Sunday, March 30, 2014

Unsettling the Dust of Kenya’s Historical Injustices in Yvonne Owour’s DUST

Image courtesy of:
Yvonne Owour’s novel, DUST, is enigmatic. The story has a lyrical allure to it owing to the vastness of verse adopted in telling the story. It is narrated from a multiplicity of narrative voices thereby making it easy to follow the divergent narrative threads that the omniscient narrator explores. From an academic perspective, I am convinced that this novel will attract a plethora of research especially at the graduate level.
Underlying a nonetheless deep story is a series of carefully covered up secrets that no one dares to lay bare. DUST is an allegorical novel which traces the Kenyan history from pre-independence times to, I opine, a post-contemporary Kenyan setting. The novel partly pursues the genealogy of the Kenyan historical injustices and aptly demonstrates that the wealth of many Kenyan families is dialectically connected to their powerful political backgrounds. 
Moses Odidi Oganda is a tragic character fated to die on the streets of Nairobi like a common criminal. His story unravels in the opening scene of DUST according the text a peculiar narrative hook. Instead of the story tracing its origin from the beginning, the narrator plunges us into in medias res – in the middle of things so to speak. The chronological sequencing of a story from the beginning to the end is thus interrupted in a way that grants the story a fresh twist. Thus the reader is captivated to closely follow the events so as to find out what had happened before this killing and what is likely to occur as a consequence of Odidi’s death.
Although the story appears to be anchored around the 2007/2008 bungled elections and the political flare up and violence thereafter, there is much more to the narrative than meets the eye. The story of Odidi’s death becomes the reference point for the tumbling down of Wouth Ogik and the suggested unearthing of individual secrets tied together with those of the nation at large. Wouth Ogik symbolises the nation and its cracks and possible disintegration is reminiscent of the mistrust and the fissures of a nation resulting from tribal animosity and decades of political injustices. DUST is a warning that secrets from a dark past can devastatingly destroy and vanquish a family/nation overnight.
Once upon a time before the death of Odidi happens, we are told the story of his father. It is a story within a story of the transient tale of Nyipir’s father and brother who went to Burma, India, during the colonial time to fight beside the British. The absence of Nyipir’s father and brother creates an abyss of loneliness and longing. Nyipir’s one wish is to travel to Burma in order to trace his kith and kin and possibly bring them back home. Is this feasible owing to the tumultuous events that suddenly break loose in Nyipir’s life? As the text asks “What endures?”
The novel seems to suggest that the Oganda’s family’s life is a dance choreographed with measured steps. In their efforts to re-member themselves and unite as a family, the reader is reminded of Kenya’s history. Also, the bonds of human relationships and blood are the most tampered with for this family. In this multilayered narrative, the reader is progressively exposed to the intricate dealings, events and historical moments that become a defining fulcrum for the Oganda’s and for Kenya at large. Nyipir was once a house boy, an obedient soldier, and then a fugitive compelled to erase his identity and rebuild his humanity from scratch. Akai Lokorijom his wife is cursed to traverse the lands without respite even in the face of the death of her son. Arabel Ajany, their daughter and an artist, maps her life from Wouth Ogik to Brazil then back to Kenya to bury her brother and mentor.
Most of the text’s ancillary events ricochet from Odidi’s gravesite. It is as though the effort to return dust to dust rudely reminds us that we must first settle our scores in order for the dead to rest peacefully. One of the dark pasts highlighted in the novel is the story of Obarogo – the ogre incarnate. Although this is presumably a mythical tale of passing time amongst the children, the discovery of a skeleton in the caves, by Odidi and Ajany, and the knowledge of the disappearance of a white settler from Wouth Ogik rouse our curiosity to find out the fate of Wouth Ogik’s first owner – Hugh Bolton.
Consequently, the reader realises that the history of Kenya and that of the fictitious Kalacha region symbolically harbour a lot of meaning to our sense of being as Kenyans. The story of the Mau Mau, torture and the attendant cover ups are revealed. The text descriptively tantalises our human senses in a way that we ably focalise on the deaths like that of Aloys Kamau, the secret graves and the oath taking that turned friends to foes. The reader is also able to connect with the emptiness of settler lives through the eyes of Selene. Hence we appreciate the depth of alienation when Selene is unable to develop a sense of belonging akin to that of her husband, Bolton.
On the contrary, we are also warned about romanticising everything like Bolton does because this can lead to blind ambition and selfishness. Bolton develops a penchant to own everything and his world revolves around “my” this and that to the extent that the wife first psychologically becomes detached from him and eventually physically when she relocates to Britain without him. The chasm of their separation is hinted at through the paternity doubt of Isaiah Bolton who eventually sets out on a pilgrimage to trace his roots to Kenya when his mother dies.
The colonialists’ racial hatred for indigenous habitants is evident through Bolton’s mistreatment of Akai. The narrative underlines the consequences of interracial marriages; it warns us that idyllic wishes for cross-cultural relationship can catastrophically destroy lives. Akai ends up so psychologically traumatised that she degenerates into bestial behaviour. She attempts to feed her first twins her blood in order for them to survive the draught but the ravages of weather are much more than she can handle. When she troupes back to Wouth Ogik, Bolton disparages and assaults her resulting in his killing by Nyipir who chooses to defend Akai.
DUST unconsciously unsettles the dust of Kenya’s historical injustices. It makes reference to election rigging, cattle rustling, selective government appointments, land displacement and police executions amongst others. The narrative highlights the destruction of a young talented mind, Odidi, through corruption. Odidi stands for what is right but the society would rather he conforms to the orders from above to save his job and life. His refusal to abide leads to the end of his engineering career and he engages crime to survive. His tragedy culminates in the disappearance of Justina and the unborn young Odidi perhaps intimating that they also die. 
Courtesy of author's FaceBook Page
The text appears to indict the society for selectively mistreating some members and pushing them to the margins both politically and economically. This is traced from the airlift education initiated by Tom Mboya to the political appointments and assassinations the country has experienced over time among others. We are rudely jolted to the reality of things when we discover that the past and the present are closely intertwined. The collusion of police with cattle rustlers and traders in small arms is a case in point. These elements are permanently etched in Kenya’s official languages: “English, Kiswahili and Silence.”  
Essentially, the mystery of Wouth Ogik and that of Kenya as a nation must be demystified. We have to confront our pasts and evaluate our moments of divergence and convergence in order to live in peace, love and unity. These are the journeys that the characters in DUST have to undertake symbolically suggesting that we have to brazen out the skeletons in our closets and chart out new paths whether or not our pasts have a bearing on our present or assumed future so to speak.
Hope in DUST is discovered when the dust finally settles down in Wouth Ogik through a deluge: “a spread-out-acacia sprouts green life” and a woman gives “birth to twins – a boy and a girl, who emerged with little arms entwined around each other.” (p385). It is a significant gesture that both Wouth Ogik and Kenya at large can be healed from the scars of historical injustices that have bedecked us over the years. 

