Historian William Ochieng’ once remarked that the British did not colonise Kenya because they loved the country and her people.
They came to loot her abundant resources and to hate and impoverish indigenous Kenyans. Their intentions were far more evil than good.
How they executed their plans and more is amply portrayed in a new novel titled Voices and penned by Abenea Ndago.
Reference to Ochieng’ is not merely because of his sweeping claim against the British. About the same time he was demonising them in the 1970s and 1980s, he castigated Kenyan creative writers for not doing intensive background research for their works.
Prof Andrew Gurr calls good fiction or creative writing “plausible lies”. My reading of this and Ochieng’s postulation is that a creative piece ought to temper fiction with historical fact in order to boost credibility and plausibility.
Ndago seems to be responding to Ochieng’s concerns and treats his readers to an artistic, historical and well-researched narrative.
Reading such a work of imagination entails steering through a world of blended fiction and fact. In a foreword to the book, Richard Leakey mentions the “flavour” the novel adds to the “colourful history of Kenya.”
The additive he means is the story the writer creates from and around African people to bring “out some of the superstitions, myths and beliefs that were common in the area amongst the people who were having to cope with the strange ways of foreign settlers taking up land in their midst.”
In a way, Leakey is arguing that the fictional and the realistic feed and enrich one another in Ndago’s 284-page book published by Nsemia in 2017.
What Leakey does not say is that the British invaders grabbed the land and soiled it with human blood. He doesn’t say that they systematically dehumanised the people, underdeveloped and depopulated the country.
Ordinarily a story should kick off with a living character that grows, develops and probably dies later or survives to see another day.
In this novel, the first few paragraphs carry a dead body nobody can trace but whose clothes are retrieved and “buried” to represent him in Amilo Village. There is no doubt the reader is meant to equate colonialism with death.
The dead man’s name is Oyola and his mysterious killing stands out as the prototype of many others in the narrative where the writer “resurrects” him to indirectly help trace the killers and their locations.
There are many killers in the story but the principle one is known as MacDonald.
Although he has appropriated a huge chunk of land in Songhor for farming, he is actually “interested in bones, especially bones of human beings and early primates.”
Oyola is one of his victims. The experience of the victims is so terrifying that by the time they reach MacDonald’s house their pants are loaded with “urine and excrement.”
CAPTURED, TORTURED, MURDERED
That MacDonald gets so many people murdered over the years but goes scot-free is a major mystery the narrative plots to unravel from its beginning.
Africans are routinely captured like slaves between Tinderet and Songhor in lower North Rift bordering Nyanza.
They are then driven in to MacDonald’s gated and guarded compound, disabled with special injections, dumped in to a secret dungeon and their blood siphoned for sale.
The carcasses are transported to a bush as fodder for wild animals. At night, the hyenas feast and laugh joyfully.
Winds sometimes waft the stench of rotting human flesh to the environs, as a foretaste and warning of the carrion anybody who rubs MacDonald the wrong way may become.
Death stories abound. MacDonald has armed white and African agents to hunt and sell him bodies for blood and bones.
One or two are captured openly and chained to motor vehicles and hurtled to the slaughter house.
Africans live in perpetual fear of being kidnapped in and around parts of Kenya called White Highlands because white Britons have forcibly occupied and named them so.
All murders are inexcusable but Oyola’s stands out owing to its connections with MacDonald’s dismal marital history. The latter divorces his first wife and abandons her in London for Kenya. He then marries Esther who lives in Tinderet away from him although they invariably meet.
They fall apart and separate because Esther cannot tolerate her husband’s butchering “business” when she finally discovers it.
With time, MacDonald discovers, to his horror, that Oyola, his foreman, steals in to Esther’s bed. Even after he has divorced her, he can’t stand another man having an affair with her.
He arranges and participates in his capture, murder and, like all the others, the body disappears without trace.
For those who think corruption and impunity in high places is post-colonial and African, read this novel to prove otherwise.
MacDonald cannot be apprehended because his relative is in charge of the colonial office in London. The white colonial police in Songhor know this and can only reprimand those who report him.
He is as untouchable as all powerful people must be even in post-colonial times, however criminal their activities may be.
Like his many other compatriots, he is too suspicious of African rule to remain in Kenya or continue living. Going by his consistent stance and routine reference to Africans as baboons and monkeys, MacDonald must go. He has no peace as independence arrives and his victims’ ghosts haunt him day-in day-out. He mercifully hangs himself in his house. His inhumanity symbolises the worst in colonialism is hopefully also dead.
This is a rich novel one may loosely call a montage because while MacDonald and his gory history dominates it, there are other related stories and episodes that spice it up. Only a few can be summarised here.
There are Second World War stories from Burma that connect characters and narrators from various Kenyan communities and a Ugandan. Unfortunately these Second World War veterans including Oyola die in MacDonald’s hands.
NO PLACE FOR LIBERALS
Not all whites condone the murders. There are liberals who recognise the humanity of indigenous Kenyans.
Father Giovanni, for example, runs the Catholic Church and welcomes all races while the nearby Anglican one does not admit Africans.
When the priest unearths the gruesome ‘business’ in MacDonald’s home and complains, he is brutally murdered. He is part of the white minority that stands against colonial injustice.
Some pundits argue that colonialism created Kenya to become the nation it is today. They also claim that diverse ethnicities were enabled to interact and mix as happened in this novel.
Yet this isn’t the mission and vision of the coloniser: his is to exploit the land using cheap Kenyan labour in order to accumulate primitive capital. In addition, the colonising Briton would like to replicate and live the British way.
Some of them contemplate rebelling against the British Empire and thus emulate the United States in 1776.
Others curse their home government for allowing Indian independence and setting a bad example for baboons and monkeys. Those are some of the small currents running through issues the novel tackles.
MODERNITY VS SUPERSTITION
Perhaps the most painful story for me in the whole novel is the shooting to death of Yatima. The albino is both black and white, according to the narrative, and in a way symbolises what ought to be a colonial attempt to mix black and white races.
Following the prescription by the Nyalgunga medicine man, the albino’s penis is to be detached and inserted in Abigail’s womanhood to enable her get pregnant after many unproductive years.
There is nothing to celebrate in this seeming symbolic attempt to create a mixed race and modernity through superstition. It is the pre-modern bestiality behind it that horrifies.
Of course formal British education brings diverse ethnic communities to Alliance High School. The Kamba, the Luo, Kikuyu, Kuria, Kalenjin etc. mix and interact in school and beyond.
An old relationship between Masira, an alumnus of Alliance High, and Cherono, from Kapsabet, blossoms in to an interethnic marriage as a pointer to the desired united Kenyan nation when independence finally arrives.
Sadly the novel concludes with the observation that in “the young country Kenya...politics had suddenly become crueller and bloodier than anyone could ever have imagined in the colonial days”.
I suspect the veracity of such a claim that likens Kenya to the macabre times of MacDonald awaits farther research by Ndago in order to produce yet another lucid, rich and loaded historical novel that makes fiction and fact bedfellows.
Prof Amuka teaches at the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies at Moi University.