The Personal as the Political: A Postcolonial-Formalist Review of Obari Gomba’s Grit

Theme Quote

‘Violence is the last resort of the incompetent’.

  • Isaac Asimov

Title: Grit

Author: Obari Gomba

Town of Publication: Lagos

Publishers: Hornbill House of the Arts

Year of Publication: 2023

ISBN: 978-978-8523-16-1

Pagination: X+87=97 pages

Price: Not Stated

Reviewer: Dr Eyoh Etim, Winner of the 2023 Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism.

Author’s Background: Obari Gomba who hails from Alesa, Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State, is an award-winning poet and playwright who lectures at the Department of English Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Gomba won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Drama in 2018 with his Guerrilla Post. In 2022, he won the PAWA Prize for African Poetry with The Lilt of the Rebel, while his play, Grit, won the 2023 Nigeria Prize for Literature.

Introduction/Background to the Play: Obari Gomba’s Grit is a political drama packed with intrigues, plots and schemes that, in many ways, remind us of the complexions and habits of Nigerian and African political terrains. The play succinctly depicts the idea that what affects the personal could constitute the political and that little things are, in the long run, what determine great things. The creative ingenuity of the author in crafting the play is reflected in the power of the dialogue, the humour that suffuses the tension-filled events and the ability to manage the plot in such a way as to portray violence and carnage without coming off as Senecan.

 Gomba’s Grit has a didactic texture especially on the doctrine of the necessity of resisting evil in our body politic, as well as all the moral and ideological armoury the individual and group require to succeed. The character that embodies this force of resistance is Pa Nyimenu who urges and inspires the audience with these words: ‘Be careful when you confront evil. Be careful in your hour of resistance. Be resolute to suffer for a long time because evil has a staying power’ (1). Grit warns those given to standing up for the truth to be armed with intelligence and the virtue of discernment because in most cases, appearance does not suggest reality. A well-made play, Grit’s literariness is extraordinary and speaks to the author’s creativity, tact, wisdom and experience in play-craft; it is little wonder then that the play was chosen as the Winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2023.

Plot/Synopsis: Gomba’s Grit has a non-linear plot structure as the play begins from the end; it equally has a circular plot because the action ends where it begins. The play’s action centres on the political ambition of two brothers, Oyesllo and Okote, who are contesting for the Chairmanship of the People’s Council in Sonofa. This aspiration does not only threaten the peace of Pa Nyimenu’s family, but it also threatens the peace in society even as the past returns to haunt the key characters in the play. Both Oyesllo and Okote have a military background, thus matching each other’s intelligence and tactical skills in politics. The women of Sonofa, led by Matefi, are in support of Okote and have asked him to run against his elder brother Oyesllo. Oyesllo appears to be a less popular candidate owing to his political ideologies, motivation and party affiliation. The Democratic People’s Alliance (DPA) to which Oyesllo pitches tent with are blamed for the murder of Oyesllo’s mother many years back. She was said to have been murdered by party agents who were forcefully collecting levies from the women in the market. Oyesllo’s mother had stood up to them and she was killed for her bravery.

It is seen in the play that the brothers’ political ambitions are ideologised around their mother’s death. Oyesllo claims that he had avenged the mother’s death by killing the person who murdered her while Okote vilifies Oyesllo for having political ties with those who orchestrated the murder of their mother. But then it is revealed that Okote is an adopted child which makes Oyesllo question his rights in the family especially in laying claims to Oyesllo’s mother.

Pa Nyimenu, the father of Okote and Oyesllo, can only advise his sons, trying to remain an objective middleman as much as he can. But for how long can he do this when the carnage of politics keeps threatening the peace and unity in his family? Nmade, Oyesllo’s wife, is fed up with her husband’s skewed political ideologies and machinations. His ambition has isolated the family, separated the children and led to a lack-lustre relationship between husband and wife. Bulu, Okote’s girlfriend of 20 years, is pregnant but wants to abort the baby due to the feud in the family. It would only take the intervention of Pa Nyimenu for her to reconsider her decision, though she vows not to marry Okote.

