Award-winning Author and Traveler Gerald Everett Jones Raises These Questions and More in His 11th novel: Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner.
By: T. Felder
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/14/2021- Award winning author Gerald Everett Jones set to release his eleventh novel: Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner on June 29. (LaPuerta Books).
Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner is a geopolitical work of fiction that explores Kenyan ideologies in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. In this experience-based tale Jones offers a convincing study of an American born man Named Harry who assumes the risk of exploring new relationships and the egregious issues that plague Kenya.
How did your time living in East Africa shape your writing?
I lived in Kenya for two years. I went there to support my wife’s work in wildlife conservation and child welfare. My main character in this book is Harry Gardner, a lonely, middle-aged widower from Los Angeles. So, I’m a middle-aged white guy writing from the viewpoint of a middle-aged white guy. The events I describe either happened to me directly—for example, I was robbed twice but I was often treated like a visiting dignitary—or they were related to me by Kenyans. You quickly learn that you don’t get the whole story in the newspapers or on TV. In Kenya, gossip is news. And I gossiped with everybody I met, from tuk-tuk drivers to restaurant owners and resort managers. I came to love Kenya, but I also realized what a huge cultural adjustment it was for me. That shift in mindset is what motivated me to write the story.
What was the process of writing this novel? How did the characters come about?
I may have an outline when I begin writing a novel—or simply a notion of where it will all end—but I try to leave openings for surprises. I try to write from my heart and soul, not from some notion of who the audience is or what they prefer. I do believe that readers want insight and truth. But they might not recognize it in some situations until I show it to them. So, I let my subconscious drive the plot. I stay sensitive to hunches, instincts, and happy accidents. Once the characters are formed, I often let them do what they want. By this approach, many times I find that some seemingly meaningless detail has become important later in the story. And in more than one book, I didn’t know myself how it would end until I wrote the last page. So, if I can surprise myself, perhaps I can surprise and delight my readers.
Why should America and the rest of the world pay attention to African politics and struggles?
In recent times, events there have threatened to affect the rest of the world—terrorism in Somalia, civil war in Rwanda, and epidemic outbreaks in Congo—to name a few. But looking to the future, there are other reasons to pay attention—both opportunities and challenges. Perhaps the core issue is that the population there is growing rapidly, just as birthrates in developed countries are declining. One (pre-Covid) projection I saw said that the Kenyan economy may grow $2 trillion in 10 years. That would be a faster growth rate than just about anywhere on the planet. So, there will be not only opportunities for investment and development, but also the inevitable human-animal conflict as human settlements impinge on wildlife habitats. For example, the rainforests of Congo are as significant as those in the Amazon in terms of mitigating atmospheric CO2. Now Kenya is beginning to regulate and protect its hardwood forests, but continued demand is driving more logging activity into Congo.
Consider also that Kenya is a gorgeous land with abundant resources, vast tracts of sparsely populated land, temperate climate, and a citizenry of English-speakers who value education as a personal and social asset. Living expenses are a fraction of what Americans and Europeans are used to paying. I’d guess Kenya will be the California of Africa—and you can make of that what you will.
Why do western philanthropies persist in thinking they need to fix Africa?
To many Kenyans, philanthropies are a business much like any other. They address public needs and they employ locals. To the government, charitable operations fill gaps that the taxpayers would otherwise have to fund. There’s a scholarly study, the book Germans on the Kenyan Coast by Prof. Nina Berman, that describes these situations in depth. I read it after my return tothe US from living in East Africa, and the book confirmed many of my subjective impressions.
For example, where there are good private schools and hospitals, the government has much less incentive to establish public facilities.
Another aspect of philanthropy is what locals call unintended consequences. For example, a common appeal for donations is to fund the drilling of boreholes, or water wells, in drought regions. It’s been a longstanding tradition that village women may have to trek 20 miles or more each day to fetch water from rivers and streams. You’ll see them marching along the side of the road carrying huge buckets on their heads. (Traditionally, the men won’t do this work.) But local conservationists told me that the borehole drilling companies often don’t consider environmental impacts in deciding where to put new wells. They may drain an aquifer that is crucial elsewhere.
