Book: Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani

  • Rebecca Tinsley

At the turn of the twentieth century, the British colonial administration built a railway between Mombasa on the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria. They brought 30,000 men from India to Kenya to accomplish this ambitious task. The British oversaw the project, the Indians provided the skilled labour, and the African population did the back-breaking work.

Dance of the Jakaranda is a novel told mainly from a Punjabi engineer's point of the view, which makes it unusual. From Elsbeth Huxley to William Boyd, there have been impressive novels about the colonialists' mistreatment of native peoples and the boredom that drove them to white mischief. Hence it is refreshing to explore a very different, Indian experience of Kenya as it was being developed and exploited.

Kimani is a journalist and poet, and his prose is a pleasure to read, with beautifully observed word paintings sprinkled throughout the text. Yet, Kimani avoids pretentiousness, keeping the action moving along. He does not try to gloss over the tensions between the industrious Indian immigrants and the understandably resentful and suspicious African population (a dissonance that continues today).

Nor does he hide the gross entitlement and corruption of the African elite who would replace the entitled and corrupt British administrators at independence. The origins of Kenya's current problems are made obvious.

Of particular interest to ICN readers may be the British missionary. As I read, I wanted to know more about this complex character, but at the end I discovered why he had been seemingly neglected throughout the story. One word of caution: this is an authentically African novel, so female characters are not developed, and women appear merely as objects with whom to fornicate. The status of women has not improved much over the years, as is evident from the author's approach to them.

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani published by Telegram Books, £8.99

Tags: Rebecca Tinsley, Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

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