Oloruntoba-Oju’s lemon for orange metaphor in a season of change

Notable public intellectual and poet, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, has always accused Nigerian writers of avoiding the urgent political issues of the day, especially in their fictional narratives that have failed to properly delineate the current political landscape since 1999. Only Dr. Wale Okediran, an early player in the setup, has managed to come out with a significant novel, Tenants in the House, that gives an insider account of some of the shenanigans in the lower house of parliament. What is put up as defence is that the operations of the political class, as reported in the newspapers, is too much of fiction in itself to warrant another fictional expose that may make a mockery of what daily plays out even before the simple-minded.

But a young lady has waded into the terrain, if only tangentially, to portray the outcomes of Nigeria’s political chaos, its defective mode and how its operations daily decimate the lives of millions of ordinary folks who nurse so many dreams that dissipate long before the sun sets. Diekara Oloruntoba-Ojo, herself from Nigeria’s disappearing middle class segment of society, the daughter of an academic, takes characters from that class and plunges them into the whirlpool of a failing system in her first novel, When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees (Kraft Books, Ibadan; 216). What she comes up with leaves the senses numbed.

Indeed, as she acknowledged in a reading she earlier gave at Goethe Institut, Lagos, she said she drew inspiration from newspapers’ headlines of the troubling times the country has irrevocably sunk. She’d noted, “I was always upset about the sad headlines and I wanted a face to the statistics in the news. Besides the suffering I read in the papers, I felt there was apathy about the stories we read. We tend to see bombing or poverty so far away. I had to make the rich characters see what was happening by plunging them into so much suffering. I had to burst their bubble of comfort. The title is a good metaphor for what I was writing, the sweet and sour of the family I was describing.”

It is indeed the sweet and sour of a country that has failed to get things right, with its principal players terribly blinded by greed. With the Sewa’s family as backdrop, Oloruntoba-Ojo’s fertile imagination roams wide and vivid in its portrayal of the dire conditions Nigeria’s poor and how those who rule over them are so far removed from their daily struggles, with needless death often their inevitable companion.

Starting off with laugh-out-loud, dark humour that introduces the readers to Sewa’s comfortable family, Oloruntoba-Ojo plunges the family right into the tragedy that would change the lives of five siblings forever. The children had lost their mother to cancer a few years back; on the day the father decides to enforce a measure of independence on his children by withdrawing some of the comfort they had enjoyed, armed robbers strike. For attempting to save his only daughter from being raped by the armed bandits, the father is shot dead. Left with an only aunt in faraway Jos, the five siblings are flung into a world they had not known existed before, shielded as they had been from the harsh reality majority of their fellow countrymen and women daily endure.

The older sibling, Sewa, becomes pregnant from the robbery and rape incident. Just when she is about to confide on the aunty, she, too, faces her own tragic end in the hands of religious fanatic that unleash violence that would shatter and become the lot of that serene city. Only two friends would become the pillars of these four boys and one girl, who had been cocooned in relative comfort all their lives. Sewa, pregnant, withdraws from university; the boys are withdrawn from private to a public school, with the older boy stopping altogether. Their father had taken a loan from a bank to finance his business; it is impounded from the children; their father’s partner also sells off what is left of the business and relocates abroad.

Thus, the Sewa siblings’ fall from grace to grass story turns full circle; they move into a shanty part of town. Only Aishatu and Chinjindu, two friends from the other two big tribes of Hausa/Fulani and Igbo, become the pillars of support for Sewa and her siblings, who are Yoruba. They provide the occasional relief from the unrelenting poverty circumstances thrust at them. It is Oloruntoba-Ojo’s vision of a united Nigeria regardless of tribal affiliations.

In the grimness of their situation, Sewa comes to a moment of acute awareness, and narrates, “The okra had burnt when I returned outside… We had eba and half burnt okra soup for lunch. The food tasted like sawdust but no one complained. Nobody ever complained about food again; nobody ever said anything when we ate…. I had heard Dad and Maami complain often about the suffering in the nation; I had read stories in the papers, too, but I had assumed that most of these stories were exaggerated. What I never imagined was the possibility that these stories were understated or that there were some stories left untold. The okra soup in my plate had finished and there was still eba left. I stared at the large chunk of eba in my plate for a few seconds and then I rolled it into a huge ball and forced in down my throat with a gulp of water”.

Through the imaginative candour of Oloruntoba-Ojo, we follow the suffering of one representative family and how the system and its operators rig sweet oranges from the reach of many Nigerians and replace them with bitter lemons. Although, a few structural quirks here and there, When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees is the work of a precocious, gifted writer whose first effort shows uncommon promise. It is a story that will resonate with millions of Nigerians inexorably drawn into the clutches of hard biting poverty in spite of the country’s vast wealth.

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