The People of Ostrich Mountain by Ndirangu Githaiga
The People of Ostrich Mountain is a family saga and piece of cultural fiction. Set in Kenya, the story begins in the 1950s and introduces us to Wambũi. As a teenager she leaves her village to attend a prestigious boarding school where she meets Eileen Atwood, a teacher who would become her friend and mentor.
Although Wambũi is a gifted mathematician, she trains to be a teacher of maths so that she can stay close to her family and help them out financially. After her marriage she helps run a successful hardware store.
In part two of the book, we meet Wambũi’s grown-up son Ray and read of his struggles to become a medical student and later his successes in America. We also return to Eileen’s tale, who after forty years living in Kenya was forced to leave her job and return to England.
I enjoyed reading this and learning about Kenya and its history, particularly for those who lived and worked outside of the main cities. Some of my favourite parts were reading about Wambũi’s family hierarchy and their respect of family values. I also liked the story behind the book title which I won’t give away here.
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As the 1950s Mau Mau war breaks out in the foothills of Mt. Kenya, Wambũi, a fourteen-year-old girl leaves her besieged village to join a prestigious boarding school a half day’s journey away by train. There, she becomes aware of her extraordinary mathematical abilities discovered by her teacher, Eileen Atwood. Initially, Wambũi views Eileen’s attentions with suspicion and hostility, but over time, the two grow close and form a lifelong friendship.
Unfortunately for Wambũi, the mid-twentieth century isn’t ready for a female math prodigy, particularly in Kenya. But she quietly and defiantly takes on the obstacles seeking to define her, applying her unusual gifts in new directions, which ultimately benefits her impoverished family and inspires her siblings and their children to pursue their own dreams.
After forty years in Kenya, Eileen unexpectedly loses her employment authorization and is forced to return to England, where she struggles to adjust to living in a country she barely recognizes. Meanwhile, Wambũi’s son, Ray, a doctor, navigates a fraught visa application process and travels to America to begin residency training; however, his hospital becomes insolvent and shuts down a year later. He and his colleagues are assimilated into other programs where, as foreign-born physicians, they endure relentless prejudice. As a black man, he also discovers that the streets of Chicago are sometimes quick to judge, with serious consequences.
A saga of family and friendship spanning five decades and three continents, ‘The People of Ostrich Mountain’ chronicles the interconnected lives of three outsiders as they navigate the vagaries of race, gender and immigration.