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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Annie Gagiano on The Slums by Thomas Akare: One might describe it as a personalised sociological study, a literary version of reality TV

Annie Gagiano - 2008-01-08

Thomas Akare: The Slums

Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks
ISBN-13: 978-0435902414

A library does not only provide readers with copies of recently published texts, but also serves as an archive in which past publications remain accessible. It is with this idea in mind that Akare’s 1981 text was dusted off for discussion in the present column. There is (unfortunately, one might add!) nothing outdated about Akare’s delineation of African slum life – in this case, the ghettos around Nairobi, Kenya.

Akare worked as a journalist before turning to literature (and later, it seems, films) and his text is characterised throughout by a harsh and utterly convincing realism as he evokes the experiences of Eddy (or Chura) Onyango, one of a group of young men who earn a precarious living as car washers.

The text has shape and closure, but its strength does not lie primarily in its (sketchy) narrative, which flows instead as an unbroken stream of the protagonist’s observations and reflections. One might describe The Slums as a personalised sociological study, as a literary version of reality TV, or even as a verbal version of Discovery Channel (for those with little inkling of how people live in big-city slums). Akare’s text may be set in the seventies and in Kenya, and the particular drugs and alcoholic beverages mentioned may be as different from those of our own place and time as are the names of the characters, but the social patterns and political structures evoked by the text are only too familiar. It is the kind of writing that could be categorised as "social witnessing". Eddy’s is not an endearing personality; he is even, in several respects, quite an unpleasant character, but depicting him as such is part of the author’s point about how slum life poverty influences and malforms people’s characters. For Eddy’s voice has an undeniable authenticity, giving glimpses of his decent family background and the slow but inexorable steps that brought him to a squatter’s life in the ghetto. When his parents died in a bus crash, Eddy and his adolescent siblings found themselves evicted from the family home. “Things fell apart,”[1] writes Eddy. “We split up. Each to manage on his own” (26).         

One point that Akare’s novel establishes without explicitly stating it, is that nothing like a family life is available to a slum dweller such as Eddy. We often use the phrase “normal family life” without recalling that to establish or maintain it requires a considerably higher and more regular income than is available to people like Eddy. He comes over as repellently sexist in the sneering and contemptuous remarks he makes about the women around him – especially those with children. Yet his own inability to aspire to an emotionally committed relationship evidently feeds into these ugly attitudes; he remains a jobless slum dweller living under conditions so squalid that (it seems) all the women around him sell sex in order to survive. One learns in the most casual way, quite deep into the novel, that Eddy has fathered no fewer than eight slum children by various mothers. Four of these children died in infancy, he asserts unblushingly, “because the mothers were lousy, careless and cheap” (84). It is fairly obvious that he as the father failed to provide any support to help the mothers feed and clothe these children – the garrulous Eddy would certainly have mentioned it if he had. He refers callously to one of the women, when she happens to pass by with their child, as “this two-shilling tart” (83), yet we do catch a glimpse of a marginally more humane attitude when Eddy confesses (his friends having praised the beauty of his little daughter): “That hurt me” (84).         

Eddy’s often ugly, seemingly uncaring and brutally matter-of-fact candour initially strikes the reader as merely banal. Viewed in this light, the text seems an account of the not especially interesting, and generally unremarkable, experiences of a typical ghettoite; and predominantly harsh and sordid as Eddy's realities are, he is utterly used to them.

Eddy is distinctly unheroic, but his voice is subtly deployed and skilfully rendered – it is this that makes The Slums a literary work worth remembering. The general flatness of tone is tellingly offset by those moments when a painful sense of humiliation shows through the hardboiled exterior. One such moment is the occasion when, after five years of unemployment (despite his treasured GCE certificate), Eddy, with the help of a female "patron", secures a proper job interview. In the plush office where the interview takes place, Mr Anam (the official to whom he has been directed) first establishes that Eddy is a fellow Luo, before expressing his disdain that a Luo should be working as a mere car-washer in the slums “with waSwahili” (75 – not that Eddy does not share the quite virulent tribalism inherent in this remark). Anam eventually offers Eddy an even more demeaning job as a railway trench cleaner (apparently deliberately, because of Anam’s jealousy at Eddy’s having been more successful with the young woman who had recommended him for the interview than he, Anam, was). When Eddy inadvertently blurts out his objection to this kind of employment, Anam shouts him out of the office, calling him a “black dog”, a guok – clearly the worst insult he can muster. It is obvious that this is a horrible and hurtful experience, however brave a face Eddy puts on it.         

