The Mantle (New York)
ISBN 0998642304 (ISBN13: 9780998642307)
Initially published by Kwani? in 2010 (in Nairobi and subsequently by The Mantle in New York in 2017), Stanley Gazemba’s novel Forbidden Fruit is – unlike its title and slightly lurid cover image suggest – a beautifully evoked narrative of rural village life in a Kenyan setting. The obviously punning title – in its reference to the Genesis account of Eve, Adam and the ‘apple’, with the customary contemporary allusion to illicit sex and here (in addition) the actual stealing of real fruit – is indeed fulfilled in the narrative, but does not forewarn readers of how delicately, I would say tenderly, and with profound empathy for human need and folly, Gazemba tells his story. We first encounter the main character as he embarks with trepidation on an unaccustomed undertaking:
All his life into grey sideburned middle age, Ombima had never really stolen from anyone. […] Today Ombima was going to steal. Not money, not silver. He was going to steal food. Plain, life sustaining food, and it weighed him down with such shame he could hardly keep his head straight. (2)
Ombima is a farmworker, a poor peasant whose own tiny shamba [piece of land] cannot provide enough by way of crops to sustain his small family of four. He is employed (like hundreds of other workers) by the local wealthy estate owner, Andimi, who in stark contrast with the scrawny, sinewy Ombima, is massively well-fed and impeccably groomed; he “radiated only riches, from his delicate calfskin sandals” reportedly “made in London to his own specifications” up to his “stylish hair”, which “gave the impression [that] every one of his curly black hairs had been groomed and brilliantined separately” (43). Andimi’s “immeasurable” tea estate is in dispersed locations and not all of it in the area near his magnificent home where the main action is set. In addition he owns a string of lucrative businesses to which he always attempts to add more, to increase his profits. When Andimi contemplates his workers, he “scrutiniz[es] their grime and squalor with spiteful little eyes that pretended to proffer friendliness” (43), but he knows the importance of maintaining a façade of gentlemanliness. His view of them contrasts with the author’s recognition of their unassertive dignity and silent hopes.
Ombima’s expedition takes place at dusk, as he creeps underneath the barbed wire fencing that surrounds the “kitchen garden” adjoining Andimi’s mansion; a “garden” twice the size of Ombima’s plot. While the nervous thief dithers about deciding which and how many of the luscious fruits and well-kept vegetables in the garden he’ll manage to carry away from his raid, he is unaware that “all this time someone had been observing him” (7). The secret watcher is Andimi’s wife Tabitha, known to all the workers as “Madam”, but in truth a very different sort of person to her husband. She is no lady of leisure, but a committed teacher in the village school. Despite her privileges and status, she has real knowledge and understanding of the local community and speaks up for them when the headmaster and some teachers hatch a plan to squeeze more money from their pupils’ already overburdened parents in order to feed themselves more luxuriously at school lunches. It is also telling that she does not give Ombima away for stealing from her garden. Eventually, as is only gradually revealed, one gathers that Ombima caught her eye by the unusual daring he displayed and that she was perhaps intrigued that unlike all the other farmworkers he took the enormous risk to transgress and secretly to defy his intimidatingly powerful employer. Cunningly, Gazemba has made the event of the initial, first-time fruit theft the kernel of the entire, complex narrative in which all the other characters become involved, or by which they are indelibly affected.
