...and every of his written literary thought!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fitting a White Mask into an African Face ~ Belonging in Africa a Novel by Jo Alkemade




A Critical Review by Mr. Roundsquare



The identity crisis in Lamming’s White Mask Black Face best illustrates the motif of ‘struggling to belong’ in Sarah’s story. When she grows up, a Dutch girl wants to be an Afropean—a  wish she expresses as she blows her eighteenth birthday candle—a milestone that ushers her into an adult world and her journey to find acceptance as an honorary white African. Never mind the story begins with a heartbreak which is an antithesis to Sarah’s teenage quest in pursuit of happiness and personal freedom. It’s October 6 1978 at exactly 6.30 pm when we meet the teenage narrator ‘smoking Embassies (as an envoy’s brand) and inhaling the smell of Africa: earth’, adoring the sunset Africa as an amazing sight.

Its setting in history takes place in Kenya, a few weeks after its founding father, Kenyatta Snr., had passed on and the anxious expats expect the country to fall apart. The author warns in a disclaimer that the social realities of the senile decades of the ‘70s have been woven into her autobiographical novel, and the reader is left to their imagination to unravel how much of the story is true—historical truth and fictional truth. Its social setting takes us through a Nairobi of yore without house numbers and with unclear street signs; and before you watched a show in Odeon Cinema, you had to sing the national anthem, rising as a flag, ‘and anyone seated while the anthem played would be dragged off by the police for disrespecting the flag.’ A Nairobi of old wives’ tale, for no one was ever caught!

Visible in the narrative is the use of a colonial hangover, ‘memsaab’ (my master/mistress) fifteen years after independence. This seems to imply that Kenya’s liberation was still struggling too like the narrator, in its tumultuous teenage years but had not yet descended into Uganda’s abyss the expats anticipated. It’s interesting to note that this title is used by their older night guard, a Kikuyu (a tribe persecuted by the colonialists for being Mau Mau), when greeting the younger narrator.

Her parents are predictable as most parents and her father controls her Shakespearean narratives in his bid to order her little world like the Globe Theatre director even in rebuking her present—a gold-plated Ronson lighter he thinks would make her smoke more; although the reader can excuse the birthday girl for her smoking experiments, eating a chocoladetaart cake but not taking alcohol, now that she’s legally an adult.

In this growing up and rebelling story, she’s impatient and ready to rock ‘could dance wild and loose like a gazelle’—but like the young and reckless gazelle dancing herself lame before the main dance. This is because her first love crush Leander, whose charming endearments she had hoped would ride her wild in clubs with his carefree spirit, is a hard-ball player. This hit-and-run lover breaks her heart, amid vivid description of crazy dances, as the DJ spins Marley’s ‘Is This Love’ while revelers vibrate awkwardly to lyrics—‘too slow, or not slow enough’—of the latest album from the Legend himself, ‘as if anybody cared.’

Apart from trying to fit (and belong) into the adult world, her other inner desire is to find acceptance as an honorary African. She expresses this as she blows ‘out the candles in a single whoosh wishing for only one thing that Kenya would be the home where she could stay forever; to be done with expat life, hopping from one country to the next and to finally be free of parents breathing down her neck.’ Quite a mouthful! It also seem a juvenile resolve; symbolized by her destructive habits tearing a ‘fine metal mesh’ in her window to let the smoke out ; to let mosquitoes in. Subtly this could be a rebellious statement. Is she living in a cage? And is Pa (and Mwaura), the prison wardens in her little world?


She sets out to give us an African perspective through her reactions to the relationships between the local people, foreign friends and her parents. The birthday present from her father (admission letter to a driving school) is a fuel in her freedom highway, even though she’s already admonished that Nairobi traffic is a ‘free-for-all’ which was as true then as it is today. Yet she takes into her stride as a first giant leap onto the road to independence and anxiously says ‘I could hardly wait.’

This is interesting because we see a brave girl taking the ‘bull by its horn’ when her father is too wary and restless after an almost ‘carjacking’ incident, which if it happened in Kenya of 2015, would be bad enough (Category Five Alert) to issue a travel advisory to safety-fixated expats. This is a recurrent theme the author tackle through the carefree narrator and her white friends who can’t relate to the fears of their parents and ‘the expat community who thought danger lurked around every corner.’ While the narrator (and her expat friends) knew what Kenya was really like; a place (they) went to school, partied, and made friends for life.’

In her street wisdom, she prescribes a ‘standard caution’ especially when dealing with Nairobi men and their matatus ‘that swooped through traffic like vultures hunting for prey.’ Which still ring true today, except they are madly bolder and the narrator feels no sympathy for these road bullies. It is with a nostalgia that the age reminds us of the much ordered public buses from a Nyayo era gone with its ‘dirty green city buses that leaned to one side where passengers hung onto the door’ which I suspect were the famous KBS, because Nyayo Buses came into the scene much later into Moi’s regime.

