Author: Egara Kabaji
Title: A Journey to Becoming (A Novel)
Publisher and Year: One Planet Publishing and Media Services Ltd, 2022
Reviewer: Mbukha Shitemi
Egara Kabaji’s A Journey to Becoming is an intriguing and thought proving novel. Its strength lies in the complexity of its simplicity.
No wonder it won the Second Runners Up for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, 2022 edition.
This novel takes us through the life challenges of Deresi, who, in a turn of events, loses her fiance when she is six months pregnant in a tragic road accident!
Lost, confused, and desperate, Deresi is rescued by a good Samaritan, Mtiga, who becomes her guardian angel. This is the man who finally marries her.
In its simplicity, this novel invokes one of the most interesting features of a novel—the prologue and epilogue.
Very few novels published in Africa embody this stylistic feature.
The prologue and epilogue in this novel hold the key to appreciation of its inner life and pulse.
Cryptic in a sense, they unveil the none-dit of the novel and create a sense of expectation in the reader.
But perhaps what is outstanding is the author’s ability to neatly weave together life experiences in a mosaic web that touches the inner chambers of any reader interested in social justice and the true meaning of love.
It is enthralling that Deresi marries Mtiga, a man with a golden heart and a saintly spirit.
He supports her through the roughest patch of her life, demonstrating his overbearing love that culminates in matrimony.
This same enduring love is extended to Ghati, their daughter.
In essence, the couple has to go through the struggle of protecting their daughter, Ghati, from the damaging cultural practice of Female Genital Mutilation.
They wholeheartedly shield Ghati from the practice that the whole community of Maberera seems to uphold with misplaced commitment.
Mtiga, incessantly and single-handedly does all he can to protect his daughter, and this proves to be very expensive.
Unfortunately, he gets minimal support from the local government and the community.
Due to his opposition to FGM, the community stigmatizes and alienates his family.
This extends to being denied access to their cows’ water source and grazing areas.
Deresi’s poultry project is burned down one night by suspected locals who are, lamentably, her neighbors.
In pursuit of justice, Mtiga, unfortunately, realizes that there is a lot of political influence, bribery, and violence in order to convince members of the community to continue with the practice of FGM.
Worse still, the police are absolutely corrupt.
They have to be bribed to do their work of ensuring peace and order in the community! Mtiga’s struggle, regrettably, ends tragically.
The author of this novel is, by all means, a master of suspense.
It is only as the novel ends that it is revealed that Mtiga was not the biological father of Ghati, a girl he loved with all his heart.
This is an interesting twist because, the reader is carried all through the novel with no idea of learning this since no hint is dropped.
It appears that the author is interested in demystifying the idea that a father’s love is only for his biological children. Such men are indeed very rare in our society.
The story also takes us through Ghati’s life and feelings.
Ghati’s life journey to maturity is a “voyage to becoming”.
We can see that the novel’s life and that of Ghati are synchronized to reach their quintessence together.
This is easily made possible because Ghati narrates the story in first-person.
First-person storytelling enables us to get the inner feelings of the narrator and controls our view of things since we only see and feel the events through the eye and minds of the narrator.
Mtiga faces an uphill task in trying to convince his community out of a culture they have practiced since time immemorial.
We see this when Deresi’s friend, Sinet, is circumcised during childbirth without her consent just because the midwife believed that she was “dirty” for not having been circumcised and could not help her deliver her baby until it was done.
What a chilling experience!
Through the life experiences of Deresi and Ghati’s eyes, we see the social and cultural injustices that women have to go through to fit into society.
We witness, among other evils, female genital mutilation, wife inheritance, ritual cleansing, and eviction of widows by relatives from their homes after their husbands die.
In these unfortunate situations, Mtiga struggles to protect his daughter and the girl-child at large.
However, Mtiga has to lose his life for this cause that he believes in so strongly.
What killed Mtiga? This is a matter of conjecture, but there are all indications that it was the pressure as a result of his crusade to protect women and girls.
After Mtiga’s death, Deresi’s life as a widow has definitely taken a different turn; she has to make the most logical decision of moving the children out of the hostile environment.
She has to find a way to fend for her family too.
Though she feels embarrassed, the only place she can go back to is her parents’ home.
Fortunately, she is received warmly, and her brothers and sisters are very accommodating.
It is not all gloomy in the novel, though. There are many sparks of hope symbolized by, among others, Senje and teacher Vikiru.
Senje is a no-nonsense daughter of the soil who fights for the rights of women, while teacher Vikiru is a progressive teacher.
The story brings out the cruelty of Female Genital Mutilation practiced in some communities in Kenya.
The humiliation, disrespect, and stigmatization that the women in these communities have to go through if they don’t accept the culture is traumatizing.
Besides, the health complications that the women who have gone through the cut must endure are punishing.
Mtiga is portrayed as the Deresi’s knight in shining amour.
He helps her when she is at a very low point in her life, admitted to the hospital after an accident that claimed her fiance.
He stands by her and marries her despite her condition. He never spoke to anyone about Ghati not being his biological daughter; he was extra loving and caring towards her, just like his biological children.
Deresi is a quiet woman, a homemaker who cares for her family well despite her husband working far away.
It is unfortunate that she has to suffer in the name of culture to the point of losing her husband.
Ghati is a very intelligent girl who wants to learn everything about the world despite the hostile environment.
But when she is moved to a peaceful environment, she pursues her studies with all her might and ends up becoming a medical doctor.
Ghati’s grandfather is a very accommodating man.
He accepts to take his daughter back after her husband’s unfortunate and untimely death.
He goes to the extent of selling his livestock to ensure that his grandchildren go to school because Deresi is not able to do so on her own.
In a dramatic show of love, he covers a long distance to visit Ghati in school before her final examinations and to encourage her.
The description of this journey is done so lavishly that one begins to think of it as being symbolic.
Rushi is a true reflection of an all-season friend who supports Mtiga and his family through thick and thin.
He even offers to look after the farm after the death of Mtiga when Deresi makes a decision to move away with the children.
A Journey to Becoming is a narrative of hope.
It tells the story of the pain that ordinary women go through in a patriarchal society.
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It is, on another level, a story of how women can emerge triumphantly against all odds.
Prof. Kabaji shows us that widows need family and societal support as they come to terms with the loss of their husbands. What an amazing story!
Prof. Egara Kabaji is a Literary Communication Professor based at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). He is a prolific author and literature promoter.