Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a Kenyan poet, author and literary scholar and an Associate Professor of English at Cornell University. Unbury Our Dead With Song is his fourth novel. Review by Gail Collins.
As I write this review, I am listening to a playlist of Tizita music the author posted on You Tube in 2019 – a musical genre from Ethiopia and Eritrea evoking nostalgia for loves lost or lives that could have been, and in the West often referred to as African Blues.
This is the music that inspired a story that not only takes you into the depths of trying to understand a sound that reaches so deeply into the soul, but along the way makes you realise that there is no solitary explanation – Tizita is an individual experience even when shared collectively.
Unbury Our Dead with Song is the fourth novel by Kenyan poet, author and literary scholar Mukoma Wa Ngugi. Told through the eyes and emotions of the fictitious John Thandi Manfredi, a US-Kenyan journalist who writes for a popular tabloid – The National Inquisitor – one feels that a ripple of the author was weaving in and out of this character. Focused on four gifted Ethiopian musicians competing to sing the best Tizita in the unlikely venue of an illegal boxing hall in Nairobi, the journalist follows the musicians back to Ethiopia to learn more about the Tizita and their lives.
The story explores the lives of these four diverse characters, who are brought together by the bond of music. Meet The Diva: “the glow of sparkling whiteness from the diamond studded dress almost blinding”. In contrast, there is The Taliban Man, an Ethiopian rapper living a young man’s dream wrapped in wealth and decadence, whose old music teacher tells the journalist, “Only I know what I have unleashed into this world”.
Next comes The Corporal – a man who claims many personas according to others: “It is possible he is creating these stories to keep us from the truth of who he is.” Finally, and I believe this is the character for whom the author possibly felt the most affection, there is Miriam: “The oldest bartender in Kenya”.
A feast of learning
An impressive (although you might expect no less from a writer of such good credentials) and enjoyable book, it is the perfect balance between an appealing story, characters you like beyond their flaws and a feast of learning if, like me, you are a Tizita virgin.
The narrative is emotional without being sentimental, and poetic when it benefits the story. Entwined throughout is the knowledge that the author has a grounded sense of realism about a continent he clearly loves and as a poet and political activist, he excels at guiding us to what he wants us to feel throughout the story.
There is on occasion, a stark reality check between the expressive neediness of the Tizita and the complicated world of African politics, war and corruption: “That is what I can never understand – that we cause each other misery; rape, torture and murder each other. We are our own predators.”
There are also astute comments on the Western perception of the African continent.“Even I, who should have known better after visiting Kidane’s rural home, was still shocked by the greenness of the highlands. Bob Geldof, and much later, Bono, had pulled a number on the world; they had redefined the image of a whole continent to one that was always holding a beggar’s bowl…”
This novel, although a work of fiction, nevertheless portrays abundant truths about Africa. It examines the soul of a continent but recognises the conflicts of its countries. “It seemed Pan-Africa was in spirit and not in practice.”
The tale of the Tizita is the essence which binds the story, but as you turn the pages, stratums of Africa are revealed in all their beauty, cruelty and hope. If you are someone who is stirred by the sound of a song, or feel an ache in your heart over a farewell, and you enjoy a well-crafted and honest book – please put this one on your reading list. (And see if you can find the New African magazine reference in the story!)
Notes on the author
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a Kenyan poet, author and literary scholar and an Associate Professor of English at Cornell University. Son of acclaimed writer and theorist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he was born in 1971 in Illinois, US but grew up in Gitogothi Village just outside Nairobi, during a period of deep political oppression.
His father was imprisoned without trial when he was six years old for provoking the then Kenyan Vice President, Daniel arap Moi (who was later to become Kenya’s second President) and released a year later.
In 1982, his father went into exile, leaving Mukoma Wa Ngugi and the remaining family to be brought up by his mother Nyambura wa Ngugi, who sadly died in 1996, and his two grandmothers.
It was tough, with constant harassment from the Kenyan government, and it was a constant battle to make ends meet, but with adversity comes a strength and he returned to the US in 1990 to continue his education.
Unbury Our Dead With Song is his fourth novel, following Mrs. Shaw, Black Star Nairobi and Nairobi Heat. He has also penned two books of poetry: Logotherapy and Hurling Words at Consciousness; and two non-fiction titles: The Rise of the African Novel and Conversing with Africa.
He is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and has been shortlisted for both the Caine Prize and Penguin Prize for African literature. During the writing of his latest novel, he immersed himself in Tizita music, which shines through in the book. In 2013 he was deservedly on New African’s list of 100 Most Influential Africans.