by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965-67)
Nsemia Inc. Publishers
$8.99 (Kindle); $25.73 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67)
The opening scene: Funeral preparations in a churchyard for a murder victim, the respected co-founder of a Kenyan school, who was inexplicably shot to death in her home. Nothing was stolen. Inspector James Dingiria, from Nairobi, outside the district, was sent to investigate.
This is the set-up of Arthur Dobrin’s novel, Kwamboka’s Inquiry, which is much about Kenyan society as a murder mystery. Dobrin has an acute eye for physical details that puts the reader on the scene, and an understanding of the underlying social, tribal, and economic tensions that inform the story. He and his wife served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, which made them first-hand witnesses.
Initially, the murder was thought to be the work of the Sungu Sungu, originally formed in 1998 in response to law enforcement’s ineffectual effort to stop cattle rustling and thievery. The national government gave explicit approval as a grassroots way of fighting crime, corruption, and witches. Over time, the Sungu Sungu morphed into a vigilante role, regardless of laws or the justice system; the police didn’t disapprove, in fact, they were grateful for the help. In 2010, the Kenyan government banned the Sungu Sungu as a prohibited criminal organization. But it continued to operate with impunity, including in the Kisii district, where Dobrin set his novel.
Inspector Dingiria dismissed the gang’s involvement; the killing wasn’t their modus operandi. The Sungu Sungu used crude weapons, whipping, looted and burning down houses before lynching suspected criminals. Within three days, three young boys were charged with the murder. They confessed; “it was just a day’s work.” The mystery remained: Who did the killers work for?
This touches on one of Dobrin’s themes, corruption. Other observations include social and financial aspirations, class jealousy, resent of Chinese and Indian employers by the native Kenyans after Uhuru, when Kenya won freedom from colonial Britain, after a bitter and savage insurrection led by Jomo Kenyatta, independent Kenya’s first president.
Other possible motives for the murder of Sarah Kwamboka: the social taboo of lesbianism, no other reason than she shared a house with a friend, another woman; being a witch because people believed witches caused children to do poorly in school and Kwamboka was a teacher, ergo she was a witch.
As a structural device, the author flips back and forth from present to past, flashcards to knit the narrative together. Eventually, it’s like having your nose tickled by a feather, tolerable but a nuisance. Dobrin also employs story within a story to give too much background of characters. This loosens the thread of tension about the murder case with more explanation and description than revealing action.
Inspector Dingiria interviews people connected to Kwamboka, sniffing down faint trails, which lead him nowhere. He suspects the confessions of the professed killers are too pat, too rote, and, he noted, the three accused showed little signs of having been beaten, a surprise as he well knows common police procedure. The day before Kwamboka’s funeral, he returns to the jail to find out who prepared the confessions, and why the killers had confessed. To his amazement, the suspects have been released, with no explanation. When he demands to know who gave the order, he was told by the officer, “I can’t tell you that. What I can say is that no one here objects to them being moved away.”
In reviewing his notes, Dingiria concludes the murder wasn’t about Kwamboka at all, a rather abrupt stretch for the reader. The killing was to send a message by representatives of a brick manufacturer to the owner of land adjacent to the school: Look what might happen if you don’t sell us the land for a factory. This bombshell dropped out of the blue, without evidence, convinces Dingiria that pursuing the case would be pointless. To continue the investigation would ruin his career and place his life in danger. Disillusioned, he quits the police force.
The final pages of the novel have nothing to do with the murder case, but rather about a young schoolgirl. She is denied a place on a school field trip to see wild animals because she is a girl. Dobrin is making a telling observation on the secondary position in the society assigned to females. The financial sponsor of the field trip intercedes on her behalf, and she is given a seat on the bus. But without this male helping hand, she would have been denied. In this, the book seems more a political/social thesis, rather than a murder mystery novel.
Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books. His latest novel, Warrior Love, Silas Loves Lili Weirdly Lili Loves Silas, about corruption, was released July 2021. His newest novel, BIX (Because I Xist), will be published in Spring 2022.