Pa Nyimenu is suspicious; he thinks there are external and sinister forces acting to pull down his family. In a bid to find answers, Pa Nyimenu reassembles the elders of the Grit Club, an activist group formed by Pa Nyimenu and others in their hay days as youths as a force of resistance to evil in society through intelligence gathering and rounding up agents of evil with enough evidence to prosecute them. The surviving elders of the Grit Club are Pa Panti and Pa Baatom. Their duty is to find out the necessary information that would save the lives of Oyesllo and Okote.

It is soon revealed that the fight between the two brothers, Oyesllo and Okote, is orchestrated by forces in the two political parties averse to individuals having moral and political value independent of any political platforms. In a desperate bid to maintain the supremacy of the political parties, such individuals must be destroyed. This is the fate of Okote and Oyesllo. It should be noted that Okote wanted to run as an independent candidate having realised the moral bankruptcy of the two political parties. However, when he is arrested by the police through Oyesllo’s party machinations and the United Progressives Party (UPP) leaders come to his rescue, Okote decides to run as a candidate of the UPP. Unknown to the brothers, the leadership of the two political parties have met and decided their fate; to get the two brothers arrested during a debate after their thugs have created a well-planned chaotic scene. Pa Nyimenu’s team fails to beat this intelligence, thus leading to the arrest of Oyesllo and the bullet wound incurred by Okote while fleeing from the police. When Pa Nyimenu is told of the hideout of his enemies, his decision to commit arson in order to wipe out these enemies leaves the audience gaping as the play comes to an end.

Subject Matter: Social unrest arising from inordinate political ambitions is a major subject matter in Obari Gomba’s Grit. In depicting this issue, the play also dramatises the various scenes of Africa’s political tragedy including tricks and intrigues, plots and schemes, backstabbing, betrayal, lies and misinformation, blackmail and staining of opponents’ image. The fact that Oyesllo and Okote are brothers is indicative of how politics usually divides people who have been hitherto friends and family. The playwright aims to demonstrate that all of us are brothers often pitched against one another due to our various ambitions, leading to unhealthy competition that can birth monstrous events like the ones recorded in Grit. In such circumstances, societal personages are often classed into good and evil. However, in this play everything is jumbled up as the plot winds up and we find it hard to distinguish good from evil.

Setting: The spatial setting of Gomba’s Grit is a community called Sonofa. The play’s temporal setting is contemporary times. Indeed, the play is a dramatic reflection of the current political climate in Nigeria and Africa.

Themes: Grit has themes such as inordinate political ambition, fear and trauma, family squabbles arising from conflicting political interest, the conflict between the personal and the collective, selfishness, political manipulation, politics as a dirty game, appearance versus reality, among others. The theme of inordinate political ambition reflects in Oyesllo’s charactersation. He wants to go into politics for all the wrong reasons. As a retired army officer neglected by the system, Oyesllo wants to go into politics as a way of compensating himself and lifting his family out of poverty. Not only this, his methods are dastardly in the sense that he believes in the ideology of using all means available, including violence, to further his political ambition. Oyesllo sees politics as ‘war by other means’ (6).

Fear and trauma is a motif in Grit. The major characters are depicted as mostly living in fear and responding to traumatic events by their different reactions to the issues and occurrences in their lives. To understand why most of the key characters in the play behave the way they do, it is important to pay attention to the traumatic events that they have emerged from and how they have responded to these events. A character like Nmade, Oyesllo’s wife, lives with the trauma of witnessing her mother-in-law’s murder by the agents of the Democratic People’s Alliance. She understands and acknowledges the fact that both Okote and Oyesllo react differently to the loss of their mother. Oyesllo by anger and killing the murderer, Okote by an unending grief. This is how we begin to understand the frustration and anger that undergirds Oyesllo’s politics, leading to his violent political and ideological leanings.

