Born on a Tuesday, by Elnathan John, tells the story of Dantala, also known as Ahmad, who was sent from home by his father for Qur’anic training while still a young boy. He learned quickly, albeit at the end of a whip. When the story opens his six years of training has finished and his father is dead. Instead of returning to his village and mother he has joined a street gang who earn food and money through violence. Political candidates make use of these young people to obtain votes and further their careers.
Ahmad becomes involved in an incident where he attacks an old man with a machete before seeing a friend shot and killed. He is offered refuge in a mosque and meets two very different and locally influential men – Malam Abdul-Nur and Sheiki Jamal.
Sheiki becomes Ahmad’s mentor, providing food and lodging in exchange for the boy completing tasks around the mosque. Here he meets Abdul-Nur’s younger brother, Jibril, and they become friends. Jibril helps Ahmad to learn English as well as encouraging him to sample more worldly pursuits.
The background to the unfolding tale is one of hardship and violence. Muslim belief in northern Nigeria, where the story is set, is becoming polarised and fragmented with Shiite leaders encouraging their followers to rise up against the more moderate Sunnis who they accuse of pandering to the infidil. With poverty rife there is much dissatisfaction within the wider population which religious leaders use to feed their cause.
The upbringing and lifestyle in this land appears to accept aggression. Children are routinely beaten by their fathers, wives by their husbands. With such familial violence experienced as a means to force compliance it is understandable that many grow up regarding force as appropriate when trying to exert influence.
I know little of Islamic teaching but have lived amongst religious extremism in Belfast and can appreciate how those brought up to fear for their eternal soul if they do not adhere to a certain doctrine can struggle to escape its shackles. Ahmad is devout but to the teaching in which he was raised. When large swathes of the population live with limited education, perpetual hunger and daily hardship, it is little wonder that they will listen to those who promise improvement in this life alongside rewards in the hereafter.
The writing avoids judgement presenting Ahmad’s life and thoughts in a spare but always considered narrative. Whatever one may think of religion it is easy to empathise with the boy’s hopes and fears. His story is poignant and it is hard to see how the denouement could have been avoided given the violent backdrop to his tale. Living as I do in a society that chooses to demonise without attempting to further understanding of other cultures, I found this an enlightening and noteworthy read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cassava Republic.