Emeka Aniagolu
Black Mustard Seed
Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 2002. Pp. 312. 11.95 US $19.95

Reviewed by Tera Maxwell

In Black Mustard Seed, Emeka Aniagolu employs a traditional romance plot to examine how forms of cultural nationalism in Nigeria thwart the unity of a nation. One solution, his novel suggests, is through intermarriage and the offspring of these unions. Through love, through dispelling perceptions of ethnic stereotypes, through erasing the memory of a horrific civil war, through the creating of a new history, Nigerians may form a nation. In the novel, two pairs of lovers from diverse ethnic groups must overcome the prejudice of their families. Through their unions, the main characters strive to create a new communal memory to supersede a traumatic past, the blight of civil war.

Bisi, Chike, Mohammed, and Ngozi are medical students at the University of Ibadan. Sharing progressive ideas and ignoring their ethnic, religious, class, or political differences, these friends represent the future of Wazobia, a fictional portrayal of Nigeria. The romance between Bisi, a Yoruba, and Chike, an Igbo, reveals the clash between the Yoruba and Igbo cultures. Ironically, although both Bisi's and Chike's families are devoted Catholics, worship in the same cathedral, and belong to the same elite class, the fathers have difficulty seeing past their ethnocentrism. Both sets of parents fear that marriage outside their tribes will result in a weakening of their respective cultural traditions. The engagement ceremony highlights the great disparity between cultures when Chike's family requests that the groom throw himself at her parents' feet. This traditional Igbo nuptial ritual conflicts with the Yoruba definition of masculine dignity and almost thwarts the wedding plans. Intervening, Chike's mother speaks to Bisi's council of elders to resolve this cultural dilemma.

While the relationship between Bisi and Chike demonstrates the difficulties of tribalism, the romance between Mohammed and Ngozi presents a further complication in this conundrum of nation-building: the divisiveness of religion. Mohammed, a Muslim Hausa, and Ngozi, an Igbo Christian, must convince their families to accept this intermarriage. When Ngozi informs her parents about her love for a Hausa, she is kicked out of the house. Her aunt, the matriarchal power in the family, acts as Ngozi's advocate, threatening to divulge the secret of Ngozi's father's past (an illegitimate son from an affair with a Hausa woman) to persuade him to consent to the union. In turn, Mohammed convinces his wealthy father to support his marriage, and together they journey to southern Wazobia to propose to Ngozi's family.

Endorsing this novel, Chinua Achebe calls it "an important, rich and supremely readable contribution to Nigerian literature." With nationhood a pressing theme of the twenty-first century, Black Mustard Seed is a worthwhile novel to read particularly for those interested in such concepts as nationality, ethnicity, Nigerian politics, and African studies. The plot engages the reader with its amusing and oftentimes tearful scenes, while the earnestness of its themes elicits one's intellectual interest. Unfortunately, philosophical ideas at times overshadow character development so that the characters become mere mouthpieces for Aniagolu's views. Perhaps it is the author's scholarly background as a professor of African Studies at Ohio Wesleyan University leaking through. Despite this reservation, we look forward to reading more works of fiction by this promising writer in the future.