Amistad • Release Date: September 13, 2022

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions, the stunning debut by Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi, is a rich pot of food. It begins with a story set in colonial Nigeria and moves through the years, tracking the journeys of three friends, before ending with a prophetic story that gives the reader a glimpse into the future. Reading this text felt like watching a seasoned mamaput vendor prepare a local delicacy. But where the cook uses local ingredients for this meal, Ogunyemi introduces the reader to an assortment of stories that are so soulful, and urgent, and which stay with the reader long after they’ve put the book down. 

The novel chronicles the lives of three women before and after a tragic event at their boarding school in 1980s Nigeria that resulted in the death of their asthmatic friend. Nonso, Aisha, Remi, and Solape became friends after a senior student viciously punished Remi for talking back at her. The bond between the girls grew and became a pulsing thing, and although they come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, they share a similar restless spirit against all forms of oppression, like standing up against a mean principal whose reign of terror stirred a hunger for something different in the school. Because of her medical condition, Solape—“the smallest of the four”—is unable to join in the protest and so her friends champion the uprising, which takes a downward turn when the principal summons the police and Solape is hauled off to prison, in an attempt to “scare” the girls into submission. Solape isn’t allowed to take her inhaler with her, and she suffers a crisis that isn’t managed well. Her death rips a gash in not only the fabric of the school, but also in the lives of these young women, who will spend the coming years, and across continents, reaching back to that moment when they met and became sisters.

The friends, far-flung around the world during various times, endure experiences that often try to break their spirits: Aisha travels to Poland for a wedding and witnesses the European brand of racism, where she also has an epiphany that prompts her into reconsidering her relationship with her ex; Nonso returns to Nigeria after a long childless marriage, and during a trip from Anioma-Ukwu to Lagos, briefly contemplates stealing someone else’s baby; Remi, a struggling mom and wife, finally sums up the nerve and confronts her father who was mostly absent all her youth. By illustrating the distinct ways they turn out and the decisions they make through it all, Ogunyemi demonstrates that despite how much these friends have grown, and the rocky paths they have navigated, they never lose that fearless spirit and strength we gleaned from them as girls.

Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions is largely about love and community and holding onto these after traumatic experiences, because we are nothing without love, without the people we love. The women sometimes wish they had made different choices; they return home at different times, back to Nigeria, where this journey began; they stay in contact, a bond so strong they constantly hold onto each other for support. They also never forget Solape’s mother, Deola, who had always wanted a daughter, and who, when this daughter is so violently ripped from her bosom, mourns for so long that her family goes from “cradling me to scolding me.” The friends build a circle around this grieving mother, sending her money and love and comfort, which she gathers to fund her first bukateria, named after her late daughter. The three friends are there when this monument is opened to the public. And for the first time, Deola smiles; she looks into the windowpane of her new buka and is sure that her daughter is smiling back at her and her friends; certain that the living will never forget the dead.

Ogunyemi’s language is lyrical, and what makes this interlocked novel a brilliant piece of art is the texture of the experiences and themes she carefully tracks. Like a seasoned Nigerian cook, she layers the book with distinct voices and perspectives—from the fable-like lilt of the opening story to the sharp contemporary language of the later section, and then the rhythmic pidgin in the last third of the book, through which a new character gives the reader a look at Nonso’s outer life—a brilliant authorial move that also captures the sounds and flavor of Lagos. 

In the end, what we have is a meticulously detailed narrative that pulsates. And it takes a lot of dedication to craft and language, and careful attention to history, for a writer to create this kind of excellence.

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Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.