Or they may include an open waterhole in the plan, which is intended to be a haven for wildlife.
But in doing so, they may inadvertently change a centuries-old migration route. If then elephants are drawn there, they may trample corn fields along their new route. A village will lose its crop for the season, and locals will hunt down the elephants and kill them.
In your novel you speak about love being transactional, is this fundamentally true?
I think more like a Kenyan now. I’ve come to think that all human relationships are fundamentally transactional. Kenyans are highly transactional in their personal relationships.
They can game each other repeatedly and yet remain friends (or lovers). Now, you might think that unconditional love would be an exception. But if I love you unconditionally, I’m giving both of us a huge gift. The gift I receive is freedom from worry or judgment about your actions, and particularly from fretting about how you might treat me. At the other extreme is people who treat themselves badly, who engage in behaviors that seem self-destructive. But a behavioral psychologist would say that’s also transactional: If there is some behavior you’re doing again and again – despite knowing it’s harmful to you or others – there must be some real or imagined benefit to your psyche. You will only cease the behavior when you truly see its damage and Valuelessness.
What similarities does Africa and the US have?
I expect many Americans assume that our cultural differences and racial issues are much the same there. They aren’t. Most obvious to the visitor are the differences in ethnic and racial attitudes. Because of our cultural strife in the United States, we may assume that black-and-white conflict and the aftermath of colonialism are top of mind. But in the aftermath of independence from Great Britain in 1963, the crucial question for Kenyans has been how land and power will be shared. There are more than forty different ethnic societies (tribes, historically) in Kenya. Strife among these factions is at the heart of political conversations and disputes. Two of those factions, with another in loyal opposition, have dominated national politics, along with controlling land, resources, and industries. A few families at the top are the “one-percent” of the country today, causing widespread resentment.
How does corruption shape culture, economics, philanthropy, conservation, and the future of Kenya and East Africa?
Kenyans in all walks of life will tell you, “Corruption is the mother of Kenya.” It’s like an unofficial national motto. And many seem to have the attitude that things won’t ever change. If your car is pulled over in a traffic stop, you will likely have to pay some kind of bribe. If you need any type of paperwork from the government, it will require an official stamp. Anyone wielding a stamp collects a significant fee and sometimes it’s cash in their pockets. When Kenyan graduates need jobs as teachers or soldiers, they’d better be able to pay some extra to the recruiter. Now, as I view events in the US from this perspective, I’m more sensitive to influences that might be corrupt. And I can see that, as a society, we may be no less corrupt – we’re simply more sophisticated at hiding it. And if the Kenyans are not as much in denial about it as we are, perhaps they are better equipped to deal with whatever comes next.
Are there any commonalities between you and the main character?
Well, certainly—age, ethnic background, professional experience, and residence in Los Angeles.
But, of course, there’s some of me in all the characters. I think I learned that from studying acting. You have to find the traits and foibles and motivations of the character in yourself if you want to express them truthfully. As for Harry, his main character flaw is passivity and indecision. And, perhaps not as crucially, that was my experience in Kenya as, like him, I went from being a tourist and passive observer to a resident who had to consider serious commitments. I was fascinated to hear a South African reviewer comment to me recently that he thought Harry’s indecision is actually a superpower! It keeps him out of trouble!
What advice would you give to writers?
As John le Carré once said of his own work, I believe by now I’ve learned to play most of the instruments in the orchestra. From writing satire, historical fiction, mystery, and thrillers I’ve learned the mechanics of genre. I’ve also studied and done some screenwriting, and those skills inform my work. (I won a couple of awards for scripts, but nothing so far has been made!) But reviewers have commented that even my mystery-thrillers read like literary fiction. And by this I’d say I’m looking closely at flawed characters, who may be unsympathetic at times or act in inappropriate or unwise ways. And even when I wrote nonfiction books—on business and technical subjects—I felt that the only way to know how to do something masterfully is to have failed at it yourself first. Those personal lessons-learned are gold. If you simply follow someone else’s advice, it’s possible those lessons came out of some book they read or from a course they took—not from experience at all. Again, it’s all about surprises! Don’t those make the most entertaining reading experience?
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