Bridging the Socio-Economic Gap against All Odds
Although Mwangi Gicheru crossed the bridge of life to death in May 2014, it is interesting to note that his texts continue to inspire many people to bridge the gap of literacy though a reading of his novels. Indeed, Gicheru is revered for titles such as: Two in One (1970), The Ivory Merchant (1976), Across the Bridge (1979), The Double-Cross (1983), The Mixers (1991) and The Ring in the Bush (2013). From comments posted on the internet, it is obvious that Across the Bridge has left an indelible mark on the minds of many as an initiatory text into the world of Kenyan literature.
Across the Bridge narrates the story of two young lovers, Chuma and Caroline Wambui, whose social and economic worlds are distinctly apart. Chuma is a house boy serving the family of Kahuthu, Caroline’s father, a civil servant representing the neo-colonial bourgeoisie or as described in the text a black-duke. In this post-independence social setting, interactions between employees and family members of their employer is characterised by a master servant relationship and any cordial relations or attempts at familiarity are vehemently thwarted. Thus, the rich neo-colonial suburbs are depicted as ailing from extreme loneliness since relationships between the servants from different households are also forbidden.
Caroline Wambui, Kahuthu’s only daughter tragically suffers from this set up which denies human interactions amongst the different social classes. As a young schooling teenager, Caroline yearns for friends both male and female, but the father’s hawk eye and security detail denies her the possibility to make friends. Devoid of a human touch, apart from that of her parents, and yearning to quell the heat of teenage emotions, Caroline crosses the social bridge and reaches out to Chuma, the only young man within her reach; albeit, the houseboy with whom she is not supposed to have any second thoughts about.
Chuma considers himself “A factory reject!” because he “[suspects] God must have created [him] shortly before lunch. The lunch bells were ringing when He was making [him]. In a hurry to leave His workshop, He left [him] incomplete. Worst of all, He gave [Chuma] the brain of a chicken and the body of a human.” This sense of dark humour pervades throughout the text providing it with comic relief from the tragic happenings that unfold thereafter. Therefore, in his self-deprecation, Chuma does not imagine that Caroline would cast her gaze towards him since the socio-economic setup bars any possible bridging of the gap between them let alone any physical relations.
However, as the narrator observes: “It was only natural that Caroline, already an adult, and beautiful and lonely, would try to seek the company of a member of the opposite sex.” Consequently, both Chuma and Caroline have to cross the social bridge since “the only man within [Caroline’s] restricted reach was the only man within the home compound. The houseboy named Chuma.” Unfortunately, the heat of their passion for one another is unbridled and Caroline becomes pregnant as a result of their nightly rendezvous at Chuma’s quarters occasioned by bodily explorations under the cover of darkness.
The rest is history. Chuma takes off, Caroline chases after him and Kahuthu is compelled to sue Chuma for eloping with his daughter. Although Chuma wins the court case and is determined to keep Caroline as his wife, it is apparent that he cannot do so within his economic means. Caroline is socialised and accustomed to a high life that is diametrically opposed to the abject poverty in Chuma’s home. Realising that he has crossed the bridge to adulthood and responsibility, Chuma devices all sorts of plans to fend for his wife in a bid to keep her happy as much as possible.
It is the pressure from seeing Caroline’s discomfort, her beautiful face becoming disfigured by the strains of destitution that gnaws at Chuma’s senses and drives him to leave beyond his economic means. Much later when he has mastered the art of pilfering money from his boss’s bar in a bid to make extra income, he blames Caroline for his actions and ambition. He ends up being jailed and within that period Caroline is reunited with her family and shortly after whisked far away from Nairobi to Mombasa.
Chuma’s efforts to track Caroline after his release from jail fuel his desire to finally cross the economic bridge for good. He contends that Caroline has planted the seed for ambition in his heart, a feeling that he says he cannot shake off. Ironically, he gets into bad company with Kisinga, an armed criminal who argues that there is no difference between what he does and what politicians do since they are all thieves; thereby justifying his criminal acts. It is Kisinga who preys on Chuma’s weakness and desire for economic liberation to induct the young man into the world of crime.
Consciously, Chuma crosses the moral bridge when he aids Kisinga to clobber a tourist couple in Mombasa so that they can steal money to finance their way back to Nairobi. Although Chuma had previously engaged in crime, the reader is hopeful that he can be redeemed from deteriorating into full-fledged criminal activities, but after the incident in Mombasa Chuma resigns himself to fate and commits to make money in any way possible. He rationalises that this is the only way to win back the love of his life. He even confronts Caroline and accuses her of planting the seed of ambition in his soul.
A bank heist in which Chuma is involved culminates in his acquisition of a huge chunk of money. In his folly to appear important, to be recognised as a man of means, he makes the mistake of parading himself at a golf club that Kahuthu frequents. Chuma experiences dire alienation and even begins to hate the new identity he has forced on himself. This is worsened by his encounter with Caroline who rejects him even after he has invested so much money to buy her gifts hoping to impress her. A scuffle in a luxurious tourist resort culminates in critical injury of Caroline and eventual arrest of Chuma.
Underlying the narrative are patriarchal insinuations that women are materialistic and their hearts can only be won with material things. In fact, it appears as though the text endorses the thinking that women are the cause of men’s troubles. Although Chuma and Caroline are later reunited, certain moral questions are left unanswered. Is the narrative suggesting that it is alright to steal money and invest it in a good cause thereby sanitising the act? Is it not possible to make money without relying on dirty underhand dealings as is commonly practiced in most third world nations? Are men incapable of working hard to make it in life without women as trophies for their hard work?
Across the Bridge makes for an interesting read by appealing to the popular. It demonstrates the possibility of love between two unmatched teens by way of a thrilling journey characterised by setbacks to their quest to stay close. Excitement in the text builds through their yearning to conquer the insurmountable as both Chuma and Caroline strive to demystify the thinking that the master’s daughter cannot cast her eye on the master’s servant. Although Chuma is to blame for pursuing an unacceptable economic path, the society at large is cast as the main culprit because it harbours social settings which favour certain people at the expense of others. It therefore remains for us to see who would not be willing to go across the bridge of social, political, economic and any other structures that hinder our progress in our desire for self-actualisation.
I am not yet aware whether any of his texts have transitioned into the movie industry in the form of adaptations. However there was word that Gicheru was working on a script from Across the Bridge before he passed on. It would be exciting to see this alongside adaptations from John Kiriamiti's trilogy.