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An Underground Colony of Summer Bees

Wednesday 15 August 2012, author(s)-editor(s) Sanya Osha

A drug subculture finally becomes visible… indeed the themes of visibility and invisibility are what animate this haunting tale of loss, craving and abjection.

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ISBN 9789956727421 | 210 pages | 216 x 140 mm | 2012 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

5 Book Reviews

  • An Underground Colony of Summer Bees 15 August 2012 01:41, author(s)-editor(s) Toyin Falola

    Sanya Osha is one of the boldest and most distinctive voices in African writing today.

    Toyin Falola, Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters

  • An Underground Colony of Summer Bees 15 August 2012 01:41, author(s)-editor(s) Hillary Raphael

    His writing is akin to a poetic trance that manages to convey an unexpected and taunting fragile beauty

    Hillary Raphael, author of I Love Lord Buddha

  • An Underground Colony of Summer Bees 2 December 2012 18:37, author(s)-editor(s) Sule E. Egya

    An interesting turn in contemporary Nigerian writing is that Nigerian writers who have relocated to other nations are preoccupying themselves with the social realities of their adopted nations. Their imagination may be triggered by a sympathetic feeling as in the case of Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister Street; or by a traumatic feeling (when the writer’s life is affected) as in the case of Niyi Osundare’s City without People. Sanya Osha who has been living and working in South Africa, his adopted nation, joins the increasing voices of what many have come to see as Nigeria’s diasporic writing with his novel An Underground Colony of Summer Bees.

    Osha’s An Underground Colony is a story of street life, of struggle and survival, of passionate longing, and of waste. Osha gives us a vivid picture of a post-Apartheid South Africa with its ever-expanding “colony” (to use the author’s metaphor) of unemployed youths, fast becoming underdogs, languishing in streets. Crime and drug abuse become their means of survival, of living a life at a time. The novel traces the life of Jerome Akpanta who, even though the novel is silent about it, is a Nigerian migrant who seeks a good life in South Africa. He first settles in Johannesburg, but life becomes too rough, as he “had had to run from street thugs, different drug lords and their minions as well as policemen both corrupt and upright” (1). He prefers Durban which, in his estimation, is “calmer”.

    But Durban proves to be as tough as Johannesburg, although it offers him an avenue to turn himself into a drug lord. He gets the formula for making it: if, as a drug dealer, he houses prostitutes who along with their clients are drug addicts, he is sure to succeed. With his in-house minion, Teddy, he accomplishes the plan. Tina, Zanele, Babongile, and Cindy move in to live with him. Although their presence enhances his drug business, he has had to face the troubles that come with housing prostitutes. Either he or Teddy must provide a cover for the girls when they are out doing business because they are easily attacked by street imps and gangs. When Cindy greedily goes out for more business without Teddy “shadowing” her, she gets gang-raped; it is an anal penetration that gives her unspeakable pains. Zanele suffers worse molestation when she falls into the hands of a gang. One of the men “pissed into her face and over her hair” (175). Another man “who had burned her with a cigarette picked up an empty beer bottle and inserted it into her vagina” (176). Tina, perhaps the luckiest of the girls (even with Jerome), only suffers a police arrest, and Jerome promptly attends to it and gets her freed. In all, Jerome tries to be nice, to empathise with them. But the reader knows why he is nice; the girls are his machines which must work for him to keep getting money. He is even impatient with them when they are sluggish about going out to make money, or to bring clients, to buy his drugs. Babongile always confronts Jerome, insults him, and whips up racial and national sentiments: “You are a criminal and destroying the lives of South African women. I will get you deported. I will tell my brothers to kill you. You dog, you snake” (109).

    Jerome survives it all, always the quintessential clever man, meandering his way, his business bringing him the kind of money he wants. Very ethically mindful of his business, he does not do drug, he overcomes the seductive moves of the girls, his machines. Tina wants him; he does not want her; he only wants her to bring money and clients to him. He succeeds. He opens a grocery shop, hires a girl to look after it. His big dreams will become realities, after all. He will gradually remove himself from the street life, drug life, and will establish a chain of businesses with branches all over West Africa. But the street life is one that must consume its own, and much as he does not want to admit it, Jerome is a product of the street. When he thinks he has had it all, that “he could move his life to another level” (202), the girls strike. They disappear with his drugs, and with the computers he has bought with all his savings to ship home to start a business. He is back to the beginning of his street life. When he meets one of them in a street and demands for his wealth, threatening her, she tells him: “You will kill who. You are just a foreigner. You are a criminal. If you don’t leave me alone, I will go to the cops” (204). Out of anger he beats her to a pulp. And he has to face the cost: either run out of Durban, out of South Africa, or go to jail.

