A Lemon Tree Grows in Iten

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I am standing barefoot in my mother’s garden-barefoot so as to feel the soft wetness of the earth beneath my feet, and even more so that I should feel younger again-be the little boy who used to run around this same garden many years back, searching for fruits. There are many fruits here-lime, orange, peach, plum, apple, guava, liquorts, avocado, lemon and mango. It is the lemon trees, though, that grew the tallest and yielded the most succulent fruits. Iten favours lemons among fruits.

There is only one lemon tree remaining now however. The rest have perished to a mysterious disease that made their stems rot. This one lemon tree remaining was the tallest amongst the other lemon trees. She too has been ravaged by pests and that mysterious withering of leaf and stem that destroyed the other lemon trees, but somehow, year after year, she manages to push out of her twigs those phenomenally luminous leaves, some of which blossom with tiny white flowers. I call her she for I have always taken her to be a woman, an earth woman-tall, and elegant, walking with a distinct firmness in her steps. I have not seen her face though-that bit escapes the scope of my imagination.

She is sort of a representation of all women I met in my childhood. The ones I liked that is-warm and polite, humble and hardworking, with ready laughter. The Itenian laughter is unmistakable. My lemon tree stands at the bottom of our bowel-shaped land.  When it is evening and the shadows are collecting and you squint your eyes enough, you might see the ghost of a river flowing down the incline of the land, towards the rift valley escarpment. And indeed, there was a river here where I stand, if the stories I was told was true. A strong river, that rushed west from the Cherangany hills, as clear as glass and with enough ferocity in it, that it took with it drunken men and fine oxen, and even once, a full-grown bull elephant with the longest tusks ever seen.

I play out on this landscape the narratives of my childhood-stories told to me by my mother in the calm nights of my childhood but which still babble fresh in my mind.  Some stories were genuine-stories about my great grandmother, standing on a hill with a polished spear and a shield, reflecting the sun’s glaze downhill, as she screamed, calling onto Keiyo and Marakwet warriors that they were being invaded by Karamojong men. Tales about my great great great grandfather Rumbas, falling in love with a girl and having not enough cows for the dowry and having to walk over a 100 kilometres away to work as farm help amongst the pokots and raise his own herds (sounds quite similar to the Isaac’s story). And one of my favorites, at the time of my great grandmother’s birth, a time of severe drought, when parents would sell their children in exchange for food, and my great great grand-father not willing to consider this option, but taking his spear instead to go hunt a buffalo, and provide food for mother and child.

These stories and countless others are re-enacted on the land-long-gone experiences that call out to my imagination like ghosts from the past, hinting about themselves, but vanishing like dew before they fully condense. Never showing their faces but leaving me with a nagging disquiet in my heart. One of the central human acts is that of habitation, calling a small space in our massive blue planet your own, finding peace with it. Those who walked before me, ancestors who now are in the realms of the dead, called this land their own. Their herds grazed in its pastures, and they sought food and raiment, companionship and riches in its spaces. I wonder if it gave them peace. I wonder if they ever thought of those who walked before them as I do. I wonder if they felt so possessed by a place as I often do feel.

There are no answers to these questions, and so I write, word by word and sentence by sentence, to construct that which can never be finished, to grasp at the wind.

I write because I there is a lemon tree in my mother’s garden that has defied disease and countless pests, and kept her leaves glorious and shining, pushing out tiny flowers that keep calling bees from afar.

I write because I remember the joy of finding a fat sweet potato under the earth and rushing with it home, covering it with hot ash so that it could bake.

I write because once upon a time, a woman came to our house in a brown sweater and black rubber shoes, and sat with my mother on the grass, and laughed over a joke that I cannot recall. I write because that day my mother told my sister to make them some masala tea.

I write.

Dust Tracks on A Road By Zora Neale Hurston

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There is a woman every reader should know, and her story was not a happy one at the beginning, and neither did it end happily. Her name is Zora Neale Hurston, and like the prophets of old, she was much more honoured after her death than when she was alive. She is the inspiration behind Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and other influential African American writers.

