“Our dependence must evolve into independence. Oil has ruined us, smeared our Deltas with smog, poisoned our creeks and marshes, lined the pockets of the few. For us to leap, we must find another source, clean of the blood of our ancestors. It is not more oil that we need. Not gold, not diamonds. We can’t swap blood for blood. What we need are minds.”
— Nurudeen Bello, Special Adjunct to the Minister of the Environment
Deji Bryce Olukotun’s debut novel has all the makings of a classic international spy thriller and takes the reader on an action-packed adventure spanning three continents and twenty years of history. At the heart of the story is Wale Olufunmi’s lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut, an unlikely aspiration for a Nigerian technician working a dead-end job in a NASA laboratory. This dream is altogether given a new lease when he is contacted by the mysterious Nurudeen Bello, the silver-tongued politician behind “Brain Gain,” a top-secret project to create a Nigerian space program by harnessing the talents of their best and brightest compatriots around the world.
However, this grand dream inevitably collides with the stark realities of corruption at the heart of African politics, leaving a trail of dead bodies where good intentions dared to tread, and transforming Wale from a law-abiding immigrant into an international fugitive. At once inspiring and heartbreaking, the unfolding plot of “Nigerians in Space” paints a complex picture of an epic struggle between hopeful idealism and the forces of darkness on a continent grappling with a long-running leadership crisis.
The story simultaneously delves into the life of Thursday Malaysius, an abalone smuggler in South Africa struggling to appease his manipulative best friend Leon while avoiding the scrutiny of police and the wrath of ruthless Chinese gangsters. Also intertwined in this layered narrative is the story of Melissa Tebogo, the daughter of a South African freedom-fighter living in Zimbabwe with a skin condition known as vitiligo. In her desperation for a cure, she unwittingly finds herself at the mercy of a network of conspirators who will stop at nothing to protect their political interests.
Deji’s writing is very clear and conscise, but also waxes lyrical at times. One fine example of this sees Wale envisioning the culimination of his dreams in particularly exquisite prose:
He wouldn’t hit golf balls like the American astronauts. He would squeeze out rhythms from a talking drum into the blackness between the stars. These were the drums of war and death, of celebration, the drums that had bonded the towns of his homeland over centuries in tonal communication… He would bind the stars with the drums. There would be dancing.
Such beautifully rendered visions of a possible future are what most captured my imagination while reading this book and kept me hoping against all hope as Bello’s elaborate house of cards began tumbling down. I was slightly let down by the ending of the story not for lack of action or intrigue, but because the eventual joining of the two mostly distinct subplots felt somewhat contrived, from my point of view. But overall, reading this book was a captivating experience which kept me hooked from the first few pages all the way to the end.
I would definitely recommend ‘Nigerians in Space’ to anyone with an interest in afrofuturist literature or mystery novels in general. It deals superbly with the nature of the idealists who harbor grand visions of Africa’s future and the dangers that often lie along the path to their realization. Perhaps, the fact that the story opens in 1993 on the verge of South Africa’s liberation is meant to symbolize the notion that positive change in the face of entrenched injustice might not seem very likely at first, but ultimately has the force of history on its side. This is only my take on one possible message underlying this story, and I encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself.
You can find more reviews and information about ‘Nigerians in Space’ on Amazon.
Cover artwork obtained from the publisher’s website.