BY JACOB OKETCH
This collection of short stories by Gilbert Muyumbu takes us back to what the essence of a short story entails. No winding and complex plots. The stories do not betray their meaning by being indeed short, always restricted to one episode that is then elaborated in the body of the story. That way, the reader is not distracted at all and easily manages to transit from one story to the next.
It is rare to find stories about war among Kenyan writers. This is understandable given that our country has not gone into a full scale war with another country and save for the post election violence, we have not experienced a civil war. The author, in Things that happen when we fight, gives the readers a glimpse of what victims of war go through in the places they settle in after fleeing.
A refugee in any environment is treated as such even if they are people who have achieved tremendous progress in their previous stations. It is dehumanizing to see people who fought gallantly for freedom and equality being treated as second class citizens simply because they were not born where they currently reside.
There is a story in this collection that mirrors what happened in Rwanda – The genocide. In this story, people are profiled on the basis of how their noses look like. We are also told that communities compete for power and rule intercheangably; members of the deposed community are forced to seek asylum. This is the same thing that has been happening between Rwanda’s Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic communities that reside in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The denigration of the Tutsi as cockroaches is similar to what happens in this story where people whose noses have a certain appearance are considered to be vermins. The author vividly brings out the prejudices that occur as a result of competition for power among ethnic communities.
Mr Muyumbu, in a very imaginative way paints a picture of a thoroughly mismanaged country; Kenya. He personifies the country as an abused woman in a story titled Kenya and her men. This feminine depiction of the country is indicative of the collective ownership of the republic by her citizens the same way a mother is the bearer of her children. The licentious traits of the woman are symbolic of a myriad of immoral acts committed by public servants that end up eroding the integrity of the nation. Just like the woman is used and dumped by men, our country continues to be plundered by our incorrigibly corrupt public officials without an iota of shame.
There is also a story about a man who lost all his investments after being attacked by sympathizers of a faction that lost in an election. The author paints a picture of a community that became hostile to prosperous residents who were not members of that ethnic community. Ethnic profiling is something that Kenya has to grapple with after every presidential election. Thousands of people are displaced from their areas of residence, especially if they are not members of that ethnic community. In such situations, even people whom you consider friends will turn a blind eye when you are being violated.
Sometimes, it takes an extraordinary occurrence for people to change their ways. In situations where peer influence is very strong, this is what it takes for someone to pivot to a desirable position. Alcohol is a powerful influencer that is difficult to shake off. In a story titled Saulo Paul, the narrator tells of an episode where a merry making adventure between a couple of friends turned awry after they were ambushed and murdered by highway robbers except just one of them. The victim’s spiritual transformation is something that his other drinking buddies and colleagues find very difficult to come to terms with. The takeaway here is that it takes something quite compelling for us to get out of our comfort zones.
Relationships are a difficult subject to handle given that it has many facets. Sometimes those we consort with as friends are actually a liability to us. The story of two drinking buddies who are at odds wakes us up to this reality. It is during moments of inebriation that most people miscalculate and enjoin people who are not worth their time in their circle of friendship. Since drunkardness leads to poor judgement, one is in danger of attracting unsavory characters in their lives. In a way, the author is also sounding a warning to alcoholics that they stand to lose their memory as a result of their addiction. In the story is a man who is ever forgetful and this makes him a laughing stock in the community. It is this forgetfulness that emboldens wayward characters to take advantage of alcoholics, something which they mistake for genuine friendship.
In one of the stories, the author gives the readers a glimpse of a creative writer’s process of doing their work. In this deeply engaging story of a family that is taking care of a sick father, the sons take turns in walking him outside the house. Since the old man lost some of his cognitive abilities, the sons are supposed to reorient his mind to the meaning of things. The two sons have different views of what phenomena means. So the eldest boy keeps on contradicting the younger one when he explains to his father something. Dissappointed, the younger son retreats to his chambers to write his version of whatever he was explaining to his father. Similarly, a writer records what happens in the society, not as the ordinary person views them. It is this obscurity of literal meaning in a work of art that makes it one.
Overally, most of the stories are set in a humble environment – the village. The characters are the everyday people we encounter in a rural village and the episodes are quite authentic. Almost any reader is able to relate to the circumstances described in these stories. The minor flaws in the development of the stories can justly be attributed to the fact that the author is just starting his trade; this collection is his first creative writing effort. It is evident that with more offerings, his works will be mouthwatering. Grab a copy of this collection and enjoy the antics and escapades of the rural folk. You will not be disappointed.