Where exam failures become life sentence

Bill Milligan

* is a resident of Huston Texas

It is the story of a young man who fails his school examination and has to face the music! And he knows it. The story is set in an African country. The actual location being Uganda in East Africa, which happens to be the country of origin of this first-time author, Okot Nyormoi. This new novel is called Burden of Failure. No title could be better.

where failure could mean doom

The main character is a young man who goes by the name Peter Otim. When we first meet him Otim has just sat for a major national school examination. In this land of titles and certificates, the result of this single examination could spell his doom. Pass or fail, the examination, becomes very nearly a matter of life or death.

As fate would have it, Otim fails.  His oldest brother who had up to now been his support base albeit reluctantly, decides this is the moment to act. He cuts off all financial support and kicks Otim out of his house. Homeless, penniless, and unemployed, Otim faces a grim future. But Otim is not alone. Hundreds of other youths in this country said to have the youngest population in the world, share his fate.

Despite his setback Otim is not without hope and is determined to pursue his original dream. The dream of a big car, a big house in the city, and plenty of beautiful women. But how was he now to accomplish all these? We feel for him.

The author introduces us to a host of characters, some with major bearing on the story, others with minor roles. One main character is Otim’s girlfriend, Alice. The author crafts this love relationship in such a way that, I found myself rooting for its best outcome. When Otim tells Alice that he was afraid that their relationship was now doomed since he has failed his exams, she tells him; “I loved you before you took the exams, and I love you now”. Nonetheless, we know that nothing will be so straightfoward again.

After a year of struggling alone by himself, Otim realizes it was more productive to unite with other youths facing similar challenges. He meets John Musoke, who introduces him to Julius, to Alex, to Richard, and to Edward. These were youths who live and share everything thing together: shelter, food, work and fun. Now Peter joins them. Together the youths form a new association, the Union of Unemployed Youths.

They bond together. They become a family. It happens that the youths hail from different parts of their country and they belong to different tribes. Now living and struggling together as they do, by their example and by default, the youths become in this acrimonious and divided land, a model for national unity. We share their laughter, their pains, and their despair. We share also their transient moments of joy. Like many city youths at the fringes of society, the youths find themselves drifting into petty crimes, for the sheer necessity of survival. Crime is addictive. Desperately the youths seek to end their poverty. They make a desperate bid to steal gold, plenty of gold, only to have two of their companions shot dead in the process.

The tragedy hits them hard and becomes an eye opener. It ends their experiment with crime. Henceforth they will abide by the law. 

The story is set in the turbulent years of the 1980s and 1990 when Uganda was tottering on the brinks of a failed state. The author cleverly integrates within the story useful background information that allows someone unfamiliar with the terrain to follow the story while not distracting others.

As we have seen, the youths have by now reconciled themselves to the need for continued struggle, come what may.

Burden of Failure is a great first novel. Okot Nyormoi should be very confident to continue sharing his wonderful talent.