‘… the loudest protests were created out of whispers. To protect new post-independence citizen children, like most new Kenya parents denying soul betrayals, Nyipir built illusions of another Kenya, shouting out the words of the national anthem when he could as if the volume alone would remove the rust eating into national hopes. Keeping mouths, ears, and eyes shut, parents had partitioned sorrow, purchased even more silence, and promised a “better future.”’
‘… because an unshared story can break a heart that carries it alone for too long.’
Spoiler alert: this post contains some spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust is probably the most challenging book I’ve discussed so far. It’s not an easy read – the language can be difficult, and so can the topic. You’ll also struggle if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of Kenyan history (which I have, so that helped). But I really enjoyed reading the book, so I wanted to give this review a go.
Dust is set against the backdrop of Kenya’s 2007 elections and their violent and chaotic aftermath. The story starts with the death of a young man, Odidi Oganda, a disillusioned engineer turned gang member, who is shot by the police on the streets of Nairobi. His sister Ajany, an artist, returns to Kenya from Brazil to mourn him, reuniting with her father, Nyipir, and mother, Akai, at Wuoth Ogik, their home. Odidi’s death takes place on election night, while his body is brought back to Wuoth Ogik on a day ‘when distorted election results will set a bucolic country afire. The outside world is drenched with human noises of accusations and counteraccusations, election rigging, and the miracle of mathematical votes that multiply and divide themselves.’ Events unfold from Odidi’s death, which shakes the family and brings back secrets and memories from the past. The story is subsequently told from different perspectives – Nyipir’s, Akai’s, Isaiah’s (a British man looking for his long-lost father in Kenya) – and at different times, all the way back to colonial Kenya, the Second World War, the Mau Mau War, Tom Mboya’s death.
Owuor’s book is, I think, her view of Kenya. At the same time, she wants to show how Kenya and its people can move forward. She paints a picture of a country that hasn’t yet found itself. In Owuor’s book, Kenya is a country that is haunted by its history, past violence, secrets and a silence embedded throughout society. It is a country that is, perhaps, built on an illusion, an illusion that seems to erupt in the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections.
To me, the overall message Owuor wants to give us is that of silence. That after the violence of British colonialism, the Mau Mau War and Mboya’s death, Kenya rather than addressing its history cloaked itself in silence and created an illusion of a country that actually doesn’t exist.
‘The past’s beckon is persistent. From the air, Nyipir peers down at an expanding abyss. His country, his home, is ripping itself apart. Stillborn ballot revolution. These 2007 elections were supposed to be simple, the next small jump into a light-filled Kenyan future. Everything had instead disintegrated into a single, unending howl by the nation’s unrequited dead. This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises. … His people had never set their nation on fire before. … a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the president of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out-of-control national grieving. … Memories are solitary ghosts.’
‘But then came the fear. It split words into smaller and smaller fragments until words became secret, suffocating, and silent.’
‘The dying had started long ago. Long before the murder of prophets named Pio, Tom, Argwings, Ronald, Kungu, Josiah, Ouko, Mbae. The others, the “disappeared unknown.” National doors slammed over vaults of secrets. Soon the wise chose cowardice, a way of life: not hearing, not seeing, never asking, because sound, like dreams, could cause death. Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder.’
‘From that day, their days were stuffed with choked fear, suffocated by the family habit of silence.’
‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory.’
But Kenya and its people are haunted by something – by secrets and memories. Owuor says memories are ‘ghosts’, implying that they haunt something. Kenya and its people still seem to be searching for something, perhaps their identity, as do the characters in the book. Isaiah searches for his father, Ajany chases after Odidi’s shadows, Nyipir is haunted by Burma, where his father and brother died during the Second World War. The whole country, imprisoned by silence, seems to be haunted by its violent history, a history that can come back and explode at any time.
‘… Much later, the horror was painted over and replaced with myths of triumph, repeated, repeated again, then adorned in all seasons of retelling. Nyipir waited for the inheritors of these silences to call out the names of their undead dead. Not a word. Now, fifty years later, the murdered were shrieking from earth tombs of enforced, timeless stillness, wailing for their forgotten, chopped up lives.’
