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Kenyan Novelist Explains What President Obama's Visit Signifies


For the first time since being elected president, Barack Obama visits Kenya tomorrow. The trip is getting a lot of attention because, of course, Kenya is the birthplace of the president's father. To better understand this East African nation, our colleague Renee Montagne turned to a Kenyan author, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, "Dust," is about Kenya's violent birth as a nation in the second half of the 20th century. Renee reached her at her home in Nairobi.


Good morning.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: If we - anyone in this listening audience, if we were to visit Kenya, what is urban Kenya? What would hit one about the city's center?

OWUOR: I think what is lovely - and this is what makes Nairobi for me - you might go anywhere, and you might find anything, you know, like - so you've got your very contemporary, fast, crazy city. It's a very entrepreneurial city. People are always doing something. There's always the rush for the deal. But you've also got moments where, for example, suddenly, in the middle of traffic, an elegant man in a red shuka will be leading his cattle across the highway, and everything comes to a stop. Everyone waits, you know, for the cattle to cross. So it's a layered place and a place of immense possibilities all the time.

MONTAGNE: Your novel "Dust" paints a rich portrait of Kenya over the decade. There's beauty, and there's blood. Would you read for us a paragraph?

OWUOR: I will read from the section that points to the moment in many ways when the Kenya flag was being lifted up. (Reading) A mosaic, people have cheered - wanderers, cattlemen, camel herders, fishermen and hunters, dreamers, strangers, gatherers and farmers, trading nations, empire builders and the forgetful. Such were the people for whom Nyipir had carried the new Kenya flag. There was also the anthem created from a Pokomo mother's lullaby. (Foreign language spoken). Oh, God of all creation, bless this our land and nation.

MONTAGNE: Is that the feeling now, a sense of this is a blessed moment for the nation?

OWUOR: Oh, yes, it is. It is in so many ways. Not just Obama's expected - and we're calling it the homecoming - but also the possibilities. There seems to be generational change and shift happening. There have been new mineral fines, oil, gas, wonderful things that the world wants. It's the time full of so much energy, good and bad. And of course, let's not forget the dread and the threat caused by the al-Shabab and others who would do us harm for whatever reason.

MONTAGNE: Right, the terrorist attacks in Nairobi.


MONTAGNE: As a novelist, if you were to imagine President Obama as a character, how would you describe him, and how would you write him and his impressions?

OWUOR: The first image is of a kind of archetype, an archetypal presence, the idea of the one who had to be born away from the place in order to realize the idea and the sense of the country for itself. So he would show up as an archetype in a mirror of our own possibility, our own sense of hopeful limitlessness, the Kenya that does not see limits or ceilings. And in so many ways, President Obama personifies who we think we ought to be.

MONTAGNE: Novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, her novel is "Dust." And she spoke to us from Nairobi. Thank you very much.

OWUOR: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor