Pushcart XLIII: Olabajo Dada, “The Bar Beach Show” from Southampton Review #11:2

Every other Sunday, the army hosted a sold-out show at the Bar Beach. They ran flashy advertisements in the Daily Times a couple of days prior to the event, promising “a show like never before” while occasionally announcing a hike in the gate fee because of the surge in gas prices, or to offset the cost of new swings and slides they installed on the beach for “energetic Nigerian tots.” On the day of the show, while children played soccer and flew kites around lovers moseying along the shoreline, who patronized hawkers peddling snacks, and swimmers rose and fell with the waves, soldiers set up barrels right next to a bamboo stage where invited musical guests entertained the crowd just before the show’s most popular attraction. Then, with much ceremony and to deafening cheers and jeers, the soldiers paraded newly condemned criminals and tied them up to the barrels. And while they wailed and pleaded and ceaselessly declared their innocence, the soldiers yanked out their assault rifles and mowed down the convicts like inanimate paper targets. Their bodies, which were thrown far out into the water according to a new decree, sometimes returned to the beach after a day or two, always naked and often missing several succulent appendages.

Complete story available online at Southampton Review

Bar Beach, Nigeria was indeed the scene of numerous public executions by firing squad, back in the 70s and 80s. It was also, bizarrely, the name given to a TV musical variety show. Youtube had nothing on 80s Nigeria.

It’s a very difficult story to read: emotionally, because it’s horrific and tragic, and cognitively, because it’s just literally hard to read. Parts are written in dialect, and it takes a while to get used to. Dialect under any circumstances is difficult; a quick google finds plenty of tips for writers, but the fact is, for readers it takes patience. I found myself wondering during this story if this is tied in to how people feel about “outsiders”, how white America sees brown people with their accents and unfamiliar names and words and foods and customs we don’t know, and just resists them, not because they’re intrinsically bad, because it’s hard to learn something new. All the pejorative labelling and fear follows from insecurity. Maybe this is another way fiction can help in times of transition – if we could just get past that initial “I don’t recognize this so it must be bad.”

But the dialect issues are fairly minor; it’s the narrative prose itself that’s often hard to decipher. Jake Weber does a great analysis of specific problems. I ended up taking what I call the “Piers Plowman approach” (after my current project, the #piersplowmanreadinggroup): I skimmed until I got to the end, found the ultimate purpose of it all, and then went back to fill in the gaps. And again, I wonder if it’s all just unfamiliarity – with the style, the author, the history.

Akanji is a coffin maker who’s hooked up with the military bad-guys running the Bar Beach show. Together, they bilk the families of the executed prisoners. Akanji is a reluctant participant, but he’s desperate to raise money to get what he believes is life-saving surgery for his wife; the bad-guys are just plain old greedy.

This was the part of the job that Akanji hated. Did Okoro ever care about how these people would be able to afford their loved ones’ funerals after he’d milked them dry to release their bodies and forced them to buy a coffin? Okoro glanced his way and nodded, and Akanji handed him the papers.
“Look,” he said to the women. “I can’t change that price because I’ve factored in the price for the coffin. And that’s even at a 20 percent discount. But I will throw in a favour.”
The women dabbed their faces and looked up at him.
“I’ll tell my soldiers not to shoot them in the head or face. That way you can have an open casket for the wake. Then they can have a proper burial and rest in peace, and nobody feels cheated, not so?” He handed the papers to them. “Pick out any design you like and Akanji will make it for you. Don’t forget to give him your husbands’ measurements. He knows his work very well, so recommend him to your friends.”

We find out at the end that Akanji is being played as well, but he remains unaware. Borrowing from the prior story “Midwinter”, we have a guy who doesn’t yet realize he’s on a hamster wheel, one that’s about to come to a very nasty halt.

I kept thinking of the internet meme that started a few years ago: ‘“I never thought leopards would eat MY face,” sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.’ It’s the updated version of “You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”’ But let’s not forget: leopards eating faces is a tragedy, even when someone seems to sign up for it.