Monday, April 22, 2024

The Bottom of Another Tale: A Review


By Richard Oduor Oduku

  • Title: The Bottom of Another Tale
  • Author: Su’eddie Vershima Agema
  • Publisher: Sevhage Publishers
  • Number of pages: 146
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Fiction

The Bottom of Another Tale is a veritable collection of twenty-six stories. Most are confident and moving, with unique and original characters, and a balance of character and plot. Most are intense and zesty, neatly wrought servings with different textures and flavours. It is a carefully considered collection.

The first story, ‘The River’s Testament’, presents a clash between tradition and modernity and plays on the incongruousness of mythical explanations of natural phenomena in the face of modern science. The narrator, Tombo, constantly pits, tongue-in-cheek, the traditions of the village of Bamtaje against rational explanations. At Bamtaje, the moon is a calabash, the full moon is the divine bottom of the calabash, the half-moon one cheek of the bottom of the calabash, and the changing phases are ‘the various positions of the Almighty drinking from the vastness of the skies’ (p 9).

The narrator chides the people of Bamtaje for such explanations, calls them nonsense, and explains that traditions ‘were old pieces of caution and actions that had been created for specific events’ but ‘ignorant people continued them even when the importance had long faded’ (p 9).

Tombo is a graduate serving his nation as a Corps member in the North of the country, under a government scheme aimed at uniting people of all tribes. He teaches English and Literature to students who are not able to communicate in English. When he arrives at the village, he cannot endure the water from the well and survives on bottled water, but the economy of his pocket forces him to downsize to sachet water, then to well water. Now he survives on river water.

Bamtaje is a typical African village, with several myths and taboos: ‘strike a left foot; bad luck. Strike a good foot; good luck’ (p 10); ‘if you hear an owl hooting; ill omen’ (p 11), don’t go out on the night of half-moon. This is the time between the fullness and starvation’ (p 11); ‘amount of stars you see on a specific night are the amount of days you have remaining over here’ (p 11). Ignoring these taboos means death. The gods cannot be questioned. These are the secrets to a safe and fulfilling life at Bamtaje and Tombo spends much of his time exposing the ridiculousness of these myths, piercing the supposed universality of such traditional bodies of knowledge, and clowning to ‘corner his muse, Rekia’ (p 12).

One day, Tombo decides to test the consequences of ignoring a taboo. One of the taboos in the village is that one should not go to the river on the night of a half-moon, because the ‘river has power to kill, directly or indirectly’ (p 15). That night, Tombo goes into the bushes to do his business then walks to the river, jumps in and swims. All the time, nothing bad happens to him. He puts on his shorts and goes home.

The next day, Lateef comes for his twenty thousand naira. Tombo has taken too long to repay a debt, but knowing the consequences of not paying at all, he has saved that month’s allowance and kept the money in the pocket of his boxer shorts. But now he cannot seem to find the money. Where could he have lost it? He rushes to where he did his businesses the night before. He jumps in excitement when he sees his faeces but searches and finds nothing else. The villagers cannot understand why a handsome, educated man ‘had become mad all of a sudden’. Soon Lateef arrives with the policemen. ‘The gods had won, once more’ (p 17).

The collection is also packed with sad realities, whose rusted edges are hidden beneath a thin layer of the oil of humour. Between the lines, one reads of a society teetering on the brink of the precipice. In ‘When Time Comes to Call’ (p 19), the cruelty of the society to its poor is laid bare. ‘Luamba’s Battle’ exposes, in passing, the greed of the political class (‘The President is going to pick a new private jet for the First Lady…. Very soon, all Governors will be asking for their own’) and the collusion of the political class, church and tribal elders to fuel insecurity in the North (p 21). ‘Half Mast’ underlines how public disenfranchisement (‘Billions of cash to the East because of the small flood… none to us’ [p 31]) seeds violence.

Perhaps the most unsettling story is the ‘Trails of the Tail’ (p 83), a tale told in a detached and unemotional voice about the massacre of a village. Nineteen soldiers have been murdered at Gbeji. Fatima, a wife to one of the soldiers, on being notified of the death of her husband collapses and dies, leaving behind six orphans. What happens next is a chilling cinematic account of deceit and annihilation.

