Burn My Heart

Naidoo, Beverley

July 2007


Publisher's description

The Mau Mau - name of a secret society that once struck terror into the hearts of British settlers in Kenya. An episode in history that ended in a State of Emergency, with violent and brutal acts dividing a nation. This book tells the story of how in a country riven by fear and prejudice, even best of friends can betray one another.

Saturday September 1, 2007

The Guardian

Diane Samuels enjoys Beverley Naidoo's skilfully woven tale of friendship and betrayal in colonial Kenya, Burn My Heart

It is a fine novel that manages to inform the reader while also telling an engaging story, and this is just what Beverley Naidoo does in Burn My Heart, raising very real issues and gripping the imagination. There is a glossary at the back of the book that translates words, mostly in Swahili and Kikuyu, into English. These include bwana (master), baba (father) and Ngai (God). Ugali is porridge made from maize meal. Wazungu are white people. Kikuyu are the people of central and southern Kenya.

If these words and the world from which they spring are unfamiliar to a reader at first, it takes only a short while before they no longer need translating. Naidoo skilfully draws you into a place and time where boys of 11 and 13 climb through a hole cut in a perimeter fence, and only the white boy is carrying a gun. This is Kenya in the early 1950s. The time of emergency is just beginning.

Mathew Grayson is the 11-year-old with the airgun. He lives with his family on a smallholding in the bush. Mount Kenya rises beyond. His grandfather had referred to the terrain as "Grayson country" ever since he emigrated from England just before the first world war, attracted by the British government's promise of cheap land and labour. Mugo, the 13-year-old, also lives on bwana Grayson's smallholding. Once the land had belonged to his ancestors. Then his grandfather had ventured forth in a spirit of adventure, heading for Nairobi, and ended up helping with the war effort. By the time he returned to his land, it had been "bought" and "settled" by Mathew's grandfather, for whom Mugo's grandfather's family now work.

One day Ngai will return the land to its rightful owners, the grandfather believed. All his son and grandchildren need do is take care of their sacred turf, play out their roles as servants and bide their time. But such a strategy has worn too thin for a good few Kikuyu by the middle of the 20th century. The hole in the fence has been cut by a secret army of resisters determined to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. The Mau Mau appear from nowhere in the middle of the night and silently gather together their fellow Kikuyu to swear an oath of allegiance to their cause "for our land and our freedom". Anyone who refuses, must want to help their occupiers. Refusal therefore means they are the enemy of the Kikuyu. Meanwhile, the local police reserves are drawing more recruits from among the settlers. And there are hidden detention centres where all those suspected of being in league with the Mau Mau are being held.

The lines are drawn. What place is there in this world for any kind of trust between Mathew and Mugo and their families? Mugo had taught Mathew how to make his first sling from goatskin, a ball from banana leaves, told him how to respect the go-away bird whose presence warns of predators. But now the military grip is tightening, and Mathew and his friend, son of the inspector in the police reserve, have shot dead a go-away bird, an act that portends misfortune and reveals lack of respect for the old knowledge in this land. How can any kind of understanding survive?

By alternating perspectives, seeing events unfold from Mathew's view and then Mugo's, Naidoo manages to do more than simply avoid taking sides. She enables the reader to walk in the shoes of Kikuyu and wazungu alike, experience their worldview, burgeoning mistrust and fear, and feel how violent events spiral out of control in a way that serves no one. As Kamau, Mugo's father, replies to the insurgent zeal of his nephew: "I hear what you say, Karanja. But war is not porridge. It does not feed you."

The political realities are neither downplayed nor over-dramatised, providing a tightening structure for this tense and tragic tale. And the poetry is here too, provided most powerfully through the evocation of the wild and tamed life of Kenya. In the first chapter, Mathew and Mugo have to run for their lives to escape a stampeding elephant. When Mugo visits his aunt in the "location" in town, discovering later that his elder brother has run away from school to join the Mau Mau, he has in his pockets two little wooden elephants he has carved. Duma, the loyal household dog, wriggles through the broken fence without a care; the horses tended by Kamau for the Graysons flee in terror as the stables burn. All these creatures inhabit the book with vitality, symbolising something more universal and essential than the specific details of this particular human conflict.

Burn My Heart moves, enlightens and reminds us about a time in British colonial history, a time of African struggle, that helps us to understand how things are now with a little more insight. And, most of all, it is a fine story of friendship, trust, betrayal and loss.

Book ID 958