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#BookChaser: Nigeria’s present darkness and the beauty of Shehu’s ‘The River Never Returns’  



There’s a lot to cry about, and so much to scream out in frustration in Nigeria, and across the world. But there’s a bucket list of good things to be thankful for, as our reviewer found out looking through a collection of poems by Emman Usman Shehu.

By Nathaniel Bivan

The moment I saw the title ‘The River Never Returns’ I unconsciously added ‘dry’ as my mind went to Ameerah Sufyan and sixteen others kidnapped right in the heart of Nigeria’s capital city Abuja, days ago. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but there’s something about the metaphor of a river and the fact that it never returns that pricks my skin until I almost literally experience pain. Maybe I’m relating it to little things humans do that later haunt them, or the manner in which it seems like the government of my country is unaffected by the sorrow that’s swallowing up its people and yet feel it will never have a resounding counter-effect. Or maybe it’s just me being affected by this title so much.  

And of course, it’s not just Ameerah on my mind – it’s the train passengers kidnapped on March 28 on the Abuja-Kaduna line, and the incessant incidents of terrorism that plague Nigeria as a whole. But let’s forget about my musings and ‘return’ to this ‘river’ that flows into multiple possibilities. It could be a traveller with adventures neatly folded in his luggage, a hiker backpacking somewhere where there are mountains and ships set to sail. Emman Usman Shehu’s titular poem is most likely not talking about a return to the past, but a future filled with possibilities, whether good or bad, smooth or rough.

The collection of poems, ‘The River Never Returns’ is made up of 75 poems not divided in parts or limited by themes. In the opening piece, ‘Rising,’ the author pays tribute to poetry, dwelling on its power to transport us to places known or unknown, on page 12:

a poem takes us

without a ticket

without a visa

without a passport

without biometrics

a poem

takes us


near here

far out there

or some latitude


It’s probably no secret that poetry is the first port of call for many writers, where they express themselves and learn how to string words and language together. Some remain faithful to the art, but others cheat on it by exploring other genres, while others remain eternal monogamists. Whether Shehu is in the latter category is left for readers to judge. However, his work so far in the genre continues to remind us that he’s not a tourist poet. Not when you recall the experience with ‘Questions for Big Brother,’ his debut collection, ‘Open Sesame,’ ‘Icarus Rising,’ and several more, including those featured in other publications.

It’s said that one needs to know the rules in any art before he or she can venture out to break it. Shehu has most likely earned that right, and is probably breaking it in more than a million pieces, yet remains consistent to a great level in the manner his lines and verses are arranged. 

For one, as an African and then a Nigerian, it’s impossible to write an entire collection without pouring out your hurt as regards the present undiluted terror in the land – from Borno to Yobe, from Yobe to Adamawa and from there to the north-western region where terrorism eats into Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto. Then there’s the separatist type of terror in Eastern Nigeria and the corruption that seats in places of power like cow dung bent on smearing the buttocks of every politician and public servant privileged to hold a high position.

But the poem ‘Break the Spell,’ is dedicated to Bello Buba Jangebe, and points an accusing finger at the hypocrisy in the land. On March 20, 2000, one of Jangebe’s hands was amputated for stealing a cow in Zamfara. This, in a country where corrupt politicians loot billions and are ignored or granted pardon, where hypocrisy dipped in a bucket of religion is like an intoxicating incense that blurs the essence of life itself. On page 70, it reads in part:

trammelled by manipulators,

impoverished after cyclical

ballot-box ritual,

maimed by hypocrites

wearing masks of piety,

mocking adornments

of moral rectitude.

O Zamfara,

When will the push-back

Break the cistern of lack

And be your lifeline?

Still, Shehu has many reasons to smile, and it’s the beauty of Nigeria even in this present darkness – this is evident amid the chaos in cities like Lagos despite its gory history of jungle justice, the splendour in Abuja’s topography, the “mishmash of civilisations” in Abeokuta, the “ghosts of pyramids” and lush history carved into Kano. Benin, Lokoja, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Awka, Yenagoa, Gusau, Jos, Makurdi…

In nine pages, Shehu serves us the beauty that is Nigeria in the midst of a dark, dark time characterised by general insecurity, and it’s a reminder of a people’s much hoped-for unity (and beauty) in a sweeping current of armed violence and ethnoreligious division. Maybe we are not ugly or wicked. Maybe we’re simply dry, thirsty for a kind of love we’re yet to know.