Dust Tracks on a Road, is  her very vivid recount of her life, from childhood to adulthood. She describes the Negro town where she was born and where her father was the mayor, and at the first pages of the book, describes how the town came to being and the history of the land-fights between White Americans and Native Americans with African Americans caught in between.

What is lovely about the book is the candid honesty that Zora has with herself. You get to realise that she was an exceptionally brilliant woman with an unfettered imagination, something that her father at one point says her freewill thinking will only end up seeing her hanged. The father actually begs the mother to whip her but her mother restrains from doing so.

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The most painful part of the biography is where she describes her mother’s death, about her mother calling her to the bedside and telling her that no one should remove the pillow she is lying on when she passes on, something that the adults around disagree with despite Zora adamantly screaming that no one should take the pillow away.

I loved the bits about her imagination, how she always thought the moon was following her wherever she went and getting very angry actually when a friend laughs off at the idea; how she makes up a story about a lady (who in reality was nothing more than a corn cob dressed in rags) and the relationship between that corn knob and the door handle.

She goes on to describe her teenagehood, How she fights with her step mother with unrestrained fury, drawing blood, Her first encounter with books and how she devours the Greek tragedies, Norse Tales and Shakespearean works.  She works as a waiter and at the theatre, meets a lot of wierd men and women along that path, and finally ends up at university at Howard where she takes a degree in Anthropology.

It is here that she was able to write the lasting works of her legacy, brilliant books such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, Jonah’s vineyard and countless others. She did not restrain herself to write in standard English and introduced African American dialects in her speeches giving her stories authenticity and a fresh breath.

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It is a great tragedy that and something difficult to reconcile that such a brilliant young woman, who spoke her mind and preserved African American folklore, would die poor in a welfare home. It was Alice Walker who discovered her unmarked grave in the 1970s and brought out her rich writing back to the literary world.

Here is a glimpse of some of her beliefs, directly quoted from the book.

As for me, I do not pretend to read God’s mind. If he has a plan for the universe worked out to the smallest detail, it would be folly for me to presume to get down on my knees and attempt to revise it. That, to me seems the highest form of sacrilege. So i do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that i have been given a mind and will-power for that very purpose. I do not expect God to single me out and grant me advantages over my fellow man. Prayer is for those who need it. Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made peace with the universe as i find it, and bow to its laws.

And a last quote, my best one, something that I have turned to be my signature:

You who play the zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust. And you who walk in humble places, think kindly too of others.

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Book Review: Seven Years in Tibet By Heinrich Harrer

Living in 2012 is especially boring. Everything is defined and detailed. It seems as if there is nothing you can tell someone without them giving you that ‘been there, done that, so tell me something I haven’t heard/googled’ look.

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Let us take ourselves back to 1939, at the start of the Second World War and make yourself a companion to Heinrich Harrer, a passionate mountain climber who managed to scale the Eiger North Face wall as well as participate in many skiing Championships.

As he travels on his mountain-climbing expedition, he finds himself in India, and it being a British protectorate at the time and with Britain and Germany being at war, he taken to a detention camp in Bombay. Never one to accept fate, he tries severally to escape and reading his attempts at that is horrifyingly fascinating. Finally he does manage to escape and head off to Tibet (Tibet held a fascination for him because it was the last “mystery” of the world for no outsiders were allowed inside).

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He does walk for days on end and one must admire his courage and tenacity as he does all he can to avoid capture, whilst having no change of clothes or access to good food so that within no time he is all rags and thin to the bone but an expert at hiding and running. He crosses the Tsang Chok-La pass and begins walking through the Tibetan Kingdom. At this point of his tale, you really begin respecting his intellect and negotiating tactics, he tricks and deceives his way past doubting Tibetan officials and finds a way of gaining favours from them, and once, in a rather hair-raising section of the book, he out-swindles a bunch of robbers famed for killing, at their plan to rob and probably murder him.

He walks for over 70 days before he reaches Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and it is a marvel reading his description of his first sight of it. Things start becoming easy for him after he reaches Lhasa, and with his apt of making people endearing towards him, he makes friends and finds a family to host him.

