From two-time Caine Prize finalist Elnathan John, a dynamic young voice from Nigeria, Born on a Tuesday is a stirring, starkly rendered first novel about a young boy struggling to find his place in a society that is fracturing along religious and political lines.
In far northwestern Nigeria, Dantala lives among a gang of street boys who sleep under a kuka tree. During the election, the boys are paid by the Small Party to cause trouble. When their attempt to burn down the opposition’s local headquarters ends in disaster, Dantala must run for his life, leaving his best friend behind. He makes his way to a mosque that provides him with food, shelter, and guidance. With his quick aptitude and modest nature, Dantala becomes a favored apprentice to the mosque’s sheikh. Before long, he is faced with a terrible conflict of loyalties, as one of the sheikh’s closest advisors begins to raise his own radical movement. When bloodshed erupts in the city around him, Dantala must decide what kind of Muslimand what kind of manhe wants to be. Told in Dantala’s naïve, searching voice, this astonishing debut explores the ways in which young men are seduced by religious fundamentalism and violence.
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About the Author
Elnathan John is a Nigerian lawyer who quit his job in 2012 to write full-time. In 2013, he was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Bayan Layi” and was again named a finalist in 2015. He is a 2015 Civitella Ranieri Fellow, writes a satiric column about politics and life for a Nigerian weekly newspaper, and has had work published in Per Contra , Financial Times , Le Monde Diplomatique , Chimurenga's Chronic , Hazlitt , and the Evergreen Review. He lives in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.
Read an Excerpt
The boys who sleep under the kuka tree in Bayan Layi like to boast about the people they have killed. I never join in because I have never killed a man. Banda has, but he doesn't like to talk about it. He just smokes wee-wee while they talk over each other's heads. Gobedanisa's voice is always the loudest. He likes to remind everyone of the day he strangled a man. I never interrupt his story even though I was there with him and saw what happened. Gobedanisa and I had gone into a lambu to steal sweet potatoes but the farmer had surprised us while we were there. As he chased us, swearing to kill us if he caught us, he fell into a bush trap for antelopes. Gobedanisa did not touch him. We just stood by and watched as he struggled and struggled and then stopped struggling.
I don't care that Gobedanisa lies about it but sometimes I just want to ask him to shut up. The way he talks about killing, you would think he would get aljanna for it, that Allah would reserve the best spot for him. I know why he talks like that. He tells it to keep the smaller boys in awe of him. And to make them fear him. His face is a map of scars, the most prominent being a thin long one that stretches from the right side of his mouth up to his right ear. Those of us who have been here longer know he got that scar the day he tried to fight Banda. No one who knows Banda fights Banda. You are looking to get killed if you do. I can't remember what led to the quarrel. I arrived to hear Banda screaming, 'Ka fita harka na fa!' Stay out of my business! Banda never shouts so I knew this was not a small matter. Gobedanisa must have smoked a lot of the wee-wee Banda gave him. He uttered the unforgivable insult: 'Gindin maman ka!' Your mother's cunt! Banda was bigger than him and had a talisman and three amulets on his right arm for knives and arrows. Nothing made out of metal could pierce him.
As Gobedanisa insulted Banda's mother, Banda dropped from the guava tree branch he was sitting on and punched him right in the mouth. He was wearing his rusty ring with the sharp edges. Gobedanisa's mouth started bleeding. He picked up a wooden plank and rammed it into Banda's back. Banda looked back and walked off, to the tree. But Gobedanisa was looking for glory. Whoever could break Banda would be feared by the rest of us. We would follow that one. He picked a second plank and aimed for Banda's head but Banda turned quickly and blocked the blow with his right arm. The plank broke in two. Gobedanisa lunged with his bloodied hands and hit Banda on the jaw. Banda didn't flinch. No one separates fights in Bayan Layi except if someone is about to be killed or if the fight is really unfair. Sometimes, even then, we just let it go on because no one dies unless it is Allah's will. Banda grabbed Gobedanisa by the shirt, punched him twice in the face and twisted his right arm, which was reaching for a knife in his pocket. He pinned Gobedanisa to the ground and with his right fist made a long tear across his cheek.
