Review by Pelu Awofeso.
Within a day of arriving in Johannesburg in 1994, Orakwe (the fictional character in Kenneth Madiebo’s tell-it-all novel, The Kwerekwere Testament) had been taken on a “royal tour of the concrete jungle”. His hosts are die-hard Nigerians, illiterates and educated alike, who deal drug to make ends meet and are always on the lookout for the ever prowling law enforcers and unsparing tsotsis.
The treat over, and wanting him to take in the realities of life in a newly independent South Africa, Orakwe is told in very stark terms: “…everything changes when you come in here…You are a hunter. From now you are going to go into the forest everyday and hunt for wild beasts. As you are hunting for these beasts, predators will be hunting for you as well. You have to be sure you don’t get hunted in the process. If you do, life goes on.”
And so begins the horrendous adventure of a veterinary doctor, who flies into Swaziland in the hope of selling West African clothes and return to Nigeria within a fortnight, fails at it and is ‘crossed illegally’ into a seedy corner of South Africa, where all that’s on offer are “drugs, wine and women” and no legitimate work, particularly for foreign black men.
In a year, Orakwe has been taken through a broad spectrum of the crime world, including visa transplanting, diamond dealing, cocaine mixing, advance-fee fraud, forged refugee permits and so much more. In time, he would know the feel, look and smell of ‘coke’ and learn to tell a cop by instinct. On occasions, he goes through days without meals, endures the biting cold of winter and the jeers of compatriots who think him foolish for not joining the pack of drug peddlers.
Of course, it’s not just the Nigerian Kwerekwere (an abusive name coined by black South Africans for foreign black men) who poured into South Africa with the hope of finding legitimate work. They are joined by a daring army of other migrants from Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, all of them seeking to make it big in the ‘Rainbow Nation’. Orakwe rightly describes them as “victims of maladministration, corruption, incompetence, hunger, starvation, wars and strife…their own countries offered no employment and [they]lack access to basic amenities.”
This particular period, Jo’bourg experiences record murders, armed robberies, rape cases and car-jackings. It’s a wonder that Orakwe survives his many brushes with the Law; on one occasion he steps into a hotel room reeking of cocaine and its couriers, but the corrupt tendencies of the invading South African police saves him from what would certainly have been a long spell in jail.
If anything, the ‘Kwerekwere Testament’ is an insider guide to the South African underworld peopled by non-South Africans who are clearly up to no good. It is page after page of hair-raising, tear-jerking moments and loads of near-death experiences.
The occasional punctuation lapses aside, all the reader need do is follow the narrator’s train of thought and the entire gist will make sense. What’s more: there are more ‘highs’ to be had in reading this book than sniffs of cocaine, which peppers the novel, will provide.