Every once in a while my kids get a book about Africa from the library, and invariably, it reinforces the image of the continent as one massive wildlife preserve with the occasional village. You’d never know from these books that, for example, Lagos and Kinshasa are among the largest cities in the world.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, born and raised in Nigeria, the daughter of an accountant and a teacher, apparently had a similar problem. In this interview, she says:
Most of [the books I read as a child] were about African children living in mud huts and hawking oranges to pay their school fees. I read so many of these books that I began wishing my family also lived in a mud hut with thatched roof, and subsisted on proceeds from our yam farm.
She went on to write I Do Not Come To You By Chance, a novel about urban, internationally connected, 21st-century Nigeria. My children are about ten years too young to appreciate it, but you, Gentle Reader, are not.
The novel describes the coming-of-age of Kingsley Ibe, whose college-educated parents raised him to believe that hard work and a good education are his tickets to success and respectability. Except… in spite of his college degree and his excellent grades, Kingsley remains unemployed. As his family’s financial situation grows more desperate, his only source of help is his uncle, a high-school dropout who has become fantastically wealthy running 419 scams. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
The novel hits almost all the right notes: the characters are engaging, the plot moves right along, and it is intriguing to see the whole world of Internet scams from the other side. The only place I lost suspension of disbelief is in a brief scene where Kingsley meets an old classmate who works in the United States, and rattles off the degrees that he and his American relatives have picked up. (A master’s in “Data Transmogrification” from Yale?)
I don’t know if this is the author’s intention, but I can’t help reading the novel as a commentary on itself. Given the asides that explain Ibo culture and Nigerian politics, Nwaubani appears to have written the book deliberately for a foreign audience. Unlike the 419 scammers, she gives us honest value for our money. But like them, she can prosper by presenting a certain image of her country to people much wealthier than her compatriots. So when her depiction of Nigeria rings true, is it because her depiction is true? Or is it because she tells me what I want to believe? I’m betting on “is true”, because judging from the interview I linked to above, people in a position to know what Nigeria is really like don’t see anything amiss in the novel. And if Nwaubani had wanted to use her literary talents to make a dishonest buck, she could have been a kick-ass 419 scammer.