Trained as an anthropologist, Benjamin Madison worked for seventeen years in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone and The Gambia, giving rise to his first novel about a cocky, indomitable protagonist, Long Legs Boy (Oolichan 2013). Set in a fictional West African country of Danzania, it's the Oliver Twist-like tale of Modou, orphaned after his family dies from AIDS. Leaving his remote village, Modou attaches himself to an African holy man and becomes a beggar in the city who is increasingly well-known due to his daring escapes from the police. The sixteen stories in Madison's first book, The Moon’s Fireflies, chiefly arose from his stint as a volunteer English teacher in Nigeria at Udong Community School as well as other schools.
Madison lives in Victoria.
The Moon’s Fireflies (Oolichan
Long Legs Boy (Oolichan 2012) 978-0-88982-290-0 $19.95
The Moon’s Fireflies (Oolichan Books $18.95)
from BCBW / Cherie Thiessen
Trained as an anthropologist, Benjamin Madison lived in several West African countries for seventeen years, working in education and development. His 16 stories in The Moon’s Fireflies chiefly arose from his stint as an English teacher in Nigeria at Udong Community School.
The title arises from the local language, Oron, in which stars are named after fireflies. In English nta-nta affiang means the moon’s fireflies. This delicious derivation would never be known if Madison had not been studying Oron, something his colleague, Clifford, feels is a waste of time, as only 50,000 people speak the language.
Knowing some of the local tongue opens doors and universally adds smiles to faces. Thus the title captures what is mainly the tone of the book: wonder and delight in the life and people of a remote community.
In several stories, readers’ chuckles will disappear as Madison describes some of the starker realities of the ‘happy, simple life.’ Malaria is just as common as those fireflies, routinely taking children away.
In another story, there is a sudden tragedy and murder; the teacher tackles his fear of monsters with his smile and is rewarded, only to realize in the end that the menace he perceived was very real indeed.
Madison’s stories are time capsules, enclosing a culture and past way of life. “Although many Africans still live in villages like those in the book,” he says, “one of my motivations for writing these stories was to record some valuable aspects of a world that was rapidly changing.”
In a story called ‘Affiog,’ students in Office Studies are learning how to answer imaginary telephones and use old typewriters, devices they have never seen in their village.
All of the stories, set in the present tense, reflect some aspect of a vanishing way of life in the tiny southeastern Nigerian village of Akai Ison. Criss-crossed by footpaths, not roads, and filled with magic and juju (black magic), it’s a place where travel is mostly on foot or in a seven-metre canoe ‘taxi.’ Electricity is non-existent and running water is only in the rivers and streams.
There’s so much love and longing in Madison’s pages that readers may find their mood suddenly growing mysteriously melancholic. Publisher Ron Smith was sufficiently impressed by the stories that he offered to issue them anew after Madison had self-published a collection from Trafford called Night Studies in 2004.
“I had seriously underestimated the challenges of self-marketing,” says Madison. “Very few copies were sold and the book came and went without notice.”
Two additional stories have been added and the collection was re-edited. In a story called ‘Clifford,’ Madison skillfully employs wry humour to counter-balance the ignorance and arrogance of some foreigners who have come to ‘help’ with the graciousness and generosity of the villagers. In the final story, ‘Unique Data,’ the extreme ignorance of two foreign workers is exposed too blatantly, lacking the gentle irony to which I’d become accustomed.
Some things, like Cabernet Sauvignon, need time to develop their flavours. Benjamin Madison feels that way about his stories derived from events more than twenty years before.
“I missed Africa terribly and writing about it was a way of returning,” he says. “We often take years to fully understand intense experiences, and often an experience will only be fully understood in light of later events.
“I needed the distance that time provided to let these stories crystallize. I also needed physical distance. I found it much easier to write about Africa when I was not there.”
The Moon’s Fireflies is wrapped in nostalgia, and a gentle yearning is diffused into the humour. For some, the charming grace of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, might easily come to mind. So pour that glass of Cabernet and settle down for a mellow evening of reading about the necessities of tolerance and kindness.
Cherie Thiessen reviews fiction from Pender Island.