And even after these ‘extensive’ driving lessons, making a three-point turn poses her with a challenge which her cynical father sneers at her attempts. Perhaps her road to independence is wrought with false starts. But by no means would their journey to Mombasa be a six-hour feat (with a cautious father as driver and ‘resting his heels’ in Mtito Andei)—the Nostalgic East Africans find this exaggerated. It would take perhaps a whole day back in the day to tackle ‘Mombasa Road which was in a terrible condition’ as her ‘father cursed as he swerved to avoid potholes deep enough to blow a tire or break an axle.’ What with ‘jam-packed buses roaring all day and night with drivers high from chewing twigs of miraa to stay awake! Or very slow buses swerved into oncoming traffic to overtake even slower buses, and got stuck there when neither would let the other pass.’

The harrowing journey pays off (even for the reader) because the colourful descriptions of the coast ‘fill (her) nose as (she) approaches the breezy sea.’ An art the author is keen to invest time in its details—the sea; ‘sky breeze as she enters it,’ and of ‘endless stretches of it, firm underfoot like pavement, reached to the left and right.’ And its ‘low tide, dry ruffles of seaweed, tall thick clouds like blobs of whipped cream skimming the horizon.’  No wonder then when faced with prospects of studying in her native Holland, she dismisses the offer for she’s in love with #MagicalKenya and can’t ‘imagine leaving Kenya, ever.’

The narrator’s usage of Kiswahili (now that we are still at the Swahili coast) is grammatically correct but contextually unsuitable. A multi-linguist transliteration would have refined phrases like ‘Safiri salama’ in lieu of ‘Safari salama’, which no one uses except by ‘knowledgeable’ expats in their Kiswahili impediments. But whether it’s a conscious choice of diction, it doesn’t escape the reader to find education polarised in expat ‘International’ schools, and here Sarah attends one in an oddly and ‘uniquely quiet’ symbolic Coldham Tutorial College, unlike other mainstream IG-Cambridge and Edexcel schools ‘that are filtered by tuition rates.’

It’s typical too to be populated by unconventional teachers as our classic Indian Geography teacher whose ‘Wee shep walley’ means ‘V-shaped valley.’ I’d laugh at the satire but my own experience teaching using my Kenyan English to European scholars also brought out some good measure of embarrassment. It’s tricky for my local tongue to pronounce ‘coke and cock’ and articulate properly the ‘ou’ diphthongs so as to differentiate the soda, the rooster, the drug and the cock euphemism. Of course, they’ll laugh at our ‘who-wants-my-coke’ joke.

My own physics teacher like Mr. Vasudeva would get offended with his Kamba-accented ‘ramba sucker’ (rubber sucker) and threatened to smite out grinning cheeks with ‘accent mumenichida, rakini end-term physics…’ But to score equal marks, a European tongue too gets twisted in our Kenian languages—evidenced in the narrator’s own experience with commonly used words such as misspelled banghi , though these local expressions add local flavor to the dialogue of belonging, especially the commendably used duka, hodi, karibu, kweli, etc.

Finally on the subject of language politics, local Kenyans never use ‘Jambo Bwana’ as a greeting. Not then—not now (except to answer an irritating expat)! It is this stereotypic perception that disenchants the desperate tourists when they visit our parks. In an authorial intrusion, the author satirises these foreigners in their ‘crisply pressed khaki outfits, spend a few hours in an air-conditioned van, driving safely along the trails of the National park just outside town. No promise of leopards and lions, but only herds of fat grazing warthogs—the closest they can get to Africa is through the views of a rolled up window!’ This was the scenario then; as it is now, or even worse as our Kenyanised SDP admits the ‘well-known fact that Kenya in fact has no rhino left and that those glimpsed behind bushes are, rather, fat wildlife volunteers dressed up in gray potato sacks.’

The book also offers the reader a brief history of Nairobi; then proudly called a Green City under the Sun!  She highlights the Thorn Tree Restaurant and its curious legend woven into our capital, so is the mention of F1 (the original Florida Club and its metamorphosis to Murder House before bowing to age). The Golf Range (herein Carnivore camouflaged) shows a party frenzy and club hopping as well (though in lesser shades than Mochama’s Nairobi; A Night Runner’s Guide). When the sun goes under the city, our underage kids still rave ‘their asses off’ exposing tales of familiar post-independence clubbing rituals.

Underground clubs still host young rich kids with a caretaker ‘cousin’ patrolling (and sometimes pimping them). Is what Rashid does to his ‘smoking hot’ cousins, now changed from their hijaab for something sexy, as they still do in the Black Diamonds and Babels of Westlands. And hoping that Dennis reciprocates his ‘beautiful’ gestures, perhaps with Sarah, becomes a letdown to an otherwise great weekend outing where ‘pimping’ backfires when our naïve Dennis assumes to babysit Sarah at the club against the Rashid-ic hyenas.

