Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2214
The Other Side of Truth is the story of two Nigerian children who are sent to London as refugees after their mother is murdered. The story is fiction, but it makes references to real political events in Nigeria, most notably the execution of the poet Ken Saro-Wiwa. Like Saro-Wiwa, the father in this story angered Nigerian authorities by criticizing them in his writing.
The novel begins in Laos, Nigeria, as Sade (pronounced shad-deh, with the pitch rising on the second syllable) and her brother Femi are getting ready for school. Sade hears gunshots and runs outside to find her father in their driveway, holding her mother’s unconscious body. Sade sees a growing bloodstain on Mama’s dress. Soon the doctor arrives and says Mama has no chance of surviving.
Later the phone rings, and Sade speaks to a man with a cold voice who asks if her father is the reporter Folarin Solaja. When Sade says yes, the man says, “Tell him: if we get the family first, what does it matter?” Sade understands this is a threat against her and her brother from the people who just killed her mother. Her uncle, Tunde, sees how upset she is and tries to grab the phone, but the caller hangs up.
When Papa writes articles for the newspaper, he always tells the truth. Uncle Tunde has often warned Papa not to write articles that upset Nigeria’s leaders, but Papa always says, “The truth is the truth. How can I write what’s untrue?” His latest article, which probably angered the people who killed Mama, criticizes Nigeria’s leaders for sending their children to school in Europe and America while Nigerian schools fail. Uncle Tunde reads part of this article out loud and shouts at Papa, saying that he is risking his own children for the sake of everyone else’s.
The family needs to get out of the country fast. Papa and Uncle Tunde decide it will be best to go to London, to the home of the children’s other uncle, Dele. The children are not allowed to tell anyone—not even their best friends—they are leaving. The government has seized Papa’s passport, and Uncle Tunde says it will take time to get him out of the country. However, he finds a woman, Mrs. Bankole, who is flying to London right away. She has two children, a boy and a girl, who are listed on her passport but are not traveling with her. She is willing to pretend that Sade and Femi are her children during the plane trip. The children have to leave right away—without Papa.
The children say good-bye to Papa, and then Uncle Tunde makes them hide on the floor of the car, covered with a blanket, for the drive to the airport. When they pass a police checkpoint, Uncle Tunde tells the officer that there is “only rubbish” in the back of the car. Uncle Tunde is allowed drive on and Sade thinks he probably bribed the police officer. At the airport, Femi wants to run away, but Sade makes him stay. She tells him the police will arrest Papa if he reports the children missing. Femi reluctantly does what he is told. He avoids speaking to Mrs. Bankole and seems almost to hope that they will get caught, but they make it to London and through customs.
London is much colder than Nigeria is. Neither Sade nor Femi has warm enough clothing. Far worse is that Uncle Dele is not waiting to pick them up. Mrs. Bankole warns the children to never reveal her name to anyone or people she knows in Lagos will make sure their Papa never reaches London. She takes them to a café, where she gives Sade money to buy drinks and cake. The children buy their snacks and sit examining the eighty pence they receive in change; they are interested in the English money. When they look for Mrs. Bankole again, she is gone.
The children wait in the café until a waitress kicks them out. Sade figures out how to take the bus to the London College of Art, where Uncle Dele works. They spend all of their eighty pence on the bus ticket to get there. When they arrive, shivering from the cold, they learn that Uncle Dele has not appeared at home or work for more than a week. A receptionist says Uncle Dele’s boss has reported him missing to the police. She suggests that the children speak to someone in case they can help the police find him. However, in the children’s experience, police are corrupt and dangerous. Sade takes Femi’s hand, and the two of them run away.
Unsure what to do next, the children set out walking. They are soon hungry and tired, and the people in the various shops act angry and suspicious whenever they try to go inside out of the cold. A homeless man shouts at them and grabs their bag, and they run into a video shop for protection. While they are inside, some boys run in and smash up the shop. Sade and Femi watch, terrified. When the boys leave, the children try to go too, but the shopkeeper stops them. He thinks they were working as decoys for the gangsters, so he forces them to wait until the police arrive.
Sade and Femi sit in terrified silence, thinking of all the times police threatened Papa back in Nigeria. The London police do not seem to want to hurt the children, but Sade knows that anything she tells them may put Papa in danger. Neither she nor Femi says a word. After being shuffled from office to office for a while, they find themselves in an emergency foster home. Their foster mother, Mrs. Graham, is white, and her home is a stained, dirty apartment—frighteningly different from their beautiful home back in Lagos.
In the morning, a social worker comes. She is a black woman who looks Nigerian but speaks with an English accent. The woman is kind, and Sade reluctantly reveals her and Femi’s first names. However, she says their last name is Adwale, not Solaja. She reveals that she and Femi arrived in London from Nigeria the day before but refuses to tell why they are alone. The social worker says the children are refugees. This surprises Sade, who thinks of refugees as the starving people she sees on the TV news.