The theme of family squabbles is depicted in the characterisation of Oyesllo and Okote, especially their quarrel over their political interests. The theme of the conflict between the personal and the collective is reflected in the selfish reasons advanced by Matefi for hating Oyesllo enough to lure Okote to contest against his brother, Oyesllo, in order to pay back Oyesllo’s mother for stopping her son, Oyesllo, from marrying Matefi’s daughter. Bambo, the constituency head of the DPA has a grudge against Pa Nyimenu for testifying against his uncle on murder charges that got the uncle imprisoned. Oyesllo has a selfish interest in going into politics. He wants to better himself and his family. It is only Okote who has the interest of the collective at heart but he makes a terrible mistake by accepting the hand of friendship extended by the UPP and by going against his earlier decision to step down for his brother Oyesllo if Oyesllo opts for independent candidacy.

Almost all the important characters in the play have selfish interest as they negotiate their political paths. When Okote finally decides to stand election, his reason is no longer to serve the people; he is out to crush his enemies including Oyesllo and his party agents and officials. The two parties portrayed in the play, the DPA and UPP, are out to manipulate their members, pitch them against one another in order to assert their will and supremacy over individual values, goals and aspirations. The two parties are afraid of the moral grandstanding of Oyesllo and Okote over their mother’s demise, especially Okote’s personal values which conflict and sharply contrast with the dark values of the two parties. This explains the sinister plots to destroy them and afterwards to fill Yasuo as the consensus candidate for the election.

Most of the actions depicted in Grit serve to portray the perception of politics as a dirty game. From how Oyesllo slaps his brother Okote, the verbal abuses, the clash between the women of Sonofa and the thugs of Oyesllo’s party, to the plot by the parties to destroy the brothers, politics as played in our climes is seen to be deep and murky. In politics, things are not as they seem. People cannot be taken for their appearance and their words. Otherwise, how would the reader have known that Matefi who leads the women to praise Okote and request him to stand election is actually luring Okote to his destruction and the destruction of his family.

Characterisation: The major characters in Gomba’s Grit are Pa Nyimenu, Oyesllo, Okote, Nmade, Bulu, Matefi and Townse. The minor characters in the play include Pa Panti, Pa Baatom, Focco, White-eye, Yasuo, Opirate, Oyoma, Kakwa, Obata and Nwewe.

Pa Nyimenu is the father to Oyesllo and Okote. He is a retired school teacher and was an activist in his youthful days. He is highly principled and has the mind of a philosopher. Indeed, most of the philosophical statements in the play are made by Pa Nyimenu. One of his most striking statements goes thus: ‘I have seen the just suffer. I have seen the truth defeated. Those who express grit are beaten to bits of grit’ (2). Pa Nyimenu has conflict management prowess seen in the way he intervenes in the political feud in the family. He advises the sons and their wives and fights desperately to protect the family and its survival. Pa Nyimenu represents the force of good in the play but unfortunately he succumbs to the use of violence towards the end of the play as he no longer has faith in the workings of the existing system. In this, he has a Marxist view of life as he aims to transform society through social upheaval. Pa Nyimenu is a dynamic character.

Oyesllo is Pa Nyimenu’s eldest son. He is also Okote’s brother. He served in the army until he retired after losing his leg in a war. However, he falls into hard times as he is neglected by the system. Oyesllo is married to Nmade and they have three children, two boys and a daughter. When the play opens, Oyesllo’s marriage to Nmade is in shambles as the couple struggle to survive the political turmoil in the family. Oyesllo finds it hard to trust his wife as he wonders where her loyalty lies as well as her faithfulness since he suspects her relationship with Okote.

In the play, one of the mistakes that Oyesllo makes is accusing Nmade of having an affair with Okote during their politically-motivated quarrel. He is depicted as a hot-tempered person, perhaps he acquired this temperament from his years in the army. It is said that Oyesllo manipulated his brother Okote into joining the army to spite the father when Okote reported to him how he was assaulted by a soldier. Oyesllo is depicted as a flat character. He is unbending and unchanging throughout the narrative. He chooses the path of violence by joining the Democratic People’s Alliance, the people that had a hand in his mother’s death, all in a bid to fulfil his ambition of becoming the Chairman of the People’s Council in Sonofa.