Familiar pick up lines ‘We move well together’ is still universally applied by lovers even to ‘too slow, or not slow enough’ lovers rock and dancing without shoes ‘to feel the floor to feel the music.’ Sarah seems at home going native to feel the heart beats of Africa(ness) itself.  Well, the African earth can also hurt so badly, with its spiky Thorn Trees that enter and pierce your hasty flesh—in prominent thorn imageries!

To illustrate this, when there’s an inkling that Sarah and Sam are about to start dating, hardly is the cautious phrase ‘take it slow’ out of Chloe’s mouth when she flinches ‘after taking another step for something sharp had pierced (her) foot.’ It’s interesting how they ‘admired the size of the thorn, easily two centimeters long with a thick point as sharp as a needle.’ This seems to suggest their relationship is doomed or would be painful if the thorn metaphor is implied. Besides, their first dramatic meeting at the Thorn Tree was a so-so anticlimax (no one’s heart was swept, anyway). But I leave the thorny undertones to the Mwangis of psychoanalysis and Freud theorists well versed in dreamy matters of the hesitant heart.

Conflicts with her parents rise with the entry of Sam, her rebound Ugandan lover, but her mother, simmers down—like most mothers. Properly developed as a character and role in playing down the conflict, we are told years ago she (her mom) had attended a class in the art of being a housewife in the tropics and she came away fixated on water and hygiene. If her father was absorbed with expat caution; her mother complemented it with a domestic vigilance fighting ‘invisible bugs.’ In welcoming her almost son-in-law, the mother pacified the home scenery with an antidote of beautiful imagery ‘mood lighting’ which she loved to call ‘just enough to highlight our best features but not enough to emphasize our imperfections.’ This is a critical exposé and the lamp, despite their dark African conflicts, had to be worn in gorgeous embroidery!

But Sarah is the child that needs PG advisory as she fall head over heels loving Sam—a relationship that shakes her priorities and resolve. Chloe her BFF is the first casualty. After their Finals, she abandons her (and their usual chips and coke post-exam lunch) and chooses to spend her time with Sam. ‘Good luck, rafiki’ is not enough a justification as she parts with a thin-looking smile! And for what but to go romping in Nairobi’s underbelly of crime—Eastlands (the reverse Westlands) to buy ‘banghi’ (bhang) and make snide samosa remarks to Rashid’s brand of Islam ‘does this too have pork in it?’ the same Rashid who didn’t have strong ‘qualms about beer.’ If this is a case of ‘show me your friends, and I’ll tell you your character,’ then this truth is revealed in Sam and his hooligans.

Even her caring but indulgent mother is angry after this disappointing post-graduate guiltless fun and her first day freedom which she was definitely not used to—now uncertain if at all this is what she was looking forward to. A freedom personified in their cat who ‘have it easy’ and ‘can run off and behave as badly’ but care less what anybody thinks. This is the cat’s freedom; and she, a cat minus a tail!

Lisa, their maid even disapproves of Sam. ‘African men are no good.’ Poor Lisa, a teenager too but with a kid back in the village, visibly pregnant and no husband in sight! Sam is the supposedly the vehicle that would give Sarah a belonging. But who is Sam? The author acknowledges his height as ‘tall’ and is irritatingly repeated throughout the book until the reader notices (the repetition)—a height hard to miss! His background is true to a traditional man. He’s an ex-jigger victim, a Madi from Northern Uganda, sharing various cultures with Acoli and Kakwa, the tribe of the former dictator Idi Amin. Sarah is strong willed to survive this polygamous setting because as Sam assures ‘my future will be very different.’

His being not Kenyan illustrates a belonging pattern—he’s African after all. His being Ugandan ironically confirms his stereotype (and narrow national bigotry) on Asians who ‘keep to themselves and behave as if they never left their own countries even after they’ve been here for generations…is why Amin decided it wasn’t enough to rid Uganda of the colonial dictators, but chase out the Asians also, once and for all to save Africa for the Africans.’

He also has ‘twisted’ stereotype and collectivization that all Europeans hate Africans. Suspecting Sarah’s father doesn’t like him ‘because I’m African.’ It could be the way he grips his hand as if to prove he’s the stronger man—which made him only visit the Janssens when he’s at work. It could be for being admonished for parking his car so carelessly in the driveway. Or the old man’s blunt sarcasm: ‘put it elsewhere so that ‘the people that actually live in this house can perhaps have some room to park their cars.’ All the same, they must fight for the ‘ultimate prize’—Sarah—a savage imagery fit for lions and their territorial turf wars to decide who takes the mating rights!

