A modest residential estate and its multiple characters present a microcosm of yesteryear Nairobi in the book South B’s Finest by Makena Maganjo.
The story starts in 2012 with Beatrice, a middle-aged successful business woman on her wedding day. This is her second marriage, taking place at a once glamorous country club in Nairobi.
During the festivities, her mind drifts to a childhood sweetheart that she never got over.
Her wedding planner is her long-standing friend Mrs Mutiso, a head-turning belle with a history of failed businesses. Also at the wedding is Beatrice’s grown-up daughter Nyambura, nick-named Kanono because of her plump physique, and her childhood friend Esther.
These four women and their families form the nucleus of the goings-on in Malaba Estate, a middle-class residential neighbourhood in the 1990s.
It was a time when people still borrowed sugar from their neighbours and the local kiosk was the place to catch up on current affairs and exchange gossip. Besides reminiscing on Nairobi 30 years ago, the book is appealing for delving into the lives of multiple individuals.
Malaba represents the upward mobility of some who came from humble beginnings in the countryside and is a stepdown for others coming from privileged backgrounds.
Either way, the interactions between the neighbours is captivating and relatable even to non-Kenyan readers or people not raised in urban housing estates.
Secrets and drama
As an overweight child, Kanono was hardly the favourite among the estate children. Through her we observe dominance hierarchy at play among girls and watch Nyambura navigate the pitfalls of peer pressure. Nevertheless, her friendship with Esther withstands the frictions of youth.
Friendship runs strong in this narrative driven by women who endure much in this “clean little estate on twenty acres that house 57 three-bedroom maisonettes”.
There are secrets and drama aplenty in Malaba. A philandering husband, a scorned wife that finds a much younger lover; The house maid that “borrows” her employer’s things permanently; A husband-wife team of pastors grow their church from a tent in a parking lot to a stained-glass sanctuary but all is not well on the home front; Child exploitation happens when a well-meaning family opens their home to any relatives and friends in trouble.
Shifting between the 1990s and the year 2012 in somewhat disjointed fashion, Ms Maganjo pieces together the convoluted past that “stretches its hand into the present”. Why were Mrs Mutiso’s twins taken away from her? Who is Kanono’s real father and what happened to Beatrice’s first husband? Light-hearted language mixed with Kenyan parlance keep a pleasant tone running throughout the book.
Various historical references keep the story grounded in Kenya during the last years of the 20th century which saw huge political and economic upheaval.
South B’s Finest could have used few fewer characters and still remained exciting. I would have enjoyed spending more time with some of the fascinating periphery people, such as the vivacious Mrs Shah of Indian descent who faithfully attends the monthly Bible studies and directs the Christmas Nativity play. Or the presumptuous Priscilla, long-time house-help who knows the ins and outs of all the neighbourhood.
The book has some technical weakness such as spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, plus you are left wondering which personality is narrating the last chapter with its intriguing revelation.
Makena grew up in Nairobi’s South B estate in the 1990s.
The characters are fictional but her experiences fill this debut novel with realism and immediacy. Her short story The Months of the Mango was published in The EastAfrican in 2018.