Kenya’s Brutal, Secret History


When asked what inspired her to write Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor responded, “Kenya: questioning its paradoxes, secrets and extremes during a season when a government we voted in as ‘Kenyans’ so quickly betrayed our collective hopes and ideas.  I was angry that the state was deaf to the furiously bubbling undercurrents and seemed incapable of acknowledging their origins, the legacy of what might be called the different forms of our national ‘woundedness.’”  In short, tribalism and greed.  Owuor had already finished writing her novel, but when the election of 2007 and its aftermath led to a country self-detonating, she began the novel all over again.  The result is disturbingly inclusive, extending the parameters of Kenya’s troubled history: colonial and its aftermath when things have not been particularly stable.  Furthermore, Dust anchors Owuor as the rightful heir to Kenya’s greatest novelist: Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  Like Ngugi, Owuor has not been intimidated by the authorities and self-censored her writing.

The richness of this amazing novel resides in its circular structure, beginning with the murder on the streets of Nairobi, in 2006, of a young man named Odidi Oganda, an idealist and talented young man.  Only at the conclusion of the story, after the lives of the surviving members of his family (father, mother, sister) have been wrenched apart and then put together again, are Odidi’s life and brutal death explicable.  This is true only then because a handful of other characters have been drawn to Oganda’s family, not because of the recent murder, but down through the decades of Kenya’s history during the pre-independent Mau Mau rebellion and the much later, since independence, the squabbling ethnic factions in the country.

It’s not a pretty picture at any time, beginning with colonialism when the British populated their prize colony with more than enough district officers to retain a semblance of stability while simultaneously giving those same officers huge chunks of the country’s most fertile land.  Inevitably, there was miscegenation, rivalry for some African women that involved blacks and whites. In remote areas of the country, particularly in the north, first the British and, later, the Africans set up their own private fiefdoms pretty much beholding to no government forces.  Out of this background, a young man Englishman named Isaiah Bolton arrives at the Ogandas’ estate, called Wuoth Ogik (“the journey ends”), searching for information about his father, Hugh, who disappeared years ago, about the time of Kenya’s independence.  Isaiah had actually communicated with Odidi, before his death, who told him that if he went to Wuoth Ogik, he would learn something about his father.

Then there are Nyipir and Akai-ma, Odidi’s parents, as well as his sister, Ajany, who made her own flight away from the family by living in Brazil for several years— three survivors trying to understand why Odidi was assassinated.  All of these characters have had shifting loyalties.  Nyipir once proudly worked in the government police force but turned against it because of the increasing factionalism he observed, beginning with the assassination of Tom Mboya, in 1969, six years after the country’s independence.  Mboya was the dusthope of younger Kenyans, the rightful heir to Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president.  Owuor observes, “After Mboya, everything that could die in Kenya did, even schoolchildren standing in front of a hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open.  A central province was emptied of people who were renamed cockroaches and ‘beasts from the west.’  But nobody would acknowledge the exiles or citizens who did not make it out of the province before they were destroyed.  Oaths of profound silences—secret shots in a slithering war.”

It is the silences of the past that threaten to destroy the country.  When Ajany discovers the place in the street where her brother was assassinated and tries to clean up the dried blood, this is the narrator’s observation, an indictment of those who permit such atrocities to happen: “Passersby, exhausted from running battles with false policemen, murderous gangs, double-tongued politicians, and priests of sorrow, think the smallish woman lying on the road is another of the well-dressed insane who from season to season appear from nowhere.  Moreover, in an unreasonable season—when a nation has smoldered inside the small egos of broken men who would be kings, and when rabid men with spiked clubs circumcised small boys to death, and seventeen heads without bodies were roadblocks across a national highway, and people used ballpoint pens to accuse next-door neighbors who would then be slaughtered and burned while they sorted out the earthly goods they wanted from their homes—a small woman scrubbing blood off a potholed road is nothing to marvel at.”

Later, the narrator remarks—continuing the metaphor of silence, doing nothing—“No one would emerge to ask after men who had been erased.  It was as if they had never been born.”  The habit of silence that “spread across the nation” becomes the damning indictment of almost everyone in the country.  And “dust”?  In one sense that is all that is left, though Owuor positions her main characters for the future and the possibility of their own redemption. Still, the story is bleak as, I’m certain, the author believes is Kenya’s future.

Dust is a dazzling narrative, Faulknerian in many ways, challenging to read (especially in the opening chapters).  But the rewards are significant, especially Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s unforgettable characters.  There are times when the prose is a little choppy (too many short, clipped sentence fragments), but by the story’s end you are rewarded with a genuine sense of fulfillment.  Owuor’s is a new voice from the African continent—distinct, rich, unflappable in her convictions.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Dust

Knopf, 369 pp., 25.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.




Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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