Sarah is headstrong in her obedience to the cupid arrows of Sam—some time his strained (stray and missed) shootings. The fashion of pre-fabulous Nairobi is also enlivened because trendy style then was hard to come by—beside tourist T-shirts and safari gear. And so when she dresses herself (to kill) for the wedding at Rashid’s and Sam doesn’t ‘notice her pomp and colour’ loudly enough to compliment her; there’s a hint of culture clash from her high expectations and tantrums. It seems a statement to her that complimentary tickets don’t wash with traditional Africa(ns), or perhaps shall remain unavailable during their post-courtship relationship. Yet she says yes to his proposal and a getaway journey into the northern hinterland by train (with its aphrodisiac gaDUNKkaDUNKaDUNK all the way!) which the adamant father refuses fearing the dangers of the dilapidated rail system (because an accident killed some Dutch tourists hundreds of miles in the south).

Well (sorry fans of soaps) their romance is not consummated in their joint journey to the North Rift—another antithesis for the love birds whose first near-experience was a coitus intruptus—and couldn’t finish what they had started off at the dark theatre. Always tricky for any memoir at how much should be revealed; how current relations would read this fictionalized part or other ‘graphic’ details that could be entertaining, but in a discomfiting way, in spite of our best intentions!

Instead we are treated to a dose of humour while onboard this 1895 train with a description of a ‘gaunt, ancient man sweeping the floor with small swishing movements, pushing the rubbish,’ perhaps of history! The narrator takes us through the inside of their cabin; but shutting out the description of the safari in detail—the Kikuyu farms and White highlands as they undulate through.

Daddy’s little princess dines in an old car ‘with plates stamped with the golden crest of the old colonial East African Railway Corporation.’ And conjures up the ghosts of Karen Blixen; ‘who perhaps had rode this train while she looked out on the land she loved and prayed she’d live forever. She’s nostalgic at her glimpse of times gone by. ‘Just a dozen or so years ago, Sam and I would not have been able to share a meal like this, never mind a first class compartment—and definitely not a bed.’ She vows ‘Kenya is my home. I don’t ever want to leave,’ when Sam probes her commitment to share their future together.

Finally inconsistencies inform the historical setting of the narrative when they reach Eldoret and Daniel araap Murgor picks them up. Here the North Rift readers will have poetic faiths about the geographical locations mentioned during their road trip and stay in Kapenguria. For one, they could have alighted in Kitale Railway Station, where the railway track ends, instead of Eldoret—some 64 miles away! The mention of empty milk cans in the truck suggest the Murgors delivered their milk to the nearest KCC depot—that is Kitale, and would be impractical to go all the way every morning to Eldoret.

Captured accurately in their journey, though, is Kenya’s breadbasket, still a familiar stretch dotted with maize fields and the rough tarmac road especially after Moi Barracks—even my father swore at its potholes as he drove through it in the early eighties. Woe when it rained, the ‘black cotton soil like glue’ stalled cars in its sticky mud.

A generation of ‘chotaras’ or ‘pointies’ (half-caste) live across the Kalenjin land, and in fact, the historic Murgors themselves are case in point —a happy coincidence? Many local women married (or were mistresses) to these farmers took over the running of these farms on proxy. Our fictional Mrs. Murgor, is herself white and married to Dr. Murgor. In Kalenjin, Mur is cross and Gor means land. It’s an interesting choice of name ‘cross-land’, perhaps cross-bred? Dotted with hills? Rivers? Trans-Nzoia in mind?

The stables they keep though fictionalized, still mark most white highland ranches and tracts of large scale farmers who inherited all manner of habits from the fleeing white settlers. The mishap of riding the horse that ‘might be bouncing around in the saddle until we carried on clear into Uganda’ points out further evidence that the geographical area these lovebirds rode into is around Endebess, just next to Suam River that demarcates Kenya and Uganda. Further, the black clay soil fits perfectly well with this description.

 A critic’s work (and as a reviewer) in exposing what the author omitted from the narrative is not complete if we don’t probe the details of where they ‘spent days exploring the area’ yet met ‘no excitement around Kapenguria’ except ‘adjusting to the rhythm of the quieter farm.’ Of course, there are Tartar Falls, Saiwa Swamp National Park (the only of a kind in Africa), historic Mt Elgon Caves, the Kamatira steep slopes curving from the Cherangani Hills, and if they were adventurous enough, would go all way to Lake Turkana (the biggest desert lake in the whole world) sitting beside Koobi Fora where the Leakeys discovered the home of mankind! Spoiled for choice, but missed opportunities without tour guides!

Poor Mrs. Murgor! Her husband had another woman in Mombasa, her children away at boarding school since they were seven years old and who only visited home during long holidays. It’s terrible even for Sarah, and dares Sam to ‘go gallivanting off with some hot chick on the beach.’ Unlike Lawino in Song of Lawino, she isn’t ready to share her man in a polygamous setting.

