Japa fiction


Japa, which is the Nigerian slang for migration is a Yoruba word which means “to flee”. Migration has always been a thing among the Nigerian elite and upper middle class. From as far back as a century ago, young and even not-so-young Nigerians have travelled abroad to further their education and often either stayed back to work or returned to resume their careers. However, this current trend has made Japa a buzzword in the Nigerian social media lexicon and a recurring topic on its radio stations is unique. The steep economic decline in the polity followed by a persistent wind of globalization for opportunities and talents has made migration a hot-button topic that has refused to cool over the last decade. Literally every urban dweller in Nigeria, irrespective of social class has several anecdotes centred around the Japa syndrome.

A few of these anecdotes have led me to reminisce on the works of fiction that I have read in recent months and years.  The verisimilitude of migration fiction is a global feeling. The world has become a global village and migration is not just a Nigerian thing. Whether in Filipino fiction, Nigerian fiction, Indian fiction, Mexican fiction or Ugandan fiction, people are leaving home as they know it and making a new home far away. People are even beginning to reconsider the meaning of home as a concept. Many Lagos residents of eastern Nigerian origin who were born in Lagos and considered Lagos to be home were forced to reconsider what home meant during the last elections. They were suddenly made to feel less than equal and alien within their own country. A good portion of such Lagosians are leaving in search of new homes abroad due to the oppression that has made them reassess their definition of home.

For all the charms of native lands; hunger, oppression and destitution are continually fuelling Japa. Young and not-so-young persons are leaving Nigeria through various routes; you have those who are using the education route – selling assets and possessions and barely surviving abroad in a bid to get a foreign degree that would provide a chance to advance in a new land. This is the route explored in The Year of the Runaways. In it, one of the protagonists goes as far as selling one of his kidneys to be able to fund his migration to the United Kingdom. As economic conditions worsen for the middle class, such fictional tales will be sadly mirrored by reality. The Year of the Runaways is full of people who left destitute homes to meet a set of circumstances different but not distinctly better in a new land. Another sorry state of migration is found in the short stories collection – Better Never Than Late. People like Gwachiwho live duplicitous lives all in a bid to sustain a new life in a new country.

Japa is not restricted to those migrating through the education route or dubious marital relationships as seen in The Year of the Runaway, Better Never Than Late and Dominicana, there are also those who migrate as professionals, as seen in some of the stories in the Short Stories collection, Manchester Happened. This is also the route explored in Travellers. For this set of migrants, despite their professional achievements, a sense of unease remains because rightly or wrongly, they overanalyse every interaction and sense that despite the welcoming smiles, the natives do not see them as equals and even simple questions like “Where are you from originally”is loaded and unsettles them a lot as they rightly expect that their professional attainment and social standing in their new home should make them equals to anyone else. Another set of migrants are first-generation natices. Children of migrants who are born in a new country are continually defined by their parents’ illegal status. This is excellently captured in The Son of Good Fortune. The concept of home is hazy to this set of migrants’ children. They do not feel fully accepted in the country where they are born yet it is the only place they know to call home.

In all of these books, there is one common thread; humans will always gravitate to new lands in a bid to beat hunger, oppression and alienation. The routes for that gravitation differ and the experiences are varied and multifaceted. As Japa intensifies in the face of the relative hunger and oppression in Nigeria, the narratives explored in each and every one of these books will be the lived realities of more Nigerians.



Soon after reading Helen Joyce’s TRANS, I decided to amuse myself a bit by looking through reviews in publications and websites across the Culture spectrum. I found it amusing because it was an exercise in how bias shapes narratives. Those on the left denounced TRANS and its author, calling it poorly researched and full of holes. Those on the other side called it groundbreaking and a true assessment of trans activity. What is unamusing is the seriousness and urgency of the issue that TRANS tackles. At its core, the issue that TRANS explores is how gender self-identification redefined gender as something innate and personal. A feeling that cannot be questioned but only believed and not dependent on biological sex. Even when it is innate and based on feelings, it must not only be accepted by all but redefine how a major section of society lives their lives.

