Dust  by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

dustIn the acknowledgements for her debut novel, Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, concludes by saying:

“Finally, thank you Kenya – my canvas, haunting, rage, passion, song, impulse, yearning love, frustration and inspiration, and your fierce, fun and fascinating peoples, who laugh at themselves, and muddle hard towards a goal they ache for. To “disappeared” Kenyans, the ones we forgot about…and denizens of vast  northern lands…I beg your indulgence. I have reshaped trails, places, narratives, people, creatures, landscape and names in order to carve out this story.”

In the blurb, Dust is described as “a work of art” whose canvas is Kenya, a mercurial character rich in subtext and content. The novel paints a distinct image of the country through description, character portrayal, and historical coverage. It bleeds Kenya, bleeds for Kenya:

Bloody Kenya. Bloody. Not blasphemy. Bloody. Blood seemed to leak from too many holes there. A cut bled. Sunset bled. Sheep bled. Red mud roads bled. Sunset-sunrise bleeding. Oozing life, seeping death. The full moon bled on water.”

The primary plot sees Arabel Ajany Oganda return from Brazil following the death of her older brother Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda. Other journeys are also charted in the story. The early arrival of Hugh and Selene Bolton, who leave England’s “weary nostalgia for a past that had been burned”, to come to Kenya in the 1950s. We learn that they, like other white settlers of the time, sought adventure in blank-slate kingdoms, where [they] owned the rules and would make a country in [their] image. There is also the journey of Isaiah Bolton, who comes to Kenya to seek out his father.

The element of ownership resonates throughout the story, and as all of the characters seek some sense of belonging, there is the begging question, who can lay claim and to what?

Hugh Bolton is determined to make Kenya his country. To build a life in it for himself and his bride, Selene. He says, “’My people created this country. I’ll be damned if I’ll be forced out. This is my country.’” Meanwhile, Selene becomes increasingly concerned with Hugh’s mys: My country. My land. My dream. My people. ‘My people built this land, named it, toiled, built, and died for it’.

Isaiah Bolton seeks to (re)claim his father’s home and a legacy. Ajany lays claim to Odidi’s baby that Justina carries, as a piece of her brother; Odidi hopes to claim justice; Nyipir wants to (dis)own his name; Akai-ma wants for her son to come back to her.

In its richness, Dust is an epic tale, covering vast distances, charting wide journeys both in the physical and mental spaces. Some of the widest distances are covered through the use of memory. Memory is unconfined, ethereal, (re)creation.

Memories are ghosts,” Nyipir thinks.

“Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili and Silence. But there was also memory (own italics).”

Memory gives the story movement, physically and mentally.

“Memory ticks. Odidi soars into the desiccated terrain of Wuoth Ogik, the home he abandoned… He turns down Jogoo road and glances upward, childhood habit…”

The first epigraph in the novel, taken from Juan Ruflo’s Pedro Páramo, also serves as an epitaph for Odidi:

“You will hear the voice of my memories/stronger than the voice of my death – that is, if death has a voice.”

Odidi, the ghost in the story, is consistently evoked through memory. He is a constant haunting. He is elusive. He is what Akai-ma wants that she cannot have back and what Ajany seeks but cannot find. He is the collective trauma of the story.

The fragmented nature of Owuor’s style of writing speaks to the fragmented nature of memory, language, and the story as a whole. Details that flesh out the story come down in dribbles as one event catalyses another and another. As in Owuor’s concluding words of the acknowledgements, Dust is a ‘haunting, rage, passion, song’ and sometimes a ‘frustration’ to read, (I had to go over passages more than once at times to follow links and connections through), which does not necessarily mean it can put a reader off (I found myself constantly looking forward to reading it, at night, when everyone was asleep and I could let the words crawl under my skin), it is simply not a book that can be read in a place with many distractions.

Dust is filled with many vivid descriptions of setting, at times immersing the reader in them and in other instances, especially when shifting through memories, displacing the reader. The northern territories of Kenya tend to be so removed, yet in the novel, Owuor makes it very present. In the “sparse pastures [and] ephemeral watering holes” we find “[d]ust-filled cupules containing red, black, green and white speckle the land”

The very landscape is representative of the colours of the Kenyan flag.