The story of Mrs. Murgor is similar to LS Senghor and many other Africans who had gone to study (medicine) in Europe, and brought back white wives into their traditional African homestead that already had many stepmothers and half-siblings—a totally different ballgame for a woman born and raised in England to step into a life like this. Sam fits here—except his white girl came to look for him—and is ironical that he wants to go to study in England which is dismissed by the narrator that, ‘a newly liberated African turns to land of oppressor to get a proper education.’

To belong in Africa, Sarah may have to follow in Mrs. Murgor’s footsteps and join the local Country Club—of course it’s the old colonial Kitale ‘Members Only’ Club—only a half an hour slow drive away. It might even reconcile her confusion living its history; an ‘odd structure that appeared to be stuck between two eras; not fully hanging on to its old colonial past, but not taking on a new African identity either.’

But how would she not partake or shed off this colonial mentality still written in every space? Kenyatta’s post-colonial government renamed and localized most streets, schools, etc. But still a colonial air stuck—that we even felt growing up in our Jack and Jill Preparatory School and later Kitale Academy (formerly Kitale Primary for colonial kids). Araap Moi replaced Hoy’s Bridge, the Nzoia River Bridge of Mr. Hoy (Bwana Hoi or Memsahib Hoi, if you like) called it Moi’s Bridge and paved it for the wheels of politically connected to cross over to Kitale Club.

These farmers still played tennis and golf in holes also doubling up as watering holes for hippos ‘and would send (Turkana) guards out at night armed with pointed sticks to chase the off by poking them in the behind.’ While they drank deep into the night—the hangover traits—these African farmers inherited and proudly displayed the same arrogance of Kap Russell, Kab Bill, and even the original Delamares, played their tourneys here, according to club records.

It is no wonder then that after the clubbing, Sam reads too much ‘White Mischief’ in the Rift Valley and suspects Daniel, the half-caste friend, is riding his ‘White’ horse—a pure green-eyed monster with his childish jealousy. His tantrums are finally quenched by a ‘delicious’ lovemaking that night and rekindle the belonging motif while ‘contemplating the world Sam had just held up for (her) to look at.’ A world in black and white, where Sam’s father is imprisoned because of tribal politics in Uganda, in a vacuum created by the deposed dictator Idi Amin from a cousin tribe. Persecuted for being thought he’s a loyal lieutenant to former dictator. ‘Would they accept (her)?’

Sam displays his traditional worldview by hitting Scooby Doo, Daniel’s baby sister, and causes utter consternation to both Sarah and Mrs. Murgor—this rough side of conformist patriarchy, is justified by Sam and Daniel who think ‘children must have discipline and learn their place, especially the girls.’ Daniel too is guilty in his keeping with kalenjin culture, a tradition notorious for patronizing and classifying girls and women as children. And have nothing apologetic about it, bringing out a clash of cultures—in white and black—‘was this how African families raised their children? Or had Sam taken things too far, slapping a child he was not even related to?’

Jo feels through Sarah’s eyes that the African societies should purge all traces of bigotry in their culture. It pushes women into a psychological trauma and totally disregards them as members; it promotes the chauvinism even within educated families. Through Sarah, Jo’s proposes to expose and assess the grounds used to defend age-old cultural practices.

This ill-timed incident is significant in the story for it is possible the same fault that later leads Sam to his death after hitting the child of his jealous younger step mother. It is a foreshadow, also sadly marking the abrupt end to their stay in the farm and they hurriedly pack and disappear back into the city so that Sam could proceed to his ominous journey to Uganda to sort out ‘some urgent things.’

Significantly, the stage sets the reversal of events as Chloe and her family leaves Kenya—the only home she had known—being a fourth generation since her gramps settled in early 1900s. They ‘got tired of corruption, and of worrying that this stability won’t last much longer.’ Though an exaggeration, they had to wait until 1982, four years later for one. Sarah gives Chloe a brand new copy of Blixen’s Out of Africa, as a gift ‘so she won’t forget.’ Her exit is sudden and sad, for the author doesn’t develop Chloe fully, except as support cast and we don’t get to know if her relationships were also localized—now that she had been born and brought up in Kenya. She exits, a dejected character (cut out from the story) perhaps analogous to the sacrificial rams from the White Maasai narrative—neither here nor there—to tell a tale to the West.

It is the turning point in the story. Exit Sam; enter Dennis his brother. This could have been the beginning of the second part of the story or a break, for like a Romeo and Juliet, things got worse after this interval! Sam writes back about the jealousy and squabbles from the family—the envy of Matilda and her children. Through this epistemology, we delve into their adoration of love in black and white. It evokes a confused identity of the ‘Black Skin White Mask’ but to dismiss their fears ‘the colour of their skin matter nothing to them’ yet Sam’s father had wished better for his children, (by marrying Sam’s lighter skin mother) knowing life would be easier for them if they were lighter. By having a white girl, Sam is repeating history as if to cheer up ‘his spitting image of his black-as-night father!’

