Bayu, son of Safwani Ibrahim El-Mudi of Mombasa, begins his story at the brink of his initiation into manhood. In the tradition of his clan, Bayu must make a long and dangerous trek to the distant Mount Meru and there have three dreams that will reveal his purpose.
The tradition began with Bayu’s ancestor, Badrani Nyuni El-Mudi, the visionary architect of Kilindini mosque. Badrani’s unique and exquisite design came from a childhood dream. Though beautiful, the design is also controversial, even sacrilegious, and for this, Badrani is banished from Mombasa for three years.
What appears to be the fall of the El-Mudis is, instead, a blessing. While Badrani spends his exile on Mount Meru, the story of his mosque and his woodcrafting family’s talent spreads. Badrani returns to find himself a legend and quickly becomes the most influential man in Mombasa. It is Badrani who declares that “to become an adult, every boy [will have to] make a journey to Mount Meru …[and] dream three dreams.”
Bayu knows it is a dangerous undertaking – some have never returned—but he is determined to complete the ritual so that he can marry the wise and beautiful Hasmahani and add to the honor of the El Mudi clan. The elders have told Bayu that his journey will truly begin at the Zimba pass. Once there, Bayu shouts his name into the great gorge, expecting the echo to return later. Instead he gets an immediate response: “Here I am.” Thus begins Bayu’s journey through dreams.
There are more dangers for Muslim Bayu than his encounters with the pagans who live in Africa’s interior. The journey takes him through eerie and hostile lands populated not only by humans and ferocious beasts, but also by the spirits and demons of nightmares. With no specific instruction from the elders of his clan, Bayu can only press forward with his sharp, creative mind, his intuition, and his faith in the wisdom of his ancestors.
He embraces the quest without hesitation, never doubting the magic that leads him in the guise of various animals, plants, and ghostly figures. Steeped in beliefs that preceded the birth of Islam and still living in the culture of his people, Bayu slips between illusion and reality. His gift is the wisdom and the maturity to recognize the value in every encounter.
Bayu’s story turns like a Mobius strip, flowing without interruption from one world to another. His ability to accept the slippery interplay of reality and illusion allows him to literally follow and even participate in his dreams.
Author Francois Devenne has constructed a story that engages the reader on multiple levels, and Lauren Yoder’s translation brings alive the subtle shades of language, just as the El-Mudi clan’s artisans skillfully unveil the essence of the wood they carve. Every moment of Bayu’s journey is described in words that flow from a truthful and vibrant memory of Devenne’s familiarity with Africa and her mystical beauty. Three Dreams on Mount Meru is a coming-of-age story in the best fashion, incorporating mystery, adventure, and transformation with the enchantment of a fairy tale and the substance of a morality play.
Haunting and compelling, Three Dreams on Mount Meru deserves serious readers who will commit their time and attention to the full experience of storytelling.