This is not a book that disputes the lived experiences of transgender persons. What TRANS does is question the push by transactivists to not only lower the bar for transgenderism to self-identification but also delegitimize the supremacy of biological sex to the point that anyone who points out the disconnection is labelled a heretic and a human rights abuser (I am ignoring all those fanciful terms used in such occasions). The pivotal premise of TRANS is that the current trend anchored on the push described above is harmful to biological women. TRANS explores how transwomen have, while insisting that innate feeling is sufficient to identify with a new gender, also forced biological women to see transwomen as women in all circumstances. How this impacts women’s spaces, prison facilities and sports are areas where the gender self-identification ideology clashes with the reality of everyday living.

Reading TRANS, I get the impression that the author’s passionate exploration of the topic is solely because women are gravely impacted by the gender self-identification ideology. The fact is that the impact is more far-reaching. The “I feel, therefore I am” form of liberation was always going to lead to this logjam with devastating consequences for reality. Feelings can never be enough to determine societal norms. It can be used for religious creeds but those are never imposed on non-adherents. Redefining what constitutes womanhood based on such broad criteria was always going to be problematic. Pronouns are being muddled up arbitrarily, dissenting voices are being silenced with vehemence and women’s sports are suddenly an all-comers affair. TRANS highlights the danger to women and children but it looks like the danger will be all-encompassing as long as “I feel, therefore I am” remains a leading mantra of post-modern liberation.


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19. They Got To You Too

Before and shortly after apartheid ended, there had been a large catalogue of South African fiction that dealt with the societal issues of the South African polity centred on the racial divide and its attendant inequalities. In more recent years, there has been a dearth of such stories, largely for good because a permanent view in the rear mirror is no productive observation of any society. In light of the recent trend, They Got To You Too is a refreshing take in the sense that it revisits the past when it gets Hans Van Rooyen to look back at his life of privilege, regret and search for renewal. Entering his ninth decade on earth, he finds himself admitted to a nursing home and the old South Africa meets the new one.

Zoe is Hans’s new nurse in the nursing home. Having navigated the old South Africa, She has scars from the dark days of the past and since she has found healing in the present, she is best placed to guide Hans into new space while helping him unpeel the layers of secrecy from his past that has limited him from embracing a nation where skin colour is not meant to be a factor of discrimination. They Got To You Too is a story of discovery, acceptance, forgiveness and healing. It highlights the individual journey of an oppressor the oppressor. In alternating chapters, the lives of Hans and Zoe are peeled back and we see how each has arrived at their present station in life. The future is a product of what we make of our past in the present. Only in confronting his past can Hans die with no grudge and baggage.

They Got To You Too is a simple story with deep consequences. It is sensitively told with great empathy. Some may conclude that the story is too simplistic, especially those who still bear the brunt of the evil of the past in South Africa. However, it is a story that gives cause for reflection and provides an avenue for reflection as long as there is a valid reckoning of the past.


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18. The Extinction of Menai

I have noted a few Nigerian writers mention their fellow Nigerian writer – Chuma Nwokolo as a favourite of theirs. None of his books has so far been published by any of the popular and big (by Nigerian publishing standards) publishing houses, so finding his books on shelves is a relatively complicated task. I found The Extinction of Menai in a bookshop a couple of years ago and had been anticipating the read ever since. 2023 is the year I finally got around to it.

The Extinction of Menai is a complex and almost gripping narrative. A novel that is inventive, multi-dimensional in its scope and evidently layered, by a writer confident in his craft. At the core of the narratives is the plight of the fictional Menai tribe in the Nigerian Niger-delta region. The Menai tribe is on the brink of extinction because its people are dying at an alarming rate due to the adverse effects of a rogue drug trial that was conducted on them without consent. On a related note, the local political government scene is charged with threats of secession from the federal government amidst the use of foreign mercenaries in the bid to secede militarily. The complexity of The Extinction of Menai is that there are several narratives jostling for attention with the story of the Menai people which is meant to be the main story. In the end, there is a compendium of sorts with a multitude of protagonists, that makes for a rowdy reading experience. While the writing is brilliant and the dialogue is sharp, a lot of the prose is opaque and seemingly without context. All of these are further complicated by the format that endlessly shifts between the past and the present from one chapter to the other and in no particular order.

