African Library: Who will catch us as we fall by Iman Verjee

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Who will catch us as we fall
Iman Verjee
Publisher: Oneworld
ISBN: 9781780749365

The Indian community of Kenya comes into strong focus in this recent novel, part family saga, part social analysis and part romance, set mainly in Nairobi and combining idealistic hope with some strongly satirical exposures of the city’s and the society’s ugly underbelly. In the Kohli family, the two poles of their political and social orientation are initially marked by the parents, but later expanded and adjusted by the older sibling Jai and his sister Leena. Raj, their father, has successfully expanded a prosperous furniture making business. He is a lifelong supporter of Pio Gama Pinto, who was one of four (actual) Kenyan Heroes honoured in 2008 for their contribution to their country’s liberation. Raj had met Pinto when he himself was just a boy, and never forgot this activist anti-racist and his humility and greatness, even though Pinto was assassinated at the age of 38 in a still unsolved case. Pinto’s killing was widely rumoured to have been punishment for his overt opposition to post-liberation looting of state assets by the leaders of the ruling party (which he had helped bring to power), as the narrative conveys. Raj always gave pride of place to an old newspaper photograph of Pinto held aloft by scores of “cheering black compatriots” (69) that he had had framed, but late in the narrative we learn that Pooja, Raj’s wife, has ‘banished’ the photo to the downstairs toilet – the only indoor space where Raj is allowed to smoke in peace.

A passage that clearly conveys Pooja’s forceful personality and her values occurs in the final section of the text, which returns to the 2007 setting, immediately prior to the elections held in that year that would lead to widespread and very bloody inter-ethnic clashes:

She had wanted to leave for London. Unlike her husband, as an East Indian residing in Nairobi, Pooja often feels as if she inhabits a liminal state. She has lived here her whole life and yet it doesn’t feel permanent. She tries to empathize with Kenyans but finds it impossible to identify with being Kenyan. She loves this country, its lushness and ease, but it has never felt like home. No matter what Raj chooses to believe, she knows that there remains an impenetrable buffer between Indians and native Kenyans – a wall that she is constantly aware of and doesn’t mind because it protects her. (391)

Without portraying Pooja as a nasty woman (and in evident contrast with the author’s own mother, referred to in the Acknowledgements as “so inexplicably compassionate” that it inspires her author daughter to “strive to be a kinder writer and a better human being” – v), her limitations are evident; to her, the East Indian community is the only one that really counts and the opportunities offered by it for luxurious and well fed get-togethers and enjoyable gossip sessions matter supremely to her. For this, she is willing to pay the price of constant vigilance over her children’s (and especially her daughter’s) associations and activities. For, as the narrative vividly demonstrates, those who step over the lines drawn around the community will be unforgivingly and permanently ostracised – whether it is a student son who turns out to be gay or a daughter who flirts with and kisses a black security guard – even by their nuclear families.

Raj and Pooja have their moral tugs-of-war with sometimes one of the parents’ choices and sometimes the other’s prevailing – and while Jai and Leena are growing up, the son imbibes more of his father’s and the daughter more of her mother’s values. Pooja is more willing to let Raj guide and steer the occasionally resistant Jai, as long as she can maintain the protective barriers she deems essential around Leena. As the third central character, the young Kikuyu boy Michael Muriuki (for whom we never learn an African first name) enters their lives, Raj (in so many words) orders Jai to befriend him. They are both 16-year-olds at the time and, despite the many differences (of culture, class and race) between them, this does become a warmly evoked, deep and lasting relationship. Raj feels that with age, his familial and professional responsibilities have prevented him from fully living up to the ideal that Pinto had articulated for him when he had been a boy of Jai’s age – that of being humbly heroic by willingness to fight for what is right; of earning the trust of African compatriots by trusting them and “work[ing] together as equals” (74).

