Dr Tom Odhiambo
So, what do Kenyans do today after 4.30 pm? Or, say, after 5.00 pm? Well, gossip? Get stuck in the long jam on the way home? Meet friends for some nyama choma and a beer whilst trying to ensure that they don’t drink too much to fall foul of the traffic policemen and their Alcoblow? David Maillu was in some way made famous by this question of what Kenyans do after signing off from work. It is the question he tries to answer in the book of poems or prose/poem After 4.30, first published in 1974 by Comb Books, and now reissued by African Comb Books (2015).
Together with “My Dear Bottle” and “Unfit for Consumption”, “After 4.30” is the book that many critics used and still use to flog David Maillu as being unnecessarily sexually explicit and or vulgar in selling his stories. Some critics accused him of addressing the baser instincts of his readers to popularise himself. But these critics were shy to say why so many young people – especially in secondary school then – loved Maillu’s books, especially “After 4.30”. Was it the casual reference to prostitution, infidelity, alcoholism, sex, the immorality of “big men”, the suffering of married women, the egoistic claims of the husband in the text, etc., that attracted readers? Or was it the direct, no-holds-barred, claims, accusations and counterclaims of Emily Katango, the main character, in the book? Could it have been the ease with which these books circulated among readers, away from the national libraries where one had to register for membership and borrow only a limited number of books?
Why Maillu’s books were popular remains debatable. But isn’t in doubt that even today’s readers of After 4.30 will see a lot about themselves, their friends, relatives, institutions, their communities and their country in the book. They will see the inequality, inequity, violence, humiliation, pain etc that Emily Katango and her class suffered in the 1970s and still endure today. Emily Katango stands for millions of women in this country and the world that live in a society that abuses, violates, segregates, alienates, or in many cases kills them simply because they are women. If one forgets the “say-as-it-is” language of Emily Katango, when she speaks about who she is, what she does for a living and often tries to justify harlotry, one will encounter a disturbing pathology of modern Kenya.
Emily Katango is the seer of the 1970s, who saw, ahead of her times, what we have become. Her ill-fated life is really that lived by millions of women in this country then and today. Their very gender disadvantages them, in many cases because of the culture in which they are born. So, for instance, a girl who falls victim to early pregnancy may end up dropping out of school, becoming a single mother, unemployed, ostracised by relatives and friends and abandoned by a society that doesn’t have social security for such people. Such a woman will easily fall prey to prostitution, willingly or forced. Yet the man who made her pregnant but left her without care or a care in the world will live undisturbed by the evil of his deed. This one-sidedness of life is why Emily is thrown out of her partner’s house onto the streets together with her children.
But as Emily Katango reminds us, prostitution doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The prostitute is often a victim of socio-economic conditions which force her to opt for earning a livelihood from work that she wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Women are generally helpless, exploited and end up victimised in such a situation. As Chika Unigwe clearly shows in her book On Black Sisters’ Street, thousands of young black women who are prostituted in Europe and Asia are essentially slaves. They are trafficked into the foreign lands to work for years in the sex industry just to be able to pay off the “debts” they owe their male masters. These women don’t have control over their own bodies and lives.
There is no doubt that it is Kenyan men that Emily Katango is really satirising in “After 4.30”. These men – sons, nephews, fathers, uncles or grandfathers – are also friends, lovers and husbands of women. They are teachers, lawyers, priests or leaders. They often are the beacons of morality, social order or cultural heritage. The young girls and boys, age-mates, friends, relatives, strangers, the ones they lead in offices or elders look up to them for how and why to act correctly etc. But what society in the world condones prostitution, even if we moved the discussion away from morality? What man – or woman – would like to live with the fact that their sister, daughter or niece is a prostitute? What man would endure the cold of Koinange Street at 3.00 am in the cold season in Nairobi?
Isn’t Emily Katango reminding us that if we can see prostitution as “normal”, if we really can’t see prostitution as an aberration, then how will we be able to see, for instance, that the selling of our country’s resources and accumulation of unwarranted debt is actually prostitution? Aren’t we offering our country’s forests, lands, minerals, rivers, lakes or even human resources to be exploited by all kinds of bidders? Aren’t the young Kenyan girls who are conned into going to work in the Middle East for slave wages being prostituted by the society? Aren’t these girls victims of the unbridled theft of public money as we are currently witnessing? It isn’t difficult to show how what we call corruption leads to unemployment, which leads to poverty, then disintegration of families, and consequently young girls being lured into sex work?
The old debate about whether prostitution is due to moral failure or caused by economic marginalisation is often misguided as it tends to flay the prostitute – a victim, really – instead of questioning the combination of social, economic, cultural and political conditions that force thousands of women into prostitution.
The argument that prostitution is a consequence of moral degeneration fails because it doesn’t also charge the society for socio-cultural practices that place girls on the lowest rung on the social ladder. Moralists condemn prostitutes without consistently asking themselves why the men who seek the services of prostitutes develop this into a habit and aren’t actually condemned with the same force as the prostitutes.
So, as you read or reread Emily Katango’s sad story in “After 4.30” remember it is an ode to a society that has also sold its soul to the devil of modernity and its trappings of the market, lifestyle, commodity fetish, consumerism, individualism, alcoholism, among others. Emily Katango is reminding us that a much deeper introspection of ourselves would be the beginning of the moral rearmament that is urgently needed in Kenya today.
Maillu’s experimentation in publishing shows itself again in this new edition of “After 4.30” as he offers the reader a “bonus novelette” inside the copy – a Kiswahili story
“Ameokolewa”. The other republished books, such as “My Dear Bottle” (Fumbo la Ndizi), will have bonuses in Kiswahili or Kikamba.^
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.email@example.com