At the age of 9, Queen Village resident and writer David Sanders was enjoying an ordinary family dinner when his father, a Quaker educator, announced to his wife and children that they’d all soon be relocating from Pasadena, California to Western Kenya.
Sanders’ parents, who had established an alternative Quaker school in a quonset hut on a five-acre orange grove in Southern California, were moving their mission work to the rural village of Kaimosi in the mid-1960s.
For a year-and-a-half, Sanders spent his youth swinging on vines, wandering rainforests and munching on roasted maize, seeking his own preadolescent introspection while the country of Kenya itself was, too, searching for an identity in the shadow of gaining independence from British rule.
More than 50 years later, Sanders, a graduate of the New College of California and Harvard University who holds a plethora of experience in communications, publishing and education administration, has harnessed that particular identity parallel and used it as the basis for his first full-length novel, “Busara Road,” which will be released by local publisher New Door Books in April.
“I was just the perfect age, I think, to be a kid in Kenya,” Sanders said. “Because I was old enough to really have an awareness of where I was and what was happening and to still have a lot of memories, just really profound memories now…Memories of that have been really profound and have kind of shaped me to really a big extent throughout my life.”
Noting that the book is not biographical, Sanders said the 280-page narrative follows the story of 11-year-old Mark Morgan as he starts a new life with his father at the Kwetu Quaker Mission in 1966 after the death of his mother.
Sanders, who’s had short fiction, essays and plays published in journals and anthologies, says some form of this story has been bouncing around in his brain since 2000. Originally, the piece started as a short story, and then a grew to a 700-page saga. At one point, the narrative even manifested into a screenplay, which shortlisted Sanders as a finalist for the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Prize for a novel-in-progress.
Eventually, though, the novel found its current form.
“The underlying feel of it… even though, a lot of these things didn’t take fruit of themselves, they taught me a lot about what I was trying to do with the core novel and they really helped me get it into this final shape,” Sanders said.
Evolving through various drafts for two decades, Sanders carefully chose to set the narrative in third person past tense, allowing readers to see, smell, hear and feel the pastoral highlands of this newly established East African nation through Mark’s five senses.
A significant element of the story lies in the omnipresent aftermath of the bloody Mau Mau Rebellion, which lasted from 1952 to 1960. The novel required extensive amounts of research regarding the country’s complicated path toward independence, including the uprising of the Mau Mau force that formed in response to British colonial ruling.
Delving into his own past, Sanders says he has a faint recollection of these political and social corollaries in his own Kenyan experiences, but being so young, he couldn’t fully grasp the scope of the matters.
“I had a sense of them as sort of this kind of unknown scary entity that lived in the rainforests and had been somehow really instrumental in the history but, as a kid there, I was just grooving on being a kid,” he said.
Like Sanders, Mark, too, is not wholly aware of the current state of the nation. Setting the story in third person, then, manifests a peculiar perspective, leading audiences to read between the lines through the character’s innocent – and ultimately finite – point of view.
“The challenge was also to have the reader, in a way, understand more of what was going on than this kid did,” Sanders said. “So, that was a very core challenge – to convey a lot of the politics, the violence, the history in a way that the reader could gain it but in a way that the narrator couldn’t just tell it.”
While the book’s factual material stems from research, the sensual elements draw from Sanders’ memories.
Being just a child, Sanders recalls his natural inquisitiveness, as his young body and mind absorbed the sights and sounds of the Kenyan life. Along with the humidity of the rainforests and the dryness of the countryside, one sensation Sanders distinctively remembers feeling is the compassion of the Kenyan people, as they’d welcome him into their huts and prepare him meals.
“I think that has really a big effect on how I just feel very warm and open,” he said. “It’s been my family’s ethos to be very welcoming and opening.”
While Busara Road is a fictitious place, it was inspired by an actual path that weaves through the region of Kaimosi, which was heavily settled by Quakers.
Sanders has fond recollections trotting along the real-life road, reminiscing about the images of women balancing bundles of woods on their heads or young boys bringing cows to the market.
In the novel, though, Busara serves as more than a thoroughfare.
“As a metaphor for me, it feels like it becomes Mark’s road to insight into his own life and into the word around him,” he said. “And so much happens along the road, and it’s such a vibrant thoroughfare but it’s also full of danger…life has opportunity and danger at every step.”
About four years ago, Sanders returned to that same road in Kenya he once ventured along, seeking supplementary research for the novel.
Returning, though, he noticed the current political turmoil of the country. For instance, in the last few years, the Islamist militant Al-Shabab movement was responsible for attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013 and the 2015 attack on Garissa University College in northwest Kenya, according to reports by the BBC.
Sanders says, now, there is a greater sense of security in Kaimosi, which is armed with barricades and fences that did not exist when he lived there as a child.
But, he says the spirit of the Kenyan people has not been tarnished.
“For me, the bigger message, though, was still the warmth of the people and how warmly I was embraced..I hope readers will get a sense of what a really wonderful mysterious and exciting and warm and welcoming place Kenya is, can be,” Sanders said. “And, to see that through Mark’s eyes – to kind of appreciate the beauty, the wildness, the friendliness.”
Info: “Busara Road” will be released this spring, with the official release event at Head House Books, 619 S 2nd St., on Sunday, April 7, at 5:30 p.m. The book is being published by New Door Books, and it will be released in hardcover, paperback and as an e-book. For more information or to purchase the book, visit ww.newdoorbooks.com/busara-road.html.