Michael makes his quiet first appearance at the compound in which the Kohlis have a flat, one evening towards dusk. He had been living at Eldoret (a country town) with his fierce paternal grandmother, known as “Madam” since the age of 3; but since she has died, he will from now on live in Nairobi with his mother Angela who works as housekeeper for the Kohlis – such a job being deemed despicably subordinate to interlopers in Kenya, according to the grandmother. Madam had instilled in the boy Michael an unassertive sense of his own worth, so that while he is shy and proud, he is not intimidated by wealth, privilege and class swagger. Before he resumes his schooling in Nairobi, Michael (with the Kohlis’ permission) joins his mother at her workplace every day; helping Angela, but (as Pooja of course insists) without receiving pay for the scraping of pots and endless peeling of vegetables on the back veranda of the house. Initially, Jai’s overtures of friendship and attempts to lure Michael into joining in with the compound children’s daily games of cricket, marbles and so forth, are rebuffed by Michael. Stiffly and as in rebuke, Michael insists: “‘I have work to do’” (89). Eventually Michael thaws, though, and is prepared to join in, surprising the other children with his games skills; some very unpleasantly so (especially the thoroughgoing racist neighbouring boy Tag). But with their adored Jai, the acknowledged leader of the compound children refusing to participate in any of their games in which Michael does not participate, the other children (including Leena) gradually if grudgingly accept Michael’s presence. He is still not invited into anyone’s home for post-play refreshments, however, while Jai loyally stays outside with his friend.

Verjee’s novel is structured in five parts, with the first set in 2007, while the second, third and fourth sections return to 1995 and proceed chronologically through 2002 and 2003 until the final section again narrates 2007 occurrences – subsequent to those evoked in the opening part. In the opening chapters, we are given very broad hints that some terrible experience had kept Leena away from Kenya for four years. Soon after returning, a nervous Leena’s vehicle stalls in rush-hour traffic and she is robbed of her cellphone and handbag when she foolishly opens her window in the stifling heat. The street boys use the robbing opportunity to throw urine on her, with the threat of more, and she is twice told that she is lucky it was not acid. As Leena is reporting the theft at the police station she encounters two men who recognise the recently returned woman. One of them, who intrigues her with his composure, easy manner and good looks is (as we learn later) Michael, whom she had known well when the Kohlis lived in the compound from where they subsequently moved to an upper-class suburb. The other is the unhelpful police officer (looking for the bribe that Jai pays him after sending Leena to wait outside); a man who appears initially to be an insignificant character, providing mere local colour (representing official ineptitude and corruption), but who gradually emerges as the fourth main character of the plot (if we take the Kohli siblings and Michael as major compared to Raj and Pooja and several others as more minor characters). The police officer is named Jeffery Omondi.

Jeffery had joined the police, as we learn, not only with ambitious dreams of rising fast in the ranks, but with a strong sense of dedication to crime-fighting and opposition to corruption. He had especially hoped to get himself and his aged mother, his only relative, out of the slum and into a city apartment, and wanted better healing treatment for his ailing parent. He saw himself at that time as “better than Kimani the houseboy. Better than Njoroge the cook. Better than Wangai the driver. Better than his drunkard whore-loving father, who had worked for Hatari Security Company as a night guard,” since “he worked for the president now” (44). Particularly important was the fact that “his salary, low in comparison to many others, was still the largest he had ever received” (45). Later in the narrative the author gradually recounts Jeffery’s downward slide into crime; in the opening section we only catch a glimpse of a dark history when a crazy old woman, in the wake of Leena and Jai’s appearance at the police station, tells Jeffery ominously that she “know[s] how [he had] harmed that poor soul” (46). When Jeffery had first joined the police, he “had found it difficult to navigate the institution, which was a messy maze of bribery, canvassing and influence peddling, but he had been let know early on that if he wasn’t willing to play the game, he would be transferred, or even worse, fired” (101). Nevertheless he had reassured himself (initially) that one day, when he had risen to the top, he would clean up the force, until “somewhere along the line, that dream had rotted under his ever-loosening morals” (101). We find out that it was not merely moral weakness and the temptation of easy money through accepting bribes or conformity to the corrupt institutional ethos that had led to Jeffery’s downward slide. “A year in, as a junior constable, Jeffery’s senior officer had called him in”; beginning the interview by saying he knew the young man wanted to ask for a raise. Verjee manages very convincingly to evoke the humiliating, sneering rebukes and demands of the superior officer, well aware that Constable Omondi – then an exemplary, dutiful policeman – was asking for the raise in order to pay for treatment for his grievously ill, declining mother; “the only life he cared about” (107). He had had to leave her that morning “heaving, unable to move and slicked in her own sweat, urine and faeces” (107). Once so meticulous about keeping their home spotless, she required urgent treatment, far too expensive for Jeffery to be able to pay. With a “loud laugh”, brutally refusing even a loan, Jeffery’s superior mockingly promised him a “raise” – “but only if you bring in six vayhacles” (108). Out of the thirty thousand (or more) shillings to be taken in bribes from the drivers, the officer undertook to give Jeffery ten percent. Thus began Jeffery’s career in crime, as he turned to David, a sympathetic fellow officer skilled in obtaining pay-offs, to teach him the ropes. But even when his first day on the adapted ‘job’ ended in an unexpected windfall from a wealthy young Indian woman driver, almost all the bribe money was confiscated by the superior officer and Jeffery’s mother’s condition had worsened steadily.

