BOOK REVIEW — VICTOR OMOTAYO’S “AFRICAN MENTALITY” IS A FESTIVAL OF DIDACTIC PROSE
Year Of Publication: 2021
Nigerian literature in the 1960s and 1970s had a lot of bright moments, but one of the striking attributes of books released in that era was the capacity to cater to multiple audiences and demographics. Chinua Achebe wrote classics like Arrow of God and A Man Of The People, and Elechi Amadi made a huge impression with novels like Sunset In Biafra and The Concubine, but there were also books that catered to the literary appetites of children who were yet to attain puberty. Books like Nkem Nwankwo’s Tales Out Of School, Anezi Okoro’s One Week One Trouble, S. M. O Aka’s The College Days Of John Ojo and Erhe Ema’s A Taste Of College Life provided entertainment value for kids who wanted to see themselves in the novels they peered into.
With the collapse of publishers like Heinemann and Macmillan, the reading culture suffered a decline in the 1980s and 1990s. The turn of the century has ushered in a revival of sorts, but the grim reality is that there are not enough children’s books, or at least, there is no functional structure to accommodate them, as the Pacesetters Series did in decades past. Mainstream literary fiction is getting significant traction, as evidenced by the success of Teju Cole, Chika Unigwe, Helon Habila and Elnathan John, but who is writing the books that can be easily consumed by the 6-year-old in Enugu, the 8-year-old in Ibadan, and the 4-year-old in downtown Warri?
This is the question that Victor Omotayo, educator and historian, attempts to answer with his collection of short stories, African Mentality. Published in 2021 by U.K-based independent publisher SCLK, the book features 20 concise tales that speak to the current Nigerian reality.
“African Mentality” tells the story of a young man who is stuck on patriarchal values and believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, “Be Nice To People On Your Way” chronicles the struggles of a boy who had to cope with the meanness of his aunt, “Irony Of Life” explores the tale of two lovers whose romance is put to the test when finances crumble, “Day Of Reckoning” is a peek into the affairs of a corrupt politician, and “Devil Is Wicked” illustrates how kind-heartedness is no guarantee to an easy life.
Bad company in school is the central theme in “False Alarm”, a lady’s questionable morals are put on the spotlight in “Infidelity”, religious brigandry is the order of the day in “In The Name Of God”, we see how the children of the rich get away with murder in “Injustice”, and the deficiency of formal education is the subject matter in “Life Is A Lottery”.
Morally upright boys get their dues in the stories “Reward For Honesty” and “Reward For Kindness”, while an orphan sets out to right the wrongs of a faulty health system in “Reaping What Father Sowed”. Cultism and armed robbery are the vices brought to the fore in the stories “Reward For Stealing” and “Second Chance”, and fake pastors are reprimanded once again in “Result Of Laziness”. We are reminded of the impermanence of suffering in “Tables Will Turn”, neglect of medical advice is appropriately rewarded in “The Result Of Ignorance”, and in true Nollywood style, a selfish employer is brought to his knees in “You Reap What You Sow”.
One admirable quality of this book is how deliberate it is in terms of its audience, as well as the messages it intends to pass. From the first paragraph, it is clear that the words in these pages are aimed at children who are still in the early stages of development. The author’s religious leanings rears its head every now and then, but the central ideas in the stories are never lost on the reader: good will be rewarded (at least most of the time), evil is usually punished, tough times don’t last but tough people do, and a good education is necessary in order to be useful to society. Some of the narratives thread the blurred lines between moral lessons and cliches, but then again, cliches are borne out of things that were established truths in the first instance.
The writing style in this book is direct, with prose that is easy to digest and free of pretensions. There are a few stories that would be found guilty of excess simplicity, and there are others that end too abruptly before a reader can blink twice, but at its core, this collection of short stories is intentional in its delivery, and possesses no airs in terms of what it sets out to achieve. In any case, Nigerian bookstores are in need of more books in the mold of Stories My Mother Told Me, Sugar Girl, and Tales By Moonlight. Some dialogue would have been nice, but didactic literature works, too. You can’t go wrong with a body of work that seeks to impart morals to impressionable children.
Ultimately, African Mentality manages to fulfil the purpose for which it was published. It is not without its imperfections, but from a functional perspective, it is a competent, if not necessarily flawless work of fiction. Omotayo should be commended for adding his bit to a genre of Literature that needs expansion. The kids are alright; they will have books to read.