Praised as a “ captivating, witty read that explores the sociopolitical climate in Kenya in an honest way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking” by Desmond Boi, Editorial Writer, The Standard and Citizen TV, Nairobi, Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner is Gerald Everett Jones’ eleventh novel. The book depicts Kenya and its glaring issues through the eyes of Harry Gardner, a white middle-aged man, like no other literary fiction novel dared to do it before. The gorgeous landscapes and current social challenges in Kenya, love, and corruption, are the perfect backdrop for this story about finding affection and purpose in one’s life.
Gerald Everett Jones, you are a multiple award-winning author in multiple genres, including literary fiction. Tell us a little bit about your books.
Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner is my second literary novel. My first, Clifford’s Spiral, won a Silver Independent Press Award in 2020. And Harry is my eleventh novel. I’ve written in several other genres. My first three novels were humorous, a series of satires called The Misadventures of Rollo Hemphill. Then a wrote a couple of comedic family melodramas, Mr. Ballpoint and Christmas Karma. I did crime fiction in Choke Hold and historical fiction in Bonfire of the Vanderbilts. And I won an Eric Hoffer award for How to Lie with Charts, which is a business book. As you say, my Evan Wycliff mystery thrillers have won four awards, three for Preacher Finds a Corpse and one for Preacher Fakes a Miracle. I’m planning the third in that series, Preacher Raises the Dead.
All that said, some reviewers think all my books read like literary fiction. I guess you could say I’m a stylist, and my stories aren’t so much action-packed as they are meant to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.
What inspired you to write the plot of Harry Harambee’s Kenyan Sundowner?
I lived in Kenya for two years. I went there to support my wife’s work in wildlife conservation and child welfare. My main character in this book is Harry Gardner, a lonely, middle-aged widower from Los Angeles. So I’m a middle-aged white guy writing from the viewpoint of a middle-aged white guy. The events I describe either happened to me directly—for example, I was robbed twice—or they were related to me by Kenyans. You quickly learn that you don’t get the whole story in the newspapers or on TV. In Kenya, gossip is news. And I gossiped with everybody I met, from tuk-tuk drivers to restaurant owners and resort managers. I came to love Kenya, but I also realized what a huge cultural adjustment it was for me. That shift in mindset is what motivated me to write the story. Names and details changed to protect the guilty, of course.
Your main character is consumed by two burning questions, one of them being, “Is love transactional?” What is your answer, and why?
I found Kenyans to be warm and generous. However, many of them confessed to me that they delight in gaming each other, and they’re not shy when they talk about it. Your best friend might ask you for a loan and not pay it back. You give it freely. But he knows that he’s fair game, and eventually you’ll want a favor—or perhaps even play a trick on him—in return. But through it all, you will always be friends. That’s the transactional aspect. And, when you apply it to deeper feelings, you realize you can’t separate your emotions from your responsibilities. For example, in Nairobi, the New York City of Kenya, it’s estimated that almost half the population has no regular income. So if you’re a wage-earning head of household, whether you’re a single parent or an older sibling, it’s not uncommon to be supporting thirty people in your extended family. And, down the road, you will expect their loyalties in return.
Corruption is another major theme in your novel. How would the world look like without it?
It’s like an unofficial national slogan: “Corruption is the mother of Kenya.” You hear it everywhere from people at all levels of society. And there’s a kind of acceptance, as if you don’t expect progress or change. You just have to deal with it. If a policeman makes a traffic stop, you can expect to pay a bribe on the spot. If you want to get a job or get your paperwork for some permit speeded up, you’d better give something extra to the government officer.
One lesson I brought away is a more Kenyan mindset. It’s easier for me to see or suspect corruption everywhere. In this country, we’re more sophisticated at hiding it. And perhaps more hypocritical in thinking that it doesn’t exist.
I don’t think there’s a world without corruption. The question is, what do you do about it when you find it? How do you recognize it and still strive to act honorably and do things that improve people’s lives?
You lived in Kenya for two years, not to mention the previous safari trips you and your wife took to Africa. Out of such a variety of landscapes and sights, how did you pick those for the setting of your novel?
We lived in Karen, a suburb of Nairobi, for several months. We did that mainly to be where we could get the most information and access to work and volunteer opportunities, as well as to facilitate the government paperwork. We then moved to the small resort town of Diani Beach on the Indian Ocean just south of Mombasa, the country’s huge port city. That’s where Georja, my wife, worked at a shelter for unwed mothers, focusing on environmental education and skills.
So those are the two locations in the novel, places I came to know well.
How did your African experience transform you as an author and as a person?