“It terrified Jeffery how quickly a living person could be reduced to an animal” and he felt “overwhelmed with pity and disgust” (137), witnessing his mother’s rapid decline from the wasting disease. Running to the nearest clinic for help, Jeffery experiences the following:

Despite the angry protests, people blocking him with their shoulders, Jeffery managed to shove his way through the swelling crowd and into the unlit stone corridor where he searched for a doctor, a nurse, anyone who might be able tell him what was wrong with his mother. But each time, he was either ignored or told to wait like all the others, huddled over the wet cement floor. So he sat impatiently, cradling a young boy whose mother had fallen asleep against Jeffery’s shoulder. [For: …] in Kibera there were no government clinics or hospitals just as there were no government schools or other services – close to two hundred thousand people left to fend for themselves, forgotten by everyone who lived in the nearby city. [NGO] institutions were severely understaffed or provided limited services so that one had to wait for days before receiving care. Often, it came too late. (138)

Indeed, they are all sent away without seeing anyone. The woman he was with, who had already been waiting for four days for treatment for her son, returns daily though futilely, as does Jeffery [he, in the mornings before work]. After several days, when the boy dies in his mother’s cradling arms without having been treated, Jeffery weeps with her over the small, skeletal corpse. “When he looked around, Jeffery saw that there was no dignity to be found there” (139). From the bereaved mother he learns that the boy, whose symptoms resembled his mother’s, had suffered from cholera. This heart-breaking experience was what drove Jeffery into the bribery crowd, but after his first dip into this pool he arrives home to find his mother dead in the squalid conditions that he had left her in and, despite the sympathy of his slum neighbours, he is left bereft, embittered and ‘cured’ of his former idealism. The way in which Verjee thus partly humanises the repellent image of the corrupt cop is a particularly striking aspect of this novel, though he remains an unpleasant presence.

Against the background of Jeffery’s experience at the clinic one understands why, when Raj insists on taking an apparently dying man from the roadside to the hospital and leaves him with the money to pay for treatment, the man leaves with the cash just after they do; to Pooja’s ‘told you so’ disgust at such a ‘typical con job’ – also the first time “they had [had] an African in their car” (62). A slightly more pleasant though balanced picture of Nairobi street life is reflected in Michael’s initial impression as he arrives from Eldoret and disembarks from the bus in “the congested city”:

