Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Terror of Love in Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s Terrorists of the Aberdare

It is a novella but it is as interesting as any text you would wish to read from the year 2009 fiction collections. Mbugua’s Terrorists of the Aberdare is not a story about the Al Qaeda and cells of suicide bombers being trained on how best to detonate their lives and that of many others from this world. It is neither a story about Osama nor Saddam Hussein. It is a love story. This is the unrequited love of Sonko Wakadosi for Penina.
I love this story because it reminds me of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Ben Okri is a surrealist writer who writes stories that explore the spirit world. Mbugua’s novella is strongest for making an attempt to recreate heaven as we imagine it to be. The story opens at Heaven’s gate whilst Sonko is waiting for St. Peter to open the gates for him or even to direct him to take the road to hell. You see, Sonko has just died or as the story puts it he has been dispatched to his maker by Kanywaji the elephant. It is this setting of the opening scene in heaven that acts as the narrative hook of the novella. The reader is mesmerised by the ingenious skill of the writer that whets the reader’s appetite owing to our fascination with the unknown; hence, we faithfully follow the story in order to find out what happens when one dies.
Both the protagonist and the reader surprisingly discover that apparently heaven is like any other place on earth. Having grown up on the slopes of the Aberdares, Sonko is used to the chirping of birds in the morning, the misty mornings, the dew on the trees and vegetation. When he wakes up in heaven, the scenery is more or less the same to his amazement. The story expands our imagination as Sonko realises that his wounds have disappeared as well as the scars on his body and those on the bodies of the other arrivants who join him at heaven’s gates. We can only imagine that this is possibly what will happen when we will finally sojourn to meet our maker. It is an allusion to the biblical attainment of new bodies during the Christians’ reunion with Christ.
The decision to award the novella the Wahome Mutahi prize for literature was on point. It is a humorous novella that explores tragic human experiences with a light pen. In this story, the writer castigates contemporary young men who yearn to be betrothed to girls from rich families with the hope that they can quickly transcend the shortcomings of poverty. Sonko eyes Penina because her father is relatively rich as per the village standards but his star tragically dims when he falls and gets injured rendering him unable to work anymore. This compounds Sonko’s tragedy whose fate in poverty has been sealed by the death of his father and his family’s exile from their ancestral land.
As a result, Sonko is terrorised by his love for Penina. This blinds him to the point that he fails to reciprocate Ursula’s love for him which is described as unrivalled by any other. But Sonko is also terrorised by poverty until his mother discovers that his father had saved up and invested money in a land buying scheme; thereby turning the fortunes of the family for the better. But, this is hampered by harsh weather conditions which ravage the region and terrorises the villagers by withering their crops. Consequently, Sonko cannot raise money for fare to travel to Kericho where his love, Penina, has eloped to in a bid to make ends meet.
Fatalistically, Sonko makes a final desperate dash to save his crop of cabbages only to get in the path of a marauding herd of elephants. Kanywaji, the rogue elephant tramples Sonko to death perhaps in his mission to avenge the death of his mother who was murdered by Mari Mari and his fellow poachers. The villagers are cast as terrorists of the environment and the natural resources. Hinged on the theme of environment, the story warns us that being the ones capable of reasoning; we have to take responsibility for the resultant hazards of environmental destruction. Also, the politicians are presented as sources of terror in the way they abscond their duty to serve the people, selfishly enrich themselves and eventually con their way back again into the positions of power.
Sonko and Kanywaji are fated to die tragically: Sonko at the feet of Kanywaji and Kanywaji in the hands of the villagers. At the end of this tragic story, everyone is a loser. We empathise with Kanywaji who has become a villager like any other occasionally visiting the village for his sip of busheshe. We pity Sonko for being blinded to imagine that he loves Penina whereas his true love is Ursula. All these things are narrated through the eyes of Madirari, Sonko’s bosom friend. Madirari helps us to connect with the story through a series of flashbacks. We discover that Penina had tomboy traits, Mari Mari was a crook who loved poaching etc. We also get the possibility of the love letter that Sonko could have written to Penina. The exaggeration used in the letter is reminiscent of the 80s and 90s when love letter writing was rife amongst the Kenyan teenagers and young adults.
My disappointment with the novella is that it sets its stakes too high when it opens at the heaven’s gate. When the story fails to reconnect at the end with this opening scene, the reader is left with a sour taste in his/her mouth. Of course the writer finishes the story by way of a dream to connect Madirari with Sonko but this could have been bettered if the imagination was stretched a little bit to give the audience a glimpse of what eventually transpired if and when St. Peter showed up. Otherwise, it is a great story that is both intriguing and humanising. I never knew that love could be such a terror to the human heart but now I know better.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Proliferation of Institutions of Higher Learning in the Country

