“The walls that separated the different races were still up, just as they had been through the years of construction.”
Indeed artists, in this case Peter Kimani, can be the conscience of society.
They can choose what narrative or context to give their subject (in this case pre- and post-independence Kenya) or fall prey to the vacuous romanticism that oftentimes pervades such stories – seemingly written for audiences in the west than for those yearning to hear their own voice. And frankly, I could have gone either way with review of Mr. Kimani’s 3rd novel “Dance of the Jakaranda” – a non-committal ambivalent 300+ page novel that gets its title from the (Jakaranda) trees one of the book’s central characters – Ian Edward McDonald or Master – planted for Sally – the object of his affection and desire.
Maybe it’s because I (finally) assumed a purist’s view of the role (African) writers need when telling their stories – to the rest of the world. This call, for “Africa to write her own story”, echoed by many of the continent’s fork-tongued leaders, allowed me to lose the Karen Blixen-esque romantic view of Africa when reviewing “Dance of the Jakaranda” and give Kimani’s book a more-than-quasi-fine-tooth-comb once over.
The book (or maybe the author) recounts, almost too wistfully, too longingly, for the time when it, Kenya (and Africa) was viewed as God’s Country. In so doing, Mr. Kimani tacitly contributes or appeals to the still-prevailing tenet in many parts of the continent that (still) believe “God and the white man (are) one” and in the process, I can’t help but hear strains of the “taking our country back” siren call of latter day nationalists in America and Europe.
“History has strange ways of announcing itself to the present”.
Release of “Dance of the Jakaranda” is quite timely given, among other things, the on-going construction of the standard gauge railroad (SGR) that begun in late 2013, one hundred and twelve years after construction of the book’s meter gauge railroad begun, also in Mombasa. And as was the case back then as it is now, the socio-cultural, economic and political impact of the project on the local communities are very similar. This includes the (sad) similarities, in behavior, between the wazungu colonial masters of yore and the current African masters (“wabenzi” and homeguards), some who continue to do the bidding of the former colonial masters.
The Chinese have now replaced the Indians and Asia’s two most populous countries are inextricably linked to Kenya because of the country’s railroad system running north-westwards from Mombasa through the savanna plains into Nairobi and beyond. And just as eruption of “the news of Chief Lonana’s daughter’s (pregnancy)…..” symbolized the uneasy one-sided inter-racial interaction/breeding between the foreign (Indian and British) railway workers and the local (Maasai, Kamba and Kikuyu) laborers, so has the uneasy one-sided inter-racial interaction/breeding, albeit now more acceptable, between the Chinese railway workers and Kenyans writ large.
Additionally, just as “grumblings that foreigners were out to erode (the local) values….enjoyed subtle official backing” back in the 1900s, so do the many “Chinese Babies” sired during construction of the SGR (and other mega-infrastructure projects) meet the receptive “there is nothing wrong with “any of us” taking a local wife” acquiescence offered by Zhang Tei, a Human Resource Officer with China Road and Bridge Corporation.
Finally, siblings of Fatima’s duka, a semi-circular outlay of dwellings that sold sacks of cereal, cooking oil, salt, spices, simsim and “what-have-you” to the local men, women and children appear to co-exist alongside the mushrooming Chinese “dians”; some clustered around burgeoning Chinatowns that offer, in addition to the standard listing of the dukas, Chinese trinkets and food items such as wontons, dumplings, chow mien and an assortment of regional treats.
That said, “Dance of the Jakaranda” is a rich tableau of layers and textures.
The book has a series of timely socio-cultural nuggets one would miss if they weren’t attuned to the richness of Kenya’s diversity: How else would one know that a Punjabi boy (Rajan) “was bound to live with his grandparents for the rest of his life”? What of the broad smorgasbord of languages and dialects – English, Kiswahili, Gikuyu, Kamba, Punjabi and Arabic – spoken by the cast of characters in Mr. Kimani’s book?
Readers are offered a window into the irony presented by the different AND similar characterizations of Rev. Turnbull and “Iman Babu”. The two men of faith are independently described as having variants of “pious deportment” found in the “still waters that run deep”: Imagine, a Christian and a Muslim with near-identical dispositions even as they practice two faiths that are usually portrayed as being locked in an endless struggle for distinction and supremacy!
Again, maybe it’s my hyper-desire to write Africa’s story without appealing too much to the “exoticization” of the “Dark Continent” but I couldn’t overlook the line “undressing a Maasai girl was like skinning a goat…Everything is all sewn up”?
What does that even mean?
To reiterate a point previously made, “Dance of the Jakaranda” has some unfortunate moments when it appears to pander to stereotypes I was hoping were dead and buried, especially given the narrative of “Africa Rising” and more than fifty years after independence.
That aside, the book’s timeliness is uncanny given similarities between events then and events now including the seminal one of the book – construction of the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi. The societal dislocation caused by what would be a natural albeit emotional event – Seneiya’s pregnancy – much like the dislocation caused by the on-going quasi-natural drought in Laikipia, provides a window into the uneasy co-existence between the foreigners, some naturalized, and the indigenous population.
All told, “Dance of the Jakaranda” snakes through Kenya’s history with a well-balanced accord between its past and its present. The book has some brilliant moments of vivid and evocative writing as illustrated in lines such as Mariam “reordered the lives of those who she touched – not just by her famously flavored tongue, but with words rolled off the selfsame organ.” or her desire (demand?) “to be handled pole pole (because) “she wasn’t a stolen bike” not to mention the subsequent write-up on the meeting between the two lovebirds – Mariam and Rajan.
It is a quick if somewhat meandering read with an oftentimes confusing timeline. And contrary to the writer’s assertion that “no one remembers the women behind the pioneers or their children”, I’d argue that Kenya’s failure to remember the women behind the pioneers and the pioneers’ children is more a function of a patriarchal history that has been written — selectively — and not because the contributions of these women and of their children were not memorable:
They were and still are — memorable.