Recently, I was lucky to get my hands on a copy of Ikenna Igwe’s ‘Face Me I Face You’. It was one heck of a read, and I would like to share my thoughts on it.
But first, here’s an excerpt from the book.
On a certain Saturday afternoon, I was standing on the balcony, not particularly engaged in anything productive, when I saw something I considered to be very, very queer. I watched as Wole’s father climbed downstairs and walked outside. When he got to the middle of the compound, he stood still, his back turned to me. He was looking ahead, at the Local Government Council. Several seconds later, he looked skyward, briefly, before returning his gaze to the Council…a process he repeated four more times. Still staring right ahead, he now raised his right hand and, with his forefinger pointing downwards, drew an invisible circle around his head…an action he repeated twice.
Even though I couldn’t see his face…I believed he was totally mesmerized by something other than the physical.
Good Lord! Has he finally gone mad?
While trying to figure out what was really going on with Mr. Ogunbanjo, ‘Fatman’ walked out unexpectedly and approached him, unhurriedly, from behind. When he got close enough, he stopped, and muttered, no chanted, some words in what sounded like Arabic. Done with that, he now extended his beefy hands slowly and grabbed Mr. Ogunbanjo, by the neck, in a choke hold.
Lord have mercy! What on earth is he doing?!
But the strangest thing was that Mr. Ogunbanjo didn’t struggle one bit to break free from ‘Fatman’s’ grip.
‘Fatman’ held the man’s neck for nearly thirty seconds…his grip somewhat tight. At a point Wole’s father slumped against him.
I felt a sudden chill, panicking, as I thought he was dead. But his skinny body moved again, and he stood, erect.
Another puzzling thing was that there was no one else outside our house, and our street appeared to be deserted, during this mystifying period. There was only a handful of people loitering about – and, for some weird reason, none of them was paying particular attention to the current unfolding incident.
I was about to say something, at least to distract ‘Fatman,’ momentarily, for Mr. Ogunbanjo to break free from his chokehold, when ‘Fatman’ released his neck, abruptly, and without saying a word, or even glancing back to know if someone was watching them, the two men walked out of our compound through the gates.
Face Me I Face You as you might have guessed, is about a dirty and crowded Lagos tenement building apartment on 39, Durojina Street, Selimu, Lagos. It houses over eighty-two adults and children who share three small bathrooms and toilets, and two little kitchens. Emeka Egwu, the main character and narrator of the story, and his family, facing a serious financial crunch, experience the horrendous incidents that define such appalling settings over a seven-year period. The whole thing takes place in the 90s, during the military rule.
Now, if you have lived in a Face-Me-I-Face-You before or have been advantaged to observe life in such settings, you would find this book right on the money. It is so real that I am tempted to ask the author if the story was inspired by true events.
The tenants in the compound will fight over just anything. Bathroom time, toilet flushing, clothing line, compound cleaning, who’s not greeting who, who switched off the security light, and so on. With endless backbiting and diabolic acts from provoked tenants, the compound is in a state of constant chaos.
Being that I am huge on characters, I am taken by the MC, Emeka Egwu. Just a teenager, he has to adjust to a new reality with less privileges than he is used to. For instance, he walks a ridiculous distance every day to fetch kegs of water for his family. Never mind that he has to walk all the way and back to and from school and still support his mother’s business while caring for his younger ones. He is the second-born, but he carries on his responsibilities without grumbling.
That is not why I’m endeared to him, though. Emeka, like most Emekas, is stubborn, has a sharp wit, and is always spoiling for a fight, even though he wouldn’t go out of his way to look for trouble. The thing is that he doesn’t accord respect when it is not due. His obstinate attitude and general disdain for elders who look for deference when they don’t deserve it, has his haters always planning a thing or two against him and his family. In fact, all the fights in the compound that involve his family have Emeka as the inciting object.
For a teenager, he is quite observant. He’s also wiser than his age and a great judge of character, although a few times, you can see that he’s just a teen.