With the Menai culture and its people facing extinction, there is a fightback for its survival led by the Mata Nimito. Their fightback is interspersed with the struggles of a British short story writer whose identical twin is a wanted Nigerian terrorist, a governor who is leading a political and military fight for the secession of his people, and several protagonists with differing narratives that appear and disappear in the many vignettes that make up The Extinction of Menai. In all, the scope is ambitious, and the writing is measured but the structure and overarching execution do not hit the spot and therefore the general reading experience is underwhelming.

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17. Thou Shall Not Pass

Every year, I try to squeeze in a few football books. It could be a biography, a book on football tactics or history or even a narrative that does not really fit any division. This year, one of the picks is Leo Moynihan’s Thou Shall Not Pass. An exposition of the evolution of football’s centre-halves. Like every other position in football, the Centre-half position has evolved over the last century; from being immovable and almost immobile humans whose only job was to stop opposing strikers, to attack starters who also broke down opposition moves and helped retain possession. In exploring the shift over decades, Thou Shall Not Pass relies on anecdotes and interviews with football figures. It is primarily an English book as most of the anecdotes are from English football and the players analysed are from the English league, even when they are not English.

Thou Shall Not Pass is a decent read and highlights the evolution of football to a more aesthetic game where passion and graft alone are no longer enough. In all of this, the days of good old rugged centre-halves remain memorable.

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16. The Wanderers

Absence, movement, dislocation and recollection are the overriding themes in Mphuthumi Ntabeni’s The Wanderers. Ruru is 17 years old when her mother, Nosipho died. She became an orphan because her father, Phakamile had died in exile in Tanzania, where he lived since leaving South Africa for political exile in his late teens. During his last days, Phakamile (Phaks) had been collecting his thoughts in a journal and upon his demise the journal was passed to Ruru when she came tracing the path for the father who despite being absent in her life, loomed large. Phak’s journal, an autobiography of sorts, that Ruru uses to piece together her sense of belonging and reconcile her heritage with her present.

The Wanderers is multilayered as it delves into a multitude of themes. Some of these themes are spiritual, some political, some familial and yet some social. At the heart of the social themes of The Wanderers is the family dysfunctionality that is a sad product of the apartheid past of South African society. Families grappling for alignment and reconnection because most males had skipped the border in a bid to avoid arrest, torture and possible death due to their freedom fighting. In the case of Ruru, she had been born and grown into a young teenager in the complete absence of a father. Phaks had been forced to flee town suddenly, abandoning a pregnant Nosipho with not as much as a goodbye wave. Ruru’s restlessness leads her down a path of discovery. This path leads her to her father’s journals. The journal entries were written in Phak’s last days as he was facing imminent death. Musings that spanned theology, classic literature, mythology, and philosophy with an underpinning of the Xhosa culture. These musings are a constant companion of Ruru from the time she is handed the journals during her trip to Tanzania in her twenties. On one hand, The Wanderers is a coming-of-age novel of Ruru, and on the other hand, it is a memoir that encapsulates the thoughts of a wandering soul who is looking back at where his sojourn has led him, what he has lost and gained in the process.

The narrative of The Wanderers alternates between Ruru’s tale in the second person and her father’s memoir in the first person. Ruru’s tale is further split into her sojourn to trace her father’s path and her regular letters to her dead mother who is felt as a guardian angel. The structure of The Wanderers is a major flaw in my view. Alternating from a memoir to a letter to a story from one chapter to the other makes for an uneven reading experience. This is worsened by the uneven timeline. In one chapter, we are reading about Ruru and her Asian roommate in Wits and in the next chapter we are with Ruru and her Tanzanian workmate in Dar es Salam and back to Ruru’s high school days in the 3rd chapter. A more aligned timeline would have improved the reading experience in view of the different genres combine in the book. While I particularly enjoyed Ruru’s coming-of-age story; seeing her go from a seemingly helpless and grief-stricken teenager to one who gets entangled with a sexual predator as a matriculant to a young doctor who learns to negotiate life and love on her own terms. Another arc of narration I found very interesting was Ruru’s visit to Sandi’s uncle. It was a frustrating but reflective narration. Frustrating because it highlighted the sorry state that freedom fighters have plunged their countries into in Southern and Eastern Africa. They have refused to walk the talk. The way the author found creative ways to pastiche classic literature and philosophy into the thoughts and musings of Ruru and Phak is refreshing within the sphere of modern African literature. However, I  found Phak’s journal entries tiring and mostly verbose. There was an excessiveness which seemed to overwhelm the arc of the whole narrative. In all, The Wanderers is a reflective read that examines eternal questions. A productive read indeed.

