The Prophet of Zongo Street

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Prophet of Zongo Street is framed by four stories that describe the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday world. Although the other six stories in the collection are realistic in form, they, too, demonstrate how anyone’s life can suddenly take a totally unexpected turn. The author does not commit himself as to whether such reversals are merely chance occurrences or whether in these cases, too, there are extraordinary powers at work.

In “The Story of Day and Night,” with which the book begins, the author asserts the authority of storytellers, at least on Zongo Street. As the first and oldest of the wives of the late Hausa king, Uwargida is the respected matriarch of her household. The other widows are her devoted attendants, and though she ordinarily tells stories each night to the children who collect in the courtyard to hear them, Uwargida may choose not to appear. Her status as the “mother” of the house and, in a sense, of the Hausa people, underlines the importance of what the unnamed narrator identifies as the “mother of all stories.” The ongoing battle between Mewuya and the fetish priest Kantamanto does not merely explain the alternation between light and dark; it accounts for the constant struggle between good and evil. According to Uwargida, when one of the two combatants wins over the other, the world will end. Uwargida functions as a bard or a priestess, repeating stories to the young generation that represent the accumulated wisdom of the past.

In the title story, the narrator describes what happens when a man turns his back on tradition, abandons his community, and invents his own belief system. Kumi, the gentle, flower-loving mail clerk, is transformed into someone to be avoided. After his solitary death, only the fourteen-year-old narrator believes that Kumi was, indeed, something of a prophet.

The last two stories in the book deal with the definition of sin and its consequences. In “Faith,” the Day of Judgment comes to Manhattan, and though Suf-yan is convinced that for his many sins he will be sent to Hell, he is less concerned about his own fate than that of his beloved Pas-cal. To Suf-yan’s amazement, however, it is those who most criticized others who are damned, while those who broke the religious laws but did no harm to others, such as Suf-yan, are sent to Heaven. By contrast, Suraju, the bully and scam artist in “Man Pass Man,” is caught in his own trap and sentenced to an existence filled with terror.

The principle of poetic justice operates just as efficiently in “Mallam Sile.” The title character is a man who is too naïve and too gentle to succeed as a shopkeeper on Zongo Street. Mallam Sile is short of stature and long on patience. He does not have either the physical strength or the aggressive personality that would enable him to deal with the thieves and the bullies who haunt his tea shop, ridiculing him and stealing whatever they see. He does not even attempt to collect money from all those who take advantage of his good nature by leaving the shop without paying for what they have consumed. Even when he closes the tea shop in order to remodel it, no one expects his venture to become more profitable. Then, to everyone’s amazement, after a short absence Sile reappears with an amazing wife. Abeeba is a woman in her late thirties, as large as her husband is small, as stern as he is gentle. In the shop, the atmosphere is now different. Abeeba will not put up with insolence or thievery. Samadu, the adolescent boy who is one of Sile’s chief tormentors, has not yet paid his arrears. Abeeba sets out to find Samudu, does battle with him, and leaves him defeated and humiliated. Sile never does figure out why from that time on he is treated with respect or why his creditors now pay him on time. He simply gives the credit to Allah, and perhaps he is right.

For better or for worse, no one on Zongo Street can afford to ignore public opinion. This fact is illustrated by one of the funniest stories in Ali’s collection, “The Manhood Test.” At...

(The entire section is 1663 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Baltimore Sun, August 7, 2005, p. F10.

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1989.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 9 (May 1, 2005): 489.

Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2005, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (August 14, 2005): 13.

People 64, no. 8 (August 22, 2005): 52.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 24 (June 13, 2005): 31.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2005, p. F3.