Food crops that are painstakingly grown, hungrily consumed, or (allegedly) stolen feature throughout the narrative, along with the harvesting of tea from Andimi’s estate, on which most of the characters are employed. Among them there is, of course, the typically mean overseer, Mudeya-Ngoko, who enjoys bullying and bossing the workers to create an illusion of superiority, although everyone knows he is illiterate – but likely a distant relative of Andimi’s. His nickname ironically means “chicken thief”, as in his youth he was supposedly perpetually insatiable and at night helped himself to other people’s poultry. One of the best workers, though one of the scruffiest, is Ombima’s best friend Ang’ote – a talented musician and a middle-aged bachelor who defies convention by the run-down, perpetually chaotic and messy state of his dilapidated shack. It is increasingly obvious to his fellow workers that Ang’ote is besotted with Rebecca, one of those striking personalities that no poverty can demean. It matters nothing to Ang’ote that Rebecca is 12 years his senior and already elderly, nor that she is burdened by having to take care of a horde of “insatiable” grandchildren left in her care by her family members “deserting” her for the lure of the city. The narrator shares Ang’ote’s respect for Rebecca:
One tough old lady who stood up to her call, the strain of her effort rarely showing on a rounded old face that had once, a long time ago, been beautiful, but which was now so ravaged by the hostile sun of the open fields and by life that it looked almost like the skin of a sun-dried pea-pod. Etched in these cruel lines, though, was the ever-living promise that moulded her sturdy character. (18)
Gazemba beautifully interweaves the rhythms of rural life with the impulses of individuals’ emotions. The lives he evokes are rich in feeling and the narrative voice, however compassionate, describes the poor without condescension or pity. In the evening, at his home, Ombima and his wife work side-by-side on their plot, dreaming in the light dusk of a future when “they would have enough to eat on their table too. And they wouldn’t have to labor for other people” and “their children would enjoy the things other people’s children had.” Nevertheless they savour the peace and the comfort of a shared dream. Gazemba evokes the sounds, sights and smells of the countryside – a drum sounding in the distance; “the voices of children practicing in the church choir … heard from a distant ridge”; a smoke column rising straight up; the “warm grassy odor” of the cows Ombima and his son Aradi are slowly herding home, and squirrels and field mice emerging from their burrows to look for “a starchy morsel” in the soil upturned by the departing family (73-74).
The next development comes when Ombima is assigned to work in the “garden group” and not (as usual) on the tea estate. Although the work is slightly easier, Ombima feels out of place since the others working here are all women. A couple of evenings later, he encounters “Madam Tabitha” in the moonlight, clearly coming from his own home, to which he is on his way. A beautiful, attractively plump and perfumed figure, her presence intrigues and her beauty fascinates Ombima, for Tabitha stands quite close to him. She informs him that she has noticed a theft of produce from their garden and that she wants Ombima to keep a close eye on his fellow garden workers as she surmises (she says) that one of them is most likely the thief. Dumbfounded because he is of course himself the thief, Ombima agrees to report to the Madam after work that evening. When he duly does, naming a woman he finds unpleasant as the likely thief, Tabitha announces that she wants him to come and keep watch that night during the period between the end of the working day and some time later, when the dogs are let loose to patrol the property. When he makes his way to the garden, Tabitha is already waiting for him, dressed in a flimsy nightgown showing “nearly every curve of her body” (77). Tabitha expresses anger at the idea of the workers stealing from employers who treat them fairly, afterwards leaving Ombima to his watchman’s task. In her home, her husband sits in his study balancing his books and checking his transactions.
In the other room, Madam Tabitha lay on her back listening to the sounds of the night creatures outside, merged with the untiring tick-tock of the tiny winding action clock on the bedside table. Sleep would not come easily. She had a hundred thoughts milling about inside her head.
Ombima was equally thoughtful as he entered his compound a while later. He was walking with his head lowered, oblivious of everything else around him, lost in conversation with himself. (80)
The parallel emotional disturbance and preoccupation of two people in their separate dwellings signpost how entangled their feelings already are. In immediate contrast with the “dream vision” that has been created by Tabitha, Ombima’s wife’s presence is immersed in mundane, basic and even base domesticity – he almost bumps into her in the dark where she (Sayo) is “sprinkling ashes from the hearth around the latrine hole to keep out the flies” (81) – the faithful wife and mother fending off rot in guardianship of the home. Despite these unglamorous associations, it is clear that Ombima loves Sayo: “he could feel the warmth of her flesh through the old cotton dress” and “suddenly” has the urge to put his arms around her. But Sayo, who (days before anything like her husband’s recent encounters with Tabitha happened) has previously asked Ombima whether there is another woman in his life, is perturbed by his lateness. He reassures her that he was working although she gives him what he considers an “odd look” (82) when he explains it was for Tabitha. The reader is first alerted to Ombima’s capacity for deception when he could not bring himself (earlier) to admit to his theft of the garden produce to Sayo. Now he distracts her by saying that he wants them to use some of their painstakingly accumulated savings for home improvements (Sayo knows it is likely to “blow” most of it!) on a once-only family outing to the big show to be held soon in the nearby town. On the one hand this is a cherishing and generous paternal gesture, particularly to reward their younger child Saliku, who did outstandingly well in her schoolwork; on the other hand the plan is (Sayo knows) financially imprudent. But she yields to Ombima’s idea that for once, they are going to have a day of pleasure to vary the pattern of their lives. Even as she relaxes into his embrace, Sayo is aware of “the folly of [Ombima’s] rashness that had many times cost them greatly” (82), but they walk back to the house holding hands like the young courting couple they used to be, to tell their children the plan.