Much like my main character, Harry Gardner, I went there not knowing what to expect. And, like him, for much of the time, I was passive. I let things happen to me and I observed. Now, I like to think I’m more personable and outgoing than he is, but I hope I’m more open-minded. I’m certainly less of a believer in what you’d call American Exceptionalism. In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, there’s a sentiment that foreigners persist in thinking they need to somehow “fix” Africa. Well, certainly, there’s a lot in Africa that needs fixing. But you can say the same about the United States. And perhaps Kenyans are more realistic about what can be achieved.
What would you like to stay with your readers after they finish your book?
This is not a story of heroes and villains. These are flawed people, as are all of us, trying to make the best of their situations one day at a time. Harry gets drawn into a scheme, and he worries he’s getting played. But then he has to ask himself, “Do I mind?” No one is out to hurt him, and his life is suddenly more interesting. He’s found the two things he didn’t have back home—affection and purpose.
What type of reader will enjoy your book?
I wouldn’t call it a psychological thriller. It is intensely psychological, but it’s more suspense than thriller. Like Harry, you’ll keep trying to put pieces of the puzzle together. So it’s a mind twister, and you’d be a fan of literary fiction because in many ways it’s more about thinking than doing. Although, deciding when you absolutely must act is a major theme.
What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?
I’ve learned, especially from writing my mysteries, that I needn’t stick to an outline. Oh, yes, I have a sense of how I want it all to resolve. But if I let go and allow my subconscious to direct the writing—and sometimes that means letting the characters go their own ways—I often surprise and delight myself—and my readers, I hope. I’m really thrilled when I don’t know what will be on the last page until I’ve written it.
What is most endearing about your protagonist, Harry Gardner?
Frankly, I wouldn’t describe Harry as endearing. Locals call him “Harambee.” That’s the national motto, and it means, “We are one.” So they tease him with the name because they expect he’s well-intentioned, and he’s trying to fit in, even when he’s doing a bad job of it.
In fact, some readers will think he’s downright unlikeable. I’d say that’s kind of the point in literary fiction—to explore human failings. Now, the woman he gets involved with, Esther, comes to endear him. But you might have trouble seeing him from her point of view.
I suppose his most tender moment is when the cook asks him to tell her about his feelings for his deceased wife. He talks fondly of their early romance, then he goes on to describe how, of all the women in his life, his grandmother taught him about unconditional love. And, coming back to the transactional idea, consider that someone who loves unconditionally benefits as much or more than the loved one. The lover gets to abandon all worry about the other person’s disappointments and failings!
Tell us about Esther, the woman who makes Harry’s life more interesting. How did you build this fascinating character?
I met several single-parent women of her age and circumstances when I was there. They are educated and sharp, with working-class jobs and supporting extended families. Some had even attended college abroad and then returned. The notion that single women in their thirties develop relationships with older European men is not at all unusual, especially in these resort towns that get so many tourists on extended stays. What strikes me about Esther is her resourcefulness and, yes, her honesty. Like her friend Aldo, the Italian tour operator who is Harry’s companion, even though she might not tell Harry the whole truth about her intentions, she never does anything to betray him or bring him to harm. She has quiet power and determination, and she knows how to use it. In short, she’s come to terms with corruption. She hasn’t sold her soul, but she has no illusions.
What are the most fascinating aspects of Kenya (that you also depict in your book)?
Readers might expect that safaris are the most sensational aspect, and there are some remarkable encounters with wild animals in here. But the stunning thing to me about Kenya is how fast the country is growing and developing. People in all walks of life, including tribal villages, are doing banking on their smartphones. Many people understand that wildlife conservation and sustainability are the keys to preserving not only the environment but also the tourist economy. But foreign capital is pouring in there. I saw one projection where the country’s GNP is expected to grow by $2 trillion in the next decade. That might be the fastest expansion, in relative terms, on Earth. New, upscale shopping malls are springing up in the cities, but they’re intended to serve only the growing affluent class. How Kenya balances these forces in the future could be a model for other nations or another lesson that proves nothing fails like success.
What were the most surprising facts you uncovered about Kenyan society and culture?
There is racism in Kenya, as everywhere, but it’s not mainly black-and-white. There are forty-three tribes, and they tend to mistrust one another. Those rivalries are particularly acute in national politics, where two prominent tribes and a few families have ruled the country since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1963. A few powerful families still control a large percentage of the land, and they own crucial elements of infrastructure, such as the power utility. Any initiative for change can be challenging when it threatens entrenched interests.
What is your favorite quote from the book?
“It wasn’t until he was studying a banknote in this solitary moment at the bar when he saw Harambee emblazoned on the banner of the coat of arms, just beneath two lions rampant guarding a tribal shield. Harry pulled out his phone and searched online for the definition, discovering that the national motto in Kiswahili means We Pull Together, or simply, Unison. Harry still didn’t make the connection.”
If you want to learn more about Gerald Everett Jones and his previous books, you can listen to this Books That Make You podcast where we chat with the author not too long ago.