Unsettling dust, fifty years on
Unsettling dust, fifty years on…
Book review of Dust, a 2013 novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Postcolonial theories have been elaborated, for the most part, by critics born in colonial situations. They have also been used (for the most part) to criticise the work of writers born in colonial situations but writing after independence. The novel Dust is a fictional work written by a writer born after independence.
Here is a book that breathes new life into East African literature. Owuor’s Dust takes East African (and indeed postcolonial) literature, to the next level. It is not about a faceless mass of human beings oppressed by colonial forces which they do not understand. Characters are no longer collectively blinded by anti-colonial sentiments. It is about individuals taking cognisance of their actions. As parents bury their children they wake up, fifty years too late, to the realisation that the chickens are coming home to roost.
Prof. Wawrzinek has told us that “the truth has a perspective.” The perspective of this novel is that Kenya is larger than Nairobi, the central highlands, the lake region and the coastal region; that the people of the Northern Frontier District are Kenyans whose history is as inextricably tied to the history of Kenya as the history of other Kenyans; that they have a language; and that their role in present day Kenya is crucial if sanity is to be restored, particularly as far as governance is concerned.
Having been “deceived by dreams” (pg. 51) at independence, parents like Nyipir raise children in a vacuum, waiting for a “better Kenya.” Shielded from present (negative) realities, the children find they have no solid foundation, nothing with which to identify themselves. They grow up in a house that “never participated in the echo and flow of their existence” (pg.76). They die violently in their prime, or survive by a whisker.
Dust is the story of Arabel Ajany Oganda and Isaiah William Bolton, as different as two people can possibly be. The woman Arabel is born in newly independent Kenya when the whole nation has high expectations. The man Isaiah is born and raised in England. They meet at Wuoth Ogik – the place where journeys end – under the strangest of circumstances.
We journey with them, backwards and forwards in time as they retrace their stories, in order to establish how they got to where they are as they are. Reminiscent of the expression “from dust to dust,” the story of the novel Dust is effectively the end of various violent journeys. The ground is painfully but methodically levelled to allow for new beginnings. The key characters in Dust, and perhaps Kenyans in general, can now see, by looking at their own individual actions over the fifty years since Kenya attained independence, not just when but, more importantly, how, in the famous words of Chinua Achebe, “the rain started beating” them.
Reading Dust is a marathon in many ways. It is written in a powerful prose that is close to poetry. There are, in fact, many instances where the weight of the sentiment being expressed condenses the prose into poetry. Furthermore, as readers journey with the characters across space and time, the language in which the story happens changes to a language other than English, especially where deeply emotional memories are evoked.
Running through the text is the writer’s advice to Kenyans: the evil we perpetuate under cover of darkness, and keep under oath, will continue eating us, our children, and the children of our children, in much the same way that Obarongo eats up Ajany, until it is brought out into the open. We must acknowledge those evil deeds, confess them and, most importantly, ask for forgiveness. This is the only way. It is the only thing that can effectively level the ground for new beginnings.
Owuor’s Dust has been nominated for the UK Folio Prize: a prize which recognises the best English-language fiction from around the world, regardless of form, genre, or the author’s country of origin.
©Esther K. Mbithi. Published in SAUT Multi-Disciplinary Journal of May 2016.