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The Last Plague



by Meja Mwangi
Publishers: East African Educational Publishers,
ISBN: 9966 25 0646
449 pages
Date of First Publication: 2

In this column, makes a case for a potential African classic. Do you know a book that belongs here? Send us your thoughts.

 The Love of a Strong Woman


‘Musa was staring out of the window at a funeral procession approaching down the empty street. It was a small procession, much, much smaller than usual, even by Crossroads standards. The pall bearers and the mourners were all children, and none of them was older than thirteen. The coffin was small and narrow, made out of light plywood, and it was carried so effortlessly by four of the children that it was hard to believe it contained the remains of their once mighty and formidable mother. But they carried it with courage and dignity and not even the youngest among them shed any tears.’

In his 449-page novel, THE LAST PLAGUE, Kenyan writer, Meja Mwangi, achieved two things: he wrote a restrained AIDS novel that was true to the apocalyptic character of the pandemic, and he wrote a classic of delirious humour. It is this combination of tragedy (that never quite loses its grasp on hope), deft satire, and unexpected humour that bushwhacks the reader at the most sombre moments, that makes this book compelling rereading, even seven years after its first publication.

Crossroads is dying. We are never quite told the population of this AIDS-besieged town, but the exodus to the bus stop on Hell’s Run is surpassed only by the haemorrhage towards the graveyard. It is so relentless that the chief has imposed a funeral hour: so that the streets can sometimes be free of the depressing parade of coffins.

At the centre of the novel is one woman’s battle against tradition to install the condom as a bastion against the spread of the disease. Janet Juma is family planning officer for Crossroads. Tall, beautiful and self-willed, she is desired and feared by every man in equal measure, but since her abandonment 10 years earlier by Ben Broker, her husband, she has been cured of men. She now wages a single-minded struggle to deliver her community from the clutches of AIDS.

The novelist recycles the arguments for and against the condom, revisits the communal strategies for dealing with the pandemic, and the dangerous traditional practices like polygamy and mass circumcisions that fortify the stranglehold of AIDS, but the reader does not discover tedium. Instead he is seduced into the addictive Village Meeting, that ubiquitously African wrangle of group conversation, satirical put-downs, witty asides and fatuous grand-standing. It is to Mwangi’s credit that a novel so firmly mired in the real tragedy of AIDS has little of the mawkish; and yet cannot safely be read in public - in places, the reader will be hard put to avoid hysterical laughter.

Aside from Janet Juma, four indelible characters emerge: Musa, cook and proprietor of one of the last hotel/teahouses in Crossroads barely manages to sell a teacup a day. He is perpetually at the door of his teahouse, looking up and down the empty streets, threatening to pack up and leave his only friend and solitary resident, Uncle Mark.

Uncle Mark, dapper, draughts-playing raconteur, has travelled the world and returned to Crossroads to live out the rest of his life. He knows that Musa will never leave, but does not stop hoping that he won’t. Meantime, when he is not comforting lonely widows, he situates himself at the periphery of village violence, dispensing his timely bon-mots and pragmatic philosophies from a safe distance.

Frank Fundi was the brilliant village lad. Already a vet, the community had rallied around his father to raise money for him to study medicine abroad. His dream evaporates when he is diagnosed with AIDS. He exhausts the village scholarship and returns home to their censure - and ‘certain’ death; but his childhood crush, Janet, has other plans for him and he becomes a reluctant recruit to her crusade.

Even Crossroad’s beggar is larger than life. The vet’s shop has been wrecked by thugs. After raising the alarm he returns to ‘loot’,

‘they watched the beggar sift through the wreckage and pop tablets and things into his mouth. Some of them were bitter and he spat them out immediately. Others he chewed on with relish… He found a bottle of sheep de-worming syrup and joyfully gulped it down…’

Mwangi does not leave the hilarious consequence of this looting to our imagination, either.

Broker is the delinquent husband who abandons Janet for ten years. He disappears with a local prostitute, goes through several wives and lovers before returning home, dying of AIDS, but determined to resurrect his dying community and earn their affection before his end. He is arrogant and egocentric; when his wife fails to recognise him in his withered condition, he boasts:

‘You should have seen me a few months ago… belly up to here, buttocks up to there. I had a neck like a hippopotamus, they told me. They called me Big Ben.’

Yet, for all the grief he causes, he is the likeable wretch who almost sold a visiting French cargo ship to a consortium of Japanese investors. In his last days, when dozens of large cars descend on Crossroads, the army of savage, big black men find Broker dozing on his chair...

‘warding off the flies, and the pain by dreaming up new projects for Crossroads, [they] surrounded him and ordered him to lie down and identity himself or be shot to death.

‘Broker did not budge from his seat; he had long passed the stage where the threat of death could make him do anything. He watched them rave and rant and… because he did not care whether they shot him dead or not, Broker found them comical in the extreme.

When he was through laughing at them, he invited them all to the teahouse and introduced them to Mzee Musa and his sweet potato maandazi.

They ate hungrily.’

Mwangi’s novel has a satirical girth reminiscent of his compatriot, Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s masterly Wizard of the Crow. Eventually, he leaves the reader with several delicious puzzles: Was Broker the infamous armed robber, Wa Guka, hunted by Police throughout the book? Would anything come of the electricity between Frank Fundi and Janet Juma? Would Crossroads survive… This is the nature of the resentment that stays with the reader when he parts company with this accomplished writer on page 449. 

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