During the March launch of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s new book, The Dragonfly Sea, at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi, Prof Mohammed Bakari, a discerning literary personality, hailed it as “unprecedented”. This was a bold and grand statement.
Later on, turning the pages of a book preceded by such grand praise, I hoped that it would live up to that standard. Fortunately, the book, the characters and even the writer, put me at great ease and I read on, relieved of this burden and proving that indeed, the book is unprecedented.
Just as with her first novel, Dust, Owuor chooses to set her second book in the margins, the outside lands viewed as “the other” by many Kenyans. If we encountered an Ajany or a Galgalo with a camel song in the enchanting land of giants and cairns in northern Kenya in Dust, there is now Ayaana and Muhidin Mlingoti, who wrestles an enraged giant black marlin on Pate Island with a fierce sea-song that turns the illiterate island boy into a seeker, traveller, reader and a hungry truth hunter.
We meet Ayaana, a girl of seven at her favourite spot at the jetty watching homecomers arriving in their vessels. An inquisitive, imaginative and lonesome Ayaana often defies her mother’s warnings and disappears to the mangrove section of the creek to spy on the world. She seeks a father she hopes will come to meet her one day.
ENCHANTED BY THE SEA
Her secret sojourns to the creek at dawn attract Muhidin, an old man who watches the goings on around Pate from the balcony of his coral house and shop, Vitabu na Kadhalika. A returnee sailor, Muhidin notices through Ayaana’s dawn songs at the beach that she, just like him, is enchanted by the sea.
This secret breeds an unspoken friendship between the two, deepened when Ayaana officially “chooses” Muhidin as her father. He, in return, chooses her as his daughter and the duo cultivate a relationship that goes deeper than a father-daughter one. Muhidin begins teaching her mathematics, geography, history, poetry and even astronomy.
In return, Ayaana ignites Muhidin’s hunger for life. She loves this lonesome man fiercely and desperately. It is their mutual loneliness that gives depth to their relationship. Together with Munira — Ayaana’s mother — a woman abandoned by her family to sink or swim in the sea of her sexual sins, we embrace the father figure and the stability and joy he brings into Ayaana’s life.
That it is in this marginal part of Kenya where the Chinese decide to deepen their relationship with the country is an irony that is not lost to the reader. As history would have it, during celebrations to mark the 600th anniversary of the Ming dynasty’s great admiral Zeng He’s voyage around the Indian Ocean, this forgotten island, which took in some of He’s sailors who survived a shipwreck, was remembered.
A group of Chinese officials visit Pate seeking a connection that linked Pate to China. They are accompanied by a ministry of Foreign Affairs official who had never before ventured closer than Mtito Andei, more than 500 kilometres away and who, finding himself on Pate, was pop-eyed at the idea that this, too, was Kenya.
This visit leads to DNA tests and Ayaana ends up being chosen as the descendant to represent Kenya in China. We journey with her from the Swahili coast, past the 320km stretch right into international waters where unknown dangers and pirates lurk.
In China, Ayaana performs her duty to history in her “descendant” role and also discovers friendship, love and loss.
“Life is crafted from absence to absence,” says Ayaana’s friend Koray. Ayaana is to discover this truth as she journeys from the streets of Beijing to a lighthouse on Shengsi Island, Shanghai and even Turkey. At first, she is excited to go away and find new beginnings, but as happens with identity, Ayaana is unable to completely free herself. In fact, being away gives her so much perspective that we view her return to Pate not as the end of a journey of seeking but the beginning of a journey of acceptance of the place from the dark underbelly of neglect to a new, if liminal place in Kenya’s history.
“Kenya ni Kosi/ Halei kuku wa mwana,” Munira says of Kenya’s inability to nurture the hen’s chicks. These words, spoken by Munira to her daughter, are an exemplar of the larger context of the individual quest.
We remember the predatory state of Kenya and how it is on a journey of neglecting, exploiting and sacrificing its children to darkness. When tales of extremist strangers and rumours of war impinge on Pate’s peace, Kenya is quick to punish. To send untold suffering that will impose on the quintessential Pate existence.
“It seized the best of Pate’s men, implicated in this sickness only because they were the best of men. Most of those taken would never return, not even as corpses,” writes Owuor.
Even for those who leave Pate for Nairobi in a quest for answers, all they encounter is a mother country intent on rubbing away their Kenyan identity and harassing them into proving that they aren’t Al-Shabaab.
In the end, we find ourselves mulling over dense questions about identity, belonging and marginalisation of a people by their state. We see why unexplained disappearances, suspicion of terrorism and the learning of silences become necessary habits of survival.
If The Dragonfly Sea is different from Dust, this lies in perspective. While Dust was a narrative of loss and betrayal, The Dragonfly Sea manages to transcend these sorrows because their author refuses to write the familiar. Owuor does not tell the narratives of our official discourses, choosing instead to go for the unspoken, to embrace another bigger narrative where the unexplained loss of those we love doesn’t necessarily make us lose our identity.
QUEST FOR ANSWERS
Our young protagonist’s quest for answers and belonging leads to enlightenment. Her decision to choose a father and thus an identity for herself seems to set the stage for other bold choices. Choices that will lead to discoveries about how identity is as fluid as the vast waters of the Ocean.
“Life is crafted from the foundation of second chances,” says Ayaana's cheerful friend, Delaksha.
Owuor goes on to painstakingly prove that second chances are indeed pegged on choice. We watch the watcher of homecomers choose to become the homecomer. We also see Nahodha Jamal choosing for himself a new beginning. Munira, too, will rise from the ashes of a terribly lonely existence, and chooses love over and over, even when it does not make sense to do so.
And yet, does Pate have a choice? In the matter of her Chinese friends, can Kenya really choose or is the choice made for her?
We hear of the Admiral Zheng. He has emerged from out of time to resume his voyages. Me, though, I desire Pate’s dreams. If they can be retrieved. China is here for China. What do we do? Ayaana’s rhetorical question posed to Lai Jin seems to have no answer even at the end of the book. Perhaps, as Bob Dylan said, the answer to this one is blowing in the wind.
Owuor’s book manages to effectively increase the stock of our knowledge of the Swahili seas, its politics and people. The aptness of the descriptions, the exactness of geographies and the intricate histories of hurt tell of extensive research and very serious reading behind it.
All these go to prove that Owuor is not only a deep thinker and writer but, as Oyunga Pala aptly put it during the launch, someone “gifted with the depth of sight”.
Placing The Dragonfly Sea in a long historical context during the launch, Mr Abubakar Zein showed how — beginning with the advent of the Portuguese, who introduced shock and awe as they plundered and destroyed more than just political systems — much of the coastal soul, its history, memory and even imagination were lost.
In Owuor’s book, Zein sees a chance for Kenyans to rethink and re-evaluate why we forgot in the first place. Why we remember the false and implanted memories. And the good professor is right. The Dragonfly Sea offers a new journey of liberation, discovery, reflection, interaction and even new imagination.
The Dragonfly Sea is published by Alfred A. Knopf and is available at Prestige Bookshop on Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi.