Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tasting the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of “The Stone Hills of Maragoli”

Stanley Gazemba’s “The Stone Hills of Maragoli” is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden when they chose to savour the forbidden fruit despite having a wide variety of fruits to pick from. But, unlike the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve had unlimited access to the fruits and provisions of the garden, Ombima in Gazemba’s text must not covet that which does not belong to him – Madam Tabitha. Tabitha is the wife of Ombima’s master and employer Andimi who owns a vast garden characterised by plenty of crops and fruits.
This is a story of inequities. It is a blend of the urban and the rural. A story of fading African traditional cultural practices and the emergent mixed cultural milieu characterised by loose personal relationships and wanting moral values. Andimi is cast as the thrifty business man who has painstakingly invested in building a local empire in the village. Andimi’s homestead is clearly foregrounded as a castle in the backdrop of the wretched village huts that appear like they can cave in at any moment as symbolised in Ang’ote’s dilapidated thatched hut.
Gazemba traces the story of Ombima and his travails as the novel’s protagonist. Ombima’s nuclear family betrays the effort to represent a village life setting since traditionally families would have an average of about ten people in the nuclear family and many more through the extended filial bonds. However, it could also be reminiscent of the shift from the traditional lifestyle to a more modernised mode of life. The serene ambience in Ombima’s homestead is shattered by the death of his only daughter – Saliku – who has been ailing since birth.
Suffice to note that the novel is characterised by elaborate descriptions which cast the story’s setting as a romantic paradise unadulterated by the corrupting ills of mechanization and industrial development. The villagers till their tiny farms and supplement their day to day needs by being casual labourers in Andimi’s farm. Their main chores are tea picking and delivering the produce at the local weighing station. It is a typical farm life commandeered by a foreman in the name of Mudeya-Ngoko, and coloured by the petty jealousies of the labourers as they jostle to find favour either in the foreman or the owner of the farm.
The greatest turbulence in Gazemba’s The Stone Hills of Maragoli happens when Andimi’s wife rocks the proverbial ship after she becomes unhappy with her husband’s obsession with the business franchise as opposed to their marriage. It becomes the same old story of an unhappy wife who falls in love outside marriage, for example, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. All these texts express disillusionment with married life and cast it as dull and listless. It is thus adequate to surmise that Gazemba borrows from this tradition of realistic narration to domesticate the ups and downs of a rural Kenyan village life.
Ombima never thinks nor imagines of an affair with Madam Tabitha. As far as he is concerned, Tabitha is way beyond his reach but when Ombima breaks the law and steals vegetables from Andimi’s garden she takes advantage of her knowledge of his misdemeanour to engage him in an illicit affair without the knowledge of her husband. It is Tabitha who initiates the relationship and dictates the direction of their uninhibited romp. In this context, Ombima is an unwilling party who nevertheless has to dance the marionette dance as long as Madam Tabitha holds the reigns of the strings to their affair. Tabitha’s power and economic standing casts her as possessing an intoxicating and magnetic pull that is characterised by her perfume and one from which Ombima’s weak protestations cannot help him wiggle out of.
It is a relationship that catapults Ombima into turmoil by throwing him of course in as far as being a man in his family is concerned. He becomes a little reckless and he feels unable to provide a sense of proper direction in his family. When Saliku eventually succumbs to her death, Ombima deteriorates in his moral standing. He seeks for solace in smoking and the burden of his inequities towards his employer weighs heavily on his moral conscience. His attempts to ward off the Madam are unsuccessful and he ends up entangled in the sweet aroma of their escapades as they indulge in the steamy and unbridled partaking of the stolen fruit. It is these escapades that take them up to the stone hills of Maragoli from which the novel’s title is borrowed.
Like in the predecessors’ stories of unlawful affairs, this story also ends tragically. Ombima cannot bear the guilt of his relationship alone and he ends up unburdening his soul to his closest friend – Ang’ote. But the jealousies play out and become exaggerated when Ang’ote considers this information as his only sure way out of poverty. Ang’ote confides in Rebecca – the old widow – that he plans to inform Andimi of the escapades of his wife so that he can find favour with him and earn his way up the ladder to riches and a good life. Although Rebecca cautions him against such an undertaking, Ang’ote still goes ahead and breaks so to speak the brother code by betraying his friend. Ang’ote’s decision to report his best friend demonstrates how poor male labourers’ hold voyeuristic gazes towards their rich madams and how they wish to conquer them by indulging in fantastical erotic sexual imaginations.
It is a catastrophic turn of events as a scorned and irate Andimi vows to gorge out Ombima’s eyes for having used them to covet after his wife. The irony of the turn of events is that Andimi had made a personal pact with himself to spend more time with his wife as a way of atoning for his absenteeism. He has vowed to become more loving and to try to reignite the fire that first brought them together. It is however a little too late because Madam Tabitha has become obsessed with getting married to Ombima. The story cautions us about human relationships that are founded on weak foundations since we discover that Andimi had married Tabitha in order to climb the economic ladder by gaining access to business opportunities that her father had.

At the end, it is Madam Tabitha who bears the brunt of her husband’s jealousy and hatred for Ombima whom he considers as a useless servant who should have never dared to do what he did. Andimi succeeds to gorge out Ombima’s eyes but his wife is killed by a watchman’s arrow who is scared that thieves might be plotting to rob the school. Thereafter, Andimi expresses his interest in making his faithful servant his wife now that Tabitha is gone. The tragedy of the turn of events at the end of the text is appeased in that Ombima’s wife – Sayo – is reunited with him and Aradi – his son – becomes his eyes whilst leading him around town to beg for alms. On one hand, this scenario brings the text’s unity into focus since the beginning of the novel had highlighted another old man led by his grandson.  On the other hand, when the two blind men meet again at the end of the novel, the story can then come to an end on a positive light although no one knows whether the peace of the stone hills of Maragoli will ever be assuaged.
The story fist appeared here:

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