    The novel is blunt, eager to call a spade a spade. Scenes of crimes and of sex come with lucid and elaborate descriptions, a desire to show it as it is. It is also well researched, with all the slangs falling into their appropriate places. Osha is incapable of being unpoetic, and as such the novel itself can boast of being a long poem. Also characteristic of Osha, there is a sustained attempt to philosophise street life, some of it, heavy-handed, standing in the way of the narrative flow. Perhaps the overall importance of this novel is that it offers a window to glimpse at what many commentators on post-Apartheid South Africa have seen as the alarming rate of crimes in the society.

    Sule E. Egya Department of English IBB University, Lapai

  • An Underground Colony of Summer Bees 2 December 2012 18:40, author(s)-editor(s) Obi Nwakanma

    Sanya Osha’s new novel, An Underground Colony of Summer Beesbegins with Jerome Akpata moving from Johannesburg to Durban. “He had become tired of having to live looking constantly over his shoulder wondering if someone was coming at him with a gun or a blade.”

    We get thrown into the murkiness of that life of constant terror. We immediately know that Jerome Akpata is one of those fragile, destabilized, and constantly displaced and itinerant citizens of the world. But what is he searching for; why is Jerome Akpata moving from Johannesburg to Durban?

    He is in search of kinship and community; for a foothold in a slippery, dangerous, and dynamic world; a rapidly changing and mercurial world of drugs, pimps and prostitutes. In Johannesburg “he had to run from street thugs, different drug lords and their minions as well as policemen both corrupt and upright.”

    Akpata is moving, drawn towards an exigency, but also in search of survival and community. “Durban was calmer. The first place he went to was a run-down hotel near the beach front. There he found his kind of people. He loved the level of human energy at the beach front. It was not as frenetic as Hillbrow in Johannesburg but there was still a lot of swagger around the city.”

    His career of forced peregrination mirrors the condition of the boundary-sundering Nigerian forced to “escape” into the ubiquitous life of crime and insecurity in Hellish exile. Sanya Osha does not tell us that Jerome Akpata is Nigerian; not in so many words; but we know; we suspect a primary link in some ways with the writer himself who currently lives in South Africa where he teaches Philosophy.

    The effect is clever although not too satisfying. Jerome Akpata arrives in South Africa through epic journeying, almost heroic in its meanderings; first because he could not get legal visa from the South African embassy, he ventures by road and traverses many African countries until he arrives in Nairobi.

    After three months in Nairobi, where he survives hustling and “hanging about taxi ranks” he sets forth to Dar es Salaam, then Botswana, and then he “slips” into South Africa – broke and certainly distorted. He had no morality left; he found no pity, not on the “brackish streets” where he resorts to selling drugs. Life is tough and he scrounged, and saved, and he became a denizen of the street and its liberal market that sold pleasure and death in a toxic concoction.

    “The street is a chameleonic ogre that demanded and received innumerable daily sacrifices in blood, sweat and tears each day by heedless acolytes” writes Sanya Osha about that world into which Jerome Akpata is thrust. So Akpata arrives Durban and quickly establishes himself in its drug and prostitution underground.

    With his savings he buys a bagful of “rocks” and proceeds to recruit and seduce two women of the streets – the human machines he calls them – in whom he invests to buy and lure the buyers of his drugs. With his partner and sidekick Teddy, Jerome Akpata creates an elaborate and ambitious business plan; efficient in its cold, pragmatic capitalism that dehumanizes its victims moreso by its unequivocal and plain impetus: to make money and survive by the suffering and degeneracy of another; to provide the enabling construct, attitude, consolation and environment, by which nothing prospers but by the dreary desire for a fix, quick, pointless and cold sex, and a Darwinian impulse that selects its victims.

    So comes Tina and Zanele in the mix of this ploy, the two women Jerome Akpata lures to his service with a promise to be their protector, and in time, business booms. It is hard and dreary business. It is pitiless in its expectations. Jerome Akpata seduces the girls – his machines to work for him; he is their pimp; he buys them clothes, cheap lingeries, food, and he keeps them off the streets by installing them in his flat, and even cleans up after them.

    He gives them their “wake up drugs” and all the time, we sense the utter misery of such left-handed charity; it is not charity borne of kindness or goodwill; it is cold, calculated kindness, almost inhuman in its equanimity. But Jerome Akpata cannot be called evil very easily because we sense the complicated kind of kindness and even a shadow of decency stirring deeper beneath the murk of his own crucial and inexorable survivalist certainties.

