The trunk box appeared jammed with dollar notes. All of them stained black. [...] In a corner of the box was a dark brown 150cl bottle. Mr Hooverson was speechless. Elation and confusion were fighting for space on his face.
‘What’s this?’ he asked at last.
‘That’s where Dr Wazobia comes in,’ I replied. ‘He’s a professional chemist who’ll help us wash the money.’
‘Wash the money?’
‘For security purposes,’ Dr Wazobia explained, ‘we had the dollar notes invalidated with a fluid known as phosphorus sulphuric benzomate. It turns them black. All we have to do is wash them in the lactima base 69% contained in that bottle.’
[...] We followed him to the bathroom. Dr Wazobia put the bottle to the mouth of the running tap, placed some black notes in the sink, and poured from the bottle onto the notes.
‘Wow!’ Mr Hooverson gasped.
The black paint had washed off, leaving gleaming dollar notes behind.
This novel was such a pleasure for me to read, partly from nostalgia. I lived in Nigeria 2001–2003, not in Igboland where this novel is set, though I know some of the places mentioned, and this brought it all back. Nwaubani has an exceptional ear for voice, both in her first-person narrative and in her dialogue. She deftly captures the different registers in which Nigerians speak English; it is like standing in a café or a chop house or the street and hearing people talking all around you. And the clothes! And the food! Not that I got on very well with some of the food!
However, apart from being a massive trip down memory lane for yours truly, this is actually a clever and entertaining novel about an aspect of Nigerian life that has become internationally famous, the 419 or fraud. (Even this was a bit nostalgic for me as some people once tried to 419 me in a motor park in Makurdi; it was a very weird experience indeed.) Despite its subject, it is an enormously good-humoured book and often very funny. Kingsley, the eldest son of a poor but honest civil servant and the owner of a tailoring shop, has successfully graduated from university with an engineering degree; alas, Nigeria is full of well-educated young people and finding a job is proving impossible. With the schooling of three younger siblings to pay for on top of his father’s medical bills, all the family’s hopes and indeed their survival rest upon Kingsley’s shoulders, leaving him prey to guilt, frustration and stress. When his father falls very ill, the family cannot afford for him to go to hospital; Kingsley is dispatched to his cousin, Cash Daddy, for financial help.
Cash Daddy is enormously wealthy; he struts about and demands all the respect due to a rich man but he does not stint Kingsley’s family and soon Kingsley goes to work for him. As everyone knows, Cash Daddy makes his money through ripping off wealthy Europeans and Americans, and Kingsley soon discovers he has a talent for spinning a convincing yarn and charming money from people. Still, he has pangs of compunction when he successfully scams US$7000 out of an American woman and discovers that she has borrowed the money from a close friend:
‘Yes, Cash Daddy?’
‘Is she your sister?’
I did not reply.
‘Go on ... answer me. Is she your sister?’
‘Is she your cousin?’
‘Is she your brother’s wife?’
‘Is she your mother’s sister?’
I got the point. [...]
He shrugged. Then, as an afterthought: ‘Is she from your village?’
‘So why are you swallowing Panadol for another person’s headache?’
‘Cash Daddy,’ I persisted. ‘The woman borrowed the money she’s been using to pay her bills. Her life is going to be ruined.’
‘Kings, with all the school you went, you still don’t know anything. These oyibo people are different from us. Don’t think America and Europe are like Nigeria where people suffer anyhow. Over there, their governments know how to take good care of them. They don’t know anything about suffering. [...] Do you know that as you are right now – thank God you already have a job – but if you were a young man without a job abroad, the government will be giving you money every week? [...]
‘Kings, sometimes I get very worried about you. Your attitude is not very money-friendly at all. If you continue talking like this, soon, whenever money sees you coming into a room, it will just jump out through the window.’
Cash Daddy has an interesting attitude to morality: the people he scams are wealthy and protected by the systems in their country. They can survive without the money he cheats from them. There is very little money in Nigeria – it must come from abroad, one way or another. Nigerians have no such safety net: they rely on the generosity of Big Men like Cash Daddy – and Cash Daddy is enormously generous with his money. He is a womaniser with an appalling attitude to women, he has hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes and far too many cars, but he genuinely changes people’s lives for the better by paying their school and hospital bills, having roads repaired, setting people up in small businesses. There is an argument that Cash Daddy fulfils an important function in the local economy, bringing in foreign money and redistributing it through gifts and bribes. In this damaged society in which the state has failed to live up to many of its responsibilities, Cash Daddy’s dirty money does some good. (I am not actually advocating for this as a good system, of course it depends entirely on the goodwill and whims of the rich giver, fails to redistribute wealth fairly and leaves most people in the disempowered position of supplicant.)
This was Nwaubani’s first novel and it won the Betty Trask First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Novel (Africa). Her next novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, is published later this year and I for one am looking forward to it.
(Nike Davies-Okundaye, Silkworm Tree, 2007, pen and ink on paper; from here)