In three hundred and one pages, Chigozie Obioma weaves a tale about a family, the family of Eme Agwu, a Banker, who leaves his family in Akure because his employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, transferred him to Yola.
Back in Akure, his first four boys break free and do the things boys do and more, while under their mother’s watch. An apocalyptic prophecy followed this freedom tumbling the family into a seemingly endless tale of horror.
When you pick a copy of The Fishermen, sit down, and make sure you get a bottle of chilled beer. It will help in the digestion of all the well-manicured sentences in the book, as the book is an intelligent book that says what it intends to say and doles out words, unsparingly, like a generous mother.
While you’re reading it, you will discover that this resplendent book is about the women that waited on their husbands to survive. Women who watched their empire fall apart because of the absence of their husbands, because they have been raised to be nothing but women; primed to depend on men for their survival. And if, per chance, the man of the house leaves, these women wear the gait of a wet mouse and murmur about being left alone with growing boys, and in the case of death, they become petty traders, hawking groundnuts, and raising malnourished sons, having a sea of endless wants and telling tales, running around their houses naked till their almost insane son rapes them, and kills their other son, and finally run mad.
When you encounter the numerous tragedies that are splattered on almost every page of the book, close your eyes to how it pulverizes and pummels the female characters, and simply shrug, after all, they are women; another name for ‘the insignificant other’.
It is horrendous to break a tear for them, and please do not even sniffle like them because it is very womanly to shed a tear.
Real men don’t cry.
Be a REAL man.
Always bear in mind that The Fishermen is a book about a ‘head honcho’ of a father who leaves his home in Akure because his employer prefers him to be in Yola. As he leaves, he leaves his six children with his insignificant other who is ‘only fully realised in presence, the woman whose maternal vigilance falls apart with her husband’s momentary absence’.
It is, therefore, natural that while she carries her children in the earthenware pot she carries on her head, while focussing on the other things in her hands, her four boys break the pot and run free. Bouncing around with their ball to hit the disabled, shatter glass windows, and then when the ball becomes what it shouldn’t be, they become fishermen, fishing in Omi-Ala, that dreadful river where even adults dread to go.
And so, in there, they fish out the madman who utters an ugly prophecy that will fiberize the four fishermen.
And these women, when they weren’t able to bear a child for their dead husbands, wouldn’t mind seeking solace in the loins of a ‘mad’ man, after all, a mad man is also a man. A mad man is better than a drunken husband who comes home naked and couldn’t bring money for his sick child, a man who visits violence on his family when asked to perform his fatherly duties.
Such a man is better off killed with a chair.
Obioma’s The Fishermen depicts the consequences of pushing women to the margin of the society. And even when Eme Agwu sketched a pattern for the future of his children, the functionality of gender, as it stands today, isn’t thrown aside. Ikenna was to be a pilot, Boja was to be a lawyer, Obembe the family’s doctor, Benjamin a Professor, David an engineer, and Nkem… a woman.
This can be an immediate indoctrination for the female child to believe that she is a second class citizen, the one who functions like the vassal conditioned to serve the suzerains, and who in likewise manner, favour their hard deeds in a superior way. In similar vein, the women are expected to serve the men in their lives, and then depend on them for their survival; a system which readily showcases an imbalance of power.
The first sentence shows the boys’ new career as fishermen and the event that sparked up this choice: ‘…father moved out of Akure.’ And the realization of this news created a new mother for the Agwu family. ‘Mother emerged a different being. She had acquired the gait of a wet mouse, averting her eyes as she went about…(9)’ She also missed the church because she was busy priming her primary duty as a woman: taking care of her husband. The news, that her husband would be leaving their six children and the home with her, shook her. She says all she could to dissuade Eme as he drives out of the life they know, but Eme is almost sure that his wife could do it, that she could run the home without him. Eme, just as the many men who are not aware of the gender problem in Africa, wasn’t aware that in his absence, mother isn’t human enough to keep her boys together because the society had socialized her to shrink herself, to silence herself, to always wait on the man. She is a falconer, who sees all, she staves off all ills from the hills where she stands, however, she couldn’t see that her young birds were fishing curses from the cursed river, Omi-Ala, and she still would not have seen it if her neighbour, Iya Iyabo, did not burst the boys secret.
In fact it is ignorable and forgivable.
The Fishermen does nothing to challenge the society.
The book is a perfect example of why we need to re-evaluate our postures on women and their place in the society. It shows a need for us to reign in our impulse to stereotype the Nigerian woman especially in this day and age and particularly in works of literature.
A society will be safer if it glories in the functionality of its women rather than in their passivity.
*Published by Cassava Republic in 2015, Obioma’s debut novel, TheFishermen, was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
Ada Chioma Ezeano