|Image courtesy of: www.jamesmurua.com|
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.
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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: https://www.facebook.com/YvonneAdhiamboOwuor
Meet the author here: https://www.facebook.com/YvonneAdhiamboOwuor