Kenyan writer Stanley Gazemba has been in the game for quite a while. His much loved debut novel The Stone Hills of the Maragoli about life in a village in Western Kenya was the winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Literature in 2003. The writer has gone to his farming roots with his 2013 book Callused Hands published by fledgling publisher Nsemia. Nsemia has also published Shifting Sands by one of my favourite writers Moraa Gitaa.
The book is set at the Chapa Kazi farm in coffee country in the Limuru/Kiambu area and starts in a very jarring manner. Farm hand Yakobo and his wife Njambi are walking through a farm to seek medical help in the coldest night of the year as the lady is heavy with child when she goes into labour. Luckily for the couple, the farm supervisor Juma, a happy go lucky fellow we later learn, meets them as he is on his way to have a drink nearby and he assists them as the mother gives birth to her first born Ndonga . Juma welcomes them to his home and ensures that they are comfortable. The couple gets work at the Chapa Kazi farm which is owned by ruthless businessman JP King’ong’o and his equally if not more hardnosed wife Njeri.
All is well with their world with the young couple and their family which becomes four with the birth of a daughter Mukami. They however have to contend with many challenges that people who work in the farms have to endure. Its not exactly Patsy harvesting cotton on 12 Years a Slave but its not that far either. They have to get extremely low pay for their back breaking work, only Kshs40 every day which is really really sad. There is also no protective gear when using chemicals for spraying the coffee crop or plucking berries. The workers also have to contend with their kids having to work alongside them as child labourers as JP insists that they earn their way. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the stresses that the worker who collects the coffee that we love drinking when we are at various coffee shops like Java.
It is a compelling and wonderful story that the writer tells and it says a lot about why he is so highly regarded in Kenyan literature circles. He colonises the English language in ways that Amos Tutuola would have been so proud of with his statements like, “he was openly proud.” I love it when an African writer does his writing in a way that would make a European/American reader pull out their reader but leave most “miros” (natives) smiling.
The book is not without its flaws which I leave at the door of the publisher with some serious holes in the plot. There is a lawyer who has decided to help the poor workers who kept changing her title from Mrs to Ms at whim. Even more exasperating was the timeline in the book. At one time the son of the couple Ndonga is four years old when tragedy strikes the family. Very soon in the narrative this boy is a strong twelve year old while other characters are operating like he is eight years old. I am even now not sure of the age of this boy at the end of the story. Also the farm supervisors name keeps changing from Juma to Joshua willy nilly. The editor was asleep at the wheel when editing this one.
Even with these flaws in the book it is an excellent method of showing what some of the people who work in Kenyan farms have to go through to bring some of the best coffee in the world to its lovers.