The outing is a huge success, but has an unanticipated aftermath. Ombima is summoned by Madam Tabitha, who is furious because he took the day off from work to go on the outing without informing her or obtaining permission. Upon hearing where he went, she bursts into laughter – a detail that deftly indicates the class difference between them in Tabitha’s pleased surprise at Ombima, a mere farmworker, daring to take unpermitted leave and indulging his taste for pleasure. When Tabitha informs Ombima that a much bigger theft than the first one was committed during the past night, he undertakes to make up for his former night’s failure to guard the garden; he says he will stay until midnight. As he lurks in the shadows of the banana plantation, somewhat nervously, it is not a marauder but again Tabitha herself who appears – once more seductively arrayed. Hardly able to believe what he now senses of her intentions, Ombima is full of “dread” but also of course increasing excitement and lust as Tabitha throws her arms around him in the well-hidden place to which she had ordered him to come. Ombima recognizes now (103-105) that it was Tabitha herself who had “robbed” and wrecked part of the garden, in order to create the opportunity for a forcible seduction of her employee. Inevitably, he yields to her caresses, overcoming his “fright”. But the fear comes back afterwards, even though “Madam Tabitha” invites him to a repeat performance and a full-on relationship to be enacted night after night. Confident and full of mischief, she demands that he explain the root of his fear and at last Ombima blurts it out: “You know why, Madam [….] You are someone’s wife, Madam, that’s why!” (107). She calls him “amusing” and before long tells him that she wants him there again at the same time the next night. “Ombima knew a threat when he heard one” and feels himself entrapped and “hapless” (108, 109) even as he plans how to wash Tabitha’s perfume off his body so that Sayo will not know whom he has been with so long.
Later that night, as Ombima lies sleeplessly next to Sayo, the quiet night is disturbed first by a “sharp gasping sound” and then by a “coarse wheezing” as of someone being strangled. It is the onset of a terrible, fatal illness; their precious ten-year-old daughter Saliku, whose health has never been strong, is lying unconscious on the floor next to the mattress where she sleeps, her body unnaturally twisted and jerking in spasms. Ombima gathers her up, telling Sayo to bring warm wraps against the cold and the boy Aradi to carry a lamp. The family sets off at once for the village doctor’s home. He soon confirms that Saliku’s condition is very serious. He gives her two injections, emphasizing that although these will “revitalize” (117) her somewhat, they will not cure Saliku. They will have to bring her to the hospital in the morning. Arriving well before the hospital even opens, the family has to suffer another agonizing wait – the first of several that day.
Saliku was stretched out on the bench with a blanket wrapped around her. She shivered continuously with the fever [probably cerebral malaria]. Her mother kept dabbing at her face with the damp cloth. She had given up trying to make her drink some of the hot tea in the flask. Beside them Aradi wrung his arms in his lap in silent nervousness, trying not to look at his ailing sister. Ombima found it hard to sit still and instead paced the paved waiting yard restlessly, hoping someone would show up. (124)
Eventually a cleaner, then the nurses and at last the doctors arrive. They examine Saliku, take blood samples for tests and so on, but confirm only the seriousness of the child’s condition. As the family waits to hear the lab results, Saliku’s condition deteriorates further. Filled with dread, Aradi has to return home to guard the compound and look after their animals. Saliku is admitted to the ward only late in the evening; Sayo had insisted on remaining with her despite threats from the hospital staff to remove her forcibly. An attempt to transfer the grievously ill child to a better-equipped hospital had failed, “due to lack of transport” (144). Before the next morning, Saliku dies; her exhausted mother having passed out at her bedside. We learn the terrible news abruptly, when Andimi and Tabitha have a vicious fight the next day because the businessman had intended going off to a meeting with a potential partner and his wife unflinchingly demands that he stay to show his commitment to the community by attending the funeral of an employee’s child. Tabitha prevails.
The village children learn of the death in the following way:
[Running] alongside … the strange little pickup truck [they] wondered who it could be. … [When] some of them tried to climb onto the tailgate [and before they are] shooed away … they saw the little wooden box in the truck, which they knew people were put into when the village pastor wanted to lower them into the ground. And then word went around that it was indeed one of them. They became confused and didn’t know what to do. The children had previously thought that that it was only the old people who died … (144)
But it is Saliku whose bright life has been extinguished.