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By then he is fluent in Tibetan, and starts getting attention of the government due to his Western school training, and he is consulted on various matters where he contributes tremendously. He is made a salaried employee of the government and ultimately becomes a tutor of the Dalai Lama himself. The latter having spotted him with his telescope (the Dalai Lama was sequestered from contact with the local population and spent his time looking at people with his telescope).

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Heinrich records a number of events in Tibetan life-their colourful ceremonies (complete with giant butter statues), love for jewellery and their general ease with life (describing them as a happy, carefree people).

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The story darkens towards the end as he describes military intervention from China and how the Dalai Lama and the nobles of the city have to flee, and how that marks the beginning of the end of the charm of Tibet. This is a very controversial subject that has been attacked severally by the China with the result of Heinrich being banned from entering China, as well as Brad Pitt, the famous Hollywood actor who played Heinrich in the movie with the same name.

Heinrich died in 2006 at 93 years of age.

Let me warn you that this book will make you yearn for those adventurous days when men cared less about making money or making a good living but followed the longings of their hearts to discover and make sense of the world. I wish I could do that. I hope I get to do that.

This is how he describes his first sight of Lhasa:

“We turned a corner and saw, gleaming in the distance, the golden roofs of the Potala, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and the most famous landmark of Lhasa. This moment compensated for so much. We felt inclined to go down on our knees like pilgrims and touch the ground with our foreheads.”

And this is how he would always feel about Tibet:

“Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the wild cries of geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight. My heart-felt wish is that this book may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.”

Book Review: Cold Mountain By Charles Frazier

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Written by Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

Imagine a mountain-snow-peaked and isolated, called Cold Mountain, imagine its desolation, hear the sound of wolves and the growl of a lone bear. Imagine a farm at the foot of this mountain, with a girl and call her Ada, skilled in drawing still-life and playing piano, but inept with cooking and farming, at a loss in her new environment, having lived only in cities.

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She is living with her father-a preacher, and one Sunday after one of his father’s sermons (too academic for any of the general populace to make any sense of), she walks outside church and a man looks at her. That man’s name is Inman. A brief conversation, embarrassing is what they have, but then there is one more meet-up where they share a kiss.

Then Inman gets drafted to war, and Ada’s father dies, and she is left alone to tend to a farm that had not even beforehand been run commercially but more as a pet fancy of the deceased. The war is horrendously cruel, men being ripped with bullets, bombs and bayonet, and dying in their numbers like flies. Inman is shot in the neck and as he is brought to the military hospital in a boxcar, no one, not even he believes he will make it alive.

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He does. He recovers. And one day, after thinking long and hard about Cold Mountain and the girl Ada he left behind, he walks out of hospital and follows a most spectacular odyssey back home.  A journey plagued by slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, broke musicians and sickly widows. It speaks of a region in a severe moral decline, with the social fabric rapidly disintegrating with the future so uncertain as not to exist in the mind of anyone-everyone now living on a primeval predatory instinct, taking chances as they come, living one day at a time.

Ada, on the other hand, is a fish out of water when it comes to living on the farm. She even gets attacked and runs away from a rooster, knows nothing about growing crops or preparing for winter, and would have actually have starved were it not for the timely appearance of Ruby, dishevelled and straightforward, and able to make sustenance out of the impossible, a consequence of being abandoned by a footloose drifting father when she was three, and having to live alone in the wilderness like a bear cub. These two unlikely couple learn to live and respect one another, and for the first time in her life Ada learns how to be practical, and to grow food, and to cook!

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The story swings like a pendulum between these two stories, that of Inman walking back home and being haunted by memories and thoughts only given to those who have seen the true face of war, and of Ada and Ruby, two women eking out a living in a farm at one of the most cruel and tumultuous times of history.

Cold Mountain is a story to be read at first, and then placed down on a table, as you close your eyes and hear angels beating their wings softly all around you. Never have I read such lyrical prose anywhere, never have I seen the pit of human emotion-struggle, hope, defeat and perseverance-being shovelled so fully out. It is a story that will tug your heart and make you cry, and it is a book that will demand to be read and re-read and re-read till you go crazy.