Meet the author here:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Would you accept a gift from a stranger?

“Nine months later, I got a beautiful baby girl. A gift from a stranger.” (p.116) This is a line from Waigwa Wachira’s play “A Gift from a Stranger” which was published in 2013 by Kenya Literature Bureau. Although KLB could have done a better job with typos, especially in the preliminary pages, the play still provides a great dramatic platform for engagement with thespians. Also, the playwright could have bargained for an inclusion of the original cast that first performed the play. Although this is not necessarily crucial, it would have been a good idea. 
Photo Courtesy of:
I knew right from the beginning that I would read this play from a biased perspective. I cannot deny it. Yes my reading is subjective and opinionated, but theory has it that all readings of literary texts are biased in one way or the other. My review of the play is biased because I happen to have played the lead role, being cast as the lead Gentleman, when the play was crafted and staged in its first draft in 2001.
It is a satirical script. It is humorous and it makes fun of human follies ad infinitum. This is done in a simple manner. Wachira, the dramatist, draws from the fodder of human behaviour and he preys on entrenched myths about HIV/AIDS. For example, a decade ago there were unconfirmed reports that certain Kenyan communities believed that if you slept with a young virgin girl you would be cured from the virus. Unheard of, right? But, you would be amazed at the kind of abstract things Kenyans are willing to concretise during desperate times.
In other communities, there have been stories of victims of HIV/AIDS who leave behind a trail of destruction through deliberate infections once the person discovers their HIV/AIDS status. As a result, some of these people have written down names of their secret lovers thus creating a sense of anxiety upon the living once death comes knocking at the door of the victim. Such “written wills” are discovered and read with fear and heighted palpitations of the heart as potential victims of the virus fear for the worst. It is an “inheritance” riddled with utmost dread and one that nobody would wish to be a beneficiary to. 
It is at the backdrop of such instituted HIV/AIDS’ myths, practices, misinformation and misdirected energies of the late 80s and much of 90s that the play revolves. The protagonist is ironically referred to as the “Gentleman” to underscore his errant sexual behaviour at the discovery of his HIV/AIDS status. He wonders why it should be him, and not any other person, yet statistically speaking there are over seven hundred and fifty million people in Africa! Armed with anger, frustration and a strong desire not to go down alone, he decides to replicate the business acumen of his friend Kajuma: to open a clearing and forwarding company.
The protagonist’s clearing and forwarding company is unique in its own way. The Gentleman vows never to get involved in clearing mundane things like washing machines, cars or other cargo of similar nature. His interest is in the clearing of “wives, women and girlfriends, concubines and spare wheels (suggesting the contemporary mpango wa kandos – mistresses maintained for sexual favours)”. (p. 67) In his zealous approach, the Gentleman will visit all types of hotels and restaurants and even the seedy type like Karumaindo – a favourite brothel in Nairobi amongst the economically poor urbanites. The clincher is when he confesses that even the back sit of his shiny mercedes would come in handy to aid the cycle of infection.
 “A Gift from a Stranger” provides us with a chance to critique our morality and re-evaluate our sexual mannerisms and predilections. It is a blunt warning that carelessness regarding sexual behaviour is costly. The play abrogates itself the duty to educate the masses on the need for testing, counselling and living positively. Although the protagonist takes a jibe at being diagnosed positive, we are compelled to read from his action and eventual downfall the import of exercising restraint and prudence in our sexual engagements.

