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.