I had to go four or five pages into my junk email folder to find one. It was from a Dr. Obadiah Maliafia of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The email says that my $10.7 million in overdue inheritance funds: “HAS BEEN GAZZETED TO BE RELEASED TO YOU VIA THE FOREIGN REMMITANCE DEPARTMENT OF OUR BANK.”
After reading Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s debut novel I Do Not Come to You By Chance (Hyperion, May 2009), the missive from Dr. Maliafia read like a finely tuned piece of art: the formal language, the capital letters, the amount of money – a perfect example of the 419 email scam.
Referenced by their Nigerian penal code number, the 419 scam – otherwise known as the Nigerian letter, the Spanish Prisoner or simply advance-fee fraud – operates on the idea that the scam artist has come across a large amount of money that they need your help, i.e., Western bank accounts and citizenship, to access. In return, the bankers or deposed Nigerian royalty will reward you for your assistance with much more than your fair share. Beginning in the 1980s with the decline of Nigeria’s once oil-rich economy, the 419 email scam has become the stuff of legends. My favorite popular culture reference is when Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s bumbling character on NBC’s The Office, admits his own dupe by saying: “When the Prince of Nigeria contacts you directly, you don’t ask questions; you help where you can” (Season 2, Episode 19).
In I Do Not Come To You By Chance, Nwuabani reveals the larger-than-life characters, impressive operations and greedy westerners that make up both sides of the 419 business – often with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. She equally sends up both the Nigerian money men and the over-privileged mugus (or scam targets), making it impossible to claim either side.
Kingsley, Nwaubani’s young protagonist, isn’t a born grifter. In fact, the novel chronicles Kingsley’s gradual surrender to a life of crime, which is in strict opposition to the way his pious, England-educated, civil servant father raised him. You know, the kind of father who asks questions like: “Do you want to end up selling pepper and tomatoes in Nkwoegwu market?” Though Kingsley is college educated, the economic and employment crisis has left him without resources. A family tragedy forces him into the world of his Uncle Boniface, otherwise known as Cash Daddy, a 419 kingpin.
It’s a classic set-up for a morality tale. Nwaubani’s short chapters and grueling descriptions of some of Nigeria’s discomforts, namely public transport and the health care system, almost seem Dickensian. But the strength of the novel becomes apparent when the good versus evil distinction begins to blur – especially for Kingsley. The narrative soars when Kingsley is detailing the 419 work of Cash Daddy’s inner circle – a much more complicated and process than I could have imagined. In this world, a gullible mugu deserves no sympathy. When Kingsley expresses doubt to his uncle, Cash Daddy responds: “Do you know this is the man whose money is going to feed your children and your children’s children and your children’s children’s children?”
In fact, in the second half of the book, I found myself cheering Kingsley on – hoping he’ll snare some greedy, lonely mugu in Middle America: Mirabelle, the woman from Wisconsin spending her house-buying savings to get a piece of $19 million, or the foreign businessman looking to invest millions in Nigeria for an even greater return. Nwaubani’s gleefully crafted emails were some of my favorite moments in the book.
Kingsley’s skill at duping people is humorous, but Cash Daddy steals the show – not to mention a few appearances by other Nigerian bigwigs with names like World Bank and Money Magnet. A pastiche of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone and Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin – Cash Daddy is at once frightening, disgusting and caring. Whether he’s devouring a meal with his hands, quoting the Bible or taking a meeting while defecating – the character narrowly escapes being over the top. Yet, as much as Nwaubani relishes in Cash Daddy’s ridiculousness, his relationship with Kingsley brings him solidly down to earth.
Nwaubani’s insists on a gradual set-up (nearly 200 pages) starting as far back as Kingsley’s parents’ courtship, to establish Kingsley and his immediate family as the type who don’t bend to any scam. The first half of the book also features Kingsley’s tedious break-up with his college sweetheart Ola, because of financial reasons – a storyline that could have been told through one anecdote not four or five. Even though Nwaubani’s writing is engaging, it starts to feel like too much of a set up and I found myself skimming sections in order to get to the fun.
The book’s marketing compares Nwaubani – who grew up and continues to live and write in Eastern Nigeria – to second generation, immigrant writers like Monica Ali, Kiran Desai and Lisa See. The comparison is all wrong. Nwaubani’s debut points to the fact that there are international writers writing in English who are not focused solely on the Diaspora experience, but are instead shedding light on international issues from inside their countries.
– Read “We Have Decided to Help,” a short story by Nwaubani, online here.
– At African Writing Online, read this interview with Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. And via the via the Cassava Republic blog, hear Nwaubani read from her work and do a Q&A.
– Find out more about 419 email scams and see a whole anthology of samples here at Fight Identity Theft.