In her novel Swallow, Sefi Atta gives us the story of Tolani Ajao and her obstinate friend and roommate Rose. Tolani and Rose are two women living in Lagos, Nigeria during the eighties, and the story follows their struggles to survive in an urban world that is adverse to women and hostile towards all.
From its very beginning the novel impresses us with the dangers of transportation, both public and private, in Lagos. The bus carrying the narrator, Tolani, and Rose nearly overturns, flinging its screaming passengers and conductor about before righting itself and carrying on with its journey as if nothing ever happened. This is only one of many stories illuminating the perils of the road in Lagos, and the characters are quick to turn their attention back to more important matters. Unpleasant bus rides and the stench, danger, and discomfort of public transport is evident throughout the novel, as it is in much of Nigerian fiction, but this particular incident sets the tone for the novel as a whole and seems to reflect more than the various incidents of public transport. The novel is filled with sudden shocks of danger and distress, and Tolani is in a constant struggle to regain her balance and to find satisfaction in a life that seems consistently willing to crush her.
The daughter of a famous drummer, Tolani comes from the small town of Makoku. Once a predominant farming community ruled by a royal family, the Makoku of Tolani’s youth — and especially that of her mother’s youth — has transformed into a place filled with service businesses, shrinking farms, and diminished forests. The main story narrated by Tolani is interspersed with pieces of Tolani’s mother’s story and the Makoku she grew up in with Tolani’s father. Arike (Tolani’s mother) narrates these fragments of her past which serve to illuminate the transition of Makoku towards the present and make sense of both her and Tolani’s past and present circumstances.
Both Tolani and Arike’s stories involve their separate efforts towards bettering themselves and their possible futures in a place and time where independent women are met with suspicion and malice — especially for Arike. In Lagos, Tolani attempts to deal with her relationship issues with Sanwo, her boyfriend of over two years who continues to evade marrying her despite his own promises and her pressures. Tolani’s boss, Mr. Salako, has recently fired Rose and forced Tolani into her old position. Mr. Salako is basically your typical scumbag-boss type — perverted, overtly pretentious and self-centered , and completely ignorant — and he has taken it upon himself to make Tolani’s job as difficult as possible. All the while Rose is at home, now unemployed and spending her days on the couch, much to Tolani’s uneasiness and aggravation.
Poverty and disappointment eventually drive both women towards the offers of a wealthy drug trafficker, leaving Tolani questioning the direction her life is taking and striving to find a moral footing in a place where honor is reserved for the rich and morality requires payment in Naira. The bulk of the novel is devoted towards Tolani’s journey to find herself and a path towards future happiness and contentment with the past.
Although much of the novel is unique to the experiences of Nigeria and centers around the sights, smells, dangers, and details of Lagos, its themes also speak to the universal. The struggle to find oneself as a woman in a male dominated world is something I think most women can relate to — albeit on different levels — and the difficulty of coming to terms with the skeletons of ones past and finding a path towards the future is equally relatable. Sefi Atta makes the tensions between the traditional and the contemporary, between the city and the village, and between the individual and the crushing pressures of life are both universally relatable and uniquely Nigerian.
Some might find the plot of the novel boring — many things happen and yet it seems that nothing really happens. The story is focused much more on character development than compelling plot-line, and the lack of identifiable chapter breaks can be quite exhausting. However, Atta’s style and prose are excellent and the way she has sutured together the drama-filled stories of her characters keeps the novel flowing and readable.