Juliane Okot Bitek

Early this year I returned to northern Uganda during the dry season and was reminded of the pervasive nature of dust, the way it defines everything, gets into everything, carries cough germs, triggers asthma, sits on your eyelashes and creates otherworldy silhouettes on the road ahead. Dust is the evidence that everything will integrate in time, and yet all of it remains. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and soil like fine red talcum powder. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's Dust is a powerful testament to the undying nature of stories that gets into everything, colors everything, masks everything like the dust of the dry season. And if fiction is one way to make meaning in the chaos that surrounds our contemporary lives, then Yvonne Adhiambo's Owuor's Dust is a brilliant gesture towards what it means to be a citizen in Kenya. Dust is about how stories have come to define and defy contemporary national borders and how memory, history, narrative, erasure and politics rub up against each other, resisting and sometimes working together to distance us from how we should think about who we are. We, because I am Kenyan born; we, because I'm African and we, because I think and write about memory.            

Dust evokes questions about what it is to be the citizen of a country only half a century in its making. How does citizenship gel in a person? How do the memories of the past, now imbued with the experience of colonialism and Christianity impact the present? How did we get here, as in, how did the people who make up Kenya come to be here, on this land? How is this place home? The novel attempts to deal some of these questions through the narratives associated with the names and place names.  Dust begins in tragedy—a man dies. The man’s father, Nyipir, and sister, Arabel, make the journey to Nairobi to claim the dead man and take him home to be buried. What unfolds are the lives of father, daughter and dead son, representing the colonial and first postcolonial generations of Kenya as well as Kenya through the lives of this family. All this takes place in upcountry Kenya, downcountry Kenya, rural, urban, real Kenya and the Kenya that is haunted by a past that is shrouded in silence and dust. There’s Kenya that is heard in the various accents and layers of narratives. Isaiah Bolton, an English man retraces his father’s colonial footsteps as Arabel searches for brother’s last steps. Aggrey Nyipir Oganda, who brings everyone together, is the father whose journey takes him to Wuoth Ogik in northern Kenya, as far from the Luoland in the west and even further away from “real” Kenya. Dust as a metaphor for what stories collect as journeys are made particularly apt for this novel. In evocative language, Owuor paints a version of Kenya that is as familiar as it is lost.  You hear it, you see it, you think you know it, but you don’t.           

Aggrey Nyipir Oganda was there at the birthing of Kenya, fighting with the colonialists against the Mau Mau and was later a decorated shujaa, a hero and a keeper of secrets and ghosts. He is there when the British hand over political power to Africans so that they can determine their own destiny as the citizens of Kenya. A brand new country is forged in a landscape that has its own particular histories, much of it forgotten, erased, dependent on memories that reveal themselves or stay quiet. English, Swahili, Silence and Memory are the lingua franca of Kenya as defined in Dust, but evident from this novel is that the ability to read names is one more way to remember our histories and project a future. It is with this access to reading names that this review contributes another way to read this remarkable novel.            

We identify and are identified by our names; we carry the stories of our names and so it's no accident that Aggrey Oganda is most referred by his middle name Nyipir, same as one of the ancestral brothers who led the Luo migration down the Nile, through Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania and into Kenya. We give our children names like Munguryek to praise the brilliance of God forever, or Munguming to defy God by naming the stupidity of the creator. The name, Nyipir, establishes the history of Kenya as impacted from beyond the border drawn from the colonial encounter. Nyipir and Nyabongo (or Gipir and Labongo, depending on what Luo one speaks) were brothers who betrayed each other and forced a separation at the banks of the Nile with each brother on a quest to find dala, gang, to wuoth, to wander until they found a place to call home. Sometimes we carry on names and memories; we remember without knowing. 