He saw all manners of people – cheeky, African pedestrians; sour-mouthed Indian shop owners; mzungus in all their khaki glory, pink-faced and friendly, as if they had been plucked straight from a romance novel. He even spotted a Chinese man haggling at an electronics store and stopped to gape at the unusual sight. The sounds of the evening traffic mixed with gospel music from bus radios and people setting up shop wherever there was space on the bumpy, unpaved roadside – selling sweets, hot peanuts and magazines. […. Michael had to leap] across an overflowing, festering sewer filled with rainwater, fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles and cigarette butts, aghast to see some boys washing themselves in it. The ‘city of possibilities’ the girl on the bus had promised him, but to Michael it was ugly and disturbing. (84)

Michael’s life in the city initially proves to be a mixed bag; he loves his mother dearly but is deeply disappointed by her timid failure to defend him against a fabricated accusation of theft by the unpleasant neighbouring boy Tag and his mother; relieved when Leena – who had initially been ‘in on’ the plot to disgrace Michael in her jealousy at her beloved Jai’s fondness for Michael – steps in to shoulder the blame; appreciative of Michael’s warm friendship and increasingly fond of the prickly Leena, but every so often reminded of his grandmother’s and his mother’s warnings that Indians and whites are not to be trusted. Tag, for instance, protests against “show[ing] this Kikuyu […] respect” as he is ‘merely’ the Kohli’s “maid’s son” as he nastily asks: “‘Shouldn’t he be cleaning your toilet or something?’” (153). Pooja, for her part, becomes increasingly anxious about the gradually growing closeness between her children and Michael and the effect this – mainly in Leena’s case – will have upon their family’s reputation in the Nairobi Indian community and upon Leena’s marital prospects. So, when Raj informs her that he has been looking at homes in the suburbs that they might move to, her initial reluctance to leave the close-knit gossipy circle of families in the compound becomes a desire for change that she embraces – on condition that they fire Angela [their house help] and so get Michael out of Leena’s ambit. Jai is allowed to continue visiting his friend, but Leena (as Pooja intended) gradually forgets Michael in the excitement of new friends, cinema visits and shopping sprees with her mother. (Jai has been forbidden to tell Leena of his regular visits to Michael.) Angela goes to live and farm in Eldoret on her late mother-in-law’s property, while Michael and Jai take up university studies at the University of Nairobi.

Although her charismatic big brother Jai had to Leena always been her hero, protector and advisor figure, in the months that they spend a lot of time together within and near the compound where the Kohlis live, Michael – despite her initial resistance to his racial otherness in conformity to her other friends’ attitude – gradually begins to play a similar role for her. It is he and not Jai who helps her up when she falls off her bicycle and runs away with her on his back during a naughty kids’ prank at the fruit market. So it is to Michael that she turns to try and understand the ugly fuss about a neighbourhood student who has returned to Kenya from the UK in obvious disgrace by asking her friend: “‘Michael, what’s a faggot?’” (198). His response is wise and tactful: “‘I’m not sure how to explain it because I don’t really understand it myself. But I don’t think it’s something you should call other people. It sounds hurtful.’” When Leena informs Michael about young Tag’s decree that the compound children shouldn’t speak to this gay young man and that, although she likes him, she is worried that “other people” will “talk about” her, she adds: “‘Do you think I’m horrible?’” “‘Not at all’”, Michael says, but suggests that she should “‘do what feels right’” – though that’s easier said than done, as he admits to himself. So he adds: “‘knowing what’s right isn’t the problem; it’s about not being afraid to do it. But once you do,’” finally looking up at her, “‘you’ll see that it’s the easiest thing in the world’” (200). Evidently, these are key words, echoing Pinto’s long-ago advice to Leena’s father, but also pointing forward towards the future of these same two young Kenyans.

Much of the 2002 section in the novel is taken up by depicting the growth in political insight of the two friends Jai and Michael during their university years. They get drawn in – Jai much more passionately than the more circumspect and level-headed Michael – into student protest action led by a swaggering, influential student named Steven. Michael soon sees through Steven, recognising his vanity and selfish ambitions; for Jai, it takes an encounter with the much more committed though unambitious figure of Anthony, another student, to begin to understand that Steven is a bully and a fake – someone who is good at whipping up hysterical anger and provoking pseudo-heroic battles between protesting students and police in order to garner limelight for himself. He turns out to be in cahoots with the media and with the police in setting up Anthony as a ‘poster’ victim when the latter is beaten to death by the cops while in custody. To Jai, it is a very bitter lesson.

