Title: The Fragrance of Roses
Author: Kike Ojo
Publisher: Olympia Publishers, London, 2018.
Reviewers: Chukwuemeka Onukaogu and Chijioke Uwasomba
(Professor of Literature, former Chair of the Reading Association of Nigeria, (RAN) a former INEC Resident Commissioner and Associate Prof of African Literature, all at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in Nigeria respectively)
With the publication of The Fragrance of Roses, Kike Ojo, a multi-talented polyglot and seasoned university administrator has successfully joined the enviable league of Nigerian writers. The novel, a buildings romance set in the 1960s in multiple places beginning from the former Nigeria’s Western region of Ekiti, Akure, Ife, Ibadan stretches through Dakar, Tenerife (one of the Islands that comprise the Canarian Archipelago), Grenoble in France and finally back to Nigeria, the birthplace of the heroine of the novel who not only realizes her goals in life but also reconciles with her disagreeable father to the happiness of all. The novel, arranged in seven parts of twenty eight chapters is a narration of the birth of Temilade, (Temi for short), the heroine of the novel, into the family of the Arowolos; her struggle into life under an oppressive patriarchal system that does not recognize the fact that Temilade and by extention the female folk are human beings who must have a say in matters that pertain to their lives and livelihood.
Even before Remilekun (the mother of Temilade) puts to bed, her husband, Adewale Arowolo had already decided what the sex of the child would be: ‘‘That child is going to be a boy and I’ll name him after my late father’’ (13). But Remilekun ends up giving birth to a baby girl after three years of marriage. The background of the novel shows that Adewale, a teacher will trek from Ado- Ekiti to Akure where his wife works as a Nurse and Midwife in a Maternity Center and Dispensary. Vehicles are rare and where available may ply once in a week when would-be passengers may not have been ready to travel: ‘‘Tei Begi Loju Transport Service only plied the Ado/Akure route once a week and that was on Wednesday when Temi’s father would be at work. Once you missed it, you had to wait for another week’’ (17).
Meanwhile, Temi and her siblings live with their mother at the Staff Quarters of the Maternity Centre where their mother works. Temi’s mother (Remilekun) is very good to her patients as she cooks for some of them who have been delivered of baby girls but abandoned because of their sex. Some husbands and relatives do not even come back after their first visit to the Maternity Center if their wives give birth to a female being. Temi is always concerned about the plight of women who always visit the Dispensary. She shuttles between her home and her maternal grandmother’s place. Given her closeness to her maternal grandmother, (Iya Agba), it is not surprising that when father and mother leave for further studies abroad, she and her siblings live with her, enjoying the best of care ever.
As part of the plans to prepare Temi for the future, she is made to alternate her stay with Iya Agba and Aunty Alake, a teacher in 1960. With the correct training she has received at home, Temi keeps to the rules of her secondary school as a class one student even when she is cheated by her seniors. Ordinarily at home she is a chatter box. Her school is such that seniors exploit her to the point of exhaustion but the intervention of Iya Agba, who succeeds in changing school for her to Everglade Girls’ Secondary School in 1963, saves Temi from further anguish.
Temi is confronted with more problems as she loses her mother and even in her school she is being distracted by Tunji, a boy in another secondary school with love letters couriered through the night guard in her school unknown to her closest friends. The letter on the Basildon writing pad will contain songs like:
I bless the day I found you
I want to stay around you
And so I beg you
Let it be (100).
Expectedly, Temi is not doing well in her studies because of her new love life.
Again, in January 1967, Temi resumes for her Advanced levels at Comprehensive High School, Ikare. Many students are beginning to die under worrisome circumstances. The deaths are ascribed to witchcraft. It is in this chapter (Twelve) that the novelist introduces the story of how Temi’s mother died arising from an assistance she had rendered to a fellow woman in need. The younger sister of the woman that Remilekun had helped ends up taking over her husband from her. Iya Agba tells this story to Temi in her daughter’s house at Ife where she has gone to look after the latter who has given birth to a baby. When Temi asks if that was why her mother died, Iya Agba responds: ‘‘who was going to tell you all that at that point in time? With all that was going on, your mother’s blood pressure could no longer be controlled. Other complications set in and her health deteriorated fast’’ (103).
Temi being one who values education very seriously, wants to go back to school but not to the Comprehensive High school for her ‘A’ levels. With the help of her uncle (her Aunty’s husband) who lives in Ife, she gains admission to do her HSC in City Grammar school, Ibadan. She registers for French, English Literature and History. The narrator goes further to show that the period in question is one in which lawlessness by low- ranking soldiers is the order of the day and nobody dares question them. It is also important to note that these are possible because of the fact that a military regime is in power.
After Temi’s ‘‘ A’’ Level Examinations, her father secures her a teaching job at St Charles Boys Grammar School, Iludun-Ekiti since she will have to wait for another nine months before admission to the university. As expected, Temi passes her ‘A’ Level papers and it is important to note that her success in the examination indicates the light at the end of the tunnel as the ‘‘thorns have started to produce roses and her hard work is yielding beautiful fruits’’. And as a new University student at Ife, she is likely to have two roommates who are serious-minded.
