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, social 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lxg56vD2nw