The many themes in Nwagwu’s I Am Kagara
Life in I Am Kagara (Book Builders, Ibadan; 2016) is relayed with strong strokes, intense and spontaneous emotions. There is a deliberate design to create a texture of nuances that are raw and rebellious but at the same time deeply traditional, empathic and eternally hopeful. The plot of Mark Nwagwu’s novel rides on chariots of tension and dances to beats of high drama.
The words “art imitates life” must have been uttered in specific reference to I Am Kagara. Along with the high tension, life in Kagara is simply complicated. The mere fact is that life is not simple, yet the deeds of the protagonists show how one can easily navigate through an intricate mesh. I will attempt a contextual thematic analysis of the various messages that this novel seeks to communicate.
Dr. Chioma Ijeoma, associate professor of African Spiritualism and Culture, University of Maryland, College Park, U.S., is one of the major protagonists in I Am Kagara. Remember Chioma, the same Chioma, the great granddaughter of Akadike of Okosisi, in Forever Chimes? In my review of Forever Chimes, I stated that: “Chioma was a personification of all that Akadike stood for. …Yet she was the chosen one, the one to carry on the walking stick, which she christened Uzo. She was further given an insight into the secrets of this special staff of office which she carried over the seas to America”. But Chioma’s story continued in My Eyes Dance, where “blasting rhythms fill my veins/my face my limbs encounter/in the living waters/of that Tremendous Lover/who makes my eyes dance” (My Eyes Dance). Her personal love story morphs into a mission in I am Kagara, a quest to save the kidnapped girls of Kagara.
I Am Kagara communicates many themes like feminism, life of the spirits, vocation, ordinary people fighting terrorism with extraordinary determination and speaking the message of unity in diversity. Feminism was transmitted in the entire novel. Chioma breaks all stereotypes: a professor teaching and living in the United States, a celibate, the traditional head of the Akadike dynasty and a passionate defender of the rights of the girl child. Like Buchi Emecheta, Nwagwu’s feminism interrogates how traditional structures treat the African woman. Emecheta was one of the first female writers to engage post-colonial Africa with literature. Aside from this, Nwagwu bears another striking similarity with Emecheta with the intercession of tradition and modernity in the life of a woman. In harmony with his previous two novels, Forever Chimes and My Eyes Dances, Nwagwu in I Am Kagara expounds a new feminism through the character, Chioma, a feminism that – in the words Professor James Tsaaior: “constitutes a veritable narrative possibility for a meaningful dialogic interaction between tradition and (post) modernity.” Never has it been heard that a single lady is the traditional head of an Igbo family. Chioma Ijeoma, great granddaughter of Akadike, is not the usual Igbo woman.
Chioma also receives a vocation to redeem the abducted schoolgirls, a calling that surpassed her natural capacity. Yet she does not shirk that responsibility due to the hazard that it might entail. The same with her grandfather, Maduka who is griped with unimaginable fear due to his friend’s (Billy) invitation to lead the fight against terrorism in Kagana. Fear has always been compatible with courage, yet fear does not define courage. Rather, courage as a virtue, according to St Thomas Aquinas, “is concerned with the good rather than the difficult. The stature of a virtue should accordingly be measured by the criterion of goodness rather than difficulty”.
But these ordinary people, Chioma and Maduka, exhibit extraordinary determination in pursing their goal and in achieving it. The narration about how the abducted girls are released, although they are assisted by a former evil spirit (who has converted) in the last battle to free the girls, yet the sheer gut of these two protagonists is worthy of emulation. They do not whine and wail about the sad reality of evil in their midst, they do something. Perhaps we might learn a thing or two from them: evil persists because of the silence and inaction of good people.
The mythological life of both good and evil spirits is evident in I Am Kagara. The novel actually begins with the mystical transportation of Chioma from the University of Maryland to Kagara in Boroko State, Nigeria. The culprit is Fern, an evil spirit, who tries to prevent Chioma from saving the abducted girls. However, Chioma’s reaction to the play of these spirits is instructive: “Yes, I am Chioma, I am Chi Oma, Good fortune; no evil will overcome my spirit. I am Chioma; no evil will ruin my destiny. I am Chioma…” Indeed, her chi fights for Chioma and wins over the dark forces. Fern is not only converted into a beneficent spirit, but is also instrumental in the last battle to free the remaining 40 kidnapped girls of Kagara. Nwagwu has been able to weave together a unity from two apparently contradictory concepts: the chi of Igbo cosmology and the God of the Christian religion. In Chioma, one finds a fusion of an intellectual, whose study revolves around African deities, and a Christian who has dedicated her life to apostolic celibacy.
Food is celebrated as an integral part of Nigerian cultural heritage in Nwagwu’s I Am Kagara. The “incomparable edikaikong” of Chioma’s grandmother, Adiaha, Ma Nneoma’s “lafu and Okeosisi soup” or “yam flour and egusi soup.” These culinary products serve, not only to satisfy the appetite, but above all, to exhibit the varying cultures from which they originate. Edikaikong is the food of the Efik people of South Southern Nigeria; lafu is eaten by the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria while yam flour and egusi soup is common among the Igbo of South Eastern Nigeria. The intention to celebrate diversity and build bonds of unity is also evident in the great pains taken by Adiaha and Onyebuchi (Chioma’s mother) to prepare dinner for the ladies of GAP, who visit them. “This repertoire, she said to herself, would serve all foreign tastes from Sri Laka to Iran. She topped it all with exquisite African dishes, including Kenyan ugali and accompanying sukuma wiki…” Nwagwu explains through Adiaha that “the legs of a culture stand on the feet of their food and the way they eat it…” Nigeria has over 500 languages and 250 ethnic groups with the resultant cultures. While ethnic tensions seem to be on the rise, a great tool that speaks a universal language, like food, can help in emphasizing unity. And this is what Nwagwu’s book has manifested.
In all Nwagwu exudes an unbending hope in his country. This is one grand theme that one finds in I Am Kagara. Nigeria is like a stubborn child that its parents cannot but love. Nwagwu’s book could have been easily entitled ‘I Am Nigeria!’