Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda is killed in the prologue of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s first novel, Dust. From there on, everything falls to pieces.
We’re in 2007 Kenya, though the country has been tormented ever since the Brits decided to graft it onto their Empire. Add to this the Mau Mau uprisings, myriad political assassinations and the mandatory forgetting of the disappearances and torture of thousands of men, women and children. As one of the characters contemplates in this grief-stricken book, the three languages spoken in Kenya are “English, Kiswahili and Silence.”
But instead of concentrating on the woes of a whole country, Owuor turns her attentions to one fractured family and the people who have touched their lives, for good or for ill, over the decades of Kenya’s endless ordeals. Odidi’s mother, Akai, is driven mad by his death and runs off—granted, she’s always been a little mad and we learn why much later. His sister, Ajany, is almost as devastated, and heads for Nairobi to find answers. His father, Nyipir, whose past is excruciatingly bound up with the travails of his country, stays behind to build a cairn for his son. Even as he builds it he’s visited—or haunted—by Isaiah Bolton, the son of his former master, who has come to Kenya to find out what happened to the father he never knew. Add to this assorted government officials, crazy men and vagabonds, all of whom contribute a piece to solving the puzzle of Odidi’s murder.
As we see from the murder in the prologue, Owuor wants to plunge her reader into the action immediately, and her writing style reflects this. She utilizes sentence fragments; dialogue that consists of the speakers barking out one or two words before they reach some kind of conclusion; bare glimpses of deserts, people and wildlife. It’s as if she wants to represent the splintering of Kenya itself. We emerge from her tale a little stunned, like someone coming into daylight from a darkened movie theater. But the somewhat good news is that we are in Kenya, 2007. Can the country knit itself back together? Can Odidi’s family? Dust seems to say that only time will tell.