Book: Nigerians in Space
Author: Deji Bryce Olukotun
Publisher: Unnamed Press
Year of publication: 2014
Number of pages: 293
What does it take to get an African country to space? That is the premise of Nigerian writer Deji Olukutun’s debut novel Nigerians in Space. Nigerian Ministry of Environment top official Nurudeen Bello comes up with a project he calls “Brain Gain” to inspire his homeland to greater heights. This project involves eight scientists from around the world who have excelled in their fields of study. One of these is the main protagonist in the book called Wale Olufunmi who works for NASA in Houston, USA.
Wale has been sold on the project as part of it involved getting a Nigerian spaceship to the skies and this was his one ambition in life. He is instructed to leave by his contact Bello and he does this with a chunk of the moon that he stole from his former work place. He leaves with his wife and son Dayo to go back home and start on the Brain Gain project. This is in 1993.
Around the same period there is a young woman from Harare, Zimbabwe called Melissa Tebogo with a horrible skin condition whose father Mlungisi Tebogo works with rebel movements from all over the SADC region many from South Africa. He is given a job by the same Nigerian Bello and as payment his is to be paid some cash as well as his daughter being given treatment in France.
It doesn’t go so well for these two individuals. Wale doesn’t get contacted by his handler and he flees first to Sweden eventually settling in Cape Town, South Africa. During this period he had left his wife and fled with his son. Melissa on the other hand is a seventeen year old derailed at the airport in Paris by some nasty lady called Mrs Niyangabo and taken to some hostel to stay with some other young women. Whilst here, she gets a message from her father that they had been betrayed and he advices her to continue with her life and forget about him.
Fast forward to the present day and Wale is a bamboo furniture salesman in Cape Town who conducts tours at the observatory in the city. At the same period Melissa who is now a world famous model because of the condition that makes her skin glow. They are to meet with each other eventually.
There are other characters in the book of course. Wale’s son Dayo is a grown man now with an obsession with making snow globes which project actual moonlight like a toy he had as a child (yes the actual moon rocks stolen by his father). Also in there is Thursday a guy who works in a factory that deals with the abalone sea creature who loses his job then gets into more trouble as he tries his hand at poaching the creature in the sea and nearly gets arrested. He makes it out and eventually ends up at the centre of the abalone poaching business under Chinaman Ip in Cape Town.
Just from the description above you can tell that there is a lot happening in this book and if you are not keen you will be quite frustrated with having to follow the plot. It took me quite a while to get done with it because of this but as the different sub plots come together then the book becomes “unputdownable.” The last one hundred pages were read in one sitting in the wee hours of the morning that saw me almost missing the alarm to prepare my child to get his school bus when I blacked out at 4am. It was that good.
This Olokotun guy knows a bit about character development as we get to know the ins and outs of some of these characters we are reading about. Take for instance our main guy Wale who moves first to the US from Nigeria his birth country then leaves in haste to end up in South Africa. Very nice that. Or Melissa the other great character who follows the trail of her lost dad decades later to the belly of the beast in Abuja. Learning about these guys is vital to the plot.
Other characters aren’t as important in my opinion. Thursday the abalone factory worker turned poacher turned “consultant” for instance could easily be dropped from the whole novel and the impact would be minimal. Yet he gets a lot of attention in this book for what at best could considered a nominal figure. Meanwhile Dayo the son is given very little space and he looks like a vital guy to the narrative; he is the only thing that Wale has to remind him of the past. He also follows in the steps of his scientist dad albeit unknowingly. I would have loved to see more of him.
This book is an adventure filled one. It is Enemy of the state meets ugly duckling gone hot meets abalone enthusiast. The downside for me is that it seems like what I was reading was two different books with two major plots that failed to mesh as well as they could have.
It takes a while to figure what the hell this book is about but when you do, it is a great read. I don’t recommend it for those who seek quick literary enjoyment with their social media channels in the background. They will never finish it.