By Carey Baraka,
For years, the promise of Okwiri Oduor’s novel has cast a shadow over the Kenyan literary scene. In our private spaces we have talked about it, and wondered about its impending publication. Online, we have checked and rechecked the progress of Okwiri’s writing career, noted her residencies and fellowships, and asked ourselves if what she was working on was this novel. On social media, we have shared cryptic announcements and hints from her publisher, comforted ourselves by telling each other that this book does exist, even if it is not yet available to us to read, and that soon it will be. And then, in April this year, it was.
Once, there was a woman. This woman, Mabel Brown, had come to Kenya as a missionary from England, and after coming to Kenya, decided to settle in the colony. The British colonial government gave her some land, unoccupied in the ways land with black bodies was often deemed unoccupied, on a 999-year-long leasehold. There, she constructed her aristocratic colonial existence. She built a huge house that loomed over all the space around her. She went on long hunting safaris where she mowed down elephants, giraffes and black panthers. A town slowly developed around her. This town was called Mabel Town. Years after her death, its name was localised to Mapeli Town. This, to the residents, signalled a change in the ownership of the town. Okwiri writes in her wondrous first novel Things They Lost, “Mabel Town had belonged to the Englishwoman, but Mapeli Town was theirs.” Yet on the radio, the announcer continued to insist that no one had lived in the area before Mabel Brown, that all the land had been unoccupied.
Things They Lost is the story of Ayosa, a young girl living in Mapeli, and the family that precedes her — her mother Nabumbo Promise, Nabumbo’s sister Rosette, Nabumbo’s mother’s Lola Freedom, and Lola Freedom’s mother Mabel Brown. It is the story of a chain of mothers and daughters, each mother abandoning her daughter in the way her own mother abandoned her, each daughter waiting sorrowfully for her mother in the way her own mother waited for her mother. It is the story of a chain of loneliness. When Ayosa tells her mother that she is lonely, Nabumbo scoffs. Every girl she ever knew was lonely, she tells her daughter. “What is your specific lonely like?” she asks her.
Okwiri was first vaulted to prominence by winning the Caine Prize for African Writing. (Before this, she had been a visible part of the East African literary community. In 2012, The Dream Chasers, a novella set in the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, and written when she was twenty, was highly commended in the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. A year later, she directed the first edition of the Writivism Literary Festival in Kampala, Uganda, and set up a Google group named Jalada for a group of writers who had a writing workshop in Nairobi that year. This group became Jalada Africa, one of Africa’s most important literary collectives.) In “My Father’s Head”, the story that won the Caine Prize and later was taught nationally across Kenyan high schools, the protagonist struggles with the event of her father’s passing, grappling with the fact that she has forgotten what he looks like. In Things They Lost, the spectre of death looms large. In the town of Mapeli, there is an annual day of remembrance of the dead — Epitaph Day — and the residents wait keenly every day to listen to the death announcements on the radio (In “My Father’s Head”, the narrator also listens to obituaries on the radio). There are spirits which have refused to pass on to the land of the dead, and instead stalk Mapeli, looking for bodies to steal. Then there are certain deaths — like Maxwell Truth’s and Lola Freedom — which continue to haunt the town, and shape the residents’ opinion of Ayosa’s family.
The characters in the novel are all haunted. Nabumbo is haunted by what she thinks is the ghost of her mother living upstairs — Ayosa doesn’t correct her, doesn’t tell her it’s the Fatumas, half-girl half-reverie faerie-like creatures pulled out from the Indian Ocean somewhere between Comoros and Zanzibar, desperate to return to the sea, but not knowing how, who were making all the noise. Sindano, a lonely woman who runs a deserted eatery in the town, is haunted multiple times by wraiths who seek to inhabit her body and control her power. Mbiu, a throwaway girl living alone with no mama, homeless, and mostly friendless before she meets Ayosa, is haunted by the absence of her mother who died and left her alone. And, above all else, Ayosa, the story’s protagonist, is haunted by the souls of the undead who have been unable to move on from this world.
At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Ayosa and Nabumbo Promise. Nabumbo is a has-been photographer whose incidents of falling into herself hint at schizophrenia. In the past, she was a photographer whose photos were featured in the New Yorker and Der Spiegel in the seventies, and whose work hung in Dakar and Tokyo and Hanover. But now they say she squandered her gift, because she is “only a photojournalist for a scrappy tabloid that the butcher uses to wrap meat in.” Every now and then she disappears from the town; Ayosa feels her mother’s disappearances desolately, and her heart aches from the sorrow of abandonment, living in Mabel Brown’s old big falling-apart house by herself. Gradually, she questions the value of being Nabumbo’s oft-abandoned daughter, and wonders at the possibility of severing the relationship. Okwiri writes, “Ayosa wished that her mother would die, so that she could be alone (wanted to be rid of the burden of being a daughter). “Ayosa pursed her lips. She detested her mama’s bland, patronizing tone. She detested the all-knowing omniscience her mama assumed over her. What did Nabumbo Promise know about Ayosa? Nabumbo Promise, who was always gone for weeks and months on end? Who thought a child was like a painting, wholly unchanged by the passage of time.”
With each turn of the page, Ayosa’s sorrows get more entrenched. She is lonesome yes, and she is abandoned by her mother, but she is also afflicted by a terrible power: she has an omniscient knowledge. She remembers things from before she was born. She knows people’s names before they are named. But all these memories are sad memories. The Jinamizi that bring her this knowledge never bring her happy memories. She wonders if it’s because “joy got passed down through generations, in songs and legends and tales, while pain got stuffed away, buried in unmarked graves?”
The unmarked graves and body-snatching wraiths and missing people are postmarks of 80s Moi-era Kenya where people being disappeared was the norm. Once, Sindano tells Ayosa, “Open any newspaper, and you will see reports of missing persons in the back, next to the obituaries. They have bodies in abundance.” In the novel, some of these disappeared are remembered on Epitaph Day. Others, like Dickson Were and Kalulu Musyoka, become forgotten dead.
Things They Lost is a brilliant debut. Okwiri’s language is an English of a post-colonial variety which pulses with visions of Kenya, a Kenya where girls teach each other how to dance chakacha, and listen to Samba Mapangala on the radio, and tell each other to run to the Marie Stopes clinic if they are dirtied by busboys and preacher-men. The novel is an ode to female friendships, and to girls who are more than themselves, much in the manner of two recent novels by Kenyan writers: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea and Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust. About these girls, Ms. Temperance a poet whose poetry the residents of Mapeli listen to the radio on the radio (and whose absence one day they protest by storming out of their houses and throwing a Molotov cocktail into the radio station) says, “this girl that I knew went down to the creek and/counted the stars and thought, How lucky is it that/skunks and butterfly cods and lonesome girls/have the great undulating sky all to themselves?
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