The death of a small bird and what comes after becomes the defining leitmotif of the student JimCliff Mazi in Nkwachukwu Ogbuagu’s new novel "Words of a Shaman". It is JimCliff’s ambition to hunt a bird like many of his classmates do. With the hard end of an okra pod, lieing lonely on JimCliff's way to school, lost by women who went to their market stalls, the boy
is successful in this most difficult task.
An oncoming car runs over the carcass of this little bird. Out of nowhere, a Moroccan shaman appears and reads from the bowels of the bird JimCliff’s future. JimCliff's biggest dream at the time is enrolling in the boarding school at Government College Owerri Nigeria, a most prestigious school. The shaman ensures him that he will but that the time will be very hard and rough from him- There is more he reveals to JimCliff’s astounding ears and we will see all as the novel progresses.
This is how the exciting story of a youth in Nigeria of the 80s begins.
JimCliff's journey through the passage of puberty, education, rigorous learning, and programmed discipline is exciting and demanding. Exposed to the arbitrariness of sadistic teachers, principals and prefects, he has to bow to painful constraints and adapt. Teachers have a free hand with corporal punishment of the students. Time and again, JimCliff remembers the shaman's prophecy of how hard the school will be, and eagerly awaits if his love, which the shaman has promised, will also appear. He manages to go through the rigours bearing mental and bodily bruises.
The everyday life of the students is lightened up by excursions, for example, to a shoe factor in Owerri, but the appointment has not been registered in the factory’s schedule and the students and teachers are sent back heartlessly. A trip from Owerri to Calabar to visit the tomb of an early missionary, Mary Slessor, is a success and the students will return safely riding in a heavy thunderstorm late afternoon through the dangerous, lightless streets.
The students are disappointed again when the promised visit of the new governor of the state of Imo provokes a bitter disappointment. All students clean every room of the school, the stones that line the paths are freshly whitewashed, everyone dresses in their best uniforms, awaiting excitedly the Governor. By late afternoon he and his entourage have not appeared and come later almost when the day is over. His promise to come back, he cannot keep, because very soon after the disappointing event he is replaced by political developments in the country.
Against the background of these political developments in a volatile developing country whose civilian governments are being replaced regularly by military coups, the endurance of the students is no less bat admirable. They are affected as the Teachers' Union goes on strike for weeks, they are sent home and are set bac greatly. After everyone has gone home - many as far back to Lagos or to the North - they are called back again and have to pick up the threads of their curriculum they left behind.
Especially exhausting and cruel are the days of the exams. Day and night is spent learning.
Due to electricity blackouts, all students need a hurricane lamp filled with kerosene. JimCliff and other students begin to suffer from acute brain fag. The meager meals at school add to the suffering, all students are constantly starving. Moreso that they are in their puberty and need to eat. They try to stock up at kiosks with biscuits, canned fish, sugar cubes and canned milk for tea and more.
Ogbuagu's style, modern fiction, inspires the reader and captivates one with this rare and special story. The text contains many life-style expressions and proverbs that African culture’s rich treasure is known for in African countries’ literature. The unusual narrative lends the scenarios unforgettable twists and meanders along like a river through different landscapes.
The narrative technique embraces not only flashback but the flash forward. The story goes back and forth in chronicling events. The writing is layered with manifold stories, so exacting and unique in its detail. Not only the political affairs of Africa are illuminated, but also worldwide cultural and historical events are part of everyday life of the students, who emphatically experience and discuss them.
We read about the shaman's prophecy proceeding, wondering whether JimCliff will find his love, how he evolves as a university student and how he manages this exciting journey through a period of great turbulence in Nigeria – a metaphor for the meandering life that man has to face in human existence.
A most recommendable coming-of-age-novel. One of the best I have ever read.