Travel Tomes: Killing Sahara (Black Star Nairobi) – Mukoma wa Ngugi

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Having recently visited Nairobi, I was excited to delve into this crime thriller (sequel to Nairobi Heat, 2009) and to interview its author, Mukoma wa Ngugi, whose celebrated father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I met last year.

Nairobi is a place where the very rich live off the backs of the very poor, where cops are robbers, robbers cops and tribal tension is never far from the hard-drinking, partying, music-pumping surface. Its climate is hot and humid, its natural beauty and degradation equally astounding and the exploitation of colonialism continues under new imperialists. In short, the perfect setting for a crime thriller.

Ngugi’s central character is an African American who has come to Kenya in search of adventure, belonging and a selfish sort of altruism, and instead finds a family – Muddy is a beautiful survivor of the Rwandan genocide and O a ruthlessly loyal best friend.

The novel travels from Kenya to Mexico and the USA, dragged along by Ishmael, Muddy and O’s quest to avenge death and find truth as they uncover evil hiding within good and expose the compromises that turn law-makers into law-breakers. The cynicism with which the international community and do-gooders are sketched is Le Carre-like as its revealing narrative twists lead the reader to form their own conclusions about the extent to which diplomacy is ever diplomatic or bureaucracy beneficial.

Having been born in America but grown up in Limuru in often trying conditions, Ngugi is almost the converse of his protagonist – a man who he feels, were he real, would possibly not be a good friend, as their political ideals are so different. Ishmael is a natural, though uneasy protagonist, and the harsh lines of violent brutality and tribalism are softened by his pragmatism and a whodunit narrative that is in part Western and traditional, leading to a tidy conclusion in the ultimate realization of the messiness of our world, caused in part by the neatness of our national borders.

The Cornell English professor has been on both the Caine Prize and Penguin Prize for African writing shortlists and had columns published in some of the best respected newspapers in the world. His eloquent political intelligence has been featured on various news channels such as the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera and he has garnered recognition for work in various genres such as poetry and essays. His crime thrillers add to the growing canon of well-respected work in the global genre and also help to shape the new thrust of exciting African literature that is becoming known for being respected on an international stage and for approaching African contradictions with brave realism and equal measures hope and despair.

After sharing a few hours and many drinks with Ngugi, I have a feeling that were he and Ishmael at Broadway’s Tavern with a few Tuskers, they’d get along just fine.

Look out for the fascinating conversation I had with Ngugi in full, which will be released on sometime in the next few months.

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