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15. A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation

It is already settled that I am a huge fan of Nick Page’s work. I find his combination of apologetics, wit and church history research to be refreshing and unique. My introduction to his works was the very excellent and unique A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity. I read that a few years back and got hooked by Nick’s dry wit (I acknowledge that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea), and his incredibly fresh and irreverent but rigorously researched take on the Church’s history. The Wrong Messiah and The Longest Week are two other excellent works of his that I have read in recent years. This year, I had chosen to read A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation and my expectations were not dashed.

A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation was published in 2017 to commemorate the 500th year anniversary of the start of the Reformation of the Christian church. It is a rigorously researched but very accessible (and often witty) take on the history of the Reformation – an idea that not only revolutionised the Church but arguably impacted the world, as it had adjacent impacts on democracy and civil society. What A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation sets out to do and achieves immensely is to highlight the impact of critical players in the Church Reformation, using verifiable sources and rational guesses to separate fact from myth (a major myth is that Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October) and contextualizes the Reformation within the world where it was launched.

There is nothing like an unbiased historian but in A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation, Nick Page has done a very good job of minimizing his Anglican background as he presents an even take where neither The Catholic church nor the Protestants are painted as ultimate heroes. In fact, if there is one thing that comes out of the book, it is that the Reformation heroes were very flawed and were often guilty of some of the charges that drove their reasons for a split and reformation. Another thing that leaps out of the page is how Cancel culture is not as new as we seem to think; during the Reformation period, any little disagreement did not just end with the contrarian person ostracized by being branded a heretic but they were literally burned at the stake or even beheaded. Any history of the Reformation is incomplete without the critical role that the printing press played in that. The printing press was a revolution in the 16th century. Without it, there would be no Reformation! I find it as pivotal as what the internet and social media particularly have done in the 21st century; it has democratised the polity to the extent that all you need to have a voice is a device (and these devices are now ubiquitous). Especially in places like Africa and parts of Asia where those who wield power wish to stifle voices, a device is all that is needed to be heard around the world. The printing press ensured that Luther’s view could be transmitted far and wide. Also, as soon as Bibles could be printed, every man could read it for himself/herself and decide for themselves, it was all over!

The minor quibble I had with A Nearly Infallible History of The Reformation was that the last few chapters seemed a drag and the humour at that point began to feel forced. However, this does not distract from the fact that it is a very good read, although not as thrilling as A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity. Highly recommended.


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14. Things Can Only Get Better

I pride myself on the books I buy (most of the time). Even when going outside my comfort zone, I am able to sieve through endless reviews and blurbs and feel a resonance for reads that I will find pleasurable. Things Can Only Get Better is not really a book I would ordinarily buy, and I cannot even remember where I got the prompting to buy it two years ago but it is a read that I am glad I bought and have thoroughly enjoyed. It is a poignant but simple plot that transverses a lot of topics. The prose is simple and decluttered, yet was thought-provoking.  Things Can Only Get Better is a story of hope, dreams, becoming, forgiveness and family. It is a story that circles around four young teenagers and a septuagenarian widower, Arthur Calderbank. Arthur is a war veteran whose wife died seven years ago. He is so attached to her that he lives in the church compound next to the cemetery where she is buried. He marinated in his grief to the extent that he visited the cemetery every day. The daily ritual was a reason why he was piqued and curious about the moonflowers that were dropped at his wife’s grave on her birthday every year.

