BY JACOB OKETCH
The Gift of the Night by Joseph Situma is not only a story with an intricate plot but also multiplicity of characters and an elaborate thematic concern. The author seemingly wanted to address a number of issues in one piece. It is a story centered on Jacob Mwambu, the main character whose life takes a turn for the worst after he is accused of murdering his parents and two other people.
Readers are glued to the story because of the twists and turns that occur in Mwambu’s relationship with his Russian wife and his wife’s relationship with Vladimir, who is also a Russian. It is interesting that Vladimir used to work with Mwambu’s wife and has been eyeing her and is determined to exploit the unfortunate situation that Mwambu finds himself in when he is arrested for the killings of his parents and some other people.
The tension between Mwambu and his wife that follows after the deaths, creates a suspicion between the couples. However, it is the distance that has separated them due to Mwambu’s incarceration that have put things under control.
The author draws the reader’s attention to the supremacy of the traditional African culture among the people of Shivakanga. Surprisingly, against normal expectation, the leadership of this community is bestowed upon “Sela by Wele”, a supreme God. This underscores the important role women leaders play in the traditional setting, which is largely male dominated.
The description of the court proceedings are also apt so much that one would think that the author is a lawyer. The interaction between the defense lawyer, prosecutor and the judge sets the pace for a highly charged case. A reader can be tempted to believe that the events actually took place in reality.
The author’s narration of the tribulations that Mwambu has to undergo while behind bars reminds readers of middle age, of the atrocities of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) regime against political leaders and human rights defenders in the 90s. Description of the torture chambers easily reminds the readers of the infamous Nyayo torture chambers where a number of notable political leaders spent time.
Although torture chambers were disbanded, it is important to document the experiences that detainees underwent in that space for posterity purposes – Prof Kariuki Ngotho, a Business studies scholar who spent time in the torture chambers penned a prison memoir which extensively talks about his experiences in the dreaded chambers.
You can also imagine how the author brings out the issue of racism. You might think he viewed Vladimir, a Russian national who works in the consulate, through a magnifying glass. Vladimir views Africans as animals and says as much. The chauvinistic behavior extends to how he paints the marriage between Mwambu and Larissa. Mwambu’s bad behavior reaches a crescendo when he rapes Larissa, then pretends to have shown up to rescue her from her abductors.
Though the author portrays the leader of the nation as autocratic and dictatorial, his act, towards the end of the story, to peacefully hand over power to Mwambu upon his election as the country’s president redeems the ruler’s character much in the same way it happened to Kenya’s fallen leader the late retired president Daniel Moi. Despite having ruled with an iron fist for a long time, Moi eventually handed over power peacefully to the late president Mwai Kibaki, earning him accolades in Kenya and beyond.
Most African leaders are strongly influenced by superstitious beliefs. That is probably why readers would easily remember a leader like the late Mobutu Seseko of Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) for his escapades with witchdoctors. Hence, Mwambu’s obsession with a lion as the source of his powers is something a reader who is familiar with peculiar behavior of some African leaders can relate with.
The author portrays the events of a country that is ruled by an autocratic leader, Mwambu, a man who seems to have much power over his people. However, the only ethnic group that the reader encounters are the people of Shivakanga. Given the complexity of events by state officials and arms of government such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, one would have expected the author to make reference to a wide array of people. You can understand why it is vital to paint a picture of a nation with diverse communities.
Democracy also plays out in the story – members of the society rally behind their leader, Mwambu, and agitate until he is released from prison and eventually gets elected as the president. This was the common trend in African countries before independence where leaders who were detained eventually became top leaders. Yet even such leaders are human and can be tempted to bend the law to suit their interests. This is exemplified in this story when Mwambu, despite being aware of Sela’s (a character in the book) culpability in the murder of Kafinda, is forced to intervene to prevent her from going to jail.
The book is a useful read to all those who are interested in matters to do with liberation politics and power games that leaders subject their people to. The intricacy of the plot demonstrates that the author has come of age in the world of creative writing and one can tell that his future titles will be a joy to read.