In American 419 and Other Stories, journalist and novelist Adetokunbo Abiola takes us on an honest, unsanitized tour of modern Nigeria, one that is by turns tragic and darkly comic and in every sense thought-provoking.
Several stories in the collection focus on deep-seated corruption in the country, manifesting in everything from financial scams to medical quackery. At the center of the title story, “American 419,” is advance fee fraud, commonly practiced through scam e-mails. (The 419 refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that concerns this crime.) In this story, Boston businessman Fred Taylor has lost one hundred thousand dollars to such fraud, but Taylor thinks he might recoup his losses by helping a Nigerian politician transfer money to America in exchange for a cut of the funds.
For help with the transaction, Taylor turns to a circle of Internet scammers in Lagos, who—unlike Taylor—understand that the whole system is rigged. As one of the scammers notes, “The bankers in this city are crooks. They’ll want a big cut before they transfer the money.” Another replies, “By the time they finish with Fred, he’ll regret having anything to do with them. But Fred shouldn’t forget our percentage.”
It’s hard to feel bad for Taylor. Not only is he greedy and gullible, he also tries (unsuccessfully) to make up for some of his losses by selling cheaply produced, defective goods to Nigerians. This isn’t the only story in American 419 that shows, in a darkly funny way, how readily corruption feeds corruption and how frequently the desire for money, status, or marital happiness eclipses common sense.
Many other characters in American 419 deserve far more sympathy than Taylor and his cronies. These characters confront tragic aspects of life in modern-day Nigeria—from Muslim-Christian conflict in the north, to sectarian violence in Warri, to environmental and social degradation brought about by oil drilling—and Abiola tells their stories vividly and eloquently.
To make a larger point, Abiola’s collection helps to close the distance that we often feel between ourselves and the difficulties of others, especially those from other nations or cultures. Even the most thoughtful and in depth journalistic accounts go only so far in bridging that divide. Abiola’s stories, like all good fiction, immerse us in the lives of those directly confronting such difficulties—be those religious or ethnic conflicts or oil-polluted water and soil—making the general deeply personal.
One of the most moving stories in the collection, “Scarves,” takes us out of Nigeria and into Dadaab, Kenya, where victims of violence in Somalia and other regions of East Africa have sought safety at a refugee camp. The narrator of the story, her older sister, Nadifa, and their mother have fled to Dadaab from their home in Tawila (in North Darfur), which has been destroyed by members of the Janjaweed rebel group. The narrator and Nadifa lose their father during the invasion, and Nadifa—a lover and collector of scarves—also loses a precious scarf he had given her.
Dadaab presents another kind of nightmare, with its dried-up wells, food shortages, and lack of firewood, which forces residents to leave the camp in search of wood and run the risk of being kidnapped, raped, or killed by rebels. Nadifa comes to be among the kidnapped, and she is essentially made a slave by one of her captors. After she becomes pregnant by him, he returns her to Dadaab a changed woman, withdrawn and forlorn. She has also come into possession of a “finely embroidered scarf” for reasons that are never clear.
During a sandstorm, the wind snatches the scarf from Nadifa, and she cries “Not again!” as she chases it into a sandpit, with disastrous consequences.
Afterward, Gitahi, one of the camp guards, tries to explain Nadifa’s death to the narrator and also advise her on how to cope with her grief: “This place did things to [Nadifa]. It was never her home. And never love anything too much. Scarves. Shoes. Anything.” Gitahi’s words, the lost scarves, and the story in general, suggest the fragility of refugees’ every connection to life: material, emotional, and spiritual.
American 419 is far from being unrelievedly dark, however. Even the stories of corruption are laced with humor, and one of the funniest stories in the collection is “Big Backside,” in which a young woman, Ewemade, reluctantly comes around to agreeing with her boyfriend, Omoregie (and Omoregie’s mother!), that she needs a bigger rear end to be marriage material. As Abiola writes, Ewemade
When a quack doctor prescribes Ewemade a butt-enhancement cream, things don’t work out quite as planned. (The fact that his name is Doctor Fire may give you something of a clue.)
The emotional and topical breadth of American 419 is just one of its pleasures. The collection offers much to contemplate and much to enjoy.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• International fiction
• Stories of scams or corruption
• The novels of Chinua Achebe
• I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. (This comic novel also enters the world of Nigerian 419 scams.)