There can be humour in tragedy. It is a coping mechanism for societies all across the world.
When something terrible happens and the grieving is done, we try to make sense of it. One powerful tool that has been used since the beginning of time is satire.
Even when there is really nothing to laugh about, we hold a mirror to our faces and laugh at ourselves.
Nigeria-born, Germany-based writer Elnathan John has mastered the art of satire.
His first book, short stories, blogposts and social media accounts are rife with humorous commentary about the world’s (especially Nigeria) affairs.
And his latest literary offering, Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide, occupies the same genre.
At the onset of the book, Elnathan gives a disclaimer that we should “Never, ever explain satire.”
With 11 main chapters containing separate sub-chapters, and running over a span of 150 pages, Be(com)ing Nigerian can be described as a collection of essays providing a detailed step-by-step manual on the peculiarities of how to be a proper naija brother or sister.
It depicts “the different Nigerians you are likely to meet at home and abroad, on your way to heaven or to hell.”
The book starts off “In the beginning...” with the story about how Nigeria came to be.
This first chapter of the book is written in a biblical format aptly titled The Gospel According to Nigeria.
Much like the book of Genesis in the Bible, it talks about how “the nation was formless and empty...and the British said, ‘Let there be Nigeria’ and there was Nigeria.”
John takes us through the military coups—“And it came about that a usurper who is not a military dictator...and he came upon Nigerians like a thief in the night”—to the present day in a remix of The Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who trend political hashtags, for theirs is the kingdom of bank alerts.”
This chapter then ends with the Aliko Dangote Prayer “Our Father, who art Aliko, hallowed be thy wealth. Thy monopolies come...for thine is the sugar, the flour and the cement (and rice and spaghetti), forever and ever, Amen.”
While the rest of the book is not written in the biblical format, the punches are still just as heavy; packed specifically for the Nigerian to remind them of their own Nigerianness.
Be(com)ing Nigerian calls for soul-searching for people in all classes of society.
There is the policeman who starts his job with a lean body, but by the end of the year has a pot belly.
And there is the mechanic who will go to great lengths to make sure you always needs him.
There are the religious leaders who take advantage of their flock.
The journalist with the ubiquitous brown envelope.
The politicians—the murderous one in power, and the pretentious one in opposition.
Even lovers and professional kidnappers get honourable mentions.
And because John is a gift that keeps on giving, non-Nigerians can learn how to be Nigerianised. If you want to be a proper expat in Nigeria, complain about everything...how you can never find the kind of food that your cat Hector enjoys, and how nobody cares about animals.
If you are a foreign (white) journalist covering Nigeria elections, just remember that “people will call you out referring to your race. Calm down. That is not racist, it is endearment.”
The last chapter of the book will even equip you with common Nigerian phrases and expressions.
Follow all these teachings by John and the Nigerian God will surely bless your hustle.
Be(com)ing Nigerian was written for Nigerians, but the issues raised in the book are not specific to them. The characters mentioned in the book exist in similar forms on the rest of the continent, and especially in East Africa.
The resemblance to our suffering is uncanny. A hustler by any other nationality is still a hustler.
The only downside I found was that at some point it felt like a drag because John repeats his criticism.
But it does not take much away from the joy of reading his latest book.
It is John’s second book after Born on a Tuesday. He has been nominated for prestigious awards such as the Caine Prize and the NLNG Prize.
Born on a Tuesday won the Betty Trask Award. John is one of the judges for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.
Be(com)ing Nigerian is similar to the essay How to Write About Africa, by the late Binyavanga Wainaina.
In both offerings, the writers bring to light the depravity in our societies by poking fun at them.
Because there is no situation so bad we cannot laugh about, never mind if the joke is on us.