By Nyambura Mutanyi

With its attempt to be a towering novel at only 57 pages, Martin Njaga’s ‘The Brethren of Ng’ondu’ may come across as ambition on paper. One might say that the plot could have been developed further but this book manages to be a tight narrative of life, love, death and faith.

Welcome to Ng’ondu; another Kenyan village. The church holds sway over much of this little corner of the republic and not just its religious life. The shops are sectarian to a fault but the people, in the classic style of Kenyans, have the wisdom to buy their meat from the closest thing to an atheist in Kenyan villages-the man who doesn’t go to church. The church manages to cast a shadow over the story in a very intriguing way.

Mukami is a young woman newly arrived from the city with all the attendant airs and conflict. She makes for a captivating character. One is hard-pressed to dislike her and you almost find yourself rooting for her. Mukami is a witty and insightful character and this was one of the reasons I wished this tale had been longer. She is a character whose life Njaga would have done well to delve further into.

Her family has been in a state of disintegration. The author manages to situate the issues of domestic violence, illness, death, and alcoholism in the telling of this family’s life. The myriad obstacles they face feel overwhelming and the attempt to pluck reader’s heartstrings is a tad grating. Mukami’s family, notwithstanding these facts, is viewed with some awe by the village so she’s terribly grateful to get a listening ear. Except for the person she chooses.

Kimando. We all know that guy in the village. He makes a living for himself but also frequents the beer den and fails to attend church. That Mukami should choose to speak to him casts her dignity and the honour of her people in doubt. Her life begins to unravel and Njaga knits a story around it that invigorates the mind. In Kimando, the author invites us into the mind of that guy. Who is he really, other than the drunk? Because his thoughts are so elegant that you are forced to question the assumptions held so dear by people regarding what it means to be headed ‘nowhere’ and be a dropout in Kenya.

In some senses, this story is intended to be at the confluence of modernity and the Old World. This is especially seen in the interactions in church. The hypocrisy, refusal to adapt and nerve of the people at Mukami’s church would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic. Think The River Between circa 2000 or 1999 and you are in Ng’ondu. Public opinion is coloured by a literal and patriarchal interpretation of the Bible that those who have had no taste of life in rural Kenya will be shocked, tickled and amazed by.

Njaga might have a dim view of love or maybe love, as one Amy Winehouse once sang, is a losing game. What loss litters the pages of this book has its antecedents in love. Hope sprouts and is as soon crushed by the interplay of the lives of the characters. Even the love of God, redeeming to hear most people speak, is revealed not to be a balm to the experience of loss. For the cynical about love, this book will be a vindication of their sentiments. For the love struck, a reminder of what makes Romeo and Juliet such a classic. Love tinged by loss is that much more enchanting. Njaga weaves the twin themes with deft skill.

At some points, the nod to the African novel (“They listened to birds chirping in the branches of the Marubaini swaying above”) is a bit much. The realism of the tale, though, redeems this book from being a parody of classics set in a more innocent age. The matters brought to play are the stuff of all our lives. And this proves to be the triumph of this book; Ng’ondu is a microcosm of Kenya and the tale holds up a mirror to the people of Kenya and the disconnect between who we are and who we say we are.

The ending is a surprise that leaves the reader asking oneself a few questions. Set in a third world country that still feels the influence of Christianity, it will leave the reader of the future wondering what finer, more faithful world it was that was so immersed in religion. This book is a fine introduction to that world.

Publisher: No Boundaries Limited

Year published: 2008