The Fishermen, a Nationalist Reading

By Kwabena Agyare Yeboah


  • Title: The Fishermen
  • Author: Chigozie Obioma
  • Publisher: Cassava Republic Press
  • Number of pages: 301
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

One day in the lives of four brothers, the eldest, Ikenna, comes home with an announcement stuck in his pocket. He assembles the rest of his brothers. His voice clean and shiny, he says to them that they would become fishermen. They would ply their trade in the Omi-Ala River. The river has seen great years. Once the source of life for the early settlers of Akure, the combined effect of modernity and time has rendered it useless, ‘A cradle besmeared’ (p 21). At the riverbank, they meet Abulu, a man who is equally gifted with seeing and insanity. His prophecy will bind and break the brothers. Their career will last nearly six weeks but they will bear the name – The Fishermen – for life.

Like the madman in Chinua Achebe’s short story, ‘The Madman’, Abulu is mysterious and stark naked. The mystery of Abulu is how his prophecies come to him. The identity of the madman in Achebe’s short story is his origin and the places that he chooses to be. What is the case with the madman of The Fishermen? It is generally believed that rivers are gods, and with Omi-Ala abandoned, its shrine emptied, deserted by worshippers, could it be that the spirit of the river possesses Abulu? Has the river found in Abulu a person who does not have a will? Abulu’s song gives an indication of his powers:

I implore you to tear the

firmaments and give rain

That the green things

I have sown will live

Mutilate the seasons so my

words can breathe,

That they yield fruit (p 91)

The purpose of the prophecy, it seems, is not to entirely redeem. It is to vindicate the prophet. In the neighbourhood of the riverbank is a Celestial Church, a church with its believers worshipping water spirits. But why would it be called a church when they worship water spirits? The narrator offers nothing to corroborate or refute this assertion. The church is a metaphor for modernity whereas the river is for tradition. Between the two, the bank becomes a stage, the world for the brothers and Abulu.

An old man from the church supplies an intervention when he meets the brothers at the riverbank. He asks them to go back home. ‘What are you fishing from these waters?’, he asks. ‘Tadpoles, smelts, what? Why don’t you go home?’ (p 24), he continues. To him, there is no life in the river. The entire Akure has moved on with life. ‘Haven’t you heard the government has banned people from coming here? Oh, kids of this generation’, he adds. The brothers do not have to go there in order to find something valuable, but the brothers defy and ridicule the old man. They continue to fish from the river till a neighbour, Iya Iyabo, reports the brothers to their mother.

The man from the church as an agent of modernity has his roots in tradition. As with the church said to worship water spirits, his modern status is not a complete erasure of tradition. Rather, it is evidence of the evolution of the African. The old man is also a whisper of serenity, a nationalist whose conviction is to save nations from calamity. But his insistence on what is to be done, what is right, is not forceful. It seems he knows aforehand that he will not be taken seriously, so he goes on with his life and leaves the brothers to their fate.

The old man can be likened to the nationalist in the early days of postcolonial African countries. When many of these countries were under the leadership of vibrant, youthful revolutionaries, from the 1960s to as late as the 1990s, there were other nationalists who warned of the consequences of the recklessness of the leaders. Some of them moved on when their advice were not heeded. They stood, questioned, wondered and went away to continue their lives.

In Achebe’s short story, we read of a young man on the path to nobility. At the point of his vulnerability, when he was bathing in a river, the madman takes his clothes and runs off. The young man, in haste, runs after the madman for his clothes. When his people see him naked and running after a madman, they conclude that he is also a madman. They would treat him as such for the rest of his life. If the madman in ‘The Madman’ is a destructive, foreign, colonial power, Abulu, the madman in The Fishermen, is a destructive, local, traditional power. The brothers’ point of vulnerability comes when their father is transferred to Yola.

Mr James Agwu is a nationalist. He has dreamt on behalf of his sons – ‘his map of dreams’ (p 31). He is convinced that western education is the surest way for his children to come to prominence. He would guide them jealously on this path with his instrument of correction – koboko – and the Guerdon regimen. Like the nationalists at the time of Independence of many postcolonial African states, he glows with a halo of dreams that he hopes the next generation will fulfill.

Paulina Adaku Agwu, the brothers’ mother, nurses her husband’s dreams with care and grace. She knows her children to the point that it seems she owns copies of their minds. But, it is under her watch that the brothers slip out to fish. She is the nationalist who loves her country dearly but during whose tenure inherited dreams are not realised.

Abulu’s prophecy is that one of the other brothers – Boja, Obembe or Benjamin – would kill the eldest, Ikenna. Ikenna devises many mechanisms to avoid his brothers, in order to avoid the prophecy’s fulfillment. The brothers know what has happened before, that Abulu’s prophecies come true. The other brothers feel incapable of murdering Ikenna. Ikenna, on the other hand, becomes the kind of person that his family did not anticipate he could become. He becomes violent and disrespectful, angry and defensive, distant and lost.

Ikenna and Boja are the first two of the four brothers. They are partners in mischief who share the same bedroom until the prophecy is made. It will turn them into fierce enemies, each fighting on the opposite sides of fate.

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel is in danger of being remembered for a long time. Its diction is simple, lyrical and almost meditative. The simplicity and beauty of the sentences make up for the family tragedy. The novel is narrated alternately in the child and adult voices of Benjamin, the youngest of the four brothers. Each of the chapters provides a perspective from which each of the characters can be understood. Each of the human characters is first introduced with a totem, except Abulu who is just introduced as a madman. The totems seem a candid summary of the characters.

Whilst the novel stands out for being clinically edited, the second paragraph of p 157 and the first paragraph of p 158 are narrated in the present tense even though they are both recollections, even though the other paragraphs are narrated in the past tense. Also, the use of words such as ‘tribe’ and ‘fetish’ reinforce long-held misconceptions about African peoples. In the time of trouble, Mr Boya, a Yoruba, comes from Canada to help his friend, Mr Agwu, an Igbo. Their friendship transcends the lines of ethnic allegiance. They are nationalists in truth.

The novel is also about the coming age of a democratic Nigeria. It highlights the 1993 elections and the confusion thereafter that led to the death M K O Abiola, one of the presidential contenders. It also talks about the football Dream Team and their conquering feat at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the death of the dictator, Sani Abacha. Between the death of Abacha and the release of Benjamin from jail, Nigeria returns to democratic rule in 1999, under the fourth Republic.

The four brothers are like those nations with so much promise that never get fulfilled. The name – The Fishermen – is an invention such as the coloniser bequeathed to the modern, African nation-state.

It is easy to blame the Abulus of this world, the naysayers for the bad things that happen in our lives, but whatever we become is down to our own choices. We have free will. The brothers do not realise their dreams, their father’s dreams, because of their collective flaw, pride and disregard for the natural order. The adversary is not Abulu. This is what the nationalist, the patriot of today should realise.


Photograph: ‘Fisherman’ by CIFOR


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Kwabena Agyare Yeboah lives in Accra, Ghana. His blog is The African Thought (www.mragyare.wordpress.com).

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