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Literary representations, poverty and want


It has been sobering reading Adiitu Olodumare by D.O. Fagunwa again. The title of Fagunwa’s last novel is the name of the central character. As far as Fagunwa was concerned it was not to be his last novel. In the last chapter of the novel Fagunwa suggests that the remaining stories should be reserved to the next novel. And as we know the novelist died mysteriously on December 9, 1963. This novel was published in 1961. Was there another novel in the works?

But this is about representations of poverty and want in Yoruba oral tradition as well as in Yoruba novels. From English novels by Charles Dickens and George Orwell one has representations of poverty and want. Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens and Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell about furnish the representations of poverty and want in England in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Much as factory work and salariat status has established themselves in the ex-colonies, these English writers do not represent the images of poverty and want in Nigeria. Neither does the saying that poverty in the United States of America is two lost salaries away. Tropical fecundity as well as extended family charity complicates the representation of poverty and want in our country.

In folklore and moonlight stories poverty and want are represented as hunger, thirst, rags and the absence of a place to sleep and call home. Drought, laziness and living above one’s means are some of the causes of poverty and want. Sometimes one detects a tinge of moral condemnation. Natural disasters such as droughts, storms, falling victim to robbers are things that cannot be blamed on victims. These are happenstances. But laziness and pride cannot be excused. Living above one’s means cannot be allowed either.

There is a fantastic story by Sembene Ousmane where a poor man goes out in the morning to work as a truck pusher leaving a wife and child without food. On the way home in the evening with sufficient money for the day and days after he meets a praise singer. The praise singer sang his praise from earth to heaven and back. Our man’s head swelled and he walked on air. He dipped his hand into his pocket and gave all his earning to the praise singer. How would he explain to hungry wife and unwed baby? That there was no work that day? Or that there was work and he earned but gave his money to a beggar with a sweet tongue?

Reading Fagunwa’s last novel called attention to the representation of poverty and want in Yoruba fiction. Adiitu Olodumare is the only child of a poor couple. Here is how Fagunwa describes them: “Do you know what it is for someone to be poor? To be as poor as anyone can be? Like waking up in the money with not a penny waking up with you? Like wearing cloth that looks more like weary plantain leaves, rags all over? Like a whole day passes with not a drop of water to drink? Like so poor you wrestle hens for their corn to cook with beans to eat? Like peeling the yam skin to salvage some slices of forgotten yam to eat? Like picking the burnt pot bottom in search of left over to eat? Like standing in the face of someone cooking his food in case she might recognise your need? Like the husband having one underpant while the wife has one wrapper? Like not being capable of buying ordinary sponge to wash the body? Like looking insane to outsiders and friends avoiding you? Like waking with worries and sleeping with worries, rejected by those at home and those outside the home? Poor like finding no cover to sleep under? Like being for ever angry and aggrieved, walking like the dead among the living? May God spare us such anxiety!”

This was how poor the parents of Adiitu Olodumare were poor at one time. And why were they so poor?
Other than the personal deficiency in character, communal structural inadequacy is responsible for poverty and want in the city state of the parents of Adiitu Olodumare. The name of the city state says it all – Ilakose. Named after one of the tiniest species of snails everything is minuscule for a people of giant size. So, whatever the character deficiencies, the community does not provide the guide/guard rails that every community should provide for its people. “It is as if Nature itself had conspired to impose deliberate suffering on the people of Ilakose,” says the narrator.

How is wealth created in this city state of Ilakose? Sometime in 1832 the British parliament passed the education act to deal with the poverty and want that Dickens speaks of in his novels. Thereafter well-educated youths emerged into a better resourced society. In the 20th century training and retraining improved the skills of citizens so that they could do other jobs if the one they initially trained for was no longer valid. Then talent pays through invention, creation of things and artistic works by way of songs, plays, films and books. All of these protected and defended by powerful property rights guaranteed by the rule of law.

In Ilakose, the major wealth creation is the worship of the devil who then makes money available to his worshippers. From pages 92 to144 out of a book of 148 pages we are treated to the proceedings of the devil and his followers and the terrible deeds they must perform to get money as and when they ask the devil.

Anyone familiar with Nollywood money making magic knows the story. Why would it be otherwise?
Salaries of workers are not paid when due. Civil servants take to subsistent farming to keep their families alive. And people who have access to public funds steal steadily until they are exposed when they return some and go on still stealing.

Poverty and want is fabricated by the society of Ilakose. Wealth creation has nothing to do with entrepreneurship. Chance, luck, scam, pillage and outright bare-faced robbery are the creators of wealth where poverty and want sit on the faces of the masses of society. Prayer meetings provide the network, not prayers.

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