For more than two decades now, Kenya has played host to refugees from conflict-ridden neighbours such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving as a nexus for this group and the NGOs that help ease their plight.
The City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie Anderson shines a spotlight on the dark depths of conflict, its sticky underbelly whose effects include forced displacement, hunger, sexual violence, slavery, the psychological torment, to mention but a few.
Through the story of her lead character Christina, who goes by the moniker Tiny Girl, Anderson is able to weave a fictional city, that’s a mix between Nairobi’s hustle and bustle, and Mombasa’s location by the name Sangui City. Its street names include names such as Biashara Avenue and Old Town.
City of Saints and Thieves is dedicated “to all the girls who are more than just refugees”. Because they are more than their story. We all are.
This is how it starts. The first sentence reads “If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.” It continues, “And I mean, you really have to know it.”
It is written in the first person, through Tiny Girl’s eyes. She squats on a roof of an abandoned construction site, away from the gang she belongs to.
The story of how she ends up in the gang unfolds like a blooming flower. Natalie writes with descriptions so vivid if you’ve lived and travelled in Kenya’s big cities, Nairobi and Mombasa extensively, you’ll see them in this writing.
Also, if you know of “panya routes” migrants use to avoid detection, it will ring a bell. Congo too features heavily. The landscape, the war, the players, the minerals, the arms, all of it, is layered in this body of work in ways as a reader, you’d definitely want to see played out on the big screen.
The lead character Christina, whom all other characters are weaved around, lives by a set of rules that form the beginning of new chapters.
They are in sentence form. They include, trust no one, you’ve got to have a plan, always be ready to bolt, and if you want to go forward, sometimes you need to flip all the way to the backward first, to mention but a few. They set the pace for the reader but also, not always as straight forward as they seem. You’ve got to keep an open mind reading this book.
City of Saints and Thieves is definitely one of the best books I have read that are set in this region. Albeit written by a foreigner working for NGOs in the region on refugee relief and development, it’s a challenge for us who live here to pick up our pens and tell our own stories, in our own tongues even, as advocated by the renowned author and professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o last week during his tour to promote his new book Kenda Muiyuru published by East African Educational Publishers.
City of Saints and Thieves is 401 pages long. And worth every page flip. In fact, it’s the kind of book you make a production for: make sure you have time, prepare your beverage of choice, find a snug spot to nestle in, and dig in.
I am certain you’ll be inspired to look at the ordinary, everyday, mundane things around you in the region differently. Happy reading!