In “The Dragonfly Sea,” by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, the events of global politics are not just the background but the catalyst that drives the lives of individuals on the small island of Pate (pronounced pah-tay), off the coast of Kenya.
Ayaana is a small girl when we first meet her, running through the streets and mangrove swamps of the island, spying on neighbors, and hiding from her mother, Munira.
Once the cherished daughter of a wealthy family, Munira returned from the big city with Ayaana but no husband. In the small community of Pate, everyone knows everybody’s business. Munira’s shame is transferred to the child, who is bullied by children and adults alike.
When Ayaana adopts a recently returned sailor who left the island years ago to outrun his own mistakes, as her father, mentor, and teacher, Muhidin is reluctantly drawn into the circle of their lives. Their odd little family becomes the crucible in which the elements of world civilization come together.
Through deep, poetic prose, Owuor draws the reader into the sweeping currents of life at the turn of the 21st century in this non-Western world. "There are no American saviors there, no Westerners coming to impose peace.”
In fact, when the outsiders build wells, the wells fill with undrinkable salt water, but the well intentioned foreigners are by then long gone. When troops arrive to eliminate terrorist threats, the locals are baffled. Families are ripped apart by mistaken identities and poorly conceived assumptions.
Ayaana’s life is upended by global issues that we find in our headlines every day: the War on Terror, natural disasters, Chinese commercial interest in Africa, Indian Ocean pirates, sex traffickers, smugglers, and more. Yet Owuor weaves all of these influences deftly into a stunningly rich story that taps the deepest questions of belonging and relationship.
“The Dragonfly Sea” immerses the reader in sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a different world. It is not a book to read in 10-minute increments between other pursuits. It is best enjoyed over long Sunday afternoons, possibly with Google Translate open on your phone nearby.
Chinese, Kiswahili, Turkish, Arabic, French, and other languages mix on the pages. Food from four continents, music from around the Indian Ocean, and history that reaches back to antiquity collide to make this book more than a story. It is a tour of a foreign land, where dragonflies arrive ahead of storms, and the currents of the Indian Ocean bring foreign visitors to upend lives. It is well worth the time to take this journey.