What’s the worth of chasing after the meaning of life?

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BY TOM ODHIAMBO

The sea, its vastness, mystery, often calm, at times violent, its promise of the unknown, its seduction of the wise and unwise souls in search of adventure, its offering of the somewhere as opposed to the here, its endless tales, can all make the pursuit of life’s meaning a fruitless search. Indeed, one only needs to visit any seaside town – make that any city lying by a big river or lake – to encounter the unending myths and fables that an expanse of water evokes in human beings.

It is no wonder that to go to Mombasa, Malindi, Kwale or Lamu – if you can ignore the ‘Pwani si Kenya’ declarations and warnings from European and American embassies to be careful whilst at the Coast – remains the dream of many Kenyans, searching for both the excitement of the largeness of the sea and the stories by the sea. There is a saying, in many forms, that it is quite easy to arrive in Mombasa, from upcountry, but very difficult to leave it. Reading The Dragonfly Sea (Alfred A Knopf, 2019) by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor only adds to the seduction and mystery of the Kenyan coast.

But that appeal isn’t only in the touristic sense of merely visiting to enjoy the often advertised marvels of nature and culture. Nope. Its essence is in the tantalising tales of a coastal town whose life flows and ebbs with the movements of the sea; whose life is shaped in its small neighbourhood and in the far away Nairobi but as well as in lands beyond the sea; whose water spirits, the djinns (majini as most Kenyans call the famed spirits said to roam the coastal cities), don’t just add flavour to everyday life but recall a time past weighing on the present; whose life in the 21st Century is subject to so many global realities and forces. At first these tales and mysteries may appear strange and confusing to the nonlocal or uninitiated, but on digging deeper one notes, watu wa Pwani, such as the people of Pate Island – where the tales in The Dragonfly Sea begin – have always been in the matrix of the globalising world even before ‘globalisation’ became a fashionable term and symbolism to a much deepened system of exploitation and alienation.

Yvonne Owuor reads a passage from The Dragonfly Sea at Prestige Bookshop during a book signing event.

The Dragonfly Sea is a story set to the rhythm of the sea, thus ‘seasonal’ in many senses. Its histories, stories, parables, anecdotes, sketches, proverbs (especially the proverbs), cartographies, among other tools of storytelling, can be read separately; indeed it is possible to isolate, listen to and appreciate each one of these categories as a story by itself. But they can also be read in combination as the building blocks to the biographies of various characters in the story, but especially Ayaana (God’s gift), Munira (Ayaana’s mother and a central character in the story), Muhidin Khamis Mlingoti wa Baadawi (the pivot character of the tale), Mzee Kitwana Kipfit (previously known as Yue Xia), Lai Jin, among many other characters. Cartography – as metaphor – is very important for whoever wishes to tease meaning out of the story or stories of this book, as some kind of travelogue; geographical, cultural, social, religious, political, global etc.

Although the story begins with and is pivoted on Muhidin, the relationship between Muhidin, Munira and Ayaana eventually makes it Ayaana’s story. The reader encounters stories of (lost) childhood innocence; of a search for love and a father figure; of a stolen childhood; of a young girl becoming both a victim (and beneficiary) of the arrival on the world stage of China with resounding footsteps – not that China hadn’t at one time in the past marched over the seas, looking to do business, and reached this shores, just as it is doing now.

Like children, though, Ayaana does not have much say in the decisions that adults in her life make, decisions that at times throw her into the deep end of incomprehension. She doesn’t know her father. Her mother won’t tell her (as if it doesn’t matter; but does it?). She falls in love with the mysterious Muhidin, who shows her more than love by inducting her into the mysteries of the sea and teaching her at home. But Muhidin is fated to leave Pate one day, for he is a creature of the sea. But before her adoptive father leaves – and he had indeed become a stepfather when he had temporarily become the lover of Ayaana’s mother – Ayaana’s innocence is stolen by those who seek the flesh of young Africans from across the seas.

