By Anote Ajeluorou
Poverty is the worse form of disease that breeds all sorts of anomalies in the human condition. This is what the family of Jigana and Maisha faces in cosmopolitan Nairobi, Kenya and also in other urban ghettoes of Africa, where governments have failed to deliver social and economic well-being to its citizens. Wherever such grinding poverty happens all sorts of responses come handy to ward it off, with the children mostly bearing the brunt of failures of government and parents to live up to expectations.
This is the case in the play adaptation of Fr. Uwem Akpan’s short story An Ex-mas Feast in the collection Say You’re One of Them. It was staged at Atlantic Hall, Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, last Sunday. It was an Institute of Arts and Culture Arts Village, University of Port Harcourt production in collaboration with Port Harcourt Book Capital 2014. It was performed to elaborate on the reading of the book earlier on by U.S.-based Fr. Akpan, who read to a large gathering of book lovers.
An Ex-mas Feast explores the theme of the urban poor and how they cope with the grinding poverty they are mired in. Maisha (Mercy Aghedo) is the adolescent and first daughter of the family and grows up with the knowledge that her family is forever in want. They cannot meet their basic needs like food and a good shelter. They cannot afford to send their only son, Jigana (Chima Eke) to school. The father, Baba (Emeka Isioma), is a hopeless drunk, who wasted his early life as a pick-pocket, where he also failed. The mother, Mama (Lily Iwu) doesn’t fare better save the dog she owns that breeds once in a while.
Maisha has to take to the rough road of prostitution, as the only way of helping herself and her family. Mama is against it, of course, and so rains curses on her for being a disgrace to womanhood. But she promptly receives proceeds from her illicit sex trade. Tigana is hanging onto the hope that her big sister, Maisha will make enough to send him to school and sometimes trails her to her sex points. On one occasion he breaks the taboo of the trade by calling Maisha by her real name; this makes the other girls, who are ever jealous of her, boo at her. She then forbids Tigana from tagging along.
Back at home, there is always scarcity of food, with Baba clinging onto his gin and hollers from his impossible dream of dinning with presidents! They feed on glue, an addictive that temporarily assuages their hunger. Only Maisha’s meager offerings from sex offer respite. But the poor girl is tired with Mama’s nagging about her business even though she does not reject the proceeds.
But things soon come to a head. She needs to move out from the shabby shanty they occupy, especially with white (Nzungu) tourists taking interest in her. She cannot understand the oddity her young life has become, with an ungrateful mother and the demands of a brother who should go to school. But Tigana, sensing how lousy it all seems to depend on a sister selling her virtue just to pay for his education, becomes painfully aware of the futility of the plan. He begins to rebel against the idea of school that will depend on her sister hawking her flesh for his sake.
Maisha’s leaving plunges the family into hopelessness. What would they do without her? Even Mama clings tight at the last moment at a daughter who has been at the receiving end of her venomous tongue for selling herself to help them out of poverty.
An Ex-mas Feast typifies the failure of governance in Africa and a betrayal of the first duty of a government to see to the social welfare of its citizens. Maisha and Tigana’s family is left to its own devices. A young girl who should be in school turns a prostitute just so her family will not starve. Tigana will miss out on school and be another street kids (Gbenga Adeoti, Kelechi Nwamadi and Precious Omoku) with all the vices associated with those denizens. Naema (Boma Akpoma) is the family beggar; she bears Baby (Uchechi Nwachukwu) on her back all day just to beg.
It’s such a pathetic situation and both Fr. Akpan and the dramatisation aptly mirror a society gone awry. Who will offer this family respite from the degradation unrelenting poverty inflicts on it? Fr. Akpan posits that it rests squarely at the doorstep of government, as it should rightly be. But when will Africa’s governments act up?
The performance was average although the Director of the Arts Village, Prof. Julie Okoh, said the group had little time to put it together due to copyright issue that took long to secure. The narrator’s part was superfluous, as it made little or no impact on the overall performance. In fact, the performance tended to come alive when he didn’t come on again to sermonise.
Indeed, it turned out a sour feast at Xmas that was no feast at all except Baba’s debts that Bwama Marcos (Otobong Odofia) writes off…