BOOKS: Tragic tale of a young family in Nigeria

Saturday May 4 2019

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

'The Fishermen' by Chigozie Obioma. The prose is beautiful, with Fulani words, imagery and rich metaphors that keep you captivated. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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The Fishermen is Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel about a middle-class Nigerian family.

It is 1996 and nine-year old Benjamin lives in the south-western town of Akure with his four brothers and baby sister.

They have a fearful respect for their strict father, who has great hopes for their future careers, and they adore their mother.

Quite suddenly their father receives a job transfer to faraway northern town, a move that will keep him away from his family for weeks at a time.

In the absence of the patriarch, Benjamin and his three older brothers discover a new pastime, fishing in the murky waters of the nearby Omi-Ala River instead of going to school.

The boys keep their activities secret from their mother, who is still distraught by the absence of her husband.


One day their fishing adventures take an unexpected turn. While returning home from the river the boys meet up with Abulu, the local lunatic.

Years ago Abulu lost his mind from a head injury after being hit by a moving vehicle. He now wanders the streets naked and filthy.

He has also acquired the ability to prophesy with uncanny accuracy the fate of Akure’s residents and consequently people generally avoid him.

Abulu makes a prediction about the death of one of the brothers. From this point things begin to fall apart.

Their mother, overwhelmed with caring for two toddlers and four adolescent boys who are fast slipping from her grip, finds solace in church while pleading with her husband to return.

Nigeria’s political turbulence of the 1990s during the rule of President Sani Abacha forms a backdrop of instability to this already troubled family.

This is a bleak and incredibly heartbreaking story, only uplifted by the filial love between the boys. Looking back, Benjamin, speaking as the father of sons himself, tells of the childhood events that shaped his family.

Obioma evaluates the concept of destiny, the impact of an absentee father, the bond between brothers, and the lost dreams of youth that parallel the fate of resource-rich Nigeria.

He was born and raised in Akure, thus giving us first-hand insight into the culture and character of its people.

Obioma’s prose is beautiful, with Fulani words, imagery and rich metaphors that keep you captivated.

The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, and has been translated into more than 25 languages.