Gazemba maintains the focus on childhood perspectives during the funeral and its immediate aftermath and it is somehow perfectly apt. It is especially Aradi, the bereaved brother, whose perspective becomes the reader’s. He stands at “the fringe of the neat square hole underneath the old scarred guava tree they used to play on and listened to the pastor ramble on in his shaky voice.” The boy “was in a daze and could hardly hear a word they were saying.” He is especially sorrowful at, and moved by his mother’s state; for Sayo had become “thin and haggard” in just three days. “It broke Aradi’s heart to see her looking that way. Unable to bear it, he turned his eyes away just as they started to fill with tears” (147). That night, Aradi is unable to sleep. He had always shared the room and the mattress with Saliku. The boy gets up, puts on his shirt, goes out and starts walking through the village, headed he knows not where. Aradi finds himself eventually at the compound of Mideva, who is the same age Saliku had been and was her best friend. He and sometimes another child had often played with the two younger girls. Aradi remembers “the hopelessness in [Mideva’s] eyes as the older boys started to shovel the earth into the little grave” and the “abject sorrow” (155) on her face when the choir sang the closing hymn and people started leaving their compound. He had wanted to go and sob with her, but was being held by his father. The boy knows he should not be at another family’s compound, out in the dark, but something compels him to knock quietly at the window of the kitchen where he knows Mideva sleeps, and where she is now, by herself. Startled, she eventually lets him in as Aradi apologizes for having come. Eventually the boy tells her: “Mideva, I can’t sleep. I don’t know why, but my eyes are dry as day” – to which the girl eventually responds by admitting: “I can’t sleep either, Aradi … I know it, even before I go to bed” (160-161). Seeing suddenly how much Mideva resembles his sister, Aradi weeps and tells her that the thought of his sister being under the soil is unbearable. Mideva comforts him and joins him in weeping as he is at last able to express his sorrow, and she hers. Aradi in turn reassures Mideva that her friend is “happy” and among the angels (162-163). The innocence and beauty of this scene of two mutually commiserating children contrasts strongly with Ombima and Tabitha’s reckless sensual union, as the reader is probably meant to notice, though there is no overt articulation of this point. During the same night, Ombima’s sleepless misery (by contrast) finds no “solace” (163).
We learn something more about Ombima’s earlier life in a later section, mainly how the clever and ambitious young man he had been had had his dreams of further education unexpectedly and brutally severed when his father, the family breadwinner, broke his leg badly and irreparably in a logging accident. Ombima as the eldest son had to find work to take the place of his incapacitated father and earn enough to put food on the table for his family. At a loss how to fill his time, days after the funeral at this time of the villagers’ annual Christmas holiday, Ombima finds himself at home alone. He wanders off aimlessly and at a whim buys a packet of cigarettes from the small local shop; taking up again a habit he had broken years before and scandalizing the nasty shopkeeper – one of the few people who had contributed nothing to help the bereaved family meet their funeral costs. Ombima ends up sitting on a flat rock on a steep hillside that commands a wide view, pensively smoking one cigarette after another. Suddenly, Tabitha is there. She had spotted him going up the hill and followed him, and (persisting against all Ombima’s demurrals) seduces him into another bout of energetic sex. Still addressing Tabitha as “Madam” despite her protest, Ombima again warns the reckless woman that their affair is not only “wrong” but “dangerous” (178). Ombima knows that Andimi is likely to be murderously angry if he discovers their relationship, but with unflaggingly complacent confidence, Tabitha assures Ombima that she knows exactly what she is doing and how to manage things so that her husband does not find out. Neither of them seems to think of the hurt caused to Sayo. Strangely, Tabitha even wants Ombima to promise that he will marry her. Not long afterwards, she begins to weep uncontrollably.
Eventually Tabitha’s story comes out. Calling herself a “trapped person” (181), she relates to Ombima how her at present “loveless” marriage to Andimi (182) came about. She was, she says, a naïve young girl, just out of high school, when she noticed the interest Andimi (ostensibly a friend of her brothers’ who came often to their home) had in her. Handsome, smooth and sophisticated, she fell deeply in love with him. Only years later did she realize that Andimi, at that point with little money but already greatly ambitious, wanted to get close to her father because of the latter’s wide web of lucrative business connections. Initially preoccupied with the four daughters she had in fairly quick succession, she did not allow herself to register consciously that her husband was away for weeks on end, utterly preoccupied with enlarging his businesses, and that making money was all that mattered to him. When their daughters one after the other left home to study, her utter loneliness dawned on her. A profound need for friendship, real conversation and especially for love overwhelmed her and drove her to seek him out, she tells Ombima, who registers the pain in her sad confession.
