Saturday, October 26, 2013

The vanity of environmental ‘care’ in Kulet’s Vanishing Herds

It is not surprising that Henry Ole Kulet’s latest novel is titled Vanishing Herds. Not surprising since Kulet’s novels grapple with the question of identity and this latest text is no exception.  The novel imaginatively recreates the love story of Norpisia and Kedoki; the star-crossed love birds whose fate is sealed through a cattle raid tragedy. Both Norpisia and Kedoki lose their siblings at a tender age: a brother and sister simultaneously. It is Kedoki’s selflessness that deeply touches Norpisia when she learns that even though he has come to mourn with them, he, too, has lost his only siblings. She is so mesmerised by his humility and strength that she remembers the stranger up to the day that she is betrothed to him. But I am rushing ahead of myself here.
The story decries the devastation of the environment and the ravages of wanton human activity on Mother Nature. The story subtly suggests that hell hath no fury than an environment destroyed! As the narrator notes, human beings have indiscriminately allowed their greed to prevail upon them to destroy the environment. This has been exemplified through the felling of trees even those that have traditionally been preserved for their religious and medicinal value. Consequently, the people begin to witness unusual happenings in the form of prolonged droughts, flash floods and as the narrator observes, “It was as if nature was on a furious revenge mission” (110). These happenings are reconstructed through the eyes of the two lovers as they traverse the endless pastoral lands herding their livestock.
Norpisia is an unusual woman who defies the entrenched Maasai traditional roles assigned to women. She takes up roles that would otherwise have been assumed to belong to men in the Maasai patriarchal society in which she is brought up. Her mentoring takes a turn from the traditional socialising approach when hyenas attack and kill the sheep belonging to her grandmother. When the grandmother comes back and discovers that the sheep had been attacked and Norpisia had done nothing she is so cross with Norpisia that she admonishes her and cajoles her as being good for nothing. Unknown to the grandmother, Norpisia takes up the challenge and in a few days manages to kill several hyenas hence feeling vindicated for her negligence.
This is one of the things that Norpisia begins to learn under the tutelage of her grandmother – self-defence. She is also taught voyeurism, traditional medicines and how to treat different ailments. These are part of the things that decorate her life when she gets married to Kedoki. She not only experiences nightmares, but she also apprehensively looks around as most of the things she dreams about come true. It is also her ability to carry weapons and defend herself that makes Masintet, their friend, refer to Kedoki, her husband, as a Lesiote – the legendary man who had been brought for a woman but did not know what to make of her. The jests of the men about Norpisia carrying weapons are however quashed when she singlehandedly defends her husband against cattle raiders who ambush them in the forest while they are herding their livestock. Their disbelief transposes into admiration and respect for her especially when they realise that she is also very good with the herbs and other medicinal trees.
Kulet succeeds to infuse the text, Vanishing Herds, with Maa diction and the flavour of the language is so fluidly intertwined in the narrative that the reader hardly realises that s/he is interpreting the story from the lenses of a local language. The story not only underscores the vanishing forests, wild animals and domestic animals as well, but it also predicts a sad premonition; that human beings, the only educated herd, might also be staring its own effacement from the earth straight in the eye. Our unabated destruction, encroachment and unbridled use of natural resources might eventually result in the end of the world literally speaking.
The story moralises us on the need to exercise restraint in how we utilise Mother Nature’s resources. It also creatively suggests some noble ways of preserving the environment and suggests that some of the ways through which we imagine to be taking care of the environment are in essence an indication of our vanity as human beings. There is also a subtle suggestion that certain misconceptions and myths about the environment, certain tribes amongst others are baseless. Consequently, as we embrace technological advancement, there is need to take stock of our cultural milieu and integrate that which is beneficial even as we discard practices that might hold us prisoners of unfounded traditional mores.
Ultimately, the text warns us that if we don’t take heed to preserve our environment for posterity, we might as well be sojourning to another life as part of the Vanishing Herds that are depicted in Kulet’s novel.         
PS: This review was first posted on the Daystar Language & Performing Arts Book Reviews Section long before the novel won the Jomo Kenyatta Literary Prize            

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Romance: The Maasai Moran Style

