In these dark days it is rare to read stories with a happy ending. The ‘they-all-lived-happily-together’ formula is as rare as a hug in these Covid-19 days. It appears as if dystopia has really taken over the world. Unhappiness, violence, betrayal, death etc stalk the pages of fiction, drama or even poetry.
Love, its twists and turns, and its promise of happiness, is an uncommon literary good. Which is why reading Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki’s Cocktail from the Savannah is a surprise. This is an intriguing family drama that in the end delivers an ending that is agreeable to all members of the cast.
The plot of Cocktail from the Savannah (2020) revolves around the life of Masikonde ole Lenku. This is a rich Maasai who runs his own tour company, which he has established together with Ole Ndeka, “a fellow moran he had grown up with in the Maasai Mara and who had gone to university in America”.
Born in the Mara, Masikonde had relocated to Nairobi to study but abandoned it all together when he discovered that he could make money ‘playing’ or plying his Maasai identity to tourists at a hotel in the city. It wasn’t long before he met Ole Ndeka. Ole Ndeka and his classmates would be visiting Kenya. Would Masikonde organise the tour for them? That is how Masikonde became not only a tour guide but a company CEO and a rich man.
Masikonde is married to Sinta, a Maasai woman. However, they can’t have children. When they consult a doctor it is discovered that Sinta has only a slight – five per cent – chance of ever having children. Meanwhile, Masikonde’s father Olpaiyan expects grandchildren from his son. What should Masikonde do? Marry another wife? How will Sinta respond to such a suggestion?
How does Masikonde, who is deeply in love with his wife, despite his cheating behaviour, even broach the subject to his wife? But if he doesn’t look for a woman who could give him the children his father wishes for, how does he live with the tragedy of being a childless moran?
In the drama enters Terian, a young woman struggling to make ends meet by preparing meals for construction workers. Masikonde meets her when Terian is delivering food to workers who are building a house for him in Kajiado. And although she is not ‘his kind of woman’ something in her traps his attention. He becomes obsessed with her and begins to woo her.
Terian, though, is married. However, her husband – Saitoti – is bedridden, having been seriously injured in a road accident. Terian and Saitoti had eloped from the village. She had seduced Saitoti in order to escape an arranged marriage to an old man. Terian and Saitoti have a son, Lemaiyan.
So, the real drama of the story revolves around the expectations of Olpaiyan to have grandchildren; Sinta’s seeming childlessness; Masikonde’s wooing of Terian; Saitoti’s ill-health; and Terian’s relationship with the three men in her life – the old man she run away from after he had paid her brideprice; Saitoti, her current husband; and Masikonde, he wooer. Sinta is the holder of the key that would resolve the big problem in Masikonde’s household. Does she agree to become a co-wife or does she divorce him; or does she accept Masikonde’s intentions to marry a woman to bear him children without endorsing his decision?
What is the narrator of this story suggesting? What kinds of conversations does the storyteller expect readers to have during and after listening to this story? For instance, what role does ‘traditions’ – whatever one assumes them to be – still have in the lives of Kenyans who had left the countryside (the supposed repository of ‘our’ cultures and traditions) and settled in urban centres?
What kind of modernity – again, depending on how one wishes to define it – can urban Kenyans (and even rural Kenyans) claim to be living (in)? What does it mean when someone says they are modern? What does the same person mean when she says something like “our/my traditions ….?” What traditions is such a person referring to?
How many ‘modern’ (I guess by which we mean urban dwelling) women today would make the (pragmatic) decision that Sinta makes? She decides to go along with the expectation that Masikonde should marry a second wife who can bear her children. She welcomes the woman into her home and life. She helps settle Terian in her new home.
She even creates and shoots a video of her life as a ‘Maasai Girl in the City’ – a series she had been making – in which she features her co-wife. This is fiction, right? But what does fiction tells us about society? What can we learn from fiction about a society’s ways of thinking, living, dreaming, resolving conflicts or addressing problems and enduring?
Is Masikonde merely a man driven by his own desires to have a child or is he a victim of traditions that are insensitive to women? Is Olpaiyan being irrational in demanding grandchildren from his son or is he doing what generations before him had always done as a way of ensuring the continuity of the family lineage and community?
There is no doubt that Masikonde has selfish motives when he seduces a married woman. But in the culture that Terian and Saitoti and Masikonde were born and raised in expects that another man should look after a woman whose husband can’t take care of her. Even though Saitoti is still alive when Masikonde and Terian start living together, he had in some way given her permission to look for means to better her life and that of their son. Is this mere fictive wishful thinking or pragmatism or communal wisdom?
In Cocktail from the Savannah, Ciku is staging a drama with provocative questions to the reader. For instance, she is asking individuals to think about what marriage means to oneself, immediate family, friends, the community that one lives in etc; what does it mean to have or not have children; what does one do when different philosophies of life make demands on the individual – if one’s modernity (or to put it differently, Euro-American traditions that we have borrowed) doesn’t fit in with one’s traditions (current ways of life of one’s people – which are often a continually invented mix of different traditions); what can one keep from one’s traditions and what can one discard; among others. These are questions that don’t have immediate answers but, nevertheless, they are questions that haunt and hound many Africans today.
In the end, everyone is a winner in the story. Just before he dies, Saitoti reconciles with his father. The old man who was to marry Terian is compensated. Terian marries Masikonde. But most surprising is that Sinta conceives before Terian. Masikonde’s wish to have a child is soon to become the reality of two children. In other words, the story is resolved.
But what other problems does it anticipate? Will Masikonde’s roving eyes permanently stay focused on Sinta and Terian? How will Sinta and Terian live in future? What does the coming of the children mean for Masikonde, Sinta and Terian? Maybe we shall get to know that ‘future’ if Ciku writes another ‘cocktail. If you had never read Ciku’s stories, then look for the two previous cocktails: Nairobi Cocktail and Immigrant Cocktail. Cocktail from the Savannah is available in bookstores in Nairobi.