Things Can Only Get Better is set in the England of the 90s. Thatcher’s industrialisation is wreaking havoc on the industrialised north of the country; unemployment is on the rise and hope is in short supply, not just for the unemployed adults but also for the young. The teenagers in Things Can Only Get Better see nothing but a bleak future ahead. No one believes in them; not their parents nor their teachers. It is a depressing state. One of them decides to dream. A dream about forming a band. It is the actualization of this band that causes their paths to be crossed with that of Arthur. The teenagers are seeking hope in a hopeless town while Arthur is seeking help with the mystery of the moonflowers that unfailingly appear at the grave of his wife every birthday. One need is primary and life-affirming and the other is seemingly mundane but as the bond between the kids and Arthur is established, both needs get addressed and in the process a lot o issues come to the fore; bigotry, family, forgiveness, friendship and hope.

The beautiful thing about Things Can Only Get Better is how David Barnett humanizes his characters. They are so relatable and ordinary, both in their failures and triumphs. In this regard, Things Can Only Get Better reminds me of The Man I Think I Know. My only small quibble is with the ending. It is too clean and provides all the closures that one would dream of. We all know that life is often not that neat. In all, Things Can Only Get Better is a lovely, simple gem.


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13. The Madhouse

In T.J. Benson’s The Madhouse, dysfunctionality is the norm. It is a domestic tale that revolves around a family of four; Sweet Mother, an artist, her husband Shariff, a writer and ex-soldier and their two sons – Andre and Max. In addition to their dysfunctionality, the house they call home used to be a sanatorium at the end of Freedom Street in Sabon Gari in Northern Nigeria. The family’s story is told with Nigeria’s military rule of the 90s in the background.

While the writing is good, the structure and plot are worrying and just do not work for me as a reader. The story tilted a lot towards magic realism (a genre that I just do not enjoy) but the bigger problem was how the plot alternated between the past, present and dreams. At some points, it was difficult to know if what you were reading was an occurrence in the real world or in the dream world. The timelines are haphazardly arranged and this made the character development almost non-existent. While there is a quest to make sense of the lives of this family, the dysfunctionality seems random. I appreciated the sibling love between Andre and Max as depicted by the lengths Max went to rescue his brother from the many experiences that tried to destroy him but that strand was not strong enough to hold The Madhouse from the disjointed and vague plot that led me to not finishing it. After struggling and getting past the 200-page mark, I gave up and sadly classed this as DNF.    The Madhouse 1The Madhouse 2

12. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves

I am not sure how popular the Frederick Douglass quote at the beginning of A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves is but it is a profound quote that jolted me the moment I opened the book. Anyone who has paid a cursory glance at the entries in this blog will immediately realise that in a lot of the fiction I have read in recent years, migration is a recurring theme in a large portion of them. From Better Never than Late to The Year of Runaways to The Strangers of Braamfontein to Travellers to The Son of Good Fortune to Manchester United. The focus has been unintentional as my picks are often random. However, because nothing chronicles the human condition like fiction, fewer topics capture humanity like migration. The desire for fulfilment beyond what your present surroundings can offer and the deliberate effort to make a previously distant land home and in the process redefine what home is. All of this is before one even looks at it from the perspective of the natives whose land the migrants are moving into. In today’s world where economic opportunities are not commensurate with the desires and pursuits of a globalized citizenry, migration is a hot-button topic.

A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves is an exceptional work of narrative nonfiction. In it, Jason DeParle follows the Comodas family across the globe for over 30 years as he chronicles the impact of migration on 3 generations of that Filipino family. Jason DeParle zooms out on the economic and social consequences of global migration with particular emphasis on the Philipines as an exporting country and the USA as an importing country of migrants. He expertly switches his exploratory lenses and zooms into the journey of Rosalia Comodas and her family. The constant switch gives the book both a broad view and a personal perspective. No country does more to promote migration than the Philippines. Migration is to the Philippines what cars were to Detroit; a civil religion. About 2 million Filipinos go to work abroad every year and the $32 billion that they remit home is about 10% of the country’s GDP. The culture of calling another place home is one that Filipinos are adept at. The social, economic and physiological impact of migration is thoroughly explored through the lives of Rosalia, her parents Tita and Emet, and Rosalia’s children. Migration is no walk in the park and those who choose to call a foreign land home are embarking on a multi-faceted journey that has more than only economic ramifications. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves but leaving is not an easy decision irrespective of whether the leaver enters through illegal entry points or has a legal status. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves 1A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves 2A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves 3A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves 4