No one holds a grudge in Bayan Layi. Gobedanisa still has his scar but he follows Banda and does what Banda says. Everything that happens is Allah's will, so why should anyone keep a grudge?
I like Banda because he is generous with his wee-wee. He doesn't like the way I tell him things that happen when he is away in Sabon Gari in the centre of town. He says I don't know how to tell a story, that I just talk without direction, like the harmattan wind that just blows and blows, scattering dust. Me, I just like to say it as I remember it. And sometimes you have to explain the story. Sometimes the explanation lies in many stories. How else can the story be sweet if you do not start it from its real, real beginning?
Banda gets a lot of money now that it is election season: to put up posters for the Small Party and tear off the ones for the Big Party or smash up someone's car in the city. He always shares his money with the boys and gives me more than he gives the rest. I am the smallest in the gang of big boys in Bayan Layi and Banda is the biggest. But he is my best friend.
Last month, or the month before Ramadan I think, this boy tried to steal in Bayan Layi. No one dares to come steal in Bayan Layi. Because it is a small community, it is easy to detect a stranger who is loitering. The boy tried to take some gallons of groundnut oil from Maman Ladidi's house. Her house is ba'a shiga: men aren't allowed to enter. She saw him and screamed. Then he ran and jumped over the fence. I like chasing thieves especially when I know they are not from Bayan Layi. I am the fastest runner here even though I broke my leg once when I fell from a motorcycle in Sabon Gari. Anyway, the groundnut oil thief, we caught him and gave him the beating of his life. I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch. So we sat this boy down and Banda asked what his name was. He said Idowu. I knew he was lying because he had the nose of an Igbo boy. I grabbed a long nail and pierced his head many times, demanding his real name.
'Idowu! I swear my name is Idowu,' he screamed as the nail tore into his flesh.
'Where is your unguwa?' Acishuru, the boy with one bad eye, asked, slapping him across the cheek. He knew how to slap, this boy with one bad eye.
'Near Sabon Gari,' the thief said.
'Where exactly?' I shouted. He kept quiet and I punched him in the neck with my nail.
Then he just got up and ran, I tell you. Like a bird in the sky he just flew past us. We couldn't catch him this time. Banda asked us to leave him alone. He didn't reach Sabon Layi. Someone saw his body in a gutter that evening. See how Allah does things — we didn't even beat him too much. We have beaten people worse, wallahi, and they didn't die. But Allah chooses who lives and who dies. Not me. Not us.
The police came to our area with the vigilante group from Sabon Gari and we had to run away. Some hid in the mosque. Banda, Acishuru, Dauda and I swam across the river Kaduna, a part of which flows behind Bayan Layi, and wandered in the farms and bushes until it was late, too late to make it back across the river. Banda is not allowed to enter the river at night with his amulets. He says he will lose the power if the river water touches them at night and he cannot take them off because that too will kill their power.
Everyone is talking about the elections, how things will change. Even Maman Ladidi, who doesn't care about much apart from selling her groundnut oil, has the poster of the Small Party candidate on the walls of her house. She listens to her small radio for news about the elections. Everybody does. The women in the market wear wrappers carrying the candidate's face and the party logo, and many men are putting on white caftans and red caps just like him. I like the man. He is not a rich man but he gives plenty of alms and talks to people whenever he is in town. I like more the way he wears his red cap to the side almost like it's about to fall. I will get a cap like that if I get the money, maybe a white caftan too. But white is hard to keep clean — soap is expensive and the water in the river will make it brown even when you wash it clean. Malam Junaidu, my former Quranic teacher, wears white too and he says the Prophet, sallallahu alaihi wasallam, liked to wear white. But Malam Junaidu gives his clothes to the washman, who buys water from the boys who sell tap water. Some day, insha Allah, I will be able to buy tap water or go to the washman and have a box for all my white clothes. Things will be better if the Small Party wins. Insha Allah.
