Saturday, May 25, 2024

We Have a Situation: A Review of Ellen Banda-Aaku’s Sula and Ja


By Modupe Yusuf

  • Title: Sula and Ja
  • Author: Ellen Banda-Aaku
  • Publisher: Kachifo Limited
  • Number of pages: 172
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Young Adult

Income, occupational prestige and educational attainment are some of the yardsticks by which people are measured in the society. It is not exactly the case that anyone is employed to categorise people. One measures the standing of others against one’s own.

This act of measuring the achievements of others against one’s own causes people to associate with others with whom they share class characteristics. A person is considered a social threat if they do not conform to the requirements of their particular social class. The actions of such nonconformists are bound to be misinterpreted and cause awkward situations.

Sula and Ja is a story replete with situations that are not unconnected to the matter of financial standing in the society. The reactions of the characters, thrust into these situations, portray the forms of interactions among people of different social classes.

The protagonists, Sula and Ja, two very unlikely friends, find themselves thrown into a situation where they can do nothing except work harmoniously towards achieving a joint goal. Sula, a brilliant girl from a low-income family, who joins St Mathews School through the benevolence of her father’s employer, is paired with Ja, an equally brilliant student from a rich home, for a science project and, of course, the school dance.

Sula, who has become quite the perfectionist, due to the high expectations of her family, is unable to cope with Ja because she believes that he can have whatever he wants while she cannot. This makes her unable to trust Ja with their project or to believe that he will follow through with his promise to take her to the dance. Ja sees in Sula a partner he cannot afford to let down. Not out of pity, but because by his nature he is not one to trivialise issues that are important to others. The author uses Sula’s misapprehension of Ja to create some of the tension in the narrative.

Through the protagonists, who are also the narrators, we are introduced to the other characters that the author uses in presenting the different themes of the book. For instance, we meet Joyce, Sula’s sister, a troublesome young lady who struggles to move up the social ladder. Joyce is unsatisfied with her parents’ lifestyle and by all means wants to do well for herself. She is not quite as cerebral as Sula but she has all the confidence that Sula lacks.

Joyce is the hustler in the book. She has a child by a man whom she knows will never marry her. Her intention is to use the baby as a means to get the life that she craves. To Joyce, every opportunity to join the ranks of the rich must be seized. She encourages Sula to believe that Ja will take her to the dance and she does everything to make sure that her sister is ready for the dance.

Ja is not without his own familial burdens. Ja’s father is a poor man and beneath the social class of Ja’s maternal grandparents so they did not approve of him as a partner for their daughter. Ja’s parents are separated. When Ja receives the news, from his mother, that his father is very sick, he reacts violently to his mother’s effort to prevent him from going to see his father. Even as a child, Ja understands that his grandparents’ disapproval and his mother’s hatred for his father are not unconnected to his father’s financial status.

Against his mother’s advice, Ja decides to go and visit his father in Sempa. Ja’s experience at Sempa changes his outlook on life. He wants a chance to get to know his father; he wants to prove to himself that he will not abide by the boundaries that wealth seeks to impose on him. And, he wants to go to the dance with Sula.

Although one is led to think that the plotting of the story works to get Sula and Ja to dance at the end of the school year, the author makes readers realise that there is often more to a dance than two people swaying together on the dance floor.

The dance is actually a metaphor for an agreeable arrangement between two unlikely participants. Through the accounts of both narrators, we see their individual struggles to evolve into the kind of adults they want to be as well as their struggles to meet familial and societal demands. By making the protagonists the narrators, we are able to experience the connectedness of the characters. This makes events easy to follow and enjoyable, too.

In Sula and Ja, Banda-Aaku confronts us with aspects of social life that are usually avoided in ‘polite conversation’. The interaction between the rich and the poor in the society is the real focus of the author. We see, in the interaction between Sula’s parents and Ja’s mother, the festering issue of distrust between the haves and the have-nots, the government and the governed.

One thing strongly expressed in Sula and Ja is that young people mirror what they see around them. The attitude of adults towards the different social classes becomes a template for the behaviour of the young. Some young people will, like Ja’s friend at school, choose to exploit the weaknesses of others. Other young people, like Ja, will confront the expectations of society and their parents, challenging themselves to be better. Yet some others, like Sula, will simply go with the flow.

Battles are won first on the inside before they take place on the outside. The real dance did not take place at the school’s party – it took place in Sula’s mind. A major score for Banda-Aaku is that she has presented an enjoyable book for the young without being moralistic.

Photograph by David Trotman-Wilkins

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

Modupe Yusuf
Modupe Yusuf
Modupe Yusuf studied languages at the University of Ibadan.

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