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Nairobi Heat: A Juxtaposition of Race and Crime

Book: Nairobi Heat

Author: Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Date: 2013

Reviewer: Paul Liam


Literature continues to influence discussion on human issues and their impacts on the society. The concerns it incites buttresses its perpetual relevance in assessing and reassessing the conditions of human existence, which rests with the re-evaluation of self by paying particular attention to the metamorphosis of the cosmos. It is in its womb that humanity finds its accord and the meaning that is often lost on the divide of Race, Religion, Culture and Ethnicity. Literatures by African writers have generated debates on issues that border on the place of the African (black) amongst the comity of global citizens by the old and new generation of writers. Although, these discourses in spite their large numbers have not fully answered the very intrinsic questions, neither have they provided absolute solutions that could have doused the quest by the newer generation of African writers, from continuing in the same fashion as their forebears. Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat is a crime fiction that engages the issues of race, crime and corruption which are the bane of Africa’s development.

Nairobi Heat attempts to x-ray the life of a black detective caught in-between meeting the expectations of duty and personal honour, as he investigates a murder case in Africa. The narrator, Detective Ishmael is confronted with the ugly truth about the condition of Africa, his ancestry as he goes about seeking answers to the mystery behind the murder of a white girl, Mercy Jane Admanzah, whose corpse was found on the doorstep of a prominent black man, Joshua Hakizimana in America. The opening page to this crime fiction novel begins by highlighting the psychological dilemma that confronts Detective Ishmael and other African-Americans. The confusion of deciding where sits one’s true loyalty. Is it to the origin (Africa) that bore him or to the synthetic cultures that have groomed him? As if the author sets out on purpose to subdue the consciousness of the protagonist, a call to his telephone line as he tries to reconcile the murder and the suspect of the murder compounds his worries, which also ironically questions his emotional connection to his ancestry. The caller says. ‘‘If you want the truth, you must go to its source. The truth is in the past. Come to Nairobi’’ (P18) the caller invites him as if he was a family member reuniting with a lost brother, and as with everything, the call leads him to Africa; a place he has never really given attention to despite the truth that it was a part of his subconscious mind. The narrator indicts himself of not really having considered much of Africa as a part of him.

“How many times had I thought of Africa? Not many, I’m afraid. Yes. I knew of Africa. After all it was the land of my ancestors; a place I vaguely longed for without really wanting to belong to it. I might as well say it here: coming from the US there was a part of me that had come to believe it was a land of wars, hunger, disease and dirt even as my skin pulled me towards it. So how many times had I thought of Africa? Not many, not in a real way’’

Although, an innocent statement it would seem, upon sieving the message, it becomes a cause for concern, as it is a lamentation of the dilemma and retrogression that has continued to smear the continent. It was this type of irking narration that caused the African critic Charles Nnolim to posit somewhere in an essay that ‘‘African literature was lachrymal. It was a weeping literature, a literature of lamentation, following Africa’s experience with slavery and colonialism.’’ African literature has chiefly been occasioned by the consequences of colonialism; slavery and racial prejudice; this effect cannot be ignored no matter how hard contemporary writers would try to pretend about the realities that have become the definers of their literature.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s is an affirmation that contemporary writers are still concerned with the realities of the past as a channel of x-raying the future. Detective Ishmael’s continuous self-assessment is an indication that for any human being to fully understand himself, he must engage in constant self-evaluation to find a deeper essence and meaning to his existence. Just as Nnolim posited, Nairobi Heat is a weeping literature whose protagonist — more than solving the murder mystery — is on a quest to solving his identity problem and fitting into his natural skin as an African albeit unconsciously.

The issue of identity is a heavy burden on the shoulders of the protagonist as he constantly reminds himself of his blackness and the hypocrisy of the white folks towards black heroes who are never really given the chance to succeed in the first place. Therefore, any heroic act by a black man is considered a miracle by the whites. Even the appointment of the black Police Chief, Jackson Jordan in the story as explained by the narrator, bears the obvious hypocrisy.

Jackson Jordan had been elected because he was tough on crime. That is, he was tough on black crime. I respected the Chief well enough to work under him, but it wasn’t always easy. He was liable to pander to politics, and I always followed the evidence to wherever it led-the cat selling two rocks by the corner liquor store or to the mayor or the governor himself. But like I said, I liked him well enough, and at the end of the day we all have a grudging respect for him.

‘Chief, I’m working this case alone,’ I said.

My partner, a white guy, had just retired and I knew where this was going-a white partner for the nigger cop to make everyone feel safe. But I wasn’t going to have it. If I was going to get a partner, I wanted one for the right reasons, not to balance the racial math. (10)

Racism plays an integral part in the life of a black American as can clearly be seen by Ngugi’s’s depiction which betrays the hidden truth that civilization may not have totally erased the centuries old wounds secretly nursed by black Americans. The white man’s affection for the black man is just an aggrandisement of the superiority of his race and therefore, they see blacks as mere beneficiaries of their kind generosity. Here is what the narrator tells us about the favours of the whites.

