This is a book review of Footsteps, written by Kirsten Johnson, published by Plain View Press, Austin, TX 2009.
RPCV Johnson drew extensively on her early 1980s tour as a Harambee school teacher in the Meru area in writing this novel. A novel it is indeed, but the story revolves around and is clearly designed to illuminate very real issues for African women – girls education, circumcision, early marriage, too many children too fast, loveless marriages, the clash of tradition and modernism, work or stay in the boma, AIDS, wife inheritance, and the list goes on. In fact, it is remarkable that most of these issues are dealt with in the book.
The protagonists are two sisters, Kanini and Gatiria, raised in a traditional homestead on the dry plains east of Mount Kenya. The family has very little interaction with the outside world, but that world progressively creeps in often destroying the harmony (real or imagined) that eons of tradition have established. The first hurdle is that of female circumcision that Kanini reluctantly undergoes. The process, the ceremony, the value and the result are described as the girls ponder the issue and share their views. In this, as in almost everything that follows, Kanini is tradition bound whereas Gatiria is the modern girl/woman who defies her parents and her community on almost every score.
Readers follow the two through subsequent trials and tribulations with their family, husbands, colleagues, community and the wider world beyond. The setting is impeccably drawn, descriptions apt and conversations generally vivid and credible. Johnson indeed captures the mundane reality of hardscrabble life, grinding poverty and the tenacity of rural inhabitants. Her portraits of people and places – a doddering grandmother, co-wives, an autocratic father, their family compounds, ramshackle primary schools, bustling market towns, stupefying matatu rides – are excellent. She delves into the Tharaka/Meru culture and provides solid background for understanding the issues as seen by her Kenyan characters. She credits wisdom when due, but does not disguise ignorance – the conviction, for example, that AIDS was brought to Kenya by American sailors – because, in fact that belief retarded local action in the face of the calamity. Although there is certainly an underlying conviction (even a crusade) on the author’s part that traditions that hold women down ought to be modified, yet she tries to be evenhanded in at least understanding why such practices exist. Without doubt, she pays homage to the value of friendship, especially between women, because ultimately that is the coping mechanism that makes life bearable.
For those who know Kenya and the struggles that Kenyans, especially women, encounter on a regular basis, this book will remind you of the difficulties they face. For those who want to learn more about why Africa sometimes seems mired in the past and only slowly moving forward, this book elucidates some of the reasons.