Sarcasm is discerned through the ignorance of the masses as symbolised in some of the characters. For example, there are those who reject condoms and compare their use to eating sweets with their wrappers on. Such incredulous comparisons underline the need for sensitisation and proper sexual education to demystify commonly peddled lies concerning matters coitus. Moreover, this depicts the underbelly of the contemporary system of education which has miserably failed to address the subject of sexuality amongst the youth through the school curriculum. Hence, this play would resonate well with young readers because it communicates to their activities and it uses language that they can easily identify with.
However, in his fervour to capture the variegated ways through which HIV/AIDS is contracted and transmitted, the playwright appears to overshoot his mandate. The script runs the risk of being susceptible to boredom. There are long passages which the dramatist has ingeniously spread out to be acted by different Gentlemen even though the character is the same. Thus, if well interpreted and directed, such weaknesses can easily be surmounted. The bedrock of the script is in the turn of events when those who think they cannot contract the virus discover the reality and come to the conclusion that “this thing has a sting in the tail” (p.133).
In addition, some of the human activities referred to in the play may have been overtaken by events but one cannot write off the script as being irrelevant. The contemporary society has perfected the art of unfaithfulness in marriage through multiple sexual partners, premarital sex, incest and even recently cases of bestiality. Whereas the play depicts a man prowling the country in search of women in different geographical locales, the modern man will have a wife and a string of mistresses housed in different parts/towns. It is a case of same script different cast.
Furthermore, the sugar-daddy trope has taken a new face with rich liberated women becoming strong contenders of the game so to speak. Thus, in an era of endless partying, binge drinking and drug abuse, it is more likely that strangers will sleep together recklessly. It is no wonder that studies have indicated a common thread of abuse of post sex pills. Does this then mean that people are more likely to have sex with strangers? Given the opportunity for more money, is it likely that a twilight girl will agree to have sex without protection? And with a stranger for that matter? My point is when we agree to engage in sex without protection it is akin to accepting a gift from a stranger.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Demystifying the myth of ‘fake it till you make it’ in Otieno’s A Taste of Fame

The Burt Award has brought good tidings for Kenyan writers. This is especially so because it is the most prestigious in comparison to the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature or the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. As a result, the prizes have generally inspired a plethora of writing in the country. Argwings Otieno’s A Taste of Fame is one of the texts which has not only been recently published, 2013, but it is also the second to win the Burt Award.

A Taste of Fame is a young readers’ novel. The protagonist is Rando Shama, a teenager, who symbolises the ambitions of the youth. The author uses simple language that is accessible to young readers and the text’s structure is linearly arranged. Hence, the story begins on a Sunday afternoon and comes to an end a week later on a Sunday afternoon. This makes it possible for young readers to access the story and to identify with it.