The villagers, young and old, are lured to the garage square for a conflict resolution meeting. They sit, in silence, for hours waiting for the ‘Army Chief – the Big Oga – who had promised to come’. But as time wears on, the villagers become ‘naturally scared and apprehensive of all the heavy artillery – from the tanks to sophisticated weapons – that had been brought’ (p 87).

When it becomes apparent that the Big Oga is not coming, the villagers seek to disperse, only to be barred. Every exit has been blocked. In the end, ‘babies lay with bullets designing their cherubic features’, ‘pregnant women lay with bullet riddled stomachs’, ‘able bodied men were left useless by metals’, ‘big bellied elders whose wisdom the bluntness of bullets had wiped out in brains splattered all over’, ‘soldiers pushed bodies aside to be sure of annihilation. A soldier saw a man breathing heavily, groaning…. A bullet to the forehead completed it for Chief Igba’ (p 88). In the end, the question of which bodies deserve to be mourned – the nineteen soldiers or the villagers – remains unanswerable.

Violence is present in our societies, yet such a portrayal would certainly make some critics raise their poverty porn placards. In ‘On Fictionalising Violence: Sebald Versus Poverty Porn’, Ainehi Edoro, of Brittle Paper, criticises how Uwem Akpan writes about violence in his collection of stories, Say You Are One of Them. Edoro says, ‘the stories are known for their gut-wrenching grit. Some of the scenes are particularly difficult to read because they show children living in degrading circumstances…there is a general sense that his collection of stories is the poster child of African poverty porn’. She cautions that:

Writers who write about violence should think deeply about what they want to achieve. Fictionalizing violence should not be about simply re-enacting scenes of violence for people to see. It should be about revealing the logic of violence, how it works…. Writings about violence should captivate us in a way that allows space for us to think, for us to feel implicated, judged, unnerved, and vulnerable. Stories about violence should serve as a summoning of the dead and not the exposure of their bodies in the stark finality of suffering.

Whether the depiction of violence in ‘horrifying levels of vividness’ offers opportunities for ‘genuine reflection versus putting violence on display as a scene for the reader who is, first and foremost, a voyeur’ is another discussion. But as Ellah Allfrey notes, most young writers in Africa are ‘unbothered by the ambiguities of identity, unconcerned with externally assigned labels’ and ‘the shortlist of unchanging questions that seems to inform much of the criticism of writing from Africa does not do justice to the imagination and energy’.

What is certain, however, is that The Bottom of Another Tale deals with diverse experiences and cannot be pigeonholed. ‘A Lust Intervention’ (p 73) explores Tarlumun’s desire for Amina; ‘the way her full pouting lips kept throwing one word after the other with swift grace’ and ‘left him thinking not of what she was saying but how those lips would taste’ (p 74). ‘The Pen and Sword’ is a tribute to the eternal battle between the pen and sword, and the sudden realisation that ‘you no longer believe that the pen is mightier than the sword’ (p 29). ‘Luashie’s Doctrine’ recounts the peculiarities of a miracle nation (p 67).

In reviewing Africa39, Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ complains that, ‘there are no wise old men who oil their words with proverbs, or speak slowly and deliberately in long, Africanized English sentences’. Perhaps The Bottom of Another Tale, with sentences like ‘it seems like the log has finally stayed in the water for too long it has become a crocodile’ (p 31), ‘when water stays in the mouth for too long, it becomes spittle’ (p 32), ‘his legs, as they say, touched his head in full sight’ (p 89), can ease Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ’s angst. Nigeria is home to unique users of the English language, and the necessity of mapping the social landscape is woven in legends and maxims, which are not easily translatable but whose beauty stands out. The Bottom of Another Tale is a book worth combing, for its delightful delicacies, for the arbitrariness of life in a violent and imperfect world.

Photograph: ‘Rusty Lamp’ by Dmitri K

Comments should be sent to Please use the appropriate review title in the email subject line.

Richard Oduor Oduku
Richard Oduor Oduku
Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works in Nairobi. He is a Founding member of Jalada Africa and HisiaZangu and has published in Kwani? Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja among others. He also contributes to the Star Newspaper.

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