Set in the world of violent conflict arising from divisive attempts by sectarian splinter groups to define and put into practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Grove Press) can feel all too familiar at times. It echoes the news of kidnapped schoolgirls and the profiles of young men who leave their homes to join in jihad. The political events it refers to – the rigged elections, the coups, the police state – hearken back to recent years when Africa’s terrorist groups were a focal point of the major media outlets, before they ceded their place to the devastating conflict in Syria. Yet this is not a piece of journalism, despite the author’s most famous role in Nigeria being that of scathing political satirist (most prominently with a column in the Daily Trust. In this novel, told through the eyes of a child (then teenager, then young man) who attends Quaranic school in the Northern region of Nigeria, John portrays the rising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sokoto state, and frighteningly shows how religious idealism and sectarianism lead to violence.
While I have not seen a ton of press about it in the past months leading up to its publication, I do think that it will prove to be an important work. The few reviews I have seen compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and, indeed, it deserves this distinction perhaps more so than most books compared to the canonical text). Yet I found the characterization of Dantala and the tension and confusion of the rising conflict between forms of Islam much more similar in tone and content to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000) or Allah Is Not Obliged (2007). While Kourouma’s novel explores the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in stark detail, John’s novel very convincingly deals with the rise of religious sectarianism leading to violence. The effective use of multilingualism and of oral/written forms of communication is a particularly striking similarity between the two, as is the voice of a fearless but woeful young man who is swept along in a conflict over which he has no control. A notable difference, of course, is that Kourouma’s Birahima is forced to join the fighting, whereas John’s Dantala tries to stay away from it.
It is jarring to read violence that is so normalized in the eyes of a child. After he has left school, Dantala takes up with a local group of boys who smoke the ever-present “wee-wee” and work as thugs and promoters for the “Small Party” during election time. They also enforce a kind of street justice among their small community of Bayan Layi. When a boy in their community attempts to steal a jug of groundnut oil, he is severely punished by the group. Dantala recalls: “I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch.” It sounds like the observation of a psychopathic killer. Yet it is rather a raw personal detail in the life of a child whose only example is violence.