I’m delighted to have finally read Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel, Dust. Finally, because it took all of two years to get it. It was released in Nairobi, by Kwani? , in 2013, just after I left the city following the GRANTA Workshop at which the Jalada Writers Cooperative kerneled itself. I was only able to get a copy two years later courtesy of the South African novelist Zukiswa Wanner, during a second trip to Kenya a few weeks ago.
Dust is the story of a family and its secrets, all unraveling after the murder of a young man, Odidi Oganda, by police on the streets of Nairobi. It follows the impact of this on his retired policeman father, Nyipir, his artist sister, Arabel Ajany, and on a wider cast of international characters united, fatally more often, by the careering chaos of Kenya’s history. The novel dips back to the time before independence, through the definitive assasination of Tom Mboya, up to the contemporary post electoral violence (2007). Ms. Owuor weaves the story of her country so cleverly and delicately, in sentences and with a style that knows the value of each word yet is luxurious with its language. And this threading, for we are weaving a history here, of desire and betrayal and loss, hangs on the skeleton of a plot that does not let up. The prose is effective, the language luxurious, and there is not a spare paragraph that can be skimmed over. The silences of each character is significant, these are not the tricks of a puisne author, just as the words of every character, and such characters they are, all mad, all true. . .the words of every character are fraught for this is a writer who knows, and one who knows everything.
Dust is a story about each of our countries, our countries the lines we have drawn on the face of this island called Africa. The novel mirrors what our fathers have done, what is left of the ugliness they have built at the cost of so much blood and potential. Listen–
“His mind tumbles back to a different time, when brother, son, mother, father sealed family members in rooms and huts and set these alight in honour of covenants of terror that guaranteed silence: If I speak, may the oath kill me. Much later, the horror was painted over and replaced with myths of triumph, repeated, repeated again, then adorned in all seasons of retelling. Nyipir waited for the inheritors of these silences to call out the names of their undead dead. Not a word. Now, fifty years later, the murdered were shrieking from earth tombs of enforced, timeless stillness, wailing for their forgotten, chopped-up lives.”
A novel like this, side by side with the Ugandan novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, makes my argument for a shared African reality easier to make. This reality teems with stories–of Lagos and Kampala, the Chad and Turkana–that have a common human, African core. A space authentic enough to question in endless creative ways within its own ever expanding frames. What does Nigeria mean? What does Kenya mean? This is a story of my generation engaging with the hideous reality we find our parents have built for us. Wuoth Ogik, the homestead in Turkana, which forms the microcosm of Africa is thus our uniform, belaboured heritage. Dust is fiction that will resonate with the young in any African country, for we see clearly our Nigerias and Eritreas in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Kenya.
“Here they were, the ’better future’ their parents, teachers, and leaders talked about, drinking Kenyan coffee (with milk), tree-tomato and minty pineapple juice, and one Masala tea. Post-Kenyan independence older women, lines beneath eyes, enmeshed by national subtexts, still hiding from anonymous bogeymen, still trying to plaster, with easy words, the fetid moral swamps engorged by the sludge of what a nation does, or does not do, with its freedom.”
At the end of the novel, Wuoth Ogik is abandoned and burned. Everything has to start anew.
Thank you for reminding us in this novel, Yvonne, of what we must do with our heritage of lies and what we must do afterwards.