Walking home from choir practice later the same night, Sayo and her close friend Rebecca (Ang’ote’s beloved) run into Tabitha. Without (it seems) the slightest twinge of guilt about her affair with Sayo’s husband, Tabitha kindly invites her to visit the Andimi home the next day in order to collect the sum she had made Andimi offer Ombima at little Saliku’s funeral to help the family defray the burial and reception costs. Sayo gratefully accepts. The next morning, Ombima gets a visit at his home from his friend Ang’ote. He shares Ombima’s breakfast before asking his friend to come and help him to cut poles (for a new construction at his home) – deep in the forest, where suitable trees can be found. Ang’ote is oddly cagey about his plans, as well as touchy about Ombima thinking him such a loser that he cannot improve his run-down dwelling. He does make it clear that he is trying to persuade Rebecca, with whom he has a relationship, to marry him, but that she is still resisting his offer. As Ombima takes out his left-over cigarettes and lights up, Ang’ote remarks on this as a new habit, which triggers Ombima to reveal his other “new indulgence” to Ang’ote; “his only true friend … with whom they had been party to so many secrets.” He even thinks it a matter of “conscience” (198) not to hide the relationship he has with Tabitha from Ang’ote. Making him promise twice over to keep the secret, Ombima says “calmly” – masking “the heavy guilt in his utterance” – that he and Tabitha are “lovers”. Ang’ote is dumbfounded – “‘It is Madam you mean?’” (199), he stutters. As this astounding fact is verbally batted about between them, Ombima explains that the situation is becoming “sticky” and that he needs “advice” from his old friend. But Ang’ote calls him “mad” – a word choice by which (it turns out) he is rebuking Ombima for reaching so far above their station, telling Ombima insultingly that Tabitha’s selection of him (of all people) as her lover is inexplicable. “Just who do you think you are, Ombima? Eh?” (201) is how Ang’ote puts it. Since there had been an unmistakable element of bragging machismo in Ombima’s revelation, Ang’ote’s disdainful response is hardly what he had expected; predictably, he hits back by telling Ang’ote that he suspects him of jealousy, in turn being labelled “sickening” (203) by his old friend as the two men bristle up against each other. Ang’ote’s earlier, sensible warning against the danger incurred by the illicit sex is forgotten, it seems, as the two men make an uncomfortable peace to end their quarrel.
That same evening, the revelation of the affair becomes a juicy titbit offered to spice up another pair of lovers’ conversation – Ang’ote again commenting (now, to Rebecca) that he cannot “seriously see anything so unique about [Ombima] that would make a woman of standing like Madam bend down so low” (211). Rebecca, too, remarks on the discernible tinge of jealousy in Ang’ote’s tale, infuriating him. Perhaps this is what triggers the ugly plan Ang’ote hatches, that will bring Gazemba’s narrative to the terrible conclusion that has been hovering over it. Ang’ote (more than Rebecca, and partly also to persuade her to marry and live with him) has been dreaming of building an, at present unaffordable, large and comfortable new home. It has occurred to him, he says, that he might persuade Andimi to give them a large enough loan. Rebecca immediately (though initially only vaguely) suspects that it is something nasty that is being planned. Soon, Ang’ote explains to her what one surmises he intends: he will inform Andimi that he has top secret information that he will divulge for the amount needed to construct the new house, and “buy” the sum by betraying Ombima’s affair with Tabitha. Rebecca, the reader knows, is aware that she will not be able to prevent Ang’ote from acting on “the evil bite of jealousy and the depravity it injected in a man” (212). Nevertheless, she does try to persuade him otherwise, begging Ang’ote, as they lie in bed, not to go through with his plan; even though she is afraid of the rage her plea incurs. When she tells him that she “cannot be party” to his plan, Ang’ote tries to wheedle that he “means well” and merely wants to get them both “out of this squalor” (113) and create a better life for them. Rebecca’s reassurance that she is happy the way they are, falls on deaf ears.
