Looking after men

Nicholas Spice

  • The Present Moment by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
    Heinemann, 155 pp, £9.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 434 44027 2
  • Memory of Departure by Abdulrazak Gurnah
    Cape, 159 pp, £9.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 224 02432 9
  • You can’t get lost in Cape Town by Zöe Wicomb
    Virago, 184 pp, £3.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 86068 820 8

A novel may have a coherent plot, passably differentiated characters, fluent dialogue, passages of well-turned prose, and still be worthless if it isn’t also about something that matters. In this respect, the contemporary British novelist has a hard time of it, coming to the form when so much has already been said, when the necessary subjects have already been turned into novels many times over. For the African or South American, Indian or Australian novelist, it is easier to command attention, especially in the European market, where ignorance makes the reading of non-European novels a matter of basic education.

Even supposing that in Britain we had an educational system that took African history seriously and news media that reported contemporary events reliably, the African novelist would still be our most valuable source of understanding, our only real access, through the analogies set up by fiction, to what African history and African life feel like from the inside. Both Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye and Abdulrazak Gurnah, writing about East Africa, succeed in giving us the feel of the inside, and their novels materially increase our knowledge of East African life and history. Moreover, they prove the point that having something to say is more important than being able to say it suavely – indeed, that a degree of naivety, an unreflective commitment to saying what needs to be said, can help to give a novel vitality.

The Present Moment is the more ambitious of the two novels. In it, Macgoye has attempted to explore the life-histories of seven separate characters and through these individual destinies to outline the course of Kenyan history in the modern period. It probably couldn’t have worked at twice the length. At 155 pages, the novel is dense and difficult to follow. But this failure of the book to accommodate its subject-matter is not altogether a bad thing. In the absence of sophisticated craft there is nothing to soften the rawness of the raw material stuffed into its baggy, makeshift and ad hoc structure. The nourishment of the book has not been boiled out in the cooking.

The novel is set in 1983 in an old people’s home, the Old Women’s Refuge, a Christian charity in Nairobi. Conditions in the home are basic, but to the 30 old ladies who have come to rest there, it is a haven, an ultimate resort from far worse conditions – destitution, illness, homelessness and isolation. In private daydreams and in conversations with each other and occasional visitors, seven of the inmates piece together the histories that have led them along separate paths to meet in this present moment.

Macgoye has chosen her characters to represent the breadth and variety of Kenyan society. Kikuyu, Luo, Seychelloise, coastal Moslem – her old ladies all have different cultural backgrounds and different ways of dealing with the world. Macgoye seems to have most affinity with Wairimu, a Kikuyu, the oldest lady in the refuge and the one who has seen most. Of all the characters in the book, Wairimu is granted the most developed self-consciousness, so she emerges as the everywoman figure, the character whose destiny the reader takes to be representative, and around which the destinies of the other characters group themselves.

The novel begins where Wairimu’s story begins: on a beautiful morning in the forest near Nyeri, a small town three days’ walk from Nairobi. Wairimu is on her way to fetch water, when a bend in the path brings her face to face with a young man. The young man is Waitito, son of Njuguna, and his effect on the 17-year-old Wairimu is immediate and deep. The nature of the encounter is not made clear. For Wairimu it has a visionary, fairy-tale quality, and although it leads to nothing further with Waitito, it acts as the decisive incident in Wairimu’s early life, opening her eyes to possibilities beyond the confines of her family and the community to which it belongs. However, access to these possibilities is severely restricted. For a young black girl in Nyeri, in the years just following the First World War, the choice is stark and simple: ‘picking coffee or looking after men’. Since picking coffee is the way of ‘choosing for yourself’, Wairimu picks coffee, an independence that ensures her fifty years bent double on the white man’s plantations.

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