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Mar 19

Book Review: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

What’s It About

Short answer: The story of colonial and post colonial Kenya.

Long answer: The death of Odidi Oganda, gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, forces his family to face secrets from their past, secrets intertwined with the colonial and post colonial history of Kenya.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely you should.  Dust is not a happy book, it’s steeped in the violence that Kenya and its people have faced during British rule and after the Mau Mau rebellion in 1963.  But it’s not a “worthy” book either, the sort you feel obligated to read so you can dredge up sympathy for those poor black-people struggling to enjoy the freedoms we white people apparently take for granted.  Rather, Dust is a gorgeous novel with dense, beautiful writing and flawed, believable characters.

Representative Paragraph

Ajany’s – Odidi Oganda’s sister – first impression of Isaiah, an Englishman abroad looking for his father:

The light of the land emphasizes the jagged outline of his face, prominent jaw, symmetry of bones, shape of hazel-tinted eyes, and broad forehead. Gray-and-black hair flecks on powerful arms. He does not look like one who had come hunting for meaning among large East African creatures, nor does he have the messianic glint-in-eyes of “Love Africa” types. Does his haversack contain a problem—the “Mission Statement”? Was he a borehole builder? A poverty eradicator? Yet his look was desolate and distant, with a slight twist of distaste around his mouth. As if he would rather be elsewhere. Enshrouded in the mood of that day, she wants to paint him: movement of space around and about him, presence, hard restlessness, shades of sadness. The man and Odidi share height, broad-chested, muscled, towering maleness framed by a hauteur that is detached from and laughing at the world. Ajany squelches a fleeting urge to tug at the stranger’s face muscles. An old habit: it is how she built her knowledge of the shape and texture of faces, which she used to color in shadows that were the frame of a half-finished sculpture now abandoned in her Brazilian studio.

Commentary

Ron Charles’ review of Dust for the Washington Post provides a perfect summation of the novel –  it’s a book that gradually teaches you how to read it.  Rather than feel the need to explain the numerous political and historical references, Owuor patiently leads us through the complex environment that is Kenya.  As each character is introduced, whether it’s Odidi’s sister, Ajany, returning from Brazil to bury her brother, or Isaiah Bolton, arriving in Kenya from England to meet Odidi and hopefully find his father, you gain a little more context, a little more perspective about the country, its people, culture and politics.  Each character is a puzzle piece and it’s genuinely satisfying to see how they all interrelate, how these relationships further shine a light on Kenya’s past and present.

Unfortunately, though it’s a history that’s overwhelmed by regular upheavals, tragedy and death.  Owuor doesn’t shy away from the fact that violence and political power have always walked hand in hand post Kenya’s independence in 1963.  The 2013 elections resulted in the deaths of at least 13 people in Mombasa, but overall it was seen as peaceful when compared to the 2007-8 elections that saw the death of over 1,300 people.  While Dust doesn’t specifically deal with the 2007-8 crisis, it does point to the ethnic issues that the country has faced since its independence.  For Nyipir Oganda, Odidi’s father, the pivotal moment was the assassination of Tom Mboya, a nationalist leader and Minister who, allegedly, was perceived as a potential threat by those in power:

After Mboya [died], everything that could die in Kenya did, even schoolchildren standing in front of a hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open. A central province was emptied of a people who were renamed cockroaches and “beasts from the west.” But nobody would acknowledge the exiles or citizens who did not make it out of the province before they were destroyed. Oaths of profound silences—secret shots in a slithering civil war. In time. A train would stop at a lakeside town and offload men, women, and children. Displaced ghosts, now-in-between people. No words. Then one night a government man drove into town from Nairobi. He carried petri dishes of vibrio cholerae. He washed these in a water-supplying dam. Days later cholera danced violently across the landscape, dragging souls from that earth, pressing desiccated bodies deep under the earth. No words.

However, I don’t want you to think that this is the sort of depressing, yet worthy novel that plays into white man’s guilt.  Because for all the darkness and death that has plagued Kenya, there’s something remarkably hopeful about the story that Owuor is telling.  With its intricate plotting and deft reveals, this is novel about a family who is finally able, with different degrees of success, to face their flaws and their darkest secrets.  The moment where mother and daughter reconcile after many years of being apart both geographically and emotionally, is not only touching and beautiful —

With a rapid movement Akai-ma gathers Ajany to her and presses her head to her daughter’s.  Lips to skin.  Husky-voiced.  ‘Tell the crying one that she has a mother.  She belong to life.  She has a mother and the mother holds her.  The mother forever holds her.’

but it also feels aspirational, the hope that Kenya will eventually come together without the need for more violence and pain.

Dust does teach you how to read it, and it’s a rewarding experience.

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