A few days before Christmas, Ombima runs into Tabitha in the early hours of a bad morning on which he had a silly quarrel with his wife. Tabitha is all tenderness, inviting Ombima to join her (three days later) in the coming all-night village festivities and dances. Afterwards she wants to go to the hillside rock where they had previously made love, she tells him. Running into Ang’ote later, Ombima admits – in response to his friend’s question how “the little affair with Madam” is going – that he is troubled by the pace she is setting. He also drops the titbit about the appointment his mistress has made with him and Ang’ote light-heartedly teases him in response. Ang’ote even suggests that Tabitha’s access to [her husband’s] wealth could bring Ombima considerable financial profit – another glimpse of the baseness of his nature, but also of a craving by a talented, uneducated man for release from squalor so intense that he prescribes his own ruthless type of plan for Ombima.
Village life proceeds at its normal, leisurely pace, interrupted by small disturbances, such as the fight between Rebecca and her adjoining neighbour, a woman who accuses old Rebecca’s brood of hungry grandchildren of having stolen the cassava she had been cultivating to feed her own family. Rebecca is angry, but also tearful, for she knows the little ones serve as handy scapegoats whenever any food disappears from villagers’ homes. Sayo happens by and with her calm sagacity soothes the enraged neighbour, insisting that there is no proof that Rebecca’s grandchildren were involved. Even in her poverty, Rebecca offers Sayo some bananas from her meagre garden for the shortly forthcoming commemoration of Saliku’s death, when Sayo will again have to host many villagers despite her depleted funds. Graciously declining, Sayo invites Rebecca to join her in her invited visit to Tabitha’s home, to collect the promised funds to help pay her family’s funeral expenses. It does not seem that Ombima has given any thought to funding these social obligations. The visit turns into a pleasantly long gathering as Tabitha, Sayo, Rebecca and Midecha (the housekeeper in the Andimi household) sit and converse; drinking tea and eating sweet potatoes until late afternoon. There is no social distance in evidence between the warmly welcoming Tabitha and her much less fortunate guests. She is a warm, generous woman who seems able to keep her adulterous relationship with Sayo’s husband locked up in a different emotional compartment. Before the visitors leave, she remembers to bring Sayo the promised contribution – no doubt a generous amount, discreetly handed over in an envelope.
The whole village is in a festive mood as Christmas approaches – all expressing it in their different ways. The men (with hardly an exception) are downing barrelsful of beer; the children are joyously playing and visiting; women are cooking, decorating their homes or at church choir practice for the coming competition. Ang’ote, very drunk by the end of the day, goes off to find accompanying musicians as he has a leading role in providing the inspiration and accompaniment for the all-night procession and dancing. Despite the amount of beer he has imbibed, Ombima is not drunk, but rather tense. There is no-one else home at his compound when he returns, so (feeling rather dreary but also inexplicably tense) he wanders off. As he nears the entrance to Andimi’s compound, he hopes in vain that Tabitha will not be lying in wait, but she pounces the moment she sees him, reassuring Ombima that her husband is away (on business) for the night and that they have nothing to fear. As they walk on, with hands linked, they hear the “frenzied” drumming (236) of the village celebrants, and Tabitha in girlish excitement runs towards the sounds to join in the dancing, pulling Ombima along with her.
Tabitha dances exuberantly, sometimes losing Ombima in the huge crowd; masked by the dust they stir up and the dark of the evening. Ang’ote is the leading soloist, and his voice rings out over the massed villagers of all ages who are delightedly enjoying the music, dancing and flirtation opportunities. Andimi, too, is in a happy mood; his potential new business partner after all proving unavailable for a meeting (as he was fortunately advised before he had driven all the way), he has returned home and sits relaxing, enjoying the peace and the faint sounds of the distant festivities. Midecha brings him his usual perfectly brewed cup of tea on the veranda, and he appreciates anew this humble widow’s graciousness. Andimi sits thinking about his four daughters, all highly educated and mostly well employed, but none of them available for a family Christmas. He also acknowledges (with a very slight twinge of guilt) that he has been neglecting his wife and should be paying her more attention than he has given her recently. Soon, there is a knock at the distant front door and Andimi shouts at Midecha to let the visitor in, mildly irritated at the disturbance. The visitor turns out to be Ang’ote, whose scruffy, sweaty appearance is severely at odds with the luxurious furnishings of this palatial home, but in his drunken swagger he is unaware of this and simply savours this rare opportunity to see the rewards wealth can bring. Under the constraint of politeness, Andimi eventually asks Ang’ote why he has come, asking the question “with that fixed stare that said, this-had-better-be-good-enough-too, little man.” “Oh, so now I have your full attention, big man,” Ang’ote thinks, telling Andimi he has brought “gossip” concerning “Madam” (247). When Ang’ote the “mischievous farmhand” leaves the mansion, having divulged his news and (no doubt) come to a lucrative arrangement, Andimi has “a strange look in his dark eyes” (248).
