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?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tale of Kasaya: Confessions of a Kenyan House Help

A memoir just like the autobiography makes for a gripping read. The trick in the memoir and the autobiography, as well, is that the reader is ‘tricked’ to perceive himself/herself as a confidant of the narrator. As a result, the reader enjoys the privilege of being the confessor as the narrator, the confessant, pours out personal matters to the reader. The resultant effect is an exciting relationship that establishes a bond of trust. Partly, this makes the reading of autobiographical writing interesting because we want to find out what drives the writers to share their stories with us and what is exciting about their stories – advanced gossip?
Eva Kasaya’s memoir provides fodder for an exciting tale because it narrates the life experiences of a house help. On average, memoirs and autobiographies are associated with people who have exceedingly excelled in life and acquired a certain measure of recognition and success. Largely this would be perceived in economic, so
cial or political parameters. On the contrary, Kasaya’s tale does not fit in this maxim. Hers is the tale of the calibre of employees who are considered to belong to the lowest cadre of job hierarchies.  
The author doubles up as the narrator in the story. Hers essentially ends up being a memoir because she only presents to us a snippet of her life and not necessarily the whole story about her life experiences. Inversely, it could still be argued to be autobiographical because she makes an effort to trace her life from birth as she traverses with the reader through her life journey to the moment she makes a decision to change her career. Under the tutelage of Wanjiru, she is apprenticed to train in a tailoring course that would make her economically independent.
Her memoir is special because it tackles the life experiences of a maid/house girl/house help. The common terminology in the Kenyan society is ‘auntie’. Through the lenses of the narrator, we get a glimpse of the torture, both physical and psychological, of house helps in general. Kasaya’s tale is representative of the cry of house helps throughout the Kenyan society. In minute details, she manages to lay bare the suffering and the discrimination rendered unto house maids like being forced to wash soiled panties, being served a smaller portion of food and even having the man of the house attempting to rape you and threatening you to silence thereafter.
This memoir relies on the journey motif to trace Kasaya’s life from a coffee farm in Thika to the unfortunate turn of events when they have to travel upcountry and then later on when their father is laid off from work to join them in Kerongo. It is a tale of a childhood of innocence that is rudely shattered by the narrator’s sojourn to adulthood. Her journey in the tale suggestively continues beyond the narrative when she is advised to venture into business by Wanjiru and David her benefactors who eventually treat her like a fellow human being. The way the narrator vivifies the details of her family’s struggle to eke out a living amongst unwelcoming relatives/in-laws presents a typical Kenyan village life. The impoverished life they lead in the village that compels Kasaya to drop out of school in class eight is reminiscent of the poverty bedecking most rural homes.
Unfortunately, Kasaya decides to write the story as a result of a close encounter with Renate a German woman married to a Luhyia like her. This twist to the story presents stereotyping whereby the whites are casts as patronising towards blacks. It is not the only stereotype we are entertained with in the tale. In our reading, we discover subtle suggestions that Kisii’s are hot tempered, Luyhia’s make for good house girls, Kikuyu’s are mean/stingy with money etc. It is largely David and Wanjiru who act as benevolent characters outside the paradigm of tribal lines who are cast a little objectively thereby restoring balance to the narrative.
Dotty, the young school girl who helps Kasaya to run away from the village to seek for refuge and a better life in the city, is an unforgettable character. She symbolises the rot in the society. The fact that she can willingly use her body and allow herself to be abused sexually says a lot about the moral fabric of the society. Dotty seems to sleep with anyone and everyone but her behaviour hardly rubs into the protagonist. She also provides the easiest way out for the protagonist to project the ugly side of life without incriminating her moral character so that at the end we absolve her from any evil doing. For example, when they lie to the train officials that Kasaya’s parents did not sent her money for fare, we blame Dotty for luring Kasaya away from home and for feeding her with the lies because Dotty is the evil one who leads a reckless life.
Kasaya’s family is cast against a backdrop of religious piety thereby charting her path in life as that of righteousness. This is why the reader easily believes her as opposed to Mama Eddie, the first employer, who accuses Kasaya of stealing her money. The same is replicated for the other employers who mistreat her and lie that she was spreading propaganda about them. Kasaya eventually comes across as a victim of circumstances. Her subsequent employers are cruel, mean and violent. They deny her her wages and force her to do chores that threaten her life like drawing water at 2am in the morning in an environment rife with insecurity. Kasaya’s working conditions are deplorable even though she is under age and her employers should be sued for subjecting her to child labour. She ends up being mistreated; feeding poorly and sleeping in the worst of conditions. Her short stint in Kibera slums highlights the struggle for survival amongst the poor in urban settings. The imagery provided of the shanties, the bathrooms and poor infrastructure symbolises the decaying moral behaviour of slum dwellers.
However, I question the writer’s confessions to some extent. There are instances of memory slips that render her story incredible. For example, she narrates that Mama Jimmy paid her seven hundred shillings and then shortly after during a recruitment session she says that Mama Jimmy paid her six hundred shillings. A memoir, like an autobiography, can only be believable if events are narrated in a way that we can believe in them. When the narrator detracts from the truth, then her tale is rendered questionable.
In addition, the text has typos throughout and it could have done well with better editing. The sentence structures are at times wanting and this makes a dent on the strength of the story because such instances become unpalatable patches in our reading. Except for a few elements here and there which appear hyperbolic, the story is generally interesting to read. The protagonist appeals to our emotions and makes us to empathise with her situation as a house help desperately trying to escape the cruel grip of poverty. Her confessions of intimate personal matters render her tale true. She eventually comes across as a narrator who panders to candour and aesthetically distances herself from sinking into the abyss of an emotional outpour. 
Listen to the author here:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Snake Slithered by...

