Meja Mwangi is a Kenyan novelist whose contribution to literature has been recognized by his two time award of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Going Down River Road is his third novel and was first published in 1963.
Mwangi focuses on the suffering that the poor go through daily. Lack of housing, inadequate food, low wages and exploitation are some of the issues covered. One would think that this is a rather sad tale, but Meja’s talent is evident in the way he portrays serious situations in a funny way- the reader can’t help but laugh through some of the scenarios created. I must admit I was impressed.
We are introduced to Ben, a former army man, who has just been fired from the Pan African Insurance company. With his last pay, he decides to ‘celebrate’ in style. He visits bars and brothels. That is where he meets Wini, a beautiful professional prostitute. She is also a student, doing a secretarial course and mother to a four year old son, Baby. She has a great sense of humor. When they are in his house, they comment about the cockroaches all over the place. She tells Ben that
“You cannot kill them; I have tried all I can in my house. You find them playing with the insecticide container, trying to eat the plastic lid!”
Ben thinks he is lucky; he gets a job at a construction site. He moves in with Wini, but he doesn’t mind much since Wini is meeting all the costs, and she doesn’t mind even when he drinks a whole month’s pay. That is the life at the construction site- drinking karara and smoking bhang. The wages the laborers earn can’t afford them a decent meal, so stomach problems are common. At the site Ben is Ocholla’s buddy- they share cigarettes and drinks at the end of the day. Ben thinks life couldn’t be any better. Wini has promised to get them decent jobs and Ben is thinking of wedding Wini.
But he gets the shock of his life when Wini abandons him and Baby and runs off with her white boss. He loses trust in women, and ‘adopts’ Baby, though the mother had left clear instructions that he should be taken to an orphanage. Ben is protective of Baby and loves him as his own son and pays his school fees.
Meanwhile Ben and Ocholla have sworn to be friends for life- nothing should ever separate them. Ochollla shares his shanty hut when Ben and Baby have nowhere to go. The plot climaxes when Ocholla’s family comes into the picture. He has two wives and a big number of children. They are all staying in that hut. This puts his friendship with Ben to the test- Baby rapes his daughters and he eats too much. He can’t send away his family so Ben will have to construct his own hut.
“We have been pals for such a long time. Drunk together, lived, eaten together……………….It is bad to spoil such a friendship.”
And as they go down River road after their drinks, it is obvious that they will come up with a solution like friends always do.