Exorcising Kenya’s ghosts : a review of Yvonne Ouwor’s novel, Dust

Exorcising the ghosts of Kenya : a review of Yvonne Ouwor's novel Dust

Dust is the debut novel of Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Published in 2013 by Kwani?, it tells different narratives of people whose intertwined destinies unfold over five decades of Kenyan history, from the colonial time to 2007 post-electoral violence. Indeed, important landmarks in Kenya’s history serve as backdrop for the narration and put into perspective the tragic fates of characters.

Dust is set both in Nairobi and the surroundings of Lake Turkana. Through a keen mastery of the language and a vivid imagery of Kenya’s landscapes, the narrator sets the stage for a slow motion tragedy the peak of which is… the prologue. It opens on the death of Odidi Oganda killed in a gunfight with the police in a Nairobi street. His untimely death “unravels a whole lot of things”. As his corpse is laid to rest in Wuoth Ogik, Odidi’s family goes on a pilgrimage to “find him again”. On their way, lots of secrets surface.

Then, the reader gets to know Dust’s gloomy, dark, mystifying protagonists. They fail to be strong-headed, leading characters, with great divides and strong motives. For example, Odidi is a naïve and “doomed idealist” whose honesty and uncompromised ideal made un-adequate. He rejects the “establishment”, yet he doesn’t struggle for the ideal he stands for and his flight and cowardly death in the prologue make him an anti-hero rather than the strong-headed, visionary revolutionary Kenya might crave for. As for the secondary characters, they are corrupt, they trigger electoral violence, or they are instruments of State violence. With all their complexities and mystery, these characters embody what Owuor has coined ‘a national economy of secrets’. The 1984 Wagalla Massacre, the contested and violent elections of 2007 are among other important events evoked in the novel. But, they are not sufficiently evoked to inform the reader; probably because these tragedies haven’t been addressed and justice applied. This pattern is emphasized by jangled up narrative sequences and the use of flashbacks which illustrate the impossibility to project into the future. The dense lyricism contributes to construct the narrative of a complex country and the elusive, transient nature of human experience. Besides, the narrator’s incantatory-like descriptions of the landscape are evocative of the haunted ideal Kenya is, with all its poor and broken promises”.

In the aftermath of the Westgate blast and the Garissa Attack, Dust is a relevant read to weigh on the debate over state violence, corruption and the collective amnesia which seems to infuse the whole country. Through the book, the author posits the relevance and necessity of memory, justice and transparency to make #MagicalKenya “whole again”, provided that the ghosts are addressed.

Ndeye Seck