A new short story from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author who wrote Americanah and can be heard dropping feminist truth-bombs on the Beyoncé track “Flawless,” appeared Monday in Matter. Possessed of Adichie’s usual poise and clarity, it has a very beautiful opening paragraph:
How softly the rain fell that Monday morning when my water broke. Because I was used to the raging downpours of Lagos, this quiet patter calmed me, filled me with peace. My husband Omoregie was at work and so our neighbor took me to the hospital, my dress slightly damp, my heart full of expectation. My firstborn child.
From this moment of hope and rest, the story, “Olikoye,” winds gently back, as if to fill in how we got here, why the world is so soft and harmonious. It is, in large part, because the narrator feels secure in the Nigerian healthcare system implemented by Minister Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, after whom both the story and her newborn are named. Olikoye—a real life figure—introduced free vaccines and family planning classes in health clinics throughout the country in the 1980s. Prior to his reforms, infants and children were almost as likely to die as to live. The woman in “Olikoye” says her parents lost two of her baby siblings before she was born; she describes Muslims, Christians, and tribal doctors praying to no avail. In the 1985 of the narrative, her father finds work as Olikoye’s driver and alerts him to the plight of his particular village. The minister—his “big sleepy eyes” reminiscent of “another time in the past when old-fashioned integrity was easy”—wheels in with immunizations, part of his vision of primary healthcare for all Nigerians. From there, Adichie writes, “it took mere moments. A baby’s small open mouth and a drop of liquid. A baby’s warm arm and a small injection. It took that to save the lives of the babies born that year in my village … It took that to save my life.”
The graceful and moving “Olikoye,” which goes on to praise the official for treating people “like human beings,” for refusing gifts, and for being the “best health minister this country has ever had,” is propaganda. It is a story raised in captivity rather than in the wild. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned Adichie, along with more than 30 other international writers and artists – including Geraldine Brooks, Mia Farrow, and Lang Lang—to participate in a project called The Art of Saving a Life, which sets out to educate people about the power and value of vaccines. According to Jacque Seaman, who represents the campaign, Adichie was provided with “2-4 storylines to choose from,” based on the Foundation’s judgments of what “would resonate most with the artist.” Her task: To fashion a narrative that might “break into new audiences who may otherwise not be paying attention to the issue” of vaccination. As for how it ended up online, the Foundation reached out to Matter, the longform arm of Medium, with the story. “I leapt at the chance,” Matter’s Mark Lotto wrote in an email, “to publish such a gorgeous, moving, illuminating piece of fiction—our first!—from a writer we admire hugely.”
It is gorgeous and moving, and I, too, admire Adichie. So I hope my misgivings about “Olikoye” aren’t churlish. After all, Adichie is backing a noble cause; she’s created an affecting piece of writing; her story is easily as worth your time as whatever else you might be reading on the Internet. But were the issue not vaccines—were it, perhaps, the war on terror, or climate change—would we be so enthused to see a beloved author selling an organization’s party line? (Matter responsibly included a tag at the bottom of the piece noting its origins and funding.) External agendas have a way of eliding complexities and flattening interactions: At one point, Adichie describes a no-nonsense nurse weeping at the mere mention of Olikoye’s name. Elsewhere, the narrator holds a present from the minister “tighter than I had ever held anything in my young life.”
The protagonist of Adichie’s award-winning novel Americanah, writer Ifemelu, is independent and strong-willed, resistant to myths and hero worship. You can easily imagine her penning a fierce, passionate argument for vaccination on her blog. But how would she feel about her creator’s latest short story, about the way it deifies its subject in the service of an admirable cause? I’m not so sure.