by Susan Abraham
On my last trip to Dar es Salaam, I was picked up at the airport as usual, courtesy of the hotel, I always stay at. This time round, the shuttle driver was new to the job. He was eager to make friends, shook hands and said to call him Ibrahim. The thin, 24-year old uniformed lad turned out to be witty and chatty with his quips.
We soon got talking on the long way back to town, albeit trying to avoid a run-in with dodgy dala-dalas that sped the roads, showing off hair-raising spins at terrifying bends. Weary passengers looking half-dazed after a hard day’s work, were squeezed into these risky little buses like sardines. Some stood woebegone while hanging precariously at the door’s edge, praying for an escape. I remembered Malaysia’s now defunct mini-buses or even Nairobi’s version of the matatu… a theme central to Kenyan writer, Patrick M. Nugui’s novella in The Interview.
When the shuttle screeched to a temporary halt at a red light, Ibrahim was quick to juggle a handful of coins for the eager street kids that had quickly pressed themselves around the vehicle, waving fruit, toys and newspapers.
Later, Ibrahim explained that once upon a time, he too, was a street kid on the streets of Dar es Salaam.
His frightened family had fled the Congo after witnessing more than their fair share of killings. As a nine year old, it was common for Ibrahim to stumble upon the dead, in his village. Some time later, a number of Congolese from the neighbouring provinces while fearing for their lives, decided after much deliberation, to embrace the refugee role. They managed to cross the borders furtively into Tanzania. There they would huddle together on the streets for a time.
Finally, ambition and determination to better their lot, reinvented new roles for Ibrahim, his siblings and mother. He garnered himself a few steady jobs and saved enough Tanzanian shillings, to afford family accomodation – just the one room – in the slums of an outlying district. Still, this meant a proper roof over their heads. No getting wet in the rain. No huddling together on old mats on shop pavements while being bitten by mosquitoes and disturbed by roaches. Then of course, there was the driving school. There would never again be a turning-back point.
Now, all Ibrahim desires is to secure a hotel loan that could see him gain specialised driving skills. Than it would only be a matter of time before a top job came along and granted Ibrahim the golden opportunity to make life comfortable for his long-suffering mum. Of course, Ibrahim knows that he is one of the lucky ones.
Before disembarking the shuttle, I turned around and asked Ibrahim if he would ever return to the Congo. “Never,” he replied vehemently. “Never, never, never. Too much headache. Congo is too much problem.” He would choose to say no more, sparing all but a tight-lipped silence and a weak smile when my gaze persisted. And there rested the matter. An early vulnerable life of violence and suffering summed up in a few choice words and marked only by a casual, earnest sensibility.
Now, the memory would instantly return when I flipped open the pages of Kenyan journalist, Patrick M. Ngugi’s novella, The Interview, that was once shortlisted for an award pertaining to the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. I happened upon the 10-year old slim paperback, in a local East African bookshop, in Dar es Salaam. It is still available to buy on Amazon and various other online booksellers. The only surprising thing about it is that it was printed in Malaysia and I observe that the production may be considered rather poor in parts. However, the book still commands easy reading on the eye.
The Interview is listed as young adult’s fiction but I found it very much in the vein of an educational adult read. It continued to stay enlightening and informative, even to me… someone, already familiar with East and West African culture.
A young man called Joe is all set for the interview of a lifetime. It wasn’t easy to garner an interview in the first place but Joe is hopeful of bagging that coveted job in a modern laboratory. Joe loves the sciences and can’t get enough of the subject. More importantly, Joe badly needs a new career to earn some money and pay back his school fee arrears that currently ring up a cool debt for Joe’s already financially burdened brother, Daniel.
Until the money is paid, Joe cannot collect his school certificate. All the young Joe has on hand, is his application form and a result slip of his school-leaving examination results. As he hurries on, one morning on Nairobi’s crowded streets to meet with the personnel manager, Joe witnesses an accident where a notorious matatu knocks down a muttering old lady in rags as she carelessly crosses the road. It drags her, for a few good metres before speeding off in a classic hit-and-run.
Inset: Illustration taken from inside of book is by Maureen and Gordon Gray & courtesy of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002.
It is left to Joe to play the reluctant Good Samaritan among the curious, lackadaisical crowd. Although irritated by the uncooperative onlookers but observing his Christian conscience without hesitation; Joe quickly telephones the police and ambulance. He hurries to the injured woman’s aid and continues from some unexplained intuition, to linger by her side, even making sure later on, that the unconscious patient is well rested on her hospital bed.
