Dust, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, opens with the shooting death of a young man on the streets of Nairobi. He is killed by the police after stealing back the car that was stolen from him. The young man’s name is Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda (Odidi), and his death shatters his family: his estranged father Nyipir, his erratic mother Akai, his beloved sister Arabel Ajany (Ajany), and his pregnant fiancée Justina.
A police officer who knows Nyipir calls to notify him of his son’s death, and Nyipir, in turn, calls Ajany, who is living in Brazil. She flies to Nairobi to meet her father, and together they take Odidi’s body back to the family home, a crumbling, coral-colored edifice called Wuoth Ogik, which means “Journey’s End.” When they reach Akai and she learns that her son is dead, she breaks down, berating Nyipir and disdaining Ajany. After a time, Akai takes the car and flees.
In the meantime, a man has arrived in Kenya from England and is heading for Wuoth Ogik. His name is Isaiah William Bolton, and he has been in correspondence with Odidi. Isaiah is looking for his father Hugh, whom he has never met, and he believes Wuoth Ogik belongs to him. Hugh had settled in Kenya with his wife Selene when it was still a British colony. He was happy there, but Selene was not, and she eventually left him and went back to England, where Isaiah was born. There are dozens of books and other papers with Hugh’s name on them at the house. Odidi and Ajany have never known who Hugh Bolton is, but it has always been clear that Nyipir and Akai know.
Isaiah eventually arrives at Wuoth Ogik, much to Nyipir’s distress. Ajany talks to him and he shows her one of his father’s old books that Odidi had sent him. He also shows her a bookmark that his father had painted, depicting a naked pregnant woman. Ajany immediately recognizes the woman as her mother, but doesn’t tell Isaiah that.
Ajany goes to Nairobi to find out what she can about her brother’s life and death there. He had had a promising career as an engineer, but had been betrayed by people he trusted. She discovers that he had a fiancée, Justina, who is now pregnant with his child. Isaiah, who has been unable to get any answers from Nyipir, follows Ajany to Nairobi.
In addition to all the family secrets and intrigue, the bloody political history of Kenya is woven throughout the novel. After Kenya gained independence from England, there was still considerable unrest from rival political factions. The people and events mentioned in the book are probably familiar to anyone from Kenya who reads Dust, but I found myself having to Google or refer to Wikipedia from time to time in order to understand what was happening.
The author did a good job telling this story, and I found myself wanting to keep reading in order to find out how the lives of Nyipir and Akai intersected with that of Hugh Bolton. I appreciate the way she tied up most of the loose ends, making for a satisfying conclusion.
When Ajany goes to Nairobi looking for clues about Odidi’s life, a man near the place where Odidi died tells her to go see Justina. She doesn’t know who Justina is, but a woman in the beauty shop nearby tells her where to go. She discovers that Justina is a lap dancer whom Odidi had met at a local club. He had moved in with her, and Justina is pregnant with Odidi’s baby. While they’re talking, they drink “endless cups of ginger tea” and eat mandazi, which is basically fried dough, similar to a donut but triangular in shape. I found a recipe for mandazi on the “Tasty” website. I only needed to substitute egg replacer for the egg in order to veganize the recipe. These little snacks turned out to be pretty good!
As Isaiah walks from Wuoth Ogik to Nairobi, he sees a sign that says, “Reading Is Knowledge.” The explanation? “The Kenya National Library Services Camel caravan pitching camp for the night.” Apparently, this camel caravan is a real thing, and I really wanted my donation to go to the camels taking books to readers in rural Kenya. Alas, I couldn’t find any way to do that. So I searched GlobalGiving‘s website to see if there were other projects involving books and found an organization raising money to provide a thousand story books to children to promote literacy in Kenya. According to the project description: “Quality education transforms students’ opportunities, and gives them a pathway out of poverty! For many children in marginalized communities, access to story books is simply a luxury. We want to change this by providing a much needed supply of story books to students to promote literacy, and connect them to a world of stories. This project will enable us to start mini library boxes in schools so that children can have access to engaging materials to enhance their learning experience.” More information about this project is available at Gift 1000 Story Books to Promote Literacy in Kenya – GlobalGiving.
NEXT STOP: KUWAIT
(Originally published on March 22, 2021.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.