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Young women in contemporary Nigeria: A review of “29 Single and Nigerian" by Naija Single Girl

  • The novelist and famous feminist Chimamanda Adichie once wrote that, “A woman at a certain age who is unmarried, our society teaches her to see it as a deep personal failure. And a man, after a certain age isn’t married, we just think he hasn’t come around to making his pick”.

    Apparently, this is a phenomenon that troubles the African Society or maybe even the world. “29, Single and Nigerian” is a social novel written by the Nigerian blogger, Naija Single girl, that captures this phenomenon. She uses very simple diction and little flowery prose in the novel. Something that scares me away from some novels, but I decided to brave it because I had heard good reviews about the book. So, I read it, and I was spirited away — for a time.

    The novel is a fierce debut from a writer with a seemingly boundless imagination. The story which begins in-media-res adopts the linear plot structure, which starts from when she graduated from school and runs through the phase of the NYSC, to the job hunt phase and others. Other events from the main character’s early life are narrated through the careful deployment of flashback. It's a technique NSG uses to great effect — it's jarring in a significant way, making the reality of her story all the more intense.

    Through the use of flashback, we are able to understand the circumstance surrounding her actions, and we are given the opportunity to understand the character better and see things from her perspective. The story is narrated using the first person point of view, which fosters empathy between the readers and the character’s story. Through the use of the first person narrative technique, we see the world through the character’s eyes and are able to position ourselves intimately into every of the character’s actions, words and reaction, as readers.

    Also, read: This Red Sun Must Set: A review of Red Sun by Dolapo Lawrence

    In a way, 29, Nigerian, is another feminist novel, but it's one you'll actually want to read. The novel's protagonist, Edikan, is a naïve and simple-minded lady, whose determination to succeed is tested by different life experiences. Born to a family living below the average living condition in the city of Calabar, she volunteers to be sent to work as a housemaid at her aunt’s house in place of her elder sister. At a young age of 9, Edikan is surprisingly strong and emotionally stable for a girl of her age. In spite of the hardships and callousness exhibited by her aunt towards her, she doesn’t consider running away as an option. As long as she is allowed to go to school, she is fine.

    At Aunty Agnes’ home, Edikan has a very tight schedule – wakes up 3:30 am to make fish rolls for sale at school, cook for Aunt Agnes’ son, clean the house and compound and prepare for school. After school, she works on Aunt Agnes’ farm, prepares dinner, finds time to do her assignment and study. Not that her aunt gives her any extra time, but she always threatens to deal with her if she doesn’t end up being part of the 3 top students in her class. Fortunately, she is able to complete her secondary school education successfully. After that, she moves back to her parents’ house in Calabar.

    Upon return from the village and due to her parent’s inability to raise money for the JAMB examination for her and her elder sister, Edikan steps down for her sister, Umoh, who writes the exam and unfortunately does not meet the cut-off mark for the course she wants. Meanwhile, around that same time, their neighbour, Chioma is able to win an American visa lottery, and after she leaves for America, her mother, mama Chioma decides to capitalize on her daughter’s achievement and cleverly manipulates Edikan’s parents into believing that Edikan will go and join Chioma in America. Edikan’s life is put on a standstill for up to two years before reality dawns on her parents that Mama Chioma has no intention of getting her to America.

    After this, she intensifies efforts into gaining admission at a tertiary institution, and she passes well and gains admission to study pharmacy. She is, however, unable to resume because of financial constraints, and that is when she enrols at a computer school.  She meets Austin during this period, and they begin dating. Austin takes advantage of her naivety, rapes her and threatens her not to discuss the experience with anyone. The event scars Edikan deeply as she is unable to either trust or have a relationship while in school.

    After graduation and at the age of 27, Edikan gets posted to Anambra for national service even though she first tries influencing it to Lagos state. And her father wouldn’t let her use other alternatives to get her desired state. She still attempts re-deploying to Lagos and is eventually posted to Enugu where she finally completes her assignment. Meanwhile, Edikan’s parents are already worried that she hasn’t found a prospective husband and in fact, begin pressuring her.

