Introduction and Background
When I picked this book, my attention was immediately caught by the first scene of mob rage against a wrongly accused suspect in custody of local law enforcement. This opening reminded me of the chaos of my hometown of seven million mostly poor residents, people struggling to put food on their tables, the moment someone calls out, thief, it is most often equivalent to a death sentence.
The author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, tells a story in this 2014 debut novel of the political turmoil in 2007 election in Kenya that results in a murder. This murder opens the narrative to the family drama that centers around the after math of a young man shot by law enforcement during a political rally clash. His death brings the family together in the Northern part of Kenya, the dry lands of Turkana. Her second novel was published in 2019, titled “The Dragon Fly Sea”.
Family tragedy and systemic problems in Kenya are narratives cleverly woven together by the author in Dust and requires full commitment from the reader to understand the relationship of the small and the grand as she uses her words purposefully to paint the picture.
The murder of Moses Odidi Oganda, a young man who is doomed by idealistic views of life, a brilliant engineer turned criminal, opens our journey in the novel Dust. The author takes time to describe the confusion in Odidi’s mind as he first thought it was a dream, that he will wake up from the scary nightmare of being beaten to death. Drawing his last breath, Odidi makes one last attempt to save his life by calling for his mother, crying for help as life departs from his wounded body as he dies in the streets of Nairobi. This tragic death acts as platform on which our story takes form.
The author explains present events using the backdrop of the historical Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, political assassination of 1969 and the 2007 post-election violence to show Kenya during dark times.
Odidi’s death brings family together, the sister Ajany from Brazil journeys back to Nairobi to find their father, Aggrey Nyipir, and travel with the body for the burial where their mother, Akai, awaits. When the family comes together, the writer shows the fractures and drama driven by secrets that can also be reflected at country level.
“Burning, dying country”
The author describes Kenya a country on the brink of ruin after the new president is sworn in post the clash and turmoil of 2007 and uses residents of Turkana as a metaphor to display the melting pot of Kenyans with different backgrounds coexisting under harsh circumstance in the Northern part. This shows a heterogeneous, inclusive yet complex image of Kenya, Turkana has Luo from the South, Somali herdsmen and traders, an Eritrean police officer, an Indian shopkeeper, missionaries, and an English colonial officer.
The author uses a secret relationship that Hugh Bolton the British colonial official has with Akai, Odidi’s mother, as a metaphor for the failure and legacy of colonial past in Kenya. Akai’s inability to accept love and failure to protect her children is portrayed as the equivalent of Kenya’s failure to protect its citizens. Akai speaks of love as, … “If “love” could be paraphrased, I think it would be that “Give this pain to no one else” …it is a prayer, a hope, an expectation, uttered to a distance transcendence, and perhaps it can only be uttered to a distant transcendence, because it asks for what seems impossible”
Akai is the mother to the deceased Moses Odidi, and the painter-daughter from Brazil Ajany. The older generation as represented by Odidi’s father, Aggrey Nyipir, a former gun slinger and right-hand man to the rogue British officer Hugh Bolton, but also, the keeper of secrets of old ghosts as well as promoter of the coming golden age, shows the different faces of characters brought to life by the author.
This novel has a lot to unpack, the author goes forward and backwards as she guides us through the challenges and nature of both memory-keeping and nation-building.
The writer uses metaphors and the wisdom of African society to challenge popular Western beliefs. For instance, by using characters in the book who are told to be wrong because they follow traditions, the author provokes readers with thoughtful questions such as when Akai asks, “Why is what you know more truthful than what I know?” to her teachers at a missionary school.