By Fred Mbogo
Published December 28, 2013
Ten years after winning the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 with Weight of Whispers, Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor has just launched Dust, her debut full length novel.
But does Dust, that was launched in Nairobi on November 29, 2013, qualify as a work of art? Should Dust be recommended to readers? Can Dust be said to be Kenya’s novel of the year in 2013?
If it were possible to watch a novel or look at its words like one does when marveling at aspects of a photograph without worrying about their meaning, then Owuor’s Dust is ‘watchable’. Its sentences are short, precise and seem to guide the reader into a well organised house whose every building stone is a word that whispers, speaks softly, hums and then blasts into a shout.
Reading this novel is like walking into a haunted house just like the characters in Dust who must walk into Wuoth Ogik, the coloured coral house, whose hidden secrets jump out to inject a sense of sickening déjà vu into their hapless victims.
But madness is not the main theme of Owuor’s novel. Dust is a wrestling encounter with a past that has been denied a ‘proper’ narration. According to the novel, Kenya’s post-December 2007 electoral violence that raged headlong into February 2008 comes to life as a result of the many false narratives of the past that have been given prominence over truth. But who will speak the truth? Who wants to remember the truth? Owuor presents the case that her characters, and by implication most Kenyans, have elected to be conveniently quiet for the sake of peace. The novel’s clincher reads like an inconvenient truth: “After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”
The prologue introduces the reader to Odidi who is trying to outrun the police. He is a former rugby player with the ability for sprinting and dodging tackles as he races to the score line. This is the fastest part of the novel that reads like a screen or stage play. The reader learns something about Odidi and, like a rugby match spectator, prays that he escapes: “Hao! Waue! Thieves!” (They are there! Kill them! Thieves!) Odidi is shot. He coughs three times. Blood oozes out of the mortal wounds. He breathes in but not out. He succumbs. This reads like a film script, doesn’t it?
Dust is based on the events after Odidi’s death. Characters will congregate at Wuoth Ogik, Odidi’s father’s home in Turkana, nothern Kenya. Nyipir, his father, and Akai, his mother, will fight demons brought to life by memories of past misdeeds at Wuoth Ogik. In the end, the list of the dead that will need proper burial will be partly read out in Akai’s mind. They include Hugh Bolton, the British Colonial Officer who was Nyipir’s boss; Ewoi and Etir, Akai’s twins that died in the desert of Turkana and their bodies were abandoned in the wild to be devoured by vultures and hyenas.
All the characters in Dust are vulnerable. Each of them knows of someone who has faced unnecessary death or one that died haunted by regrets and fear for the futures of loved ones. Nyipir, for instance, has always wanted to know the whereabouts of his father and brother who never returned from Burma where they fought for theBritish Empire during the Second World War. Isaac Bolton lives with his mother’s voice in his head–she needed explanation of what happened to Hugh Bolton, her lover and first husband.
But it is how these characters’ stories blend with the larger narrative of Kenya’s past that makes this a project of gargantuan proportions. The personal narratives of Nyipir and Petrus, the high-profile plainclothes policeman, for instance, are set in the period around the assassination of Cabinet Minister Tom Mboya in 1969. His assassination and subsequent attempted cover up of who was involved brought to the fore the idea that anything was possible at the time. Nyipir’s attempt at digging Odidi’s grave brings forth his memories of how he dag graves for Mau Mau fighters who died in prison.
It is in this commitment to a history that is harrowing and that in many quarters is seen as unsafe that the importance of Dust shines through. But how can one write about these skeletons in closets that ought not be opened with ease? There is pain, bottled up anguish, years of fear and uncontrollable anger in this novel. Characters in such a setting must live a lie to survive for where truth comes out, danger calls.
Yvonne Owuor deals with this difficulty by offering a work that relies heavily on what a reader might appreciate as exact sentences. Words seem to have been polished and placed in exact measure, like building blocks, towards the creation of this house-like story. There can be no wastage. This brevity becomes poetic. That poetry in turn enables the writer to package the rather emotive subjects in a consumable fashion. But that is where there might be a problem. The novel becomes this complicated material where passages have to be read, reread and counter-read for comprehension; or is this deliberate?
There are portions of the novel whose poetry makes the story inaccessible to the reader. Part of that problem lies in the dialogue of the characters whose single-worded statements at times read like exerpts from a one-liner play. It is mathematical. Calculated, noted and placed. This concise sentencing constricts the characters from speaking “enough” (perhaps in line with the idea of “Silence” as the third official language of Kenya?) but it can annoy the reader. Yet it could be deliberate; that urge to shout at the characters to “speak up!” could actually work towards building this anger that the story attempts to evoke. The reader of this novel then must be patient as its sweetness can be likened to the process of peeling an onion to its last layer; there is bound to be tears along the way.
There are moments in the novel where aspects of the absurd permeate the work. Everything has to be acquired via violence, even that precious thing called ‘love’: Ajany and Isaac only become lovers after blood, saliva, head-knocks, slaps and the like have been exchanged; Akai and Nyipir become a marriage couple only after the bloodied killing of Hugh Bolton; Nyipir’s wealth comes through the barrel of a gun while his company with Ali Dida Hada can only take off after a near exchange of fire.
A haziness that can make the story seem out of focus hangs over the story. That interspersion of the personal story of the characters with the narrative of a betrayed ‘Kenya’ nation-state sometimes does not work. While there is a commitment to unearth truth through revisiting of history, it doesn’t make sense that characters have to interact with that Kenyan story that sometimes is so big that in their present circumstances it is not foremost in their minds.
When Ajany, for example, overhears a conversation at a kiosk where a character refers to another as a Luhyia who must know his place, that is followed by a commentary about inter-community relatioships in Kenya during the 2007 and 2008 post-electoral violence. It is unnecessary. Ajany’s story is temporarily submerged for the story of a ‘tribalised’ Kenya. The madness in Ajany may have nothing in common with the madness of that Kenya at that precise moment. It is not, however, of immediate interest to her. In this particular “scene” she is retracing the steps that her brother made before he died. Why should she care about the Luhyia of western Kenya at that point?
The ambition of Dust to tackle the problems of Kenya kills parts of its sweetness. Instead of telling the problems of Kenya, Dust should live its “novelness” to its full without turning into an outright history book. We can wait for David Anderson or Bethwel Ogot, those reknowned Kenyan historians to give us the “unsweet” history. In a nutshell, Dust should give us the story of its characters so that we suffer with them without telling us in precise terms that they are suffering from the unresolved problem in such a question as who assassinated Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya or Dr Robert Ouko.
But, does “Dust” work as a work of art? Definitely. Should it be recommended reading? Certainly. Can it be said to be Kenya’s Novel of the Year in 2013? Yes!
Dust is a novel that has earned its own space. Its uniqueness cannot be ignored. Kwani? Publishers, its Kenyan publishers, must take pride in presenting to us this most ambitious work.
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.