Life in the village can be fun and idyllic. It can also be frustrating and disastrous. It has a way of shaping people’s lives and putting them in a race to continually justify themselves. Such is the effect that the village has on the Jumais, the family at the center of Diaries of a Dead African, written by Nigerian author Chuma Nwokolo Jr, and published in 2003 by Countycare. This book, told through two generations, tells the story of how rumors, envy and caring about what others said influenced the way the Jumais lived their lives.
At 49, Meme Jumai has nothing to show for his near five decades on earth. Despite the fact that that he had some form of education, he chose to be a farmer in the village. His wife Stella, who married him simply to spite another man, stayed with him for twenty five years before deciding that enough was enough. She left him, taking with her, most of the yam harvest for the previous year. Not long after, her two sons left him as well.
Thus, Meme Jumai is left alone with just three tubers of yam for his sustenance till the next harvest which is in two weeks time. His diary tells of his daily battle with hunger, and the desperate measures he takes to fight it. He gets to a point where he must go and beg three people for food, but they refuse to help him. The diary also tells us how Jumai feels about not being able to provide for his family, and his feelings about what the villagers think of him
When the much awaited harvest finally comes, it is a calamity, as beetles and termites have destroyed the yams. All along Meme Jumai has been hanging on the hope that his hunger will soon be over. And when this disaster happens, he goes berserk, killing three men and injuring another, in a fit of rage and despair. The three men are the same people he had earlier gone to, to beg for food, while the fourth, a man by the names of Barika, had been peddling rumors about him. In turn, the villages, incensed by Jumai’s actions, turn on him and burn him to death.
Enter Calamatus, Jumai’s last son, who is also a conman. He is the one the Igwe, or head of the village, sends for to come and bury the remains of his father. Calamatus has lots of money, and although there are questions about the source of his wealth given his family’s poor background, he sets about spending the money in a way to show the villagers that the Jumais should not be associated with poverty anymore. Calamatus blames his father for his unnecessary pride, which he believes is what led to his death.
Despite his affluence, Calamatus is bitter because he is impotent. This he learns, is the fault of the midwife who circumcised him. He holds a grudge against the midwife and swears to kill her the day he finds out her identity. He gets his wish when Barika, the man who was lucky not to have died from his father’s shot, disgraces him in front of the whole village by mentioning his impotency. Knowing that Barika’s wife is a midwife, Calamatus determines that she is the ‘guilty’ woman, as only her would have known about his situation and told Barika.
In revenge, Calamatus burns down Barika’s supermarket, killing himself and the Barikas in the process.
Next, we meet Abel, Jumai’s first son, who because of the lie his father told about him could not live in the village. Abel is an unpublished writer, who has resorted to writing political pieces to make ends meet. He despises his father, and is determined to live past his father who died at 49 and his brother who died at 25. But this almost becomes impossible when a neighbor shoot himself dead in his room. The co-tenants suspect Abel and are ready to burn him alive.
Despite the seriousness of the characters’ situations, Diaries of a Dead African is told with lots of funny proverbs, and rib cracking sayings, which leaves the reader laughing from page to page.