Indices of Identity: A Critical Take on Abu Amira’s “The Swahilification of Mutembei

Abu Amira’s “The swahilification of Mutembei” captures the episodes of becoming in the life of Mutembei. The unknown narrator, does not go straight to the story; he first meanders through the gloom that is Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city – the city of poetry, commerce, dreams, illusion, spice and salt. We hear how dreams are smashed against the rocks of the city, how its ocean reeks of servitude, how Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail around Africa in order to get to Asia, sweeps away the aspirations of people with his “piss.” We learn about the night life of the Swahili people: the drinks, the oud and the less concerned ancestors. Then we wonder what the story really is. The history and the city of Mombasa are successfully developed into a chaotic character that sets the doomed tone for the rest of the story. Then there is Mutembei whom we are told is the reason we are able to see the city the way it is presented; it has all been a reflection in the eyes of this character. There are so many similarities between the protagonist and the city that we can safely reckon that Mombasa is Mutembei.

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But all that has not really given us the life of Mutembei piece by piece: we only have a compact introduction to the life that the rest of the story explores through a motif – the game motif. The story is told in the course of the game of draft between Mutembei and Nasoro, an old friend. The game that they play is symbolic of life itself. Life is a game. Some win, some lose. The player that plays better shows a level of devotion over time as Nasoro suggests that things and people get better with time.  The pieces with which they play the game are inverted bottle tops. The inversion of the bottle tops is symptomatic of the topsy-turvy nature of Mutembei’s life. The pieces get pushed here and there and then claimed as the game progresses – this is how life pushes these two players about. Playing the game with an old master of the game is not helping to keep Mutembei’s life in order, instead, he gets defeated every now and then. However, something is happening: he is gradually finding himself through each defeat.

There is a clash of two metaphors: the old and the new. The old is represented by Nasoro while the new is represented by young Mutembei. The young have their virility and the old have their ways. As Nasoro puts it: “While you younger men have your vigor and vitality, we older men have our secret weapons.” The youthfulness of the young is their strength while the power of the old is in their experiences and wisdom. The strife between the protagonist and his father over the profession of noble standing is also symbolic of the war between traditionalism and modernism. Mutembei’s father is a teacher and he deems it a noble profession for a noble soul. Mutembei thinks otherwise; he would rather be a writer and touch the world through the power of the written word. For this, Mutembei’s father disowns him. Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Chinua Achebe and a host of other African writers have explored this same concept in many of their writings. August Wilson, American author uses his play Fences to run commentary on parents who would prefer that their children live permanently under the shadows of parenthood, hence the clash between Troy and Cory, his son. The same battle is presented in Rayond Sarif’s Dear Parents and Ogre. Many of such parents mean no harm, they just want to build walls of protection for their children.

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Thus, Wall comes as a symbol representing the professions that pull father and son apart. It is the same wall, created by profession that separates Mutembei from Cindy, the blonde girl he dreams of marrying. The lady is so much in love with painting, photographing and making documentaries of fauna that she goes away without blinking when her profession calls for it. Wall therefore is separation, not protection.

The dialogical style in which the story is told is a more traditional way of telling stories amongst African elderly men who after the hard day’s work eat dinner and play games. Game Time is story Time. Interestingly, the stories that are traded during the game are basically about the two players of the game. Though there are many stories woven into one, the plot connects every piece seamlessly because of the way the dialogue flows. The dialogue is dotted with interventions of the unknown narrator in parts where the dialogue cannot take us. We get to learn of the failure of Nasoro in handling his son, Musa who is fighting in Somalia. So it is not only the young that are liable to failure, the old too fail at a lot of things. They are often too ashamed to tell the young such stories.

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The major conflict Mutembei faces is that of identity. The father’s rejection of him because of who he loves to become haunts him to the point when he has to start writing a book in order to reconcile with the spirit of his dead father. The book centres on Joshua, a bright boy who succumbs to peer pressure and leaves the Earth for Mars in company of a rodent. This is the same way Mutembei himself is pressured by his father, his friend Mwiti, Nasoro and the entire society. He is pressured to become a teacher, a Muslim, a married man etc. The pressure agents tell him that he needs to make a lot of money and marry a Swahili lady. That for them is a measure of independence and an index of identity. But he would have none of that – he would rather be a man of himself. Yet he falls prey to wanting to assume an identity. His old friend teaches him how to be a Swahili: learn “how to tie a Sarong,” “become a Muslim,” and “Identify wholeheartedly with the Swahili culture, history and problems.” Only when that happens does he become a Swahili. He cannot become all of this rolled into one. He has several reasons he cannot afford to become what the society wants him to become.

In numerology, Mutembei as a name has seven birth paths. The name is associated with openness to others, knowledge and faith in self. The name is related to inner journey, the bearer is a lover of independence, and he is liable to being misunderstood for expressing himself. The bearer of this name is a philosopher, a scholar, a writer. Seven, being his number, suggests he is a lover of knowledge and a curious soul. Mutembei, in this story, literally lives out the meaning of his name.

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Nasoro too has a peculiar life. Like his name suggests, he is the bringer of light into the life of Mutembei. He is the guide on the path of self-discovery. The irony is in the fact that he too does not know much of himself. He may be a master of the draft game; it is obvious that he is not a master of life. If he were, his wives would not suffer three miscarriages and his son, Musa would not become a terrorist in another land. He alone has fourteen children, this is a contribution to the chaos that tears the society into pieces. Nassor is another Swahili equivalent of his name. It means triumphant. Is he really triumphant? Someone who is a failure at parenting cannot lay claim to being an overcomer.

The love affair with the white girl is a denial of Mutembei’s Africanisms. Cindy symbolises Europe. She moves on to another lover while Mutembei is yet to recover from the betrayal of his love and trust. This is the way Africa has been left broken many a time. Heartbroken Mutembei lives in an African society where not getting married at his age emblematises immaturity and gross irresponsibility.

The story, however, is dotted here and there with certain linguistic irregularities. The verb “am” is killed in several places through the writer’s severance of the pronoun “I” from it. For example, “…now am stronger…” should read “…now I am stronger.”  Also, hyphens take the place of dashes in a couple of sentences. Ironically, one of these sentences –  “…purpose-inhaling …him” – is one of the best sentences in the story. Unfortunately, it is too long like some of the others.  If the hyphen fault is chalked off as a forgivable result of typographic impatience, what do we say of the rule of subjunctives flouted in “I think it’s time you forget about your blonde-haired fiancé”? It can be argued, though, that the linguistic haphazardness helps to project the chaos that characterises not just Mutembei’s life but also that of all other players of this game called life.

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Mutembei therefore has a lasting hope in his art – his writings. Art is presented as a tool of discovery and unity. As he writes the book about Joshua, he is gradually being restored to himself. At the same time, a reconciliation is taking place between him and his dead father. When these processes are complete, he would become a Swahili. But is becoming a Swahili equivalent to becoming his real self?

Abu Amira is certainly a writer to watch out for.

Omidire, Idowu Joshua writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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