One of my favorite scholars, Lani Guinier, uses the miner’s canary as a symbol of the link between the fate of the most vulnerable amongst us and the rest of the society. When miners were underground, it was difficult for them to tell if air was getting too toxic to breath, until it was too late. So they would go into the mines with the bird, and when it started to show signs of distress, the miners would know that they should exit the mine as quickly as possible.
Just like the canary, the herds – of wildebeest, elephants, rhinos, hippos or cattle – in Henry Ole Kulet’s latest novel Vanishing Herds, remind us of the danger posed by our destruction of the environment. Trust me to begin by saying that the novel is a love story of Norpisia and Kedoki, a newly wed pastoralist couple trekking across the country to Kedoki’s home village in Nkararo. Kedoki wants to take his wife to settle in his home village where he has not been for years. The two had been brought together by a trauma during their childhood when they both lost siblings to cattle rustlers. Although the marriage seems to be arranged, the relationship blossoms into love as Norpisia accepts to go with her husband to her new home.
The trek turns out to be hazardous. The couple encounters raiders who seriously injure Kedoki, and the wild animals have become unusually hostile and “angry” towards human beings, due to the destruction of the environment. Human beings have ravaged trees, including the sacred Medungi forest whose entry was forbidden by the elders. When the herds were not angry, they simply were not there, a sign to the human group and its livestock that pasture was difficult to come by or that rivers were about to burst their banks.
What I found beautiful about the narrative is the way myth and science complement each other. For Norpisia, her dreams and her apprenticeship under a prophetess/medicine woman enable her to sense when Mother Nature is not happy with humanity. There are scientific reasons for the drought, dried up rivers and floods, but the mythical terms add the sense of immorality and taboo to what we people do to other members of our universe that do not speak. For example, the laibon decreed that if a tree was cut in Medungi forest, the “blood of the felled trees would flow into the rivers, turn them red and poison man and beast.” The power of such instruction causes Kedoki and his friends to take a detour around the forest.
The communal spirit is another wonderful motif of the book, with Masintet and Lembarta – friends of Kedoki – joining to help with the herd, and Kedoki keeping his honor by paying the two men with cattle and heifers. Norpisia leads in reafforestation efforts thanks to the strong bonds with the Eorr-Narasha community where she, Kedoki and their son stop over in their journey to Nkararo. The book is also rich in Maasai knowledge of plant species, their medicinal qualities and the cycles of life in this lovely world that God created. Ole Kulet has beautifully depicted the unsung heroism of pastoralist communities who are responsible for the sparing what remains of Kenya’s natural habitat today.
There was a debate in our book club discussion in May 2013 about the gender roles in the book. Norpisia seems to be a superwoman, knowing all and defeating all, while Kedoki bears the brunt of the wrath of Mother Nature and of bandits. I was uncomfortable about judging Kedoki as emasculated, given that in many communities women actually do more work than they are given credit for. I still haven’t made up my mind on that question.
Until then, I highly recommend Vanishing Herds. The book is beautiful to read. But it is also a warning that Kenyans must watch out for the welfare of the non-speaking members of our universe – the rivers, the forests, the plains, and the wild and domestic animals. Like the canary, the suffering of the non-speaking members of our universe is a warning of imminent danger to us human beings as well.