What you need to know:
- Since the departure of Euro-Kenyan writers like Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham and Elspeth Huxley, no one has written on the Kenyan flora and fauna in the expressive manner in which H.R. ole Kulet has done.
- There is manipulation of the pastoral community by the poachers, which starts with the idea of alienating the forest land from them on the pretext that they do not practise farming.
- The novelist succeeds a lot where poorer writers would fail. He creates characters that clearly illustrate his theme of poaching. We have elders whose words strike the young adults with the force of a spear thrust.
Henry ole Kulet, the famous Kenyan novelist, has published The Elephant Dance, in the Sasa Sema imprint of Longhorn Publishers.
The novel is quite a read for all of us who want to know about corruption and the wanton destruction of game by poachers in the country, and the way pastoral communities have co-existed with wildlife for centuries. It is at once a great source of information on the hunter-gathering communities of East Africa and a wake-up call on the misuse of the youth in profit-motivated activities by the region’s commercial and political elite.
The reader discovers that the Ogiek people of the Rift Valley are natural conservationists and that this point should not be lost to the Kenya Wildlife Services and the hungry poachers who trade on the elephant for its tusks and the rhino for its horn.
My interest in Henry Rufus ole Kulet dates back to 1971, when I reviewed his first novel, Is It Possible? We remained friends, and I have continuously invited him to talk to my creative writing classes about the subject of writing fiction. We have reached a point in our relationship where he refers to me as his “friend and mentor…” while in my choice of books I have to consider either his or Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s. Many post-graduate students in Kenya’s public universities are studying his novels for their Master’s and Doctoral degrees under our watch.
Since the departure of Euro-Kenyan writers like Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham and Elspeth Huxley, no one has written on the Kenyan flora and fauna in the expressive manner in which H.R. ole Kulet has done. No wonder his novels have won him many accolades, awards and world fame as has been evidenced by the many languages in which his works have been translated.
The Elephant Dance is about poachers of all nationalities and races who haggle about the horn of the rhino and the tusk of the elephant for the wealth they bring them in millions of shillings The story about Dick Jones, a southern African dealer, three men with telling symbolic and Biblical names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and two women officers who resist them.
There is manipulation of the pastoral community by the poachers, which starts with the idea of alienating the forest land from them on the pretext that they do not practise farming.
The agents who go against the natural order are masters of cover-ups. The people have a case against the government, which has refused to give them land title deeds for their land while the farming communities are given theirs. The crux of the matter comes when their forest land is hived off to create space for a tourist Lodge. The community has thus no recourse but to go on strike against the government forces.
Harmony can only exist in the lives of the hunters and gatherers when they can hunt smaller animals freely for their food. But it is shattered when three businessmen gang up to buy the land and sell part of it to a hotelier, and begin to use it for poaching big game in the forest. They hide a behind the gullible foreigner whose presence serves as goodwill for their nefarious deals. He is a victim of their wiles, but he later realises that their deals are too good to be true and decides to side with the authorities against them.
Like honest foreigners, the community discovers that the three are poachers and indiscriminate destroyers of what is good in nature. They are exponents of corruption, exploitation of other people for their own get-rich-quick schemes and ends. Abednego fixes Dick Jones at the end of the story. For example, he, as the ring leader of the pack, is eventually recognised by observers. Young adults in the community join hands with the elders to overthrow the poachers.
We are dealing with Ogiek families and their cousins, the Maasai. The youth show early signs of leadership, magnanimity and integrity and thus qualify to save the society from perdition. Reson, for example, grows into a greater hunter. He marches from the village to the wildlife station and reports the malicious plans by the poachers against the community and the chief-of-staff at the wildlife station. He brokers the collaborative action against the poachers between the community of the ordinary people led by their elders, and the local wildlife conservation personnel.
Betrayal permeates the activities of the top brass among the poachers. They organise trumped-up charges against Dick Jones, the white man from southern Africa. They recruit the poor youth and promise them great opportunities in the future. It is through their negative activities and the way they arouse anger among the bonafide leaders of the community that we learn who the true conservationists are.
The author goes back to the Ogiek creation story in which God told the Ogiek forest inhabitants to be in charge of all wild game in the forests while the Maasai community became in charge of all domestic animals and livestock in the world. It became then a commandment that the Ogiek were to conserve all wild life and thus fight all forces that seek to annihilate it.
The novelist succeeds a lot where poorer writers would fail. He creates characters that clearly illustrate his theme of poaching. We have elders whose words strike the young adults with the force of a spear thrust. Even characters like Dick Jones the white man allied to villains like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the killers of the elephants, Simon Labuto who helps in the construction of The Konini Tourist Lodge, are memorable.
We have Sulunye, the father of Sena and Reson, our epic young adults, Ngoto-Sena, Sulunye’s wife and the very sons, Sena and Reson, as people who move the story line of the novel. Pesi is the uncle who initiates them into useful members of society. He is their uncle. As the young men grow and accumulate accolades from their hunting and warring life, they gain stature in society. They become centres of attraction to girls.
The poachers, nay, the villains, are many, calling themselves stylish names. The author is a master of descriptive narrative. Armed with the right words, he describes labyrinths of the forest area and the topography through which the characters wade on their epic journeys to fight against the poachers. He describes the flora and fauna, giving us a photographic memory of the land on which man and beast are contending.
Pesi is the master hunter who trains his nephews Sena and Reson. They hunt for different reasons. They kill wildlife to assuage their hunger.
As the story moves, Reson becomes an accredited hunter in the eyes of his betters. Ordinary hunters are pitted against poachers. The latter are armed with guns whilst the former have spears.
The author tells about the capacity of spears vis-à-vis the “lethal guns”. The aboriginal hunters counter poachers using traditional weapons. As different groups hunt each other down in Konini forest, we see vans snaking through the bush to pour out poachers. All types of modern vehicles are used by the rich poachers.
Ole Kulet’s lexicon is excellent. He has a firm command of the language. He uses words aptly, although wrong ones slip out through his firm hold and he ends up making slight mistakes. He overuses adjectives and qualifying words. Although he is good at following his characters through the thick forests, oftentimes he stumbles into monotonous circumlocutions, which could be checked by good publishing editors.
He, however, colours his writing with admirable romantic motif when his brave hunters win the most eligible girls. The peak of the story comes when the two lady officers outwit the poachers and not only shoot some dead, but also arrest them. By this time, the community is on their side and it is celebrating them. The reader has been nauseated by the poachers so much that he feels relieved when they are eliminated.