Stark tale of poverty and abuse — from the inside

Monday October 11 2010

Hawkers on a Nairobi street. A Nairobi street: Though an oft-abused house help in the city, Kasaya says returning to her village “would be like giving up.” Photo/ANTHONY KAMAU

Hawkers on a Nairobi street. A Nairobi street: Though an oft-abused house help in the city, Kasaya says returning to her village “would be like giving up.” Photo/ANTHONY KAMAU 

By ANDREW DOUGHMAN

The standard non-fiction book on poverty usually has these ingredients: A heavy cut of human misery, a liberal sprinkling of official statistics and a dessert involving a call to action.

Such poverty narratives usually provide an insight into slum life, in the literal sense that both reader and author are looking in from the outside.

Poverty becomes a subject of study for journalists, authors and academics.

Tales of Kasaya, by Eva Kasaya, invites the reader to see poverty as the author experienced it.

Her vantage point, an insider looking out, is utterly different from any sort of poverty literature that circulates in the press or academia.

She asks the reader to accompany her through her youth, first as a girl growing up in Kerongo and later as an oft-abused house help in Nairobi.

By keeping to the story she knows, Kasaya ends up with a narrative of being that is far more resonant than studies of poverty that seek to explain and solve.

It’s telling that even the word “poverty” is relatively absent from her story.

It is that very absence of analysis and reflection that makes the novel clip along so effortlessly.

She relies heavily on description.

But her reportorial voice neither condemns nor trivialises her suffering.

In one chapter, for instance, she shows us the habits and peculiarities of the five termite species that she and her sisters would collect for consumption, right down to details about taste and cooking methods.

Such a straight account makes Kasaya a likeable narrator.

She is a guide who lets us into her personal history until we almost look through her eyes.

All the while, she does as little as possible to impair our vision with judgments, excuses or shame.

What the reader gets is a valuable snapshot into Kenyan life at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, where the bars are slippery and the false starts constant.

Extraordinary abuse

Kasaya’s details of how she was abused sometimes may seem extraordinary, but her story fits firmly into a broader, modern Kenyan world that should make this book accessible to a wide audience.

Although she writes about growing up in the 1990s, her novel seems immediate and relevant to broad swathes of Kenyan society in the 21st century too.

Her attitudes — “Nairobi was the place to be” — still illustrate the perceptions and strivings of contemporary Kenyans.

She writes that returning to her village after arriving in Nairobi “would be like giving up.”

Watching television, she says that she “got satisfaction from looking at white people.”

Such statements reflect her views, but the value of Kasaya’s perspective is that hers seems so readily the perspective of many young people.

Her tale of migration from Kerongo to Nairobi, however, does not slip into pastoralist nostalgia.

There is no return to the halcyon upcountry childhood. A journey back to her village and a quick look around at its squalid conditions provokes the statement: “It seemed unreal that I used to be like them.”

This, perhaps, isn’t a surprise. Tales of Kasaya is the latest effort of Kwani?, whose heavy-hitters — founding editor Binyavanga Wainaina and current editor Billy Kahora — are two writers who have also eschewed romanticising Kenya.

Despite the change in scenery — Kasaya travels back and forth between Nairobi and Kerongo during her youth — the tug between redemption in rural living and corruption in urban living hardly makes a splash.

The book is a modern tale. Kasaya is young, and her tale seems immediate, even urgent, for the hundreds of thousands of youth who dream of Nairobi.

It also serves as an alert to a society that largely turns a blind eye to the plight of house help.

The saddest statement in the book, perhaps, is not a tear-jerking nightmare of rape, robbery or hunger. Rather, Kasaya writes: “What I had gone through was the norm.”

Although Kasaya hardly writes foul language into her story, the first time she does is when she walks to her new home in Kibera.

Her four-letter word seems the visceral first reaction to the casual brutality that would later become her “norm.”

Her story was originally entitled Tale of Kasaya: Let Us Now Praise A Famous Woman. But the title seemed confusing.

One commentator wrote: “There is nothing in the narrative to make one think of the narrator as a famous woman.”

The original title, however, borrowed from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 1941 work of long-form journalism by writer Walter Evans and photographer James Agee, who documented poverty in the US South.

Given the borrowing, the intent of Kasaya’s work seems to have been to situate amongst other impactful poverty narratives.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is still studied in US journalism courses and is read by those studying the development or poverty.

Tales of Kasaya rightly deserves to be the Kenyan equivalent. It should be read in classrooms.

This book gets to the grit underneath the white-washed poverty studies and sanitised newspaper reports.

Kasaya’s lean, reportorial prose paints a stark, unadorned portrait of modern-day poverty in Kenya.