Later that night, both of them naked on the hillside boulder, Ombima and Tabitha are murderously attacked by a “burly” figure with a menacing “thin low voice vaguely familiar to Ombima and laden with hate” (252). The man flings Tabitha aside and focuses on Ombima, whispering eerily: “I want your eyes, you snake!” He uses the biblical accusation: “Why did you covet what was rightfully mine? Eh?” (253). The figure gives Ombima a terrible blow with a rock and runs behind him as he rolls downhill, following up by gouging out both of Ombima’s eyes with his hands. The bewildered, half asleep nearby old school watchman, armed with a bow and perhaps alerted by the attacker, shoots an arrow at the fighting figures. It hits Tabitha, who had run downhill, screaming, after the two men. The burly figure disappears, but not after being recognized by the old watchman, who afterwards discovers a barely alive Ombima with Tabitha’s corpse lying over him; an arrow shaft sticking out of her back. The scene shifts abruptly in the next chapter, where we see Andimi (still somewhat tense) settling back at his home after the ordeal of 48 hours’ imprisonment. His lawyers have secured bail for him and he hopes that they can locate the old school watchman who (Andimi surmises, using a tellingly sinister expression) can be “made to confess so as to set the record straight” (258). Andimi applauds the housekeeper Midecha’s soothing ministrations; asking her to sit down and soon (in a purring voice) inviting her to stay and “take care” of him “permanently” (259). Although she does not voice her feelings, Midecha is appalled by the man’s “hardheartedness” at organizing for a “replacement” of Tabitha so soon after his wife’s death. She had always loved her job, but decides that she will have to leave; clearly she has no shred of opportunism sullying her nature.
In the final part of the narrative, Gazemba quietly evokes three principled, noble women’s conduct. Midecha is one of them; the next is Sayo. She has exhibited no hysterics at the news of what had happened to her husband, or how he came to incur his grievous injuries. In her quiet dignity, Sayo has inspired Aradi to go “silently about his duties”. Ombima remains in hospital; the two family cows have both been taken away from his home and sold at the nearby town’s market to defray his huge medical costs. Rebecca came by to their home every evening, “warm[ing]” the house with her “chat and laughter” (261). After some days, Aradi is relieved to see his mother rouse herself with some new resolve. She instructs him to wash and dress in good clothes, does the same herself, and packs for what turns out to be an “unusual journey” (262). This probably alludes to Sayo’s (it seems, temporary) return to her ancestral village to allow space for the customary cleansing ceremonies after her husband’s defilement of the marital home. The third woman of principle is (as may have been expected) Rebecca. She has prepared an evening meal for Ang’ote in his hut, having just returned from “Madam’s maiden village” where she and the local traditional healer went to report Tabitha’s death. Ang’ote is “quite at peace with himself” sitting on his new bed, mattress and bedding, basking in the light of an expensive new lamp that brightens the formerly dark hut, in contrast with Rebecca’s unease (262). Everything is in readiness for the large new house on which construction will start the next day. Ang’ote tunes his lyre and sings, but Rebecca is somehow troubled by the song despite Ang’ote’s expert musicianship and asks him to stop singing it. She has hardly spoken to Ang’ote for two days. As he lies watching Rebecca do the after-supper washing up, she suddenly stops, before completing the task. “Ang’ote, I am leaving,” she announces, adding that she is going “home” (267). Shocked, he jumps from the bed and hurries after her, begging her to wait, but she hurries on, shutting the door of her own hut behind her. Through a chink he can see that she is sitting at her table among her grandchildren, sleeping on the floor; her face “buried in the crook of her arm”, with “her worn lesso [shawl]” thrown over her head (268). He knocks at her door. For a time she only tells him to go away and when she does at last open, walks with him to a nearby tree. Rebecca does not allow Ang’ote to embrace her. In a broken voice he asks her: “Are you deserting me?” (269). She replies that she can no longer love him and that they cannot continue seeing each other. Lashing out, Ang’ote taunts Rebecca that she is an old woman and that he should have listened to the advice of his friends. At the last word, Rebecca bursts out:
“Friend, you really mean, Ang’ote? Eh? Where is that friend now? Tell me. Where is Ombima? And where, too, is Madam, eh? Aren’t you now saying you are going to live your life of luxury with the eyes of your so-called ‘friend’ on your hands? Eh? With the blood of Madam reflecting in your [shiny] iron[ed] sheets? Is that what you are saying Ang’ote? Well, one just hopes you are going to be happy as the new Mudeya-Ngoko!” (271)
Rebecca’s final allusion is to the foreman’s position on Andimi’s farm, to which Ang’ote previously confessed he hoped to ascend when the former occupant moved to another appointment. As the grandchildren wake up and come out to listen, Rebecca again tells Ang’ote to leave and, under the little ones’ curious scrutiny, he at last does so. We find out later that he left the village that same night; no-one knows where he may be. As she shuts her door again, Rebecca reflects on the steadfast Sayo, whom she admires deeply for her “capacity for goodness”. This penultimate chapter ends on Rebecca’s prayerful wish, uttered as she falls asleep on her hard, old mattress: “God give us more of such characters … that the world may smell of some goodness” (272).
