When I was a child, I would play with a group of 8 colorful barrels, each marginally smaller than the next, fitting one into the other in sequence, starting with a tiny pink one and ending with a large blue one.
Reading Just Matata by Braz Menezes was like playing with the barrels.
Just Matata is book one in the Matata Trilogy. Each chapter can stand alone as a short story. And within each chapter there are beautifully phrased extracts that capture a facet of human nature in a gentle and insightful manner. One barrel fitting into the next, and then the next…
Discovering these small gems was just one of the delights in what is a truly enjoyable reading experience.
In looking back to the arrival of Chico Menezes in Kenya and tracing his family’s life through the eyes of his eldest son Lando, Just Matata speaks to being a Kenyan of Indian or South Asian origin. It offers the opportunity to look back and reflect on what Kenya was like nearly 100 years ago, critically examine, what has and has not changed in the country, and compare it to our contemporary lives and routines.
This is the broad stroke of Menezes’ book and it communicates the overarching theme that is the coming together of two cultures that are joined by the Indian Ocean.
The idea is captured by Menezes in his opening extract taken from The Tree of Life:
‘When cultures fuse Together
We call it the Tree of Life
The Tree that nurtured You
Has been transplanted in a new Land
Each sapling will send out its own Roots
And adapt in order to Survive’.
The merging of cultures is an experience that can never be the same for two people or two families but reading Lando’s story allows us to reflect on how our own Indian cultures have been moulded by our host country, regardless of whether we live in Kenya or elsewhere in the world.
The smaller insights developed by the narrative are just as poignant, such as the short, simple sentence at the start of chapter 9:
‘In 1948 I can walk to the ends of my world in just minutes’ which offers an extraordinary glimpse into the life of young Lando.
Menezes also engages with all five of the senses when he is writing and the combined effect by the end of a chapter, let alone the end of the book, is vividly intense.
My personal favourites are the car ride to Nakuru and Kericho, and the sea voyage to Goa. These enhance the relationship that is built between the reader and Lando, and we are encouraged to see and experience everything as he did, down to the tangy taste of the mango masala that he and his best friend Jeep enjoy at Ali’s kiosk.
As the narrative builds, the link between the reader and Lando does too. Events and activities are no longer described in a leisurely manner, which detracts from the detail and intensity of feeling that was central to the beginning of the book, and while the word Matata was peppered through the first three quarters of the book, serving as breadcrumbs to the development of the plot and adding spice to the read, the references disappear altogether towards the end.
These stylistic changes alter the rhythm and speak to Lando’s feelings of anxiety and alienation. And this continues to enhance the close identification that has developed between the reader and Lando.
‘More persons in more parts of the world consider a wider set of “possible” lives than they ever did before’ simply because through media products they are offered the opportunity to engage with different social scenarios in a vicarious manner,” says Dr Arjun Appadurai (1996), a social cultural anthropologist.
Just Matata is Lando’s story – that doesn’t change. But because Menezes builds a strong relationship between the reader and the narrator, we are able to vicariously engage with the different social scenarios that Lando experiences, and his growing up, his awareness of the country of his birth and the country of his cultural roots, and his journey of self discovery, gradually become our own.