By Anote Ajeluorou
Kasanga Avenue. Chiralum. This pair forms the vicious world of grinding poverty that Commonwealth Prize winning novelist Ifeoma Okoye forces down the consciousness of her readers. And for good reasons, too.
Too often those who have managed to escape that grotesque world forget too soon. For those who haven’t even walked that path, it might as well be mere fiction. But Okoye balances out the equation somewhat in this harrowing novel The Fourth World (The Rising People’s Press, Enugu; 2013) set in a typical slum in a third world country. The slum is the universal ‘fourth world’ in which Okoye’s imagination ranges.
Even the title is symbolic of her focus. The third world refers to the poorest countries of the world located in Africa, South America and parts of Asia. Now, with these countries, Okoye has located a grimmer fourth world, whose unrelenting poverty on its inhabitants leaves you reeling in its viciousness. In this Okoye is a mistress of graphic portrayal of grim reality lived out by a majority of citizens for whom there is no redemption from the poverty they are mired in by wrong social-economic systems erected to keep them down forever.
In The Fourth World, Enugu’s Kasanga Avenue is another name for grinding poverty. It’s the name for urban slums where life’s prospects are small and opportunities are too slim for its inhabitants, especially the restless young, who want to escape from it for a better life elsewhere. It’s the abode for the unskilled, uneducated workers, a place for those without any means of advancing themselves in the social ladder. It’s the home of the wretched of the earth.
Chiralum, or Chira for short, is one of the bright girls living on Kasanga Avenue. Her father, Akalaka, though poor, believes in her daughter and wants her to go far in life, farther than his limited horizon allows him. In spite of his abject poverty, as a precarious labourer for hire, he starves himself and his wife just to see that Chira gets good education, as the only ticket to the better life his ill fate cannot fetch him. With the little he has, Akalaka sends his daughter to the prestigious Federal Girls’ Secondary School, Owerri.
On his hospital sick bed and unable to buy medicines required to treat him, Akalaka tells his only daughter the sum total of his hard, fruitless life and his ambition for her, “My life has been a struggle. I don’t want you to go down the same path, my daughter… I have five portions of land in Umuba… My plan is to sell outright one of the remaining three portions to raise money for you to finish at FGSS next year. What is left I will use to start you off at university”.
Unfortunately, Akalaka dies within a few hours after making this crucial provision for her daughter’s future. With the death of Akalaka, Chira is unable to continue her education. Her uncle denies her access to her father’s lands; she drops out of school a year before she finishes. If life has been hard before her father’s death, Chira finds things far worse after. She doesn’t just drop out of school, she and her mother are unable to fend for themselves. Akalaka’s death drains her mother of her vitality and she gradually succumbs to hypertension.
Having dropped out of school, Chira has no other option but to look for a job. But jobs, as in other places and Enugu, are hard to come by. She tramps the streets endlessly. Her friend, Ogom, is from an affluent home, whom she met at FGSS. Ogom is the light-headed type and so Chira helps her out. In return, Chira gets help from Ogom to supplement her lean purse, as she does not get enough from home.
Not even the prospect of marrying Maks, a rich man, to rescue Chira and her mother from the grip of poverty changes anything. Maks is as mean as they come; his chauvinism is such that denies women any form of personal development. He is uneducated and so does not see any need for his wife to go to university, as Chira aspires. But Chira is a of proud female stock, who believes in personal development; she has her teacher back at FGSS, Miss K to thank for her independence of mind that Maks seeks to deny her. In spite of her poverty, Chira sticks to her guns. Unlike her friend, Ogom, she will not marry any man just to escape poverty. Marriage, according to her, should be made of more than a man’s dubious riches.
Her friend, who precipitously rushes into marriage to escape school, finds to her horror in the United States the other side of life; her man, Chikeson is married to an arranged American wife, who threatens to report Chikeson to the authorities if he ditches her. Ogom is stranded on arriving Washington but for a fellow woman, who had her own dark past with her man, and who eventually rehabilitates Ogom.
In spite of her mother’s pressure, Chira refuses to marry Maks for his overbearing nature. But Chira is a determined young woman, made even more astute by the poverty that is threatening to annihilate her and her mother. She finds redemption in Dr. Agali, who believes in her and offers her a job in a computer place. Chira would have to be taught first before she can perform her duties. Dr. Agali is Chira’s God-sent.
It’s also through Dr. Agali that Chira eventually finds a ray of hope for a future she has dreamt so much about. It comes at the crucial moment of her mother’s death.
Okoye’s The Fourth World is a searing indictment of the world’s warped socio-economic arrangement that leaves the world’s vast population in abject want and without any means of improving themselves. Kasanga Avenue in Enugu is the Ajegunle slum in Lagos and several other such ghettos and shanties the world over, where the inhabitants are at the mercy of an unfair economic order that they cannot understand or overcome.
As the author notes, “The residents of Kasanga Avenue came from different parts of the country. They were no longer divided by their different languages. They were no longer divided by their different religions. They were no longer divided by their different ethnic origins. They had learnt from experience - sad and enduring experience – that their enemies were not one another; their real enemies are unemployment, meager earnings, hunger, disease, an unhealthy environment and poor housing. They had learnt that their survival depended on their solidarity and so they had fused into one indivisible community”.
Hunger, diseases and untimely death from natural calamities are some of the daily routines, as people watch their lives wasting away before their own eyes. Two children of Chira’s next-door neighbor are knocked down by hit and run vehicle, when they went hawking banana to supplement their mother’s meager earning; the only son of another woman is swept away in floodwater. Life is hard, short and brutish on Kasanga Avenue, as in all such communities.
For Okoye, however, it’s Chira’s indomitable spirit that calls for celebration. Her ambition to go farther in life is all-consuming; it’s what matters and the driving purpose of her life. But her challenges are enormous – hunger dodges her heels like fate. In all her travails, Dr. Agali and Mirror Head and Jude, the patent medicine dealer on Kasanga Avenue, are her signposts that a better future is possible. They embody the hope that she carries in her heart.
One other salient point in Okoye’s narrative The Fourth World is the use of proverbs. While legendary Chinua Achebe pioneered the use of proverbs, as forceful narrative ingredients, Okoye takes the art to certain level of philosophical aplomb. Akalaka uses proverbs deftly to situate his luckless life; his daughter, Chira, usually recalls her father’s proverbs, using the wry humour in them to explain the complex and difficult world of poverty she finds herself mired.
Okoye’s simple narrative structure is alluring and makes The Fourth World accessible to all levels of readers. However, her use of the past participle ‘had’ is too frequent and sometimes drags down the narrative. For instance, ‘had’ in this sentence is avoidable: “Chira remembered the situation that had made her father quote this proverb to her mother”, but perfect in the part of the next sentence, “He had been talking about their landlord…”
This minor infraction, however, does not affect the down-to-earth narrative Okoye has given her readers. This novel is highly recommended for all levels of political leadership, these denizens, who pretend to rule the rest of us so they know the many bright dreams that their misrule daily abort on the streets!