There are things that make us laugh. And there are things that make us cry. There are memories that we are fond of, but there are memories that we would rather forget than remember. It is the power of the mind and personal choice that determine what we dwell on during our moments of recall... stints of reminiscences?
I don’t know whether it is boredom or the fear of failure that sets my medusa oblongata purring/warring, but I know that once in a while I inadvertently indulge myself in occasional trips down yonder in the valley or recesses of my brain. May I enjoin you in a tête-à-tête about some seminars we hold down in Athi River Campus. We hold some workshops/talks every other semester as part of stimulating the learning environment to make it more exciting.
It is during one of these sessions that the inevitable happened. An uninvited guest trouped into the ICT Theatre building to partake of the session. It seemed to have just dropped from the ceiling abruptly. The green grass snake would intermittently slither down the brick decorated wall, lift its head slightly as though straining to catch a word or two, stare at the audience and then lay its scaly body smugly on the wall. Once in a while the snake would slither upwards as though daring to walk out on the talk, as if saying we were beginning to bore the audience.
Surprisingly and as if tempted by an interesting word here and there, the snake would come down once again only so slightly, take its now usual position, cock its head, flick its tongue and generally roam its eyes on the audience. Did it have a brain? So what was going on in its mind?
I had one main worry though. What rationale was the snake using to determine how low to climb? How long to listen? Was it even following our conversation? A few guys had noticed its presence but not our guest speaker. At least the majority of the audience was not privy to this impromptu guest. What would happen if the snake decided to come down and occupy a seat? Pandemonium would have broken loose if most students would have gotten a whiff of the spectacle!
A few days later I got the sad news that the security guards managed to track the snake down and kill it. Was it worthwhile? I know not...
Then the other day another green grass snake decides to pop into my class. A student of philosophy or a wandering stranger? It could have been thirst or clamour for a cool shelter. The snake suddenly appeared on the window sill, flicked its tongue as a way of greetings and slithered into the classroom.
A female student nearest the window first froze – in awe or consternation? I don’t know! I suspect she was trying to process what her eyes were seeing because she afterwards screamed and jumped at the same time. Adrenalin must have been having a field day with her. As if on cue, the other students jumped away in unison. In that split second, it suddenly downed on us all that we had an uninvited guest in our class.
Once more I wondered what the snake must have been experiencing in the face of this sudden furore! Need I say anything more? Most of us dashed out even as I made arrangements with the security guard who clobbered the poor thing to death. Not until I saw the stains on the white tiled floor did I reconcile myself to the fact that even a snake has blood. Please don’t judge me but I am not a fun of whatever kind of snake.
I just wish I could have shared the thoughts of the snake in those last minutes before its life expired. Did it have any final wishes? I guess I will never get to know. Or do you have any clue by the way?  

Popular Posts