A related example of Eddy’s helpless, rankling class resentment is obscurely hinted at on the novel’s opening page and clarified only in the second half of the text. Eddy may sound like a mere foul-mouthed, blasphemous oaf when he vows (at the end of the first paragraph of chapter one): “‘On myself and the Satan of my arse, I will not attend church again” (1); nevertheless, late in the novel, when earlier hints about a much admired but assassinated politician (“TJ”) are clarified, this earlier expression of anger also becomes explicable. The murdered man, described as the one leader who had the moral power to unite Kenya across class and tribal fissures, evidently evokes the historical figure of Tom Mboya. He was especially loved by the slum dwellers, Eddy indicates, because he had proven his unsnobbish concern for their welfare and had intended to improve their circumstances when he was gunned down (the actual assassination happened in 1969). How the church comes into this for Eddy (who, it is indicated, was brought up as a Christian) is that at the funeral service for their beloved TJ, slum dwellers were excluded from the church because of their lack of "proper" dress and hygiene. Many of them were also killed or hurt by police in the post-funeral riots. In Eddy’s mind there is a constant fluctuation between recognition of the degradation of the slum people on the one hand and, on the other hand, a sense of their human worth (combined with a fierce, localised loyalty to the slums). Here, for instance, are some of his comments on slum women:

We met Nyanjau, Sophia, Hadijah, Kangwele and Mary. Those of the slum girls with no hope of getting married. Mothers of two, three or four bastards. Sons of different fathers. Mother girls who can walk till morning with no one to rape them. All the slummers were bored and fed up with them. Nearly all the boys had laid them. Too cheap. (18)

Prostitutes are referred to as “waziba” and as being “used to it” (by Eddy), because “It is their source of income”; many wealthy men come slumming because of these women’s sexual availability (63). When Eddy tells this to a privileged woman whom he is taking on a “township tour”, she is daintily shocked at such sordid female lives, even though her own unhappily married life does not seem very desirable either. There is a brusque reference elsewhere to a line of men each awaiting his turn to rape a drugged woman who was brought there for their use by a friend of theirs. Known as such brutal practices are it is the casual nature of the reference that horrifies one. In the slums, says Eddy: “A boy will go for stealing, a girl to prostitution” (85) – it is how families function here. He adds: “That is how life is in the slums. I don’t blame the girls. But the mothers. The hungry needy poor mothers” (85). Notably, in that last sentence, the hard-boiled Eddy balances contempt with an inexplicit recognition of such women’s desperate need and the absence of resources or alternatives for them. His voice rises into anger with traces of anguish in a long diatribe containing lines such as the following:

This place is accursed. It is very evil. … Ministers, why don’t you come for your children? Managers and directors, why leave them suffering? … Who will marry mothers of two, three, four? Who will marry killers? Aborters? … [Here follows a long list with the names of women from every tribe in Kenya.] Who will marry them?

These women of the world? (86-87)

I find it fascinating that the author can modulate Eddy’s ostensibly and intentionally sexist voice into an expression (at another level) of feminist concern and class protest as it happens in the passage cited above. A passionate indignation and concern for the slum dwellers’ welfare emerges from it.         

Eddy’s words are not always equally moving, nor would the text be as convincing a document as it is, had that been the case. Passages like the above are offset by several in which his tone is merely stridently melodramatic, his position banal and his thinking shallow, as in the following extract:

Near the bridge I met this Mamu of Gorofani. She was pregnant. My God. The second one. She was not even eighteen yet. God. When will these Slums girls realise that Africa and the whole world is in a critical condition where no more births are needed? When will they realise that Africa is corrupt and living under a reign of fear? Black leaders who would even turn to a white thief for advice because that nut is white? I wished they knew what I had in my mind every day. 

That the black man was not yet ready to rule himself because of poverty. (158)

Eddy’s account of his own and his family history is paralleled by the family narrative of his friend Hussein Mbili (56-60), with whom he shares the car wreck that serves as their lodgings. Hussein is actually a Kikuyu. During the anti-colonial uprising his father was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a “Mau-Mau terrorist” and detained; they never saw him again. In order to be allowed to move to the city to sustain herself and her children, his mother gave them all Muslim names to disguise their tribal identity. The harshness of slum life is again underlined in the rest of this mini-narrative. Firstly, the mother is maliciously blinded in an acid attack by a neighbouring woman in the wake of a quite trivial dispute between their children. She then resorts to begging in order to keep Hussein and his sister at school. Next, Hussein’s sister, who is particularly bright at school, is drugged, raped and impregnated by young gangsters at a party organised by her classmates. She drops out of school and takes up prostitution, while her mother looks after the baby. One day, “another cheating crook told [the blind mother] that he was going the same route as her. To the Slums” (60). Instead, he takes her to a different part of the slums where he and others steal her money and gang-rape her. “The next day,” reports Eddy in his poker-faced way, “she was found at the Race Course Bridge, face downwards and the bastard [the baby!] with her. Both dead. That began Hussein sleeping in the old worn-out scraps of cars in the Slums. We met here five years back” (60).

Eddy’s is a young man’s world and he and his group of intermittent associates have an awareness of the larger sphere of world politics that sometimes comes across as quite absurdly crude and naïve, but occasionally with a degree of sophistication. Of course they also frequently discuss the local political scene – remote as they may seem from the centres of power, they get the chance to speak to several “big men” who come to have their cars washed in the slums and they know that many such men visit slum prostitutes.