I live you with the novel’s first sentences:

“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital war”

Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

Reviewed by Kiprop Kimutai

Somewhere below the five peaks of Kanchenjunga (a range section of the Himalays mountains), a house stands. Built by a Scotsman when India was colonized, it boasted excellent workmanship earlier on-fancy piping and tubing, good tiling and wrought iron gates. but that was then. Now it is an abode for dead spiders and a scorpion’s nest, with soot-clumped walls and the pipes all gone shaky and leaking, bandaged with soppy rags.

It houses a retired judge, his grand-daughter Sai, atimid cook and a dog called Mutt. An odd  crowd whose lack of any defining common identity adds even more to their misery. For Sai, luck comes in the from of Gyan, an accounting student who comes to serve as her tutor, as her former tutor, a lady called Noni, gets defeated by the complexities of physics and mathematics. Gyan is described to carry an ‘unmistakable whiff of ambition ‘ despite his humble background, and the idea of that boy alone in a room with Sai, creates a disquiet in both the judge and the cook. For Sai it is a welcome relief. She has resided in that boring house ever since she was whisked from a Catholic school after her parents (astronauts training in Moscow) perish in a terrible accident and the school, mourning its loss of donor funds (from the deceased) start seeing Sai as a burden, and quickly trace her dwindling relations before finally settling on her grand-father, the judge, to be a guardian. The judge, British-educated like his grandchild is intent that she does not lose her fine accent and English manners and thus sequesters her from anything ‘undesirable’ in the enviroment, insisting in tutors and constant observation of her whereabouts from the cook. Love blossoms between Gyan and Sai. At first it is denied, the two concentrating on the sums before them, dissection of angles and analysis of graphs. Still, like an alien creature, love reaches out with desperate tentacles and entangles the two. They Kiss. They fight. They kiss some more.

The cook is as poor as poor could be, with nothing but a thin mattress, a tiny collection of old clothes and his culinary skills to his name. Still he dreams of modern amenities-refrigerators, microwaves, telephones-at night he dreams of mobile phones that fly off just before he presses the dialling pad. His sole hope is in his son, Biju, who flew to America some time back and is playing a cat and mouse game to be ahead of the immigration police as he looks for low-end, employee-abusing jobs at fast-food joints. The cook talks a lot and is proud of the judge and Sai, and cooks up fascinating hero-worship stories about working for them. He bears an unusually high level of timidity, that seems ingrained to the very core of his fibre, an eagerness to please and give in, whether he is assaulted by the police or robbers alike.

The judge is apparently very cold-hearted, unless to the affections generously shown to his dog Mutt. He hides a lot from his past- a murder, estrangement with family, being bown to a lowly-caste, racial abuse in England where he was educated, and many more bits and pieces of his life that slowly unravel as the story moves on. He is an object of wonderment in the region, a relic whose glory is diminishing with age and whittling resources, but still a pinnacle of achievement to be admired from afar. His desperation and anguish finally spill out at the end, catalysed by the disappearence of his dog ( the latter beingg stolen by a destitute couple to be sold in the next town in exchange for food after they had knocked at the judge’s door and been refused any help).

I have to speak about Biju (the cook’s soon), his disillusionment with the American dream, his deplorable living conditions in America. The book describes his journey to America with effortless grace…the eagerness to queue at the American embassy, and the falsification of a story to earn him a visa and the attendant palpitations of his heart as he is unsure of whether his story would be accepted. It describes how he lives like a rat in America, no health insurance when he breaks his arm and having to let it heal by itself, his desperate attempts to make phone calls to his father, and how his dream of making it in America finally dwindles. He buys a ticket to fly back home to India, packing modern fanciful amenities for his further in his suitcase. It is his journey back to their mountain home that gives the story a final cruel twist.

