Nairobi Days is an enthralling story told through the eyes of a Nairobi-born, Ismaili Shia Muslim woman with ancestral roots in Gujarat, India.
The novel is a recollection of the author’s childhood days living in Nairobi, the political events in the country and a captivating love story.
The author, Ms Shelina Shariff-Zia, a journalist-turned university lecturer in the US, left Kenya for America in pursuit of higher education and a professional career.
The book’s cover has images of a young girl and a lion in a national park-like setting. This is symbolic as it depicts an innocent girl who is strong with the heart of a lion.
This fearlessness helps her surmount many challenges in her life living in Kenya, Uganda, the USA and England. She becomes “the King of the Jungle” by breaking barriers and going against her family’s traditions.
The exhilarating novel opens with the tense news from Aliana, the heroine’s sister-in-law in New York, at the height of the gory September, 2013 Westgate Mall attack. Aliana’s husband and Shaza’s brother Raheel is missing and could be injured or even dead.
Shaza, the heroine, keeps a pregnant Aliana company while they wait for news. To distract her she tells her the story of her life in Kenya. Thus the author skilfully mixes fiction with real life events interspersing CNN accounts with phone calls about Raheel.
The suspense builds up alongside the main story as we wonder if he will survive the terrorist attack.
TOTALLY DIFFERENT LIVES
Shaza, is born roughly a year to Kenya’s independence and her journey and experience is intertwined with that of this East African country that had just dethroned the British as her colonial master. Her life is totally different from that of her grandmother, Ma, who was married at twelve and had eight children.
Shaza falls in love with literature at the age of only eight at Nairobi Primary School. While waiting for her mother who was a teacher at the same school, she would rummage through the books at the school’s library reading one book after another. The author writes that the schoolchildren didn’t like studying about British explorers such as David Livingstone.
The book brings to the fore the theme of racial discrimination which existed in the country before independence where places were divided according to the race one belonged to with the Africans seen as an inferior race. The upmarket estates belonged to the Europeans who were considered first class citizens and dominated most of the organisations and institutions.
After independence, these racial boundaries started fading as more and more indigenous Kenyans asserted their presence across the board.
This newfound authority was replicated in other countries in East Africa. In Uganda, the Asian community suffered in 1972 after the president Idi Amin forcefully evicted them, seizing their businesses and properties and giving them to his loyalists.
In Tanzania, an expulsion seemed likely but didn’t happen, while in Kenya the community was targeted during the failed coup in 1982 where young men from the informal settlements invaded Asians homes in the midst of the upheaval.
MAIN THEME IS LOVE
Nevertheless, the main theme of the novel is love, which part two of the novel, ‘Puppy Love’, revolves around. It is through love that racial and religious borders are crossed. It is through love that the sub theme of arranged marriages comes to the foreground.
Shaza is deeply in love with a Hindu Punjabi boy called Sameer whom she met as a 17-year-old in Nairobi. This is scandalous among the two religions where old ways and beliefs still rule.
But as the author writes, times have changed and her generation has different ideas.
But as fate would have it, Shaza and Sameer end up meeting again at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. What happens next, I won’t tell you as that would spoil the story.
Overall, Nairobi Days is an inspiring read showing how love and one’s resolve can free one from the tribal, racial and religious bondage that continue to rule most interactions in the world.
This is applicable in Kenya where tribalism still governs the social framework. Many relationships have crumbled in the face of tribal tests where marrying from certain ethnic groups, for instance a Kikuyu lady marrying a Luo man and vice versa, is considered an anathema and those who go against the unwritten rule brought about by political animosity never get the blessings of the elders.
To me, the book should have been titled, ‘Breaking Loose’ to capture the dominant theme in the novel as opposed to Nairobi Days where although the author looks back at her childhood voyage in Kenyan capital, those recollections do not capture the reader as much as the theme of love, which leads to Shaza breaking loose from religion and age-old traditions.
Love leads to the heroine’s dilemma as to how far she will go in rebelling against all the rules she has been brought up with and what the cost is.
This captivating story will make you wonder what price you would pay for true love.
The novel goes for Sh1, 600 (US$ 15.99) and can be bought online. The author is looking for bookstores to distribute the book in Kenya.