05 Dec A Review Of Sam Omatseye’s Crocodile Girl
Only few African novels succeed in using strong, well woven plots to link contemporary situation to epic, historic events relevant to human history and development. Novels like Jenifer Makumbi’s Kintu are celebrated for its success in achieving this, and now Sam Omatseye’s Crocodile Girl is evocative of the mid centuries when the Catholic Church created The Inquisition to convert apostates and prevent people from deviating from the faith. Lovers of history would recall that in the year 1326, Pope John XXII authorized that witchcraft was a form of heresy and in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull condemning witchcraft and two Inquisitors Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer were authorised to fight witchery. These two men produced a book titled Malleus Maleficarum meaning The Hammer of Witches which brought chaos the world over, and thenceforth, presumed witches were haunted down and stoned to death or hung to the wall. Sam Omatseye’s Crocodile Girl brings to focus the injustice in our hearts and how the society readily brands those lower in class as witches and have them stigmatised and possibly killed.
Crocodile Girl takes the reader through interwoven centuries of slavery, witchery and witch-haunt reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s inquisition of the 14th – 15th century. It tells of two young people, Alero who is a descendant of a cursed family, now living in Orogun village where her beauty is scorned. Alero is believed to be a witch and to be a descendent of a lineage of witches. She is thought to be an offspring of a crocodile – her mother having been presumed to be a witch who appeared regularly in the form of a crocodile to enchant and kill unsuspecting villagers. In an intricate interwoven plot, the reader is introduced to Tim Forester, an American who is a descendant of a family of slave traders, with roots traceable to Orogun village. In the heart of this novel, Tim Forester arrives Orogun village in search of his great ancestor’s grave believed to be hidden in a dreaded ‘Forest of Silence’. His path and Alero’s cross as Alero’s mother’s locket is also believed to be in that forest alongside her skeleton. It is at this point that the novel begins in so beautiful a way that leaves the reader wanting to find out what has happened and where the story is leading. The opening of the first chapter of the book reads poignantly,
“In the eyes of the villagers, Alero the juju girl cast her spell on Tim, the white visitor. She turned the bright young man into a mumu, her special food”.
When the locket is discovered, a search for the skeleton and the Forester’s grave will unearth centuries of injustice, witch-haunt and prejudice beyond human imagination.
Crocodile Girl draws attention to social stratification and how this division in the society pits people against the other. There is Itse, a young, ambitious Nigerian who has relocated to the United States but finds that he must adjust and mingle with those higher up in the ladder to become well accepted. In page 24, we read,
“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”.
Itse realises early enough when he relocates to America that to be accepted by the rest of the society he needs to befriend the rich and to excel in his endeavours.
“. . . he 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. . . .”
Crocodile Girl is filled with energy. The reader feels the pulse of the characters as they struggle with life – fighting injustice and trying to expose the ills that have chained them to backwardness. But the book hits the climax when Itse is contacted by a friend asking him to help one Tim Forester find his way to Orogun village. It’s a journey that would prove more perilous than they’d ever imagined. But it’s through this plotline that we are introduced to the scheme of the Orogun villagers as they struggle to brand a family as outcaste and descendants of witches to cover up their crimes stretching from decades to centuries. Sam Omatseye makes the reader fall in love with the village life. He writes,
“As the American strode out of the palace, he looked up, and it seemed the sky was caving in on him. Barely thirty minutes before, the weather had no distinction. They sky, a bland blue, looked benign on a windless village full of human chatter and bare feet . . . the wind swished and howled and flew into Tim’s face . . . all about him, men and women and children darted about in defensive excitement. Tubs of foodstuff were been hustled into barns, wet clothes were unhooked from clotheslines, raffia-made windows slammed shut, mother called to daughter”. Page 69.
This American is Tim Forester. When the reader is introduced to this character, Tim Forester had lost his mind while venturing into this ‘Forest of Silence’ and cannot recall why he was in the African village of Orogun. Sam Omatseye’s narrative prowess keeps the reader on edge, waiting for Tim to recover his memory – like Tim the reader cannot connect with his past until his memory is recovered and this suspense-filled wait makes the book a must read. The reader is made to wait for Alero to prove that she hadn’t turned the white man into ‘her mumu’ – but did she? And the reader waits eagerly for Itse, the man who brought Tim from America to wake from his coma – the results of these would shatter the reader’s heart and leave the story in our minds for a long time. The author’s descriptive powers also make the characters come alive. In page 76, the author wrote,
“He tried to compare the Alero he saw in the beauty pageant picture with the one standing before him. He observed the tall and willowy woman, her stately rhythm of the catwalk and poise of royalty . . . her long, dark hair smothered both her shouldered. Her catwalk came to her naturally . . . yet she was a queen in virtual rags. Her clothes were almost nondescript, a faded gown that reached down her calves. Her poise was now regal and now subdued. Her eyes always melancholy rolled sweetly; a canary’s eye, an owl’s eye”.
Crocodile Girl is a novel rich in powerful imagery and description, with narratives that bring out the strong storytelling abilities of the author which attests to his maturity and professional skill as a renowned columnist. But sometimes, this descriptive and narrative style is overstretched. In pages 148 – 151, the author takes the reader through Tim’s mind as he thinks about Alero, as his mind contemplates her life – a way of exposing his budding love for her. This narrative written in the form of a monologue is overstretched and a bit boring. And in page 190 when the author discusses the devastation in the Nigerian Niger Delta region, the reader is temporarily withdrawn from the main story and such digressions appearing here and there could lessen some reader’s interest. At the end, after Alero and Tim returns from the forest and Tim’s family comes searching for him from the United States, the author brings up the story of Terell Washington who obviously has an issue with Tim and might go to jail – this part of the novel shouldn’t have been introduced, for the Terell Washinton sub-plot isn’t fully developed.
There is also the confusion about which Forester was a slave dealer and which was a missionary, and if the author is referring to same person, it wasn’t clearly fleshed out. In page 237 when the century-old village in the forest is discovered, they find a grave with the epitaph, “Lord Forester, Special Emissary of the King of England”. It is explained that this Lord Forester had a child by one of the king’s daughters and that Alero descends from that line but in page 248, when the veteran and the white men trace the history of Tim, it is explained that a Queen Oyowa was caught and transported to America and while in America, she was impregnated by one of the Foresters, causing the reader to wonder if Lord Forester was both a missionary and a slave dealer.
But despite then, Crocodile Girl is a book with strong plot line and narrative powers. It is a story that addresses migration more than any other written in recent time in Nigeria and one that unearths the witchcraft enigma in Africa more than none had ever done. Ben Okri’s books gives powers to magicians and witches but Crocodile Girl draws attention to how the society hide under the cloak of haunting witches to destroy fellow citizens. Above all, Sam Omatseye’s Crocodile Girl traces the history of black Americans to the slave era and reinforces strongly the assertions that if most of them dig deep like Tim Forester, they may as well find their roots traceable to the red earths of Africa.