Perhaps history and silence and memories and secrets are like dust – everywhere.
One of Owuor’s central questions in the book is what endures. It’s a different answer every time – sometimes it’s time, then it’s absence, then it’s silence. But then, it’s also starting again. Because despite Kenya’s chaotic history, Owuor’s message is one of forgiveness – she apparently wants Kenya to move forward:
‘Her whisper. “Forget?” Ajany stares at her father, her body trembling in disbelief. A thought. No. They wait. “Forgive.” His voice wilts. The burden of his choice.’
‘He murmurs, “What to do about the world.” Petrus grinds out, “What does it need?” “Memory loss.” The Trader turns to Petrus, his face sunken. “Like me.”’
And despite the often grim picture Owuor paints of her country, despite the title, it is a country that is very much alive, a country that is home. The landscape is often described in beautiful detail and water – which creates life – plays a central role, suggesting that new beginnings are possible.
‘Hearing echoes of landscape, feeling its shape inside her, how it formed her, its earth soaking up her tears, its dust in her brother’s body. Wuoth Ogik: home.’
One more thing: Owuor – rightly – seems to take issue with how Africa is viewed by or reported on from the rest of the world (especially, perhaps, the Western world). It seems to be a distorted view for her, she not only criticises it but makes fun of it too, as she does of the so-called solutions the rest of the world has for Africa. Isaiah, for example, shares a table with a few other Europeans and one of them is ironically described as an ‘explorer-blogger’. They talk about the following:
‘“Is zeir trivial vor finished?” asks the German. “I hear, and I vas at vance understanding a pis festival, ja? Viz ze lake, by ze lake, near ze lake. I vill speak to my embassy and ve shall gazer ze desert tribes.” His voice crescendos: “Zey vill sing, zey vill dance. Togezer, ja. Zey vill illuminate metaphorical pis and from ze lake pis vill be a mirror, like ze memory.” The explorer’s tone is droll. “And yet the desert nations’ work schedules might not coincide with your ‘peace’ plans – animals to pasture, journeys to make, people to meet, that sort of thing.” “But ve must insist. Zey must conform.” A frown. Sarcasm missed.’
Moreover, Ajany watches a news report on CNN while in a restaurant:
‘Undated recycled post-election violence scenes on CNN, panga-wielding Kenyans setting their country alight explained in the voice of an “Africa specialist” from Louisiana, whose accent clangs all over his disapproval. Cut to news from tidy Anglo-Saxon worlds – a sequence of pretty, orderly spaces explained with tender adjectives. Sniggering from another table. Ajany overhears the tail end of a joke: “We were terrified the country was going to the dogs. But it was worse; it was given to the Africans.” … The joker is a scruffy foreign-correspondent type wearing scuffed leather sandals. His eyes carry the ravenous gawk of Must-Become-Authoritative-Protagonist-of-Bad-African-Happening types. His bespectacled companions are a droopy man, something of the I-speak-for-Africa worthiness of Bono about him, … ‘
Overall, Owuor’s book is difficult to read – there are many things happening at the same time and it takes a while to understand how the characters and events relate to each other. Her language – which I actually don’t like – can be quite difficult, too (it’s quite harsh and short sometimes, especially in the dialogues). I haven’t discussed everything that is happening in the book, or even told its whole story, and what I’ve discussed is my interpretation only – others might see the story and its message in a different way. It is, however, a beautiful book, and even if it takes a while to get into it, I’d definitely recommend it. In fact, I’ve liked it so much – or have been so much intrigued and fascinated by Dust – that I can’t wait to read Owuor’s next book, The Dragonfly Sea (which I’m planning to buy as soon as it’s available on Kindle).
About Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya and lives in Nairobi. She won the 2003 Caine Prize and has received the Chevening Scholarship and an Iowa Writers’ Fellowship. She was named Woman of the Year (Culture and the Arts) by Eve magazine in Kenya in 2004 for her contribution to the country’s literature and arts. From 2003 to 2005, she was executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and she has also been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and a Lannan Foundation resident. Dust was nominated for the Folio Prize.