Then, we have ‘Fatman’ whose name is Mr. Ogundele. I like him too, particularly for the fact that I think it’s so ridiculous that a man his age hates a teenage boy so much that he’s willing to do anything to destroy him. And it isn’t strange to me, being that I’m from this country. Nigerians have a special kind of hatred and wickedness, which I do not comprehend—and this cuts across financial and social strata. I don’t know who lied to people that less-privileged folks are kinder than the rich. On the contrary, dem get am for bodi. They just don’t have the means to implement it full scale. In small doses (and sometimes, quite lethal) they unleash their evil on each other. And I think Fatman does a good job of showing us that side of the struggling masses.
Fatman, as described by Emeka, is black as a moonless and starless night and a jacked-up son of Belial. I feel he should be worrying about his struggling business, but he wastes precious time, going after somebody’s son. He is the major villain of the story, from whom the other tenants of the compound find their nerve to attack the Egwus.
Other interesting characters are Alhaja, an ex-prostitute with children from different fathers, whose daughter ends up taking after her; Mrs Oyewale that owns a canteen downstairs and is the queen of the gossip mill; Mr. Oyewale, her husband, a lazy typewriter repairer who keeps getting into trouble with his clients for not finishing their work, despite being paid; Dapo, the visiting nephew of Mrs. Bamidele, an arrogant chap and first-class sluggard who loves to show off his broad chest and has a thing for another man’s wife; Ibironke, the young divorcee who lost her marriage because of a three year affair with her father-in-law; Mrs. Ufot who started off fighting the Egwus but became friends with them when she probably realized that just like her, they stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the other tenants who were all Yoruba; Mrs. Ajayi, friend of Emeka turned foe, after being influenced by Fatman to hate him; and the kindhearted Mr. Ogunbanjo who doesn’t trust the other neighbors but is kind towards the Egwus.
I like that Ikenna Igwe didn’t shy away from the ethnic undertones of the story. I must confess that when I first read the synopsis, I judged the story on the basis that it was going to be a thing of one ethnic group against another. But when I began to read the book, I realized that Ikenna was simply shinning a light on people’s experiences who live in similar environments. If a certain Mr. and Mrs. Ajayi moved to Awka for instance, and the roles were reversed, they would certainly face the same animosity because they are strangers in another man’s land.
This is our reality in Nigeria, but the book doesn’t blatantly dwell on the ethnicity thing. Rather, the author does a brilliant job of opening your eyes to the Nigerian reality. You are soon sucked in and taken by the stories and characters, which are hilarious and intriguing. You then realize that the tenants are merely trying to survive. Their actions for or against the Egwus are largely colored and informed by their social capacity to adapt to change while hustling to put food on their tables. In fact, many of them are frustrated, and it has nothing to do with anyone else, although they are ever ready to pour that frustration on others. It’s the Nigerian story—something Nigerians, and especially, Lagosians, can relate to.
Ikenna Igwe’s writing style is full of effortless humor and metaphors. I also love the way he describes the characters and settings, leaving your mind with enough information to build a vivid picture of its own.
He has a retro writing style, which I miss in my own writing and in contemporary works these days. It fills me with literary nostalgia. Did I mention the wit? Sentences like “In fact, her bosoms and buttocks were straining hard against the short, formfitting purple gown in which she had stuffed herself” and “Apparently, the man’s madness had no nipple” left me laughing hard.
Other times, it’s in the way he starts a chapter. Look at this one, for instance:
Sometime in late February, Steveno and Ibironke—the tall, dark, broad-headed, wide-nosed, and unusually long-fingered female divorcee who lived in one of the rooms in the boys’ quarters—clashed.
Ikenna Igwe has found a new fan in me. Face Me I Face You is that book I needed to read, after deliberately staying away from stories about Lagos high society and their glitz. If the book ever came alive as a TV series, it would be a hit. Nonstop drama.
My only criticism of the work is that Ikenna Igwe didn’t show us as much love as there was hate in that compound. There was also Emeka’s mother who seemed like she had more of herself that needed to be told. Her character left hints of a personality that was larger than what was on the pages.
I recommend this book. You can find it on okadabooks >>>>>HERE
Ikenna Igwe has also written The Judas Web (A play), Thoughts and Verses (A collection of poems), The Delicate Choice (A short story), and The 42 Kings of Israel (A reference/religious book).
All are available on Okadabooks.