    Related article: Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus: A reflection of oral tradition and socio-historical realities

    After national service, Edikan moves to Lagos and stays with her friend, Bibi and her dad. The first months are spent submitting resumes to companies that never reach out and attending interviews that don't yield anything positive. As no job is forthcoming, Edikan takes up contract jobs and agrees to get paid per number of deliveries. It is during one of such deliveries that she meets George, the CEO of a mobile phone company. She becomes fascinated by him because he is handsome and successful. Thereafter, she tries every means possible to gain his attention including stalking him on Facebook, the attention which she later gets. And then, their relationship begins.

    George is very loving, caring and supportive as he gives Edikan all the money and support she needs. Edikan would send huge sums of money to her parents and tell them she has finally found love. She stops submitting CV’s as George provides her with enough money after every visit. Though her friend, Bibi’s scepticism and warnings ring in her ears all day long, Edikan is too engulfed in the fantasy she has created.  Everything is too good to be true, but Edikan pays no heed. The novel climaxes at the stage where she discovers that George has a long-time fiancée with whom he will be tying the knot sooner than later. Edikan is devastated, and even beyond. Edikan’s only solace is in her diary in which she writes all her sweet and bitter experiences of life.

    After the whole episode with George, she comes across Ifeanyi, a guy she had met earlier when she first arrived in Lagos, but never gave a chance. They become friends, and he is interested in knowing about her experiences in Lagos so far. Edikan gives her diary to Ifeanyi, tells him to learn all about her experiences from it. After reading her diary, he starts to persuade her to turn the diary into a story, a book to be published. Meanwhile, Ifeanyi also helps Edikan gather the shattered pieces of her life back together. Through him, Edikan finds the love of God and falls at peace with life. Eventually, she gets into a sponsorship program that enables her to publish her novel which she names ’29, Single and Nigerian’. She sells one hundred thousand copies of her book, becomes famous, makes money and lives happily ever after.

    The spine of the story is a young girl who spent her teenage years living as an adult and her adult years trying to grow up but the real action, the real feeling is to be found in the depiction of the existential realities of Nigeria's struggling middle class. It captures the realities in present day Nigeria that are very relatable, in terms of revealing the living conditions and struggles faced by the average Nigerian family, the autocratic nature of the Nigerian fathers and the patriarchy in the whole system, the expectations from a youth after graduating, the pressure to get married and more purposefully, foregrounds issues of unemployment and the desperate and daunting task of job hunting in a big city like Lagos, Nigeria.

    The story moves further to expound on intricate human qualities like deceit, love, naivety, materialism and friendship. Although the novel is purely a work of fiction, it narrates a series of event that every Nigerian can identify with, events that appear to be even more realistic to the Nigerian audience.  And that was the catch point – the element of verisimilitude.

    You may also want to read: A brief review of Niyi Osundare’s ‘Wife Batterer’s Blues’

    Naijasinglegirl tells the story in a maundering fashion which gives it a high degree of believability. Coincidentally, the first time I read it, I had just concluded national service, so I found it out rightly relatable. When we talk of verisimilitude as a literary device in literature, the achievement of it is usually measured by the extent to which the readers suspend disbelief and thinking that the story did actually occur. The events, actions, scenarios depicted in the novel explicitly mirrors the typical Nigerian experiences. The plot imitates the Nigerian life in a succinct, yet elaborate manner. In one part of the plot, the story narrates how financial constraints led Edikan’s family to sort for other alternatives to their financial crisis, which meant giving up one of their children to a wealthier family member to raise. This is a very common occurrence here in this part of the world, and usually, this family member gets something in return, similar to a barter system – you give something out or render a service because you need something in return.

    In another chapter, the author narrates the issue of unemployment and the frustrating, daunting and unnerving business of job search in Nigeria, especially in a city like Lagos – the stress of submitting resumes in various companies that posted vacancies and those that didn’t, the raised and dashed hopes that comes with attending interviews, the chances of falling victim to scammers, the waiting-it-out periods (when one keeps checking one’s emails 24/7). The author highlights every one of the ordeals and challenges faced by a typical Nigerian graduate after the completion of NYSC. She narrates with the precision and accurateness of someone who’s had a first-hand experience of these events.

