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Coming of age in northern Nigeria against a backdrop of faith and violence in "Born on a Tuesday"

Coming of age in northern Nigeria against a backdrop of faith and violence in

In Born on a Tuesday, by Nigerian author Elnathan John, main character Dantala works for an Imam in northern Nigeria, where he experiences friendship and love, while trying to navigate through dangerous times in his community.


Africa: Stories in the 55

What is your book about?

Born On A Tuesday is a story of boyhood, a coming-of-age story that follows the life of the main character, Dantala, who is very quickly thrust in the world where there is both faith and violence. It follows his personal development and how he reacts to the various influences in his life, how he reacts to changing faith, how he reacts to loss, how he reacts to the gaining of friendship, of brotherhood, and how, through his meeting of various, what I would call  ‘father figures’, he is able to build upon his personal character, and all this against the backdrop of the political events in northern Nigeria.

We broadcast across the continent in English, but for many of our listeners, English is not their first language they speak their local language. Dantala is a young Hausa man and he’s learning English. His personal dictionary is sprinkled throughout the book.

Dantala starts learning English when he meets a young man who also comes to join the mosque; of course, in exchange for Arabic lessons. His little dictionary is his way of keeping track of the world, and understanding the world through this new language. He has access to a new culture, to a new way of seeing things. And in many ways, the translation is a crossover from one world to another, and how things in one language, for example, one set of cultures, can be different from another, which he sees when he does sometimes a literal transliteration and sees how words change when you translate them to English and back.

Throughout the novel, Dantala becomes aware that things are not exactly as they appear. He happens to see corruption with his own eyes.

Exactly. He learns very quickly that life is not black and white; that in between are portions of grey, and in all of that, there are decisions that we have to make. And especially as he sees his mentor, whom he holds in very high regard, having these grey areas. And learning quickly that he, too, must make certain decisions that do not conform to his general outlook on life. And all of this adds to his personal development.

Dantala also sees the rise of Boko Haram, or, a Boko Haram-like group. He’s even linked to it through his best friend.

A group like it. Just to say I was very careful not to mention Boko Haram at all, and there’s not a single mention of Boko Haram in the book. Because my aim generally was to show actually that Boko Haram is not an isolated incident. Conditions for the rise of groups like Boko Haram exist throughout northern Nigeria and that there are deeper issues to consider or contemplate when thinking about things like Islamic extremism, and even Salafism in general and political Islam as it exists in northern Nigeria, which is why I don’t mention Boko Haram at all.

However, yes, he does see the rise of an extremist element in the group, with his own eyes, and I was trying to show how easy it is within movements to have people slide into more fundamentalist interpretations of religion and how actually within Islam, there is debate and conversation that is being heard, especially in Nigeria, around jihad, and whether or not jihad is a valid path to follow. And often when people say, 'Oh, what are Muslims saying about that bombing?' Or, ‘are Muslims condemning that?’ And actually, we may not be hearing it, but conversations exist, and conversations are continuing within movements and sects, around theology, and modus operandi, and how people hope to achieve certain ends, that kind of thing. And there are disagreements. Also, when a rogue element arises, it is often not because of an absence of conversation, or an absence of condemnation, it is often in spite of conversation and condemnation.

It seems that there is an over-simplification of the news in northern Nigeria.

If you follow the bombings and killings in northern Nigeria, that have all of course been blamed on Boko Haram, you would quickly realize that this is a combination of many, many opportunistic groups cashing in on this blanket label of Boko Haram on any violence. It would be very easy, for example, to throw a bomb to destroy a house you always wanted to destroy. And people would say, 'Oh, this is a trademark of Boko Haram.' So that's it. There's no investigation, there's nothing, it ends there...Also because a lot of the journalism around it is slightly lazy. So once there's the bomb, there's always the paragraph that is cut and pasted at the end of any bombing in northern Nigeria. They say, ' Boko Haram is having a campaign of violence since blah blah, the group that blah blah, you know, that kind of thing. There's that paragraph that is at the end of every news report. But yes, a lot of people have claimed that people are taking advantage of its politicians, criminal groups, even people who are just normal robbers who want to steal money from a bank, for example. If they use a bomb, that's it. They'll say it's Boko Haram. So I think this leads to the question of how little nuance there is in the reporting of news and violence from northern Nigeria and Nigeria as a whole. And because of course, 'If it bleeds, it leads', it's easy to just follow the blood and make that simple conclusion that everyone wants to hear: 'Oh, it's Boko Haram.' It's not that sexy if you add a nuanced interpretation of news or violence that doesn't lead to the popular conclusions.

It seems that there is also an over-simplification of the people in northern Nigeria.

Yes, exactly. It’s almost like fast food. There’s a bombing, and then they give the summaries, which brings me back to what I wanted to do with the novel. I wanted to show that life in northern Nigeria is as complex as life anywhere else in the world. And that people have to make the same daily decisions that other people have to make about food, about partners, about friends, about business, about politics, and all of that. So, people are able to see human beings with aspirations and dreams and wants, not just people affected by violence. Not just figures, statistics and victims. But people with urgency. People who take their destiny into their own hands, even as in the case of Dantala, they sometimes believe in trusting in Allah. But people who, within the context of their beliefs system... they try to make sense of the world.

Here is an excerpt of Born on a Tuesday:

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