/ 6 November 2009

A trip to the source of the truth

Kenyan author Mukoma wa Ngugi’s novel forces us to question received narratives and conventional wisdom.

Nairobi Heat Mukoma wa Ngugi (Penguin South Africa)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, author of crime novel Nairobi Heat, is the latest writer in Kenya’s popular literature tradition. In fact, Ngugi dedicates his debut novel to two of the genre’s leading practitioners: “To Meja Mwangi and David Mailu for blurring the margins,” he says in his tribute.

I am familiar with Mwangi’s works and, as a teenager, read several of his books. They are fast-paced and written in an accessible diction, yet this doesn’t diminish their cynical examination of post-independence Kenya. I can see why Ngugi, who also published a collection of poems, Hurling Words at Consciousness, respectfully had to nod in the direction of these two masters. He could also have acknowledged Charles Mangua, perhaps my favourite author from Kenya, whose tales of corruption are told in a rollicking, entertaining style.

Ngugi has also blurred the margins in this intercontinental tale set in Wisconsin in the United States and in Kenya. An unidentified blonde woman is found murdered on the porch belonging to Joshua Hakizimana, a Rwandan professor who teaches genocide and testimony at a US university. A dead blonde girl and a black prime suspect. It’s enough to excite white America, especially in a city where the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan is active.

Indeed the narrator, Ishmael, a black detective, has advice for black criminals: “Do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught.” Hakizimana isn’t perturbed, he’s even philosophical about the whole thing.

“Detective, where I come from death is a companion, like lover or good friend,” he says in English shorn of prefacing articles.
The educator ostensibly saved thousands from machete-wielding militia during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Some accounts suggest that the school he headed was a refuge for those fleeing the murderous mobs.

The Wisconsin police ransack his house, check his alibis, phone, credit card, everything, but they can’t find anything incriminating. As Ishmael is trying to solve this mystery, he gets a call from Nairobi. “If you want the truth, you must go to its source. The truth is in the past. Come to Nairobi,” the anonymous caller tells him.

Thus it is that Ishmael finds himself in the heat of “Nairobbery”, where the bulk of this thriller is set. It’s a bizarre, cruel world that shifts between the city of Nairobi, its slums and its farmlands.

On one farm he meets a white farmer who says his “DNA is from my white parents” but whose “soul is African”. Of course, this sense of kinship with the black inhabitants of Africa doesn’t stop the agriculturalist from killing a few poachers who encroach on his property.

There’s a lot of serious talk, mostly on the Rwandan genocide and on Kenya’s unresolved land issue, that points to land-ownership patterns that haven’t changed much since independence. This serious stuff, I guess, is part of the “blurring” Ngugi alludes to in his dedication: throwing in the serious with the mundane. Much of it really feels organic: there’s nothing of the preachy tone for which Ngugi’s more famous namesake, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, is notorious. Here you won’t find any forcing down the throats of the characters reams of paper on which is scrawled Marxist rhetoric.

As Ishmael tries to solve the crime, he untangles a vast syndicate milking millions of dollars from guilt-stricken well-wishers who feel angst for doing nothing when neighbour turned against neighbour in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Millions of dollars come to the refugee centre so that, in the parlance, this doesn’t happen again. “This was the world trying to clear its conscience and to do that it was prepared to pay close to $70-million a year.”

It’s an OK story, I guess, studded with the usual drama and clichés (perhaps that’s a genre requirement; these occasionally are qualified by “as you Americans say”). Its biggest fault is happenstance, sometimes unbelievable; one crucial turn of events near the end left me literally breathless. The narrative shifts so dramatically and radically that even the characters in the book can’t quite believe it themselves. This tweak of the narrative is justified by one of the characters: “Shit, man, if ever anyone deserved a lucky break it is you.”

Nairobi Heat’s biggest triumph is the way it forces us to re-examine accepted narratives and received truths. It shows us how cynically minded people won’t hesitate to extract money from the skeletons of a genocide even as horrific as the one in 1994.
Informative and vaguely entertaining, Ngugi has made quite a debut, but he has some more writing to do before he can be admitted into the company of Mwangi and Mailu, his literary ancestors.