Jeffery’s "career" in crime proceeds in parallel with these developments. Jeffery’s friend and fellow police officer David, who first taught him how to take bribes, invites him into partnership in a protection racket targeting owners of taxi fleets and buses. When on a later evening visit to David’s flat he learns from David’s wife Esther, that David is being promoted and will thus henceforth be his superior officer, Jeffery is unjustifiably furious. He focuses on the point that he will have to pay large amounts from his illicit earnings share to David, since that is how the ‘corruption hierarchy’ in the police force operates. He storms off and gives the transport boss they’ve been fleecing together the false information that David in his new post intends confiscating his buses and wants to close down his business and that he had better do something about it. Even so Jeffery is profoundly shocked and horrified when it turns out that the transport boss has organised a hit on David that disguises the killing as a suicide by leaving him hanging in the police station, where other officers and later Jeffery find his dangling body the next morning. Jeffery suppresses his guilt and horror; he himself now gets appointed to the superior officer’s position vacated by David’s death, moves into David’s flat and even marries Esther – who somehow realises Jeffery’s responsibility for her beloved David’s death. Jeffery even expands his protection racket by blackmailing a young man (a student who sells stolen cellphones for extra money) to make weekly payoffs to him; later even to form a gang so that more stuff can be stolen and sold. But at this point his trail of crime attracts other predators in the form of two ‘heavies’ who murder the youth who’d worked for him to intimidate Jeffery into providing them with a very large sum of money. This ‘squeeze’ is no doubt organized by shadowy employers of the two bullies, as Verjee coolly displays the intertwinements of the Nairobi criminal underground. It is this demand to pay up that will eventually, fatally connect the apparently safely privileged sphere of the Kohli family with the murky lives of the criminally predatory. Esther has become Jeffery’s other problem. Attracted to her because to him she represented the ‘good wife’ figure, like the mother that Jeffery still misses and mourns, her second marriage to a man she has grown to detest and her enduring love for David (of whose "bad boy" side she had nevertheless been aware) have driven Esther into alcoholism, over-eating and strange, unpleasant eccentricities that repel Jeffery, who spends most of his nights with Marlyn, the prostitute "bar-girl" who is in love with him.

As the narrative moves on, Verjee begins to draw its strands together. Michael has become an artist doing commercial illustration and photography for an income, but he creates paintings such as one which he keeps hidden, of his dream woman – an image he created of an adult Leena. He has not seen her since the Kohlis moved house and she has been studying in the UK for a full year after school, but he cannot forget her. Jai and Michael have in the meantime changed the way in which they express their political views. Now they reach out to the broader court of public opinion through graffiti: writing telling messages and painting symbolic scenes on walls that castigate the rottenness and irresponsibility of the ruling class and the repressive security forces in Kenya. One of their jobs, for example, has parallel columns listing the qualities of the actual leaders that Kenyans are stuck with (“Unreliable/Inconsistent/Mean/Buffoons/Inconsiderate/Slow/Lazy/Greedy/Vultures”) as against the leaders that they “want”: “Visionary/Patriotic/Intelligent/Women/In touch with the people/Competent/Honest/Reliable/Men” (311-312). From Jeffery’s fury at the sight and by the speed with which this message is painted out by the city council, it is clear that the prominently displayed remarks have hit home. In a meditative moment, as the two friends sit down to consider all the risks involved in and the possible consequences to the whole society of what they’re doing, Jai asks: “‘So why do we do it?’” and Michael replies: “‘Because this country is beautiful and full of life, … And who will fight for it, if not us?’” (319). On one occasion, when Michael is painting a scene to express his outrage at the injustice of class and racist contempt (he is remembering how Pooja had disgustedly torn apart a flower he had tucked behind Leena’s ear, in a long-ago, tender moment), Jeffery – notified by a security guard – comes up to Michael and he is briefly detained. Strangely, Jeffery attempts to recruit him for an intended theft as he has developed a plan to obtain the extortion money for the two bullies.

