Sarah Manyika’s Debut Novel Thrills

First published in The Herald

Wednesday 1st April 2015

Beaven Tapureta - Bookshelf

Students studying Advanced Level literature in Zimbabwe are in for exciting thought-provoking texts, which will definitely take them on an intellectual drive through the woods of some gifted African imaginations.

One such text is a novel titled ‘In Dependence’ by 47-year-old writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2014, Weaver Press). Interweaving the dual threads of politics, colonialism and independence, and a cross-cultural love story, this novel challenges us to think out of the box. It is now a set book for Advanced Level English Literature Paper 4 from next year to 2020.

I may not have the right terms to describe ‘In Dependence’ but the love story of the two main protagonists, Tayo and Vanessa, is affected both directly and indirectly by the political trajectory of Nigeria. Reading the novel is like unbundling the concept of independence in spirit and word (as the author attempts in her title) with Nigeria’s political history as its axis.

As Nigerians this week learn of their 2015 election results, the country’s conscience has been seared by, among other things, the violence of an Islamist movement known as Boko Haram, which loosely means ‘Western education is a sin’. This deadly cult has resulted in the murder of thousands of people, and the abduction of hundreds of girls and women. Why Nigeria, why a history of civil war and military juntas? Some of the answers can only be retrieved by looking back and ‘In Dependence’ does just this, and with great subtlety. This makes the novel a worthwhile contribution in African literature as a whole.

As he leaves his newly reborn nation and goes to England on a scholarship, Tayo is a brilliant young Nigerian full of hope. His headmaster Mr. Faircliff has arranged this lifetime opportunity for him to study abroad. At Oxford, Tayo makes friends (and lovers) but never forgets to follow events in Nigeria. Through letters from his father, he is connected with home but then Vanessa, a fellow student at Oxford, slowly supplants his heart into a different kind of ‘home’ where he learns to explore his emotions more deeply.

The alternating setting of Oxford and any one of Nigerian towns is enthralling, described in such a way that one is immersed in the weather, art and culture, not forgetting race relations and African students’ activism in the heady 1960s. (Oxford was also the setting for some of the late Dambudzo Marechera’s writings; his descriptions capture the university spirit of the 1970s.)

The highly intellectual talk or discussion of the African human condition whenever characters Tayo, Ike, Yusuf, Christine, Vanessa and others meet reminds me of some characters like Liz, Cicero and the narrator in Marechera’s ‘Black Insider’. The inspiring and liberated dialogue of exiled African young thinkers, inspired by heroes the likes of Malcom X, exudes with critical ideas hinging on building a better and responsible Africa!

Here at Balliol College, Oxford, a generation of West African sons and daughters is captured wondering what would become of the independence slowly spreading across Africa. But it is Nigeria that is important to them.

Several events happen before Tayo meets Vanessa and afterwards, the story is woven in captivating shades of love, history and politics.

While Tayo is deeply in love with Vanessa who is proud to have grown up in Africa, the question of race and culture stand out, as well as issues of gender and patriarchy.

Vanessa’s father, Mr. Richardson, served in colonial Nigeria and has a deeply racist understanding of Africans; this contrasts sharply with his wife’s attitude, and with his daughter’s interest with everything African. Naturally, when Vanessa’s relationship with Tayo reaches his ears, he disapproves wholeheartedly.

Mrs. Murdoch, also known as Nancy, is also openly racist. When one day she and her husband (a friend of Mr. Richardson’s having been together in Africa under colonial employ), visits Vanessa’s family, her conversation reeks of anti-Africa attitude.

Characters like Nancy and Mr. Richardson think that the emerging independent nations in Africa are simply cloud nine which will pass. To the sad disillusionment of the reader, their racist predictions seem proven right as Nigeria plunges into corruption and misrule. And one asks: Is Africa not capable of ruling itself?

Manyika, however, refuses to reduce complex questions to simple binaries. At some point, Tayo and his friends Yusuf and Tunde are arrested by police in Oxford after a fracas erupts at a party which they have organized at Tunde’s house. The cause: a white student shouts racist invectives at Tayo who has put his arm around the student’s sister!

As if in retaliation against the racism to which he has been exposed, Yusuf marries a Nigerian girl named Joy although he has been dating Joyce, who is white. This surprise action is similar to Mr. Richardson, who, impressed by Tayo’s command of political history, invites him to give a lecture on Nigeria at his school; nonetheless, after a well-delivered lecture, he warns Tayo against marrying his daughter!

Vanessa, a likeable woman throughout the novel, is our heroine but Tayo is the embodiment of what Africa needs: a patriotic figure who does not run away from challenges. Yet although the author very well portrays an individual’s dream to better his country, she also puts in the forces that hinder such positive thought.

Tayo has to return to Nigeria when his father becomes very ill. A civil war prevents him from returning to England to complete his studies, and to his relationship with Vanessa. Staying, he becomes a dissenting critical voice much to the anger of the powers that be.

The story primarily takes place in an era without internet and Manyika uses letters to attest to the passion for the written word exhibited by lovers Tayo and Vanessa as well as to lay bare the characters’ daily inner thoughts, hopes and fears.

The language, the liveliness of characters and place and the smooth shift of time never get the reader nodding off!

First published in Nigeria, this Weaver Press edition contains a glossary, revision questions and a review by Kinna Likimani.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, and England. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches literature at San Francisco State University. Her writing includes essays, academic papers, reviews and short stories. ‘In Dependence’ is Manyika’s first novel.