In the following days, the black social worker returns with Mama Appiah, a Ghanian woman who works with refugee children. Mama Appiah gets the children to talk a little about school and sports, then she asks them to tell her about what happened at home. Sade maintains the lie about their name, but she tells Mama Appiah about Uncle Dele, whom they cannot find. Mama Appiah takes the children to see a lawyer, who says he will eventually need to know why they came to England and how they got into the country. The kids are afraid of Mrs. Bankole’s threat against Papa, so Femi claims they never learned the name of the woman who brought them to London.
The children spend a confusing, frightening day with the lawyer and Mama Appiah at immigration services, where they get temporary visas. Afterward they learn they are being sent to a different foster home. They go to stay with a black Jamaican couple; they tell the children to call them Aunt Gracie and Uncle Roy.
Aunt Gracie and Uncle Roy enroll the children in school. At Sade’s school, people keep complimenting her on her English, which confuses her because she has spoken both English and Yoruba since she was a baby. A teacher introduces her to Mariam, a girl from Ethiopia, who is kind. However, the other kids laugh and tease Sade. Mariam points out several girls, Marcia and her friends, who “don’t like Africans.”
The mean girls tell Sade not to do her homework, but she recalls Papa saying, “We have to stand up to bullies, Sade-girl!” She does her work, although she wonders if Papa would still encourage this kind of courage. At school the next morning, Marcia and her friends take her notebook and tear out the pages. The teacher is kind and says she can turn in her work tomorrow, and the other kids complain that he is being nice to Sade because she is foreign and new. Later Marcia threatens to have Femi beaten up by an older boy unless Sade steals a lighter from a shop that belongs to Mariam’s uncle. She does what they want even though she feels bad—especially because she has learned by now that Mariam is a refugee who has had a very hard life.
Sade does not sleep that night; she feels guilty about stealing from Mariam’s uncle. By morning, she has made herself sick with worry, so she stays home. Mama Appiah calls to say she wants to speak with the children, so Femi gets to stay home too. Mama Appiah tells them she has found Papa, and he is in England. He is in jail because he tried to enter England with a false passport, and now he is going to have trouble getting asylum. She says, “Your father might never have found you” because they lied about their name.
The next day, Mama Appiah takes the children to see Papa. He tells them how worried he was when he could not find Uncle Dele or Mrs. Bankole, and they tell him about their adventures and their foster family. All too soon, visiting time ends and they have to leave. Papa promises they will be together soon. Sade tries to cling to him, but he pries her fingers off his arms and makes her go. This upsets her so much she runs away, crying, without turning back to look.
At this point, the story is told through a series of letters between Sade and Papa. They both apologize for the mistakes and lies that got them into their situation. At the end of the exchange, Sade finds out that Papa’s application for temporary asylum has been denied. She admits that she spied on a conversation between Mama Appiah and Aunt Gracie and learned that the Nigerian authorities have accused Papa of Mama’s murder. She writes:
HOW CAN THEY TELL SUCH A GREAT BIG LIE? If only Femi and I had told the truth...then the people here would know that this is a TERRIBLE DISGUSTING LIE.
The next morning, Sade wakes up with a plan. She asks Femi to meet her at the bus stop after school so they can help Papa. Femi has acted silent and grumpy for days, and now he says he will miss his TV shows if he does not go straight home. Sade shouts at him:
What’s wrong with you? This is more important than watching TV!... Don’t you want to help Papa?
After school, to her relief, he shows up, and they set off. After a difficult trip through London alone, the children arrive at the building where the Seven O’Clock News is filmed. They speak with a newscaster and tell him their story. At the end of the conversation, he says he will look into it, but he cannot promise to put it on the news.
For several days, the children’s story does not appear on the news. The mean girls at school continue their bullying, and Mariam is so silent and angry that Sade thinks she knows about the stolen lighter. Then one night, the newscaster gives a short report about Papa. This calls attention to his case, and when Sade and Femi next go to visit him, they see protesters outside demanding his release. While there, they get another pleasant surprise as well: Uncle Dele is sitting with Papa. He explains that he has been working with a group called Nigerians for Democracy and that threats against his life forced him to go into hiding just before Mama was killed.
At school the next day, Sade confesses to Mariam about stealing the lighter. Mariam says she knows. Marcia and the other girls did the same thing to her before. She told her uncle, and he gave her the object Marcia wanted her to steal, saying:
Let them think you steal it. People like that are no good. Don’t fight them. Just keep away.
Mariam says her uncle would have done the same for Sade if only she had asked. Sade is relieved, but she is so worried about Papa that she makes herself sick. The news does another story about Papa that shows her and Femi with him, but Sade feels so broken and upset she can hardly watch it.
Mariam comes by with a get-well card from Sade’s class, and she is invited to participate in a news program run partly by kids. Soon afterward, Papa is released with a visa that allows him to stay in England for six months. Neither he nor the children know what will happen after the six months—but Papa promises that they will stay together no matter what.