Title: Kwenzi Gizani
Author: Kithaka wa Mberia
Publisher: Marimba Publications
Reviewer: Mbugua Ngunjiri
Incest, especially in the nuclear family, is a topic many in society prefer to give a wide berth, which results in the stigmatisation of victims of that crime.
Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, in his play, Kwenzi Gizani, tackles the taboo subject head-on, an effort that won him the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in the Kiswahili adult category.
In the play, Paul Mkando, a 'respected' church elder, lures his teenage daughter from school, in the pretext of giving her pocket money, and rapes her inside her bedroom.
The man takes advantage of the fact that his wife, Janice Chagi, a nurse, works the night shift in a hospital, to unleash himself on the poor girl. In the process, there is commotion and the girl screams.
The screams catch the attention of Lucy Kagori, his sister, who lives in the same block, and now who fears that her brother could have brought another woman to his house.
She waits for daybreak to inform her sister-in-law of the commotion she heard, the previous night. Chagi has just got into bed, to sleep off the night's exhaustion, when her sister-in-law's call comes through.
She can't comprehend what her relative is talking about but decides to check around the house, when she finds her distraught daughter in the bedroom. Though reluctant at first, Liza Kanevu, discloses what transpired the previous night.
The mother takes the daughter to hospital for check-up and eventually the police station to report the matter. She is determined to seek justice for her daughter.
The matter ends up in court and justice takes its course.
The path to justice is not easy, though. Chagi encounters heavy obstacles along the way, risking ostracism from society.
The bumpy road she travels in the quest for justice for her daughter is illustrative of the dilemma faced by victims of social crimes like rape in the family. Using lively language, Prof Mberia expertly brings out the contradictions and nauseating hypocrisy in society, where the rule of law is cynically tossed aside at the altar of expediency.
For starters, Chagi has to endure pressure from her own mother, who despite acknowledging that an injustice had been done on her granddaughter, is adamant the case should be withdrawn from court, in order to save the family from ‘shame’. She instead advocates for alternative dispute resolution mechanism, on the form of elders deliberating over the matter. By taking the matter to court, Chagi's mother argues, cynically, that she risks tearing her family apart and losing her husband in the process.
As if pressure from her mother is not enough, members of her husband's church also make demands and threats on her. They argue that the court case will bring opprobrium to the church, where Mkando is a prominent ‘mzee wa kanisa’, with very close ties with the ‘mchungaji’.
It gets ugly when the emissary from church attempts to accuse Chagi of fixing her husband ostensibly for refusing to buy her a luxury vehicle. When Chagi refuses to budge, the church's representative resorts to open bribery; 'if you withdraw the case, the church will buy you the Toyota Harrier,' the church offers.
Here, the author is unforgiving in his exposure of how the society hides behind culture and religion to cover up crimes perpetrated by prominent individuals.
There is even an attempt to bribe the police in order for them to bring a defective case to court. Though it is not stated who was behind this move to defeat justice, it is not difficult for the readers to arrive at their own conclusions.
In the end Chagi comes out as the hero of the book, for she defying pressure, blackmail and intimidation, to ensure that she gets justice for her daughter. This includes being there for her when she undergoes bullying and ridicule in school.
There are known instances where mothers have closed ranks with their offending spouses to turn against their daughters who have been molested.
Though sexual crime, particularly the variety that takes place within the family setting, is spoken of in whispers, in society, the author has commendably employed sensitivity in his use of language, ensuring that he does not use crude language that might offend the reader's sensibilities. His clever use of language, nevertheless manages to bring out the seriousness of the topic at hand.
Blaming the devil
Still, despite the seriousness of the topic, the author still manages to infuse subtle humour on the narrative. A clear example is when Mkando is put on his defence and resorts to blaming the devil for his evil deed. It is hilarious how his defence is reduced to an imaginary wrestling contest between 'believer' Mkando and the devil, conjuring mental images of Okwonko's duel with Amalinze the Cat, in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, with the devil emerging victorious in this instance.
A keen reader will deduce that the humour employed by the author is not just for humour's sake. It serves to mock and ridicule Mkando - and indeed other perpetrators in similar crimes - who comes out as weak man, who shamelessly blames the devil for his own actions.
Still on language, the author, who also penned Kifo Kisimani, which was a mandatory set book for KCSE students, has used simple precise language. His is a major departure from most Kiswahili authors who tend to fill their texts with bombastic language meant to intimidate and awe readers. Such texts tend to put off readers who find constant reference to the Kamusi tedious.
This does not, however, mean that Prof Mberia, who has taught linguistics at the University of Nairobi for 40 years, has used simplistic language. Far from it, the book has a healthy dose of big words, but then the reader is able to infer meaning through context, thereby limiting the need to consult a Kiswahili dictionary. In such instances, the reader only uses the reference book to confirm what they gathered through contextual reading. Admirably still, the author uses the repetition technique to reinforce comprehension of such words.
For example, using the two techniques, one gets to know that Kwenzi Gizani, translates to screams/wails in the dark.
Towards the end of the play it emerges that this is not the first time Mkando is preying on his children; that their first daughter, who is deceased, committed suicide following a similar rape attack by the father. Was this fact brought up as an afterthought? In defence of the author, it can be argued that the fact that mention was made, earlier on, that the Mkando family had lost a child, negates the notion of an afterthought and that it is a stylistic device. Nonetheless this is bound to elicit of intense debate among critics and scholars, which can only serve to enrich the book.
All in all, Kwenzi Gizani is an important addition to literary texts that cast a spotlight on sensitive topics like rape in the family.