The final chapter is set somewhat later. Aradi is accompanying his blind father as Ombima goes on his begging rounds. It is the onset of the Easter weekend and fortunately, many people give quite generously. Aradi is tired after a day’s walking around in the hot sun but he knows that were he to tell Ombima, his father would insist on going to a hotel and end up ordering food and then they would have little if anything left to take home. If they keep it, there may be enough to buy flour and a little meat for their Sunday meal. Sayo is away trying to find work in the village, but Aradi does not think she would have earned much. Of late, Ombima has been asking after his old friend Ang’ote, who disappeared from among them three months earlier. Andimi has ordered the young men of the village to put up the house Ang’ote would have occupied and allows them to use it as an informal gathering place while the owner is missing, though his relatives have staked their claim to it. Aradi has to take Ombima to the hospital for a check-up because at night he feels pain deep in his skull. He helps his father to sit on one of the patients’ benches to await the doctor. He notices “a strange expression of contentment” on Ombima’s face today, and Aradi is pleased for his father. Ombima is seated next to a very old man who is also blind, as it happens, and Aradi runs into the old man’s grandson Onzere when he goes outside to play while the two blind men get chatting. Aradi recalls meeting Onzere when they brought his sister Saliku to the hospital. The two boys chat away; both of them guides to their blind paternal relatives. The old man is feisty despite his poor health and his handicap, and argues back fiercely with the bad-tempered nurse. As he is summoned to enter the doctor’s consulting room and overhears Aradi explain his father’s more recent blindness to Onzere, the old man pauses. He marvels at the strange chances that have brought him and Ombima together again, saying:
“See? The world is round, now I believe, my friend. Just now we were going to part [if it were not for] our eyes [he means, their boy guides], these children here! Who would believe we would meet again [he is from another village] under these circumstances? Indeed we shall live to see yet another tomorrow, my friend – you believe that!” (280)
On these cheerful words, Gazemba ends his narrative. It is a fitting note; poor villagers remain poor, but their undaunted spirit and wholesome, humane and sociable attitudes make life more than just bearable. In the old grandfather’s use of words suggesting sight (above), we see that there is no shred of self-pity nor any sense of being disabled in the old man. Ombima, too, remains engaged in the life around him and has not sunk into abject misery. The two boys’ willingness to aid their blind relatives signifies the endurance of close-knit family life. Andimi, the millionaire, may soon buy himself a new companion, and use his fortune to stay out of jail, but he is shut out from the real community in the midst of which he lives in splendour.
Gentle and harsh by turn, Gazemba’s touching narrative honours the rural poor that are so often unnoticed in their societies. His sure touch in rendering his characters’ hidden feelings, his sense of the perpetual mystery of human conduct and the utterly natural unfolding of his narrative render a novel one feels privileged to have encountered. Malice, greed and recklessness harm lives and shatter peace, leaving it to the generous and noble-spirited to knit things together again. As the author’s compatriot Binyavanga Wainaina has written, this novel “affirms life, without cheapening it, or sensationalizing, a book that presents a human condition with such mastery it makes one proud to be alive” [cited on the back cover]. Wainaina’s remarks are not extravagant, but pay fitting tribute to the achievement of Gazemba’s Forbidden Fruit.