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Meja Mwangi: Going Down River Road

Mwangi’s fourth novel essentially tells the story of Ben Wakira, a young Kenyan struggling with life. We gradually pick up his story throughout the book. He had been a lieutenant in the army. He had been approached by a man called Mbugua, who wants him to steal a mortar and some shells for him, apparently to carry out a bank robbery. Ben, who is in charge of a mortar unit, initially refuses but then, when offered a large bribe, accepts. With the help of his small troop, they pretend to lose the mortar, which Mbugua and his gang ‘find’. Mbugua’s plan goes drastically wrong as he and his men do not know how to use the mortar and Mbugua and six of his men end up dead. An investigation is carried out and though it cannot be proved that Ben and his men deliberately lost the mortar, as the key witnesses are now all dead, they are all dishonourably discharged from the army. Ben manages to find a job in an insurance company but, when they learn of his past, he is summarily fired. The day he is fired, he goes to a bar to drown his sorrows. There, he meets Wini, a prostitute, who is working to get herself an education. She has a four year old son, Baby. Ben and Wini get on and they are soon living together. Wini manages to get a job as a secretary, once she has qualified, and it is she who essentially supports Ben. Ben works as a casual labourer on a building site, where they are building a high rise building. The owner is Indian and Ben’s foreman, Yussuf, is the nephew of the owner. Ben gets on well with him, not least because Yussuf spends most of his time doing drugs. This is the situation at the beginning of the novel.

Ben spends much of his time (and money) with his fellow worker, Ocholla. They work together and then go out drinking together. Ocholla is married but his wives and children are out in the country. Two key events happen to Ben. Firstly, he finds that the building company has hired Onesmus as a driver. Onesmus was Ben’s sergeant-major and he blames Ben for what happened and the fact that he lost his job and got no money. He tries more than once to kill Ben. Secondly, Ben comes home one day to find that Wini has gone, leaving Baby behind. She does not return. Eventually he finds out that she has gone off with her white boss, Mr. Caldwell. She has left him a cheque for 1000 shillings, which he tears up. He will try and bring up Baby, though he is by no means an ideal father. Much of the novel consists of the various problems Ben faces – losing his lease, being arrested for drunkenness, living with Ocholla and then with Ocholla and his wives, when they turn up, and problems with Baby.

There is no great plot or major events, apart from the ones mentioned. Much of the novel is about how a relatively ordinary man struggles and more or less manages to survive given the problems he faces, some of his own making, some because of the corrupt nature of others. Indeed, the corruption of contemporary Kenya is a key point in the novel, as we see ordinary people cheated by the rich and powerful, generally black. Ben does manage to survive, with the help of his friend and with his generally positive nature but it is a struggle for him and it is this struggle that is what this novel is about.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Heinemann