Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani, looks at one hundred years of Kenyan social history through the eyes of three immigrants and their descendants, whose lives intersect during the building of a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Ian Edward McDonald, an ex-military man, is tasked with overseeing the laying of five hundred miles of track through the hinterlands of what was then called the British East Africa Protectorate. Reverend Richard Turnbull is a missionary who befriends McDonald in an attempt to facilitate better understanding of the natives. Babu Rajan Salim travels to Kenya from the Punjab with his young wife, Fatima. Babu works on the railway alongside other Indians brought in to bolster the workforce of Arabs and Africans. Each race is ranked and segregated. The British supervisors hold all others in contempt.
When the railway is completed McDonald expects to return to his estranged wife, Sally, in England. Instead of the knighthood he desired his bosses offer him land in Kenya. He settles on a farm in the Rift Valley, in a town that will grow to be Nakura. Here he builds a grand house for Sally, which eventually becomes the Jakaranda Hotel.
The narrative shifts between the railway construction at the turn of the century and 1963, when Babu’s grandson, Rajan, is employed at the hotel as a musician. During a power cut Rajan briefly encounters a woman whose kiss enthrals him. He has no idea who she could be but is determined to find out. The country is on the cusp of independence. The Jakaranda Hotel has opened its doors to customers of all colours and creeds, a mixing that few yet know how to deal with.
The progress of the railway is hampered by locals attempting to preserve their land and way of life. McDonald believes in the power of violent suppression but at times struggles to control the workforce he orders to carry out his diktats. He considers Babu a troublemaker despite him being a model worker. Others are taking advantage of their transient existence, impregnating young women they encounter along the way.
It took me a little while to fully engage with the story. The wide and varied cast of characters provide a picture of a country where views vary as to whose rights should have precedence – colour, creed and gender. In the later timescale, despite decades of living in close proximity, there remains an inability to comprehend other’s motivations, so far removed are they from what each family have been raised to value, carried with them from their country of origin. Actions that caused shame in the past have been kept secret, but some now feel these secrets should be shared, with unintended consequences.
In presenting each of the key character’s points of view the author offers an understanding of the clash of cultures and intolerance of difference from all sides. The arrogance of the British is obvious but the Indians carry their prejudices with them too. With the Africans now looking forward to independence they are not seeking to reinstate the way of living stolen from them, there has already been too much change. They desire the power to subjugate and to profit, learning from their former masters rather than seeking a more inclusive direction.
The story contains much humour as it portrays each concern at an individual level, and the ripples these, perhaps inadvertently, cause for the many. Once engaged I very much enjoyed the rhythm and cadence of the narrative, the dance each of the cast learned in order to deal with their transplanted situations. The natural beauty of Kenya and its wildlife contrasts with its human residents’ self-absorption. I may despair at times of the apparent foolishness of people but this was a thought-provoking and entertaining read.
My copy of this book was provided gratic by the publisher, Telegram Books.