In Hour of the Red God, Richard Crompton crafts a subtle whodunit against the backdrop of 2007 elections in Kenya.
How did your journalism experience affect your fiction writing?
Firstly, as an observer, I instinctively seek out the essential facts of a story and the pertinent details which give it life. Secondly, as a writer, my experience has led me to a concise, taut style. For TV reports I never wrote a script. I used to lay down the pictures I wanted to use, then ad-lib a voice track. I think this has helped make my writing more visual and also have cadences and rhythm of speech. Finally, I made a firm choice to turn away from journalism because I felt I could not tell the stories I wished to in the way I needed to. Commissioning editors had very fixed ideas about what constituted an African “story” (war, famine, and western saviors) and that did not reflect the reality I saw. Fiction gave me a more satisfying outlet for the truth than journalism did.
How did the book come about?
I worked for CNBC Africa in 2007 at the time of the post-electoral violence, reporting from the ground. I already knew I wanted to portray Nairobi, which is so captivating and dynamic. A crime novel works particularly well here because I can go back to basics. There are not elaborate forensic laboratories or flashy new techniques: just good old-fashioned detective work, and the psychology of human relationships which lie at the heart of all the best crime fiction. When law and order began to break down, a new element was added to the mix. I could explore themes of personal responsibility in the face of social collapse. My protagonist, Mollel, has turned his back on the Maasai traditions and thus has become an outcast. Maasai, while embracing modern conveniences such as cellphones and medicine, nonetheless maintain contempt for those who choose to lead their lives among the townsfolk.
Did anything surprise you as you wrote the book?
I was surprised at how nuanced the characters, especially some of the minor characters, came out. At times I feel I can possess a somewhat polar world view—good guys are good and bad guys are bad. But in creating a back story for my characters, I realized that in order to make them live and breathe, I had to invest them with real motivation; to do that, I had to find some way to sympathize. The result is that noone is truly evil in this novel, even the characters I initially intended to be.
What are the biggest misconceptions Westerners have about Kenya, and sub-Saharan Africa in general?
That Africa is a country. That it is a place of natural beauty (it is) and man-made misery (only in parts). That Africans are all poor, illiterate, uneducated, uncultured, and violent (in fact I feel safer in an African city than in any unknown city in the developed world). That Africans are all the same. There is more difference, culturally and genetically, between a Kenyan from a pastoralist Nilotic tradition like the Maasai, and a Kenyan from the Bantu-origin, agrarian Luhya tribe, than there is between a Spaniard and a Swede.
How did the colonial borders influence how Kenya developed?
The legacy of colonialism lives on throughout Africa. As a Briton, I am acutely aware of the negative influence of our historical legacy and am only surprised that I never encounter any resentment. I believe that in many ways Africa, and Kenya in particular, was never de-colonized. The structures and practices of colonialism were handed direct from foreign to domestic masters. The political elite retained the power and wealth of those they replaced and the population remains in the same servitude. Africa is corrupt because colonialism is the ultimate corruption: the transfer of wealth from one country to another. Today it is one class which oppresses another. But it changes; old attitudes become unacceptable; the new generation demands rights and opportunities, and is winning them. On the borders, no people in the world have more right to resentment than the Maasai. When Bismarck carved up Africa some cartographer with a ruler drew a line directly through their land. They were disenfranchised, bisected. Half of them were to become German vassals and half subjects of the British crown. This lack of a political voice meant that their precious land was taken from them. Perhaps that is why, of all tribes, they remain the most distinctive. Their traditions, costume, rituals and way of life became their nationhood.