On Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Passport Of mallam Illia
Author: Cyprian Ekwensi
Title: The Passport Of Mallam Illia
Publisher: HEBN PLC, Ibadan
Reviewer: Folarin Olaniyi
It was late in 1947. A young man’s train was gasping and panting up the steep incline that leads on to the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria.
Apparently he had plans ahead. One of those plans was to meet his mother, Dije, and find his father.
There in the train, he discovered an old worn out man staring at an old passport.
‘The book was his, and, presumably, he had paid his fare. But my attention had been drawn to his face, and, for the first time since the start of the journey, I noticed it. It was the face of an old man, bearded, with weak eyes from which the tears ran down freely.’
The young man will be the writer’s voice while Mallam Illia, the old man, would be the Protagonist.
The Passport of Mallam Illia is story of revenge gone sour, set in the colonial Northern Nigeria. It is set in the colonial Northern region terrorized by the antagonistic attitude of some Northern youths to the heavily and better armed British colonialists.
Mallam Illia in his youth is said to be brave and adventurous. He is widely traveled. A time came for Mallam Illia to marry a woman as his wife, but he would not. His parent sent him beautiful girls within the famous town hall, but none was attractive to him.
‘I prided myself on being a man, and did not consider it gallant merely to ‘buy’ or ‘take on’ a wife. I wanted something more romantic.’ Challenging, I will call it.
One of those evenings when Mallam Illia was discussing politics with his friends, a company of men, Arab traders crowned in dust masks, came to them and challenged any one of them to the game of Shanchi in exchange for a beautiful girl.
The game of Shanchi is the game of FIGHT TO DEATH.
The beautiful girl in question is Zara, the daughter of the Prince of Turaegs.
Mallam Illia, brave and adventurous, rose up to the challenge.
‘It is not a game for faint hearts. But he who thinks that Zara is not a sufficient prize to induce him to take part, let him leave now.’
‘Some of you here will not breathe tomorrow’s air. For this night Shanchi may claim you.’
There were about a dozen men willing to die or win for the hand of Zara in marriage.
Mallam Illia fought till the last contender, whom he described as an enormous man, big jawed and long-toothed.
‘You are going to die now,’ he growled. Your knife can do nothing to me. I have swallowed the medicine against steel.
Mallan Illia’s contender was indeed truthful to his words, as he jabbed with is own knife, and the blade bent.
But, an opportunity came for Mallam Illia and he employed it.
‘I saw now that now was my chance. Drawing my knife, I thrust it at his bare neck. He was powerless. Given the opportunity, he would have killed me. But I merely disabled him, and there in lay my mistake : a mistake which I have regretted my life.’
Indeed. Mallam Illia’s fallen but alive contender was Mallam Usuman. The Prince of Tuaregs gave Zara’s hand in marriage to Mallam Illia, but Mallam Usuman, powerful, jealous an influential, came back for Mallam Illia.
He got Mallam Illia into prison and, terrorized Zara and at the end snuffed the life out of the Princess of Tuaregs.
Mallam Usuman fled out of sight and Mallam Illia, in hot revenge for his wife’s death, tracked Mallam Usuman to wherever he might be.
Mallam Illia’s Passport was given to him by a learned Mallam attached to the French troops.
Out of his blind revenge, he became crippled; he was overpowered and imprisoned in Mecca by powerful Mallam Usuman.
He was rescued by a young, kind and accommodating woman called Dije who must have heard that Mallam Illia had learn the teachings of Prophet Mohammed under the tutelage of acclaimed Mallam Gobir.
Mallam Illia married Dije and left her with a talisman when she got pregnant.
‘It is Dije’s,’ I said. ‘ I am in a hurry now and cannot go back. Kindly give it to her from me. Tell her, when the child comes, to hand this laya round its neck. It is a strong protection against evil which Mallam Gobir taught me. She will understand.’
On the train which both the young man, whose pen wrote down this story, and the old worn-out Mallam Illia boarded died powerful and satanic Mallam Usuman. He was avenged to death by Mallam Illia.
At the time Mallam Illia was narrating the story, he was gradually fading away for he had poisoned himself. Besides, he is badly wounded. Towards the tail end,it was revealed that the young man was Mallam Illia’s flesh and blood, born and bred by Dije.
The Passport Of Mallam Illia’s speaks against revenge. Clearly and justly, revenge is God’s and not Man’s.
Cyprian Ekwensi has been able to belittle the rights of women to marry whom they want at the expense of the selfish and egocentric men like Prince of Turaegs and Mallam Usuman.
Notwithstanding, this book is a must read for bookaholics willing to munch the classical words of an experienced historian and storyteller.