There is a long standing joke that people from the Northern parts of Kenya ask anyone who has come from the interior, “How is Kenya?”, and Owuor embeds this idea in her novel, not as a perpetuation of the norm but as a reflection of this alienation.When Ajany makes her journey to Nairobi to retrace her brother’s steps, her mobile phone clicks to life “as if reborn”. This is evocative in the rather humorous frustration of Aaron Chache whose placement at the police post in the northern margins of Kenya sees him have “plenty of time to regret many things. The absence of regular fruit. Few opportunities to speak English.”

Landscape is both physical and emotional, and etches itself in the characters. Ajany and Odidi’s parents, Akai-ma and Nyipir, are hardened by their environment and assume a stoic grace. We see “the shadow of Wuoth Ogik. Bloodline on Odidi’s face.” In one striking portrayal, Selene finds that “Kenya [is] seeping into Hugh. His eyes had deepened, gone grayer, bolder, older. His cheeks were sunken, contoured, scarred, tinged with heat, his skin mottled. He laughed, much louder, head thrown back.”

Owuor’s characters are richly fleshed out. Each is given a history, even when it seems completely irrelevant as in the case of the Indian innkeeper, Baba Chaudhari, who only makes two appearances and whose story, though colourful, does not add to the context or content of the story.  Nevertheless, the central characters are capably handled. Owuor captures, for instance, the timid nature of Ajany who always “lurked in Odidi’s shadows”, the quiet solemnity of Selene who constantly “retreated into non-engaged observation”, and the immensity of Odidi in the parallel drawn between his death and the assassination of Tom Mboya.

“This death created a fissure in the nation.”

Petrus Keya, Nyipir’s former colleague, reflects on “how we lose the country, one child at a time.” Odidi’s death catalyses the events of the narrative just as that of Mboya catalysed significant political and social events in Kenya in the late 1960s. The personal loss of the Oganda family is looked at from the perspective of a national one. “Family as a microcosm of our national dysfunction,” Owuor says in an interview.

In one of his many diatribes against the crop of Kwani? writers, Abenea Ndago argues that Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust ‘bags the trophy for ethnic simple-mindedness. By moaning (mourning?) about political assassinations, Owuor dances to the usual drum of Luo denial and ignorance.’

Launched shortly before Kenya marked 50 years of independence, Dust is aptly written for a generation [that] so easily discards the burdens of history and its mind-the-gap strictures. However, Owuor is not interested in being a “balanced historian”, as Ndago seems to prescribe. She delineates a lost and soon to be forgotten history, creating a collective memory in which [the current] generation is forced to ask: Where did this begin? Where did this wounding start? And in retracing those steps they’ll go to the place of the original wound. In doing so, we undertake a journey similar to that of Ajany or Isaiah who return to retrace. For these reasons, Dust is perhaps one of the most relevant and contemporary texts in Kenya’s literary landscape. It is a cultural inheritance.

Reading Dust felt like a sort of homecoming, which is the most prevalent theme in the novel. In his final moments, Odidi’s heart bleeds out his answer: Coming home, wait for me’. Ajany returns on account of her brother. During her leave-taking, Odidi tells her “This, [he] emphasised, this is home.” When Hugh Bolton arrives with his bride, Selene, in Kilindini, he allays her panicked need for return to England by saying; “We are home, my love, we’re home.”

By the end of the novel, everything and everyone ends up in Wuoth Ogik.

“This place. Wuoth Ogik. Forces converged here. People left stories at springs. These were passed on from one season to another.”

Hugh, after much disillusionment with the rest of Kenya, ironically establishes himself in the northern territories, where he builds himself the house that the Oganda family come to occupy and Isaiah seeks to claim.

Upon completion of the house, he has the following conversation with Nyipir, who at the time is his houseboy:

Kijana, utatumia neno gani kwa lugha yako kuhusu nyumba mpya? Neno sio kishenzi. What word can be used to name this home? Something civilised?’ …‘Wuoth Ogik?’ …‘Na maana yake ni nini, kijana…’

‘The journey ends.’

© Akoyo Beverly Ochieng’

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