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Of unmet deadlines and Yvonne’s brilliant evening book launch

Saturday March 9 2019

Author and 2003 Caine Prize winner Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. PHOTO/EMMA NZIOKA

Author and 2003 Caine Prize winner Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. PHOTO/EMMA NZIOKA 

AUSTIN BUKENYA
By AUSTIN BUKENYA
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I should love deadlines. It is true that deadlines (called makataa in Kiswahili) invariably set us on edge, making our lives an endless race from pillar to post, racking us with stress and often turning us into thorough neurotics.

But without deadlines, people like me would never deliver anything worthwhile to the world.

Indeed, I do not remember ever completing any task that was not strictly defined by deadlines.

I should admit, of course, that those for whom I work have been exceptionally understanding and tolerant of my erratic working habits and have often extended their deadlines for me by days, months, or even years in some cases.

But there are some assignments for which deadlines cannot be extended even by a few hours, and our friends in the mass media know this best.

Curiously, what got me thinking about deadlines is the beginning, Wednesday this week, of what is called the Lenten period, in the mainstream conventional churches.

The 40-or-so days preceding Easter are supposed to be a spell of intense prayer, bible study, repentance, fasting and good works, all aimed at renewing the soul and strengthening its relationship with its Creator. For, as with other assignments in this life, the cementing of this relationship also has its deadline, and here we reluctantly note that “dead” thing in “deadline”.

But I will never learn how to meet even the simplest of my deadlines. I get too easily distracted. Recently, I fled the cares and chores of Kampala to seek some privacy in Nairobi and work on a few assignments, especially from my publishers, whose deadlines just could not be extended any further.

But then, almost as soon as I land in the Green City in the Sun (oh, so pathetically scorched by this inclement drought), I am swept off my feet by Joy Mboya’s Go Down Arts Centre and her visual artists, who were hosting my beloved teachers and friends, Philda and Elimo Njau, for a day’s workshop. I could not resist the temptation to attend and participate, with not only thorough enjoyment but also a rare insight into the trends and concerns of our creative young people.

I dashed straight from that to the launch of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s “epic” novel, The Dragonfly Sea, at the Prestige Bookshop in the city centre. I have admired Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s writing ever since she won the prestigious Caine short story prize for an apparently Uganda-inspired story that made me (wilfully) take her for a Ugandan sister from Lira.

Adhiambo also reminds me of Gabriel Okara’s famous love poem, “Adhiambo”, about his romance with a Kenyan lady, which, like many poets’ romances, did not quite work out as beautifully as he had expected. In his excitement, the Nigerian lover “waved and waved — and waved/but she turned her eyes away”.

Be that as it may, “Adhiambo”, whether in Gulu, Kampala or Kisumu, means a lady born in the evening, and what an evening Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor gave us at the launch of her novel! The occasion was like a grand reunion of literature lovers across several generations from grey heads like me and my, until then, long-lost friend, Prof Mohamed Bakari, our now-controlling elder brothers and sisters like Mueni Lundi and Mheshimiwa Abubakar Zein, down to the youngest adults, who I think formed the bulk of the audience.

There was, literally, standing room only at the Prestige for those of us who did not get there some minutes before the 5 o’clock launching “deadline”. When I asked a lady sitting on one of the seats ahead of me if I could squeeze past her and sit on the floor up front, as many others were doing, she politely vacated her seat for me. That touched me, confirming my belief that there still are many young people who are respectful, considerate and, simply, decent.

Another moment of tender poignancy, and a little irony, for me was the discovery that the MC at the occasion was Oyunga Pala, who, as I came to learn, is a nephew of the late Francis Otieno Pala, possibly the longest-serving Director of the Kenya National Library Services. Maybe we can bequeath book-loving genes to our descendants. An aunt of Oyunga, Prof Achola Pala, my student contemporary in Dar es Salaam, played a significant but unobtrusive role in connecting me to the Kajulu family where I am now a nyawana (fellow in-law).

But back to Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, I was astounded when it came to her signing copies of her book. Of course we had to buy our copies before she autographed them, and what struck me was the number of people who picked up copies, many of them, indeed, more than one copy. But the copies of The Dragonfly Sea at the launch were hardback, and that always costs considerably more than the routine paperback.

So, it was quite uplifting seeing so many young people spending a pretty penny to get a copy of their beloved author’s book. The queue at the signing desk was almost endless, and I had to throw my age around a bit — on the advice of Margaretta wa Gacheru — to be allowed to jump it. Who said that Kenyans do not read?

I will not review The Dragonfly Sea for you here. I can only tell you that it is grounded in the magical lands of Lamu and Pate, but it spans half the world, all the way to China. I added it to the other two sisters’ books I am reading in celebration of Women’s Week and Women’s Day, which was yesterday. The other two are Jane Obuchi’s Latest Diary of a Kenyan and Assumpta K. Matei’s Chozi la Heri. I am also looking at Ngugi’s Kenda Muiyuru, just to see what he says about the nine daughters. I am, indeed, enjoying myself.

But the bottom line is that I have not beaten or met a single one of the deadlines on which I came to work in Nairobi.

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Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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