Have you ever wondered what a uniquely Kenyan story would look like? Where Kenyans pause and give their own versions of events in a relatable way? Rough Silk by Deborah Auko doesn’t start like one, but by the time the reader gets a quarter way through, it becomes such a story, somehow.

Rough Silk takes us through Deborah Auko’s early life, not as the main star of the story, but as a door to her fathers’, George Auko. A man whose story from birth, raising of Deborah and her brother Philip, to his death, becomes eerily familiar.

It starts in a very relatable manner to most Kenyans: one parent leaves, leaving the other with the children. Given that almost half of Kenyan households are single parent households, the pattern is intimately familiar. Except that in Deborah’s case, it is her mother who leaves and her father stays behind with two children, Deborah and Philip.

As the man steps up, Rough Silk gives us a wide scan of a child always looking over her shoulder, waiting for her mother to return. She does at first, inconsistently as is common with deadbeat parents, and then she stops coming back, leaving a sore wound in the hearts of her children.

George Auko steps up in the best ways he knows how. We follow his life from wealth to poverty, a poverty captured in details so heavy and stinging that I had to drop the book for a while. Deborah becomes the little girl who knows which houses to play at around lunchtime, to get something for her and her brother. We see her schemes, at such an early age, on which rotation to make so as not to burden one house with many visits.

Later in the book, this poverty morphs into period poverty. A situation that, decades later, still keeps thousands of Kenyan girls away from school for several days a month. In her naked struggles, we see her inventions of toilet paper as a menstrual pad, and flinch through the discomforts and health risks. What does one do when there isn’t even enough money for food? What does one do when you have over-borrowed basic necessities from the shopkeeper at the corner?

It is at boarding school that Deborah finds temporary relief, it becomes a haven to child from a tumultuous background. School fees issues, of course, follow the young girl to boarding school, but lack cannot dim her utter brilliance. Like a seed that thrives anywhere it is planted, Deborah shines her way to national drama festivals, each year.  And as we follow her from primary school to one of the greatest high schools in Kenya, we see how her struggles influence her high school experience. How one can be sad, angry or full of angst because of the cards one is served in life. Because how does one learn comfortably, when the other parent is a few kilometers away from the school, but never comes to visit?

Her attempts to find an answer to this question throws us deep into the story of HIV/AIDs, the largest pandemic that ever ravished this country. It doesn’t discriminate on who it takes. Siblings are buried, one after another, in the same homestead. Villages are left wrecked as sons and daughters die from the disease. Children are left orphaned, or as Deborah puts it “… But I also got to the stark realization that I was biologically a statistic as an HIV orphan.” It is a devastating wreckage that leaves no home untouched. If you don’t lose a relative, you lose a boss, a friend or a pastor.

Intertwined with the retelling a tough childhood and a life that progressively gets brighter and brighter, are the enduring stories of Rhumba Music, Raila Amollo Odinga and Gor Mahia. From the time Deborah was young and her father had some money, to the days of lack, to adulthood, Rhumba accompanies her life. It is the music of her father, the music he comes undone with, the music that replenishes their souls. We see this almost like an inherited gene, when the daughter grows up to be an ardent Rhumba lover.

We also follow Raila Odinga from his very first days in politics. We go to demonstrations with him through George Auko. Including a jail or cell stint from one of those demonstrations. We follow him and vote for him or on his side, every single election, and as many Raila supporters can attest to, our hearts break into pieces with every electoral cycle. The same Rhumba and Raila fervor is transmitted to Gor Mahia, its history, how it came to have so many fans, and the sizzling accounts of legendary matches. We also see the mismanagement of the club by patrons.

These three themes, of music, sports, and politics accompany every single season in the book until, again in a very familiar turn of events, Deborah’s father gets sick, spends a few years visiting hospitals with no sustainable help, with diagnoses changing from ulcers to this and that until he later realizes that it is a misdiagnosis. And when the big bad C word enters the room, it is almost too late. Stage 4 cancer only has so many options.

Like many Kenyans, the family takes the cheaper option: India. Cheap is relative because unless one’s family is extra rich; rarely can Kenyan homes afford the cost without asking for contributions from well-wishers. Which is what Deborah and her family do. By then she has become a catchy storyteller and loud Gor Mahia fan on social media. Her friends and fans join hands to raise funds and help her find treatment for their father. With money raised, she accompanies him to India, and when what each of us fears came to pass, amidst the grief, even now years and years later, Deborah remains forever grateful for having George Auko as a father.

Rough Silk celebrates his wins and losses, as an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life, and yet in the ordinariness has now become a legend. Beneath these life challenges is a shining story of a father-daughter relationship, a father’s love for her daughter, a daughter’s love for her father.

This is a book about celebrating ourselves, acknowledging where we come from, crying at our pain and laughing at the hilarious moments. It is a story about our rocky rough times and the smooth silk moments stored in our hearts: Rough Silk

The book is written in a conversational tone, and a storytelling format akin to long Facebook post. It is an extremely easy read, even for non-readers. I suspect we shall see more of this style of writing from many writers born of the social media era.


Visit Nuria Store to get a copy of Rough Silk by Deborah Auko Tendo.

The Paperback currently retails at Kshs 1800, while the Hardcover retails at Kshs 2,350.

Sign up to receive the most diverting fiction, essays, analyses and news across Africa in your inbox, on Monday every week.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.