A Review of John Habwe’s Kovu Moyoni (‘Scar in the Heart’)

By Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga


  • Title: Kovu Moyoni
  • Author: John Habwe
  • Publisher: Bookmark Africa
  • Number of pages: 154
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Fiction

Kovu Moyoni (translates loosely as ‘Scar in the Heart’) is a Kiswahili novel based on a series of land clashes in an imaginary village that witnesses the same wrangles as befell the Mt Elgon area of Kenya from 2005 to 2008. The intriguing story is set in the fictional village of Siloko, in a post-independence nation called Tandika. What strikes the reader is how John Habwe expertly documents the intellectual, economic, social and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary African nations.

The story tells of a widow’s struggle against an oppressive local regime represented by a militia group, ‘Jeshi la Vijana’ or the ‘Youth Army’, who attack and plunder her village of Siloko under the pretext of cleansing it of non-natives. The armed group goes about killing all residents who do not belong to their Sululu tribe. Boke, the widow and main character, bears numerous scars in her increasingly traumatised heart. Her husband is shot dead when trying to flee from the enraged Youth Army. Her children – Eddah, Mali ya Mungu and Mwita – go missing. Later, Eddah, returns to narrate her ordeal at the hands of the insurgents. That she has been gang-raped and impregnated scarifies the mother’s heart even more.

The defiant and unfortunate Boke, herself, is later re-attacked and gang-raped in front of Eddah, whose earlobes are sliced off and to whom a sexually transmitted disease has been passed on. Boke’s son, Mwita, manages to escape from the Youth Army’s custody when peace troops from the international community join hands with the local defence forces to neutralise the Youth Army and its commander, Meja-K, a rogue general. Mwita is again arrested, this time by the government forces that, despite being told otherwise, believe he is part of the Youth Army.

In spite of everything, Boke swears not to leave Siloko, preferring to die not far from where she has buried her husband. It is this defiance that hurls her into endless tribulation. Like her, those who defy the Youth Army’s orders to leave Siloko suffer bizarre fates. For example, Chief Ngata, a settler, is stabbed all over in full view of his family and his tongue cut off. His daughters are then defiled.

The story bathes the reader with detailed, vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. Social ills like rape become commonplace. The people of Siloko become used to death, too. The youth drop out of school and end up being drunkards, drug addicts and magma-blooded thugs. Job opportunities are limited if not non-existent. ‘Normal’ jobs are even more taxing and intolerable. For lack of better things to do, the youth end up being recruited into outfits that promote disunity and extremism. The political class uses them to harm perceived opponents. They conceive, print and distribute leaflets ordering ‘unwanted and foreign elements’ to, with immediate effect, leave. All this while their rich sponsors live in an insulated, poverty-free bubble.

The government to which Boke looks to protect her and her property fails in its primary responsibility and instead protects the criminally powerful cartel of land-grabbers and warlords. When she goes to the police station to report her ordeal and to seek justice, she is treated with contempt. After being raped thrice, she nurses wounds that make her reek of disease, death and decay. The police mistreat her because of, among other things, her stench.

Boke, we are told, detests the pretence of the authorities. For instance, Chief Senge, who is the local representative of the national government, who is looked up to by many and who preaches peace at public gatherings, leads hate-spewing, killer gangs when dusk strikes. He plans and sponsors local attacks. He is least affected because he has relocated his family to safer neighbourhoods. Such are the things that carve scars into Boke’s heart. It hurts her that even people close to her participate in raping her. She finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that Onyango, a police officer who has known her for long, led one of the gangs that raped her. Such are the bitter ironies and cruel paradoxes of life in the nation called Tandika.

But not all hope is lost. Not all people are evil. When Boke travels to Mamboleo to seek justice, she is hosted by Mwongera, a friendly and considerate policeman who is loved by many. Her elder son, Mali ya Mungu, is helped a great deal by his long-time friend, Ndori, when he goes to the city of Dunga to hunt for a job.

