As the opara (eldest son) of the family, Kingsley O. Ibe has certain responsibilities: he must make his parents proud, study hard, and become a great man. But times are hard in Nigeria and in spite of Kingsley’s degree in chemical engineering, he cannot find a job. In spite of Kingsley’s father’s great knowledge, hard work, and superior educational background, he cannot work because of his illness, diabetes. And Kingsley’s industrious and skilled mother is losing her tailoring business because of changes in technology and the time it takes to care for his father. Kingsley’s brothers and sister need school fees and books and uniforms, and his girlfriend, Ola, “the sugar in his tea,” may not be able to marry him unless he can show the ability to support a wife and family.
So slowly, inexorably, Kingsley is sucked into the business of his rich uncle, Cash Daddy. Kingsley becomes a 419-er, breaking the law and bilking foreigners so that he can do what is right: take care of his family. (The number “419” refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud.) It’s a sad story, and the author, who lives in Abuja, Nigeria, develops the story deftly with just the right amount of sympathy for Kingsley and his plight mixed with enough detail about the heinous scams he perpetrates to make us have mixed feelings at best about this character.
The culture of corruption that pervaded this story made it a striking companion to the nonfiction book I read just after it. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is set in Mumbai, India, where Ms. Boo spent three years researching, interviewing and observing the residents of a Mumbai slum that has grown up near the bright, sparkling Mumbai International Airport. The full title of the book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. There’s not much hope in the story. The central characters in the book are a family of Muslim garbage brokers who buy scavenged garbage from their fellow slum-dwellers, sort it, and take it to recycling centers to sell again. The same culture of overwhelming, near-inescapable corruption, bribery, and governmental chaos keeps the garbage pickers of Mumbai in poverty and despair just as the fictional Kingsley Ibe in Nigeria is unable to escape or retain his integrity in an environment and governmental structure that only rewards cunning and dishonesty, not integrity or even educational attainment and hard work.
I just cannot imagine living in a country where bribery is the only way to achieve a semblance of justice, where votes are for sale, and where the poor are not only poor but forced into slavery, prostitution, and degradation. I suppose I am way too middle class American WASP, but I had to keep reminding myself while reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers that this book was nonfiction, that these were real people. And while the first book, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, was fiction, the things that happen in the book were real. 419-ers exist. People who work hard to get an education are unable to find jobs in a broken economy. People are turned away from hospitals because they cannot pay exorbitant amounts of money for simple health care. People like Kingsley turn to lives of crime and extortion because they see no other way to provide for their families or to survive.
I kept asking myself as I read Ms. Boo’s book, which reads like a novel: where are these people now? The Annawadi slum was slated for destruction/removal; has it been removed? What happened to the families that Ms. Boo writes about in her book who are dependent on trash from the airport to resell for basic necessities? Did the book itself change the lives of these people in any way? For the better? For the worse?
“The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”
“It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”
I Do Not Come to You by Chance was awarded the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, first novel Africa.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
The Letdown of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Paul Beckett.
An Outsiders Gives Voice to Slumdogs: Katherine Boo on her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Reform, in the Name of the Father by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
The Book Boys of Mumbai, NYT Book Review by Sonia Faleiro, January 4, 2013
Meet the Yahoo Boys: Nigeria’s email scammers exposed by Jim Giles.