Zaynab Alkali is northern Nigeria’s best known female novelist. She is best known for her first book, Still Born that established her reputation as an important voice from a region that is famous more for its Hausa language literature than English.
Only writers like Abubakar Gimba, Lebo Yaro and a few others wrote in English and opened up a new vista of northern literature to the Nigerian public. A newer generation of writers, like BM Dzukogu, Richard Ali, Elnathan John, Ahmed Maiwada, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and still younger ones have since burst onto the scene in the last 15 years or so.
Mrs Alkali’s latest offering Invisible Borders cannot really be classified as a work focused on northern Nigeria per se. It is as cosmopolitan as it comes and does not dredge up the usual issues associated with the religion, like its culture that is tied rigidly to the religion. She plays down region; in fact, she only mentions it in passing.
Although a girl is at the heart of its plot, yet this is not a novel declaiming the relegation of the female child to the background and playing up the male child. In fact, Invisible Borders actually plays up the villainy of the male child and how the female becomes a victim of his recklessness show of power.
It is as if Mrs Alkali, in her previous novels, had resolved, with the men, all the ills and oppression women suffer in an insufferably patriarchal society that does not give them room to be who they really can aspire to be, to one where women have largely come into their own and can take their destiny in their hands.
And this is great sociological mileage women of northern extraction have come, as the society continues to open up to accommodate their desires and aspirations and actively helps them in that direction. And so there is no one enforcing how a woman should dress or she is being ‘punished’ for not conforming, whether she should go to school or not and being married off at an early age to face all the traumas associated with that evil practice.
So, Invisible Borders is not so much about the life of the heroine (although it still is, really), as it is about that of the male villain, who is influenced negatively and how the men sow political and other whirlwinds that come to consume, not just them, but others around them as well.
So indeed Mrs Alkali’s society (she is based in Maiduguri), although still plagued with other issues like the terrorist Boko Haram group and all its ugliness, has advanced in a space of the few years since she wrote Stillborn.
Though Safia at 13 is betrothed to Sam at 19 at her father’s deathbed, they are not to be properly married until Sam has bagged a degree in medicine and Safia, too, would have attained her desired education dream up to university level. But two characters pop a few years later to thwart that perfect plan. Uncle Gaga is Sam’s wayward mentor, who introduces him to women of loose characters and Simfa, a woman who fosters another’s child on Sam to ruin his early rise to prominence in medical practice and his betrothal to Safia.
Sam’s betrayal of Safia, with his liaison with Simfa that results in a child at Uncle Gaga’s instigation, seems total. The resultant break in the relationship pitches both youngsters in disparate directions. While Safia makes good her educational dream and qualifies as a medical doctor, Sam is only marginally rescued from roaming the streets by his sister, Talatu, who funds his education.
He arrives Lagos after his degree in journalism and Uncle Gaga, who has become a soldier, gets him a job in customs from where he quickly becomes rich through the illegalities perpetuated in that line of work.
The two set their sight on politics and Sam makes it to the senate while Uncle Gaga eyes the governorship of Savannah State. It is unclear why Mrs Alkali chooses such unreal state name when she names actual states and cities like Kano, Kaduna, Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria, etc. Whose identity is she shielding? In Sam and Uncle Gaga, Mrs Alkali makes a strong political statement about the politics of her country.
Sam and Uncle Gaga are perfect portraitures of current Nigerian politics and politicians, where men of questionable characters have hijacked the political space and carry on with their brazen rape of the country’s resources without a care for proper leadership that those offices demand of them. Just like it happens in the real political space, the entire citizenry are helpless to the chicanery of these fraudsters.
Only the young men they arm (known as Mbalmbala) with guns to stamp terror and their invincibility on the minds of the people end up gunning them down in error in what is easily master stroke irony.
Meanwhile, Safia’s life marches in its own convoluted trajectory. To put Sam behind her, she falls in love with a widow but Sam stages a comeback for her when he has made it in Lagos. She relents and agrees to give him another chance and turns the widow, who is her best friend’s brother, down.
But Sam is a dog that goes to its vomit. A few days to their wedding, Sam’s second bombshell lands at Safia’s feet. It comes in the form of Sam’s superior and lover at his custom’s job in Lagos with a son and a pregnancy in tow, claiming they belong to Sam. Of course, Safia is once again devastated. But she finds succor in the patient arms of her former widow-admirer, Sufyan whom she marries at last.
Invisible Borders certainly is not Alkali’s fictional best. It’s the type Chinua Achebe called a ‘novel for boys’ when he wrote Chike and the River; Alkali should simply have called it a ‘novel for girls’ in spite of some political undertone in it.
Sadly, no such marker is attached to delineate it. It’s simple narrative style and easy flow makes, told mainly through a series of flashbacks, it a novel for adolescents about to ripen out into young adults and who have to deal with the complex issues of love and relationships and the inevitable heartbreak that sometimes accompany them, as the heroine Safia comes to understand.
Adolescents and young adults will relish reading Invisible Borders that the heart in love transcends. Also, its vague, indeterminate setting in Savannah State and the characters’ undefined tribe or religious beliefs makes it a novel that transcends borders and which could have been set anywhere.