What really defines nationhood and what defines being Kenyan? Better still, what symbolises freedom or oppression and what should other Kenyans do to accommodate fellow citizens views of what they perceive being Kenyan to be? These were the fundamental questions that came up at a public reading and discussion of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s book, Dust.
The book was published in 2013, the year Kenya marked its golden Jubilee celebrations. It is set at the height of the 2007 general election and the violence that ensued after the results were announced. She candidly takes the reader through Kenya’s history and her quest for nationhood amid a tumultuous journey that peaked in the 2007 poll.
What is, however, striking about the book is how she honestly and openly captures some of the events that have almost plagued the nation in a manner devoid of vengeance or blame placing. She creates an environment that tackles the dark past openly, a thing that set the stage in the reading discussion, for a healthy, non-partisan debate.
For instance, she talks about the murder of political icon Tom Mboya, a man revered in Kenya and abroad and describes how his admiration transcended ethnicity. He was a confidante to many. His death, however, robbed the country of the spirit of nationhood leaving a feeling of betrayal in some parts of the country, not only from where he hailed but also to those who subscribed to his ideologies.
It gives an impression of a nation that kills its very best from its midst, and elevates mediocre characters to the pinnacle of leadership. While English and Kiswahili are two officials languages recognised in Kenya, she reveals another ‘official’ language used in the country.
This is the language of ‘silence’. The language we speak when things go wrong and do not tackle them head on. It is what we do for fear of the repercussions if we discuss openly and freely issues deemed to be hot potatoes in the nation. She gives the example where she says some communities, particularly those from Mt Kenya region residing in the Rift Valley were profiled as cockroaches, yet silence prevailed.
She also uses the ‘Kihii’ (uncircumcised boy) among the Gikuyu, which is often used among them to profile and denote the Luo negatively. It features more histories taking us through a path of hate, violence, tears and bloodshed but at the same time illuminates how love and hope of the nation has emerged on top. But it is her illustration of these events that stands out.
Though she has used fictitious characters, the illustration makes them come to life to appear as if they were happening now. The award winning book has also been translated in German, with excerpts of it read at the forum on Tuesday evening at the Goethe Institut.
At the end of the discussion the participants were evidently amused and in concurrence that whereas the spirit of nationhood is currently fragmented, the vision is much alive. The book won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature.