Stephen Buoro’s first novel, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, chronicles Andy Aziza’s coming-of-age in contemporary Nigeria. Blending poetry and prose, Buoro endows his titular character with a vivid voice and personality while also tackling issues of religion, race, and migration. Furthermore, Buoro’s novel is infused with a wide range of influences and references, to include mathematics, theoretical constructs like “anifuturism,” and Western culture in the form of books and films. This makes for a highly intertextual narrative, and one that particularly reinforces the lasting impact Western media has on people across the globe. While Buoro marshals all of his interests to create a beautifully textured world, he is still able to treat each of his characters with remarkable depth and sympathy.
At the core of The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is the relationship Andy has with his mother. The two have many disagreements, some of which relate to Andy’s obsession with Western television shows, and consequently, blonde, white women: “A fifteen-year-old African genius poet altar boy who loves blondes is not a criminal, not a racist, not a sell-out. But a sweet, cool, pitiful African boy” (Buoro 4). Andy struggles with the generational gap between himself and his mother, but he also has a deep sense of compassion for his mother’s situation, especially because his father is not around. Andy and his mother live in Kontagora, a town dominated by Muslim Hausas who fear the possibility of their home becoming “over-Christianised” (Buoro 31). An attack on their church leaves Andy’s mother disabled and confined to a wheelchair. In the aftermath of tragedy they attempt to rebuild their relationship, and it is their journey together through a mysterious past and an unstable present that shapes much of the novel.
One of the most interesting elements of the novel is Andy’s fledgling romance with Eileen, the blonde niece of Father McMahon, the community’s local missionary. Buoro unpacks issues of race and difference through Andy and Eileen’s romance—Andy is enamored with Eileen’s platinum blonde hair and her Englishness, but he feels increasingly Othered by the way she treats him, as she asks him questions like: “What happens when water touches your hair” and subscribes to many of the sexual stereotypes surrounding African men (Buoro 188). Eileen’s treatment of Andy leads him to question his own identity and how he is perceived by others, but their relationship also raises some fascinating questions when it comes to the sharing of cultural knowledge, including language. For example, after showing off her Hausa skills in public, Eileen takes Andy to the library of her hotel, which is filled with Nok sculptures and works by Hausa authors. She reveals that she has been studying the Hausa language, and that she even plans on translating some Hausa stories into English, as “Dad knows a couple of editors in London” (Buoro 191). Andy is impressed with her, and responds: “That’s really great, innit?” (191). His use of the word “innit” causes Eileen to start laughing, and she tells him not to say it again. In this moment, Buoro interrogates the unequal dynamic between African and European centers of knowledge production—Eileen sees it as her uncontested right to study Hausa and even translate Hausa texts, but when Andy appropriates British slang, it makes her uncomfortable and she orders him to stop. Another iteration of this same phenomenon is when Eileen shows Andy some pictures she has taken in Abuja. She obviously finds the subjects of her photos exotic and interesting, but to Andy they are “mundane” (Buoro 189). The cognitive dissonance that Andy experiences with Eileen, especially because of his exposure to Western culture, leaves him feeling alienated and dissatisfied, wondering if he will ever be able to truly communicate with her. Through the relationship between Eileen and Andy, Buoro effectively deconstructs the contemporary encounter between Europe and Africa to reveal that history never really belongs totally to the past.
A key strength of Buoro’s work is how he instills Andy’s character with relentless curiosity about his place in the world as an African. Andy critically examines the ways in which Africa has been disadvantaged by geography, slavery, and colonialism. In his poems, he writes of a being called HXVX who hovers over the continent and embodies “the Curse of Africa” (Buoro 50). He even argues at one point that Africa is a computer simulation: “How else could we explain the sun and hunger vs our laughter and dancing, the corruption and killings vs the churches and mosques in every corner of every neighborhood?” (Buoro 131). The counterpoint to Andy’s decidedly pessimistic outlook is his teacher and mentor Zahrah’s “Anifuturism,” which she describes as “the fusion of animism and Afrofuturism” (Buoro 49). In a novel full of a wide variety of themes, Buoro still manages to carve out a space for intellectual discussions between student and teacher that contribute to current debates in postcolonial theory. Andy’s personal philosophy and outlook toward the world is largely shaped by the existence of HXVX, and through Andy and Zahrah’s dialogues Buoro is able to represent the contemporary situation of young Africans who are aware of the lingering impacts of colonialism even as they are shaped by Western culture. Indeed, Andy and his friends occupy an impossible position, but it is their sense of humor and resilience that propels Buoro’s narrative forward.
The number of conversations that Buoro intervenes in with his novel is truly astonishing—through his compelling and well-crafted characters he engages with issues of communal violence, family relationships, and the contemporary encounter between Europe and Africa. Andy himself is the nucleus of Buoro’s text, and his novel succeeds in large part because of the deftness with which Andy is characterized. There is not a single moment that feels contrived, even as Buoro explores themes which are familiar territory for other authors, including Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In short, Stephen Buoro’s The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is a thrilling and masterful debut that not only entertains, but asks important questions.
PhD candidate African Studies, Ghent University