Veteran writer, teacher, and artist Rebeka Njau has published a new novel that is likely to cause fireworks in Kenya, OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Although the 242-page The Sacred Seed presents an uncanny description of Kenya during the twilight of the 40-year reign of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) that was dislodged from power by the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in the December 27, 2002 election, Njau denies she is writing about Kenya. She insists The Sacred Seed is pure fiction and that any resemblance with any one or any place would be coincidental. She says the story could be set anywhere in Africa and at any time after independence of formerly colonised countries.
“I want readers to use their own imagination and interpretation in reading my book,” she says. But isn’t it a fact that all writing is rooted in a specific social milieu? Granted, the author is free to exercise the poetic license while readers have the freedom to interpret that writing within their own experience. Perhaps it is references to tribal attacks instigated by politicians, sexual harassment, the rape of natural resources, the brainwashing of people using religion, and the rising opposition of the underprivileged to the powers that be that has made mainstream Kenyan newspapers to distance themselves from the book. Only one newspaper has run a subdued review of it.
The ArtMatters take on The Sacred Seed is that Njau is describing Kenya and the synopsis below bears us out: The city stinks with mounds of uncollected garbage while people’s mouths ooze out evil and venom against one another in a nation steeped to the neck in corruption. At the Castle reigns President Dixon Chinusi, an arrogant, shrewd and manipulative megalomaniac who appears to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a free hand in misgoverning this rich but impoverished country.
Having come to power through the patronage and influence of his White missionary friends and associates, Chinusi uses the clergy to deliver sermons that promises his subjects a good life in heaven tomorrow while they continue to live in hell on earth. As opposition begins to emerge, Chinusi, drunk with power, not only goes onto a looting spree of national resources but also vows to hunt down and destroy his enemies like vermin. He is ready to do anything to remain in power.
Thus he instigates ethnic attacks in which innocent people are beheaded and their property plundered as security forces look the other way, only asking the victims to leave their homes. Perhaps Chinusi’s Waterloo comes when he rapes a secondary school music teacher in the belief that he would become the strongest and cleverest man in the land if he sleeps with women of talent, intelligence and strength as their giftedness would be absorbed into his bloodstream. But unlike the other women who do not mind being exploited by the bachelor President so long as they use him to their advantage, Tesa Kenga, the latest victim, puts up a fight.
Rebeka Njau introduces her book in her Ongata Rongai home
As the nation rushes towards the precipice and hangs precariously on a cliff, no one appears to raise their voice till Mumbi, an elderly potter and healer establishes Kanoni sanctuary for abused and talented women in a primeval forest. It looks like God has raised up a woman like Mumbi to fight injustice and shame men as they have abdicated their role in defending society from evil. The sanctuary, supposed to be a symbol of courage and liberation, is named after Kanoni, a legendary figure said to have been the most defiant young woman in her society who defied an important tradition-female circumcision-and died for it.
It is to Mumbi and Kanoni that Tesa turns for help and it is here that the battle lines between evil and good are drawn with Tesa on one hand and Chinusi on the other. Not even threats on her life can force Tesa into exile as she braces for a confrontation with the powers that be.
By employing simple words, descriptions, dialogue and figurative language, Njau-who tells a good story with simplicity, delving into African traditions, folktales and myths–makes the story vivid to the extent the reader identifies with the characters. However one wonders why Njau should use an outcast like Kanoni to ‘inspire courage’. It is unclear how a young girl of Kanoni’s age would tell her benefactor, Kibwara, another pariah who has taken her in after being thrown out by her family, “I don’t want anybody to mutilate my body.
Mrs Njau with Thithi Watene at the official launch of The Sacred Seed at Braeburn School in Nairobi
My creator created me the way I am, and I shall remain so, I will never let anyone cut any part of my body.” Is Njau not forcing such words in the character? Njau glorifies nature, shrines, sacred trees, birds and the arts. People came to Kanoni, a former sacred but desecrated and abandoned ground, to silently listen to their inner selves in the hope of receiving healing. And to learn from Mumbi’s traditional wisdom told through folktales, proverbs, similes, and songs. Although one reads parallels in The Sacred Seed with The Concubine of Elechi Amadi’s and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s writings, Njau says this is not intended. Like Ihuoma who is good, respected and is of great beauty, Njau presents Tesa as simple, dignified and stately. However, both bring death to any man who has sex with them. While Tesa has birthmarks on her thighs and around the navel to show that she is endowed with special gifts and therefore meant to be celibate, Ihuoma is said to have been the wife of a jealous sea god who cannot allow any man the pleasure of cohabiting with his queen.
“Although Tesa had vowed to remain celibate and devote her energy to passion in developing intuitive wisdom and skills in music, art and poetry, she forgets this when she gets emotionally involved with Muturi. She has the normal feelings of a woman for a man, after all. Just like Ihuoma who insisted on being reincarnated into a human being for her love of humans!
Kibwara and Kanoni of Njau could be compared with Ngugi’s Mangara in The black bird ( 1963). After converting to Christianity, Mangara desecrates traditional holy places resulting in his being cursed. The curse wipes out his entire family through a black bird that pursues them wherever they try to hide.Similarly, Kibwara and Kanoni cannot have
Joint MC John Sibi-Okumu, l, at the Njau book launch
peace.Parallels with Ngugi’s Joshua the village priest and the traditional rainmaker in Makuyu and Njau’s Pastor. Jonah’s confrontation of Mumbi whom he accuses of being an agent of Satan are also evident In both cases,the rainmaker and Mumbi triumph over the Christian Joshua and Jonah, respectively.