I like the rallies. The men from the Small Party trust Banda and they give him money to organise boys from Bayan Layi for them. Sometimes we get as much as one hundred fifty naira depending on who it is or which rally. We also get a lot to drink and eat.
I like walking around with Banda. The men respect him and even boys bigger than him are afraid of him. Banda became my friend two years ago, about the time I finished my Quranic training in Malam Junaidu's islamiyya. When I finished, Malam said I could go back to my village in Sokoto. Then Alfa, whose father lives near my father's house in Sokoto, had just arrived at the school and told me my father had died months earlier. I did not ask him what killed him because, Allah forgive me, I did not care much. It had been very long since I saw my father and he had not asked after me. Alfa said my mother still left the village every Friday to beg by the Juma'at mosque in Sokoto city and I had twin sisters whose names he didn't know. So, I told Malam Junaidu I was going back to Sokoto even though in my heart I didn't want to go. I thought he would give me the fare. It was three hundred naira from the park not too far away in Sabon Gari to get a space in the back of the trucks which carry wood to Sokoto. Instead he gave me seventy naira, reminding me that my father had not brought any millet that year or the year before to pay for my Quranic training. I had been there six years, and when I told him my father had died, he paused for a moment, then said 'Innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raji'un' and walked away. It is not that I didn't agree that it is Allah who gives life and who takes, it is the way he said it in that dry tone he used when teaching that made me sad. But I did not cry. I did not cry until that evening when I heard Alfa telling some boys I was a cikin shege. A bastard pregnancy. I don't know where he got that idea from. They were sitting by the well near the open mosque Malam Junaidu built. I kicked Alfa on the thigh and we started fighting. Normally I would have just beaten him up but two boys held me down so Alfa could keep slapping me. I was kicking and crying when Banda passed by. Everyone in Bayan Layi knew Banda. With one punch, Banda knocked Alfa down and flung one of the boys to the ground. I ran after Alfa and kept punching him in the stomach until my hands began to hurt. The other boys ran away. That day, I cried like I had never cried before. I followed Banda and he gave me the first wee-wee I ever smoked. It felt good. My legs became light and after a while I felt them disappear. I was floating, my eyes were heavy and I felt bigger and stronger than Banda and Gobedanisa and all the boys under the kuka tree. He said he liked the way I didn't cough when I smoked it. That was how we became friends. He gave me one of his flat cartons and took me to where they slept. They slept on cartons under the kuka tree and when it rained they moved to the cement floor in front of Alhaji Mohammed's rice store, which had an extended zinc roof. I cannot say when I decided to join the boys under the kuka tree. At first I still wanted to go back home, but as each day passed, I lost the desire to do so.
Banda was never an almajiri like me. He was born in Sabon Gari like most of the other boys but didn't attend Quranic school. Malam Junaidu had warned us about the kuka tree boys, who come to the mosque only during Ramadan or Eid days — 'yan daba, thugs, who do nothing but cause trouble in Bayan Layi.' We despised them because they did not know the Quran and Sunna like us and did not fast or pray five times a day. 'A person who doesn't pray five times a day is not a Muslim,' Malam Junaidu would say. Now that I am also under the kuka tree, I know they are just like me and even though they don't pray five times a day, some of them are kind, good people — Allah knows what is in their hearts.
Banda is an old boy. I don't know how old, but he is the only one with a moustache among us. I hate it when people ask me my age because I don't know. I just tell them I have fasted nearly ten times. Some people understand when I say so, but others still ask annoying questions, like the woman during the census last year. But since the recent voter registration I have been saying I am nineteen, even though I have to fold the sleeves of the old caftan Banda gave me. The men in the Small Party asked us to say so and gave us all one hundred naira to register and even though the people registering us complained, they registered us anyway. My head was so big in the picture on the voter card, Banda and Acishuru kept laughing at me. I don't like it when Acishuru laughs at me because he has one bad eye and shouldn't be laughing at my head. He is so stingy he doesn't even like to share his wee-wee.
