Measuring Time by Helon Habila skillfully weaves the political and cultural environment of Nigeria from the 1960s to the 1990s with the lives of twin boys, Mamo and LaMamo, in the Nigerian village of Keti.
Mamo, the older twin, suffers from sickle cell anemia, is physically weak, reserved, introspective, and intellectual. LaMamo is athletic, boisterous, outgoing, and glib. The brothers dream of escaping from their domineering father to lead adventurous lives. Their paths diverge after they run away together to become soldiers. Mamo is forced to return home because of a health emergency; LaMamo continues his journey and becomes a mercenary, fighting alongside various rebel groups in Liberia and Guinea, and eventually working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) before returning home.
Although Mamo’s disease prevents him from leaving the village, he escapes intellectually and emotionally from his father. He succeeds academically, becoming a history teacher in the local school. He embarks on a project to write a history of the village through interviewing its people. His project attracts the attention of village leaders who invite him to write a biography of the village chief. Close interaction with village leaders exposes Mamo to the corruption, bribery, and moral turpitude of those in power.
Meanwhile LaMamo travels to neighboring countries as a mercenary, joining factions fighting for African liberation. He keeps his brother apprised of his travels and activities by periodically sending him letters. These reveal LaMamo’s increasing disenchantment with wars, with the exploitation of children coerced into fighting, and with senseless killing and suffering of innocent civilians.
Through the lives of these twin brothers and the people they interact with, Habila shows a society riddled with corruption. A school that provides educational opportunities for village children is tossed around as a pawn between political factions and is eventually forced to close. The money raised for drilling new wells in draught-ridden areas is whittled away in the hands of corrupt politicians. The police crush riots through brutality, violence, and intimidation. Rebel leaders and their followers, ostensibly fighting for African liberation from the yoke of colonialism, rape and pillage at will. As a result of their separate experiences, the brothers become increasingly discouraged about the possibility of a better future.
Habila’s characters are realistically portrayed, especially his protagonist Mamo who emerges as a sensitive, conscientious individual determined to record the dignity and resilience of ordinary people in his village. The description of village life, inhabitants, traditions, and customs is rich in detail. Habila has woven an intricate tapestry that threads the recent history of Nigeria with the lives of twin boys, thereby expanding his vision to illustrate both the personal and political challenges facing a people.
A powerful story, told in clear, succinct prose, with sensitivity and compassion.