Burden of Failure in A Failed State

John Otim

Reading Burden of Failure, the new novel by Okot Nyormoi, I found myself remembering old friends and old arguments we use to indulge in.

We were a group of young lecturers on a northern Nigerian campus. We were bothered by the lack of progress in Africa since independence.  We were searching for a way out of the morass. America fascinated us! Its vibrant institutions, its technology. Its general prosperity. Its glamor. But we were contemptuous of America. We hated the way America continued to treat its black citizens.

“No matter how badly African Americans got treated in America, African Americans loved America and are committed to America. How is that?” We asked ourselves.

“You know what?” volunteered Roger, the African American among us, “America works!”. Roger was not a patriot. (Show me a patriot and I will show you a fool). We had to take Roger seriously.  

“Forget the discrimination thing for a moment” Roger said, “America provides value for money. It gives its citizens something back. And that is important.

“In the small town where I live”, Roger continued, “I walk my 10-year-old daughter to the bus stop a mere stone-throw away from our house. Everyday the bus will be there on time. Every day the bus will take my daughter to school. Every day the bus will bring her back home safely at the end of school. While my wife and I are busy doing something productive.”

“Try that here in Nigeria!” the Igbo man shouted. “The kid will end up where you least expected. She may even end up dead while you and your wife are busy doing something productive.”

“You know what, Nandi? You are right!” Roger agreed. “And you know what? Nigeria is not even that bad. If you like, try Somalia! Or the Congo, or any of those failed states.” The debate raged among us. Why can’t we Africans be devoted to our own countries and pursue development?

Nandi, pointed out that in Nigeria, nothing worked. “That is why.”

“Do you need water? You sink your own bore hole. Do you need electricity, perhaps to light your way around your house? You buy a generator. Never mind the noise or the pollution. Certainly, you drive you own kid to school in your own car. A Mercedes preferably. You don’t have a car? That’s your own business!”  

The debate raged around us. Till in the end we all agreed. That all we are saying is that we need in Africa countries that work. Where there is no corruption. Where the Generals don’t all come from one tribe. We need a country that works for all of us. Why should I receive preferential treatment at a public place because of my tribe?

A country that works and works for all of us! That treats us with dignity. That is the theme in this new novel by Okot Nyormoi. Is our country, a country for all of us or is it only a country for some of us? Can a country ever work, that is only for some of us, and not for all of us? Where its soldiers are instructed to rape women of the enemy tribe and sodomize their men, in order to inflict the maximum damage. These and more are the issues Okot so keenly examines in this novel. Okot is a master of the metaphor. In his hands every expression can be a metaphor. Even the title of this new novel is a metaphor. Failed State! Ever heard of it?

I was watching a spider descend from the ceiling on a thin thread and was wondering what would happen if I were to snap it.

Okot writes in the opening sentence of the novel.  Okot sets the story in Uganda but the story is not confined to Uganda. The protagonist is born in 1963, the year after independence. He is a northerner and an Acholi by tribe. Acholi was one of the tribes that suffered the worst in the conflict that raged in Northern Uganda for over 20 years. The protagonist was born in Kampala and raised in the western town of Masindi in the heartland of the old Bunyoro Kitara! These details are crucial because they underpin the story.

Many challenges face the new Nation. But the country or its new leaders seem determined to stay the course. There is peace. There are no refugees, no internally displaced persons living in appalling conditions in refugee camps. As there would indeed be, throughout the 20-year-long conflict that ended only a decade ago.

The spider is descending down the thin thread. Some mean kid cuts the thread. The spider crushes to the ground cursing. But the spider does not give up. It never does. Soon the thread is up again and running.

In, Burden of Failure, the story does not begin in 1963 with the birth of the protagonist as may be imagined. Nor does it begin in 1971 with the arrival of General Idi Amin on the scene. The story begins in 1983. Fully four years after the General was booted from the scene. But Amin’s terrible legacy lived on after him. Eventually the trend he set in motion, ended in Uganda becoming one of those Failed States. And who knows, maybe Uganda even today still is a Failed State.

In1983, Peter, the protagonist of the story, is now a young man of 20. Like all young men Peter dreams of a future filled with goodies. He will go to the university, he will get a university degree. A good job will naturally follow. And a bungalow in an exclusive residential district. And a car. There will be rows of beautiful women of course. But all depended on the exam results Peter now awaited. Results for the nationwide secondary school leaving examination. The mother of all examinations. But Peter was sure he would pass and pass well.

That evening the radio announced the release of the awaited results. Next day Peter is off to school in a hurry. His results to receive. Thereafter he would launch without delay the new phase of his young life. But sometimes the unexpected happens. Peter failed his exams. His whole world collapsed. His own brother with whom he had been living, threw him out. Peter is without hope and is homeless in Kampala.

But Peter is not alone. There are hundreds of youth in the city and in the country, who share his fate. Youths for whom like him, the future is a closed book. Guided in part by the philosophy of the spider. After many turns, some of them horrible and deadly, Peter and his friends eventually organize themselves into a new association for unemployed youths in a bid to win back their future. Meanwhile the country around them is slowly but surely degenerating into a Failed State.

Burden of Failure is a real tour de force! From the raw reality of people caught up in the tragedy of the African post-colony, Okot has woven an amazing tale, full of punches and insights! A tale of greed, murder and corruption. A tale of dreams, hope and despair. A tale of love, devotion and struggle. No one who reads this novel will feel the same way again about the politics of contemporary Africa. For anyone interested in Africa this book is golden despite its author’s propensity to linger longer than necessary on terrain he has already covered. Burden of Failure is available in paperback on Amazon, on CreateSpace, as well as on Kindle.