The Fishermen

  • By Chigozie Obioma
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Nike Campbell-Fatoki
  • June 23, 2015

The rich imagery and descriptive language in this debut novel will transport readers to life in 1990s Nigeria.

In mid-1990s Akure, Western Nigeria, during the military regime, a seemingly innocent encounter with a prophetic madman, Abulu, catapults the Agwu family into chaos and despair.

Ben, the fourth son of Eme and Adaku Agwu, describes how the lives of the four older siblings — Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and himself — are changed forever when their disciplinarian father, Eme, a Central Bank of Nigeria employee, is transferred to Yola in Northern Nigeria. Their mother, Adaku, remains behind to care for the six children. Never in support of the transfer, Adaku tries to manage the affairs of the home without her husband, but she is always one step behind the boys. 

Searching for entertainment, Ikenna, the first son, suggests his siblings and friends take up fishing at the Omi-Ala River.  Locals once believed the river was a god and built shrines in its honor, but when Christianity found its footing in Akure, they came to view the river as an evil place. The town council placed — but then lifted — a dawn-to-dusk curfew when corpses, animal carcasses, and ritualistic materials began to appear in the water.

For six months, the Agwu brothers and their friends, pretending to play football, go fishing in the Omi-Ala, where they meet Abulu. As the boys return one evening from the river, Abulu prophesies Ikenna’s death at the hands of a fisherman. 

Fear consumes Ikenna, leading him to suspect his brothers of plotting his death; after all, they are fishermen. This worry causes him to sever ties with them and, in doing so, hurt them, especially his brother Boja. Ikenna becomes irrational and beats his brothers. Not even their father’s brief visit can stop the unfolding tragedy. 

Abulu’s prophesy begins to fulfill itself, and two of the brothers die. And then Abulu’s madness seems to leap into Obembe, and Ben is carried along in his brother’s wake.

From the first few pages of The Fishermen, the author hints at the unfortunate events that will occur, and the tension builds with each turn of the page. He shifts between the past and the present, guiding readers in connecting the dots. The author’s writing is rich and descriptive, convincingly capturing life in Akure in the 1990s.

Chigozie Obioma’s Nigeria is one where people of different ethnic groups live in harmony, where politics is the subject of every conversation, and where Western education and commodities continue to be sought. Obioma grew up in Akure and was born of an Igbo family, and his writing conveys how the characters have embraced Akure as their home and the people as kin.

Historical events fit seamlessly into this fictional tale — the annulment of the presidential elections in 1993; the Akure riots; MKO Abiola and General Sanni Abacha’s deaths; and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, to name a few. Obioma’s detailed depiction of an encounter with a political figure will leave the reader wondering if, in fact, the author met that individual. 

Ben, the story’s narrator, has a keen interest in animals and makes fascinating use of his preoccupation. He describes his family members as such: Ikenna, a sparrow and python; Boja; a fungus; Obembe, a search dog; Ben, a moth; David and Nkem, egrets; Adaku, a falconer; and Eme, an eagle.

The author depicts the religious and superstitious minds of the characters in a realistic way — Kayode, a friend of the Agwu brothers, praying over their football; the spirit-filled display of the Celestial Church of Christ members situated close to the Omi-Ala River; the violent reactions of townspeople as Abulu delivers unsolicited prophesies to Adaku, taking the boys to church for deliverance.

For readers who grew up during this story’s era and in its region, the novel will leave them nostalgic. They will walk the streets of Akure, fish in the Omi-Ala, laugh and weep with the characters. For those who did not, this story will introduce this vivid, visceral world. The Fishermen is a commendable debut, one which lingers long after the last words are read. 

Nike Campbell-Fatoki is author of Thread of Gold Beads. She is a budget and finance manager by day and is presently writing a collection of short stories. She lives in the Washington, DC, area. 

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