Review: How ‘The Milkmaid’ film went even further than intended



Dangerous love, Stockholm Syndrome, and Boko Haram are but a few ingredients of the sometimes-dark sometimes-happy film that dared to do what many could not.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Prior to watching ‘The Milkmaid’, I’d only casually read about the film on the internet and the controversy it was stoking, not with the viewing public, but with the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). But when an opportunity came to preview it, I pressed ‘play’ relatively unbiased, my mind a tabula rasa of sorts. Let’s begin with the plot: In an unnamed part of rural sub-Saharan Africa, a Fulani milkmaid called Aisha risks her own freedom in search of her younger sister Zainab, who was taken by insurgents in a raid on their village. Worlds collide, and relationships are forged between unusual parties, and cataclysmic events follow, as they tend to in these things.

At this point, I have to warn the reader that spoilers will follow: It’s hard to discuss this film, though, without mentioning the relationship that develops between the eponymous milkmaid Aisha and Dangana the mid-level commander at an insurgents’ camp. It begins when she’s forced to marry him, only to realize that his other wife is in fact the sister she’s been frantically searching for. Only that she’s no longer the sweet sibling she knew, now all grown up into a sometimes-conflicted trainer of female suicide bombers. The last thing I expected this film to feature was a Stockholm Syndrome-drenched love triangle. But it’s there, in its deliciously flawed glory. Innocent and wide-eyed Aisha, a slowly-changing Dangana, and the dark-hearted Zainab, all form the best parts of the tale.

Innocent and wide-eyed Aisha, a slowly-changing Dangana, and the dark-hearted Zainab, all form the best parts of the tale.

The aforementioned triangle is helped in no small way by stellar turns by newcomer Anthonieta Kalunta who delivers a blisteringly raw and brilliant performance as Aisha, as well as megastar Maryam Booth who is absolutely terrifying as little-girl-lost Zainab. That’s not forgetting Gambo Usman Kona’s powerful, layered portrayal of Dangana, the insurgent who begins to question his leaders. This is all from a well-paced script by Desmond Ovbiagele (yes, the son of Helen Obviagele of ‘Evbu My Love’ fame), who also directed it. But while ‘The Milkmaid’ is a great story, and told respectfully, with sometimes dazzling craftsmanship and art, its subject matter is bound to ruffle feathers in Nigeria. Quite pointlessly, I might add. But I digress.

A few things that got my goat include the narration, voiced by the character Aisha, which seemed wooden in some places. Also, the subtitles seemed a little too large on the screen instead of just below on the mattes, the black bars atop and below the videographic image itself. Then there’s how the insurgents and their lifestyle are romanticized, made to sometimes look like cool anti-heroes, as opposed to the bloodthirsty, maniacal murderers they are. One would expect their appearances, and the look of their environment, to be sufficiently realistic owing to the jaw-droopingly beautiful costume design work of Obijie Oru, and the solid production design by Pat Nebo. But that’s it: Everything else is gold. Even the supporting cast is as thoughtfully picked as the main one, all helping to tell the gripping story which the film tries to tell.

A few things that got my goat include the narration, voiced by the character Aisha, which seemed wooden in some places.

However, the secret weapon wielded by director Ovbiagele remains Yinka Edward, the brilliant BAFTA-winning cinematographer who treats every shot as a masterpiece of art, helped in no small measure by the beautiful landscapes of Taraba State, where ‘The Milkmaid’ was filmed. Scenes where someone is reflected in water become sheer visual poetry, while a main character being tossed into a dry well is suitably, terrifyingly claustrophobic. Edwards takes his brilliance further here by applying his reverence for beautiful, sweeping landscapes to smaller scenes, elevating the whole thing to high art.

The story, the performances, and the rest of the visuals are at their best when paired with the music of Micahel Ogunlade, which is atmospheric, and almost a character of its own. It guides the viewer through the story and the various emotions it stokes, and does just as well with the quieter moments, as when everything hits a dramatic crescendo. To be fair, the technical aspects of this film are quite high in quality, while being a great work of art. I would rather dwell on that, than the nitpicking that dogged the final version of Ovbiagele’s vision. And this is because ‘The Milkmaid’ asks difficult-but-necessary questions, well-placed within a well-told tale that might as well be drawn from reality.

‘The Milkmaid’ asks difficult-but-necessary questions, well-placed within a well-told tale that might as well be drawn from reality.

