We whine about atrocities, criticise those who help us
Literature knocks you breathless with freshness. New social contexts open up fresh vistas of interpretation, defying both time and space. Hence in an increasingly battered society, you are reminded of a nameless character in Meja Mwangi’s story titled The Cockroach Dance. The Bathroom Man is a diffident and battered individual in Mwangi’s 1979 publication.
His stunningly wretched dislocation gives him a disturbingly memorable presence in Mwangi’s town narratives. Indeed, sheer eminence of wretchedness places The Cockroach Dance in a distinct place among Mwangi’s other city narratives, like Going Down River Road, Kill Me Quick and The Bush Trackers. Or, perhaps, it is just the shaming familiarity of the inmates of Daca House where this man lives. You see it everywhere all the time, making The Bathroom Man a metaphor for a massive national population under rape from its leadership? Are we just Bathroom People who live at the mercy of our national landlords?
In Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, the average citizen is a benumbed individual, a dehumanised character; the victim of a cocktail of crazy social and psychological atrocities, meted against him by those in authority. He has learnt to passively accept that all is not well. At the same time, he is resigned to his wretchedness. It is enough to hope that someday things will be better, even without thinking that you have a role to play. You do not ask what you could do, as an individual, to bring about the change that you yearn for.
The agency rests elsewhere. You have accepted to be an oppressed observer, who expects that everyone else will do something about the conditions that make you unhappy. Hence, at the very best, you may be heard whining about who is not playing their role, but not a word about yourself. Daca House, where the Bathroom Man lives is the product of Kenya’s early encounter with the outside world. After the completion of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, about 1902, the Asian coolies who had provided the labour set themselves up as traders in the new money economy.
They put up homes for themselves in Nairobi after the fashion of India. Daca House along Grogan Road is one of them. In the fullness of time, their fortunes improve. They move to suburbia, leaving the Grogan Roads to Africans. Previous Asian family houses are now subdivided into single-roomed homes for the children of lesser gods. On the day that Daca House opens up for occupancy, there is a scramble for space. One man has noticed a former bathroom that has been converted into a bedsitter.
Bathroom woman Here, the Bathroom Man lives with his Bathroom Family. There is the Bathroom Woman and their retarded Bathroom Baby. They veritably live in a toilet – or at the very least a former toilet. Very often, Dusman Gonzaga, the lead character in the story, wonders about these Bathroom People. Who are they? Where did they come from? Who are their relatives? Why do they allow their flesh and blood to rot in a toilet? How does life go on in this bathroom? Indeed, how is life made in that toilet? And what is the worth of a life in an odoriferous bathroom? The Bathroom Man, it turns out, is an open-air mechanic, the kind of person called a jua kali man in Kenya. Once long ago, he was a young man, with big dreams. He didn’t know he would live in a toilet with his equally diffident Bathroom Woman and a child.
He never knew that he would pay through the nose for his toilet home, the property of a greedy landlord, Tumbo Kubwa. Living in the same filthy conditions, with varying degrees of relative advantage, are sundry characters whom Karl Marx would call lumpen proletariats. There are garbage collectors, witchdoctors and fortunetellers, pimps and prostitutes, pickpockets and conmen and a cocktail of nondescript individuals whom Mwangi refers to as “the Faceless Ones.” They are all unhappy about the messy rattrap that is their home.
It is an environment in which the smell of cooking food is locked up in a warfare with that of fresh and old sewage. The flavour of the food in your mouth must make space for the competing stench of human waste and sundry decaying stuff. Rat families dance in the yard while frightened cats look on.
The residents consider as crazy the one man who attempts to bring about change. Dusman does not understand why they will not sign his manifesto to force Tumbo Kubwa to improve their living conditions. Yet they quietly yearn for change. Amidst the cockroaches, flies, rats and filth are dislocated toilet dwellers who think that someone owes them change – everyone except themselves.
Countries whose citizens have been numbed through oppression for six decades become theatres of the absurd. The people learn to whine about things, at the very best, while doing nothing about them. They may hear unending reports about billions of shillings stolen from them everyday, yet the best they could do is to whine.
They hope that someone else will do something about it. These Bathroom People have been benumbed by a medley of State-led atrocities to the extent that they are unable to muster the outrage to say enough is enough. The whole nation is an expansive landscape of Bathroom Families, praying for a savior and criticizing those who try. - The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.
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AtrocitiesLiteratureThe Cockroach Dance