The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, a novel by Stephen Buoro, deftly navigates the tension between what informs desire and the instinct to shirk it. The novel aims to highlight the complexities of living in a country like Nigeria through the perspective of a malleable teenager full of promise.
It’s one thing to understand the corrosiveness of whiteness, it’s another thing to resist it. Stephen Buoro’s debut novel, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, charts the coming of age tale of Andrew Aziza, nicknamed ‘Andy Africa’ by one of his teachers. Andy is a Nigerian teenager with a fetish for blonde, white girls and a preoccupation with global Western culture and literature, growing up in the turbulent Muslim majority region of Kontagora, Rivers State where riots, violence, intercommunal strife, and death are the order of the day.
Narrated in the first person, the novel deftly navigates the tension between what informs desire and the instinct to shirk it. Andy loves white girls, ‘I’ll marry a white girl, a blonde,’ he says in the opening paragraph, but is adamant for the reader to not see his preference as self-loathing. ‘A fifteen-year-old African genius poet altar boy who loves blondes is not a criminal, not a racist, not a sell-out,’ he declares. ‘I don’t hate myself. But you get the idea,’ Andy continues. But burgeoning teenage sexual desire is haphazard and messy, if I recall correctly, so it makes sense that during the course of the story, Andy doesn’t really question this shame he feels for his supposedly innate yearning for white girls. There is also the conundrum of Andy’s narrow definition of beauty informed by the overwhelming influence of Western media. Buoro also litters the novel with clues which suggest Andy’s desire is at least partly informed by his desperate need to escape the violence plaguing his immediate surroundings.
AN UNFLINCHING DESIRE FOR WHITE PROXIMITY
Andy’s obsession with white, blonde girls is sustained through social media, Hollywood films, and pornographic sites and like many Africans far removed from corporeal whiteness but still inundated with its ideals, it begins before he ever meets one. When Andy hears there’s a blonde—Eileen, the British teenage niece of one of the town’s priests—in his town, he is more enthralled by her lack of experience with the suffering peculiar to Africans than anything else: ‘A Marilyn Monroe who has never had mosquitoes sing in her ears and suck her blood…A Taylor Swift who has never experienced a blackout.’ Time stands still the first time he sees Eileen in his shabby town; a person he believes doesn’t deserve to exist in the midst of rampant violence, suffering, and hunger that exists in Africa.
Buoro elegantly laces his knowledge of mathematics into fabrics of the story in interesting ways—Andy frequently references the ‘HXVX’ (equationally represented as ‘Sauron + Thano’), a concept from one of his poems which is shorthand for ‘The Curse of Africa’. From Andy’s point of view, HXVX is the invincible monster with innumerable tentacles who is to blame for the suffering in Africa, a being more powerful than God, and so his singular focus is to escape the continent. Other computations serve mostly to illustrate the absurdity in the infinitude of knowledge. Case in point, Zahrah, a 30-something witchy ‘hotep-esque’ teacher of Andy’s, who peddles a concept called ‘Anifuturism’ (a fusion of animism and Afrofuturism) to her students, scribbles formulas like eiπ + 1 = 0 on her living room floor and says things like ‘We wouldn’t have climate change today if we were all animists.’
Fatima, a gifted Hausa-Fulani peer and potential paramour for Andy, is set up as an analog to Andy’s desire for the blonde Eileen. Fatima suffers sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her parents, but Buoro is careful not to let her suffering overshadow her personhood; Fatima retaliates her mother’s abuse. She also has thoughts on Star Wars, reads Shakespeare, and wins trophies for her school in state competitions, all of which Andy seems to like about her. Eileen, on other hand, is also book-smart and loves poetry, but she functions mostly as an antithesis to blackness, a symbol of what Andy wants to be—white, non-African. Eileen is also condescending; ‘I didn’t expect to find poetry here,’ she says of Andy’s poem. Also, she touches Andy’s hair without his consent but that doesn’t quell his affection for her. Andy seemingly connects with Fatima on a deeper level than Eileen and the novel signals he has the self-awareness to admit the obvious reasons for this inability to follow through but that desire is, naturally, uninterrogated.
AN EXPLORATION OF A MOTHER-SON RELATIONSHIP
Buoro’s story operates on the fulcrum of Andy’s relationship with his friends, country, culture, desire, and knowledge. But none of these is as poignant as the relationship Andy has with his mother Gloria, a poor working photographer who grew up in Ososo, Edo State. Gloria cut her family off and fled to Kontagora due to bearing the brunt of familial and societal misogyny– despite her academic promise as a child, she’s withdrawn from school by her father to work on a farm and sell produce. Men treat her like dirt, and she’s shamed publicly on multiple occasions. It’s not until Gloria’s passing that Andy realizes his mother wasn’t just a blank slate for unfair treatment; she was also a pillar in her community, helping others raise their children, giving out sage advice, and lending out money.
In addition to being aware of her limited choices in the world as a woman born at a certain time in Nigeria, ‘we either choose to be slaves or choose not to exist,’ she says about women of her generation, she’s also an optimist. Buoro deftly sets up the novel’s big plot twist: Andy realizes that he is the product of rape and his uncle, Monsignor William, who he was quickly getting accustomed to is the man who violated his mother. All of this puts his mother’s life spent eschewing conversations about his paternity into perspective and he starts to resent himself for being a source of her pain while she was alive. Despite Gloria’s undoubtedly good intentions for Andy, she still can’t bring herself to reveal his paternity even at the point of her death.
A DESPERATE SEARCH FOR GREENER PASTURES
The novel ends appropriately with Andy getting punched in the face by one his ‘droogs’ named Morocca—a vulgar, wannabe philandering rapper—and it’s only then he realizes his blindness to the scale of his precarious ambition. Andy’s plan to desperately and illegally flee to Spain with his friends, Morocca and Slim, along with Morocca’s baby mother and child, becomes severely and irreparably thwarted when they get abandoned in the heat of the Sahara. Andy believes that life in Africa is a ‘long prayer’ but all the prayers in the world can’t save him and his cohorts from the fringes of death by terminal dehydration in the lonely desert. Andy and his droogs may live in a ‘shithole’ of a continent but the prospect of a better life in Europe doesn’t supersede their need to survive and so they begin the journey back home to their suffering. Poverty, political instability, protests, frequent blackouts, and hunger are all gnawing and sufficient incentives for these characters to partake in a dangerous and illegal immigration process and the novel astutely laces every page with unwavering desperation—a feeling I’m sure many readers, like myself, living in Nigeria understand painfully well.
Eventually, Morocca blames Andy for the botched operation and unleashes his frustration by hitting him repeatedly. Andy willfully accepts his position as the object of the violence by not retaliating and this acceptance scans as an embrace of a necessary punishment; a means to correct the blindness that led him to endanger his life and that of his friends for the promise of proximity to platinum blonde strands, green eyes, and blue oceans.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is an unabashedly Nigerian novel, unwavering in how it depicts the surreality of average Nigerian life while determined not to coddle readers who may not understand its idiosyncrasies. Buoro wields the unpredictability of his story like a weapon and while the novel’s ending may feel somewhat didactic, an obsession with proximity to whiteness can only end one way. The novel aims to highlight the complexities of living in a country like Nigeria through the perspective of a malleable teenager full of promise and, I think, it shoots to kill⎈
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa
336 pp. Bloomsbury Publishing, 13 April 2023
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