Granted, the film tackles potentially problematic themes. But it does so in a sensitive way which does nothing to take away authenticity or grit. The story, also, is loaded with shocks that aren’t gratuitous in any way. In the end, ‘The Milkmaid’ succeeds in telling the story it attempts to tell. If your feathers are too ruffled to let you watch it, then that’s too bad. Because it’s the nearest to a perfectly-told story I’ve come across this side of Nollywood. When it was released, I actually felt Nigeria’s chances at the Oscars that year suddenly became brighter. And that’s fine, because it succeeded in doing what it set out to do: Tell a striking story, and strikingly, too.

‘The Milkmaid’ is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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Is ‘House of the Dragon’ worth the hype, or just another spinoff?



After a long wait, the debut of the brand-new TV series ‘House of The Dragon’, set hundreds of years before the Westeros we all loved to hate, has come to pass. Was it worth the wait, or is it just another spinoff?

Warning: There may be mild spoilers. Please avoid if you haven’t watched the series premiere of ‘House of the Dragon’.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

I’m a massive Game of Thrones fan, so much so that I only showed mild irritation at the sudden turn in story quality of the final season. Even then, I accepted some points and moved on. We can’t have it all, after all. When the initial announcements of the spinoff series were made, I was of course glad. Then, after some drama, ‘House of The Dragon’ materialized as the first to be actively developed and produced. Today, nearly three years since we last stepped foot in GRR Martin’s fantasy world, we’re going back roughly 200 years for a story focusing on an older generation of ‘Game of Thrones’ characters.

While GoT had an intricately-woven tale across different families and cities, the royal Targaryen family in King’s Landing appears to be what ‘House of The Dragon’ mostly centers on, at least for now. The story here is that King Viserys Targaryen (played by Paddy Considine) came to power when a council decided on him – over cousin Rhaenys (played by Eve Best) – since a woman had never ruled.

Costumes, sets, props and even makeup is all top-notch. And why wouldn’t they all be? This is a prequel to one of the biggest and most beloved TV series ever created.

Years after, King Viserys is worried about not having any male heirs, but a precocious daughter, Rhaenyra (played as a teen by Milly Alcock). Now, Queen Aemma Arryn (played by Sian Brooke) is pregnant with what he is sure will be a boy. This is particularly precarious, because if it’s not a boy, Daemon (a phenomenally charismatic Matt Smith) is next in line to the Iron Throne, and many characters – including this viewer – don’t want that to happen.

The premiere episode drew in 9.99 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max, the largest audience in the pay TV channel’s history.

If you have watched the premiere episode by now, you know the rest of the drama: As a jousting tournament with the best knights in Westeros goes on, Queen Aemma goes into labor, facing complications that lead to a brutal C-section that sees her die in a pool of her own blood. One of the most powerful parts of the story – visually or narratively – happened as the king made a decision to choose between his beloved wife and his unborn son. Viserys would go on to lose both, and settle for his daughter as an heir, in an unprecedented move that shocks and angers many, even if they held their peace. The episode ends with me asking myself ‘Is Westeros ready for a queen?’ We will have answers as the episodes go by, I am sure of that.

The unfolding visual spectacle of the world the series is set in is a big draw, as the showrunners have a considerably larger budget to play with than that of the first series. Even the dragons have a touch of superior CGI, and are plentiful in this setting. Costumes, sets, props and even makeup is all top-notch. And why wouldn’t they all be? This is a prequel to one of the biggest and most beloved TV series ever created.

So big, in fact, that the premiere episode drew in 9.99 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max, the largest audience in the pay TV channel’s history, including content that debuted before the streaming era, as well as HBO shows that have since premiered on defunct digital platforms HBO Now and HBO Go, as well as their successor HBO Max.

In the final analysis, my observation is that the story of ‘House of The Dragon’ is indeed a crucial part of GoT lore.

In the final analysis, my observation is that the story of ‘House of The Dragon’ is indeed a crucial part of GoT lore, and is already penned down in all the intricateness that Martin’s books are known for. The direction it is taking, from the first episode, is a compelling one, which can only heighten in stakes and drama for the brilliantly-realized cast of characters.

Even if it’s too early to call, I am declaring this series worth the wait and the hype, and one of the rare occasions when spinoffs prove themselves worthy. But will it become the kind of global sensation must-see-TV its predecessor was? While it appears to be matching the original ‘Game of Thrones’ in terms of shock, sex, and gore, that remains to be seen.  

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When women speak of different behinds: A review of Joy Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’



By Bizuum Yadok

The ability of a woman to weaponize her sexual organs or to use it strategically to squeeze out hard-to-get favours from men was often referred to in Nigerian parlance,  as “bottom power”. I wouldn’t know what they call it now even though I strongly believe that that practice has been used by women since the creation of Eve and I doubt if it will ever stop. So when my eyes fell on Dr. Joy Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’, I instantly thought that the woman’s “botTOM” was involved. A quick dive into the text would prove me wrong.