However, happenstance forces Ayaana to become the star of China’s new love affair with Africa. She is chosen as the ‘Descendant’ of once lost Chinese seafarers who had been marooned on the Kenyan coast, on Pate Island, and is sent to China. Ayaana is to be presented to the Chinese people both as a symbol and artefact of the Chinese in the world and the world in China. Whilst on the ship MV Qingrui/Guolong to China, Ayaana meets Captain Lai Jin, a man scarred by fire – literally and literarily – piloting a ship that is, unfortunately, also illegally carrying animals from Kenya to China. When the ship is hit by a sea storm, that same sea that Ayaana had loved her entire childhood in Pate, nearly claims her life. But she is saved by Lai Jin. As she heals, a sexual affair develops between them (is this another instance of the exploitation that has defined and will continue to mark her life; or is it a teenager in search of love; or is it a metaphor of the renewed seduction of Africa by China?).

After arriving and as she settles in China, Ayaana applies for a ‘bachelor-of-science program in nautical science studies’ at Xiamen Maritime University. But even as she finds her compass point in the bustling city and university life, this is a most challenging time for her. She is away from home. She is in a strange land, where her strangeness, despite being presented as one of them, stands out. In school she is pursued by and ends up in a contrived relationship with a Turkish student, Koray. Koray manages to convince her to visit Istanbul with him during the holidays. Although their relationship is new and often touchy, Ayaana doesn’t know that Koray is entertaining the thought of marrying her. But Ayaana runs away from this near tragedy as the intrigues in Koray’s home is more than she can stomach – it is a conspiratorial, violent and near dysfunctional house, where a servant is easily killed one day. Back in China Ayaana goes to visit Lai Jin, who had then become a potter, and renews her affair with him – which probably sets in motion dynamics that would lead to a marriage between the two later, when Lai Jin travels all the way to Pate to search for Ayaana, who had graduated and returned home.

When Ayaana returns home after her studies she discovers that she has a young sister – the child the relationship between Munira and Muhidin. She doesn’t take it well that the mother had never bothered to inform her that she had a new baby – Abeerah. However, with time she comes to accept that the ways of the world are difficult to understand. She settles down in Pate, working with Fundi Mehdi, the carpenter and boat maker. The very life she had led as a child and a young girl, into youth-hood seems to have changed little, the vagaries of the sea and the political turbulence in the world notwithstanding. Well, some change is investable but there is a way in which even change doesn’t change much. So, although it surprises many, she still settles down into the rhythm of the seemingly unpredictable but livable life in Pate, till Lai Jin appears to disrupt it all and marry her; or when the mother marries Muhidin’s son, Ziriyab Ramis, a returnee to Pate and recent victim of the global war on terror. So, Ayaana ends up ‘daughter’ to her ‘stepbrother’.

But the words of the old and stooped muezzin, Abasi to Ayaana, when she had been struggling to accept her sister Abeerah, probably best capture the spirit of this story, “… you have been offered the gift of failing and failing; you have encountered the mystery of human wretchedness and powerlessness. Use it wisely.” As the narrator says, “And Ayaana would stare at him speechless. Afterward, Ayaana would retrieve her secret trove of words – “yearning,” “searching,” “longing,” “desire” – a topography of living.’ Here the storyteller presages Ayaana’s eventual conclusion when she decides that she had to learn to ‘…forgive the sea for swallowing the father she loved. She would also need to find the courage to surrender to the truth that life made of its own meaning.’

What one is left pondering, at the end of The Dragonfly Sea, is the meaning of life or living. What would ever fulfil the desires of the heart that pound in the chest of men and women? Muhidin, Munira, Ayaana, Ziriyab, Lai Jin (renamed Nahodha Jamal), Mzee Kitwana Kipfit, all the characters in the story/stories seem to be stuck in winding wheel of existence, perpetually looking for the elusive essence of life. As the storyteller suggests, maybe they could learn something from the dragonfly, seasonal creatures, whose ‘destiny is kept by the wind’ and which are forced by nature to ‘return’ to the shores of Pate (or wherever seaside they land on), and are fated never to ‘stay’ in the same place for long – but can human beings, who tend to be place-bound, live such a life?

This is a story or stories of endless searching and desiring, probably the only certainties in the life of human beings. It is a moral tale, told in an atmosphere of scents, smells, signs, images, objects etc, which forcefully reminds the reader of the fragility, often futility, of human pursuits, but which still suggests that maybe such human vanity is what makes the everyday sensible and livable.

If you read Dust and found it demanding that you be sensitive to human history; that you recognize the connectedness of human races, cultures, religions, communities, nations, destinies, then The Dragonfly Sea insists even more that the reader has to search for their place in the whirlpool of human history. This is a book not to be read once.

Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi