Dust, the tragic story of a nation of terrible secret violence

It is Kenya’s turn at the sepia-toned festival of champagne memories and official nostalgia that passes for the ritual marking of half a century of flag Independence.

There is much to celebrate and we can expect to hear it all at the grand fete on December 12. There is also much on which to reflect, above all the question of how the Kenyan state arrived in your neighbourhood.

The victories of development will be held high — the roads, the schools, the hospitals — all cast within the mould of an official narrative that begins with a victorious liberation struggle mythologised out of all historical context.

This is what nations do. The scholar Stephen Chan has argued that the making of a nation is often an act of mythologising — the transcendent act of a shared history sometimes crystallised by a solitary imagination. An epic poem. A song. Myth.

Chan uses the example of Finland. But in few places was this more evident than in the Africa of the early 1960s. With all the historical cards against them, from colonial boundaries arbitrarily drawn to create ethnically diverse nations, often with groups each possessed of sharply divergent world views, religions and ways of life, the independence nationalists used everything at their disposal to invent their new states.

Project Kenya is the term Prof B.A. Ogot, among the continent’s foremost historians, has often deployed to describe the work of the nationalists of that era.

Kenya was by no means an organic thing, if nations ever are. Existing only as a geographical location held together by a 70-year-old colonial project, it suffered fundamental contradictions that could only be sorted out by the nationalists’ fusing of a set of constructed myths.

Project Kenya

In his latter years, Ogot has regarded Project Kenya with increasing disillusionment. Independent Kenya was founded, not on the flowering of a nationalist dream, but on a series of betrayals.

Once in power, the Kenyatta faction of the nationalist movement proceeded to abandon any real attempts to deliver on the promise of uhuru. Instead, they appropriated a self-promoting version of the liberation struggle narrative and proceeded, in the fashion of the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, to use their positions to enrich themselves and broker deals with the very colonial masters against whom they had so recently contended. Any objections to the emerging practice in and around State House were swiftly and ruthlessly dealt with.

“Kenya is just a story,” says Aggrey Nyipir Oganda, the pater familias in Yvonne Owuor’s debut novel, Dust.

Nyipir is attempting to disabuse his daughter, Arabel Ajany, of all the established notions of fixity that she has always possessed about her country. As disillusioned as any one who ever held some hope in the narrative of the new nation, Nyipir has long turned his back on it.

His is at once a familiar story, and not. Having been intimately involved in many of the foundational adventures of the young nation, Nyipir’s epiphany of the end of the dream comes with the murder of Tom Mboya in 1969.

Dust is the story of loss, two-generations old. And national silences in the face of terrible secret violence. But it is much more than that. It is the tragic story of a nation as experienced by a family that both rejects and embraces its central myths.

Told with breathtaking lyricism, the poetry with which the story is told in many instances becomes a device to screen us against the horror of the underlying meaning.

The novel opens on a murder in the street. Moses Odidi Oganda, a young engineer-turned-robber, a former high school rugby star, the shining embodiment of middle-class professional aspiration, is mowed down in a police ambush on a Nairobi street.

He had taken to crime after a terrible brush with Nairobi’s power circles. On the brink of financial and career success, “Shifta the Winger” cannot countenance the dark underbelly of corruption that accompanies it. Like his father before him many years ago, he turns against it, becomes an outlaw.

Returning from her life in Brazil, it is his sister, Arabel Ajany who is left to pick up the pieces of the family tragedy. Hers becomes a long, poetically twisted journey into the meaning of loss.

The moving cadence of it, of her stuttering befuddlement at how cheapened life has become in a country now two generations-deep inside its elaborately constructed lies and betrayals, plumbs the very depths of that central myth on which Kenya was founded.

After Mboya’s murder, Owuor remarks: “There were now three national languages: English, Kiswahili and Silence.” Ajany’s father Nyipir Oganda, forced from his national duty — he was a policeman, the horsebacked officer who carried the flag at Independence — “You and the horse…were Kenya,” an old friend will tell him years later — retreats to Kalacha, his home in the dust and wilderness of Northern Kenya and becomes himself an outlaw.

What is strongly resonant about Dust is its familiar Kenyan tropes. Owuor has taken that long-standing anecdote of the policeman who runs afoul of the establishment and is subsequently banished to Northern Kenya, and turned it into a question: Beyond the imagined narrative of Project Kenya, how do those who are outside it, exist?

Kenya is a many-sided riddle. The problem was never the idea of the concocted centralising myth; it was its abduction by the elite within the Kenyatta presidency.

Owuor has written a beautiful book, but it is not an easy story. In many ways, actually, it is an epic indictment of the “owners” of the official Kenyan story.

In that sense, one could say that Dust joins its compatriots, Not Yet Uhuru, A Grain of Wheat, Coming to Birth and Carcase for Hounds. Except that what we bear witness to is a tale that enters not into a conversation around the politics of elite betrayal but inhabits the soul of a dysfunctional national belief system.

There will be many who many not see in Dust any cause for redemption. Owuor refuses to offer easy answers. Perhaps, she seems to be saying, the nation such as it is should first begin a journey of atonement.

Among his first acts as new president, Uhuru Kenyatta duly received the TJRC Report. Received it, perused it and dutifully shelved it. Not a whisper of it has been heard since.

Dust may not be easier on his literary palate, but it is said that poetry often has the power to redeem, even the soul of a nation bent on consuming itself.

Published in The East African, november 29 2013
Written by Parselelo Kantai

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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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