Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Punctured Silence


By Veronica Elias Ugian

  • Title: Crocodile Girl
  • Author: Sam Omatseye
  • Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
  • Number of pages: 276
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Fiction

Crocodile Girl by Sam Omatseye brings out the bold and unique storytelling abilities of the author and attests to his experience as a renowned columnist. The novel explores the history of slavery, witchcraft, love and bravery through the character of Alero. Although considered one of the most beautiful women in Orogun, she is called ugly and evil on suspicion of killing unsuspecting strangers. Believing her to be cursed, she and her family are ‘inxiled’ by the community, but in an unexpected twist an American by the name Tim Forester, the descendant of a family of slave traders with roots traceable to the village, turns up and alters her destiny.

Tim comes in search of his ancestor’s grave, which is alleged to be hidden in the sacred ‘Forest of Silence’. His and Alero’s paths cross because Alero’s mother’s locket is believed to be in the forest alongside her skeleton. However, ‘[I]n the eyes of the villagers Alero the juju girl cast her spell [on] the white visitor. She turned the bright young man into a mumu, her special food’ (p 5). When Alero discovers the locket in Tim’s bag after he loses his memory, as a result of an encounter with a wild pig, she hopes that it will resolve the mystery of her mother’s skeleton as well as reveal the grave of Tim’s ancestor.

A central character in the story is the old warrior, Veteran, who has one hand buried in his house and the other stuck to his body. He knows much but says little because he strongly believes that time reveals all. He is the liberator in the tale and the one who knows how to get to the forest. He also helps Tim adjust to his new environment. Moreover, he alone challenges the local elites. He is both of that generation and ‘a rebel to that generation’.

Crocodile Girl draws attention to class divisions and how this pits people against one another. Itse, for instance, an ambitious young man, has to relocate to the US but finds that he must adapt to the mores of those higher on the social ladder if he wants to be accepted. This is the price he must pay given the restrictions he faced back home:

The children of the rich in Nigeria were not destined to sit in class with a boy like Itse. He could not afford that. They belonged to the heavens. He was somewhere remote, on the humbler rungs of this wretched earth (p 24).

Once in the US, he understands what he needs to do:

[H]e was not only going to be a bookworm. He wanted to understand the American way, the beer and baseball, the bars and girls, the giddy nights and sober churches, soap boxes and box scores (p 29).

The high point of the story comes when Itse is contacted by a friend who asks him to help Tim find his way to Orogun, which turns out to be a life-changing experience. But it also punctures the silence surrounding the crimes committed by the villagers in the past.

The recurrent motif in the story is the confusion as to which of Tim’s ancestors was a slave dealer and which, a missionary. When Orogun is defeated by neighbouring Ovwor, a grave is discovered in the Forest of Silence with the epitaph, ‘Lord Forester, Special Emissary of the King of England’. It turns out that this Lord Forester had a child by one of the king’s daughters, from whom Alero is descended. But it also transpires that her ancestor was caught and transported to America and subsequently impregnated by another Forester. These narrative choices by the author generate a great deal of confusion.

That aside, the novel draws attention to how a society destroys the innocent under the guise of cleansing itself of witches. The author, in tracing the history of African Americans to the slave era, asserts that if they dig deep enough they will find their African roots.

Photograph: ‘Mom’s Locket’ by S Pfeifer

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Veronica Elias Ugian
Veronica Elias Ugian
Veronica Elias Ugian is an award-winning poet and was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow. She was on the long list of the 2018 Nigerian Students Poetry Prize (NSPP). She writes under the pen name Veralyn Chinenye, and moderates the 365-day Poetry for Advocacy Challenge on sprinklestoriez.blogspot.com.

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