Fiction | Democratic Republic of Congo

In the floodwaters

In her debut novel, author Kayo Mpoyi digs deep into her own family history

A side portrait of a young African woman with curly hair. She wears a blue top with colorful beaded decoration.

Author Kayo Mpoyi spent her early childhood in Tanzania

If we are to believe the young narrator, her story can save lives. It begins when the narrator’s little sister is at risk of dying. The narrator asks her guiding angel how she could save her sibling. Tell the whole story, he advises the narrators, and then you may save your sister, Mai.

In the novel, “Mai Means Water”, six-year-old Adi Mukendi tells of growing up in the diplomatic quarter of Dar es Salaam. She is there at the end of the 1980s with her parents and her older sister Dina.

She imagines that her younger sister, Mai, is still just a peanut, one that her mother has first to swallow. Mai passes her days singing and dancing while the children's father, a strict engineer, earns a living. When he comes home from work in the evening he plays a game with a dictionary.

After they have done their homework, his daughters compete in a “buffet of words”. In this game, Dina and Adi have to explain words their father randomly selects. If they fail, they will be sent to bed without dinner.

Four more of Adi's siblings also live in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – at the start of her story, which then stretches into the mid-1990s. During the course of the novel, their siblings flee unrest and head for Tanzania and South Africa and also eventually, some attempt to get to Europe.

“In the novel, water appears as a powerful and mythologically charged element”

The fact that the family ends up scattered across continents is a warning that the Mukendis’ fate will be an unhappy one. Their bad luck has a background: At the beginning of Belgian colonial rule, Adi’s pregnant great-grandmother, Mai, was kidnapped in order to force the men of her family to work for the colonial powers. While under the control of her white kidnappers, Mai had a son that the family eventually bought free. However they never managed to free their matriarch. Mai died a Belgian slave.

This debt has weighed heavily upon the Mukendi family - so much so that it seems dangerous to name a child Mai, because death always collects his debts. That’s why, when Adi’s little sister, who is named after the great-grandmother, gets ill, the question is raised: Is this a consequence of the family’s history?

However Mai does mean water, as the book's title promises. All throughout the novel, water appears over and over again, a powerful and mythologically potent element that promises purification. For example, we are also told that when young women have had unprotected sex they may stand naked in the river and call upon the river spirits to cleanse them of their sins, to take away with the tide, the life that may be growing inside of them.

“The truly filthy characters in this book are actually the men”

The truly filthy characters in this book are actually the men. Among them, Monsieur Éléphant who harasses, chases and defiles the young women from the very first page of the book. However the sisters have nobody to turn to. Their mother is preoccupied with her own problems and their father classifies everything that doesn't fit into his narrow world view as a sin.

In fact, Kabongo Mukendi is the next perpetrator of violence we meet in this novel. He regularly beats his daughters, smashing their heads against the tabletop, all in the name of God.

The way that Kayo Mpoyi’s childish narrator describes the violence and abuse makes it seem less awful. At least, at first. Then you realise it's only through this nuanced re-telling that the extent of the father's incomprehensible cruelty becomes clear. Much remains unsaid in the young girl’s account, reflecting how suffering and traumatisation can make the victim speechless.

Male violence has a place in contemporary, post-colonial Afropolitan literature. The religious concept of sin often plays a central role. The sinners are usually women, who might attract male attention through their words, gestures or clothing. Sometimes the sinners are also men, especially those who do not conform. This includes Adi’s older brother Zo, whose homosexuality is just one of the many secrets the family keeps.

Dirt, violence and iniquity are all over this fantastical novel, so rich with imagery. The narrative creates a non-stop stream, one that washes the various protagonists' sinful vices to the surface, then carries them off. This stream also meanders often, along winding waterways that lead to other repressed traumas stored in the family’s history.

Like her narrator, the book’s author Kayo Mpoyi, was born in Zaire and spent her early childhood in Tanzania. She arrived in Sweden aged 10. This is her first novel and she dedicated it to her six-year-old self. Mpoyi won Sweden’s 2020 Katapult Prize for best literary debut.

German: “Mai bedeutet Wasser”, by Kayo Mpoyi. CulturBooks, Berlin 2021.