We have to get the son of a bitch who did this. You hear me? He said fiercely. ‘This is more than the department looking bad.’

I understood him. If we solved what was going to be a high-profile case, it would open more doors for black people in the force. And if we fucked up, doors would close. It didn’t make things easier. (12)

How more difficult can things become for the black man? The above is the narrator’s conversation with his boss the Police Chief, and it is bewildering how a race could hold another race to ransom. How can it be that the future of an entire race depends on the good deeds of a few people? Ngugi paints a picture of a truly ugly reality in this crime fiction that is more factual than it is fiction. There are several instances in the story where the narrator’s consciousness of the limitations of his environment towards him becomes pronounced such as in this instance;

If the mayor says that he ‘trust the Chief of Police will do all in his power to ensure that the right thing is done,’ to the whites it means that the Chief won’t hesitate to hang a fellow black man if it comes down to it. To the blacks it means: don’t forget who owns the police.

Looking at the above scenario, one would wonder how a black police officer in such an environment would be able to perform maximally when he is too occupied with what the white masters expect of him all the time. It is in fact these compelling challenges that motivate crime writers like Mukoma Wa Ngugi to recount some of these experiences for the dissection of everyone. This assertion of celebrating the heroic acts of blacks in America is explained by Daylanne K. English in an essay on contemporary black crime fiction;

Firstly, in writing crime fiction novels, contemporary black writers are enacting a kind of literary-generic anachronism in order to comment on a distinct lack of progress regarding race within legal, penal and judicial systems in the US.

The narrator does not pretend about his unfortunate position as a black cop in a white dominated system, his narrations are often times direct commentaries on the prejudiced justice system of the US and how it constantly reminds the black community of its inferior standing in the society. For example, this comment by the narrator reiterates the status quo and the reader cannot not help but absorb himself in the narrator’s sentiments.

A young blonde woman was found murdered on the doorstep of a black man-an African. Of course it was going to be the story of the year.

If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught. I mean, if a crime is not solved within the first 48 hours it has all but officially gone cold. But a black-on-white crime does not go cold. A beautiful blonde girl is dead and a week later I’m chasing after ghosts in Africa. Had it been a black victim I certainly wouldn’t have been racking up overtime in Nairobi. (4)

Mukoma Wa NgugiNgugi’s Nairobi Heat is a re-evaluation of the inadequacies and prejudicial justice system of the USA. The black man is never truly a hero in the eyes of the white justice system. The exigency of the challenges is brought to bear in this crime fiction. Detective Ishmael’s passion and commitment to unravel the mystery of the murder of a white girl found on the door step of a black man is not as a direct result of professional demand but the demand of a discriminatory system that expects you to fail so your entire race could be derided, because of the failure of an individual black man. There are two key issues to be understudied in the character of Detective Ishmael; the first one is that, should he succeed in unravelling the mystery of the murder of the white girl, then he stands to be anointed by the whites with the award of being the rare ingenuity of black intellect, for finding justice for a murdered white girl. The second point is, should he fail by any means to succeed with the case, then the entire black race’s limping integrity stands in jeopardy.

The failure of one black man is a collective. Nairobi Heat proposes a discourse and it is that, the black man is a perpetual wanderer surfing for the meaning he has refused to admit exists in his skin colour. But no matter how long it takes he must encounter the miracle that will reverse his inclination to white imperialism. Just as Detective Ishmael himself realises at the end, that finding true meaning one would have to return to the origin for answers. Nairobi Heat also proposes that, for blacks to genuinely find meaning they must reconnect with their root in order to find pure happiness in the nothingness that is everything they crave for.         

The Never Again Foundation and Refuge Centre’s operations in the story as unravelled by Detective Ishmael gives insight into the market of organised crimes and corruption in Africa perpetuated by the West. The foundation serves as a cover up for the criminal activities of multinational organizations perpetuated in Africa in the name of aiding its advancement. But amidst this ugly reality, these criminals are treated as though they are saints sent to redeem the continent. Through his depiction, Ngugi highlights the hypocrisy of the west shrouded by the supposed good intent of helping Africa develop through investment and intervention programmes that do not only benefit the corrupt elites but does very little in contributing to the improvement of the lives of the ordinary people. As always, for a crime to succeed, there must be an insider, who acts as a cover and in this story Joshua the supposed messiah and hero of the genocide established the Refuge Centre to cater for the victims of the war but in truth he is just a proxy in a business empire run through the Refugee Centre and The Never Again Foundation.

