First published in 2003, a year after Daniel arap Moi had left office as second president of Kenya, Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed
The novel is set in a time of toxicity:
It seemed a demon had entered the minds of many people, filling them with venom that made them consume sordid stories of slander which they gleefully vomited out without blinking an eyelid. Everywhere one turned people were gossiping maliciously. Like flies attracted to a rotting carcass, men and women buzzed around each other with malice and ill-will instead of tackling the poverty and disease which stared them in the face at every street corner, on every village path. As the city stank with mountains of uncollected garbage, the rumour-mongers’ stink of malice polluted towns, villages, and market-places all over the land.
Tess knew, like many other people did, that days were gone when it was possible to hear someone say to a friend or a neigbour, ‘your joy is my joy, and your tears are my tears.’ Day in, day out, in bars and in hotels, in homes and in offices, in schools and in colleges, in churches and in mosques, in hospitals and in dispensaries, people’s mouths never ceased oozing out evil and venom against colleagues and neighbours.
Njau question the too-celebratory Kenyan history of the “second liberation,” which takes for granted the ethical standing of those who opposed Moi’s regime.
Unsettling a narrative that praises the “purity” of those who lived under Moi but were opposed to him—the much-fetishized innocent citizenry, the “wananchi,” and the “liberation” warriors, the much-venerated men and women—Njau emphasizes the circulation of toxicity, the “oozing of evil and venom,” the impossibility of empathy.
Njau refuses the fantasy that unethical regimes can exist without distributing their toxicity.
The novel’s protagonist, Tesa Koki Kenga, composes and teaches music at a high school. She creates and spreads beauty. The novel invites us to contrast her world-imagining, world-beautifying labor to the “venom” that is consumed and “vomited out.”
Vomiting (gutahika) is central to Gikuyu ideas of justice and purification: “When you have contracted Thahu, a dreaded ceremonial uncleanness, the Mundu Mugo will Gutahikithia you—to ‘cause you to vomit up the evil that is in you.’” This rendering is hyperbolic—thahu is ritual contamination, but is contracted and spread in very banal ways. It would not be unfair to imagine Gikuyu-ness as filled with forms of ritual vomiting, as a vomiting ethnicity, one dedicated, at one point, to detecting and ejecting contamination.
Within the toxic world that Tesa inhabits, vomiting can no longer serve this cleansing function. Instead, vomiting (gutahika) has become part of the toxic ecosystem, helping to circulate poison.
The Sacred Seed is speculative fiction.
Tesa attracts the attention of the president, Dixon Chinusi. Because she values her chastity, she refuses to have an affair with him. Subsequently, he has her abducted and rapes her. With help from Petro, one of Chinusi’s servants, Tesa escapes from captivity, and resolves to follow “a story”:
As she pondered her next move, a story she had heard over a year before flashed into her mind. This was the story of an elderly woman who was a potter and a healer and had established a sanctuary named Kanoni, in a secluded area. Her name was Mumbi and besides being a gifted potter, she was also courageous, defiant and most inspiring.
Those who knew her said she had inspired and helped many women, whose spirits had withered like leaves, to regain confidence in themselves.
Mumbi is the first mother, the first woman to be created. Mu-umbi also means maker or creator: the “potter,” the shaper, the maker.
Christian and Gikuyu myth encounter each other in Mumbi, the creator-healer. At a moment when toxicity—or, to use the Kenyan term, “corruption”—has so pervaded everyday life, has so “corrupted” life that traditional remedies can no longer work, a new space must be imagined and created, a secluded sanctuary.
Again: this is speculative fiction.
Mumbi imagines and builds a space for women within an “ abandoned sacred grove.” A “crime” had been committed around the grove and it could no longer be used for religious ceremonies. A huge tree dominates the grove—and it incarnates the crime committed there. The narrative never discloses the crime—but at a moment when African men are being celebrated as “great trees,” I am inclined to believe the crime is related to patriarchy’s unhumaning logics and practices.
One of Mumbi’s followers, Nini, narrates Mumbi’s vision:
To [Mumbi] the tree was overpowering. It had ruined the spring, the source of clean water. Her single-minded thought was how to get it uprooted.
