James Russell is a Canadian author.
As if timed to coincide with a landmark British High Court ruling in October 2012, that allows three elderly Kenyans, arrested and tortured under British colonial rule, during the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, to claim damages from the government, a new book by a downtown resident and Canadian author Braz Menezes provides an excellent glimpse into that period of history.
More Matata: Love After the Mau Mau is an intricately layered story rich with historical significance and youthful innocence. (“Matata” is Kiswahili for “trouble”.) Throughout More Matata, Menezes impresses the reader with his knowledge of Colonial Kenya, and his ability to paint, with well-chosen words, the colourful and compelling backdrop of 1951 Nairobi. But the tapestry never overwhelms the foreground, as Menezes manages to maintain the story’s focus on the frustrations and turmoil of a young boy caught up in the eye of social change. Festering all around him — in the countryside and slums of Nairobi, and indeed, the social fabric of colonial — is the more sinister and deadly matata. The trouble of revolution.
The Mau Mau began its campaign to rid Kenya of colonial rule and like many other native-born Asians, Lando is both bewildered and terrified of the Mau Mau, a militant Black African nationalist movement, which, some say, finally convinced the British government to pack its bags and leave. Much of Lando’s uneasiness is rooted in the racial and caste system. The system has assigned Lando, his family, and all other Asians to a centuries-old privileged status a rung below Europeans but above black Africans. Lando’s vaulted social status and economic future is rendered tenuous by the powerful winds of revolution and the stench of repression.
Against this backdrop of murder, mass detention, and mayhem, Menezes weaves an endearing story of adolescence, friendship, love lost, then found, then lost again. When Lando falls hopelessly in love with a woman of mixed race, his father forbids the marriage. “How hypocritical we Goans are — Catholics on Sundays, and practicing a Hindu caste system the rest of the week,” his mother shouts at his father.
Throughout this story, it is Lando’s voice and presence that drives More Matata. And throughout the book’s 300-plus pages, Lando succeeds in not only holding our interest with his coming-of-age story, but manages to get our heart racing on more than a few occasions.
Having read the first and second books in Menezes’s trilogy, I am looking forward to the third instalment by this talented storyteller.