• Title: Daughters of Salt
  • Author: Amara Nicole Okolo
  • Publisher: Invisible Borders Trans-African Project
  • Number of pages: 36
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Travel/Nonfiction

The complexities of everyday people connected together in the same country called Nigeria, and a blend of personal loss, the quest to find one’s true self informs Amara Nicole Okolo’s Daughters of Salt. The chapbook presents a clear semblance of people’s experiences and shows that no matter how remotely distant people are, there are things that bind their stories together, and these things which shape their interactions with their immediate environments are mostly universal conventions.

In Daughters of Salt, we find the author’s connection of the North of the country to the West and then to the South, all bound by loss and grief. Here, loss sits as a fundamental part of mankind’s very existence and helps create a bridge that brings together people who should be distantly apart. At some point in time, everyone gets to lose something and this confirms the supposition of cosmic Machiavellian games. The universe subtly steals from everyone and this sometimes plunges us into a state of confusion and, by seeking answers to questions, we create more questions.  For example, we constantly ask ourselves, as Okolo writes, ‘Who is man?’ What exactly is man’s duty and why does he have to go through the things he goes through? What is the relevance of pain? These are existential questions that deepen her travel account.

The travelogue is part of the series of chapbooks published by Invisible Borders from their 2017 Borders Within II Road Trip.  The name of the organisation already suggests movement, going about connecting the dotted lines on the geographical landscape and drawing stories that make border segregation impossible. The idea of Invisible Borders is to create closely-knitted road trips that destroy borders created by humans to distinguish between people. It seeks to reconstruct the subconscious of everyone by showing that borders only appear because we created them ourselves and most of the time, they are figments of our individual minds. It is on these premises the group embarked on a road trip across Nigerian cities.  Okolo who was one of the 2017 participants writes: ‘Travelling exposes the mind to the unexpected. You see people like you but never really like you, people with stories better or worse than yours; people happy to survive; and people struggling to survive’ (p. 10). Thus, it seems, one of the essences of travelling is to explore these complexities woven around disparate people who are alike, yet, different.

One unique thing about Okolo’s travelogue is her regard for chronology. The writer adopts a simple narrative technique fitting pieces together like a puzzle as the plot progresses.  She tells us how it all began, even from the point when she almost missed the road trip, explaining how the out-of-body experience had produced a quick and flash-like effect in her, the ability to do a lot within the shortest time available.

The story begins with the narrator telling us about the sorrow that invaded her before the journey. She explains how her mother’s death etiolated her and how grief pushed her to apply to join the Invisible Borders’ road trip. She thought it an escape from the swelling pressure mounted on her by the feeling of emptiness and the reality of death. She prefaces her narrative with the death of two important women in her life: her mother and aunt.

Okolo takes us back in time to recount the story of her mother, her eventual death, and how this produced a choking feeling of grief in her. She is able to convey this emotion on the page remarkably. Every detail is important in the overall build-up of the story as it balances the element of causality in the work. For example, we are told that it is not rain that led her to the road trip but tears. It is therefore only necessary that we are told about the real events that prompted the tears. In 2014, Okolo had to leave everything and join her mother who was down with a stroke and we are taken through the rigour of watching after a sick loved one.

In the chapter entitled ‘Tasting Salt’, the narrator tells about their arrival in Ibadan. Here, she begins to question the reason for her engagement in such an endeavour, a road trip to twelve different cities in Nigeria, collecting stories in her quest for solace. Categorically, this informs the very essence of the whole narrative and her questions birth other crucial questions. She asks to know what it means to exist as a human in this time and space. ‘What makes me, me?’ (p. 8) Obviously, these questions are not entirely objective and can best be reasoned, as in the sciences, from collections of multiple samples and experiments – and in this case, stories. The connection of stories could, whether implicitly or explicitly, bring answers and for this, she says she is willing to open up to find what lies underneath, to empty her grief and bitterness.

The mind-boggling questions are somewhat allayed by her encounter with Dorothy A’kenova, a cancer survivor she met in Minna. Dorothy is a single mother of three sons who survived cancer and even set up business establishments like the hotel the travellers lodged in. Despite the ordeal of battling cancer and losing a marriage in the process, ‘Dorothy’s eyes are warm and kind. They are like liquefied coffee; they watch you with comfort.’ (p. 9) The description of Dorothy’s outward dispositions presents her as a person who has been pushed to the limits and has seen the bile and sweet sides of life, but has only chosen to hold on to the bright side. When asked how she felt after her diagnosis, Dorothy explains:

‘Like my world, as I knew it then was coming to an end. I had three boys and had just been recently divorced. Now, I was going to lose my breasts too? The feeling was unbelievable. But now, I thank God that I believed it. That was how I made my choice to live. I sit here because I made that choice–to live. Once you make that choice, everything begins to fall in place. You have to decide you want to live so you can actually start living.’ (emphasis mine, p. 10).

Dorothy’s story of how she survived cancer borders on choice. This supports the existentialist view of man being the centre of his being and choices being the compass of his life, as explicated by Albert Camus in his works. This answers, to some degree, the critical questions the narrator asked earlier. We also witness this in Bauchi where the travellers meet Hauwa, a Hausa woman, who seems to be tired of living and sees life as nothing worth staying for. She feels alone as she’s a widow whose children have married and left the house. She claims to be tired. Her story is a clear contrast to Dorothy’s. This also confirms the essence of travelling which helps us to see the world as a complex ball of dichotomies.

In Keana Salt Village in Nassarawa, she sees a woman who reminds her of her Aunty Esther, the second mother figure in her life. This takes her again to moments before Aunt Esther’s death. Although seeing the woman in Salt Village might seem like a mere window to deja vu, in fact, on the contrary, it depicts the relationship and similarities between people who haven’t even met before. That again shows that everyone is an opening, a sort of a tiny hole, through which others link and relate with tangible figures living in remote places. Okolo, here, says she seeks to know what makes people so close, yet very distant. We are reminded that our encounters with strange tangible places are what reveals the interconnectedness of all and mirrors the reality of our individual lives as entities not singularly distinct or distant.

In the last chapter of the chapbook, she recounts the team’s visit to Nembe in Bayelsa, a city that makes Okolo feel alive. It is the home of Nengi Nelson, who is also a member of the travel team. Okolo describes Nembe as a home and a place where she will leave her pains and drop them. It is quite remarkable that the first thing that welcomes them to Nembe is a funeral, and this funeral is quite a contrast with what she has experienced: it is a lavish party. She tells James, a co-traveller, that the people seem happy and James responds that ‘It’s the tradition.’ She says:

They seem to turn [his] demise into victory, rejoicing for a life lived. I watched, mouth slightly open as people danced and smiled and laughed and clapped. (p. 30)

An integral part of the Nembe story is that it has death plastered around it: for example, the old obituary posters on the wall that remind her that she did not make posters for her mother. Graves that are constructed elaborately. As she says, ‘The dead may die here, but they live in mansions.’ (p. 30) This somehow gives the author relief, aware of the very fact that death is an integral characteristic of life itself. Life isn’t exactly life without death. And death is not also an end to life. The dead keep living but this time, in the memories of those alive. It is on this note that Okolo writes:

…This movement, a journey I had embarked to get here, to this moment. It is like a written destiny that I had to be here. A wanderer, not lost but found. And as I watch this moment with all its offers, I feel suddenly anew. I believe that everything in time will be okay. And just like the picture before me, frozen in time, the memories of my mother and Aunty Esther, the loves I have lost in body, I know that they are still alive. My memory will always keep them breathing and their spirits still live with me. I am them, and they are me. (emphasis added, p. 33)

It is only beautiful that after taking us through a long path of saddening tales, she manages to instil hope in us again, reminding us that loss is conditioned by the mind and that if we feel the dead are alive, we feel them within us, in every beat our heart makes.

There is a link between this chapbook and her nonfiction story on Catapult.co titled ‘The Things We Never Say: A Family History’. Okolo’s mother’s death might have broken Okolo more than she wrote, especially because her mother had left an abusive marriage, struggled to raise two children alone only to suffer from a stroke and later death. If there is one thing the author succeeds at, it is that she does not get to feel her grief alone. As the loss of the mother finds a path into each new turn of the story, it also finds a way into the reader’s heart, such that at some point, we’re made to stop and reconsider if the loss is actually personal to us. Okolo condemns the ignorance of people who see grieving as a switch that can be flicked on and off at will. Apparently, the feeling is beyond that. Mostly, it is something we can’t control, so that even when people tell those who have lost dear ones to stop grieving and cheer up, their hearts still continue to feed on memories and awareness of absence.

Although, the last chapter of the book is where the title of the chapbook is drawn from, the word ‘salt’ is overused throughout the book that it complicates the plot. The complexity is in the fact that it is used in different contexts from page to page that we cannot tell a particular relevance of the title to the entirety of the story because of the inordinate and unbridled usage of the word. On the opening page, she describes tears as salty and says that her face tastes of saltwater, this might appear a concrete way of registering grief. Even most of the people whose stories she tells are women and can be linked, even in the tiniest way, to grief and tears that we can, therefore, call them daughters of tears. But later, she begins to use salt in all the chapters that it almost lost its nuance.

Finally, it is pertinent to note that Daughters of Salt is an interesting read and one that covers a wide range of events around the daily lives of people across Nigeria. The writer does not only feed readers fresh water from her spring of creativity, so to speak, but also uses the book to teach hope and healing that beauty could be created out of ashes if we first choose to cure ourselves of the void loss may have left in us. Amara Nicole Okolo is a writer who knows how to make details work as she masterfully connects roads and people across Nigeria.

^In 2017, Invisible Borders embarked on their second phase of Borders Within project. They published a set of chapbooks written by participants from the project. This is the second review focusing on the chapbooks. Other review and interview shall be serialised in the coming weeks. You may also read previous reviews from the 2016 chapbooks on this website.

Zion Osemwengie is a graduate of the University of Benin, Benin City and a teacher of modern linguistics. He is a creative writer, researcher of Comparative Literature and Literary Criticism. Zion is a lover of beans.

Cover photo credit: Irene Becker