Reviewed by Lisa J. Long
Thursday, September 17, 2009.
Kachi A. Ozumba’s The Shadow of A Smile is the story of Zuba, a young university graduate who finds himself in a Nigerian jail for a crime that did not occur. Justice seems impossible to secure by legitimate means and his fate is left in the hands of a corrupt and bureaucratic justice system, and his legal adviser Barrister Chigbo.
Ozumba is a young talented writer and has divided this story into three sections; Middle World, Outside World and Inside World, with the shortest and initial section Middle World chronologically out of step. This technique can be a little disorientating and out of style with the rest of the book. But despite this early distraction, the book is an engaging read and certainly worth persevering through any initial disorientation.
Zuba’s ambition is to become a researcher on keloid scarring after a childhood accident which killed his mother and brother leaves him with a facial scar. His plans are put on hold when his father had a stroke forcing Zuba to take over the running of his father's secondary school. In the course of his duties, Zuba is blackmailed. In refusing to agree to the demanded payment, he finds himself in prison, facing an armed robbery charge for a crime that he did not commit.
The beginning of the story focuses heavily on Zuba’s keloid, which interferes with the character development a little, however, Ozumba makes up for this throughout the narrative developing an intelligent, brave and principled protagonist, with whom the reader can feel a genuine sense of empathy and admiration for. In this sense, the narrative also becomes a coming of age tale as Zuba is forced to grow up quickly and develop his adult character through the hell of the Nigerian prison system, and beyond the keloid that plagued him and the narrative during his earlier years. Initially, it seems that the keloid is significant to the plot; however, its significance never becomes clear, and it is a pointless distraction in places.
Inside the prison Zuba is one of the fortunate ones. He has a devoted sister and a lawyer who is working to secure his freedom. Many of his fellow prisoners exist without hope, having been left to rot without the financial means to secure their freedom. Since justice is not an option, the prisoners focus is on survival.
Informal prisoner rule dominates and the prison is as hierarchical as the society on the outside, with power and status originating from comparative wealth. Zuba has the financial means and the status to secure a more comfortable cell, in comparison those who are unable to pay the top dogs bribe ‘cell sho’ do not even have the luxury of a cramped cell and a wall to lean against. Instead, they sleep in the corridor leaning against one another in rows, their emaciated shoulder blades and scabies ridden skin holding one another up back to back, sleeping around the toilet mouth, where sewage and water run on the ground where they sit.
Ozumba’s skilfully uses descriptive prose to bring the prison aromas from the page, in stomach-churning detail he evokes the stench of rotting sewage mixed with unwashed and diseased human flesh, festering wounds and burning mosquito coils. He brings alive the bugs, cockroaches and plagues of mosquitos, which one can almost hear fighting to free themselves from the page, and the shudder inducing click as Zuba squashes in his fingernails - the Kwarikwata bugs that burrow in the seams of his shorts.
Despite the prison setting, Ozumba weaves into the plot the history of ethnic tension, along with police corruption and vigilantism on the outside. He creates a police service who are viewed with as much suspicion as the criminals they are paid to apprehend, whilst vigilante groups burn the bodies of suspected criminals in the street, with the approval of some of the police-weary public.
In doing so, he imparts to the reader a greater understanding of the social and political context in which the events inside the prison occur, whilst offering an understanding of the systems that have forced the protagonist to his circumstance. Ozumba invokes within the reader a passionate outrage at the injustice in which the police have conspired, and which is not reconcilable through recourse to an accountable justice system.
It is clear that the author loves his country, yet like many contemporary Nigerian writers he uses the events within a fictional narrative to demonstrate his frustration and anger at the corruption and bureaucracy, which serve to exacerbate poverty and facilitate the hierarchical structure. Through the metaphor of the Nigerian prison system, it becomes clear why endemic corruption is hard to eradicate in a country where for many life is about survival, and where it is easier to accept it and play the game than to sacrifice yourself to a system that will not protect or honour your integrity.
Lisa J. Long writes from Harrogate, England.