it has been the loss of life, limbs, family, home, livelihoods and communities. For others, it is only the inconvenience of increased security at public events, banks, and places of worship, horrific CNN news-clips on Christmas day, or annoying Whatsapp forwarded messages to stay away from public places in Lagos.

My time working in development in Northern Nigeria did not always detract from this single story of the North. Why wouldn’t ‘they’ let their girls go to school, or immunize ‘their’ children?. How could anyone justify killing innocent people to fight against Western Education? Why did ‘they’ let ‘their’ leaders exploit them so much?

Last year in the run up to the elections, I was doing some research in a particularly conflict-prone state, the one where all the fighting usually kicks off. On my way back from the field around noon with my team, we ran into a large crowd of youth who had blocked the roads and were waving brooms, and had painted themselves in various combinations of red and green and white. I had never seen so many angry young men in my life!. We had to slow down, and say ‘Sai Buhari’ to be let through, and I will admit that I felt extremely unsafe in that situation.

Already several skirmishes were erupting, not uncommon for large crowds of young men in a situation where law and order cannot be realistically enforced. On reaching my hotel there was a lull in activity, people in the know had left town, fearing violence when the incumbent came into town for a rally, and others were stocking up on provisions, in case they had to be holed up indoors for a few days. Our driver informed us that we would be ‘on our own’, as he was leaving town until things had calmed down. As a Naija girl, of course I immediately packed up my things and headed out of town, I was there for research, not journalism or heroics.

For the first time, I had a glimpse into potential political violence. Now this is not to say that supporters of one party were more prone to violence than others, or that violence is the reserve of the North. Far from that. It just dawned on me how easily that crowd of youth had assembled, the likelihood that they were not otherwise gainfully employed, and how easy it would be for a fight to break out. I also wondered how much, if anything these men had been paid to show ‘support’ or ‘opposition’ for different candidates, and how far they would be willing to go for this fee.

I recommend Born on a Tuesday because it challenges the single story of Northern Nigeria; because it humanizes ‘those Almajiris that they pay for election rigging, the ones who beg and steal and are a nuisance on the streets’; and because it provides some insight into the why’s and the how’s of the issues in Northern Nigeria today.

As Elnathan said in this interview,

I want to show that things are never simple, never wholly about religion or ethnicity. Politics, religion, money can rule, and it can be convenient to act in the name of Allah.

As he says, the book provokes an empathy that makes sure you don’t take anything for granted. Whether it is the ignorant temptation to conflate all muslims or Islam with violence; to dismiss the pure and unlikely friendship that can thrive between two boys — one an almajiri, the other an educated southern christian; or the ignore the struggles of an adolescent boy with pornography, homosexuality, and faith.

With the growing tensions in our country, it is even more important that we understand our neighbour’s story, why he thinks of us in a certain way, why he acts the way he does, and given our tendency for religiousity, how he chooses to worship God.

*You can buy Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John here: https://www.amazon.com/Born-Tuesday-Novel-Elnathan-John/dp/0802124828