BOOK REVIEW: UNFIT FOR SOCIETY
AUTHOR: MUNIRA HUSSEIN
REVIEWER: VERA OMWOCHA
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“Until you break the code set by the society, you will never have a life to call your own.”
So believes the author of this anthology of seven stories, Munira Hussein.
Pitting the dry and almost abandoned Northern Kenya against the capital city, she examines the cultures and challenges in both. Life in the bustling city of Nairobi is laced with modernity against the traditional and Islamic cloaked Northern part of Kenya.
“But we are children of the North, we are not affected by the problems of those with better lives.”
The first story, ‘Hanging from the Edge of a Half-Moon’ begins with the innocence of childhood and a friendship that does not share a common belief. When Sofia disappears to go and ‘fight for Islam’; as she calls acts of terrorism, she comes back and narrates to her childhood friend Sahib of her experiences after aligning herself with the al-Shabaab. In the end, after losing both the world and the faith she supposedly fought for, Sofia believes that people like her are the hatred the world does not need.
Unfit for society
The girl child in this society is the definition of ‘to be seen, not heard’. Society decides when she is ripe for marriage and when there are whispers on her delay − like in the case of Ruffo in the story ‘Unfit for Society’ −education is said to have spoilt her. Her opinions, if any, are to be hidden under the black of her hijab.
However, the narrator(s), from a young age display(s) a vast knowledge of the world and life. When every other girl easily falls into the path already laid out for them, the narrator wishes for more, pursues more and refuses to settle for that which is already set out.
These stories have in common the championing for humanity; for a universal love and care beyond family, religion or geographical setting.
The narrators question the hypocrisy hidden under the veil of religion. In the story, ‘The Acceptance Letter,’ Amara’s homosexual uncle; a man with a repute of being a strong believer- a man of faith; molests her.
In A Woman Like Me, a rather long short story, the narrator – Leyla − tries her hand in love after making her way to the university in the capital. She dates two men; Victor and Joseph. One who she almost gets addicted to for the pain he inflicts on her and the other – sweet and caring. She compares her relationship with both of them and lays it against the ‘love’ she knew as a child; the love of a father who showed his by blows and kicks.
“It is men like my father who made the goodness of men like Joseph petty…I have sweetened bitter and learned to salt whatever is tasteless, to build towers of hopes on foundations of pain, because somehow, it is familiar.” Leyla says.
Communal clashes only end in untold pain and misery. Leyla’s brother, after running away from home (from his father) becomes a victim. When Leyla goes home to bury her brother, accompanied by Joseph, there are whispers – as expected – about the foreigner of a man she has brought home; even more humiliating to the society, a non-Muslim. As if that isn’t enough, her stomach is bulging with a new life. Her father, guilt and grief stricken, only asks Joseph to take care of her!
As in the heart-breaking story of Amo’s slain family in the story, ‘Dawn of Death’, the author quotes, “Let us unite in death, if the unity in the beauty of life has failed to glue our hearts together.” It is in losing his family that Amo wakes up to a greater understanding of life. It is in losing that he realises that nothing he has is his; including his life and that one can only have a renewal of the heart in such a tragedy.
Every story’s ending points to hope to hold on to that which is good and true; to rise beyond the brokenness of life and to be human.
Perhaps what is most striking in these stories is the quality of rectitude outside the precincts of what has been marked out by society as right or acceptable. These stories draw a reader’s emotions. It is in the how they reach deep into the human soul to extract all their pains and hopes.
Leafing through this work of fiction is also the question on reality; on the lives led by people up North; on women who join terrorist groups.
From one story to the other is a growth of the characters; of new pains and of fresh cuts wounds. In between personal pain, the characters point out to the greater society in which they live. A bleeding society. But beneath that which life and society inflicts is a hope and lessons to carry on.
These stories almost knock on each other by their similarities. Largely, the young women in the stories (Leyla, Amara, Sahib and Ruffo) are the same person in their thoughts, education and of course, setting.
Munira creates powerful characters who do not seek to belong. The storylines and circumstances in which they find themselves is greatly believable and drawing.
From a young writer to a young reader perhaps – this is a call to live beyond that which is set out, to question norms and to embrace humanity.
The issues addressed in this book are not limited to the Northern part of Kenya but more of a representation of the larger society. Issues handled in this book: Education, marriage and divorce, culture, terrorism, sexual orientation, family, love, identity and belonging are worth the attention.
Is this the society hanging from the edge of a half- moon? Perhaps so it appears but not beyond redemption.
This is a highly recommended read.