NAIROBI, KENYA: As much of the developed world holds its breath for the release of the film versions of The Da Vinci Code, most of the developing world will go the way of its daily round, unconcerned and unaffected. The Kenyan media have hardly made mention of either the book or the film, busy as they are with problems of internal security, financial scams, political squabbles, famine and floods, as well as sport, music, health, and weight-watching.
But reading for leisure? That comes at the bottom of the list of priorities, whether in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Delhi or Nairobi. Dan Brown, Robert Langdon and Silas the albino monk assassin are not household names there.
Does this mean copies of the book are not available, and that no one has read it? By no means. The few bookshops that have stocked it –- and in Nairobi, a city of almost 4 million, this means around a dozen — have sold out, mainly to a tiny reading public of expatriates, sophisticated young professionals and a few students, people more in tune with Western ideas and ideals, both good and not so good.
In Bombay, too, the book sold like hot cakes to educated people who read it as pure fiction or to students who were attracted by the “secrets that lie within”. It was on the best-seller list for more than two years in Singapore, an affluent society with a leisured class — not great readers but taken in by aggressive marketing. There it probably had more impact since it sparked spiritual questions and doubts. In Japan it did not even make it onto the best-seller list, although Harry Potter did.
The average urban Kenyan, Filipino, Indian or Vietnamese –- and we are not speaking of the vast majority who live in the countryside — even if he can afford to drive a car and own a small house for his family, would normally never think of spending money on a novel. Books are for school work and exams and free time is spent outdoors, either doing sports, visiting relatives or friends, or working one’s plot of land. Even less is he likely to buy a book which attacks his faith. No sensible person is going to spend money on a book that insults his mother in the most obscene and brutal way, undermines her authority and questions her integrity.
The modern literate African is also very literal, like all peoples who have recently been introduced to Western education, which is regarded as a stepping stone to success, not as an end in itself. He believes what he reads and what he is told, and is far less cynical and sceptical than well-read people in the West who have tasted the fruits of success and find them jaded, and look for thrills elsewhere. And because he is literal he also tends to be hard-headed and practical, and has no time or sympathy for nonsense or vanity.
What readers in the South like is action, suspense, and characters they find congenial and tough. They have little patience with anything else. It has to be the “good guys” against the “bad guys”, and there can be no question about who will win. If the bad guys are figures in the Church who do not stop at fraud and murder, this upsets the simple reader’s scale of values and terms of reference. He will close the book.
The galleries and museums of The Da Vinci Code are also unfamiliar. This cold atmosphere does not grip Kenyan readers, accustomed as they are to the warm vitality and vivid colours of life in the streets. Nor does he relate to its New Age ideas or its radical feminist agenda. Kenyans have clear ideas on gender differences: a man has his place and a woman has hers. It is a situation that needs some correction, but not in the direction Dan Brown recommends.
Of course, some readers will take the book a bit more seriously and be affected by the blasphemy and the calumny. But this is offset by a deep yearning to know and possess the truth, and no stone will be left unturned until the truth is found. Since the book misrepresents the Church as a murderous institution and the Christian faith as built on false premises; since it slanders important Church figures and casts slurs on their motives, it raises many questions. This is not the Church they have known; this is not the typical priest or bishop of their experience, and yet this book claims to be authentic… There is something strange in all this; they will want to find out what. Generally the South is a highly communicative society, so confused readers will ask someone trustworthy –- assuming it is possible to find this someone — whether the blasphemy or calumny or the “secret” are groundless or based on fact.
The only part of The Da Vinci Code fantasy a reader of the South might identify with is the secret societies and the conspiracy theories. Despite the openness of society in the South, not everything can be explained and some people do resort to the occult.
So, despite being touted as a religious movie like The Passion of the Christ, people here are likely to ignore it and watch films with happy endings and plenty of action. If a film insults their faith, or what other people hold to be dear and sacred, then even a marketing blitz will not make it popular. It is very likely that Dan Brown, and Ron Howard, the film’s director, have not found the right ingredients for success, except for a few isolated pockets, outside the mainstream centres of modern Western culture.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.