Owuor’s ‘Dust’ tugs at Kenya’s conscience

2003 Caine Prize winner and Dust author Yvonne
2003 Caine Prize winner and Dust author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. PHOTO | FILE 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust is not an easy read. It continuously pricks your conscience, reminding you of just how much we have swept under a rug of collective forgetfulness.

Most of all, it reminds any Kenyan reading just how little has changed since post-colonial Kenya.

Set in 2007, the story begins with main protagonist Odidi’s death on a Nairobi street and darts back and forth between the present and post-Independence Kenya.

Odidi’s death reverberates through the Oganda family and sets off a series of events that threaten to uncover a family’s, and consequently, a country’s shameful secrets.

Owuor is a masterful story teller; she seamlessly weaves seemingly unrelated events over a 40-year period, which eventually come together in a spell-binding narrative journey that makes this book hard to put down.

Owuor doesn’t make it easy on the casual reader. Her writing, while refreshingly descriptive and vivid, sometimes also borders on being opaque, with the stylistic use of poetry and metaphors.

These qualities, while adding to the book’s literary richness, could easily have the effect of making impatient readers weary. One also has to pay close attention to detail especially with the plot darting back and forth between the present and the past.

Odidi’s father, Nyipir, stoically grieves his son’s death and through his flashbacks, we get a glimpse of a Kenya where everything had a price, where bodies were secretly buried in an unspoken war between a new state and its young children.

Odidi’s mother Akai-Ma, perhaps one of the most hardened characters, unravels after his death almost to the point of madness. Through her past, we see post-colonial Kenya through the eyes of a rebellious young woman who through her carefree nature and subsequent mistakes quickly learns that there is no place in conservative Turkana society to tuck away her shame.

One gets the feeling that Owuor wrote this book as a way of speaking directly to Kenyans’ conscience – to challenge their forgetfulness; to make them remember their bloody past.

“Under the trance of fear, a nation hid from the world. Inside its doors ten thousand able-bodied citizens died in secret. Some were buried in prison sites, and others’ bones dissolved in acid. Nyipir knew. He saw. He did not speak. He hoped it would end soon. Just like the others who had also seen, he told no one.”

Dust is a haunting book, and passages such as these stay with you long after you’ve put it down. My favourite quotable quote from the book is where Owuor declares English, Swahili and Silence the country’s official languages.

It was first published last year to rave reviews among literary circles including The New York Times. Some literary pundits have even gone as far as crowning her the rightful heir to Kenya’s great novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I’d say they’re onto something there.