Helon Habila’s Measuring Time is the story of twin brothers, their family and the people that shaped them. Living in rural Nigeria, village life and the natural environment add atmosphere and context. Habila’s story-telling talent are evident in numerous ways. His own narrative of people and events is interwoven with those of his protagonist Mamo, who in later years writes about the people around him and thereby becomes a recorder of the local history. Giving Mamo the dual voice of the growing boy/young adult of the story time line and the retrospective commentary of the future biographer, the author creates an even richer portrayal of the main characters and the times they live in.
Mamo, the first born of the twins, inherited sickle cell anemia from his mother, who died in child birth. From an early age Mamo, fragile and prone to health crises, does not expect to grow into adulthood. This makes him reflective and withdrawn, always waiting for something to happen: first death, later on fame, fortune or something else. Expectations and dreams change over time. The younger twin, LaMamo, on the other hand, is a rambunctious youth who “acts before he thinks”. Together they make a complete person, one balancing the other’s character.
Among the many things uniting them, hatred for their father stands above all else. They are convinced that he made their mother’s life so miserable that she died at a young age. Fortunately, they are taken to their uncle Ilya for the first few years of their lives. Then auntie Marina, their father’s sister, comes to live with them, dedicating her life to the well being of the boys. Eventually, the young men plan their escape: there are wars being fought in neighbouring countries and they believe that they can make their fortune. However, Mamo has another fever attack brought on by his anemia and, at the designated time, only LaMamo can leave. Mamo remains behind and withdraws even more from his surroundings. His father ignores him, but fortunately uncle Iliya takes him under his intellectual and emotional wing. He encourages Mamo to continue his studies and, later on, to join his community school as a history teacher. There he crosses paths with his childhood friend, Zara. His life takes a new turn as a result, in more ways than one. Meanwhile, LaMamo’s progress or lack thereof in fighting other people’s wars is conveyed through long letters to his brother that arrive sporadically. Will they ever meet again?
This is not just the story of one family, although the individuals stand in the centre of events. Uncle Ilija, who fought in several wars, has turned all his energy into maintaining the village school and to bring understanding and wisdom to those around him. The twin’s father, a wealthy businessman, attempts a political career with mixed results, allowing the author to expose the many problems of the political system in the recently turned independent state of Nigeria. Habila has not only created vivid characters that stay in the reader’s mind, he has skilfully broadened and deepened the narrative to include a rich account of Nigerian tradition and customs as they have evolved in this part of the country. Keeping his story personal and centred on a group of distinct characters, he finds a sensitive balance between the intimate and the historical context. His evocative power of description, whether of landscapes or human beings, is complemented by his skill as a story teller in the rich African tradition. As a human interest story Measuring Time reaches audiences beyond those interested in Africa.