Their imminent ‘mottled’ union is both a bane and hope for her belonging, and it is even in doubt; ‘Sam and I were going to have a perfect life there, once we disentangled ourselves from the complications of our families.’ It seems though that man proposes, woman accepts the proposal; but God disposes. Foolhardy, the narrator is deaf to her father’s seasoned wisdom ‘words are cheap, and you are a gullible fool. You have no idea what goes on in the real Africa outside of the pampered life you lead.’ But she makes a better-or-worse resolve to follow her heart and dismisses the sentiments of her naysayer father, even ‘shocked that he turned out to be just as full of prejudice as any other expat.’ This decisive apogee, though not a cosmic irony that justifies her father’s ‘nothing good could come out of this relationship,’ is a slap in her face to appreciate her father who knows his foolish little girl is incapable of deciding her own future.

A future uncertain and hanging as ominous clouds; and now followed by sad news of Sam’s sudden demise in Kampala, that her father forbids her to attend the funeral. But as fools rush in, she books an overloaded ‘Kampala’ Express, packed with passengers like sardines (jeered all the way; un-belonging). This is her unseen Africa in the aftermath of post-Amin’s Uganda which is now overran with several lunatics in soldier uniform, erecting numerous roadblocks and where one had taken away her picture from Sam’s wallet and keeps it, perhaps to ‘defile it in his maggot-infested bed.’

Here, she doesn’t belong easily and being the only white person, her interactions with Sam’s extended family, reveals the other side of Africa she’s less familiar. The likes of McGoye and Kimenye have already gone native and this is visible through their writings that they are No Longer at Ease living in their African traditional environment. The nervous illustration is best captured in the cover portrait with the women group anxiously hushed contrasting the regular lively African rowdy and noisy ‘market’ crowd.  

But unlike the local women, peeling banana for matoke supper is a hectic task for her hands; ‘I wondered why it was so difficult to wipe off (the sticky black slime of the peels).’ Someone should have informed her to rub her hands with cooking oil before peeling them so that the black streaks didn’t stick in her hands! She’s also clueless taking part in ‘no washing of body, and cutting hair as part of funeral ritual to honour the dead. Thinking she must hug these traditions because she was an almost-wife, or his might-have-been wife. But later confessing being stupid; thinking she was doing the right thing, too eager to embrace customs she didn’t understand.

She becomes an arm-chair envoy from the West that visits the East in Barlow’s Stanley Meets Mutesa. Adela symbolizes the warmth of African Kabaka-ress in welcoming her visitors. A VIP visitor who feels like Mireille in Bâ’s Scarlet Song that is treated as if she was in a zoo for all eyes to feast on her (while she pretends not to notice the curious ‘not-one-of-us’ stares). Or worse, the centre of attention—given preferential treatment as ‘the women slip into languages’ like low frequency vernacular FM station. She relives again the un-belonging motif on their rough journey after she’s singled out by ‘a catholic nun with a white skin, and a teenager like her.’ This time round, and much to their mutual amusement, they can’t communicate and are as foreign to each other—and disconnected.

As they head north to bury Sam—I suspect in the Acoli North, the land the poet Okot P’Bitek’s rich orature pollinate our mind—the traditional Madi customs are too much for her comfort, and the author cleverly weaves this discomfort as the narrator reluctantly washes herself, the disturbing image of ‘a single bare thorn tree’ is evoked again. She cleanses herself under the thorny allegory, thinking she’d take a private bath—like in her own lavish bathroom—but no! ‘Jambo,’ I replied. I was thrown for a minute—it hadn’t occurred to me that I might not be the only one here.’ The two stark-naked women share a ‘bathroom’ smiling knowingly, she glancing, enviously at her perfectly rounded butt and breasts, fuller, firmer than hers—an African flesh.

This ‘thorn’, a ‘beautiful’ girl they share nudist humanity in a culture clash backdrop, is also the African woman they shared Sam with; Sam, the ‘traditional African man.’ It comes as a shock that turns into anger, jealousy and finally hurts her, despite the fact that belonging is communal in the land of Acoli, where Lawino is willing to share her Ocol with her rival Clementina. This is a foreign territory where it is an acceptable form of wife sharing and up to four women could share peel the African banana if we were to go by the imaginative and suggestive cover of the book.

Her shock colours the rest of her stay in Uganda and is uneasy in consoling Sam’s mother, though her heart ached for her loss but still she couldn’t forgive her—‘the woman who told everyone she was not good enough for her son, even though she had never met her.’  She throws silent tirades at the woman who had gone out of her way to force pretty girls on her Sam! Her rants are inexcusable for when you choose to be friends with crabs, you shouldn’t complain of their rough handshakes.