Oyesllo’s characterisation represents how power politics can alter the individual, ruin marriage relationships and destroy family ties. It is during political quarrel that Oyesllo brings up the parenthood of Okote in order to justify his actions since he perceives Okote as not being his real brother. Oyesllo is directly or indirectly involved in the plot that got Okote arrested during a clash between the women and DPA thugs. He remains nonchalant throughout Okote’s incarceration. Unknown to Oyesllo, he alongside his brother, Okote, has been designated a pharmakos by the Party. This is revealed in the end when he has been arrested through the machinations by the leaders of the Party. Oyesllo can be classed as the villain of the play.

Okote is the foil of Oyesllo. A foil is a character whose dominant traits are in opposition to another character. Okote’s politics is different from that of Oyesllo. He is depicted as a more humane and people-centred politician. He is ideologically inclined and wants to get into politics in order to serve the people. But like Oyesllo, he is naïve and fails to discern the machinations of the parties, which have orchestrated the conflicts in their family for political gains. Okote is said to be impulsive and this explains why he makes important decisions without careful thinking, like abandoning his medical profession to join the army simply because he is told that being in the army would make soldiers to respect him. Okote qualifies as the hero of Grit.

Nmade is Oyesllo’s wife. Oyesllo refers to her as a good man’s daughter. She is depicted as intelligent and virtuous but with a mind of her own. While Oyesllo is callous, Nmade acts as his conscience. She advises him and warns against joining with the forces of evil in his party to fight his brother Okote. Nmade is able to discern the sources of the trauma haunting everyone in the family, including herself. This explains why he advises Oyesllo to ‘leave the war at the front’ instead of bringing it home (Grit, 6). Nmade is a force of unity in the family; she bonds with Bulu, Okote’s girlfriend, during the time of crisis in the family and together they act as an example of how a true family should be, so that while Okote and Oyesllo are quarrelling, Bulu and Nmade mediate between them and even sometimes laugh at their foolishness in the play. It is through their characterisation that the playwright realises some of the instances of humour in the play.

Bulu is Okote’s girlfriend. She is forty years old and has dated Okote for 20 years. She is deeply affected by the brotherly quarrel which informs her decision to want to terminate the pregnancy she has for Okote. When this issue is resolved through the advice and plea of Pa Nyimenu, Bulu decides she will not marry Okote. In the play, Bulu is portrayed as a caring woman who has stood by her man for years even with delayed marriage. When Okote is arrested, Bulu visits him at the police station with food and when she is denied access to Okote, she does everything within her power to get him out even if it involves aligning with the United Progressives Party leadership.  

Matefi is the leader of the Sonofa women who aligns with the UPP in luring Okote into the political fray so as to weaken and then destroy the Pa Nyimenu family. She is depicted as confident and courageous, especially in her confrontation with Oyesllo, the police and the DPA thugs.

J. J. Townse is the constituency head of the United Progressives Party. He is one of those who help to secure Okote’s release from detention so as to lure Okote to join his party as a way of reciprocating the ‘kindness’ of the UPP. Townse is one of the principal actors in the destruction of Okote and Oyesllo.

Minor Characters

Pa Panti and Pa Baatom are the old allies of Pa Nyimenu whom he calls for help when he realises the plot against his family. Together, they belonged to the Grit Club, an activist group now disbanded for the safety of the members’ families as times have changed. Pa Nyimenu asks Pa Panti and Pa Baatom to help gather the much-needed intelligence to help save his family. Unfortunately, the two friends fail as their information machinery is ‘poor and slow’. However, they are able to gather information about the whereabouts of the evil plotters from the two parties and the police. Pa Nyimenu wants all of them eliminated in order to create a new dispensation in society. The characterisation of Pa Panti and Pa Baatom symblises the importance of enduring friendship, character, consistency and grit.

