Thursday, July 18, 2024

Beyond the Finish Line


By Kemi Falodun

  • Title: Mafoya and the Finish Line
  • Author: Ayo Oyeku
  • Publisher: Ouida Books
  • Number of pages: 61
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Category: Children

A prayer in Yorùbá goes, ‘Kí ẹyẹ kó dún bí ẹyẹ, eku kó dún bí eku, ọmọ ènìyàn kó f’ọhùn bí ènìyàn’. It is an acknowledgment that strange things may occur, hence the content of the prayer, that life should continue to go on normally and smoothly with birds chirping as birds, rats squeaking as rats and humans sounding like humans. So, when the protagonist of Mafoya and the Finish Line finds herself in a land where animals speak like humans, she is petrified.

At only sixty-one pages, Mafoya and the Finish Line is a fine blend of fantasy and realism. It is about an ambitious schoolgirl, the eponymous Mafoya, who outsmarts other people through cunning means. Because of this, a bizarre whirlwind seizes her during a competition and carries her to a mysterious place where she will learn some principles.

This sudden disappearance calls to mind the story of Ralia from Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl, one of the children’s books widely read in Nigerian primary schools in the ‘90s and early 2000s. The central character in that story also finds herself in a strange place and endures odd, frightening encounters. However, different circumstances lead to the disappearances in the two books: Ralia seeks out a bird by herself and gets lost in the bush while Mafoya is seized by a whirlwind with many eyes looking on in bewilderment. While the entire village searches day and night for Ralia, no one does the same for Mafoya. The reader soon realises things are not quite as they seem in Mafoya and the Finish Line.

The theme of this book is easily grasped and the blend of fine language and lucid narration are also noteworthy. Mafoya and the Finish Line is Ayo Oyeku’s sixth children’s book, and one can say he has mastered the art of capturing the mundane effortlessly. He uses clear images that the intended audience, even adults, will find relatable. He also writes to engage all the senses, such as when he writes, ‘[T]he familiar smell of Vaseline indicated she was back in her room’, hence the reader can easily visualise what the author depicts and even live through his characters.

One attribute of children’s stories is that they are didactic and contain moral lessons. This book does not fall short in that regard. Also, each chapter of the book opens with an illustration. This is a plus as images, apart from attracting children to a book, help children appreciate texts better while firing their imaginations. The book is about worlds, about how dreams and wakefulness constantly interweave, posing the question: what even is reality?

After Mafoya has learnt her lessons about the dangers of being cunning, the author orchestrates a turn of events that leads to Mafoya doing the seemingly unreasonable. She then becomes a hero and her reputation is rescued. Happy endings are standard fare in children’s stories. However, the author could have achieved such an ending without having Mafoya’s major rival in the story experience a misfortune. The nature of Mafoya’s redemption seems contrived, raising the question whether such redemption is necessary.

Mafoya and the Finish Line is a book about journeys, literally and metaphorically. Life – with its series of experiences that take a person from one point to another – is itself a journey. Mafoya and the Finish Line is captivating and the story is bound to remain with its young readers for a long time.

Photograph: ‘Finish Line’ by Mad African!: (Broken Sword)

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Kemi Falodun
Kemi Falodun
Kemi Falodun lives in Nigeria. She writes short stories and essays.

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