Through Rando, we are able to visualise how the youth are impressionistic and highly susceptible to peer pressure. Rando has recognised a role model in a local pop star, Dickson Zago, whose stage name is Dee Zaster. Of course Dee Zasta puns on the received pronunciation of the word disaster thereby symbolising a tragic turn of events. Although the story’s ending has a tinge of tragedy exemplified in the untimely death of Dee Zasta’s mother, the feared for debacle in Rando’s life is judiciously taken care of by the protagonist’s psychological coming-of-age.

Structured through a partially bildungsroman approach, that is a coming-of-age novel, the story traces Rando’s naive aspirations to be like his icon Dee Zasta. This indicates the average behaviour of teenagers who at times rebel against their parents with the assumption that their parents do not understand them. The story demonstrates the innocence of a child without fully horned out faculty for intuition. Thus, Rando blindly imitates Dee Zasta and even attempts to speak, sing and dance like his icon. He is so carried away with this obsession that he fantasises to the extent that his teachers catch him daydreaming in class.  

Rando’s identification with Dee Zasta sets him on a collision path with his father. The father is mature and knowledgeable enough to understand that blind imitation of others without knowledge of the self is futile. The father’s perceptions are vindicated when we are informed that local stars’ motto is “fake it till you make it”. It is an empty life, one devoid of human fulfilled; hence, characterised by unhappiness and a desire to please others at the expense of person actualisation. Rando’s father knows that the antidote for such a malaise is education and thus he is opposed to his son’s hell-bent wish to become a music star.

Although the protagonist is impetuously determined to become a music star, we recognise the need to let young people to pursue their dreams, albeit under the tutelage of their parents/guardians. This is especially so when we, together with Rando, discover that stars’ lives are not necessarily filled with achievement and happiness. Dee Zasta is cast as an unhappy musician who would rather borrow money or withdraw a down payment for his mother’s treatment so that he can attend a music concert in a helicopter. He is so engrossed in notions of physical appearance that he becomes reckless, gullible and irresponsible. This makes it possible for Don, his designer, to con him all his money. Such a mistake costs Dee Zasta catastrophically because his mother’s treatment is delayed and she ends up dying coincidentally the moment he successfully accomplishes his performance during the concert.

The text is strongly moralising. It is imbued with moral lessons that young readers can easily identify with. For example, not all those who appear to be our friends are good friends. Jemo helps Rando to forge a note to the hospital accountant when Rando forgets the original at home. He is very supportive and offers a dependable shoulder for Rando during difficult moments but at one time he attempts to pierce Rando’s ear and this ends badly when Rando has to visit the hospital in the middle of the night to be treated.

Moreover, the youth should not hearken to voices of discouragement when they feel that they have talents. They should have self confidence and cultivate a sense of belief in themselves. This will ward off the likes of Makanjo who might derail their pursuits. Take note that Makanjo is the Sheng equivalent of the plural derogative term used especially by hawkers in Nairobi city to denote the City Council Askaris. Thus Makanjo is reminiscent of voices of doubt and other negative notions that should not be given space during moments of rumination about our careers or future aspirations.

Photo courtesy of (Otieno - author)
The story unfolds humorously. There are constant moments where incongruous items are presented to the audience. For example the schizophrenic man in the hospital who attempts to pass for the hospitals’ manager. Also, the story provides the case of the mad man who steals the show during the school’s prize giving ceremony. Such instances present the reader with opportune moments of comic relieve and help to add onto the aesthetic qualities of an otherwise well told narrative.

However, the story is subtly laced with undercurrents of queer behaviour. For the eye that is wont to roam and over read, Rando’s father would easily pass for a homophobic character who is jealous of his son’s relationship with Dee Zasta. Rando appears to be emotionally attracted to Jemo but it is in his effort to be like Dee Zasta that queer tendencies are underscored. However, I choose to read this as the genuine love and emotional connection of a young mind as opposed to an over interpretation of the story which would indicate otherwise.

Last but not least, A Taste of Fame castigates vanity in human beings. We are tempted to fake things hoping that we will make it. In a contemporary world where shortcuts appear to be the apt avenues to success and glory, the story warns us that our lives are likely to be hollow and bound to tumble down once the money vanishes. Hence, we should build our lives around strong moral values even if we will not end up being popular amongst our peers. This is Rando’s discovery at the end of the story when he realises that he has to chart his own destiny “to be original and unique”.

Popular Posts