By sheer coincidence I have just read, back to back, two debut novels by African women. Both of them tackle the touchy subject of polygamy.
Both of them find ways to restate the common perception that African polygamy was, or is, a tool of control. They dispute the popular argument that polygamy is fuelled by illiteracy and economic privation and that it robs women of their independence.
But though they share this theme of polygamy, Lola Shoyenin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Ciku Kimeria’s Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges are a study in sharp contrasts.
Written in 2010, Shoyenin’s novel is a complex weaving of women’s subtle power and their wily manoeuvring — a very crafty manoeuvring which the women often present as subservience, or as plaintive negotiation.
Kimeria’s self-published novel was released early this month. It features a starkly different brand of feminism.
There is no soft negotiation. This is that loud empowerment anthem that does not just demand rights and recognition, it wrests them from the men with both hands, feet stamping and voice bellowing through rural valleys and urban hallways.
The native intelligence displayed by Baba Segi’s wives threatens to challenge the wisdom of this latter-day women’s movement of demands and law-suits.
The older matriarchs in Kimeria’s Poisoned Oranges are familiar with this native art of the quiet appropriation of domestic power.
But in this novel the consequences of such artistry suggest that women who surreptitiously cover the impotence of their husbands and make bold decisions to redeem the reputation of the family will, ultimately, meet a very sticky end.
But let us not bring Lola Shoyenin into this enthusiastic unveiling of a bright new spot in the world of Kenyan Literature.
The musicality of Shoyenin’s diction, her comical idioms, robust phrases, sophisticated symbolism and skilful employment of the element of surprise deserve their own day in the sun.
Indeed, if we persist in focusing on Shoneyin’s genius now, we will lose out on what is rich and engaging in Ciku Kimeria’s novel because in truth, comparing Nigerian English with Kenyan English (unless one is reading the saucy online art of Wanjohi wa Kigogoine) is a study in two differing responses to colonialism.
Nigerians embrace the intonations and syntax of their ethnic languages without apology or shame. We Kenyans — even 50 years after we were released to pursue our own models of education — still tip-toe around the English language as if it were an immutable God.
Perhaps the brazen audacity of Sheng and its entry into our lyrical, commercial and political stages will soon rescue our fiction writers from this enslavement to the idea of writing in “pure” English — as if such a thing exists anywhere in the world!
Ciku Kimeria’s novel captures you from the first sentence with a woman who is attending her own funeral. She is outraged by the hideous red colour decorating the church and she laments the lazy choice of hymns. From her corner in the underworld, she wittily reminds us that things are very rarely what we expect them to be.
“In reality, your funeral program will have typos, villagers will scramble for a copy to display on their walls, the professional mourner might put up a good show, but it will all fall through when in the midst of her pretend-sorrow, she howls out the wrong name.”
The sorrow of the characters in this book is very real. But there is also a lot of pretence since the lives of her characters are shrouded in secrets and deceit.
Their struggles are familiar Kenyan themes — rich girl defiantly marries poor boy; poor rural girl comes to town in search of an education; Nairobi, the graveyard of all innocence and romance, the place where love comes to die, where morals and fortunes are subject to greedy con(wo)men and naked materialism.
We are seeing more and more Kenyan writing concerned with the question of how the middle-class sustains and replicates itself and Kimeria’s novel touches on this theme.
How can wealth be retained beyond the generation that makes the initial breakthrough? How does that generation ensure its investments last longer than two decades? And most of all, how can that pioneering generation pass on the skills of entrepreneurship to its offspring?
In Kimeria’s novel, simmering family fractures quickly destabilise these questions of endurance and sustainability.
Class differences, mistrust and a hopelessly scorched romance hound Wambui and her husband Njogu. The goats (symbolising dowry and marriage) will always be tripped by the poisonous gachungwa aka mpango wa kando.
Wambui’s marriage is no different. Idealism gives way to manipulation. Frustration yields to bitterness. The old moral about money being the root of all evil; about money being a poor substitute for love is cemented.
Ciku Kimeria’s handling of character and family intricacies is layered with a sympathetic and incisive study of mental illness.
There are all sorts of ways of reading the dementia that runs in the family of Nyambura, the gachungwa. Her mother’s words signal a certain resignation to it — “we Kimani women, this is how it ends”.
But the storyline persuades us to consider that dementia is more than a hereditary disease. Relentless social pressures and abject loneliness are significant triggers.
This is Ciku Kimeria’s first novel and there can be no doubt that she will grow to master the nuances of writing in translation, of showing rather than telling.
She has a refreshing soundtrack of Kenyan music that helps to tell the story but she needs to trust her audience to unpack layered meanings and to decode local lingo.
Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges is full of footnotes that translate words like Harambee, shamba, mzungu, bwana, gachungwa and even Mau Mau!
But beyond this incessant need to explain local phenomenon, which suggests that Kimeria was aiming for an expatriate audience, her debut novel reveals a keen eye for detail and a bold engagement with structure.
Her use of newspaper excerpts and fictional telephone conversations has helped her capture nuanced dialogue. These devices break the dominance of the stream of consciousness from her main characters.
Kimeria plays with voice and point of view creating multiple perspectives and several angles on a single event. All of this underlines her pivotal argument that things are never what they seem to be and truth is a multi-pronged affair. There are truths actually, rather than truth.