Novel gives new perspective to Kenya’s past and present

Friday February 24 2017

Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda  is a

Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a surprisingly good read compared to other drab books by Kenyan authors. ILLUSTRATION| JOHN NYAGAH 

By GODWIN SIUNDU
More by this Author

Peter Kimani has recently published a new novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, which, going by both thematic concerns and narrative techniques, promises to excite critical responses that have been lacking for a while now.

Set in Nakuru around independence time, the novel takes a backward look at the colonialist investments of the former British East African Protectorate, to examine the origins and weaknesses of ethno-racial biases, whose legacies continue to haunt Kenya to date.

While drawing on the historical construction of the Kenya Uganda Railway for structure and metaphor, Dance of the Jakaranda is presented in four parts that, while traversing different generations, hint at the tensions wrought by different antagonistic forces that continue to militate against the ideal wholeness of Kenya.

The parts, House of Music, House of Silence, House of Light and, lastly, House of Darkness, variously introduce and engage with historically unresolved questions that impede our appreciation and acceptance of our histories in Kenya. The problems of land annexation by colonial settlers, the disenfranchisement of Kenyan Asians just before and soon after independence, and the instigation of ethno-racial prejudices, among other challenges are all presented in a literarily creative manner.

Kimani demonstrates a deep understanding of how colonial political, economic and social histories in Kenya intersected, some aspects of which are yet to be fictionalised. Few of us may know that in their efforts to politically divide and dominate the Maasai community in 1890s and economically cripple them, colonial agents deliberately infected Maasai cows with deadly diseases like foot and mouth, and stood by as the Maasai people helplessly agonised as they witnessed the slow and painful deaths of their valued cattle.

But the novel also shows how, by playing of the pioneer Indians who worked on the Kenya Uganda Railway against the Maasai, the colonial regime not only instigated immediate resentment between the two groups as among them, but also set the stage for the usability of stereotypes as a basis of racial and ethnic mobilisation, a problem that persists today, albeit on a way larger scale beyond the Asians and the Maasai.

What I also find interesting in the novel is that, although the author hints at undertaking a multicultural or multiracial narrative project, he seems to have more intimate details about the inner-dynamics of the Asian communities of the time — their religious and sect divisions, and how these mediated their intra-group interactions. Indeed, the narrator seems to spend inordinately more time focusing on the few Asians in the novel — together with the two Europeans, the soldier-administrator and the preacher — and not necessarily the numerous Africans.

Now is not, perhaps, the time to ask questions of who speaks for who, on what terms or for what reasons, but I see in future readers, especially from the Asian community, asking legitimate questions regarding the credibility of their representation, even if it is literary, in this book.

This is particularly so when you consider that the narrator seems ambivalent towards the Asian community, sympathetically capturing its role in the fight for independence and its vulnerability to political harassment from the early colonial to early post-independence period, while at the same time seeming to uncritically paint them in the old stock of the average Asian as a dukawallah, and a few of them as mystics still immersed in the world of magic and superstitions.

If this is a challenge, it may be remedied by the portrayal of strong women from the Indian community, like Fatima, in the novel, who retain faith in marriage and family, even during long spells of their spouses’ absence, but who also grow family savings and come to the rescue of their men when they fall on hard times.

But the novel has way more strengths than I can describe here, including the beauty of lyrical narration that combines irony, flashback, humour, allusions and inter-textual references, all of which are expertly manipulated to give the reader a gem of a story populated by composite characters, a story that, though revisiting old themes and times, does so with the freshness that one would expect of established literary geniuses.

INSTABILITY OF TRUTH

Aware of the dangers of a single story, in Chimamanda's words, Kimani shows the instability of truth by allocating a significant portion of his narrative to rumours and bar-talk around the Nakuru’s fictional Jakaranda Hotel, the historical and colonial edifice full of symbolic value.

And so in the novel, Kimani opts to make profound statements by presenting them as rumours, or prefacing them with conditionals mouthed by a character who may be considered as an unreliable narrator, but whose pronouncements loudly resonate with any politically and historically conscious reader. Practical solidarities are built in the novel, as long term strategic friendships, movements, and locations. The former British East African Protectorate morphs into the Kenya colony and, later, independent Kenya under Serikali ya Mwafrika. It is the latter entity that the novel seems to critique, by pointing out the initial wrong turns that we took as a country, and which we are yet to correct, hence leading us to the current inequalities that threaten our oneness.

In this sense, Dance of the Jakaranda subtly nods at Fredric Jameson’s idea of our literatures as national allegories, while saluting Benedict Anderson’s cliché of nations as imagined communities.

All these, appearing in a properly edited and well crafted novel makes for very enjoyable reading, with no typos, no careless contradictions, and well built characters. Reading Dance of the Jakaranda, for me, was like a weary walker taking a sip of cold orange squash on a scorching afternoon, after months upon months of making do with sugarless porridge.

It is a compelling read to anyone who has interest in the historical novel in Kenya.

Dance of the Jakaranda is published by Akashic Books, New York, and was released on February 7, 2017, with more readings by the author planned for May.

 

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi