31 January 2013

Kenya: New Anthology Examines Contemporary Themes

book review

The vanity with which local funerals are conducted can be vexing. To start with the death announcements have become a literary genre on their own.

So, a deceased is not sufficiently identifiable from his or her picture until we belabour on his or her last job title: formerly chief termite researcher, ICIPE, programmes officer, UNEP Gigiri and so on.

A death and funeral announcement is not proper until we also give extra and often bracketed information of the deceased's kin: sister-in -law to Omoso (Brisbane, Australia), cousin to Mike (Atlanta, Georgia) and godmother to Yvonne (Santiago, Chile).

And if you take an exit poll from a funeral, many attendees often approve of an event by the type of vehicles in the cortege and its length.

So, nobody remembers the preacher's homily but the range of 4WD fuel guzzlers gracing the occasion remain firmly etched in the minds of the mourners.

To make a lasting impression, it is customary now to hire high end undertakers who bring in tow their state of the art coffin lowering gear.

In deed, at a time like now, politicians are routinely carrying the day at funerals with their antics. Often they claim instant kinship to the deceased and vow to take care of the widow and the orphaned children. But your guess is as good as mine how these public proclamations end up.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's evergreen story, A Mercedes funeral, which is included in the short stories anthology Ties That Bind, captures all the hypocrisy associated with funerals and mourning.

In this story, Wahinya dies at a time like now-the eve an election! The incumbent area MP, honorable John Joe James aka JJJ, leads in the funeral and burial preparations.

In death, the nondescript Wahinya galvanizes Ilmorog to the extent that the elusive JJJ agrees to share a podium and the funeral committee with three other contestants.

And is happening now within the political establishment, all these compete in making outrageous pledges at Wahinya's burial.

The parliamentary contestants outdo each other by providing swanky coffins that would be remembered for long in Ilmorog.

But the incumbent, JJJ outfoxes them all. His coffin is model of a Mercedes Benz 660S, complete with doors and glasses and maroon curtains and blinds!

In life Wahinya had dreamt of riding a Mercedes. And in death JJJ makes this dream come true by providing the outlandish coffin! But there is no applause and something goes awfully wrong.

Veteran writer Grace Ogot pens the story Tekayo in this anthology. Tekayo is a quintessential paterfamilias who gets possessed by evil spirits and turns into a cannibal.

To satiate his growing appetite, Tekayo traps, kills and eats his grandchildren in a little racket that is soon unearthed and he faces the ultimate penalty.

While rich in grandeur, this story is nevertheless apt in its message. That despicable evil lurks in the human heart but it will never triumph over good customs.

Kabaru Ndegwa's title story, Ties That Bind, centres around two street beggars. One is lame, My Eyes, and the other is blind, My Legs!

In a strange symbiosis, the blind man hoists the lame man on his shoulders and capitalising on each others' strengths, the two are able to navigate the concrete jungle to and from their begging position in the appropriately named Kupe Street. They regale people with religious songs and bible recitals as the tidy pile of cash grows daily.

The epitome of the modern urban deceit, this pair of My Legs and My Eyes are far from sincere! For the picture of My Legs lumbering with the weight of My Eyes on his shoulders in the evening is only for show and to a certain distance only.

When the pair reaches a deserted spot My Eyes gains functions of his legs. Similarly My Legs gains his sight. The two conscientiously share the day's take and head their different ways to stage the begging stunt again the following morning.

This story is a stark warning about the contemporary urban industry of street begging. Before you rush for your wallet, teary eyed at the sight of a malnourished child or a person with a festering wound that may lead to an amputation, first interrogate all the apparent facts.

Look for things that don't add up, for example, a gangrenous wound ought to have killed a beggar weeks before and it could all be a cast sprinkled with tomato juice and a dash of rotting meat to bring in the flies!

Ties That Bind is a collection of 15 short stories that examine many current themes from duplicity, HIV/Aids, governance, gender issues, and relationships.

They are drawn from East Africa and beyond. The book's strength is in its variety of themes and styles of the writers. It is an infinitely entertaining and educating anthology that is bound to add value to all readers.

Title: Ties That Bind and Other Stories

Publisher: EAEP

Year of publication: 2012

Pages: 234

Price: Sh520


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