Controversial writer David Maillu is set to stir the literary scene with a new novel that presents Jesus Christ as a black man.
Titled The Black Madonna, the work of fiction draws from ancient architectural and artistic facts from various parts of the world and a convincing story line. The 150-page novel, published by Moran Publishers and which will be out in a week, explores the controversial argument that the virgin Mary and indeed her son were from Africa.
It breaks years of silence from the 70s, when the writer stunned the world by publishing wildly popular novelettes that came with explicit scenes that young men and women devoured under their school desks, sometimes underlining the steamy scenes with red biro ink for ease of reference.
The Black Madonna revolves around Yona Mayona, a professor of history in the US. Yona has been living and studying in the US ever since he was a young boy, under the sponsorship of an African-American billionaire philanthropist, Linda Driver. The woman, who is many years older than Yona, has not only cared for him like her own son, she has ended up becoming his ‘sponsor’, footing all his bills in exchange for a fulfilling sexual relationship.
And while the book lacks the lurid scenes of such books as After 4.30, its highly credible story of how Jesus came to be perceived as a white man is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows. More so in a country where church groups have successfully shot down secondary school set books over what would look tame and innocuous compared to the content available on the internet, television soap operas and at the local movie store.
In the novel, Yona is summoned by his old father to Nairobi. The old man wants to see his son before he dies. When Yona jets back into Kenya and makes his way to their family house in Nairobi West, he encounters the shock of his life. His father swears him to secrecy and shows him documents dating back to the early days of the Catholic Church, to an era when there were black popes. The old man then reveals a conspiracy hatched at the top echelons of the church, which put paid to any chances of another black man ever becoming a pope.
This revelation necessitates that Yona has to meet a Mexican called Greco Garcia, whose family has been in touch with his (Yona’s) since 189 AD. The correspondence, Yona is informed, has been a centuries-old secret between designated members of the two families dating back to 189 AD, when the conspiracy to blacklist blacks from the papacy was supposedly hatched.
The evidence stuns Yona so much that he decides to leave his teaching job abroad to focus full-time on popularising ‘the covenant’. For evidence, Yona cites various architectural and historical facts as seen in modern-day France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain.
“In Russia, the image of the Dame of Kozan is a Black Madonna. The worship of Isis as the Black Virgin of the Espalion is called ‘La Negertte’,” says Mayona.
He goes on: “The famous Chapel of the Virgin of Lorreto, Cathedral-a-Moulin, has a Black Virgin. The Church of Annunciata, the Church at St Lazaro, the Church St Stephen at Genoa – all have the image of Jesus and his Mother displayed in black. The famous Virgin of Oropa in the Piedmont is black. So is that one in Montserrat in Catalonia, which was made around 718 AD. The Church of St Francisco at Pisa has an expression of a Black Virgin. So have the churches at Brixen in Tyrol, the Catholic Cathedral at Augsburg, and the Borghese Chapel of Maria Maggiore. At Beulogne-sur-mer, the sailors carry a Black Virgin in the procession. At Clemont, in Auverge, the Black Virgin is revered as also happens at Einsiendelm in Switzerland near Zurich. The Church of St Theodore in Munich in Germany bears witness on the Black Madonna. The Church of St John the Baptist in Grund, Luxembourg, has a Black Madonna…”
Trust Maillu to weave in a love triangle anywhere he wants. As Yona flies back to Kenya, he meets a young beautiful nurse from South Africa, Valerie Ntilali, who he invites to Kenya and plans to marry behind his sponsor’s back. This encounter touches off a series of intrigues that drive the plot and give sentimental colour to an otherwise serious artistic debate on whether Jesus Christ, who Christians regard as a son of God, was African.
Maillu came into the literary limelight in the early 90s. Drawing perhaps from the bold, explicit storytelling technique of Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman (1971) and A Tail in the Mouth (1972), Maillu set up his own publishing firm, Comb Books in 1973. Comb Books went on to produce books that few traditional publishers would have dared touch with a 50-metre pole.
The first to be released was Unfit for Human Consumption(1973). According to Bernth Lindfors, a renowned literary scholar in a paper published for the university of Wollongong (Australia) in 1982, Maillu used a soft loan from a friend and a trade agreement with a distributor to publish his first book. It was closely followed by My Dear Bottle (1973), Troubles(1974) and After 4.30 (1974).
The common thread in these novelettes was that they pulled back the mask on the middle-class hypocrisy and their love for free-flowing alcohol and sex. To the purists, of course, these were despicable works of pornography.
As controversy raged on whether Maillu’s explicit content was demonic or just a brutally honest portrayal of the Kenyan middle-class hypocrisy, the sales swelled. Like a potent illicit drug, the titles sold by the truckload. So much that Maillu was reportedly printing more than 30,000 copies of each title. These sold out fast and he would reprint as many as 10,000 on copies at a go. These print runs are a fortune compared to the average of 3,000 copies that publishers order today for an average novel.
So successful was Maillu’s experimental venture that in four short years, he had a permanent staff of eight and an office in downtown Nairobi. By this time, he had published four other writers and had spread his business tendrils to Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Things however went haywire in 1976, when Tanzania banned his books and the turmoil in Ethiopia and Idi Amin’s Uganda conspired to strangle his young cash goose. In the first half of 1978, signs of real trouble began to emerge.
Maillu stopped issuing his sex-packed novellettes and instead published two grammar books; English Punctuation and English Spelling and Words Frequently Confused, both issued under the pseudonym Vigad G Mulila. Clearly, something was rocking the lurid novelettes’ boat.
In September 1978, the worst happened and Maillu was sued by his creditors and auctioned over a Sh700,000 debt.
Undeterred, however, he set up another outfit, David Maillu Publishers Ltd. The new firm, based in Machakos, went on to publish Kadosa (1979), which experimented with magical realism and science fiction and and Hit of Love: Wendo Ndikilo (1980), a translated philosophical and poetic work on love.
Jesse Kristo, a play satirising human suffering and oppression, was staged in 1979 at the national theatre in a collaboration between the National Theatre Company and Maillu’s new firm.
Obviously unable to publish all his titles, Maillu started sending manuscripts to other publishers. For Mbatha and Rabeka and The Equatorial Assignment were published under the Macmillan Pacesetters series in London in 1980.
A key notable thing was that by now, his works eschewed that prurient licentiousness of his first wildly popular novelettes.
The Equatorial Assignment takes the plot structure a thriller. In it, Maillu created an African James Bond in a character named Beni Kamba, Code Number 009. As thrillers go, it showcases a spy hero infiltrating the bad guys led by a European villain, by befriending a woman in their midst, before destroying them and thus saving Africa.
For Mbatha and Rabeka blazed the trail in a fiction sub-genre that explores simple village yet stormy life. In the novel, Rabeka is an amorous wife who seeks the attention of a secret lover to make up for the emptiness wrought by the absence of her husband, who is away working in Mombasa.
This genre, exploring the clash between city and village life, and between the poor and the rich, later became very popular, opening the door for such titles as Mwangi Gicheru’s Across the Bridge.
One can safely argue that Black Madonna is Maillu’s answer to a genre spearheaded in the west by Dan Brown, the author of Da Vinci Code, who blends historical facts and fiction to come up with compelling storylines.
More than 50 titles by various publishers later, Maillu, who turns 80 this year, is among the most prolific Kenyan writers.