BOOK REVIEW: Stains on a Cowrie Shell

A cover page design of the book 'Stains on a Cowrie Shell' by Awadifo Olga Kili. The author uses fiction to call the world to attention on the need to cease and discard any tradition and custom ruining people's lives with regard to human rights. PHOTO/Courtesy.
A cover page design of the book 'Stains on a Cowrie Shell' by Awadifo Olga Kili. The author uses fiction to call the world to attention on the need to cease and discard any tradition and custom ruining people's lives with regard to human rights. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Author: Awadifo Olga Kili

Country: Uganda

Genre: Fiction


Reviewer: Benvictor Makau

Set in Ayia, a land of abundance whose people adore nature and withhold it with awe, believing every iota of it is a sacred gift from a Supreme Being, is the story of Stains on a Cowrie Shell.

As narrated by Awadifo Olga Kili, the author, “Ayia was blessed with honey and milk, the land of plenty, a tabernacle for harmony, a temple of peace and a jewel, and the succulent breast of mother earth.”

Its inhabitants lived in hope, under the creator’s undying mercies and clinched firmly to their traditions, consulting spirits, using tree roots for medicinal purposes, and the women using aromatic herbs and resin smoke for bathing and spraying themselves to appease the men’s noses.

All indicators point to a traditional yet fulfilling life in Ayia, with River Ndriza flowing with blue waters of life and sustenance, different from the other rivers meandering across the hospitable land.

There smells safety and natives live with gusto, with boys going grazing and girls working the millet on the stones.

Women are into weaving and modeling their daughters’ hair. The men remain bent on their farms or go hunting. Everything here sounds adorable and ritualistic, and Ayia feels heavenly, while nearby is the Lulucaku Forest.

Reading the book, you would sense the passion with which Ms. Kili writes, lulling the reader’s mind with creatively-woven narrative hooks, vivid descriptions, life and color.

She outpours her inner thoughts carefully to bring out a sense of connectedness between all the cords of the creation and how, though the world was initially a pure Cowrie Shell, human practices have continued to stain it with their actions, customs, beliefs, ruling methods and other inhumane actions they hold dear.

Ondoma, the firstborn in his family and well-cultured, seems to be the benchmark for the other families.

His first wife, Onziru, was, however, a stain to the good name of the famous Ondomo, with her twins, one visually impaired and the other with hearing impairment, being a source of grief to her family.

In keeping with their deeply ingrained traditions, all in-laws had instructed their children and families never to associate with Onziru or play with her children. They were also never counted as part of the clan.

In Ayia, disability signified punishment for evil deeds and the ‘doer’ was alienated.

The wound gradually got rubbed the wrong way and she resolved to go to her paternal home with her twins, and Ondoma’s efforts to find her proved fruitless.

Ondoma’s other wives were no better; his second one, Aliru, a hardworking lady, was inflicted with leprosy, the punishment for murderers, after murdering her brother Oleti when she caught her stealing her millet, as had been his behavior.

Her two sons lacked a mother figure after she was sent away to a nameless hill where the company of other lepers languished.

The sons would later become a disgrace to the Ayia people.

The third one, Candiru, a wicked woman, drunkard, magician and lazy bones, was a thorn in Ondoma’s flesh; when given cowrie shells to sell and purchase food for the family, she would use the proceeds for her drunkenness.

Elders from her family rejected her husband’s efforts to return her to her family.

She, however, gets to her wits’ end and ends up in the den of her colleague lepers.

To the Ayia community, murderers and wicked fellas deserve death in the most painful and most alienating way possible, leprosy.

The respected man’s wives, the three loves of a man of abundance, were stains on his face.

Kili paints an image of a seemingly hospitable Ayia nation, then beautifully brings up underlying issues etched upon culture and tradition but which fall condemned in the eyes of the law on human rights.

The people’s customs are their own stumbling blocks, stains on the beautiful country teeming with life.

However, Ondoma’s fourth wife had a big heart and her husband would forget all his miseries at the sight of Nyakuru.

She took care of her adopted children, building them up in discipline and teaching them hard work, and the heavens appreciated her kindness, love and warmth to visitors by giving her a daughter, Awania, the pride of all who saw her.

Promising much through her obedience and hard work, she deserved the best husband who would compound the family’s love and provide for her with love and warmth.

One day, Awania decides to break free from the fences surrounding her at home to quench her adventurous spirit.

Walking around Ayia’s communities was refreshing and eye-opening.
When she reached one of the busy markets, she encountered the epitome of Ayia.

Young girls, living in the despair of teenage pregnancies, rejection and poverty, married by young, tattered and lazy boys.

The author tells us, “The young boys who married them were a scar of failed life and wasted years….”