Class awareness is very strong in Eddy, who had had aspirations to a better life and some of whose former schoolfellows have prosperous careers. Nevertheless he does not indiscriminately resent those who are better off, shrewdly assessing (for instance) a formerly detained ex-leader of the opposition (one of his regular customers) as a basically principled person, despite his relative tight-fistedness. The car washers also know one of the country’s most successful (and wanted) bank robbers, who often employs them to clean his cars. Eddy and his friends went in for petty crime for a while, but gave it up as too risky, not for any moral scruples. Akare uses Eddy’s car-washing occupation to examine the passing parade of Kenyan society, from bottom to top.

The glamorous young wife of a cabinet minister takes an interest in Eddy – she is the person who tries to help him to get a job. Akare does not romanticise the relationship in any way, which would have been unconvincing in any case. Eddy and she have a brief fling one weekend, but for both this is evidently a play-acting escape from their ordinary lives rather than a deep class-defying passion. It is a casual transaction – the woman is both bored and insecure about her husband’s commitment (she needs Eddy to take her to a person unblinkingly referred to as a “witch-doctor” – 129), while to Eddy her glamorous aura and the fact that she dispenses some largesse are the points of attraction.

Another near-romance of Eddy’s is the resumption of a previous relationship with a young woman who now works for a company located in the country. She invites him to spend a weekend with her in the home she normally shares with a fellow (female) employee who is temporarily away. Eddy does note the charms of natural beauty and enjoys the relative serenity of a rural lifestyle, but on returning he “head[s] straight for the Slums” saying, “I wanted it. It was a long time since that of yesterday afternoon. The dope” (156). Drugs and alcohol help make slum life endurable, but are also an addiction in themselves. Eddy laughs about “crazy women”, complacently thinking that Zakia, the minister’s wife, has probably been looking for him during his weekend away. Evidently, his attachments are quite superficial.

Although he is clearly intended to be a “representative slummer”, Eddy is given a voice expressive of a strong awareness of Kenyan tribal distinctions and prejudices. He will, for instance, when dressed in the clothes Zakia has bought for him, refer to himself somewhat sarcastically as “smart like a Luo” (91). Elsewhere he sneers at a woman who treats him disdainfully, as “this silly-looking Gor woman” (74). He clearly thinks of tribal intermingling in the slums – “a Nandi for a granny, a Luo for a father, a Meru for an uncle, a Luhya for a brother, a Chagga for a sister” (86) – as rather shockingly chaotic, or as decadent. Mostly, though, Eddy feels a strong class solidarity with the other jobless, hopeless slum dwellers. When a friend refers to cabinet ministers as nothing but “gangsters operating on the common man”, Eddy passionately agrees that these politically powerful men practise “open exploitation”, while “they regard us [slum dwellers] as churas” (96).

A keynote term that recurs over and over in the text (and in Eddy’s conception of all the tiers of the society he lives in) is the word corruption – “Corruption is everywhere” (98), as he says. A deep and pain-filled anger is evident in the accusation “Black men at the top, you are the cause of all this shame in the eyes of the world. You want us the slummers to adore and kneel before you to make you feel great” (140). At bottom, Akare’s text seems intended to make this protesting and aggrieved voice audible to those ensconced in power and comfort.

The text is brought to a close when the demolition of the slums is casually announced by a small group of “visiting” (Kenyan) politicians, one of whom says (in Eddy’s hearing) that “our wrecks [their accommodation!] were hide-outs for crooks and that we were children of two shillings”. But as Eddy notes, these wrecks are, to people like himself and Hussein, “our homes” (163). Putting this out of their minds, Eddy and a group of friends go on a wild drinking spree; inevitably, on their return journey, their drunken driver loses control of the vehicle. It skids and crashes, killing several of his friends. When Eddy is discharged from hospital after some weeks, the wrecks have been towed away and the slum clearance has started; his precious GCE certificate, his one hope of securing employment, is now lost forever, as it had been stored in the wreck. Somewhat melodramatically (but also appropriately to the Eddy we have come to know in the course of his meandering, anecdotal account), he decides to commit a murder with the ostensible motive of theft so that he can at least secure the relative “stability” and “security” of a lengthy jail sentence. The text ends with his having done exactly that – an innocent man’s life is snuffed out so that Eddy, deprived of his slum sleeping quarters, can secure “free board and lodging” in jail – the only way in which the state can be made to look after him.

Interestingly, a South African Sunday newspaper recently carried a report about a young man from one of Nairobi’s most notorious slums who pulled himself out of drug-fuelled degradation to gain an MSc at Manchester University – by writing up his own project to aid drug-addicted slum children. Inspiring as such a tale is, one remains aware that stories like Eddy’s are more typical. As a novel that powerfully addresses the collective social conscience, bringing otherwise more comfortably ignored lives to our awareness, The Slums is a memorable text worth reading.           


[1] The echo of Achebe’s famous title (Things Fall Apart) in Eddy’s account of his own family’s disintegration is evidently deliberate; wry and mocking and meant to suggest that things are still falling apart, if now for other reasons.

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