'We have a lot of work to do for the elections,' Banda says, coughing. Banda hasn't coughed like this before, spitting blood.
The Small Party has promised we may even get one thousand naira per head if they win the elections. They will build a shelter for us homeless boys and those who can't return home or don't have parents, where we can learn things like making chairs and sewing caftans and making caps.
Acishuru, Banda, Gobedanisa and I have been going with some boys from Sabon Gari to the Small Party office to talk about how to win the elections. No one likes the Big Party here. It is because of them we are poor. Their boys don't dare come here because people will drive them out.
Banda is coughing and spitting out even more blood. I worry. Maybe after the elections, when the Small Party becomes the Big Party, they can pay for him to go to the big hospital in the capital with plenty of flowers and trees. Or, if Allah wills it, he will get better without even needing the hospital.
It is about one hour after the last evening prayer and the Small Party man's brother has just driven into Bayan Layi in a white pickup truck with the party flag in front. He shouts Banda's name. Banda drops from the guava tree and I follow him.
'Which one of you is Banda?' a man asks from behind the truck. I can't see his face.
'I am,' Banda replies.
'And this one, who is he?'
'He's my friend; we sleep in the same place.'
'My name is Dantala,' I add.
'Well, we want just Banda.'
I am angry but I don't say a word.
'I am coming,' Banda says to me, adjusting the amulets on his right arm. It is his way of telling me he will be OK. He hops onto the back of the truck and they drive off.
Banda appears just as the muezzin sings the first call to prayer. It is election day. I didn't sleep because I was anxious and I knew they would give him a lot of money for the boys.
'What did they tell you?' I ask.
'What do you mean, nothing?' I am getting irritated. 'So they kept you all night for nothing?'
Banda doesn't say anything. He brings out two long wraps of weewee and gives one to me. We call it jumbo, the big one. He also hands me two crisp one hundred naira notes. I have not seen crisp notes like these in a long time.
'After prayers we will gather all the boys behind the mosque and give them one hundred fifty each. Then we wait. The party men will tell us what to do. Those who have their voters' cards will get an extra two hundred and I will collect all the cards and take them to their office.'
I am not sure why they have told Banda to collect the cards because I imagine they want us to help vote the Big Party out. But I want the extra two hundred. I am excited about the elections and the way everybody in Bayan Layi and even Sabon Gari likes the Small Party. They will surely win. Insha Allah!
Banda and I head for the polling centre between Bayan Layi and Sabon Gari even though we will not be voting. The day is moving slowly and the sun is hot very early. I hope the electoral officers come quickly so it can begin. Plenty of women are coming out to vote and the Small Party people are everywhere. They are handing out water and zobo and giving the women salt and dry fish in little cellophane bags. Everyone is cheerful, chatting in small groups. The Big Party agent arrives in a plain bus and takes off his party tag as soon as he gets there. I think he is afraid he will be attacked. He doesn't complain about the things the Small Party people are doing; he can't, because not even the two policemen can save him if he does. He knows, because he used to live in Bayan Layi too before he started working for the Big Party and moved to get a room in Sabon Gari. Banda says he hardly stays there and he spends most of his time in the capital where all the money is.
The voting is about to end and my wee-wee is wearing off, but I still have some left from the jumbo Banda gave me in the morning. I am hungry and tired of drinking the zobo that has been going around. I can't see Banda anywhere. I turn the corner of the street and find him bent over, coughing, holding his chest. He is still spitting a lot of blood. I ask him if he is OK. He says nothing, just sits on the floor, panting. I get him one sachet of water. He rinses his mouth and drinks some of it.
'We will win these elections,' Banda says.
'Of course, who can stop us?' We are talking like real politicians now, like party men.
'Will they really build us that shelter?' I ask.
'I don't like to think of that; all I want is that they pay every time they ask us to work for them. After the election, where will you see them?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Born on a Tuesday"
Copyright © 2015 Elnathan John.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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