By Nyambura Mutanyi
Professor Miriam Were is known to many of us as a writer of matters medical. In this book, we encounter Were the author of a book that encapsulates a bygone era.
Kalimonje is a beautiful young woman who draws the attentions of the chief and his son. Were weaves Kalimonje’s exploits and misadventures as the two wrangle over who will have her hand in marriage. No points for guessing who wins or at least who is rigged to win. This is a classic David and Goliath situation.
Were spends a considerable amount of time relating the occurrences that surround the circumcision ceremonies of the Luhya. There was once a time in Kenya when the dailies would be replete with pictures of initiates whenever the circumcision seasons for various tribes rolled round. In this little book, the narrative of the ceremony is presented to the reader. Better yet, 1972 was a much closer time to the days when these ceremonies were conducted than the time we are in. These segments of the book are an immersion in a time past and quite memorable at that.
A past review speaks of the absence of agency in a female character; this book presents a complex blend of assertiveness and passivity that would strike the modern (liberated) woman as strange. One of the issues that emerge is that the traditional African woman was not half as tied down as we have grown to believe. In this time captured so ably by Were, there are culturally sanctioned ways for a woman to do the things so cherished by women in this age. The patriarchy, it cannot be denied, has a heavy presence in the interactions and life experiences of women but it also affords women some small privileges.
At this point, this book sounds like an advocate for misogyny and all things anti-feminist. Far from it. What it does is project a very full and realistic picture of the condition of the lives of people in the past. The book offers a considered picture of men who struggle with questions of masculinity and the women who make them feel like men while the women tackle the issues that arise from so rarely being the captain of one’s own ship. One of the long-articulated criticisms of African wring has been its disengagement from a portrayal of Africans as, first, humans. This 40 year old book does a great job of bringing to bear the humanity of all its characters.
This book manages to tell a love story in a wonderful, un-contrived fashion. What happens, it asks, when those that love each other cannot be together? This isn’t exactly ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but something that speaks to the feudal past of each society. The concerns of Kalimonje are momentous and yet simply stated. This girl does definitely not want to be the title’s eighth wife but there is not much she can do after all her attempts to escape are thwarted. The ending will surprise, or at the very least entertain, the reader.
For a short book (it is all of 127 pages), it manages to capture a wide gamut of emotions. A fast read, it is a literary time capsule to return to.
Publisher: Mvule Africa Publishers
Year published: 2005 (first published in 1972)