Her insolence climaxes when she’s supposed to kiss the archbishop’s ring, another ‘unnecessary complication with God so clearly on everybody else’s mind.’ Here, she’s green: should she kiss it with a smacking sound? ‘Hold his ring finger, or just plant a kiss on the ring? Touch the ring with her lips or hover in the air about it? Kneel or bow while kissing it? Close her eyes as she kissed it?’ She seemed confused how the same lips that had kissed Sam’s must now kiss the Hand of God! A comic effect for she doesn’t kiss the ring after all!

Another shock the author employs gallows humour to demonstrate is the efforts of the hired professional mourner to urge their tears in weeping loudly ‘so everybody else feels free to express their own suffering—a proper atmosphere of grief!’ This dark humour, the narrator thinks, is improper as the people are sad enough without needing encouragement. Dennis reveals that they suspect Sam was poisoned, although there’s no post-mortem to establish this fact, as is standard procedure, nor forensic evidence used (no signs yet that the fictional body shall be exhumed to determine the truth; to rule this out).

Phew! She goes back to civilization, saddened by leaving the village and her ‘almost-relatives’ with ties that bind even if only in their shared loss. The acquired traditional knowledge seems therapeutic in resting her curiosity. But still she had to confront her adamant rival to satisfy her soul and rest her case, or to confirm her fears—perhaps her father was right, nothing good could come from this African union. The nameless rival assures her in their shared grief (and subtly echoing Sarah’s fate) that ‘it did not last. It was for the best. What was I to do with a man who has forgotten our African traditions, and has chosen to live the life of whites?’ Even as she leaves Uganda, she feels as an honorary African for ‘she had been taken in when she had dropped uninvited into their lives in the middle of a tragedy’—though a foreigner and a stranger.

Phew! Finally back into her comfortable world, smoothly lined with order and civilization, where she belonged and she realizes that her identity had been flapped and interacted with very rough and chapped hands of Africa until it ‘looked shabby, it’s cover had lost its stiffness and edges frayed, and saw many grimy fingerprints abusing it like the lecherous soldier in his maggot infested bed!’ She seems to be making an angry commentary on how she was perceived and her person without civil courtesy!

Their initial romantic escapades to survive against odds are wretched by a sad realism which when probed further, distresses and dishearten various relationships. And sooner than later, it’s apparent that their dreamy Romeo and Juliet allegory is a poor defense against the pressures of society. Finally, Sam is entangled in his traditional roots, while Sarah is left high and dry, lonely in her exquisite bathroom and luxurious bed sheets without the warmth of the man she loved.

Of course, not all African men are polygamous by default and just like Europeans etc, mankind-is-mankind and what an African can do; an American can do even better in taking up mistresses or a concubine. So the text does not have the final say on relationships, and in this case cross-cultural —though this enriching first person narrative is a strong testimony to the intricacy of interracial unions.

For Sarah, Sam’s death transforms her character as seen on her return—the juvenile girl capably took a good care of herself in Uganda, and drive out her parent’s fears to the contrary. And with her new role—lead role—she graduates to ‘the one doing all the talking in the family; and it feels a little odd.’ She can now easily spin the tricky three-point turn that she eternally had to learn as her father teased; always a reminiscent of her driving school—now graduated from the school of hard knocks and can captain her free spirit enough to turn and drive herself to her destination.

Her last epistemology entitled ‘Sara, my number one woman,’ shouldn’t have been used to explain the conclusion of their love mystery. This, I find is too much of poetic license and liberal authorial intrusion that consciously spells out how the story ends—a reverse case of ‘show-not-tell!’ It would have been a better conclusion and resolution to leave the reader in suspense. Or the narrative could have opted for a better way out of the dilemma of patching up their fateful story—as the Kimenyes and Oludhes do around East Africa—reconciling their ‘mottled’ nuptials amicably for love is universal! Perhaps they escape this ‘discrepancy of belonging’ through their writing.

The other lame resolution is revealing the identity of the poisoning culprit, given as Matilda, the middle wife. Couldn’t this have been left to the imagination of the reader to judge her? After all, the author’s insinuation already pointed in that direction. Does the ‘means’ justify the end? It is unbelievable that Sam is killed because he hit his kid step-brother/sister! Earlier on, he had hit Scooby Doo, and if the author is making a statement (a sentence) that punishment for ‘chauvinism’ and domestic violence is death, then the punishment is simply colossal (to your loved one). The story should have had a more dramatic justification—not hitting at a child!