Like some students, she falls in love with a notorious student who is much older than her but soon realizes her follies and breaks the relationship. She also falls in love with Djibo, a Burkinabe who is studying Law in Dakar during her Year Abroad programme as a French student. Temi, the love-struck girl and her other colleagues including Djibo travel to France from Dakar as part of their Year Programme. The ship arrives Tenerife, one of the Islands that comprise the Canarian Archipelago and in the bid for Djibo and Temi to buy things and engage in sight-seeing, they miss the ship. Djibo and Temi are arrested by the police in the Island but Temi faints and is rushed to the hospital. They are arrested because they are suspected to have been in possession of a woman’s expensive diamond forgotten in a suitcase that a couple had returned to the shopkeepers.
There is no doubt that Djibo is deeply in love with Temi and this is further reinforced during their incarceration at Tenerife. In a chat with fellow suspects arrested for allegedly stealing the expensive diamond, Djibo confesses: ‘‘I can smell her sweet rose fragrance right here’’ (261). In fact, the title of the novel is taken from this lovely and deeply symbolic expression. In love, Djibo and Temi finally arrived Grenoble in France for Temi to join her colleagues.
By the time Temi returns from her Year Abroad programme to continue her education, military dictatorship has begun to ravage the country with those in power and their agents stifling dissenting voices. Humans’ rights of the people are brazenly and willfully violated. University campuses and other civic spaces are taken over by some military officers. It is in this context that the reader can understand the vigorous fight by Temi and other students to finally stop an army officer and his body guards who always disturb the peace of the students each time they visit the female hostel in search of the army officer’s girlfriend who lives in the hostel. It is apposite to stress that with good education, Temi and her colleagues are becoming conscious and are ready to challenge the status quo at both governmental and family levels.
Given the new consciousness attained by Temi through education, she is ready for a new Nigeria. Her father is already enmeshed in political activism though with a large dose of patriarchal sensibilities. When Temi broaches the idea of marrying a foreigner (Djibo), her father who is now a traditional ruler rebuffs her: What, in heaven’s name, is that? A foreigner? Not even an English-speaking foreigner? From Upper Volta? Where is that’’ (277). Even Anike, Temi’s friend does not understand why Temi would want to kill herself because her father is opposed to her marrying a foreigner.
It bears repeating to state that Temi does everything within the bounds of reason including the mobilization of friends, uncles and aunts to get her father to accept her choice of marriage as she ends up marrying Djibo who has become the Attorney-General of Upper Volta. Temi uses the opportunity of FESTAC 77 to make up with her father who finally accepts Temi’s choice of husband.
Temi is by all standards, a self-willed determined lady who understands her environment and works assiduously to strike a balance in spite of the limitations placed on her by the culture that she is born into. Patriarchal culture is very debilitating and therefore, requires tact and sophistication to deal with it. By employing tactics and strategies which she has acquired over the years through education, Temi is able in the end to have her ‘‘Fragrance of Roses’’ in every material particular.
The novel brings back to memory life as it was led in the Nigeria of old – the ‘‘ Sunday Sunday’’ medicine, Daraprim, which was a compulsory medicine that the middle class forced on their children and their wards; Castor oil administered on the children; the Dispensary as the one shop hospital; the manual charcoal pressing iron; moonlight stories freely told to the children; drinking of water fetched from the village rivers; rice eaten only at Easter or Christmas; Empire day displays; the era of Rediffusion especially in the Western region of Nigeria; teachers in towns and villages living in apartments without being asked for rents, etc.
The novel also indicates other aspects of Nigerian life in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. These include but not limited to journeys between Nigeria and England which took two weeks and vice versa; the rhetoric of war and deliberate harassment of the civil populace of the Western region even when there was no war in the place. Letter was the commonest means of communication; there were few cars on the roads; radios were a rarity; the currency was in Guineas, shillings and pounds; universities resumed in September and Cyclostyled papers stapled together were in vogue. Even examination results were published in Newspapers. These are hints in the novel about the evils of military dictatorship and the misuse of power by those at the helm. There are dalliances between military men and many female students and the latter take undue advantages of these relationships to undermine the otherwise peaceful existence in the various hostels they find themselves.
The language of the novel is descriptive, detailing each event in the lives of the characters with clarity. The novelist deliberately brings in Yoruba proverbs and sayings including Yoruba speech patterns to support the setting of the novel. She also understands the language use as a student and must have been part of this language use as a student. The setting is full of the real names of many towns and villages in the South-Western part of Nigeria. The novelist also knows the former Uni-Ife very well as can be seen in her descriptions of the Campus. Apparently because she knows every nook and cranny of the former Western region, she is able to capture imaginatively and factually in details the environment and relates to the entire region. Kike Ojo has through this novel done an extensive review of Nigeria’s history in all its aspects and especially the ignoble role of the military in its politics and the consequences for national development.
It is instinctive to note that right from the early beginnings of the novel, Temi had been concerned about the plight of women in the hands of the man they married: ‘‘She promised herself that she would never put herself in a position in which any man would treat her the way Moomi’s patients had painted their marital experiences’’(25). These principles and vision guide her all through her activities in the novel. And like a masterful narrator that the novelist is, she ensures that the heroine of the novel remains steadfast to her vision, and making everybody happy at the end of the novel. This is a well-made novel that contributes to the making of Nigerian history even as it tries to question patriarchy and its suffocating tendencies. A reading of the novel shows a writer who has the panache and narrative capacity of Achebe and the linguistic sagacity of Soyinka. The novel is informed by the historical and creative consciousness of a writer with a strong background in humanistic and pedagogical studies. This work is a must read for students at all levels of education and even a literary tonic to the general reading public.