Some of the boys were mining gold in the mountains beautifying the Ayia but still, they had nothing to feed their young families, though to them, “Money is now sweet”, one yelled as his lungs could withhold, and “Staying home is for the broke,” as shouted the other.

Girls who had been wrongly parented were a disgrace in public and private.

Running for love, tying themselves with the chords of wedlock, they had thrown their own future into the pit and though from the outside they seemed elated, they were lonely and dying from the inside. Isn’t this the epitome of today’s life?

Staying at home had spared Awania such bitter experiences.

Awania, guided by the right morals taught from childhood, resolved that home was the safest place after all.

In Ayia, the beat of the drum and music went beyond entertainment, being instruments of communication and cultural expression.

Awadifo Kili, a lawyer, author and human rights activist. PHOTO/File.
Awadifo Olga Kili, a Ugandan lawyer, author and human rights activist. PHOTO/File.

As Awania, already the protagonist at this stage, continues with her escapade, her ears catch the sound of drumbeats, different from the ones she is used to hearing, coming from a far hill, the home of the high priest, a miracle-working diviner.

For this one, she realizes it is the dance associated with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

The bi-annual custom had taken root in Ayia and with the dance, it was normalized and that task lay in the diviner’s hands, cutting the girls’ ‘fingers’ and carrying them with him, with the blood being tapped into a gourd for the elders as a show of agreement between the victims and the authority.

Unaccustomed to such inhumanity, Awania converses with some of the victims and is horrified, as the pain and agony associated with that cultural act are clear in the voices of the young girls.

The author describes the three different types of the cut, associating it with the traditions of Ayia and expressing how such customs and inhuman cultural rituals are a barrier to efforts to protect human rights, even in the current life.

Though the pains of giving birth after mutilation stood unequaled, the community stigmatized the uncut, with men refusing them for marriage.

While some died from the pain and hemorrhage, the survivors endured the trauma, a permanent stain on their beautiful souls.

In the entirety of the experiences, she realizes that yonder, beyond her father’s fence, masses have been suffering.

In Ayia, high taxes are collected on everything, especially on grain harvest, every year, to ethnic-related wars leading to the decimation of communities, rape, antagonism, trauma, hunger, displacement, psychological and emotional torture and other inhumane experiences.

Testimonies of survivors are heart-wrenching and their experiences have stuck with them for ages.

Inhabitants of nearby communities who tried to home the refugees were too attacked, some killed, or their children and grandchildren wiped dead.

Ayokua, a ruler in Ayia, a ruthless sadist who had commanded one of the ethnic tribes, the cattle herders, to attack the farmers, escalating the conflict to a deadly war decimating masses, was the source of the plagues which gradually crushed Ayia.

With the people having loose fabric and unity, they couldn’t counter the punitive ruler on time.

As mishaps continued to ravage Ayia, its beauty started fading away; the neighboring communities started chiding associations with Ayias, and different calamities and death-inducing plagues befell Ayia, thought to be a punishment from the creator.

Its glory flew away and the joy of being in the land of plenty couldn’t be traced whatsoever.

Intermarriages between neighboring communities and Ayia’s inhabitants were cut and a separation wall came to mind.

Though Ayokua was later captured and executed, the harm he had caused was irreversible.

With the Ayia native having interacted with those living and hunting in the forest while seeking safety, efforts to re-subdivide the land and restore sanity were fruitless.

The author, using eye-opening yet heart-cracking experiences through the eyes of Awania, takes the reader through such mishaps to bring a sense of understanding the current society and how sticking to the past and outdated customs has bound and blinded those practicing them.

With inhumanities scattered all over the African setting, the cut, punitive taxes, wrong leadership, and outdated traditions in the name of embracing culture, among others, yet with the people still not strong and united enough to resist such drawbacks, many continue to suffer.


Trauma, deaths, sicknesses, fear and other worrying experiences continue to take communities aback, sucking every strength remaining and rendering many self-haters.

This book personifies the current era of sticking to customs tagged tradition and condoning behaviors that jeopardize seamless human rights undertakings. It’s today’s society in a microcosm.

About the Author

Awadifo Kili is a Ugandan Lawyer and Author. She is the Author of the books “Victorious Tales,” “Echoes of Wails” and her recent book “Stains on a Cowrie Shell,” a book crafted in an African narrative that presents the extent to which some traditions and customs are a barrier to the promotion and protection of human rights. Kili is passionate about human rights, and her literature is around domestic, regional, and international human rights law and perspectives.

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Mr. Makau holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media & Communication from Moi University, Kenya. He is a Columnist and Editor with Scholar Media Africa, with a keen interest in Education, Health, Climate Change, and Literature.


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