Monday, August 4, 2014

Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road

It was first published in 1976 but Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road is still as relevant as it will be for centuries ad infinitum
This is because the text tackles human conflict that is centred on universal economic inequalities rife in urban settings. Reminiscent of an emerging Kenyan nation grappling with newly found independence from colonialism, the text abrogates itself the duty to serve as the watchdog of the less fortunate in the city. 
It traces the life of Ben Wachira and his dishevelled buddy, Ocholla, as they struggle against all odds to eke out a living as construction workers for Patel and Chakur Contractors. It is a demeaning job that reduces the casual labourers to objects who can be hired and fired at the whim of the employer.
Wachira appropriately describes their identity at the construction site as “Hands” and bemoans that “That is what they are here…if the contractor would make hands, he would never need labourers!” By identifying the labourers as hands, the contractor dehumanizes them and this makes it possible to exploit the labourers since they are not appreciated as fellow human beings. 
Thus, they inhabit backstreets, slums and other poor tenements where moral decay is the nemesis of an upright life. Mwangi’s text posits that unbridled urban growth that ignores the welfare of the people is doomed. The moral fabric of the society described in this novel teeters on the verge of disrepair. 
The women are objects of sexual gratification or simply bastards who are a pain in the arse of the men as Ocholla curses his wives and blames them for his miserable life. Ocholla describes his family as comprising of “Two beastly wives…and the devil knows how many little brats.” This serves to demonstrate the economic challenges entrapping the men and alienating them from their rural homes and families.
Urban life is also characterised by bitterness, revenge, violence and prostitution. Ocholla considers all harlots in Eden as his and the reader is privy to the many occasions in the text where women are willing to sell the bodies in order to make ends meet. Prior to meeting Wini, Wachira is seen scouting for a quick lay and long after Wini abandons him and her bastard child, Baby, Ben deteriorates to engaging with prostitutes to satiate his sexual desires. 
The spectacle is so bleak that at one time Ben engages a fifteen year old prostitute in sex whilst her one old month baby is tucked in a carton in the same room. Moreover, the story highlights the consequences of personal misdemeanour. Wachira is fired from his job as an army lieutenant when he entangles himself with criminals. His downfall culminates in losing a job at the PanAfrican Insurance Company. 
One of his former army colleagues, Onesmus or One-Arse-Mess, holds a grudge against Ben for their lost jobs. His desire to avenge their dismissal his clouded by his abuse of drugs and he ends up being ‘accidentally’ killed by Ocholla who is scared for Ben’s life after the former attempts to run Ben over with his truck.
Ultimately, the novel paints a grim picture of urbanisation although through Wachira and Ocholla we are able to glimpse a glimmer of hope. Ben demonstrates a sense of rational reasoning despite his frustration and at times resigned attitude towards life. Although healthy human relationships are hard to build, the genuine bond between Wachira and Ocholla serves to give the text a sense of hope. Towards the end, Wachira chooses to educate Baby and Ocholla welcomes his rural family to the city. 

Article first appeared in People Daily under the title: Competing for survival in Nairobi City and can be found here:

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