Demands for higher education have necessitated the need for expansion of learning institutions throughout the country. However, the proliferation of institutions of higher learning in Kenya has not necessarily translated to quality education. There have been consistent concerns raised in relation to the nature of knowledge generated in our educational systems hence the rise of the phrase “half-baked” graduates.
The lack of capacity within the institutions or affiliate colleges is glaring. A recent report by the Commission for University Education (CUE) reveals the shortage of PhD holders amongst the lecturers’ fraternity. This means that the majority of lecturers are Masters Degree holders. In such a scenario, it is expected that the lecturer’s skills would be enhanced through research, publications and other vocational trainings. Unfortunately, this is not the case and things are made worse by unemployment. Most of the lecturers end up being part time faculty who spend most of their time shuttling from one college to the other in a bid to make ends meet. Characteristically, poor lesson preparations abound and this dents the quality of education in the long run.
Meagre resources and the dearth of governmental support amongst the private institutions have given birth to undercutting and dilution of academic programmes. The competition for students and the rising concerns over numbers to achieve certain economic thresh holds remains the leading catastrophe for private institutions. There is a temptation to lower the entry level for certain courses or even to shorten the period required for certain practical courses. Other institutions at times offer technical courses without the proper legal processes being adhered to thus students graduating with certificates that are not recognised for lack of accreditation.

On the other hand, public institutions have perennially been dogged by largely unmanageable numbers. As a result, the lecturer ratio in public universities is way beyond the preferred recommendation of about 1:60 maximum. On the contrary, this is only in reference to theoretical courses and not practical ones where the numbers should be halved. The same should be replicated for postgraduate students to ensure maximum conduct between the students and their instructors. Other aspects such as resources: books, hostels, libraries, computers, laboratories, classrooms, play grounds/recreational facilities, etc are inadequate. This renders the quality of teaching or training largely suspect.
It is not surprising, thus, that there have been concerns raised in lieu of the capacity of contemporary university graduates. Many complainants are from the companies sourcing for skilled personnel. They claim that fresh graduates lack initiative and they do not possess the requisite drive to propel our developmental or economic demands forward. I concur with their frustration and fault the government for the recent upgrade of technical colleges to university status. The need for capacity building and technical skills generation seems to have been overlooked in the quest for higher knowledge.
For our country to attain vision 2030 and hopefully live up to the millennium goals, we need a more pragmatic approach to the expansion of institutions of higher learning. It is important to construct more technical colleges even as we think about universities. This would ensure that our focus does not deviate from the industrial and manufacturing sectors which are key to economic development. In fact, the country should invest more in generation of technically skilled personnel because they are likely to be self employment as opposed to being job seekers. Universities are more likely to produce job seekers and this is an economic liability to a financially struggling nation.
Consequently, the demand for institutions of higher learning should be in tandem with the needs of the society at large. Kenya, with her hindsight of the perils of economic dependency, should align her educational policies with the need for a robust manufacturing sector and an ever growing industrial segment as the corner pillars of a bright economic future. This should not be done at the expense of arts and other social science courses that are crucial to holistic knowledge cultivation. The employers should partner with the academic institutions to foster better courses instead of apportioning blame. On their end, the institutions should think about the welfare of both the students and staff as the motivating ingredient that will spur the thirst for knowledge in the right direction.
NB: This article was first published in DaystarConnect an annual magazine published by Daystar University (During the 2013 Graduation)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Review of Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s Different Colours

