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Legson Kayira: The Looming Shadow

It is not clear whether the looming shadow of the title is the arrival of the white man or the general problem in the village in which this novel is set. The theme of the novel is similar to that of other African novels – arrival of white man causes old traditions to be wiped away but that may not entirely be a bad thing. The tradition that is under threat in this novel is witchcraft and what happens to witches (who can be of either sex and, at least in this novel, are primarily men).

There are four main characters in the story. The village headman, Mwenimuzi, is arrogant and authoritarian. People who do not address him as Your Honour are punished with a fine or by having to help build his house. He is well aware of the arrival of the white man and is worried by the threat to his own authority, so wants to avoid trouble. Matenda had taken Nasama as his wife. As a result, her younger sister, Nachele, had come to live with them, as the two women were orphans. Matenda soon takes an interest in Nachele and had tried to seduce her but had been repulsed. Matenda was warned by the village elders that Nachele was under his care and he should leave her alone. Eventually she married Musyani but this created bad blood between the two. Much time has passed and Musyani has even taken a second wife but the bad blood still remains. Matenda is now ill and probably dying. His family – his wife and sons – and the local medicine man, the fourth main character, Simbwindimbwi, all accuse Musyani of having bewitched Matenda. The punishment for witchcraft is death by burning, as Musyani knows full well.

Simbwindimbwi is respected as a medicine man and if he says Musyani has bewitched Matenda then it must be so. However, Mwenimuzi wants no trouble with the white man who does not believe in witchcraft and comes up with a trick, using an illegal poisonous root called mwabi, to”prove” that Musyani is innocent. However, Matenda dies anyway and the next day Musyani’s house is burnt down. Musyani disappears and the next day the police appear. White man’s justice, with a touch of African flavour, takes over.

Kayira is somewhat ambiguous in his view of the witchcraft. He mocks Mwenimuzi, is not too sympathetic towards Simbwindimbwi and neither Musyani nor Matenda comes out as a redeeming character. However he is clearly concerned that the relatively remote white man is destroying the African way of life. Mwenimuzi tells a story to the local children of the whites hunting down a local chief with empressed local soldiers and Kayira’s sympathies are clearly with the hunted. Indeed, the only time he shows sympathy towards Simbwindimbwi is when he, too, is hunted. Similarly both the priest (who has an Italian name) and the local African Christian are generally treated unsympathetically. Writing in English and having lived in the United States and England, Kayira’s sympathies may generally be more pro-Western than some other African writers but it is clear that he is not entirely unaware that something has been lost.

Publishing history

First published in English 1967 by Doubleday