    In another chapter, she focuses on patriarchy. Edikan’s father wanted her to study medicine at first; later he coerced her to study pharmacy. When Edikan made a move to explain that she didn’t even like drugs or the smell of it and that she wasn’t even interested in medicine because she can’t stand the sight of blood, her father chided,

     ‘don’t be stupid! I took out my precious time to counsel you before you wake up poor at 40 and you’re trying to disregard my advice… if you don’t like blood or drugs, you don’t like yourself. Who cares about blood or drugs when there’s money to be made?’

     Unfortunately, the average Nigerian father cares about courses that would garner respect in the society and ultimately bring in a lot of money, they do not bother asking for the child’s opinion when it comes to selecting courses for study neither do they tailor the child’s interest along the lines of his/her career path. When Edikan mentioned anatomy as an option, her father said,

     ‘do you want to wash corpses? Because people who study anatomy end up as mortuary attendants’. After which he pronounced ‘you will study pharmacy at the university, and my decision is final’.

     George also dominated the brief relationship he had with Edikan, with him laying all the rules and giving consent to decisions and encouraging Edikan to do things he liked. For instance, because George mentioned that he found nose piercings attractive, she had her nose pierced.

    Apart from this, the very thing I was scared of turned out to be the unicorn of the story. The author simply knew who her target audience is and wrote specifically for them. The language use was effectively deployed in a way that catered for even the non-literary minds to read and enjoy. She wrote the novel for the Nigerian audience, and her writing was geared towards fulfilling that need. To achieve this, the author used typical Nigerian slang terms, use of the Nigerian broken English, simple sentences and its treatment of both universal and specific themes. Some of the slang terms and lexemes used in the novel are ajuwaya, corper (youth corps member), ajebo (someone raised in wealth), friendship by association, Ghana-Must-Go bag, off and on months (periods when there will be electricity and periods when there wouldn’t be) et cetera. Her use of a straightforward language which I was wary of, significantly contributed to the readability of the novel.

    This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each chapter is a honeycomb. Our reality is nested in the pages and cracks open to reveal challenges faced by female children and youths – assault and abuse, sexual violence, pressures for marriage amongst others. The author’s subject in the novel appears to focus on the female youths majorly, whilst a smaller portion of the book focuses on the female child. More specifically, I would say the subject of the book relates to female empowerment. By this I mean the author emphasised that women should be given the power and control over their own lives, should be allowed to make strategic life decisions, should be allowed to partake in the development of the society, with or without being married.

    Related: Treading the lonely path: A review of Omotayo Yusuf’s Hero

    29, Single and Nigerian initially sets out with a humorous, but satirical tone. It is not the kind of heavy-handed satire that comes out clearly to condemn societal ills, but that doesn't make it any less educative. As the reader goes deeper, one can almost feel the agitation and seriousness with which the author describes. Common themes that the novel touches on are patriarchy, feminism, unemployment, poverty, deceit, love, naivety, materialism and friendship amongst others. It focuses on an issue prevalent in the Nigerian society – the issue of patriarchy and the belief that without a man, a woman is nothing.

    She satirizes this opinion through her story, and in the novel, her major character attains fame, wealth and success despite being a single lady. By this, the author disputes the commonly held, but erroneous belief that a woman is nothing if she doesn’t have a man. She attacks the premise of attributing success in life to marriage, and the novel proves that the two are completely discrete. The novel situates itself amongst contemporary texts on feminism and challenges the patriarchy prevalent in Nigeria, and it made for a really interesting read.

    Although, the book isn’t without faults; At the point after which the plot reached the climax, the story becomes uninteresting. The character becomes more flat, in comparison to the round character we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel. The flatness of the character and her actions made the story become boring. Her reaction became predictably pesky. Even after the meeting with Ifeanyi and their blossoming friendship, there was nothing to arouse the curiosity of the reader and sustain their interest. Despite these though, it is still a stunning, audacious book with a fresh take.

    NaijaSinglegirl has shown herself beautifully and bravely in this novel. Regardless of its momentary imperfections, it was a great read, and I am definitely recommending it.

    Photo credit: NaijaSingleGirl

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