The traditional practice of relative or kinship fostering of children is quite prevalent across West Africa. In the old days, a parent would send their child to live with a relative if they felt inadequate at the prospect of raising their child properly or felt that the relative could provide better opportunities (like a good education) for the child. Sometimes these relatives had a little bit more money, or were more educated or their household was generally more stable. Now, the practice has largely degenerated into a medium for child exploitation, child labor and trafficking. Contemporary kinship fostering is very much at the heart of Imagine This (2007), an epistolary novel. The diarist is Lola Ogunwole who, at age nine and with her older brother, is forced to leave her childhood home of London for Nigeria, her ancestral home. In Nigeria, her father basically abandons her in his paternal village of Idogun to be fostered by extended relatives. Lola, over a period of ten years, chronicles her years of hardship and suffering at the hands of her father and her extended relatives.
I’m always a bit guarded of novels where the narrator is a young person because I worry whether the author will get the tone, the voice right. I needn’t have worried. Lola’s voice is superb. She is an articulate and a confident little girl. She finds it hard to comprehend why her father physically and emotionally abandoned her and why she is often the victim of injustice. But because she is also socially aware and quite precocious, Lola is able to verbalize her emotions and express her opinions in ways that adults in traditional African settings find difficult to bear from a child. Lola is victimized by almost all the adults in her life but she never accepts her role as victim, always plotting and finding ways to cope with or to escape whatever bad situation she is in. She is also a keen observer of people. Throughout her ordeals, she maintains a high level of interest in the culture of her new home. And so the reader is treated to a view of Nigerian culture from this child who finds herself an outsider in the very place that should have welcomed and protected her. Lola’s commentaries are really priceless. For instance, she says that if a relative died very week, she’d never go hungry but of course she might run out of relatives. A sad but apt judgment on the amount of money that West Africans pour into the business of burying our dead while our children go hungry. Lola’s story is an indictment on us Africans for the way in which we continue to exploit and treat our children. Undoubtedly, it makes for difficult reading. But it is the story that needs to be told over and over and over again until the continent faces up to what it’s doing to its young.
Imagine This is a stunning debut novel. It will make you cry but it will also make you laugh, you will marvel at Lola’s pure and beautiful spirit and her courage to endure all. Sade Adeniran is a gifted and a brave author. There is so much depth in this novel, it covers a lot of ground where Nigerian culture is concerned. There is also a lot of emotion and insight in the novel. The book won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book for the African region. Ms. Adeniran has presented herself in the strongest possible light. She’s certainly a welcomed addition to the African literary scene. The book is highly recommended.
21st June 1977
Why did Daddy do this? Why doesn’t he want us any more? Maybe he’s not really our father and that’s why mother left. I wonder if I have her eys and nose… One day, when I’m much older I will go and find out for myself, instead of seeing her in every stranger who passes me on the streets of Lagos. I’d know if she were here in Idogun, because everybody knows everyone else. When we in London, we didn’t say hello to people we didn’t know, but here in the village the chances are you’re related – maybe your great grandfathers were brothers or something. That’s family. I don’t really think of London that much any more, only occasionally when things get tough, like when I think of having to spend the next 2,920 days in this village.