Marjorie Macgoye: Fighter for women empowerment

Novelist and poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

Novelist and poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye during a past interview at her home in Ngara, Nairobi. She died on December 1, 2015.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The story and journey of Kenya as part-epicentre of Africa’s decades-long literary ferment are incomplete — and can’t be told — without the mention of Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye.

Born Marjorie Phyllis King, in Southampton, England, to Richard and Phyllis King, the late Marjorie first travelled to pre-Independence Kenya in 1954 to sell books. She would formally become a citizen later in 1964. 

An only child, the award-winning poet, novelist and bookseller finished her secondary school education in 1945, before joining the Royal Holloway College, at the University of London, to study English. She would receive her master’s degree in English from Birkbeck College, also at the University of London, eight years later.

Marjorie, whose mother was a teacher and whose father plodded along jobs, including as an apprentice at the Vosper Thornycroft shipyard, first started work at the Foyles Bookshop, in London, soon after graduating from college, and first published stories in magazines (though much of her success as an author came after she settled in Kenya).

She would publish novels and poetry collections beginning in the early 1970s, winning awards for many of her works such as Growing Up At Lina School (1971) and Murder in Majengo (1972), though her most notable novel was Coming to Birth (1986), which, among her other works mostly set in early 1960s Kenya, sought to assign attributes such as courage, strength, fortitude, grit, bodaciousness, chutzpah and even machismo to, especially, her female characters minded to assert their place and significance in an otherwise patriarchal world. 

Characters such as Victoria and Paulina, in Victoria and Murder in Majengo and Coming to Birth, respectively, redefine the place, roles and fate of women in marriage (and society).

And their persona is not only the making of future female ‘social rebels’, who are respectfully assertive and unapologetically ambitious but also of future female figures in both pre-and post-Independence Kenya’s political and socio-economic development.

Public discourse

Synoptically, Marjorie’s literary works sought to help amplify — and push to the foreground of public discourse — the voices and stories of oppressed women with a view to helping problematise the power and authority imbalances and abyss that gave men undue privilege in society. 

Those particular works set in Nairobi’s seedy Majengo estate, notoriously swallowed up in the maw of sleaze, depict not only the desperation of the women folk in opportunity-poor Kenya at the time but also their struggle and hankering for economic liberation and the chance at decent life. A life of decisional independence, financial security and personal happiness. 

Anyone familiar with the literary oeuvre of the British author Ruth Hamilton (1940-2016), whose books such as Billy London's Girls (1992), A Whisper to the Living (1989), With Love from Ma Maguire (1990), Nest of Sorrows (1991), Spinning Jenny (1993), Paradise Lane (1995), The Bells of Scotland Road (1997) and Dorothy’s War (2005) explore, mostly, the thematic motif of the distinctive resilience of love amid social choppiness (read war) would easily attest to the thematic and stylistic propinquity. 

Ms Hamilton’s female characters, like Marjorie’s, mostly endure life, and the near-constant pinprick of violence, in trouble-filled marriages (though ultimately deliver themselves from this). The atmosphere represented by Hamilton in many of her works is that of war-time fits of jingoism, gore, death, physical harm, essential exiguity and, generally, angst, but also of love, liberation, redemption and the opening of new vistas in the lives of women.

Marjorie, for her part, perhaps owing to her artistic representation of their lot, proffered women fleeing violence and life’s hardships her own home as an oasis of refuge and liberation. She took in those with mental illness, drug addicts, sex workers, HIV/Aids patients and the homeless.

Her other works include The Present Moment (1987), Street Life (1987), Victoria and Murder in Majengo (1993), Homing In (1994), Chira (1997), The Black Hnad Gang (1997), Song of Nyarloka and Other Poems (1997) and A Farm Called Kishinev (2005). 

While in Kenya, Marjorie met Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a medical doctor, whom she married in 1960, and with whom she had four children. And even though she was originally a Briton who visited and fell in love with Kenya (Africa), she so quickly and easily blended in with the people here that she both was proficient in her husband’s tongue, Dholuo, as well as rose to feature among Kenya’s most venerable female authors.

Any study of Kenya’s literary evolution and authorial census wouldn’t be comprehensive without the mention of her name. She is to be found, alongside other notable female literary aces such as the late Grace Akinyi Ogot (1930-2015), the late Margaret Atieno Ogola (1958-2011), Micere Githae Mugo, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Cynthia Abdallah, at the forefront of Kenya’s ever-growing literary ferment.

Her novel Coming to Birth won the Sinclair Prize, funded (in the 1980s) by the British inventor, Sir Clive Sinclair. And A Farm Called Kishinev earned her the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, awarded by the Kenya Publishers Association. The latter offers a chronicle of the history (and settlement) of the Jewish community in Kenya. And another novel, Rebmann (2014), concerns a 19th Century German missionary’s sojourn on the Kenyan coast. 

Marjorie also artistically dabbled in the age-old moral conundrum of the lowly people's thraldom at the hands of the rich, powerful and mighty. In this era of African domestic workers’ affliction and deaths in foreign lands, one of Marjorie’s most widely anthologised poems, Freedom Song (which has been a set text in Kenyan schools), would make for a perfect fictional portrait. It’s the fictional tale of the slavish conditions to which a young rural girl working as a house help is subjected by her own relatives in the city. 

Marjorie died on December 1, 2015, aged 87.

Mr Baraza is the author of the play ‘The Woman in the Messenger's Jacket’ (2017) and short stories ‘In the Maw of Darkness’ (2019) and ‘Rage of the Skies’ (2020). [email protected]