The story also depicts how rotten the society is. Corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape – you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. Habwe, the reader will note, is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women, children, job seekers, settlers, refugees and the voiceless in Tandika, and in Africa at large. Injustice is meted out to the likes of Mwita who eventually is irrationally sentenced to death.

Stylistically, Kovu Moyoni is a reader’s delight as the diction is neither too extravagant nor too thrifty. The author manages to skirt the boundaries of pomposity with his regular recourse to second-degree synonyms. Habwe’s prose sings throughout the novel. For an African writer, however, the book is not rich in metaphors, aphorisms and folklore, but in the dialogue we see a lot of the inventiveness associated with speakers of local dialect.

It suffices to observe that the concern of the author, an acclaimed professor of Kiswahili, with the grammar of the speech of his characters is revealed in the portrayals of the grammatical inadequacies of Yoko (the vocal and well-connected drug peddler who is finally incarcerated) and his ilk. This is a subtle sign of authorial intrusion as Habwe tars the speech of those characters he wishes to portray as villains with the excessive influence of local slang, sheng. The frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards are the gems in this fast-moving narrative. The peaks and zeniths after peaks and zeniths, the necessary sub-plots, the smaller tales – these and more are powerful condiments in the cocktail that is Habwe’s story. They contribute to the book’s uncomplicated enjoyment.

There are moments, however, in the story, which come across more as obvious foot dragging than as a needful attempt to build up the pressure of expectancy. The amusing scene where Mali ya Mungu, during his early days in the city, fantasises about his life, were he to be as rich as his host, Ndori, is overdone. Another instance is the narration of the challenges that Mali ya Mungu endures at the time his employer repossesses staff housing units and contemplates laying off workers. These nuances (or their lack) notwithstanding, the author is able to entice and engage the reader successfully till the end of the story. This is more than can be said for many novelists who write as if they are not any inclined to embrace global standards of good storytelling. None of the sixteen chapters of Kovu Moyoni can be struck out if the telling of the story is to remain successful.

The final quarter of the story rewards hope. It embodies the successes that firm resolve, endurance and the persistent pursuit of justice can bring forth. Boke’s journey through the legal process and her bid to topple the status quo bears fruit in the end. For instance, Inspector Onyango who is found culpable pays dearly for his involvement in the defiling of the protagonist. He loses his job and his wife divorces him. Other oppressors tumble, fall and are, to the relief of those they have long preyed upon, naturally and otherwise wiped out of existence.

Heartbreaking and shocking as the story may be, it is interesting reading. The author keeps a tight rein on the narrative act: beautifully rendered, the prose flows effortlessly, painting the horrors and pathos of a community under siege. In this novel, Professor John Habwe displays a maturity that offers insight into the psychology of violence and post-colonial oppression. His ruminations in the book span a broad range of topics that are all handled with depth.

Kovu Moyoni is a story that will disturb and prick the reader’s conscience. It is engaging, in the style that we have gotten used to from mailing lists, social media and the internet in general. If this story is a depiction of Boke’s various scars, inflicted by a modern-day, corrupt state, it is also a statement about our own complicity. It is a story of love, loss, alienation and hope. It is a celebration of the human spirit that refuses to die in the face of untold suffering. It offers remarkable scrutiny of the feelings of disorientation and disillusionment that often mark the ‘immigrant’ or powerless life.


Photograph: Jora, by James Gray-King


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Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga (@RedscarMcOdindo) is a poet and writer and many other things. He studied Medicine and Surgery. He writes in both Swahili and English. His work has been published in the Mandala Journal, KUT, Jalada, Lawino Magazine, Breaking Silence (a global poetry anthology) and Bodaboda Anthem and Other Poems: A Kampala Poetry Anthology, among others. His Swahili poems (mashairi) are weekly published in Taifa Leo and/or Taifa Jumapili, Kenya’s nationwide Swahili Newspaper. He is a winner of the Fern Poetry Prize. He contributes to Hivi Sasa, an online magazine. His work has also appeared, or is forthcoming, in Kwani?, Granta, assorted newspapers and other poetry anthologies.

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