Because of the close relationship it shares with life, literature has often been seen by critics and those who value it as life itself. Here, life is not just the mirror into which literature looks and which it refracts, but the one which constitutes all of its essence.
The essence of literature as the wellspring of our survival as a people also points in the direction of the complexion of the present and the future, even as it is the memory of the world. Lying within the lexico-semantic geography of memory is the fact that literature never forgets. In the hands of a visionary creator and a skilled craftsman, it is a good reminder. It is in the mould of literature as a reminder that I would like to cast Felix N. Ogoanah’s The Return of Ameze, a novel which, in my humble opinion, has the potential of stamping its authority on the Nigerian literary landscape sooner than later. This is not only because of the quality of the novel’s topicality, but also the sheer virtuoso and pathos with which events in the novel are woven. I should note at this point that while many artists have often sacrificed art in pursuit of topicality, a great many have adroitly executed compelling craftsmanship in their handling of events in their society. They have deployed considerable stylistic tour de force and shown a penchant for harmonizing the what with the how. Ogoanah belongs to this latter group. I must say that I am overwhelmed not only by the quality of the novel’s call for restraint in our pursuit of lucre, but also by the manner it fragments linearity to project a vision that is at once suspenseful and gripping.
Ogoanah’s The Return of Ameze is a novel which deals with the disturbing issue of women trafficking to Europe for prostitution purposes. But much more than anything else, it focuses on the horrific and intense psychological and moral subjection that women are put through in the process. It is the need to project this psychological and moral subjection that informs the shifting kaleidoscope of his narrative vision. He creates a young woman by name Ameze who has big dreams of a wonderful future like every young person out there and vows to remain a virgin until she is married. Against a backcloth of poverty, disease and squalor, Ameze lives her dreams, falls in love with a young graduate called Frank who vows he would marry no other person but her. But because dreams, like roses, do die under the elephant grass, people and events conspire against her and she is soon forced against her wish to go to Europe, precisely Italy, to become the breadwinner of her family, made up of her ailing father, her mother and her two sisters. Told by the heavy society woman, sponsor and trafficker, Madam Vee, that her daughter is going to do decent work in Italy to lift the family out of poverty, Ameze’s father, Okoro, is too blind to read between the lines. But even if he reads through, he is too consumed by the fact that other people’s children had gone abroad and taken their families out of poverty to allow Ameze marry the man she loves. Madam Vee takes on every responsibility of sponsoring Ameze to Italy because she is convinced that Ameze’s beauty is worth putting huge stakes on.
When Ameze arrives in Italy, she finds out that she had not been brought to do the decent work that had been promised her and other girls, but to prostitute. Unlike other girls, she refuses to cooperate with the men Madam Vee brings to her for sex. She goes through a tortuous process when she is gang raped by three men under the watchful eyes of a camera and under Madam Vee’s heavy sedation. The picture Ogoanah paints of this episode is telling and full of pathos:
Ameze woke up, violated, blood every where, as she groaned in pain. She couldn’t understand what had happened to her. As she cried for pain, it seemed she bled for all the maidens in her clan. She thought about her sisters. She tried to call on the gods she knew, but they were too far away to answer. She was alone in the world, as she watched her dreams drift away. The experience was more than losing her hymen. All she stood for was gone – her entire family had been violated! The dignity and the noble ideal she lived for and wanted to pass on to posterity had been violated, desecrated in a foreign land. She felt unclean.
‘They have taken it!’ She cried. ‘Nothing is left. I’m not different from the girl in the street!’ (243)
Ameze’s self-pity is worsened when she realizes that she can neither go back to her inviolate state nor could she have the means to return to her country. It is these reasons and the fact that she still needs to salvage her family from intense poverty that eventually break her will and make her surrender. The next few years see Ameze in the sex trade, remitting thousands of dollars home to her parents. Her father builds a mansion, sends to the best school in the city, her two sisters who had hitherto stopped schooling because he couldn’t pay their school fees. He also buys a fleet of cars, takes a chieftaincy title and joins a secret cult. In no distant time, he had become one of the most prominent men in the state, dining with, and befriending, the high and mighty. His voice is heard in high places and his opinion is sought on issues that matter. No one remembers that he had been a poor carpenter who could hardly afford three square meals a day, let alone take care of his health and send his children to school.
But while her family situation in Nigeria improves by the day, Ameze’s deteriorates, because of the physical nature of her job. In no distant time, she has caught the dreaded virus that has no cure, and she is brought to her father’s house to die, a tragic victim. The contrasts Ogoanah paints of Ameze’s going and her return are quite stark and basic. When she was leaving the shores of Nigeria, she had been hale and hearty, strong, talented and beautiful – a woman of every man’s dream. When she returns, her body is like whittled sticks, and she is a few hours away from her death.
