By Yiro Abari
The Whispering Trees is a collection of short stories by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, a Caine Price nominee for 2013. The short story, Whispering Trees, from which the book draws its title, is what interest me the most and for which I am writing this review.
Before now, my impression of the Whispering Trees had been that it is a story of a love affair with a premature ending, brought about by an auto crash that blinded Salim, the young man in the relationship and who happens to be the main character. Having read the story however, I got to understand that the love affair is actually a prelude to the nucleus of the story: Salim’s unusual ability to travel into the metaphysical territory to communicate with souls of organisms, flora and fauna. Salim finds astonishing conditioning by sitting in the midst of melody-making trees, whispering trees, which bestow in him the power to travel across the spiritual border separating the dead and the living. Acting as an emissary, he is thus able to link the dead with relations they left behind. The dead find peace by taking care of unfinished business while the living find their own peace by knowing their dead relations will henceforth rest in peace, having taken care of previously unfinished businesses.
In narrating the story, the author uses the same medium to paint, albeit briefly, a photo of the traditions and beliefs of one from a trilogy of Nigeria’s big tribes, Hausas, but also not failing to brush over the irony of dishonesty in the ranks of Nigeria’s premier correctional institution.
The Whispering Trees also demonstrates the role of literature as a channel of information and moral teaching. As a student of geology years back, I was taught that it is frustrating to try to use traditional means of measurement to gauge long distances while in the field. The use of footsteps was recommended. A normal pace of mine was about a meter and half. I used this but remained doubtful of its accuracy until I read the Whispering Trees. In the Whispering Trees, blind Salim is able reach locations around the house, having known, from experience, exactly the number of paces it takes to reach them. Initially, Salim wouldn’t accept his new fate as a disable person and so fights but loses, gets frustrated and finally accepts his physical demerit. Eventually his new condition lets him to make new discoveries that teach him that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.
The Caine Price for which the Whispering Trees was nominated this year, lead the author from a valley where he was largely unseen and unknown to the crest of a hill where Africa and, perhaps, the world was able to know him. Since then I have traced his tracks and learnt that he is a previous winner of the BBC African Performance Prize. The judges said “his ability to go into the mind of a child”, a character in the fiction, was the reason why he was awarded the prize. The Whispering Tree represents yet another expose of his unusual ability to read the mind of his characters. This time he demonstrated the mind-boggling ability to read, like an sms, the minds of the dead. Kai!
Literature is written work for which the aesthetic of writing is played up remarkably. To lovers of African literature, the author conveys a lot of literature in this anthology (by my extrapolation) and promises much more in future.
People talk about the weakness of the Whispering Trees that led to its inability to clinch the Caine Prize. The say that while the Caine Prize is attracted by stories whose themes address major concerns on the continent, The Whispering Trees dwelt on an African frivolity. These critics seem to have forgotten that the major concern of Africa is to get rid of vanity, the bedrock of the senseless power struggle that has wounded Africa and, perhaps, frustrated its healing. African leaders need to learn that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.