    What the novelist inevitably paints as evil is the pointless force of a society and a world that compels ordinary people into extraordinarily complex forms of negation. In a world of slippery values and powerful transitions, we all become complicit. Nothing better illustrates the contradiction than the character Babongile, who feels ignored by Akpata. She stages a conflict that wants Jerome Akpata not only to take notice of her, but very clearly seeks an advantage in the relationship.

    She too is cunning, calculating and xenophobic. “I will fuck you up” she says to Jerome Akpata, “I will go to Home Affairs and tell them that you’re an illegal immigrant and that you sell drugs,” tempting him, and daring him towards violence. But Akpata does not succumb to his innermost human urges to strike out; he takes a rather Zen-like position.

    “Machines are costly to maintain” he thinks too himself; to him Babongile and the rest of the girls who now work for him – Cindy, Zanele, Tina, are mere objects; his relationship with them is sterile; devoid of redemptive human warmth; he does not even sleep with them because he insists upon a certain contradictory ethical relationship: one does not sleep with his machines. It is bad for business.

    It is Sanya Osha the philosopher making the philosophical argument, arranging before us, the contradictory elements that forces us to re-examine the meaning of good and bad, and the possible futility of such a proposition in a fragile social order.

  • Sanya Osha’s Southern Tip of Africa 16 January 2013 15:50, author(s)-editor(s) Chika Unigwe

    IN Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” the protagonist, Saleem Sinai states that “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” In Osha’s An Underground Colony of Summer bees, we understand the world by swallowing the lives of the characters.

    Jerome Akpanta’s story is that of the marginalized immigrant everywhere. He has to survive whichever way he can. He moves from Johannesburg to Durban at the beginning of the novel. Undocumented and therefore unable to work legally, he turns to crime: from drug dealing to pimping. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he earns, he risks losing it all with no hope of compensation. Like many in his position, he does not exist. This invisibility rather than poverty or lack of financial power is what makes him vulnerable. It is this which also eventually destroys him. When he starts to run in the final chapter, it is obvious that he is likely to continue running:

    He had to run away from the country... he had to run because it was the only option now available to him... He had to run because he had lost the chance to crossover from the life of a cockroach into a life of light... (p.204)

    People like him only get temporary solace from running. Escaping from the ‘life of a cockroach’ in their homes (in this case Jerome left Nigeria to seek his fortunes abroad) to which they cannot return without the riches sought, they move from place to place searching for that which mostly remains elusive

    The prostitutes that Jerome houses also have to find ways to negotiate power to enable them to benefit from a system that even in their visibility, by virtue of being legal citizens of South Africa, has no space for them. Yet, they have that advantage of visibility over Jerome. They can steal from him with impunity. They can threaten him with impunity. At the end of the day, they are the ones who can force him to run.

    Then he saw Zanele...and grabbed her by the wrist. She screamed and told him to let her go.

    Where are my computers. where are my computers.

    Which computers...Let me go or I’ll call the cops. You drug pusher.

    Look, give me back my computers or I’ll kill you

    You will kill who. You are just a foreigner. You are a criminal. I will go to the cops. (p. 203-204)

    In recent years, South Africa has come under attack for its xenophobia. Foreigners, especially African immigrants are referred to by indigenes as ‘amakwerekwere’ . There have been reports of attacks on immigrants. Osha explores this xenophobia as well without resorting to euphemisms.

    One of Osha’s strengths certainly is this ability to present a world that is flawed, to present tragedy without resorting to euphemisms. His characters are not perfect. They are selfish, greedy, manipulative. The effect of this is that our empathy is immediate and visceral. This is not a post-apartheid South Africa of equal opportunity, a country where everyone is holding hands and singing ‘kumbaya’, but one in which hunger, drugs, sex, manipulation is a way of life. The characters struggle to survive in the most literal sense of the word. Their world is one in which:

    All that matters was how you found your own little corner in the streets from which to bark from (p.160)

    Osha’s language, though blunt is in places, magical:

    He knew about the death poetry that meandered through the streets. He knew those feverish rhythms that found a godless religious fervour...The streets were his surrogate parents. (p.3)

    All the women...continued to smoke and there was a strong haze of smoke that stuck at the back of the throat like the beginnings of a stubborn cough 9p.75 )

    However, if I had a criil.com

    ticism to make of this important novel, it is that Osha also takes on other themes: big themes which have to struggle with each other to find breathing space. One almost feels at times that there are several stories in this book. Nevertheless, it is but a slight quibble with a work that is as bold as it is beautiful.

    Unigwe is the author of On Black Sisters’ Street, winner of the 2012 Nigerian Prize for Literature.