Helon Habila’s Measuring Time: Africa’s history as narrative
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Last Updated on July 18, 2020 by Memorila
Helon Habila’s Measuring Time is a tale of the exploitation and corruption by powers within and outside Africa that breed violence and bloodshed, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews
A set of twin brothers, in a bid to avenge years of neglect by their father, choose to seek fame. The older but frail and sickly one (Mamo) chooses the pen while the younger, agile and defiant one (Lamamo) chooses the gun. Through their experiences and that of those they come in contact with, we see the history of Africa unfold before our very eyes.
This is how I wish to remember the beautiful and scintillating tragic story told by Helon Habila in Measuring Time. But there is more…
Albeit Mamo’s underlying health condition denies him the opportunity of seeking a career in the army, he becomes a history teacher and was later employed as the village’s palace secretary and historian with a commission to craft the history of the village ruler (the Mai) and that of his ancestors.
But he soon finds out he is but a puppet in the hands of scheming Waziri (the Mai’s second in command/prime minister) whose innate wish is to correct what he feels is an historical injustice by taking over the throne and returning it to the original bloodline. Added to his devilish plans is the fact that the Waziri is a corrupt palace official and so Mamo decides to steer clear of his activities by resigning his post as the palace historian and secretary.
Lamamo had wanted to join the Nigerian army but he was rejected on the basis of age. So he joins the Chadian rebel army and later goes to train in Libya where he meets Colonel Ghadaffi and Charles Taylor. His graduation from Libya would take him around several west African countries, fighting as a mercenary till he rescues a young librarian lady from being raped by his own rebel boss whom he ends up killing. He falls in love with her and decides to abandon a life of fighting to settle down in a different country with his heartthrob.
After settling down, Lamamo returns home without his wife to see how things are back home only to meet his once beautiful village charred by fire and occupied by policemen with everyone subdued. He soon finds out the root of the problem and leads a revolution that would see to the killing of the Waziri and another round of inferno culminating in his death.
It has been quite a while since I read a novel so satisfying and at the same time saddening. The characters are as real as they come in actual life and I especially love the twins’ father, Lamang, who happens to be a jolly good fellow despite the fact that he neglects his only two sons. He reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s Chief Nanga in A Man of the People and I felt sad to see him go down pitifully the way he does in the story.
Without being too obvious, the novel is both historical and philosophical. On the historical aspects, we are able to trace the history of Africa from pre-colonial days by learning of the history of the occupation of Keti village, to the colonial days, through the stage drama about how the first white man arrived in the town to stop the killing of twins, and then to the days of independence and its aftermath filled with civil wars and military takeovers. We also see the ascension of Nelson Mandela to presidency in South Africa and the rebel wars in Chad and Liberia.
At the philosophical level, the novel brings us to witness the thin line between life and death, sanity and insanity, love and hatred, and how we are often defined and influenced by our experiences and society. For example, the twins’ uncle returns home several years after he left to fight in the civil war even though the war had long ended. And while many hailed him for having fought valiantly in the war, the man himself remains psychologically unstable until he commits suicide by hanging.
Years later, Lamamo would pursue the same path, seeking the glory of the battlefield but finding in it nothing but pain and disaster, and to later escape that life through love (or maybe he did not totally escape it after all since he meets his death through the violence).
More so, is it not ironical that the brother with sickle cell anaemia who is expected to die before adulthood ends up beating everyone’s expectation by outliving the agile one?
The novel might have told the story of two little boys in search of fame, but it is the story of Africa. It is the story of the unrest which has plagued the continent. It is the story of exploitation and corruption by the powers that be at various levels, and which has culminated in much violence and bloodshed.
Helon Habila’s view is that in the end it all boils down to resource control. Most are only fighting for what is to be gained. He hints that this resource control is the tour de force behind the unending fights or rebellion in the African continent and the Western interest in it. We hear this in Professor’s conversation with the French journalist which Lamamo documents in his letter to his twin:
“But it is all about profit, my dear. You are looking at the smaller picture. I want you to look beyond your naïve ideas, look carefully then you’ll see that the war, this war, any war, is one big market place. It is your government, the capitalist governments of the world, that always benefit.”
Now the professor sounded excited, this is his favourite topic. He put down his old copy of The Art of War and stood up and begin to pace up and down as he spoke.
“Who makes the guns? The West. Who influences our foolish politicians and pits them against one another so that their followers will kill each other? Whose media gets it raw materials from these recurrent wars? The West. Who sells the MSF the drugs they use in their work?–it is your companies. So don’t tell me about humanitarianism…. (136)
From the above excerpt, it becomes visible that resource control can explain the civil wars, rebel fights to take over government, and the many coups and counter coups in the African continent. The Waziri’s greed is a microcosm of what really plays out in the African continent. Like the Waziri, government officials tell you how much they really have the people’s interest at heart while filling their pockets with loot.
This is why even as the military usurped a civilian government and promised to right the many wrongs and acts of corruption perpetrated by their ousted predecessors, they turned out to be even worse that the former. Be it the agbada men or khaki boys, there is rarely any sincerity to be expected from these lots. And like the professor maintains, the only true fight is the one that is targeted at granting the people their freedom. Sadly enough, it is the kind that brings an end to Lamamo’s life.
If at things from the above postulation and considering weighty evidences from his other novels, Waiting for an Angel and Oil on Water, we might not be wrong to assume that there is a trace of Marxism in Helon Habila, maybe not really as rabid as obtainable with the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but it is there still.
I like how the story captures the changes in the socio-political lives of the African people and exhibits the close knit relationship between orality and literacy and gradual transition from one to the other.
The novel has a well woven but chronological plot structure, quite different when compared with Oil on Water by the same author which exhibits greater skills using a fragmented plot and experimentation in writing style and language, but nonetheless interesting. Measuring Time shows Habila in his younger days and makes us even appreciate how well he has grown in his art when we compare this novel with his more recent Oil on Water.
At the end of the story, we get to see how our lives are connected to each other as human beings, how even our littlest actions soon become part of the larger scheme of things and events happening in our society or the world at large so that by telling the history of one individual or a group of people, we end up telling the history of all.
I shall love to read this novel again!
Achebe, Chinua. A Man of the People. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991. Pdf.
Habila, Helon. Measuring Time. Lagos: Cassava Republic, 2007. Print.
… Oil on Water. Lagos: Parresia Publishers, 2012. Print.
… Waiting for an Angel. Lagos: Parresia Publishers, 2002. Print.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2020
You can buy Measuring Time here>>