There are not so many authors that have captured Africa’s contemporary capitalist reality the way Meja Mwangi does. His is a tale of bravery and survival, of disillusionment and persistence. It is a very moving narrative of the hard daily realities that have come to inform life after independence.
Written in 1976, Going Down River Road remains a masterpiece of contemporary fiction that grapples with dangers that come with urbanisation under the umbrella of development. It is a story that follows Ben Wachira and his friend Ochola as they compete for survival with the rest of humanity in Nairobi.
After losing his job at the Panafrican Insurance Company, Ben chances on Wini, a beautiful office secretary and a part-time night girl, who is ready to house and fund him as a husband. In turn, as “an honoured guest; a privileged refugee”, Ben is not expected to complain about Johnny, Wini’s boss who drives by every morning to pick her up for work.
Ben picks employment at Patel and Chakur Contractors as a casual labourer. They are building Development House. Ben and friend Ochola often do the underground duties which he says “included eating half the dust on site.” It is here, through the streets, the bars and brothels that the entire story comes to life.
It is a narrative that explores the acute levels of exploitation, betrayal and conspiracy, and self debasement. The men work with their lives on the line. One truck driver, an ex sergeant major Onesumus, who, colleagues in the army had ridiculously nicknamed One-Arse-Mess, drives a truck which “does not steer properly” and he is running over everyone else, and through building claiming that the truck does not stop. This is the scaring level of absurdity that men in lowly positions have to brave so as to put bread to the table!
But even sadder and more concerning, is the unstoppable reality of slum creation, the mother and father of all the crimes that the novel so tactfully and powerful deals with. Poor sanitation, senseless immorality and hopelessness are the norm in these places. On the first encounter at Ben’s house, the host makes a dull explanation as to why Wini can’t even wash her face at Ben’s residence. Whining that the bathrooms stink, the visitor compounds the slum problem in a rhetoric question, “Where don’t they?” Clearly, this the jugular vein of this novel; not that the horrors that modernity brings are everywhere, but the grim fact that at some point, the people agree to leave with them!
There is no respect for self, neither neighbour nor client — if an opportunity to cheat unveils, it should be exploited as soon as is possible. As women are reduced to objects of men’s pleasure, men are rated at the level of a cement mixer. “Hands!” Ben whines. “That is what they are here…if the contractor would make hands, he would never need labourers!”
As the postcolonial Nairobi made a rush towards urbanisation, the moral and human fabric broke down in ways that have never been seen before. And Meja Mwangi uses it as a case study to project the rot that engulfed postcolonial urbanising Africa using the life of an ex-lieutenant, Ben. Prostitution and drinking tough spirits such as karara and changaa, becomes the best comfort.
The narrative however is very punchy and make ecstatic reading. The language in the dialogue is used in a manner that is indicative of both social and emotional violence that has taken over people’s lives and minds. There’s constant use of words such as “bastards”, “burgers”, and even the much uglier ones like “fuckers.”