Storytelling in Africa was once part of an oral tradition in which knowledge and history were passed from one generation to another. Using music and invocations, storytellers were vital members of their communities. But with colonialism, this tradition was discarded in favor of more Western narratives.
Doing his own part to redress this wrong, Kenyan author Peter Kimani has just published a third novel, “Dance of the Jakaranda.” Blending legends and history, his all-knowing narrator tells the story of Kenya from its existence as a British protectorate — “when God and the white man were one and the same” — to the dawning of the era of the “Big Man” in an independent nation. There is an emphasis here on retelling a history of a diverse people, Swahili language included.
As the narrative unfolds with a secret at its core, the intertwined lives of four central characters are revealed. In the prologue, the reader is thrust into the interior of a moving train, “a monstrous, snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra’s, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna.” Inside, sitting side by side, are two characters — a loveless Englishman, Ian MacDonald, who oversaw the building of the railroad, and Reverend Turnbull, an English preacher, with a few salacious secrets in tow. The year is 1901, six decades before Kenya’s independence.
The Indian and African workers who built the railroad are also on the train, divided respectively into second and third class. In this scene, the seeds of unresolved lineage are sown — a third character, Babu, a Punjabi immigrant and a former railroad technician, is described simply as “the runaway father.” It is Babu’s story that undergirds the plot and beguiles us with tales of a shipwreck on board a dhow from India to Kenya, as well as the clashes of personalities, desires and cultures — British, Indian, African — that arise as the railroad is built on the “black-cotton soil.” Here, the novel gains some richness and relevance.
However, the concurrent, more recent story of the fourth character, Babu’s grandson Rajan, with its rather dull preoccupations, requires extra commitment on the reader’s part. Additionally, Kimani’s writing, though accessible with little to no frills, exists in a too loosely organized state. The narrative shifts suddenly, leaping across decades, or clumsily weaves in errant tales of storytellers from within the plot.
But the dark mysteries of the past, set alight by the appearance of an attractive woman in a club called the Jakaranda, from which the book derives its title, buoys the reader’s interest. Most important, a fascinating part of Kenya’s history, real and imagined, is revealed and reclaimed by one of its own.
Angela Ajayi’s work has appeared in Wild River Review, the Common Online, and most recently, in Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives in Minneapolis.
Dance of the Jakaranda
By: Peter Kimani.
Publisher: Akashic Books, 344 pages, $15.95.