The plan "comes together" as follows: Esther’s deteriorating state reminded Jeffery that she had a cousin working in Nairobi who could be summoned to help look after the wife he now detests, but feels responsible for. He tracks her down and the cousin turns out to be the new ‘housemaid’ at the Kohli home, Betty Kipligat. When he speaks to her, Jeffery (desperate to save his bacon from the murderous extortionists) immediately spots the comparatively luxurious home as a place that could be stripped to raise the money he needs. So he cultivates Betty, who is also paradoxically attracted to Jeffery (as he is to her), beginning to plan the raid. To execute it, he requires the involvement of the two "enforcers" and it is (as the reader of course by now expects) on the night of their raid that Leena, home alone with the ‘flu while the rest of the family went to the Temple, is raped by one of Jeffery’s associates. Leena soon leaves for London to get away from her horrifying experience, where she remains for the next four years. Her return to Kenya opened Verjee’s saga and her narrative will be taken further in the next and final section of the novel, titled “2007”. In the meantime, Betty (who was bundled into Jeffery’s car boot while the robbery and rape were perpetrated) is ‘cured’ of her infatuation with him; horrified at Leena’s rape, she and Betty decide to leave Kenya (and Jeffery) for Uganda, though with lingering regrets on Betty’s part. Esther’s take on the Kenyan situation is:

It’s this country that does it to you. […] It teases you with a mirage of beauty so that you believe all things are possible. It tempts but cannot give you anything. You see people suffocating under piles of money while you’re struggling to put even one meal on the table. There are mansions constructed from the finest materials, so unnecessarily extravagant for the two people living in it, while somewhere in Kibera, seven people share an impermanent shack the size of this kitchen – so how can you not be angry? When there is all this unfairness around us, how can we blame our men for going mad? (323)

Elsewhere in the text, these sentiments find both a challenge and a confirmation in an exchange between Michael and Jeffery. Michael the idealist proposes (concerning Kenya and its unbalanced social conditions): “‘if we refuse to look after our country and instead steal from and kill each other, what does that mean for the future of Kenya? Things cannot just change by themselves. We have to accept responsibility for that.’” To which Jeffery replies:

‘I used to sound just like you’ [as he gives] a derisive snort of laughter [ – ] ‘but one day you will see that while you were busy thinking pretty thoughts about everyone else, they were pushing you down to get to the top.’ He stopped to contemplate his words. ‘I love this country but I must accept it for what it is. A place where thieves are celebrated and good men die unremarkable deaths.’ (357)

Of course Michael has no inkling that Jeffery was present during Leena’s rape. The 2007 section of the text informs readers of the burgeoning ethnically organised pre-election violence [of course the murderous post-election violence will be worse, but the text breaks off before that point], and this situation feeds into the next encounter between the two men. Jeffery, through his prostitute ‘girl-friend’ Marlyn (who turns out to be Michael’s aunt, his mother Margaret’s sister) discovers at this point that Michael and Leena (as the narrative has prepared us) are in a relationship, thus allowing Jeffery to use his knowledge of where Leena lives to blackmail and threaten Michael. He needs his assistance in the next assignment for which the two ‘enforcers’ have returned to him – his task: to make the votes brought out at a crucial opposition stronghold ‘disappear’ in an act of arson; election sabotage for their political employers. Initially not known to the reader is the fact that Michael and Jeffery subsequently decide to join forces to turn the tables on Jeffery’s persecutors – the same trick that will get Leena’s rapist and his sidekick jailed for a long, long time, if for a different crime.

