Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eaters of Dust

While looking for something else (Isherwood's A Single Man, I think, or Frank Moorehouse's The Everlasting Secret Family) in the university library stacks, my attention was caught by a few small books at the end of a shelf. They were recent literature in English from West Africa, mostly Nigeria, and with the typical insouciance of a promiscuous reader I grabbed a handful and took them along. I haven't read enough African writing (though still more, I'll wager, than most random white Americans), and these were published in Africa for African readers, rather than in England or the US as exotica for white or African-American/Afro-British readers in search of roots.

One of the books I picked up was A Matter of Identity by Toni Duruaku, which turned out to be a play about a young man and women sent by their tribe into the realm of the Ancestors to be given directions for the future of Africa. The other was Iheanyichukwu Duruoha's novel Eaters of Dust (Ikeja: Longman, 2000), about the end and aftermath of the horrific Nigerian-Biafran Civil War of 1967-1969. I'm not sure what I expected, but Eaters of Dust turned out to be pretty complex.

The narrator, Nduweze, "barely seventeen" (4), is a mess boy in the Biafran 10th Battalion Training Depot 3 in Usi, formerly the Usi Grammar School. His childhood friend Chima, a few months older, is batman to the formidable and reckless Captain Ebenezer Odogwu, known as "Bazooka", so he has been to the front, unlike Nduweze, who's spent the war in his home town. "While others fought and died in the war fronts, I cooked for the sergeants in the rear. Though I was a cook, I managed to acquire all the military discipline and learn how to kill a man with my bare hands" (5). He quarrels frequently with his mother, his father having disappeared on a trip to Lagos; they don't know if he's alive or dead. As the novel opens, Ndu is watching refugees on the highway, fleeing from the advancing Federal troops. Orders come down to evacuate the depot, but it turns out to be too late. Captain Bazooka commandeers a passing car to carry off his personal plunder, then kills the car's owner in cold blood and drives away, abandoning both his wife Maria and the devoted Chima. Nduweze must flee with Chima into the forest, and returns to his mother's house.

Chima goes off looking for his master Bazooka, to return the Bible he left behind him. Ndu has a series of adventures and misadventures in the confusion that follows. He abandons his army uniform so he won't be shot on sight as a rebel, and spends a lot of time running around either naked or trying to keep a small cloth wrapped around his private parts. In addition to his ability (never actually used) to kill a man with his bare hands, we are informed that his penis is large enough to inspire comment from other men. (The novel is blunt about body functions, and Ndu dutifully informs the reader about cleaning his anus after each bowel movement. Reunited with Chima later in the novel, when both are again on the run, Ndu invents a tale about having gone out at night for a shit and then being scared away from the depot by gunfire. Chima asks him teasingly, "‘Have you cleaned your anus?’ I smiled and said, ‘Yes, of course.’" [174].) At the same time, Ndu complains when he sees his reflection in a mirror (47):
... my eyes [were] sleepy and my lips large and soft. I have baby-boy cheeks and I think I look very innocent and feminine. I knew I would be the last man to make a good soldier, not by a long shot anyway.
He feels smothered by his bossy mother's authority, and thinks he needs to do something to become a man. But not to worry, Ndu, looks can deceive. Baby-faced youths have carried out some major massacres. The riot cops in Seoul look cute and boyish, even pretty, but you wouldn't want to encounter them on a dark street.

The Federal troops occupy Usi and take over the depot to quarter themselves. The people of Usi scramble to find jobs with them, first selling them water, then building tents for them around the grammar school; the boys have already been dragooned to bury the dead scattered around the grounds. A number of Ndu's friends have survived the war, and much of the novel involves their relations with each other, with a lot of banter about girls and school. Ndu tells us that he did well in English class, because he used (famous Nigerian novelist) Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart as a crib.