The rainbow is beautiful despite its variegated colours that portray a spectrum of diversity. Ng’ang’a Mbugua appears to have dipped his pen into the ink of imagination and creatively captured the disparate mores and cultures of the people of Kenya. The novel has its setting in Banana County which is also home to a River Orange rekindling memories of the politically defining moments of the 2005 constitutional referendum history. All the events in this text are fictional but the vision of the writer for a unified Kenyan community and a protected environment cannot be overlooked even though this is captured through the stroke of genius in the writer’s pen.
Miguel, a dreadlocked artist, is the protagonist of the novel. He not only possesses a deep baritone, but he also happens to be a handsome, sensitive and overtly romantic hunk rendering him the stereotypical magnate of women. Miguel is drawn to Banana County by a deep desire to immortalise a waterfall whose description eludes the right words because her beauty is beyond human imagination. The waterfall is so alluring, mysterious and historically rich that every villager harbours their individualised gaze towards it: some see it as a safe haven that offered protection to Mau Mau freedom fighters, others consider it as a home to their moment of initiation, some were courted and eventually got married owing to the charm of the fall and yet for others like Sister Gloria “It is a good place to die” as Miguel muses.
Unfortunately, it is not everyone who appreciates the fall and this is why Dick Teita, punning on the English word dictator enlists the services of the village goons, Vu Tabangi, a word play on smoke bhang or a bhang smoker, et al to excavate building rocks on his behalf. Miguel stumbles upon them by chance and is shocked at their ignorance of the disaster in the making that they seem not to be privy to. According to Miguel, the chipping away of the rocks, which happen to be the backbone of the fall, will eventually lead to the collapse of the fall something that might lead to the demise of the entire village because the river would sweep them away. Dick Teita devises means to keep Miguel away from the fall but its charm supersedes these excuses driving Miguel to prise open the Pandora’s Box.
The novel highlights the possibility of the marriage between the old/traditional with the new/contemporary. This possibility is envisioned in the coming together of the villagers with Miguel and his friend, Derek, as they engage the village and the universe at large through word of mouth, gossip, internet, newspapers and other social media networks to mobilise people to come together in solidarity in stopping the destruction of the fall. The text underscores the centrality of art and other forms of media communication in the preservation of the environment. The fact that old people like Zebedayo, the village taxi operator, and Mama Rembo, the typical groceries lady are keenly involved in the call to safeguard the fall is testimony that no one can be overlooked in the preservation of the environment. It is also an indication that any programme that affects people directly must always be home-grown.
Romantically contextualised in this story are the love stories of Miguel and his land lady, Angela, not forgetting the passion between Billy Joe and Juliana. Billy Joe is the one responsible for having drawn Miguel’s interest towards the water fall in the first place. Sadly, the novel also depicts the fated death of the village beauty, Sister Gloria, who drowns herself and her baby in the fall owing to her husband’s act to kick her out of their matrimonial home. Sister Gloria’s death adds to the number of myths that colour the stories surrounding the fall. This theme of love adds to others of betrayal, greed, humanism and death that are woven in the multilayered text whose descriptions are vividly colourful like the text’s title/cover.  
Call it a novel propagating activism for the environment, a text prescribing a rainbow nation, an allegorical text, a futuristic novel, a romantic tale or whatever other description you may deem fit, but one thing stands out: it is a beautiful story pregnant with possibilities. The hues, shades of colours and varied viewpoints indicate the fact that we can find unity in our diversity. This is given impetus by the knowledge that Miguel does not even belong to Banana County but he is the one who spurs the call for the preservation of the fall even though his initial interest was just to paint it and desert the village. The finished product of his painting of the water fall is described by Angela’s son, Tom Tenge, as ‘Different Colours’. His reason being that the “different colours [in the painting] are coming together to form one big and beautiful painting. It is just like our county and our nation. We have people who are so different from each other but they are all part of one nation.” Do you agree?
PS: This review of Mbugua's Different Colours was first posted to Daystar Language and Performing Arts website. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Delusion & Disillusionment in Meja Mwangi’s The Cockroach Dance

The emerging Kenyan urban space has been characterised by all manner of ambiguities. The resultant confusion has further alienated the inhabitants who have strove to demarcate their spaces and to establish new identities in the strange urban environment they suddenly find themselves in. The post independent Kenyan urban space is predominantly cruel, selfish, aggressive, amoral, individualistic etc. In the ensuing mêlée, Meja Mwangi’s poise of pen becomes best captured in his descriptions and in this text he does not disappoint at all.
The squalor and seedy lifestyles that the characters in The Cockroach Dance lead attests to their temperaments, delusions and erratic associations. Dehumanisation is the norm in this text and the narrative seems to suggest that escapism is the only antidote for such a malaise. Dusman Gonzaga, the novel’s protagonist, has no fixed abode, cannot firmly associate himself with a rural background and surprisingly he refuses, willingly, to have any sense of belonging to Dacca House. This constitutes part of the narrative’s ambiguities and the complicated nature of sense of identities in the characters.
Dusman is a delusional character who is almost driven mad by the pestilence of the rot in Dacca House. Dacca House represents the social structures and the hierarchies of the contemporary urban society. It is a symbol of the invasion of the country by colonialism through which the Indians who first partook of the construction of the railway line found an abode in the city. Kachra Samat constructed the house for his family at a time when the Asians represented the middle class with the European settlers representing the high class. The indigenous people ended up being the masses who provided the manual labour hence symbolising the lower class.

