In Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel, Dust, a young man named Odidi Oganda is gunned down in the streets of Nairobi in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections. His death stuns his sister, Ajany, and she starts looking for answers, unearthing dark family secrets hidden in her country’s turbulent history. Only by breaking her family’s spell of forced silence can she find peace and move on. Her journey becomes a metaphor for Kenya’s own path to redemption. As Owuor says in an interview for Guernica, “Kenya is an immense land with a capacity for healing…. The ghosts do not need to define the future.” In this edition of the Armchair Adventurer, we learn about the violent historical events that have shaped Owuor’s unforgettable novel.
Much of the national and personal turmoil portrayed in Dust can be traced back to Kenya’s dark colonial past. In the pre-independence days, Ajany and Odidi’s parents, Nyipir and Akai, bore witness to unspeakable acts of cruelty, the memories of which haunt them for years. They were among the millions of native Africans living as second-class citizens subservient to the European settlers. When local insurgents eventually raised arms against the colonizers in the blood-soaked Mau Mau uprisings during the ’50s, the government, desperate to hold onto Kenya after losing India in 1947, struck back with brutal force. According to Harvard University historian Caroline Elkins, as many as 300,000 Africans were slain. Thousands were incarcerated in detention camps. Even though the uprisings helped pave the way for reforms that culminated with independence from Britain in 1963, violence and trauma have accompanied the political process ever since.
Marked on the map is the Oganda’s family home in Kalacha, a region located in the Northern drylands of Kenya.
With Kenya free, hope for the future swelled in the hearts of its citizens, and in the novel, Nyipir is also caught up in the wave of optimism. But when Tom Mboya, a leading figure in the nation’s fight for independence and Nyipir’s idol, is assassinated in 1969, his dreams for a democratic Kenya are dashed. In Dust, Mboya’s murder changes the course of history overnight:
This death created a fissure in the nation, as if it had split apart its own soul. The funeral cortege was more than two kilometers long. A wailing nation lined up on three hundred kilometers of road to touch the passing hearse. In the silence of everything else, in the farce of a trial, a man named Njenga, who had fired the gun, cried, “Why pick on me? Why don’t you ask the big man?” Before he could suggest much more, Njenga was hanged. (p. 272)
So began another dark period in Kenya’s history, built upon fear and silence, dominated by a few powerful men and blighted by corruption and oppression.
But perhaps no other recent historical catastrophe has left a deeper mark on Owuor’s novel than the 2007 election crisis. When fraud cast a pall over the election results, a seven-week-long conflict exploded between supporters of the two presidential candidates. Violent outbursts plunged the nation into bloodshed and bared its division along ethnic and geographical lines. Hundreds of people died in the fray, and thousands were uprooted. Owuor herself witnessed the protests, and for her, the aftermath seemed an expression of pent-up anger over years of repression. She started revising an earlier draft of Dust, setting its narrative in the weeks after the national crisis. As the country experiences a violent catharsis, so do Owuor’s characters. A sister searches for the reasons behind her brother’s murder; a grieving father faces the consequences of old crimes and debts; and a devastated mother breaks her silence and brings to light shocking secrets. A reckoning with the past—both personal and national—forms the center of Owuor’s poignant family saga.