In this collection of ten short stories, Chika Unigwe captures the paradox of a facet of migrant life that is common but rarely explored in the Nigerian Diaspora communities. Better Never Than Late is a mosaic collection that centres mostly around Agu and his wife Prosperous and the small Nigerian community that congregates at their home most weekends.
The stories are written in very simple prose, with no standout sentences or paragraphs but the characters are well described, easily recognisable and almost never to be forgotten. Short stories do not give much room for character development but because most of the stories in this book are connected, some characters reappear and are further developed beyond a single story. Agu, driven by the ethnic violence in Jos which destroyed his supermarket business has migrated to Belgium fuelled with a fit of anger that propels him to anywhere but home. He is accompanied by his wife Prosperous who like a supportive wife has given up her thriving career and expansive lifestyle in Nigeria to migrate with her husband to a land where they are stuck at the very bottom of the societal ladder. In migrating, they have not only sacrificed the life they once had for a future that seems a mirage, but they have also sadly sacrificed the bliss of their marriage. Every aspect of their lives barely survives. Agu is so wounded by the loss of the past that he is barely aware that he is losing his wife in the present. A small group of fellow Nigerian migrants congregate at the Agus’ most weekends and through their characters we see the deceit and its rationalization that each person indulges all in a bid to gain access to decency in a foreign land. The paradox is that they do all this and sacrifice even that which should be sacred all in a bit to prosper in a foreign land while longing for the status and trappings of the land they willfully migrated from.
The characters in Better Never Than Late paint a sorry picture of migration – broken, frustrated, deceitful and devoid of hope. They ran away from a country that did not allow them to thrive and are now stuck in a foreign land where the intangibles of life make them long for a past they left behind. The brokenness is not only vivid but real. Realness is one some of us have seen in our daily lives. I have known several Gwachis. The Transfiguration of Rapu reminds me of the Gwachi I met while transiting through Istanbul a few years ago. A chatty young man in his early forties. Married to his high school sweetheart with three kids in Nigeria and married an elderly European lady in Europe. He shuttled between both homes (under the cover of trading in African wares) and was waiting for his citizenship before divorcing his elderly wife ( his Hilde) and relocating to his Nigerian family. Reading Better Never Than Late, I wondered how Gwachi’s wife (like the Gwachi I met in Istanbul) processed the deceitful and duplicitous life her husband lived (as she was well aware of the arrangement according to her husband).
It is almost impossible to evaluate the stories that comprise the Better Never than Late collection without acknowledging the failed Nigerian system that makes its citizens diasporans with little choice or those who have to choose between awful alternatives. This is a decent read that paints an important picture of the migration experience.