Friday, July 2

Considering Meja Mwangi's "The Cockroach Dance"

David Campbell is done with pictures of African poverty.  Chimamanda Ngozi done with the stories.  Meja Mwangi isn't.  USA Today would be embarrassed by the depths of depravity in Mwangi's descriptions of Dacca House in The Cockroach Dance, and even Newsweek wouldn't be willing to repeat them as often as Mwangi does.  The cockroaches of Dacca House dance and dance often.  They dance on the ceiling and on the floors and on every other available surface.  They sleep in shoes and swarm the dirty dishes.  They have become so accustomed to their homes that they no longer flee the light.  When he wearies with these descriptions, Mwangi moves to the courtyard of Dacca House where no one remembers the last time the garbage was collected and where the single public toilet smells so foul that men and women void in the single public shower.  Beyond Dacca House there are the grease stains that are the open-air garages on River Road.

It makes an appropriate parallel for the spirits of the people.  The landlord of Dacca House forces the family that lives in the bathroom only just large enough to hold their bed to pay monthly rent.  The street mechanics have no compunction against selling car parts back to the men they stole them from the night before.  Street sellers offer only stolen clothes and rotten vegetables.  The rich never release the hounds because they were never restrained to begin.

As much as he rages against the many injustices of this world, largely in how it is perpetrated against himself, Dusman Gonzaga is content to merely exist in it.  Until the final third of the novel, when Dusman begins collecting signatures for a petition to force the landlord to perform basic upkeep and lower the rents, there is no plot, only Dusman's passing activities.  When the tires of his broken car are stolen and he fails to discover the thief, Dusman looks for someone who will buy the wreck.  He gets drunk.  He enjoys the services of a prostitute in an alley in the rain.  He visits an Indian doctor who specializes in the diseases that follow such services.  These characters are introduced, they play their roles and they never appear again.

It is a style that plays to Mwangi as he seems less interested in telling a story and developing full, characters than exploring their greater condition.  This works at times.  The history of Dacca House itself, beginning as the home for an Indian businessman, his family and extended relations and later sold to a Kenyan entrepreneur who builds cardboard dividers in the rooms to take more tenants, is fascinating.

It also makes Dance feel like a "Greatest Hits of Nairobi Poverty."  Dusman is less an original character than a type who does all the things one would expect of a poor man in Kenya with no family.  The characters he meets fit into tight roles and stand in for greater swaths of society complicit in the situation.  It forces Mwangi to fall back on stereotypes to move on with minimum fuss.  Dusman's conclusion that his white psychiatrist cannot understand and never offer useful analysis because the good doctor has never visited Dacca House is trite at best.  There is a good story to be told about Dusman's supervisor who is terrified of being replaced by a white expatriate, but Mwangi spares him only a few paragraphs.  Likewise in Dusman's refusal to reveal his tribe after arrest and a con job carried out with a white couple.  These fascinating themes and ideas are never referred to again and have no impact on the end of the story.  They are left to another writer to bring to their fullness.  Pity.

Then again, Dance was released in 1979.  Maybe stories of African and Kenyan urban poverty were still fresh and original then, and it was enough simply to recognize these topics as worth writing about.  Mwangi was doing something right.  His novels Kill Me Quick and Going Down the River Road won the Jomo Kenyatta Prizes for Literature in 1974 and 1977 respectively.

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