R. T. Bambo is the constituency head of the Democratic People’s Alliance (DPA). He, together with Focco, his deputy, believes in the use of violent means to win elections. They tell Oyesllo not to be scared of blood and introduce Oyesllo to White-eye, the leader of the DPA thugs, asking White-eye to protect Oyesllo and obey his commands.  

Ralph Yasuo is a member of the UPP and the candidate for the chairmanship position who offers to step down for Okote since he is ‘not into politics for self’ (38).

Oyoma is a clerk in the office of the United Progressives Party.

Kakwa is the District Police Officer while Nwewe is a policeman of the rank of corporal. Kakwa plots with the party leaders on how to use violence and chaos to arrest Okote and Oyesllo. Corporal Nwewe is present at the police station during the attempt by the UPP party leadership to get Okote released from custody. He is depicted as overzealous and rude in the discharge of his duties, which makes him pass for the average or typical Nigerian policeman. Okote calls him a scoundrel.

Inspector Obata is the leader of the policemen who arrive on the scene after the clash between Sonofa women and the thugs of DPA. Obata has a confrontation with Matefi, the leader of the women during which he orders her arrest. This results in a standoff between the women and the police.

Language and Style: Obari Gomba’s Grit thrives on its various nuances of language use and manner of ideation. The play is written in lucid English interspaced with pidgin, which reflects the habits of the Nigerian linguistic environment. Other dramatic tropes found in the play are dark humour, flashback, foreshadowing, sarcasm, imagery and symbolism, irony, metaphor, simile and alliteration, among others. What, however, is missing in the linguistic richness of the play is untranslatable language/glossing which is a realistic linguistic habit in any postcolonial setting and text. In this, the play has missed out on providing the linguistic colouration for the indigenous languages in the author’s milieu. A good instance of pidgin in the play is seen in the words of Bulu to Nmade when Nmade asks what to offer Bulu even though Nmade is seen crying in the house. Bulu replies: ‘Nothing o o o. Your tears don belleful me’ (Grit, 27). In the play, Okote tells Bulu, ‘Shebi you dey joke with your life’ (28) after meeting her in Oyesllo’s house discussing with Nmade at the peak of his political feud with Oyesllo.

The major dramatic trope in the play is humour, specifically dark humour since it is used to laugh at humanity in precarious circumstances and to achieve comic relief in the tragic play. A good instance of dark humour in the play is seen when Okote asks Townse why Bulu has not joined them to the police station and Townse replies: ‘We are interested in getting you out of here, not to get you a conjugal visitor’ (63). This statement is followed by hilarious laughter by the characters present.

An instance of flashback in Grit is seen in the Scene II of the play which focusses on Oyesllo’s house living with his wife. It is a flashback because the first scene takes place in the present and the flashback is used to reenact the events that led to the chaos witnessed at the beginning of the play.

Foreshadowing is captured in the statement made by Pa Nyimenu at the end of Scene X. It goes thus: ‘Truly, the devil has come for all of us and we have fallen in our numbers’ (72). This signals the carnage anticipated towards the end of the play.

Sarcasm helps to achieve some of the humorous situations in the play. Sarcasm plays out in the conversation between Nmade and Oyesllo in Scene II of the play. For instance, when Oyesllo calls Nmade ‘a wily witch’, a poetic statement that constitutes alliteration through the repetition of the semivowel sound /w/, Nmade replies, ‘Thank you, dear Head of Wizards’ (6).

Imagery and Symbolism is captured in the use of key words in the play and their signification through sense experience. A good example of how diction serves as imagery and symbolism in Gomba’s Grit is seen in the word ‘pharmakos’ which is used to describe Okote and Oyesllo on page 46 of the play. The word is defined as a person often already condemned to die as a sacrifice in ancient Greek culture as a means of purifying the community. Within the context of the play, the two political parties have already designated Okote and Oyesllo as their pharmakos. Characters also serve as symbols in the play.