Before long, though, the father of the man murdered by Captain Bazooka come looking for his missing son. One of Nduweze's friends, Cosmo, is found wearing a shirt taken from the dead man's body, and is accused of the killing. Tortured and beaten, he will be executed if the real murderer isn't found. In the end, Nduweze and Chima come forward as eyewitnesses, and justice is perhaps served. (Chima refuses the reward of "thirty Nigerian pounds" offered to him by the dead man's father, and the contrast with Judas Iscariot is clearly deliberate, though unsettling -- Bazooka makes a bizarre Christ figure.) Ndu travels to Lagos and finds father still alive.

Okay, that's the story. But the book contains a subplot that I hadn't expected. When the Nigerian Feds occupy Usi, Nduweze goes to the depot to try to make some money selling water to the soldiers, as many young men are doing even though carrying water is women's work. There's not a lot of food around; famine in Biafra attracted international attention, as it would a few years later in Bangladesh, and the occupiers have a lot of money to spend. Biafran money was virtually worthless by the end of the war, and several characters in Eaters of Dust are shown lugging around bags of it. The Hausa-speaking Feds must communicate in pidgin with the locals, and their dialogue with them is noticeably different from the (presumably Igbo) dialogue between Ndu and his friends and relatives.

In the yard at the depot, trying to find someone to buy the water he carries, Ndu observes:
There were many girls with hardly clothes on and their newly formed breasts shook as they sang and giggled. They were selling their water fast. I felt jealous because I knew these soldiers would soon start squeezing their breasts. I wished I were a girl. I continued singing nevertheless [126].
"I wished I were a girl"? That got my attention; Ndu knows what it means to be a girl whose breasts a soldier would squeeze. If the reader doesn't know, it's spelled out a few pages later in an exchange between Ndu and his friend Boy Shankar, who's helping a soldier build a tent (138):
‘...One could do anything now to get money. If I were a girl I wouldn’t mind selling myself.’
‘And since you aren’t a girl?’
He coughed. ‘Well, that’s why I am doing this.’
Ndu, meanwhile, has found himself a softer gig. After getting knocked out in a fight involving his friend Cosmo and a soldier, Ndu wakes up in the quarters of the camp Sergeant Major, W. O. I. Adamu Sambo, "a man of medium build, slightly pot bellied and with a face pitted with spots. He had a Mandarin type of moustache. He was looking at me with interest and when my eyes met his, he smiled. I seemed to like him because his smile was tender and reassuring, and he had a nice set of teeth" (128f).
He smiled back like a child, held my arm and squeezed it. Then he started rubbing the top of my hand, saying, ‘I like you Nduu and you go be my friend-okay?’ I nodded and said, ‘Yes.’
‘You go like to stay here with me?’ he said. ‘You go work for me and I pay you big money?’
Without thinking, I said, ‘Yes.’
‘Where is yor fada and yor moda?’
‘My fada dey for Lagos but my moda dey here.’
‘Now, you go work for me. Is dat clear?’
I nodded. ‘What kind of work I go dey do?’ I asked.
‘To wash my cloth das all! Musa will press. You hear?’ I said ‘Yes.’
‘What of food? I go dey eat here?’
‘Yes, everything, you must eat. We have everything.’ [130]
And a few pages later (148):
Our eyes met and held for an instant. Then I turned my face away.
‘You be like woman,’ he said.
I smiled like a little girl.
‘How I be like woman?’ I asked.
‘Your face and your body ……’
I continued eating and began feeling sorry for myself. Perhaps, he was right; I hadn’t gone to war like others and I looked feminine. Yet this view crippled my psyche because it explained all my ambition to subdue my mother.
Then he said, ‘You like me?’
I hesitated before I answered.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I like you.’
He shot out his hand, held my ear and smoothed the back of it; and then he held my hand and scratched it.
Plenty of explicit gay overtures there. Lest the reader suspect that I am imposing my cultural-terrorist Euro-American gay agenda on an innocent homosocial text, however, there's more. Ndu must fight off another Nigerian soldier who tries to rape him while Sambo is away, which indicates that others around them see their relationship as probably sexual. Then Ndu's old friend Sunny Bruzz shows up and meets Sambo, who takes a shine to him as well, giving him an expensive flask. Sunny asks Ndu, "Do you sleep on the same bed with him?" Ndu hesitates before lying: "No. I sleep on the floor" (159).

