The Greedy Barbarian is a book written by Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.. Apart from having a mouthful of a surname, which is as epic as the story he weaves, Rukirabashaija is a journalist, philanthropist, law student and farmer wielding a poison pen like a pitchfork at the gates of the Bastille.
However, his writerly plan is not to tear down that medieval prison of repression, but to erect a modern literary monument which ensures such prisons collapse of their own accord. And this creative destructiveness erupts from each page with every word used to verbalise a story built upon a storied play on symbols, myths and images.
The Greedy Barbarian starts innocently enough with the unveiling of Ingabire and Rukundakanuzire, marrieds who in their rustic somnolence tend their cattle and live a life attuned to the mystic chords of a pastoralist’s day-to-day existence.
Their story is set in Buregyeya, a fictional place.
Rukundakanuzire’s father Rwabutwiigi bequeaths him land upon which to establish a homestead, but that is not all he gives his son.
Unfortunately, the family’s heirloom stretches across generations with the practice of night dancing which choreographs a secret life characterised by cannibalism.
Rukundakanuzire and Ingabire give birth to Bekunda, whose beauty seemingly rises from the foam like the goddess Isis. So Rukundakanuzire is thus protective of her and, in his eagerness to keep village suitors a sanitary distance from her heavenly purity, he kills one of these suitors!
The dead man’s family exacts vengeance by depleting Rukundakanuzire’s herd of cattle, so he is forced to flee to the mountain-girdled village of Mubaya.
Bekunda’s beauty proves to be both gift and curse for she is gang-raped by some village roughs when Rukundakanuzire is away. Soon, she discovers she is with child and has to decamp because a girl who gets pregnant before marriage is punished with death.
In a neighbouring village, she gives birth to a boy called Kayibanda and turns tricks as a prostitute to survive. And because she’s as beguiling as the most beautiful of sunsets, every man wants to bask in her love…to the exclusion of other prostitutes. This, naturally, leads to other women of easy virtue plotting to eliminate Bekunda in what becomes a turf war between harlots.
Sadly, Bekunda is left disfigured by the physical attacks of her rival prostitutes as she loses an ear and an arm. Again, she chooses to run and so gathers up her son Kayibanda to leave the fictional Muhemba in order to live in the neighboring country, Kalenga. While living in this country of lush pastures and verdant possibilities, she meets and marries a nomadic pastoralist called Kagurutsi, who is indwelt by the mystical powers of the Bachwezi.
Bekunda’s son, Kayibanda, soon grows into his majority and becomes the scourge of the Malanga village in Kalenga. So Kagurutsi is forced to take him far away to stay with his friend in Biguri. Kagurutsi’s friend, Chief Bamwine is a propertied and sweet-tempered man.
Kayibanda goes from becoming a criminal to jailbird to government assassin, until he finally becomes president of Kalenga. After Kagurutsi introduces him to the powers of the Bachwezi, Kayibanda becomes an invulnerable tin-horn dictator with the moral code of a Mafioso.
The Greedy Barbarian is a “book of fiction”, although most of the names, characters, places and incidents seem to be thinly veiled references to actual persons, places and incidents.
The author frequently uses the word ‘mauve’ to describe the tincture or hue of the changing sky. This is tiresome and possibly farfetched in that mauve is pale purple.
The author occasionally mixes up his hes and shes, as if gender is interchangeable. And on page 98, he writes about how Kayibanda turned into a snake and still managed to throw a grenade without describing the snake-like contortions he would need to employ in order to do this.
The author’s literary devices are well deployed by the use of evocative language through similes, metaphors and hyperbole. “Sparkling eyes like headlamps of a new car” is a vivid description of a woman’s luminous eyes.
This book was set in the colonial and post-colonial period as evidenced by the missionaries who ‘combed’ the villages (on page 49) looking for children to go to school.
However, Kayibanda had a laptop by the time he went to Tara University, which could be around the 1970s. This clearly makes him (and the laptop) an anachronism. Such clumsiness reduces the book’s plausibility factor.
Although still a riveting read, the book gets bogged down towards the end as the author seems in a hurry to end the story and abbreviate Kayibanda’s rule in the process.
The author makes the mistake of treating Kayibanda as a person not as a personification of the corruption of power, potential or actual, in us all. As a result, the book plumbs the shallows of an otherwise deep read.
Sadly, the final pages of the book are an anticlimax that reads like an indictment with the literary oomph of a memo in a retirement home.