Analysing the documents containing the criminal transactions of the Refugee Centre and the Never Again Foundation, Detective Ishmael discovers the politics of the corporate world and how western corporations short change the economy of Africa with Africans as accomplices, by not only evading taxes but by also deceiving the world in the guise of investing in charity organizations that generate returns to them. The irony of it all is that, political leaders who should protect the masses in most cases end up being part of the schemes that defraud the poor and under develop Africa. This passage explains the calculations in the scheme as revealed by the narrator.

I turned to the recipients’ page and it became clearer how the whole thing worked. Let’s say Shell has ten million dollars due in taxes. Under normal circumstances shell could give that money to charity-thus not paying the tax and at the same time creating publicity and goodwill for itself. But what was happening was that Shell would give the ten million to the Never Again Foundation, which in turn kicked six million back into the private accounts of the Shell board, keeping four million for Samuel Alexander and his subordinates. It was such a neat cycle, that each year generated so many millions for CEOs and wealthy philanthropists, that it might well have been legal. The rich had found a way of giving back to themselves. (72)

The crux of the intrigues recorded in Nairobi Heat supports the insinuation that Africa is a corporation set up and run by the criminal west and as such they determine what becomes of Africa and her citizens. It can as well be relayed that, Africa is a mortgaged continent, its survival rests squarely with the west and to cut away from this contraption, we will need genuine leaders with deeper sympathies towards Africa to cause her development. The crux of the dilemma however is the intricacy of corporate corruption which gives room to several players and creates a formidable system run through various business channels. For example, the involvement of Kokomat Supermarket which is a reputed company in Nairobi run by women whom, as the narration later reveals, were victims and later beneficiaries of the Refugee Centre and Never Again Foundation’s dirty scheme. One would then ask; what is the role of women in corruption in Africa? Are women not also vulnerable to the same eccentricities that their male counterparts are renowned for?

Women are perhaps passive actors in the entire evil games. As Muddy, Detective Ishmael’s female friend puts it, “They are being paid to keep quiet about something’’ the women’s cases are always complicated. The fate that led the women who own Kokomat Supermarket to condescend to abating crimes that their consciences were strongly opposed to is one manipulated by their male folks. As victims and survivors of the genocide they are deceived by Joshua’s group to keep mute on their indiscreet operations. Of course the supermarket was set up with the bribe money they collected, negating the future doom that awaited them. According to the story Mary Karuhimbi is the leader of the female group that owns Kokomat Supermarket and in justifying their action she relays their ordeal to Detective Ishmael and O, his African partner.

We are all from the same village. Survivors…But sometimes I am so numb that I do not (know) if I am still alive. Is there redemption in such suffering as ours? Can hell be any worse? Ah, can even heaven make all this worthwhile?” (17) The bitterness in her words cannot be mistaken even by the deaf.

Fixing together the pieces of evidence which point to Joshua as the central suspect in the murder of the white girl, the narrator submits:

It made perfect sense. ‘The Black Schindler,’ as the media had called him, had saved a few in order to use them as bait and reel in the whole villages searching for refuge. It was a brilliant set-up because no one would have expected such evil, especially from a man who a few weeks earlier had been educating their children. I had met rapists and murderers, but this kind of evil was something else. It took a cold heart to do what Joshua had done. And it takes a strong will not only to continue living, but to also enjoy life. (79)

Nairobi Heat is by and large a crime fiction that documents and dramatizes the crimes on humanity perpetuated by supposed care givers who come in the forms of charity organization, and the role of government officials in aiding the concession of Africa’s future for selfish benefits that do not purchase for them armours against death. But like in the story, evil does not thrive forever, just as Joshua and Alexander meet their tragic end, so shall all who support evil in whatever form pass away. The story is told in the first person point of view and the narrator also serves as an intermediary as in several instances, he proffers commentaries on the state of the relationship between the blacks and whites. The events take place in the US, Nairobi and Rwanda.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, through the character of Detective Ishmael, informs Africa that a messiah is on the way to bring light and the knowledge that would salvage the continent and reposition it on the path of genuine development. And that for us to find true meaning in life we must look to ourselves for it.


Works Cited

Nnolim, Charles E “African Literature in the 21st Century: challenges for writers and critics” African Literature Today 25 (2005)

English Daylanne K. “The Modern in the Post Modern: Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely and the Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction, American Literary History Volume Number 4, Winter 2006, project muse, journals/alh/summary/vol8/18.4english.html,

Wa Ngugi, Mukoma. Nairobi Heat, Cassava Republic Press Book, 2013


Paul Liam
Paul Liam
Paul Liam is a poet, author, book reviewer, critical literary essayist, editor, literary columnist, polemist, creative writing mentor. He is the co-editor of Ebedi Review (Journal of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria). A former Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), Niger Chapter, his published works include, Indefinite Cravings (2012), Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014), and his numerous critical essays and interviews have been published in highly reputable Nigerian Newspapers including: The Nation, The Sun, Nigerian Tribune, Daily Independence, Daily Trust, Blue Print, Nigerian Pilot, etc., and online @, among others.


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