Home and Belonging: A Review of Oduor Jagero’s ‘The Ghosts of 1894’

by Carey Baraka

Image Credit: Leah Kanda, The Magunga Bookstore

The Ghosts of 1894 is the second novel by Kenyan author Oduor Jagero, his first having been ‘True Citizen’. Oduor Jagero’s novels have both been self-published. The Ghosts of 1894 is an account of the concept of home and the enduring nature of the human spirit. Set in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, it is the story of Habineza, the protagonist, as he is assailed by tribal-based violence across the three countries. He is forced to flee from the three countries at different points in his life, events that form the core of the book.

The question that first springs to mind when one reads this book is one on the subject of home and belonging: At what point does one accept his or her state of belonging to a particular place? At what point does one call this place home? At some point in the book, Oduor Jagero makes us privy to Habineza’s thoughts, to his story:

“The people on the other side looked at us with curiosity: who were we? Where had we come from and what were we running away from? I think they somehow realized that we were just like them. We ate the same cassava and yams and squatted in the bush just like they did. So they empathized with us.”

Here, perhaps a tad humorously, the Ugandans accept the fleeing Tutsis on the basis of their mutual means of ingestion and defecation. They accept these strangers into their community upon realization of their mutual humanity. At this point, we are led to believe that once a community accepts that the strangers in their midst are also human, all antagonism is forgotten. If only this was true… It is no secret that Adolf Hitler’s extermination of Jews was driven by an inherent belief that the Jews were inferior to the Aryan race. However, is it true that every other human conflict has been based on one party’s belief in the absence of humanity in the other? Is it true that the system-driven tribal annihilations of the Kurds and the Aborigines, the fighting between the Dinka and the Nuer, and every other tribal-based conflict, is as a direct result of this belief?

Furthermore, in Habineza’s thoughts, in what some would claim as the true story of the book, we are told of Habineza and his father’s departure from Uganda:

“Three months later, my father gambled; he sold everything in Uganda and we left the burning country for a relatively peaceful Rwanda. It was just the two of us, father and son, but by now we enjoyed more of friendship than the previous child-parent relationship. My brother was by then married with a young son and selling car spares in Kinshasa, Zaire. He wished us luck but never followed us. His wife was a brown and beautiful Congolese woman; the kind of woman you don’t walk around with especially in a region that had more rebels than trees.”

Habineza’s brother, despite his father and brother seeking to move back to Rwanda, declines to join in because he feels at home in Kinshasa. Because he also longed to be in one place, he does not feel the need to shift his roots again. This is unlike his family who, despite living in a place whose denizens had accepted their humanity, decided to move back to Rwanda.

Oduor Jagero’s book holds undoubtable importance, especially in lieu of the current culture of tribal animosity Kenya finds itself in. At the launch of the book at The Goethe-Institut, a member of the audience professed her wish for Moses Kuria, a Member of Parliament, to read the book. This was of course after he [Moses Kuria] and his friends had been arrested for making incendiary statements against certain individuals and tribes. Perhaps reading the book would compel one to desist from such, from discrimination of other persons on certain grounds as tribe, race, sex, colour, etc.

The book also looks at the issue of friendship, particularly in a way that ties in with the question of the endurance of the human spirit; how the human spirit may find itself unable to go through harsh experiences in the absence of friendship. An important factor behind the survival of Vestine, Sandra and Habineza lay in the mutual friendship they share in the bush. On a number of occasions, their survival is ensured only by the presence of each other. Without each other, there is no doubt that their respective spirits would have given in. Friendship is also further explored by the unlikely friendship of Buddy, Akamanzi, and Juliet. It is solely due to Buddy that the two girls are able to stave off death due to starvation:

“Something landed at Juliet’s feet: a huge, ripe banana. Another one followed, and then another. Juliet turned to look where they were coming from. Seated on a rock, about ten paces from where they sat, was the huge gorilla that had trotted away.”

Without the gorilla, the two girls would have perished in the wilderness. This goes to show how, in times of turmoil, one has to have a chain of friends who will lend one’s spirit the support it needs to endure hardship. Furthermore, this relationship shows us that sharing a thing in common, tribe, race, nationality, or even in this case, species, should not be a contributing necessity in the relationships we seek to foster between ourselves.

In retrospect, while it is an excellently written text, The Ghosts of 1894 is littered with a myriad of tiny mistakes that put a shade on its wonderful content. There are embarrassing syntactical and contextual mistakes even on the book’s cover itself. For example, on the blurb the word ‘headquarter’ is printed, when it would make grammatical sense for it to be ‘headquarters’, and a quote is attributed to a Prof. Tom Odhiambo of the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi. Tom Odhiambo of the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, does not yet hold a professorship. Furthermore, unsettling I must add, is a certain description of Nairobi that seems to rewrite the city’s geography:

“From his bedroom window, Lee watched the neon lights light up City Hall Way. Twilight girls littered the notorious Koinange Street, plying their illegal trade next to the imposing Holy Family Basilica…”

Of course, it is already public knowledge that The Ghosts of 1894 is a self-published book. This is important because Oduor Jagero proves to us that shunning traditional publishers does not necessarily result in substandard work. However, when I accidentally spilled juice on a copy of the book and tried to wipe it off with a wet napkin, I seemed to have wiped off a bit of underlying text. A minor one-off occurrence, perhaps?

About the Author:

Carey Baraka is a writer and Associate Editor at Enkare Review.

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