Sunset in Kajiado

I have never thought of sleeping under a tent. Neither have I ever imagined of spending the night in dreamland outdoors; in the wild and with hyena’s howling away in the dark. Surprise, surprise! It came to pass one day in the year 2013.
You see, my boss decided that it was a good idea to accompany her and her class in oral literature on a trip to Kajiado. Little did I know that my tenacity, endurance and romance with nature would be put to test.
I should have thought twice about the trip but my machismo encouraged me that all would be well and I needed not think too much about my rucksack content. Boy was I not wrong!
The cruise to Kajiado was relatively a quiet one. We did a cul-de-sac through Mombasa road and branched off at Malili – the imagined Silicon Valley of Africa. Then the rough road to our destination began.
My solace was the fact that about half an hour into the hinterland, the phones lost sight of network signals. The mix of awe at this phenomena and the apprehension of “what if” elicited mixed reactions amongst the passengers. Our enthusiasm seemed to abate a little bit.
We occasionally caught a glimpse of wild animals grazing or lazily lying about. I wondered what goes on in the mind of an animal when it comes face to face with its earthly neighbour – human beings! Does it wonder what God must have been thinking about when creating man/woman? Do the words ugly or beautiful exist amongst animals? I mean, what parameters do animals use to size up each other/ to admire or ogle at one another? We may never know...swiftly moving on...
Our destination is a humble home tucked away in the wild. A few modern structures but the general populace in the vicinity faithfully clings onto the traditional Maasai Manyattas. The smell of cow dung fills up my nostrils and I wander off to the cattle enclosure/pen. The array of countless goat kids of all colours and sizes mesmerises me! They are bleating, dancing, prancing, whatever(ing) around!
The delicacy of goat meat for lunch is enough temptation for an afternoon walk. The mysteries of herbs, shrubs, and first settlers to the land amongst many more other myths is much more than I can hold/fathom. My mind strays away and I begin watching the herds of zebras and antelopes grazing unperturbed in the distance. The ambience of the sunset in this place is simply amazing.   
We get back to the compound and behold the tents are up and ready. We each make a choice and then the inevitable question is raised. Do wild animals wander off into the compound? Our host calmly responds to the negative but guarantees us that we would be listening to plenty of hyena giggling throughout the better part of the night.
One of the things that I find fascinating is the clear demarcation of roles in this community. Everyone seems to know what is expected of them naturally. It takes me miles away to my formative years in my rural Ukambani village long before I sojourned into the world of academia and the intricacies of Nairobi City. I just can’t believe it’s been this long. Sigh! Presently, the Maasai men are busy nipping away at the ears of the cattle as a way of granting them an identity – I am finally told that they call it notching! On their part, the women are busy tinkering with the pots and the aroma is enough testimony of the evening menu.
We partake dinner in the open. The stars are glimmering far far away! Someone cracks a joke about the smoke following whoever had misbehaved during the day. I am once more flanged far away into my formative years in the village and how we used to jab jokes at each other that the smoke only affects those who defecate in the bushes as opposed to visiting a proper latrine! Amazing how through fusion such jokes permeate and find their away amongst many other people!
A kind of fellowship takes shape as everyone marvels about the serenity of the environment.  We all become mellow and suddenly romantic. Probably the bonfire has some Midas touch – a kind of magic like those gleaned from folk tales you know! I swallow hard and pretentiously clear my throat before someone queries me about my thoughts. Shhhhh I am actually musing what it would feel like to hold and kiss someone out here with the stars as witnesses and the wind quietly whistling by, tickling our skins, oh my, oh my!
Eventually people start dozing off one by one and we are forced to call it a night. But not before I have scouted for a falling star and made my wish! Call me superstitious but I will not waste away a chance like this when I know how hard such opportunities are to come by. The crickets do just fine as they soporifically connive in a sort of harmony with croaking frogs from a distance to soothe me off to a relaxed sleep I have not enjoyed in a long time. I can only guess it must have something to do with the freshness of the oxygen out here.
My sleeping Tent
Your guess is much better than mine! The morning definitely arrives far too quickly than anticipated. I taste some kind of pancakes that seem to be out of this world, mmh yummy uh... is all I can say as I munch away. Then we set off to discover the romance of Maasai land!
Our guide informs us that all a Moran needs to do while herding cattle is to find a certain plant known for its medicinal value in dental care, select a supple branch and chop it off. In the course of the day, he will take utmost care to decorate it and leave at its tail a few leaves. This is only if the Moran has his eye on a girl. Later in the evening, the Moran will deliberately and publicly proffer the finely crafted tooth brush to the apple of his eye.
Talk about a bouquet of flowers – carnations of roses, daisies, chrysanthemums, lilies, amaryllis, begonia, carnation, crocus, daffodils, forget me not, peony – the Moran seems to know his way into the heart of his beloved and it’s not in having “an expensive taste”. After the toothbrush is given, a public proclamation by the way, the girl is officially assumed to be taken. I couldn’t help but admire the fact that a people assumed to be “uncivilised” were so romantic in their own right. I mean, who would have thought that such delicate matters of the heart would thrive in “the bush” literally.
Whilst sitting down yonder in the valley my boss reminds me of Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s novel Different Colours in which the protagonist, Miguel, romantices of a waterfall as an ideal place to die. The connection is subtle but the undercurrent is so rife that I can feel the throb of life hammering away in my chest’s cavity. Now I know why artists go all mushy when in the presence of nature. It reminds them of the fragility of life and the need to treasure it. The thousands of cries, voices and noises from different animals make the place appear alien. Yet, the clarity of the flowing water and its coolness to the touch of the hand... ah! We all suddenly start comparing the locale to Java, KFC etc and the verdict is unanimous – a guy who would dare bring a girl on a date to such a place would be the winner over and above the guys who would take their ladies to the assumed expensive and classy joints that adorn the city. If only, if ...I will not travel that road for now.
I quickly make a mental note to experiment with the suggestion, of having a picnic out here, at least whenever the Lord gives me the opportunity. Now you know why I am referring to this as the romance of the Moran, the only way the Maasai Morans know how to – romance that seems to have been crafted out in heaven!   
PS: Did I mention that we actually did the Harlem shake out here in the wild? Wild it is eh? I know... look for me then we can talk a little further about this place.

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