A plot may have a conclusion and a resolution, or only a conclusion. ‘And they lived happily ever after’ is a resolution. How they lived ‘happily’ is our conclusion. The reader is left to their whim (and telling evidence from the text) to choose what to believe—not compelled, nor arm twisted! Perhaps the author had a lot of loose ends to tie. Perhaps it is a demonstration of the beef between Dennis and Rashid. But again, even the poisoning story is hard to sell to the unbelieving narrator, nor doesn’t seem to justify the ‘adult discourse’ from Dennis.

It is a serious dialogue because the previous week, Dennis spoke in a ‘childish’ verbiage. Could his brother’s death—and his taking the family’s mantle—be responsible for his ‘rapid’ transformation? Suddenly he is advising her ‘you can’t build a life on wishful thinking, imagining this world to be some sugary place where everybody just gets along. As if donkeys would ever be welcomed into a herd of zebras!’ This is a remarkable outburst resonating in the belonging theme—fitting a white mask into an African face—dissecting the identity question: if a leopard can change its spots or an Ethiopian the skin.

All the same, his reproach has serious implication on his relationship with Sarah and this vague exposé from a less-serious lad is an antithesis to the narrator and her grown-up slips that found its way into the story which was supposed to be written from a young adult point of view and by an adult author.

Denver’s song ‘I’m Sorry’ and its conclusion (both in the text and in the song) is the last nail on their romantic coffin, much as the many ‘I’m Sorries’ didn’t stop the girl in the song to walk away from her lying cheating lover.’ If not in its wording, then in its tone, and a good riddance farewell darkened by her friends visiting to console, her going to college in London, etc so to honour Sam and their memories.

The nostalgic memories of almost belonging together; almost achieving this feat  in their eye-opening desperate journeys—with Murgors and Madis, both contrasting, delayed by cultural shocks, and sometimes mirages of heartbreaking memories, toe-breaking too—if her small toe is bleeding into the bargain! She portrays herself as supple and soldiers on despite her ‘wounds’, and through her resilience, the mothers of Africa are established as crucial to the very society that is actively alienating them.

The gender battle informing the conflict and coating the storyline insinuates the misrepresented prototypes that are evidently masquerading as tradition and culture. The society that has long been lured to consume the perpetuation of these customs is now persuaded again to the ultimate obligation of preserving the harmony between man and woman. The author also exposes the two-faced values of the African society and the flawed conventional wisdom that evidently leans heavily on patriarchy.

Apart from the geographical dislocations of our earlier discussed Kapenguria, and Biashara Street being referred to as ‘downtown’, only three typos escaped the almost keen-eyed editors. ONLY three! And are on punctuation—worth mentioning because it’s no mean feat to publish a typo-free MSS. On P27 ’’Listen...’’ begins with a closing instead of opening quotation marks. OnP29, is a poorly spaced comma ‘Matatus , buses’ (perhaps the buses from  Nyayo ‘error’) and finally the fifth line of P224, the space between ‘porridge.’ and ‘My teeth.’ Like traditional gap in teeth, I wonder if this is the narrator’s longing for the traditional beauty of missing teeth that is glorified in Okot P’Bitek’s White Teeth?

A major strength in Belonging in Africa is in the ruthless disapproval of the shakeup forced on family units because of interracial relationships, even if their despair lie on bedrocks of stereotypic race history and individual intolerances. Our nagging local questions ‘what brought you to Kenya?’ is no more accommodating for someone bridging the racial gap and feels more African than her ‘strange’ native ‘nether lands.’

Perhaps her wishes to belong are (partially) fulfilled in birthing of this (real-life fiction) publication—an African edition, but then at the end of reading its 256 pages, we are still in a disquieted suspense whether she kept country hopping or finally settled in Africa. The Africa that has accepted her white mask dance in the face of Africa, that is, the beauty and the idea of the mask dance—yet were the strained liaison consummated, it would have been a test of pragmatic romance, just like any other cross-cultural marriage—but it never happened, or almost happened! The success (or lack of it) is quite telling in retaining the Sarah Jennsen maiden name, never adopting Sarah (almost) Dragu. Perhaps the story she bakes in realism appeases the author to serve it without a Cinderella ending because her vehicle to belonging broke down. This African ‘Matatu Matata’ van called Sam Dragu whose death robbed the narrator a ring on her finger even after she fell into his traditional arms!

Finally, most Afropean popular works have new stereotypes. White Woman loves Black Man. White Woman marries and moves to savage Africa. White Woman writes sensationalist book and exploits the relationship to make sales. Jo in her realism pursues the general perception of Africa through a prism of belonging as seen from her eyes—the very iris of her Occidental West. Intolerance, YA Fantasy, righting a wrong, gender balance, corruption, etc, whatever her intentions were, she succeeded in holding and sustaining the nostalgic discourse from a scene in her past—which still resonate with the present—and repainted an African picture in multiple tapestries to the bemused West. A portrait devoid of the usual jungle madness!

©Roundsquare

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