But beyond the physical return of Ameze is a return of deeper spiritual significance. This return comes about a few moments after she physically gives up the ghost. Ameze acquires new strength with which she subjects those who had caused her early death to the worst torture imaginable. This torture is both psychological and physical for the victims, and we see Ogoanah unleashing the instrument of poetic justice.
Bolstered by the suspicion that Ameze’s death must have been caused by someone, Okoro goes to consult a witch doctor named Ogizo,who advises him to look at his mirror when he gets home, that whoever he sees there is Ameze’s killer. Ogoanah narrates as follows:
Five minutes, ten, thirty… nobody was there apart from his own image. He stood, waiting and trembling. He wasn’t sure who would appear. ‘Whoever it is must die. I hope… I hope it is not any of my daughters’, he thought and prayed. ‘What about Maria? Well, I don’t know’. He had been in the room for nearly an hour. ‘Ogizo never lied. What is happening? Where is the killer. Ameze’s heartless killer?’ He began to yell. ‘Whoever you are that killed Ameze, my daughter, show yourself now in the mirror and let me see!’ There was no response apart from the echo of his voice. After waiting for over one hour, he thought he saw an image behind his own; the dark shadow of a woman. He cleaned his eyes with the back of his palm and stared harder. The image did whatever he did. (293 –294)
While this scene may be laughable, it is serious and ironical enough, for Okoro soon finds that he and no one else sent Ameze to her early grave by the pressure he and his family had put on her. When he prepares to leave the room, having seen no one else in the mirror but himself, he confronts the hand-pointing figure of Ameze at the door, and no incantation can ward it off! This figure would haunt the entire family for hours and doors and windows would, on their own accord, begin to open and close, forcing the family to take the decision that the house that had been built on Ameze’s blood and sweat is haunted. They are forced to relocate somewhere. Did Ameze have her revenge? Largely, she does, because the author tells us that even Madam Vee goes mad in the end, tortured by her and the murdered Uncle Nikky, the owner of the NGO, which had been vigorously campaigning against female trafficking.
The Return of Ameze is more than just a statement; it is also a warning to those who trample on innocence and violate virtue; a warning to heartless human traffickers who, in the pursuit of material gains, court violence and wreck the dignity of African womanhood; a warning to those who see nothing good in humane values and must plunder the very essence upon which we stand as a people and a nation. In its seething condemnation of the dishonest and irrational ways in which people seek material wealth and power and die after the things of the West, Ogoanah flagellates those who must make others slaves for them to be free. His attack spares no one: the traffickers and those who benefit from trafficking directly or indirectly; the perpetrators of the Machiavellian principle of the end justifies the means even when the end is not in sight; those who have thrown morality and conscience overboard in their personal greed; agents of government who, rather than attack the problem of female trafficking headlong, develop logorrhoea and engage in empty rhetoric that is full of sound and fury, yet signifies nothing. It is pleasing indeed that rather than prophesy the tragic end of all evildoers, Ogoanah shows that end coming to pass. We see much of this in the two incidents earlier referred to: the forceful relocation of the Okoro family and Madam Vee’s madness. We are impressed by his appreciation of the capacity of the wronged to seek vengeance, whether dead or alive.
Ogoanah’s narrative style in The Return of Ameze is quite intricate, though it is easy to assume that the omniscient perspective gives him sufficient room to indulge the reader. As suggested earlier, the author weaves his tale like a spider weaves his web, creating labyrinthine patterns, which often gleam like a mirror in the sun. But the narrative is deliberately fragmented, with episodes from the past brought in at intervals even while the narrative thrusts itself forward and the reader is left breathless. Much of the suspense the novel achieves is derived from this stylistic feature. Just as a nation’s history is in her geography and her geography is in her history, Ogoanah’s story’s beginning is its ending and he largely positively exploits the psychology of the reader for the full stylistic benefits of the novel.
It is also remarkable that Ogoanah deploys what comes very close to an interface style in his manipulation of the language of his characters. Although coming from a different linguistic background from the characters who speak in the novel, he has achieved considerable approximation in their linguistic nuances. The annotations he offers of certain words from his characters’ linguistic repertoire are quite helpful to the reader encountering the cultural background of the novel for the very first time.
Altogether, The Return of Ameze is a simple tale told mightily. It is a disturbing and haunting tale indeed, which, like the reality that gave it birth, is most deserving of our attention. It is my hope that those who read this novel would not only see something personal to take away with them, but would also have the larger conviction that with a paradigm shift, the nightmare of female trafficking which has for almost two decades been the lot of this nation would one day die a silent death.
Title of Book: The Return of Ameze
Author: Felix N. Ogoanah
Publisher: Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Limited
Date of Publication 2007
Price: Not Stated