Nwiyi didn’t just use “bottom” in a different sense from the one I mentioned earlier, but she also brought to the fore almost everything else that is deserving of national discourse. The eponymous poem, ‘Burning Bottom’ appears second among the fifty-two poems contained in the text. Here, the poet refers to a burning bottom as a foundational history of a nation – I suppose in this case, Nigeria – which had been faulty from its very beginning and has thus been sustaining various internal conflicts since it was forcefully coupled up by the British colonialists as one people. The short poem reads:

Segmented in bits of history from

years of a burning bottom flamed by

unflinching heat and watching smoulders

of a past meeting with present

Synchronizing well like water on

bridge sides streaming unhindered

yesterdays flowing into today

firing cracks of an already parched bottom.

In its brevity, one has to admire the creativity involved in composing the poem. At face value, one could glaringly see how the first three lines are tailed by an isolated line and how the sequence is repeated in a way that enjambment is well pronounced. The metaphor of “water… flowing” and later “firing” existing “cracks of an already parched bottom” evokes an unfamiliar yet interesting imagery. This goes to say that if the base of bottom of a building is faulty then the entire building will be faulty and it corresponds with the parabolic “house on the sand” in the Bible. I suppose the poet is not advocating for split of the country but to quench the fire of the present, one would need to first dig down to the burning bottom and put out the fire or renegotiate the terms of the country’s purported unity.

The next few poems that follow bear witness to the poet’s disenchantment with the country’s socio-political situation. Some of them include: ‘Going Away Gently’, ‘Growing a Wilderness in the Place We Love’, ‘Harmattan Tells Our Story’s, ‘Solution Seeker’, ‘ ‘Tones of Derangement’, ‘Does God Forbid’, ‘With Pleasure’, and ‘Camping’. The poem ‘Camping’ particularly speaks of the absence of underlying ideologies in political parties in Nigeria which enables party stalwarts to freely migrate from one political party to another. This ugly trend of mass decamping or mass defection is being manifested again in the face of the coming general elections in 2023, which is bad for a country’s democracy. The poet captures this thought succinctly in the first two stanzas of ‘(De)camping’:

They are:

brothers in ambitious despair

here or there only

when a place of acceptance

and unflinching reception flowers

forget the symbol and the hues

deep the anthem says the same

na the same people

a mixture of shady things

The succeeding lines of the poem express the convenience of decamping since the motive is always greed and survival. The injection of Pidgin English on line 7 of the poem adds colour to the poem while also situating it properly in the Nigerian society.

Religious hypocrisy and extremism, ethnic bigotry, discrimination, gender-based violence, heartbreaks, mental trauma, promiscuity, transience of fame, and the nature of marital relationships, are but some of the myriad topical concerns expressed through some of the poems in the collection, ‘Burning Bottom’. Such poems include: ‘The Colour of Devotion, ‘On the Wings of Devotion’, ‘Kith or Kin?’ ‘Cash or Kind’, ‘Runs’, ‘Flawed’,  ‘Trauma’, ‘Somewhere in Memory’, ‘Inside Fame’, ‘Just Swagger’, ‘About us’, ‘Talking About Together’, among other poems.

Some of the poems appear private yet still manage to express intense sexual experience or perhaps it is just my perception. Those two poems stand side-by-side on pages 52 and 53 of the text under the titles, ‘For Waiting Long’ and ‘A Welcome for First Rain’.

Rarely do Nigerian writers focus on the environment although we must admit that writers like Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide and Helon Habila portray levels of environmental degradation found in Nigerian societies. However, Nwiyi’s poem, ‘Nowadays’ brings out attention to the cause and effect of environmental destruction and the imperative of protecting it. Consider the first two and the last two lines of the poem:

Nowadays the wind is vexed

refusing to cool only, its wings run wild

. . .

flapped leftovers of shaved forests

all paled from overuse, wind’s portrait is left behind.

The poet’s choice of concise words is deliberate as she obviously wants her readers to interact with the poems without resorting to dictionaries or footnotes. Her de-emphasis of punctuation marks, especially the use of capital letters is also worthy of note and that does not impede the grasping of the poems. Somehow, the poet leaves her reader yearning for more. Dr. Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’ is Nigeria’s story, with all of its nuances, at a glance.

Yadok, a teacher, lives and writes in Pankshin, Plateau State.

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