With the words,”…everything is politics in this country…” Lomba, a young aspiring novelist and poet, is hired for a local newspaper’s arts page. Set in Lagos in the latter part of the nineteen nineties when Nigeria is controlled, yet again, by a brutal military regime, Helon Habila has created a powerful, moving portrait of life of ordinary people living through those trying times. “It was a terrible time to be alive”, explains the author in the book’s Afterword, “especially when you were young, talented and ambitious – and patriotic.” The author describes his work as a kind of historical novel, intended to “capture the mood of those years, […] the despair, the frenzy, the stubborn hope, but above all the airless prison-like atmosphere that characterized them.”
Waiting for an Angel is told episodically through linked stories, focusing on well-drawn and believable characters and their daily lives. He writes with great compassion and empathy, bringing to the fore not only the place and its atmosphere but also emphasizing the individuals’ capacity for hope and courage, friendship and love, beauty and poetry, despite the disturbing circumstances that they have to confront. The book was first published in 2000 in Nigeria as a story collection with one of the stories, “Love Poems”, winning Habila the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing. The collection was later published in a revised format as Waiting for an Angel in 2002. Without doubt did the Caine Prize and this debut novel launch Habila’s international recognition as an important African writer. In his two more recent novels, Measuring Time and Oil on Water, he has built on his strengths both as an exquisite story teller with great poetic expressiveness and as an astute observer of people and events in his home country. Not surprisingly, ten years after publication this novel has lost nothing of its literary power, emotional strength and thematic relevance.
In “Lomba”, the opening story, based on the earlier “Love Poems”, we meet the young writer and journalist while he suffers in appalling conditions through his second year in prison. It is a despicable and hopeless place, where mistreatment and torture are the rule, where release, if at all, is arbitrary and often not more than a distant hope. With daydreaming and writing a diary on any scrap of paper and pencil he can find Lomba struggles to keep sane. Then one day one of his poems falls into the hands of the Superintendent… In the following stories time moves backwards, more or less, and while Lomba’s story weaves through the whole novel, we meet various individuals – friends, lovers, neighbours and others – that cross Lomba’s path during the preceding years. The events that landed Lomba in prison will come into view as the stories unfold.
Bringing different perspectives and authentic voices to the fore, Habila in fact creates a colourful collage of persuasive human interest stories that take us close up and personal into the grim realities in Nigeria under military rule: extreme poverty of is pervasive among the civil population, censorship an everyday and arbitrary arrests a common occurrence for educated people. Rather than addressing these issues with broad strokes, the author focuses his attention on one neighbourhood in Lagos: Morgan Street and its surroundings. It is a poor area with tenement buildings without any of the basic amenities. Madame Godwill’s restaurant, a sort of greasy spoon, attracts and feeds the locals, students, ex-veterans, abandoned women and other marginalized people. They share their stories; they cry together, laugh together and are alive as a community. Eventually they will rename the street into “Poverty Street”. Apart from Lomba himself, several characters stand out for me: Kela, the observant fifteen-year old nephew of Madame Godwill, sent to Lagos to get his life back on track and his teacher, Joshua who, despite his young age speaks with great wisdom. They both may well reflect some of the character traits and experiences of a young Helon Habila.