Grit is a play of ironies. It is ironic that the two brothers are squabbling over political positions when they are supposed to be united in love. It is ironic that Matefi who pretends to love Okote is actually plotting his downfall as directed by the UPP leadership. In this play, we learn that sometimes kindness is a trap and this is seen in the way the UPP leadership works for the release of Okote only for them to turn around and plot his destruction.

Metaphor is exemplified in the words of Pa Nyimenu directed at Oyesllo: ‘Is this what you have become? A mad dog that barks without restraint?’ (16). The entire statement is a rhetorical question but it in one sees Oyesllo being directly compared to a mad dog.

Evaluation: Gomba’s Grit is well published. Its hardback has a bright cover that attracts the attention of readers. The artwork on the cover is a depiction of the web of intrigues in politics that sucks in the individual. It could also imply that these political intrigues are spinned by powerful people to suck in their enemies and victims. The play is printed on a cream bond paper. The print is legible and the pages are clean for ease of reading. On the back cover, one sees the author’s picture and a short biographical information that captures Gomba’s life and portraiture. Below this biographical information are the publication data and the publishers’ imprimatur and ISBN.

Having read Gomba’s Grit and made notes on it, I can attest to the author’s skillset as a dramatist. The play is a success on many fronts. The characters are memorable, the story and the themes dramatised are relevant to our temporality. The plot management strategy of the author is ingenious, though I quarrel with the ending of the play. It leaves the action hanging and draws attention to the untidiness of the last lap of the plot, which affects the audience’s sense of catharsis. If it was a comedy, this would not have been a problem. As I have said earlier, this type of ending, if it is to spare us the Senecan depiction of violence and bloodshed on the stage, has been well-managed and should add to the credibility of the author. But I would have preferred if the anticipated bloodshed was announced or reported rather than witnessed, which I believe is why the author avoided its depiction. We are also not allowed to have a glimpse of what the new era would look like after the bad eggs might have been wiped out. Or is it possible that the author already knows that it is vicious as usual? Is it right to use violence to effect social change?

The playwright strives to write in well-made English, spiced up with pidgin. The language of the play is poetic and highly philosophical in many parts. However, the playwright has omitted untranslatable language/glossing from the play and this does not represent the linguistic realities often encountered in postcolonial texts. This has also denied the play its local colour except for the name of the characters and setting. Apart from this, the play is a beautiful outing deserving of the highest literary prize in Nigeria, the NLNG Prize for Literature. To the best of my knowledge, there are no grammatical or typographical errors in the work. The weakest expression I encountered while reading the play is the statement made by Pa Nyimenu: ‘When a child outgrows his father, he does not listen to his father’ (72).

On the whole, Gomba’s Grit has been superbly crafted to sharpen our sense of enjoyment of literature while keeping us conscious of the burning issues in our milieu. I congratulate the playwright on his finesse in the use of language which has contributed to the literary aesthetics of the play.

Conclusion: In this write-up, I attempted a postcolonial-formalist review of Obari Gomba’s Grit, examining the meaning of the play by discussing its literary parts in terms of language, style, setting, themes, characterisation, among others, in relation to the demands of our postcoloniality. The play is a political drama whose themes resonate with recent events in our political life. The spatiality of Grit is rendered as haunted and this implies that the characters have experienced traumatic events which they attempt to process throughout the play. The play teaches us that we are all brothers and that this understanding should guide our politics and other aspects of social relations. Gomba’s play has enjoyed laudable recommendations and I wish to add mine to them.

Recommendation: I most highly recommend Obari Gomba’s Grit to everyone who loves drama in Nigeria, Africa and other parts of the world. The play is important and timely because of the need to reposition the manner in which politics is played in Nigeria and Africa. It is believed that those who read the play will learn a number of valuable lessons that would guide their actions whether as leaders or followers.

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