Whether Sambo and Ndu do any more than sleep together is left unclear. But when a sentry questions Ndu whose laundry he washes (164):
‘Bedsheet? Hah-ha, I know am Adamu Sambo na vey well bature. Play with people everybody. Him don play with you?’
I put on an embarrassed look, trying to help myself and again he said:
‘Him don play with you?’
Turning my face away from his, I said no.
Ndu had lied to Sunny about sleeping on the floor, so maybe he's lying here too. Ndu frets privately (166):
What was the special attraction Sunny Bruzz had which made Sambo start to like him? Apart from Sunny’s masculine shoulders and rock-like muscles, there was nothing attractive in him. As I had told you, his teeth were not complete, the right lower molars were missing. So why on earth would Sambo start to like him?
Well, I can see the special attraction Sunny Bruzz might have for Sambo. But this complicates the erotic dynamics of the situation. Many readers might argue that Sambo is attracted to Nduweze because of his girlishness, giving a pseudo-heterosexual cast to their relationship that reassures those trying to argue that there's nothing queer going on here, just manly soldiers bonding in the absence of women, one is the pitcher and the other's the catcher, blah blah blah. But Sambo, as the description I quoted above indicates, is not a particularly masculine figure, and for all that he's drawn to Ndu's effeminacy, he flips roles when he meets the butch, muscular, womanizing Sunny. Nothing seems to come of their flirtation, though, and Ndu later boasts to Chima, "Take it from me. I am that man’s best friend; the only cock that crows in his room. So be reassured" (189). Oh, I am, Nduweze, I am. Nevertheless, "I loved Chima, my spirit always yielded to his and I longed to yield to him more and more like a woman" (194).

In the end, however,
Seven days after I came back from Lagos, I had met Grace, a mulatto from Sapele, and we had fallen in love. Grace was not only beautiful, she was hard working and ambitious – and above all she was kind, soft and ripe. ... I had never touched her; in fact I had thought she was only being kind to me, having seen me so torn and haggard like a beggar, emerging from the ashes of Biafra. Then just the night before, she had whispered to me through the window -- 'Ndu, Ndu.' I had gone quickly to meet her. Quietly she had taken me by the hand, had led me into an unfinished brick house and had moved her hand up and down my spine. There, to my greatest surprise, something had happened. Exploding in my loins, a sudden fire filled me with lust. Clawing and grunting, she had made love to me. In the end, though exhausted, I had seen a whole esplanade of lush and strange sensation open to me; an experience that promised consummation. I had felt redeemed [210].
Well, maybe. This passage is a reminder of the symbolic function of "manhood"; maybe we're supposed to read Nduweze's attraction to Sambo (which is made explicit before Sambo makes his first move) as a symbol of his youth, incomplete manhood, displacement, failure as a warrior, need for a father figure, etc., all of which is left behind when a woman, "clawing and grunting," makes a man of him at last. Maybe, though it doesn't change the fact that an erotically-charged relationship between two males (and implicitly more, given Sunny's intervention and the sentry's knowingness), recognized as such by everybody in the novel, takes up about a third of the story. It's enough to undermine the widespread claim by many African cultural nationalists that sex beween males is a foreign import polluting pure African society -- even if there weren't plenty of other evidence to undermine it, from the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka's novel The Interpreters [1965], featuring a conflicted black American expatriate who makes out well with the local youths and now Rudolf Pell Gaudio's study Allah Made Us [Wiley, 2009], about "sexual outlaws" in Nigeria. Far from being something alien to Nigerian society, sex between males appears to be common enough to merit no more than coarse joking when it rears its head. And the words "gay" or "homosexual" never turn up in Eaters of Dust; the novel shows how unnecessary and diversionary it is to obsess about such labels.