Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
14 June, 2012
My family lived in Nairobi for five years. I was already at university and only visited over the holidays but Kenya was a totally different world to what I had previously been used to. I’d lived in Asia and Europe but Africa was new to me. But as much as we wanted to get to know the real Kenya, ultimately we were expats in a place where expats stuck together. My sister did her A-levels there and made friends with a mix of people. My parents worked and socialised with a mix of nationalities. But it was difficult to get to the heart of the real Kenya. And so I read. But a lot of the literature were from European pens.
So I was really excited to find Mukumo Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat in my library. This was a new kind of African fiction. One that exposed identity and culture, the traditional and the modern. It was more like the Nairobi I knew: dusty, hot and loud, dangerous and yet familiar, a complex society still coming to terms with its murky colonial legacy. This was crime fiction set between the US and modern Africa. Something I felt more connected to than the magical realism I often encounter in African fiction with which I often find difficult to connect, however much their beauty touches me.
When Ishmael Fofona, a middle class African American detective in Madison, Wisconsin, is called to investigate the death of a young blond girl on the doorstep of Joseph Hakisimana, an African professor, he doesn’t realise how much this case is going to change his life. For a start, the identity of the girl is unknown. And the accused professor is a survivor and hero of the Rwandan genocide. But Ishmael’s gut tells him that this is big. And he goes to Kenya to find out what exactly the professor is hiding. Once in Kenya, he teams up with his Kenyan counterpart O and meets beautiful and tough Muddy who together with him will go all the way to unravel the dirty secrets behind the multi-million dollar refugee organisation to which the professor lends his reputation. Nothing is simple in Africa and memories go back a long way.
Ngugi tackles the tragic events of the Rwandan genocide in a clever way, not focussing on the unimaginable cruelty and suffering, yet highlighting it by how the survivors have moved on. Nairobi Heat is an interesting mixture of crime, culture and society, it’s highly paced story whizzing you through Ishmael’s quest. The people you meet are varied, the secrets deep and Ishmael’s gradual transformation from an outsider in his own world to someone who knows what he wants is drawn in a simple yet powerful way.
In Ishmael we find a detective teetering on the thin line between justice and morality. Far away from America, the boundaries are blurred. Can he keep true to himself and yet catch the bad guys, when it is the bad guys who run the country?
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, the writing segued seamlessly and the characters are well moulded. What I particularly liked was how Ngugi makes you think about what the West is doing to Africa, how guilt is now a currency which may or may not be doing any good. And just how much money is being wasted and siphoned away into dirty bank accounts. And he does it with such flare and tenderness that you can’t help liking Ishmael, O and Muddy. They’re tough and their morals may be different to yours but, nevertheless, you’ll want to know more about them .
One of the interesting things about Nairobi Heat was how Ishmael, born and bred in America, comes to grip with Africa, the land of his ancestors. The cultural gap, being called a ‘white man’, the pace of life, it all affects him more than he realises. This isn’t just a crime novel, it’s also a novel of one man’s discovery in bridging the cultural divide.