On the contrary, when the settlers started to repatriate back home, the Indians also in tow began their ascendancy to high class by moving away from River Road and Grogan Roads. They took over the suburban posh, palatial residential areas and left the middle class residential estates for the emerging Kenyan middle class represented by Tumbo Kubwa. Unfortunately, the likes of Tumbo Kubwa saw this as a God given opportunity to mince money and hence they used all manner of unscrupulous means to amass wealth. For example, Tumbo Kubwa, symbolising a big stomach/appetite/greed, pounced on Dacca House and converted one family’s home into a tenement for numerous tenants by subdividing the rooms into tiny inhabitable cells. His voracious appetite allowed Tumbo Kubwa to transform the bathroom into a room for rental not to miss an opportunity to rake in money.
In addition, Tumbo Kubwa acquired more buildings along River Road and converted them into brothels. Because he is a Godly man, Tumbo Kubwa afterwards employs his brother to collect the fees from the prostitutes so that his pious ways would not be tainted by the filthy cash. The irony of it all demonstrates the hypocrisy and despicable ways of the affluent whose selfishness hinders them from being human. Tumbo Kubwa neither maintains the houses nor does he have any sympathy for rent defaulters. He is one of the people that Dusman has vowed to vanquish for being responsible for the impoverishment of the majority poor symbolised in the Bathroom Man and his family.
Dusman is driven to Dacca house by the loss of his job at the Sunshine Hotel. He ends up being a water meter reader but he cannot stand the mean mongrels kept in the rich people’s homes to man security. His relationship with the security dogs is one of passionate hatred and he finally requests to be transferred to reading parking meters. Conversely, he discovers that reading parking meters is more tedious and tiring than his former job. The scorching sun does not help and the sight of street vagrancy makes it worse. This ticks off his frustrating journey of passionately imploring Mr Kimende, the meters superintendent, to transfer him back to his old job. It is a futile endeavour because Kimende considers Dusman as his best parking meters employee.
Kimende’s name puns on that of a cockroach adding to the plethora of dehumanising imagery in the narrative. He is a demented man psychologically tortured by the fear of losing his job to an expatriate which ironically comes to be eventually. It is Kimende who suggests that Dusman should visit Dr Bates for psychological help when Dusman confides in his boss that his job and the life in Dacca House are driving him insane. The conversations between Bates and Dusman reveal the extent of the psychological paranoia Dusman is experiencing.
Dusman seems to hate everyone and everything. Sadly he cannot explain why he harbours loathsome feelings for his neighbours at Dacca House. He also categorically states that he cannot stand the sight of the cockroaches dancing, the filth and the general decay of his place of abode. Added to this list is Sukuma Wiki’s perennial sexual escapades with his wife that regularly happen in the afternoons when Dusman his trying to rest. The sight of the Bathroom Man revolts him because he cannot fathom how a grown up can allow to be squeezed into a tiny bathroom space together with his wife and retarded child. Further, Dusman hates Magendo for attempting to sleep with the Bathroom Man’s wife, for shaming, embarrassing and humiliating her. It is only Toto his roommate that he seems to have a near normal human interaction with.  
The novel is reminiscent of dark humour and it reeks of satire throughout. The characters engage in dialogue laced with biting sarcasm and the vivid descriptions cap it all to portray a text that revolts, disgusts and appeals at the same time. It is akin to Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The majority of characters are described in animal imagery. For example, the lynching mob is cast as a “pack... with the fierceness of marauding hyenas...” “it is a crowd of devoted thief-killers”. Eventually, the narrator says that: “Lubricated by redundancy and an acute lack of meaningful occupation, the mob machine worked viciously fast, as efficient as an epidemic.” This is the same approach used to describe the twilight girls, the drunkards, the general populace and even the assumed elite in the novel.
Essentially, the narrative resonates with a vicious cycle of disillusionment. Dusman comes across as a frustrated man whose life bespeaks of humiliation and despair. He is afraid to go down in history as the man who sold a car for 200 bob. In a bid to make life habitable for himself and others, he challenges Magendo to a duel, curses and uses obscenities, sleeps with prostitutes and generally engages in endless drinking sprees to escape the stark reality of the filth and stinking garbage of Grogan road. He sees all mechanics as thieves, refuses to consult Mganga and eventually develops a manifesto to push Tumbo Kubwa to regulate the rent and to provide better tenancy services.
The narrative ends with a tinge of optimism. The Bathroom Man comes of age and Dusman receives his dues from his former employer. Dusman’s car finally fetches 2000 bob and he manages to hold a normal conversation with the Bathroom Man. The dark cloud overcast throughout the novel appears to be lifting away. Although Toto is jailed for forgery, Magendo for handling stolen goods and Sukuma Wiki for stealing parking meters, there is hope that Dusman’s manifesto might radiate hope for Dacca House because of the resolute determination of the likes of Chupa na Debe. The Cockroach Dance is prototypic of a city coming to grips with sudden growth and you have to read to discover whether the infrastructure will support it or not. What about the people? Will they survive?

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