Owuor's Reflections on Kenya's Troubled and Painful Past

By Ambrose Ehirim

By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Alfred A. Knopf. 384 Pages. $25.95

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor/Courtesy Pinintrest

In my review of Ode Mkpishi, novelist Chinua Achebe's "Education of a British Protected Child: Essays," his outing in twenty years, which was a narrated pile of social problems about an unbecoming country run over by military juntas, accompanied by the widespread scandals of bribery and corruption and, the pains associated with it, Achebe did not waste time to express his feelings and anger toward a nation that neglected normal procedure, as far as civil liberties and code of conduct were concerned.

And, Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, felt the same way when he authored "The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis," in which he did not stop lamenting. Soyinka's book was based on lectures he had delivered on a piecemeal at Harvard University in 1996 when Sani Abacha had wrestled power and had become a despot dealing summarily with his subjects, his subjects who had denounced his iron rule. At the time the lectures were made, Soyinka was not at his best; he had been overwhelmed and weakened by Abacha's wrath. He had been nervous, full of anguish, and had fled his native land, bearing in mind what the Abacha-led military juntas had done to his country and reflecting on the nation's entire history since colonial conquest, and, reminding his readers repetitively that it had been so -- that the country was heading to hell and, was not going anywhere by way of progress.

Yvonne Adhiagbo Owuor, unquestionably, has taken the footsteps of the above-mentioned authors in her narrative, recalling Kenya's troubled past which was begun from the days of the colonial administrators, way back from the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s, gearing toward independence in the early 1960s to 2007, when Kenya was thrown into internal strife and political turmoil, ethnic clashes and wanton killings from an election that had been marred by irregularities. It's in the same pattern Achebe had written his earlier novels depicting social ills and a state of empire and anarchy that is found in Owuor's first major entry in literature.

Owuor begins her plot with the brutal murder of an 18 year engineering student named Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda, who had been gunned down while fleeing the streets of Nairobi. This was set in 2007 when incumbent Mwaki Kibaki was seeking reelection as president of Kenya, which erupted violence turning Kenya into an ungovernable state and, into an ethnic warfare. Murder, rapes, forced circumcisions and as the list goes on, had been the order. Displacements and thousands of Kibaki's opponents had been murdered and, what would happen was that the Kikuyis had been blamed for the attacks and the restlessness in the country had become burdensome.

After the presidential election in December of 2007, in Kenya, of which a Kikuyi, Kibaki had won and exact revenge on other tribes, which Uhuru Kenyatta would be accused of masterminding said mayhem on other tribes, especially the Luos, his political foes and rivalry, Raila Odinga, who, along other oppositions had mounted series of complaints and allegations pressuring the international community  and the International Criminal Court, the ICC, in The Hague, Netherlands, to step up and level charges against Kenyatta.

Owuor's angst from the set up of the novel can be traced practically from how three presidents of Kenya -- Jomo Kenyatta; Daniel Arap Moi, who had destroyed the nation's political landscape for twenty years; and, an incumbent, Kibaki -- have combined to sow seeds of discord among other tribes to intentionally keep dividing them.

As it had happened, after the December 2007 elections, violence broke out -- the Kikuyi's were attacked to have robbed the nation of due process and credible election by the Luos. The Luos are President Barack Obama's father's tribe. Also, what had happened in Kenya's Rift Valley, where mobs of the Luos tribe had attacked the Kikuyis (Kenyatta and Kibaki's clan) before an all out revenge, portrays Owuor's initiation with the novel's prologue.

Owuor's major character, Oganda, had a sister, Arabel Ajany Oganda, an artist, who lived in Brazil and had visited Nairobi to bury her brother which would take the story back and forth with a tone of disappointment, emotional constipations as a result, and the ominous consequences that would follow after the violent encounters at the Rift Valley, when the Luos and other ethnic groups had been savagely axed and hacked to death, and destroyed in its entirety, in revenge.

And despite what had unfolded at the Rift Valley -- mass rape, men and women hacked to death -- and kibaki hurriedly sworn in without considering the effects and how violence has dealt a nation a big blow. Owuor was very clear when in her thoughts for her readers, reminded herself of a "stillborn ballot revolution" which had almost destroyed Kenya's democracy -- a people setting their nation on fire; thus, "On the ground that night, in a furtive ceremony, beneath a half moon, a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the president of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out of control national grieving."

It was with all obviousness Owuor brought the Rift Valley and elsewhere massacres to the fore and acknowledged it had destroyed Kenya's nationhood and, adding insult to dishonor, one Isaiah William Bolton, an Englishman surfaces looking for his missing father, which also would send another chilling effect to the Oganda family, Ajany and her father Nyipir Oganda, an ex-soldier who had no more desire to be reminded of the colonists on the grounds of his previous encounters with them, especially Bolton's father, Hugh, that deceitful British officer.

Owuor was born in Nairobi in 1968. She attended Jomo Kenyatta University where she studied English, obtaining a BA. She also took an MA in TV/Video Development at University of Reading. In 2003, she won the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2004, she was named "Woman of the Year" by Eve Magazine in Kenya for her contribution to Kenya's literature and the arts. In 2005, her short story "The Knife Grinder's Tale" was made into a short film.

Owuor's brilliant novel applauded from the literary circles including praises from her very own Binyavanga Wainaina who said "Dust covers over sixty years of betrayals, love, colonial brutalities, epic lore and political betrayals" and "Ghana Must Go" author Taiye Selasi, whose review was published at the New York Times, Sunday, March 2, 2014, said "Dust is not just for Afrophiles. It is for bibliophiles..."  "Dust" is a thoroughly done work; in-depth and touches every fortified place of the Kenyan landscape from the colonial era to what had splintered during the struggle; Mau Mau Rebellion and a republic, to what had almost crashed the union during the Rift Valley conflicts.

And despite the repetitive frequency, the style which Owuor made unpredictable for her readers to time the novel's climax which she had begun through lyrical and poetic preliminary discourse and, the assassination of Oganda, and a beloved sister, Ajany, who had arrived from Brazil for the burial, and confronted by problems grand and small, and yet, compassionate and determined that love, healing and the desire to build a profound nation-state would eventually be found, even considering a nation had been sewn with secrets as every character in the novel describes a nation, its past and what had gone wrong.

What actually had gone wrong when bad things keep happening and no one dares talk? The idea behind keeping secrets though not logically laid out becomes part of what had been ingrained and must be respected or else, it could be seen as bad omen based on a peoples belief and thoughtfully so, not say a word about those practically and directly involved in what had been known as factors to the demise of the state which Nyipir did not hesitate saying to her daughter, Ajany; that: "For the good of the country, we know, Nyara, that to name the unnamable is a curse."

That Kenyans kept secrets according to Owuor's "Dust" is typical. The tribal warfare over the years upon the nations independence becomes an indicating factor why the conflicts raged on.

Owuor is brutal in expressing the emotion of her characters and honestly taking in no prisoners in telling stories about Kenya's past, presumably with hope the Kenya state and its multitude of languages and ethnic groups would come to terms with reality, seek meaningful resolve and heal its wounds and move on. And, of course, there is hope.

In reality, moving on while the ICC stands on the way is another issue. The ICC which was founded in 2002 to address cases of Owuor's classic novel of brutality of nations, has Uhuru Kenyatta as its most powerful suspect, accused of masterminding the Rift Valley violence where thousands of people were noted to have been killed with about 650,000 forced to flee their homes.