She wanted to create out of that sacred place a new sanctuary for women where they would find spiritual refreshment and nourishment, a place of refuge where they would express their pain and their joy. It would be a place for meditation; a place where through collective consciousness, the evil spirit lurking underneath the huge tree would be destroyed.
Where women will shed tears of joy
Blowing their horns
As they dance singing with jubilation;
Their streams of bitter tears will find
An outlet to the lake
And the reeds will tremble in the wind
As the women dance and sing
Whistling at the fountain of sparkling beauty
Where their broken spirits
Will be revived at the life-giving fountain.
It will be a place
Where women will blow their trumpets
And play their flutes
As they celebrate
A new beginning
A new awareness
A wholesome life
A collective consciousness
A transformed existence
And a new spirituality
I cannot help hearing 2003 in this—the feminist hope that the post-Moi years would afford women spaces for healing and liberation. Indeed, the language here invokes prior revolutions—a “collective consciousness,” a “transformed existence.” It also imagines space for grieving.
One hears, constantly, that Kenyans were acclaimed the happiest people in the world in 2003. Now, I wonder if that happiness made any space for the traumatized, for those still living in the long shadow of Moi’s violence, for those whose devalued lives did not regain value with a slight shift of regime.
What spaces of possibility could exist for women as Kenya moved from one ethno-patriarch to another?
When Tesa asks Nini where Mumbi lives, Nini replies,
She used to live at the Kanoni sanctuary which she established but the women who were worried about her safety put up a small hut at the crossroads on the hill across the valley. She chose to live in that place because it was within the vicinity of an important sacred grove where no one would dare harm her. It is also the most strategic place to reside. From there she can see people entering and leaving the village.
Mystical safety meets pragmatic safety in women’s imagining of space. The women who have found sanctuary with Mumbi know how to construct a sanctuary for her.
I cannot follow the novel where it goes—into spaces of possibility and healing and justice. I cannot venture there because I am here, trying to unmake and unimagine the quotidian toxicity and fear of “this is Kenya.”
I need Rebeka Njau, the possibility of speculative fiction—that leap in imagination: I need Njau to try to figure out what this place is now, what this place is failing to be, how this place unimagines itself.
In recent conversations, I have told friends that I feel very foolish. In 2008, when I heard the call to “save” Kenya, I misheard the call. It was accurate—to “save” Kenya. I heard, “to transform Kenya.”
Kenya was to be “saved.”
President Moi was “saved.” It was one of Christian Kenya’s big boasts. As he moved from church to church to church, religious leaders lost their will and ability to prophesy. Prophecy, bible school taught me, is truthtelling. It might involve looking into the future. But at its core, prophecy is truthtelling.
In Kenya’s Moi’s “saved” translated into Christian ethno-patriarchy: a massive concentration of power in the hands of select men. They would be “anointed” men. Trained men. Little Elishas taking up the mantle of leadership.
We were well trained. We desired to join the charmed circle of the called-upon. The recognized. The legible. The legitimate. To share in the bounty available to ethno-patriarchs and ethno-patriarchy.
The Sacred Seed recognizes this training. It recognizes the long life of the no-place for ethics. And it dares to imagine sanctuary.
Only in sanctuary could transformation be envisioned.
Only in sanctuary could one plot a sharable world.
Only in sanctuary could women’s relationships
Because I do not know how to end from here, let me shift geo-histories.
Octavia Butler’s Survivor (1979) is an orphan novel.
The protagonist, Alanna Verrick, is a bi-racial orphan, black and Asian, who chooses, at the end of the novel, to leave/live with aliens, “abandoning” her fellow humans.
Choosing is always strange in Butler—I’ll explore this at greater length in a subsequent post. The choice to survive in Butler’s works—“survival” is a key term for Butler and Audre Lorde—refuses a too-U.S. framing of agency as liberation from embedding.
--Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
The choice to survive requires facing the ethics of complicity. Butler’s works are resolutely anti-sentimental (is that the right term?). Lives end. Tough choices are made. Protagonists are never permitted to be unreservedly lovable or even likable.
Sanctuary is never utopia. Merely another moment of survival. That “merely” is needed, because Butler always reminds us that survival is precarious—even the near-immortal can—and do—die.
More than any other novelist I know, Butler emphasizes that the ethical choice always tears and fractures: truthtelling is breaking hard against things.
A promissory note from a gorgeous voice, who is still teaching me how to listen: