Latest novel by award winning writer, Peter Kimani, uses letters as strategy to unravel negative stereotypes on Africa

Kenyan novelist and author, Dr Peter Kimani, reads from his new novel Dance of the Jakaranda during its launch at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University in Nairobi. [Kevin Oduor, Standard]

Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda will come in handy during the September 27-29 Macondo Festival at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi as award winning writers and attendants discuss “The danger of a single history” among other key topics lined up for the event.

The topic is derived from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The danger of a single story”, which illustrates how negative stereotypes told repeatedly have instituted lies about Africa.

Award winning writers, including Kenya’s Yvonne Owuor, author of Dust and The Dragonfly Sea and Ondjaki (Angola), Yovanka Perdigao (Guinea-Bissau), Dina Salústio (Cape Verde) and Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique) will be joining Kimani as they re-imagine Africa’s history through fiction.

Others are Nigeria’s Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, South Africa’s Jonny Steinberg and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma from Zimbabwe.

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins, British writer and translator Jethro Soutar and Angolan-Portuguese film maker Joao Viana will also attend the event that will be open to the public.

The narrative in Dance of the Jakaranda revolves around the construction of a railroad and captures the history of the interaction between Africans, Asians and whites.

Kimani uses imagined epistolary as one of the key techniques of exposing the stereotypical misconceptions of Africa as told by foreigners.

There are other documentations by white characters which also play similar role of the letters used in the novel.

The use of letters and other written documents are symbolic of the transition of Africa from dependence on oral means of communication to the literacy introduced during the colonial era.

It also continues the onslaught started by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who argued that if you do not like a story told by someone, then you need to take an initiative and write your own.

Hence, many African writers, including those expected to participate in the Macondo Festival, have not only used their texts to rewrite Africa’s distorted history (mostly by non-Africans), but also demystify the lies created by colonial masters about the continent and its people.

The imagined letters become symbolic means of connection between whites.

In Kimani’s novel, it is a tool used by the imperialists to justify lies about Africa.

The perceptions of the authors echo the danger zone that Africa has been pushed into after letting ‘others’ tell their stories.

In the first letter by Captain John Adams, the outgoing Commissioner of the British East Africa protectorate to his successor Ian Edward Macdonald, the author paints a generalised misconception about the Kikuyu community as a tribe of lazy people and thieves.

Fake feelings

“I later came to learn that any Kikuyu, while serving you, is always scheming as to how he will steal from you so that one day he can sit at the table and be served by others,” writes Captain Adams.

The stereotype is what has been institutionalised even among Kenyans themselves. You don’t need to look further but into the social media memes and even stand up comedies in some popular shows where the people from the community are painted as using every means, including theft, to make money and engage in their perceived obsession to save.

The same letter starts off with some exaggerated manner of speech where Captain Adams writes, “Receive my greetings, many as the sands in the ocean, or the leaves in a bush.”

The line of thought is a continuation of what Karen Blixen in Out of Africa started.

Blixen in her novel paints natives, as she calls Africans, as outright liars with a tendency to fake feelings to create an impression.

She downgrades the natives to a level of animals, writing that by understanding how animals behave, she was able to efficiently handle the Africans, the barbaric race.

While explaining how difficult it was to get labour, Captain Adams in the same letter writes to depict Africans as lazy talkers who engage in useless discussions.

He writes, “…the real loudmouths are the Afro-Arabs. They will sit and talk about anything under the sun. It could be a silly argument about which fruit is ripe enough to eat.

But rather than settle such a mundane issue by climbing up the tree, they shall wait for the fruit to fall.”

Captain Adams further concludes that locals are blindly superstitious and endowed with less thinking capabilities.

He paints an image of people whose heads do not perform better functions beyond carrying a hat.

He concludes that it is only after mistreating the locals that he realised they can attempt to think: “Natives if subjected to stringent conditions, can start to use their heads to survive.”

In a situational report Captain Adams writes about Africa, he claims that they have tribes with animal-like attributes.

He notes: “The Maasai are fierce, warlike tribe who thrive on milk and blood from their long-horned Zebu animals.”

Further, he indicates that the community is promiscuous: “Young men known as morans…are reputed for their womanizing…All one needs is to plant a spear outside a hut and the man who lives there will quickly understand his wife is busy with someone else and move on, perhaps to plant his spear at another man’s hut.”

Perhaps Kimani and his fellow writers will also have to agree that it is not only non-African writers who have relied on negative stereotypes about the continent in capturing its history.

Locally, we have historical writers who have drawn conclusions based on assumptions.

For instance, historian Tabitha Ganogo in writing about the Maasai community states that they chose collaboration rather than resistance during the colonial period because they did not know how to fight.

Sad experience

Similarly, Koigi Wa Wamwere in his 2008 book Towards Genocide in Kenya, details the 2007/8 post-election violence that led to the loss of many lives and property as well as displacement of thousands of people.

The conflict was more intense in Rift Valley and the author sheds a light on the sad experience.

Besides concluding that there were “Kalenjin warriors” fighting on behalf of the community, Wamwere posits that the reason why the fighters spared women and girls during conflicts is because they intend “to marry them in future.”

Adichie in her TED talk reminds us that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not factual but rather incomplete.

Hence, participants will perhaps talk about the place of stereotypes in reimagining history in Africa as they tell the many stories.

For Adichie observes, “Many stories matter because stories have been used to dispossess and malign, yet also used to empower”.