In Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani takes the reader through the laying of the railway in Kenya, from Mombasa to Port Victoria, at the turn of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of three main characters: the Indian surveyor, Babu Rajan Salim, the white railway superintendent, Ian Edward McDonald, and the white preacher, Reverend Richard Turnbull. Other events in the story are set during the period of independence in 1963, when the repercussions of the past come to a head and affect Babu’s grandson, Rajan Salim, and his lover, Mariam Mureni.
The first half of the book employs neat transitions, swinging back and forth between the two periods at quite a leisurely pace, immersing the reader in the landscape and mini-stories about people and places. However, the pace picks up towards the end of the book, and the reader is no longer quite sure about the timeline, especially the post-independence period. The end of the book also feels quite abrupt.
Nonetheless, the author lays bare the thoughts and actions of the characters through their own statements and what others say about them. This is effective in providing a multidimensional overview of historical events, giving the different perspectives of the coloniser and the colonised, as they spearhead or make sense of the colonial intrusion.
Kimani also uses metaphor to great effect. The book itself is a metaphor, and the author handles this quite deftly with the reader quickly grasping the representations without much effort. The prologue begins with a description of the train, which villagers liken to a gigantic snake, on its maiden voyage across the Rift Valley, in a way marking the course of British domination across the land. Local seers had once foreseen ‘the train as a beast whose belly would require communal feeding for an eternity, accurately presaging the years of colonialism that lay ahead’. The self-proclaimed magnanimity of the British to ‘transform the British East Africa Protectorate into a society where Christianity, commerce, and civilization could be cultivated’ is arguably captured in the characters of Turnbull, Babu and McDonald respectively.
A striking thing about the book is that none of the main characters are Africans. The book highlights the deliberate policy of McDonald to segregate Africans and Indians through a divide-and-rule policy so they would not join forces, with whites at the top, Indians in the middle, and Africans at the bottom. However, the book is primarily focused on the non-Africans in the colonial experience. Is this a deliberate look at colonisation from the perspective of non-Africans, perhaps to understand the motives behind their actions, or to add a human dimension to the abstract nature of history? Babu sets sail for Africa ‘consumed by his curiosity about the world’, and McDonald takes up the assignment to build the railway in order to regain the love of his wife, Sally. It is interesting to read their musings at the end of their lives, as they reflect on who they were and what they did. In history books, names and places are reeled off, and there is a certain distance that prevents peering deeply. Through a novel, however, the reader may probe more deeply when confronted by a different perspective, and perhaps understand history a little better.
The African characters themselves are quite varied, with characters such as Nyundo the drummer and Gathenji the butcher, giving a running commentary on the actions of the main characters. The book is quite diverse in its presentation of the different Africans, as the author paints multiple views of Africans, both good and bad: from the kaya elder, Wanje, rejecting McDonald’s offer to be made paramount chief to policemen taking bribes in independent Kenya. Even more interesting are the different ways the African characters have regarded what has happened to them. Nyundo confronting McDonald after independence firmly tells him:
‘…This is not your land. Not an inch of our earth belongs to the white man….I have walked in your footsteps…I have witnessed the death and the destruction you have brought upon this land…’
However, later on, the Big Man of Kenya, tells McDonald:
‘I thank Mr. McDonald particularly for being a founding father of the nation. A people without the knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots. Before the Jakaranda, Nakuru was nothing but empty plains’.
Where does history begin? Is McDonald the founding father of the country that is Kenya? There were other traditional governments which laid claim to the lands that we now know as Kenya. And why is there such a haste to erase all evidence of death and destruction? The novel also questions the accuracy of certain accounts of Nakuru’s history as they fail to recognise Babu. The reader, by the end of the book, comes to agree with the author about those inaccuracies, as the setting of the book in the two time periods allows the reader to see things more accurately.
The book itself is a metaphor, and the author handles this quite deftly
The portrayal of the revolt by the Kiama kia Rukungu in Dance of the Jakaranda mirrors the Mau Mau uprising, and highlights the struggle of Africans for independence. However, the portrayal of the revolt in the novel evokes a certain unease. On one hand they are justified, as McDonald attests:
‘…The train brought in soldiers and missionaries and took away bales of cotton and bags of cereal…So communities that had for centuries depended on the land to feed and clothe themselves could neither own the land now what it could produce, nor even thread on its surface…The vast mast majority of the population had nothing to lose, other than their chains’.
On the other hand, there is a characterisation of bloody vengeance as they chant ‘Mzungu arudi kwao, Mwafrika apate uhuru’, driving white settlers out of the land.
Nevertheless, history must be embodied in social consciousness. The systematic abuse and torture of the Mau Mau uprising by British colonial officials, and the Mau Mau’s subsequent fight for justice exemplify the role of historical recollection.
The last sentence of the book reads:
‘Just as no one remembers that the train, gliding along twice every week, rocking slowly, gently, smoothly, penetrating the beautiful countryside before squeaking its horn in joyful ejaculation, made a forcible entry into their land, raping and tearing it viciously, once upon a time’.
In the present day-to-day life of Kenyans, thinking of jobs, salaries, taxes and going about their day-to-day lives, do they particularly consider the colonial policies of the British government? Do they?
Kenya embodies the effects of colonialism. For example, the Kenyan Christian population is estimated to be over 80% of the total population. The actions and inactions in the past as well as the selective documentation of history contribute to and will continue to contribute to monumental shifts, as people adjust, as cultures evolve. The British did not meet a land and people untouched by outside influences – for example, the Portuguese and the Arabs controlled Mombasa in preceding centuries. But as cultures evolve, there can be collective remembrance, akin to what the Germans call ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, so that criminals pay for their crimes, people can heal from the debasement of their humanity, with a consciousness of ‘never again’ engrained in society.
Dance of the Jakaranda is the author’s attestation to the forceful entry of colonial Britain deep into the land that is now known as Kenya. The symbolism of the train’s whistle, in its reminding people that they were ‘still in bed’ and ‘late for work’, should also be remembered for the thousands of lives that were lost, the communities that were destroyed and the cultures that were wiped out. The reverberations are still being felt.
Title: Dance of the Jakaranda
Author: Peter Kimani
Number of pages: 352
Year of publication: 2018
Adaudo Anyiam-Osigwe is an Associate Editor at Pride Magazine Nigeria.