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?