Another installment of ModernLove takes an African Lit class! This was one of the earlier books we read over the course of the…course, and it’s one that while I reading it, I didn’t like, but once I was done and able to look back at the story as a whole, I really appreciated.
The story takes place in Kenya just after it’s liberation from British rule. It’s set mostly in a small village, and the four main characters are not natives of it. They’ve found themselves there, each looking for an escape from their pasts. In class, we had to write an essay about each book we read and I can’t remember what the original topic of this was supposed to be, but I ended up writing about the feminist aspects of the book.
Wanju is the female lead; the other three are all men. She’s from the city and has, until her arrival in the village, been selling her body in order to make a living. Her grandmother, Nyakinyua, is one of the oldest residents in the village when Wanju comes to live with and care for her. Both of these women are strong, independent people who realize that they have to be able to care for themselves, as no one else will.
Wanju learned that lesson early on. Abused by a neighbor and harassed by a teacher, she ends up pregnant and forced to leave the school she was excelling in. It’s after she loses the baby that she turns to prostitution, making her living until her escape to the village. She realizes at a young age that she does not have control over much in her life, but she has it over her body and her sexuality. I’m not making the case for prostitution here, but Wanju sees this as some way of having control over her life. Her sexuality is a weapon that, even after arriving in the village, she is able to use to advance her position within society. She takes over the bar run by Abdullah, another character, turning it from a tiny storefront into a booming nightclub. Her grandmother’s recipe for Thang’eta, an alcoholic beverage, also helps. It’s really their work that turns the sleepy little village into a booming town, and also sets the stage for the central story: the murder of three men.
The novel is framed around their murder, opening with the four characters being questioned about their potential role in this. At this point, Wanju is running her own brothel, the richest woman in the town. As the book goes back and you see how she ended up there, I can’t help but admire her. To be in a time and place where being a woman was almost a danger, she’s managed to survive, to thrive, and do it on her terms. It’s not an easy life she lives but she manages to make the best of what she can and do it on her own.