Monday, May 28, 2007

Nigerian twins

Even I know that in traditional Nigerian culture giving birth to twins is not a good thing; they are supposed to have some bad magic around them, and often they were left to die.

In the case of the twins in Helon Habila's book 'Measuring Time' perhaps the worst that happened to them was the death of their mother, whilst giving birth to them. They are then brought up in the village by their aunt and their philandering father, who is more absent than present. The book is told mainly from the viewpoint of one of the twins, Mamo, who has sickle cell disease, with frequent feverish and painful crises, and as a result is unable to participate in life as much as his healthy brother (hence they are not identical twins). They both have great ambitions to become famous, and finally decided to run away to join the army, at the age of 15. Unfortunately Mamo gets too sick to even leave the village, but his brother manages to get away and becomes a mercenary in a number of military organisations, with involvement in various West African conflicts, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mamo attends university for a while, and then becomes a teacher; later he becomes famous all right.

The book thus covers the lives of the twins for about 30 years or so. It's written in four parts, covering childhood to early adulthood, the moment when Mamo becomes famous, his life after that (and while his father tries to become a politician), and finally a small revolution. Naturally a number of other characters also develop in the course of the book, including one of the twin's cousins who also tries to meddle in politics, but as a drunk is not much good at it, and life becomes very tragic for him.

The book is not particularly funny, but very readable. It's a bit odd that it just stops; did the writer run out of ideas? One would have expected it to go on until Mamo dies, or until he had reached a certain life event, but it just stops. The interesting thing is that Mamo already at this stage lives much longer than other people with sickle cell disease, most of whom, in rural Nigeria at the time, were not expected to reach their twenties.

The book does not just cover the lives of the twins, but also, since Mamo becomes a bit of a historian, much of local and national history of Keti (the village) and Nigeria. Mamo in his researches uses an oral history type of approach, speaking to all sorts of people and building up their biographies (in addition to using newspaper cuttings and other documentary evidence - thus the book becomes a bit of a history of the people rather than the Kings and Queens type of history). This makes it very interesting, though personally I might have preferred to hear more about Mamo and his continuing life. The book is very well written in a clean living, African sort of way (they are always very polite), by the author, who is a professor of creative writing in Fairfax, Virginia, artly funded by a grant from the Arts Council (England) to allow him to take time out to complete the book.


Talatu-Carmen said...

Measuring Time is a good book isn't it!

Just one little comment on your opening statement about twins in "Nigerian" culture. Nigeria is a nation that colonial Britain cobbled together: it is made up of over 400 languages and as many cultures. Although 100 years ago twins may not have been welcomed in some of those cultures--the narrator in Measuring Time indicates that his was one of them; the Igbo and Calabari were others--most of those prejudices are no longer around. In many other cultures, twins have long been seen as special: among the Yoruba, for example, twins occur quite often and are revered: See http://www.randafricanart.com/Yoruba_Customs_and_Beliefs_Pertaining_to_Twins.html

Among the Hausa, twins are welcomed and are usually named after the twin sons of Ali, the fourth Caliph in Islamic history.

violainvilnius said...

wow, thanks for this. I should have thought of all the cultures in Nigeria.....