Delta Willis reviews The Dragonfly Sea, a novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

- Reviewed by Delta Willis

What a joy it is when a novel gets science right, as happened with “The Overstory,” a manifesto on the natural history of North American trees. Now Kenya’s Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor spotlights a migration across the Indian Ocean by delicate dragonflie­s, swarming along the Swahili Coast to lay their eggs in freshwater during the short rains of October-November. Drawing upon research by Charles Anderson, Owuor ties their migration to monsoon winds, which filled the lateen sails of wooden dhows plying their way to India and Iran for thousands of years.

Navigating far above 2,000 metres, Globe skimmers (Pantala flavescens ) use monsoon winds on their 16,000 km migration, twice as long as the Monarch butterfly journey. For migratory birds, the two-inch-long flies are a moveable feast. The Amur falcon, escaping winters in Siberia and China, wings toward the east coast of southern Africa. Blue-cheeked beeeaters and Pied cuckoo are also among the high flyers, but it was a Eurasian roller that verified its altitude at 2,424 metres. Sucked into an engine, its remains were found after the jet landed.

Many other things blew into East Africa on ‘kaskazi’ monsoons. Arabs married African women, merging Arabic with Bantu to create the melodic Kiswahili. Peppered throughout the novel are Swahili proverbs found on kanga cloth, with origins in the 19th century. Original patterns were black and white, like the feathers of Helmeted guineafowl. The backside features proverbs. A sample: Pweza kwambira ngisi, Wapitao kimarsi marsi, Tutafutwao ni sisi ; The octopus told the calamari, When you see them [humans] churn the waters, It is us they seek.

The author’s sense of Swahili culture was enhanced when she was Executive Director of the Zanzibar Internatio­nal Film Festival (ZIFF) an annual celebratio­n. The ideal place to gaze upon legendary Stonetown harbour was the rooftop of Emerson’s House. It was Emerson Skeens, a major force behind ZIFF, who told the novelist about shipwrecke­d sailors from a Ming dynasty junk who found shelter on the island of Pate.

Owuor links ancient and current Chinese influence with a Pate girl enchanted by the sea. She sits on the jetty where fishermen return, wide-eyed at a coelacanth, and studies passengers stepping off the ferry from Lamu. We go underwater with her as she eyeballs a Parrotfish, and after she is identified as a descendant of those shipwrecke­d sailors from 600 years ago, on a stormy voyage to China.

Other cargo: lions, leopards, pangolins and small tusks from young elephants. The pangolin bodies move, still alive. After learning how to use chopsticks, speak Mandarin, and navigate, the young woman does not linger in China, returning to the Lamu Archipelag­o. “China says she has come back. An ‘old friend….China will build a harbour…” The winds shift, the dragonflie­s return.

“The restlessne­ss of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons... make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures. I think of them as birds of the wind, as ‘wind birds,’” wrote Peter Matthiesse­n, author of The Tree Where Man Was Born. It is high time dragonflie­s got their due. The first to fly, they predate birds by about 140 million years.

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kenya