During much of the seventies, my family lived near Argwings Kodhek Road in Nairobi which was was named for the first African to practice law in colonial Kenya. He was a nationalist who defended the Mau Mau freedom fighters and was killed in a car accident during the early years of independence. Before and since his death in 1969, Kenya has experienced upheavals that have sometimes been compared to the struggles of other postcolonial countries as an adjustment period. That was the same year that Tom Mboya, a popular Kenyan politician, was assassinated. Nyipir loses his Kenya on that dreadful day in July of 1969. Afterwards, Kenya becomes a fiction because “nobody would dare kill Tom, because it means they would be willing to kill Kenya.” So what is Kenya after the murder of Tom Mboya? There are other assassinations and assassination attempts, attempted coups, terrorist bombings, refugee influxes from Uganda, Sudan and Somalia, drought, Nairoberry, post-election violence, the infamous Kasarani Detention camp—but the creation of a long list of everything that has gone wrong in Kenya for its own sake is stupid. Much has also gone right. In comparison to the instability of Uganda of the eighties, Nairobi was our London. We had enjoyed the pound days, when twenty bob was equivalent to a British pound and was solid money that could buy a few things, when the theatrics of matatu touts provided entertainment on the journey to town and back. But we also learned to be wary, to clutch our purses and avoid walking alone during dusk or down River Road in the daytime. Dust is a collection of those days and of these days.              

The novel begins in these days with Odidi Oganda, the son of Nyipir, running and running—he longs to be at home. By the end of that first chapter it is clear that the most important thing he has to do is go home. “Coming home. Wait for me.” The echoes are everywhere in the beginning of the novel: Nyipir calls his daughter Ajany to give news about her brother and he implores her to return home. Ajany is welcomed at the airport with karibu nyumbani. Wuoth Ogik, the central home in Dust signifies the end of the journey, home, where wuoth gik, where all the walking and running and struggle to be, stops. But Nyipir must contend with a history that started long before independence; he carries the name of wanderers, of people who were searching for home. He carries a tough memory from that experience of the Kenyan war for independence and afterwards he wants to get as far as possible from “real” Kenya, to reconcile and reconstitute himself, to establish a place where the struggle ends. Here, in desert country of northen Kenya, at Wuoth Ogik, Nyipir makes a family with a daughter of that land, a Dodoth woman, Akai Lokorijong. Dust country is the location of a new Kenyan family, far from the power structures, and made from crushed particles that used to be stones that carry stories as Owuor has indicated that the Luo believe. How long Wuoth Ogik can remain the home depends on a number of things, much of which is dictated by how history plays out on a familial level as well as the national level.            

This is what I remember: When we lived there, my Kenya was the merging ki-sheng, the language of young people that was created from English and Swahili as code against the authority of parents and other adults. My Kenya was fish and chips or chips and sausage in town; it was watching people lunch at Trattoria restuarant in Nairobi downtown or sitting at Jevanjee Gardens where office workers spent the lunch hour with us, eating airburgers. My Kenya was the time of panda gari when Ugandans were being deported back to the border, because there were too many of them in Kenya. My Kenya was the time of sedition, when folks could be and were arrested for gathering in groups of three or more without permission. My Kenya offered a safe place in its familiarity. We could stay as long as we were identified as Kenyans and not as Ugandans who were there to steal jobs and men from deserving Kenyans. 

What is it to be Kenyan today? Is it to know the country intimately, to speak various languages and pass like Ali Dida Hada, the man who has changed names so often that he claims to have forgotten his original name? If so, then what do we do with mass incarceation of multi-generational Kenyan Somalis in Kasarani Stadium? What about Dadaab which was at some point the biggest refugee camp in the world, holding or keeping people from all over eastern Africa? How do we reconcile Kenya of karibuni and hakuna matata with what looks like xenophobia but is really hatred of the self as evidenced in the post election violence? What is it to be Kenyan?

There is a silence there, something that remains inaccessible to those who cannot read the coded language that erupts in the political arena. Reading Dust was a reimmersion into my first familiar—but Kenya could not be home and coded Kenya, like my ancestral gang of this year's dry season and its elusiveness. And there is no continuum, home isn't always one place, it hasn't been. It turns out that Wuoth Ogik, like that other separation point between brothers on the Nile, has been a temporary home. Wuoth pod ogik. The search for home has not come to an end and therefore Nyipir must live out his name and keep looking. If dust is the metaphor for independence then it is also the symbol for a powdering of stories, layers of history and evidence of things past. This novel is the account of a family negotiating what it means to be at home in a country that has not yet found its meaning.

Juliane Okot Bitek is a PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Born in Kenya to Ugandan exiles, Juliane's review of Dust is a particular reading with a specific past. Her latest publication, 100 Days (University of Alberta, Spring 2016) focuses on how private memory betrays and challenges public commemoration in the context of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. Juliane loves and lives with her family in Vancouver, Canada. http://julianeokotbitek.com/ Twitter @jobitek