Something of the ominous atmosphere permeating Kenya is caught in a representation of Michael’s thoughts as he thinks back to a picture he had taken to accompany a newspaper report:

[A] woman and her two-year-old daughter were found dead in Tana River county beside a watering hole. In that baking corner of Kenya, they had been hacked to death with a panga [… The mother] had been holding her daughter’s hand, a small girl with unusually clean feet because she was being carried when they were struck. (383)

Jeffery (who has been warned that Kikuyus will be made to pay the price if ‘their’ leader emerges as victor) reflects cynically on how, “for the past 50 years, the ruling elite had always been determined to hype ethnic differences to cover up its more suspicious activities” (398). On the evening that the voting station sabotage is supposed to happen (after the station has closed), Michael apprehensively waits there; Jai hiding in the bushes nearby. When Jeffery’s two muscle men arrive to check on what they thought Jeffery would be doing, they find Michael and start taking over the ‘work’ of burning the stacked ballot boxes. At which point (as planned) Jeffery and three other police officers burst out of a deep cupboard and arrest the men, caught in the act. Their arrest and subsequent lengthy jail sentences simultaneously free Jeffery of his persecutors and put Leena’s rapist and his cohort behind bars. As Jai tells Michael to explain to Leena, he had done this for her, for she is showing her growing courage and maturity in openly demonstrating her loving commitment to a Kikuyu – as Michael has been doing with her. Michael returns to Nairobi and is about to board a bus for Eldoret where his relatives are, not intending to ask Leena to join him, when Leena forestalls his boarding, saying that it is now her turn to offer him protection. This – which is the point at which the novel ends – not only concludes the strong strand of cross-racial romance in the text, but alludes (as Kenyans in particular will know) to the fact that some of the worst 2007 post-election violence happened in Eldoret. The novel’s title is thus neatly recapitulated in this ending.

Verjee gives considerably more space than I have done, above, to Leena and her oscillating feelings about the relationship with Michael, as well as the difficulties she encounters in dealing with the inevitable familial outrage (in particular from her mother, of course) and the predictably virulent Indian communal condemnation. On the one hand, the narrative conveys what feels like awareness of the uncertainty of the apparent ‘happily-ever-after’ scenario for Leena and Michael and Jai – and even for Jeffery, who appears determined to turn over a new leaf. On the other hand, not only had Leena very recently still felt acute embarrassment at being seen with Michael (and been in need of Jai’s recommendation to “do what [she] feel[s] is right” and his comment that Michael “sounds good for you” – 403), but Jeffery’s despairing thoughts (expressed late in the text) about Kenyan apathy in the face of flagrant power abuse; their slack wish that the election should be non-violent and fair, do linger in the reader’s mind:

This is the problem with Kenyans, Jeffery concludes. They are foolish, hopeful dreamers. Trample on a Kenyan with fake promises and flatteries and he will rise up and run straight back, hungry for your boot. Yes, he may for a time protest and speak out, but eventually he will return to his life, nonplussed, consoled by family and friends. What can we do, how much can we say – our lives don’t matter but they are ours, carry on, carry on, this is the way the world has always been. (399, original italics)

What offsets the above is an evocation of a final pre-election graffito painted by Jai and Michael, an installation done even as they think of the immediate context of “the villagers in Tana River Delta [; … to these two] a stinging reminder of how easy it is to dismiss lives in some parts of Kenya, treating people as pawns for political gain – training them to become systematic enemies” with the result that “neighbours raided each other’s houses, teachers killed their students [and] the youth turned on their elders” (427). But maybe Michael and Jai, two unlikely friends, embody in a small way the large dream that they will not allow to die: “Forty-seven hands joined together – a representation of the forty-seven tribes of Kenya – fingers intertwined. Within the unbreakable oval of their union, Michael has written: “Peace is only possible when we come together” (427). As all in our continent know, knowledge of this truth is more widespread than its enactment. But we cannot let it be forgotten.

While aspects of the plot and certain characterisations do creak a bit, Verjee’s novel is a thoroughly engaging narrative that gathers power as it moves along. Her varied scenes of Nairobi life are vividly evocative of this and many other African cities. I look forward to encountering her future projects, as more and more talented young authors tackle the Kenyan conundrum.

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