Several years ago, while browsing at an internet café, I noticed a young man sitting in the next cubicle whom I was certain was a ‘419’ scam artist. The term 419 refers to the advance fee fraud section of the Nigerian criminal code. From what I could discern, surreptitiously of course, a potential victim (mugu) had sent an email in response to one that the young man, the 419er, had sent. The young man left, only to return with a tall, confident woman in her late 20s. I deduced from her dress – a blue adire boubou- and from her manner of speaking that she was indeed Nigerian, like the young man. Of course. In Ghana, we delude ourselves that all 419ers are Nigerians. Anyway, the woman proceeded to read and edit the man’s response to his potential victim. Her English was perfect; she was obviously well-educated. I was shocked. She didn’t fit the 419er stereotype at all. Who was she? What paths and choices had led her to the business? What exactly was her role?
At first glance Kingsley Ibe, the protagonist in I Do Not Come To You By Chance (2009), also seems an unlikely candidate for the 419 business. He comes from a loving and supportive family and is raised by well-educated parents who believe that a good education is the only path to an equally good and secure future. He follows the lead that his parents have set. He even excels in school, graduating from college with top honors. A bright future awaits this young man. We bear witness, the world over, as millions of young people make the transition from universities to the workforce every year. But Kingsley is a Nigerian, an African youth and nothing on this continent is that simple. No one will recognize, acknowledge or nurture his potential. Everything – getting a job, securing loans, even access to good healthcare – will require lots of money, bribes and the intervention of family members with massive amounts of influence. Simply being brilliant is not good enough. But life is about the choices we make. Faced with the prospect of caring for his family and unable to get a job after numerous interviews, Kingsley turns away from his upbringing and towards his fraudster-uncle Cash Daddy and the world of 419 scams.
Africa has many stories to tell and most make for uncomfortable reading. The author, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, has created an unreliable narrator in Kingsley; he’s never honest about his motivations nor questions his growing ease with what he’s becoming. The Nigeria that Nwaubani portrays is beset with numerous problems. There is rampant corruption, a rising tide of religious evangelism designed to strip the people of any confidence and leave them in fear, the blight of materialism founded on ill-gotten gains and the rise of personality cults. Cash Daddy captures some of this when he says:
Is honesty an achievement? Personality is one thing, achievement is another thing. So what has your father achieved? How much money is he leaving for you when he dies? Or is it his textbooks that you’ll collect and pass on to your own children?
I Do Not Come To You By Chance is Nwaubani’s first novel. The prose is simple yet is imbued with a tone and a fluidity that brings Nigeria alive. Kingsley is funny and witty. The opening pages of the book had me in stitches:
Then came my father’s diagnosis. For a poorly paid civil servant to dabble in an affliction like diabetes was the very height of ambitious misfortune.
Nwaubani’s research and portrayal of the business of 419 scams, as seen through the eyes of Kingsley is thoroughly engaging. She never shies away from ugly truths. She interrogates the issue of victims and victimization. The novel is not without its flaws; some of the middle section dragged a bit. But its triumphs far outweigh its flaws. The book won the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book for the African region. A thought-provoking and a highly recommended read.