The author: Kiran Desai

Overall, the Inheritance of Loss is a literary masterpiece, unputdownable and unquestionable in its flair for description, character scrutiny and human emotion mastery. There is more to it than the story of these four individuals, it speaks of a military insurgency arising, awakening hatred and almost tearing that part of the region from India. It speaks of the attendant anguish-not only to these four people but to their neighbours as well, and how their spirits are put to test-the willingness to accept defeat and move on, and the desire to search for the truth, just like the book describes at the end;

“The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent. All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it.”

Book Review: The Help By Kathryn Stockett

Written by Kiprop Kimutai

For a book that has constantly lasted in the New York Times Bestseller list, it is quite intriguing to know that Kathryn got 45 rejection slips in her publication attempt and had to wait five years for the manuscript to finally be accepted.

The Help  is a book written without  complication or any intent towards literary flair. Its simple and straightforward language is what makes it powerful, laying bare the complex human psychology in place during the 1960s in America when racial boundaries were beginning to dissolve.

It is a book about three women-Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. Skeeter is a tall, big-boned white girl who cares little about her hair and dressing, and drives around town in a lorry. This actually frightens her mother into thinking that her daughter is a lesbian and even goes to the extent of buying her “straight-sexuality-inducing tea” to drink in the morning. The core of the story somwhat begins when Skeeter tries to pursue her writing, a dream that survives in spite of constant lectures on how to be a good housewife and on adherence to tedious social graces. She starts a column with a household magazine, offering cleanliness tips, and being no neat housekeeper herself she resorts to seek advice from Aibileen, a black maid.

Aibileen is a senior, sensitive and deeply compassionate woman, earthy and connected to her being, and her trademark black dialect infuses several chapters of the book with something rare and beautiful. It is easy to step into her environment and see what it was to be a black maid then-to have to use a separate bathroom from your employer and to eat separately as well and witness people being tortured for not doing so, to watch children being mistreated or being sorely ignored by their mothers, and have the same children, who suffer from no racial biases, call you mama.  She even describes an incident where an employer tries out a new hair dye on a black maid first to see how it works, and the maid has to walk around town in blue hair for a while. She has borne all those ridiculous societal ills with a long-suffering spirit and has never been one to rock the boat. That is until Skeeter turns to her saying that she wants to write a book on what it is like being a black maid in America and needs to interview Aibileen for it. A heroine wakes up in Aibileen, and for the first time in many years, she is challenged to speak and open up, and to confront the pain and the unfairness in it all. It is remarkable the transformation she has at the end as she e watches her old life slip by (she is fired after crossing boundaries that are not meant to be crossed), when she is ushered into a new beginning, no longer as a maid but now as a writer and nothing describes it better than her final words which are also the final words of the book; “May be I ain’t too old to start over, I think and laugh and cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everthing new.

Then there is Minnie, sassy and in-your-face and with such good cooking that a tacky housewife actually employees her culinary skills to save her marriage. She speaks back and never holds back her tongue, and always in an angry manner, like someone who has been tortured by life to give in and slack but somehow has held on to an indefatigable spirit. In spite of her wild horse demenour, it is odd to know that she lives with an abusive husband who constantly beats her unless she is pregnant. One day she asks him why he beats her and he answers “Who knows what you would be if I did not beat you.” And she somehow reconciles with that statement, somehow, though not obviously, accepting that it makes sense, that she was meant to rot if otherwise, something about what her grandmother and mother said about her when she was young. She fights back against white lady employees who hide savage hostility behind pearly white smiles, perfectly coiffed hair and condescending gift tokens through schoolyard tactics such as mixing her poo with cake flour and serving it to one of them. she is the turning point of the story for when Aibileen approaches her on Skeeter’s book idea, she empowers other black maids to open up and speak.

It is the 1960s, the year Martin Luther King gives his “I Have A Dream Speech”, and later gets assassinated along with John F Kennedy and other key political leaders. Racial hatred spills into violence as many black activists are tortured or laid off from work. This is the tense period from which the novel is set, and it shows how three ordinary women, take a step of faith, one that changes their lives forever and in turn shows us all, that each of us, can shape the destiny of our nation, by doing “something small about something big”.