- She was the toast of Kenyan literature in the early 1960s and her novels tackled issues that firebrand male writers could not touch. Then the trail went cold. Why?
As the world celebrates the Black History Month and as Kenya heads to a general election, the work of Rebeka Njau will resonate with our anxieties about the next five years that we seem so determined to waste.
Although published a decade ago, Rebeka’s novel, The Sacred Seed (2003) examines the violence, betrayal and plunder that Kenya suffers every five years as a result of tribal politics.
The Sacred Seed, like Ayi Kwei Ahmah’s Osiris Rising, also suggests the role that Africans across the globe can play to help nourish justice and avoid shoring up dictatorships in Africa.
The book, which is Rebeka’s second novel, revolves around a city woman, Tesa Koki, who returns to the village after being raped by the corrupt president of her country, Dixon Chinusi.
The rural sanctuary she escapes to is also on Chinusi’s radar, as he intends to grab and desecrate it. Inspired by fellow women in the village, Tesa takes it as her duty to defend their integrity and honour.
Like Mwathani (the Ruler) in Ngugi’s Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), the head of state in the novel contracts a strange disease because of despoiling the country.
Using experimental modernist prose, the novel is told from a multiplicity of subjective perspectives. Rebeka delves into the minds of her characters to reveal the psychological wounds they have suffered under patriarchy and dictatorship and their determination to heal the society.
Although set in no particular country in Africa, the appearance of proper nouns such as Mt Nongolot (an anagram for Mt Longonot) and Olom (Molo) in The Sacred Seed suggests that the setting is Moi’s Kenya.
The narrator presents the destruction of the resourcefulness of women in the traditional African societies by modern regimes and points to ways women’s power can be restored through the demolition of class hierarchies.
While the foundational African women’s writing from the 1960s and 1970s tended to represent African American women negatively, including Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964), the 1990s witnessed more positive images of African American women in African fiction.
Some writers like Ayi Kwei Armah tend to idealise the African American woman in their fiction, but the African American male is, however, not always positively drawn in African literature.
The Sacred Seed joins Bessie Head’s 1966 story, Woman from America, in arguing for more active involvement of African American women in the affairs of the African continent, especially the empowerment of African women.
In the context of the black history evoked in The Sacred Seed, it may not be a coincidence that American President Barack Obama used February to deliver his message to Kenyans to vote wisely in the March 4 general elections.
Launched by the Harvard-educated son of former slaves Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) in 1926, the Black History Month was initially called the “Negro History Week” and was celebrated in February, the month in which major Black anniversaries are marked, including the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s birthday.
The “Negro History Week” evolved into Black History Month in 1976. Celebrated in Kenya mainly at the universities, it involves events and statements that highlight unity between African people in the continent and the diaspora.
Rebeka’s novel warns African Americans against their possible complicity in encouraging dictatorships in Africa. Through her African-American character, Ellen, Njau suggests the need for black solidarity.
Ellen comes to Africa as a missionary, but her commitment to the church and to the word of God is repaid with an attempted rape. Like the head of state, the African pastor who wants to rape Ellen is presented as a lecherous, corrupt and greedy hypocrite.
Unlike the African American woman Ast in Armah’s Osiris Rising, who arrives in Africa radicalised and ready to go, Ellen initially joins hands with patriarchy and dictatorship to roll back the gains that women have made in the country.
Her moment of self-actualisation comes when she abandons the church and joins African women in a traditional shrine. She uses her African American quilting skills to uplift African women.
As in Armah’s fiction, the future for Africa seems to be in the pre-colonial past — only if that past can be stripped of its patriarchal backwardness.
Presented through the painful memories of the women, rape and violence are not as graphic as in Armah’s novel, whose earlier work, Two Thousand Seasons, gained notoriety for its graphic representation of all sorts of rape, including sodomy, as symbols of abuse of Africa by European and Arabic civilisations.
However, in Njau’s novel, Tesa is raped more than once — the first time as a schoolgirl and repeatedly later as a city music teacher. The author told Saturday Nation about her narrow escapes from rapists in her adolescence.
In spite of its prominence in The Sacred Seed as well as in the drafts of her memoir in progress, Njau’s presentation of rape in is in more restrained terms than in Armah’s novel, capturing her reluctance to reproduce actual pain. The restraint also suggests that although rape is physical, it is also symbolic of other forms of violation of women’s bodies and psyche by the state, the church, and patriarchy.
With her restrained tone when describing rape, Rebeka could also be gesturing at the sorry easiness with which the Kenyan nation is raped. Without being as graphic as Armah, she is calling upon us to resist the violation of our rights more than we usually do.
For Rebeka, art for art sake is a luxury a country like ours can hardly afford.
“Writing that is mere intellectualism is not for a country that is full of social ills and miserable poverty,” she says.
Then there is the question of time and the fight for recognition.
“For lack of time, I had to write Ripples in the Pool at night under very stressful conditions,” she says.
To make matters worse, if her husband did not confiscate her works to suppress her visibility, colleagues would deny her credit for what had seen the light of day.
“One church man came to my office and suggested that my husband must have written the novel for me,” she says.
Although her books have not received as much attention as it deserves, it has received some critical appraisal in key texts, including by such respected African women critics as Kenya’s Prof Ciarunji Chesaina (the University of Nairobi) and Nigeria’s Prof Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (Sarah Lawrence College, USA).