By the time, the police arrive, Joe is disappointed to learn that he has no choice but to submit himself to procedure and protocol. This includes an anxious hospital wait and signing off a statement, down at the station.
Later, the sympathetic police drive Joe to his place of interview. Joe does get to meet a fat, balding man of about 45 in Mr. Kung’u, who is not impressed with Joe’s lateness and swiftly dismisses him. To say that Joe is left downcast, is putting things mildly. At the same time, Joe bumps into his girlfriend, Gladwell whom he first met at a church choir. Gladwell too is here for the interview and eventually gets the job, beating about 25 other competitors. However, all is not lost as big brother Daniel, secures Joe, a new job as assistant librarian almost immediately, thanks to the contact of an old schoolfriend.
The rest of the story sees Joe intent on rescuing the homeless lady – old enough to play his elderly grandmother – from her hospital predicament. We meet some interesting, friendly characters in the hospital crowd consisting of Freddie, the paramedic, Mildred, the benevolent nurse and the kind doctor in Dr. Ochieng, all eager to lend a helping hand. Then there is Gladwell, Joe’s best friend and sweetheart, his sympathetic brother, Daniel and also, his library colleagues. Without drumming up spoilers, let me just say that some colourful adventures thread the plot as everyone puts their heads together, to return this old woman to her home. It helps that eventually, she slips out of her concussion and is able to offer vital clues, through a vague stretch of memory and fair bit of rambling meanderings.
However, Ngugi steadfastly maneuvers his plot, skillfully steering both character and episodes, to an upward astonishing turn, that surprises, entertains and thrills the reader all at once. The old lady will prove an essential link to Joe’s future happiness, almost immediately as events take a roundabout turn and in the most unsuspecting way. The conclusion is celebratory to the everyday toils of the indefatigable human spirit.
Kenyan journalist, Patrick M. Ngugi writes his narrative as one would expect to read a feature report – one of a dry, matter-of-fact tone with no bells and whistles to pepper his fiction. There are no affectations or pretensions with regards to vocabulary, no decorative element with which to dip into and admire the beauty of the English Language as such. Yet, Ngugi is a fine, elegant writer in his fastidous approach to storytelling concerned more with facts and plot than any of the extras. I was glued in from the first page to the last….there was never dullness or boredom. Neither was there to be any plodding about. The rushed, even pace of the plot complimented an enthralling carousel of characters, that were all neatly strung together, in their perfect defining roles.
Yet, what is so exclusive to African culture, is that admirable sense of awe that comes into play when one observes how the ordinary African may wear his history of suffering as a natural inheritance into his spirit, with which to get up and get on with things and the rest of one’s life. Such is a man’s honourable grit.
I see this all the time in my many African friends and acquaintances. I saw this in Ibrahim and I see it here once more, in the main protagonist, Joe, who describes his life caught in a hellish chapter involving ethnic cleansing in Kenya. These recollections are contributed to the story by Joe and other characters, in different parts of the book with nary a blink. These fictional narrations in The Interview, are mostly submitted by way of explaining one’s history or childhood, before normal dialogue resumes. Here is an example:
“He remembered how as a young boy only in Standard Five, he had had to dress up as a girl and flee with his sisters… they fled through bush and farmlands… before reaching a church where land clash victims were taking refuge from armed warriors. …his parents had been killed when the marauders raided their homestead in an orgy of arson, murder and rape. The warriors were targetting men and boys whom they would kill mercilessly. Thus, many boys would have had to disguise themselves as girls.
Women and girls would be mostly spared but unlucky ones were abducted and raped. … At the Catholic mission… they found themselves being transported to Nairobi in lorries by good samaritans… “ – The Interview (Patrick M. Ngugi).
Another admirable trait of the ordinary African’s ability to survive in a harsh land is his incurable sense of humour, that seem to overcome any amount of troubles. It is not unncommon to view ladies in slum dwelllings, interior regions and other difficult terrain with babies strapped to their backs… to celebrate and dance as a way of thanksgiving for what the little they already own. Or they may just as well be caught, sharing a good giggle about the silliness of wayward husbands and sons, while indulging in the bleak task of pumping water from the well. And God knows, Africa deserves her happy ending. Which is why it stays so refreshing to read The Interview as Ngugi celebrates the elation of togetherness through a myriad of winding twists and turns.