Book review - The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa

There has been a spate of excellent novels about Nigeria, its past and present predicaments. Set in the predominantly Muslim town of Kontagora, Stephen Buoro's debut is overstuffed with themes, from corruption and religious intolerance to identity and teenage desire, but there’s much to admire in this imaginative coming-of-age tale.

Fifteen-year-old Andrew Aziza, nicknamed Andy Africa, is an altar boy in the neighbourhood church. He lives with his single-parent photographer mother, who refuses to reveal the identity of his father. Skilled in maths and poetry, Andy ponders various theorems and “HXVX” – his mathematical shorthand for “the curse of Africa”. His teacher dismisses it as a construct for “everything negative that has befallen Africa: slavery, colonialism, dictatorship, kleptocracy, xenocentrism” and claims that by “conniving with HXVX, we’ve made Africa the heart of darkness… for not believing in her”.

Seduced by Hollywood, Andy prefers blonds. He yearns for a white girlfriend and the lifestyle of an American or European. At the start of the novel he looks unlikely to achieve his ambitions until he meets Eileen, the niece of Father McMahon, at a welcome party. When an anti-Christian protest spirals into bloodshed, Andy’s life is irretrievably altered.

Religion – the title refers to the meditations on the five stages of Christ’s suffering – maths and poetry shape Andy’s identity. I’d have liked more about his friends: Slim is queer and lives in fear of being outed. Morocca is a rapper and father of a two-year-old daughter. Inevitably, the western culture they are fed reels them in. They know the dangers of being caught in lawless Libya – when a traumatised local, Oga Oliver, returns from there, he repeats only one word: “Water!” But their classmate Okey makes it across the Sahara and into Spain. His joyful messages and Nigeria’s volatile political climate persuade them to follow him.

Buoro’s plot occasionally meanders, but his descriptions of protests and communal violence are astute, and he sensitively conveys what pushes his fellow countrymen to risk everything to reach Europe. 

Originally published by The Observer