Take a look at Paul Ostwald’s interview with Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who discusses her new book and how it reflects a changing culture.
BEFORE YVONNE OWUOR CAN POINT TO THE MENU, the waiter nods sympathetically and returns with a mug of ginger tea. A rattling coffee grinder somewhere in the appendix of the café accompanies our conversation. ‘After all these years, this is still my favourite place in Nairobi. Whenever I’m around, I drop by for the world’s best tea.’
The launch of her new novel Dust has taken her to New York, Berlin and London. But there is no sign of exhaustion on her face, what strikes me is rather a precision in her gestures. ‘Nairobi is like no other city in the world’ she says, circling a metal spoon in the ceramic mug. Yvonne unfolds her notebook into which she scribbles a word every now and then. ‘That is how my stories emerge, I start off with a notion, something that wants to be told. And then the story grows, like Dust. It took seven years to pin down on paper.’
Dust deciphers the enigma of Odidi Oganda’s death, shot by police officers in Nairobi’s violent streets of the 2007 upheaval. As the young man bleeds into the dust, stories tumble forward that reveal the violent history of a young nation.
Each family member returns from his own exile to Nairobi. Odidi’s nomadic father Nyipir travels from the desert to Kenya’s capital and slowly begins to expose the net of accusations, hurt pride and broken dreams that inevitably led to his son’s death. On his way through the harsh desert, he also encounters the demons of his own past.
Simultaneously, Odidi’s sister Ajani returns from exile to discover the life her brother had lived. She does not find the answers she seeks, but falls in love with a young British man on his way to the Kenyan desert.
Together, they complete a jigsaw of a failed existence that stands for a young generation in search of its own identity.
In a nation where not Kenyan authors but German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is part of the curriculum and history is no longer taught in schools, Yvonne’s novel hits a blind spot. ‘After the book had been published young students would stay after my readings and tell me they had never heard about all these things. We Kenyans were very good at silencing our past. In the book Nyipir speaks of it when he claims that Kenya has known three languages since independence – English, Swahili and Silence,’ says Yvonne. She is uncertain why many feel estranged from what is claimed to be their nation’s history and withdraws into a short silence before continuing. ‘Maybe the Kenyan ideal of unity, integrity and strength was broken at the end. There were a lot people like Nyipir who dreamt of it but it faded away with the years. Many feel detached from the dreams of their forefathers. That is a dangerous situation, we need to talk about these things.’
Yvonne recollects how she met with Kenyans in the rural areas during the 2007 post-election violence. Here, violence struck with even harsher force. ‘These people lived in a city that had been named by colonialists; they had been displaced forty years as others grabbed their land. I encountered a lot of buried rage in those few days.’ The motive reoccurs in Yvonne’s novel as Nyipir, the protagonist’s father, works for a colonialist master on the very grounds that used to belong to himself. He never openly revolts but continues to do what his daughter later calls ‘hiding his shame away’. The different generations in this novel can hardly communicate with each other. But something unspeakable does seem to unite them.
‘All the young readers I encounter are still concerned by the same puzzles, which generations before them faced. Each in its way longs for a national past that never existed. Many read about Tom Mboya, the struggle for independence and the years of Jomo Kenyatta’s reign for the first time. This generation feels an urge to talk about it all, even if it lets the clattering skeletons out of the cupboard. That is one of the things we have to learn from 2007.’
In late December of 2007, the results of the Kenyan general elections had resulted in violent clashes between the two major ethnicities, Kikuyu and Luo. Their respective candidates claimed the electoral victory and Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, was sworn in within an hour of official declaration of the results. This triggered riots verging on civil war. In this setting Odidi is shot in the back by police officers, running for his life.
‘Odidi is a very admirable young man when he comes to Nairobi for his university
degree. But then things gradually go wrong. There is some self-destructive, daring force in him, amplified by the love for a girl,’ Yvonne says.
Odidi’s sister Ajani, choses to leave Kenya for good when she receives a scholarship to a Brazilian university. She feels guilty for leaving behind her family, but cannot resist the daring call of a new beginning.
Things fall apart, only to remerge. ‘It is what endures, the chance to start all over again.’ This is a hopeful voice amidst the pessimism that has lately befallen both Kenyan and international commentators.
Yvonne has come to the last sip of her tea. ‘When Dust launched in Nairobi, I had the feeling something had changed. The Kenyan edition sold out within a few weeks. There is a hunger amongst Kenyans for a new kind of narrative that speaks to the base of the context of the time.’ Her prose dares to address these issues, and it seems as though many Kenyans are grateful for uncovering the muted accusations that had lingered in the shade for too long.
‘The truth is, things don’t go away because you bury them in silence. We tried that before and they acquired a space of their own.’ Tomorrow Yvonne will be giving a talk on forgiveness in Addis Ababa. ‘Silencing is not forgetting, but it’s not forgiving either. With the power and energy of forgiving you encounter a particular memory not armed to kill, you meet it to say “You’re there. That’s your shape, that’s who you are.” The chance to start all over again and our memories are what defines us as a nation, it might be all we have at this point.’ And so Nyipir amends the list of Kenyan languages on the very last pages of the novel. English, Swahili, Silence and Memory. ‘And it’s all we need, if you think about it,’ Yvonne adds before dissolving into Nairobi’s congested streets once more.
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Paul Ostwald grew up in Cologne, Nairobi and Moscow. He currently reads Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford and works for the Marcel Proust Society while writing for German, Kenyan and British papers and magazines.