Marjorie: Of her undying love for Kenya and books

M.GVassanji and Marjorie Oludhe-Mcgoye at the Michael Joseph Centre in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • When she arrived in Kenya at the age 26, she was a bookseller for the Church Missionary Society. She lived in Pumwani area of Nairobi, a black man’s reserve in the city. Here, she came face to face with human suffering. That suffering is what is reflected in her works.
  • Six years later, Marjorie quit her job to marry Daniel Oludhe-Macgoye, a Luo medical officer to whom she had been unofficially engaged for two years. She soon became a citizen of Kenya. Except for a four-year stint in Tanzania, Marjorie has lived and worked in Kenya.

As we mourn Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, we in the literary world remember her and her works. Her childhood was affected by the Great Depression and by the two world wars — World War I left its mark on her and World War II overshadowed her teenage years.

Writing and reading were always part of Marjorie’s life. At age seven, she published her first polemic in the Daily Mirror. Marjorie had always assumed that higher education was beyond her reach. However, she got a scholarship to the Royal Holloway College of the University of London to study English.

The college experience opened a new world to Marjorie, who became a member of the Student Christian Movement, a theologically and socially liberal alternative to the more evangelical Intervarsity fellowship.

When she felt the call to missionary work, she assumed that it would be in Africa. In 1954 she came to Kenya as an Anglican lay missionary in the British Colony and Protectorate. The struggle by blacks was at its peak. This period gave her a great source for her works.

When she arrived in Kenya at the age 26, she was a bookseller for the Church Missionary Society. She lived in Pumwani area of Nairobi, a black man’s reserve in the city. Here, she came face to face with human suffering. That suffering is what is reflected in her works.

Six years later, Marjorie quit her job to marry Daniel Oludhe-Macgoye, a Luo medical officer to whom she had been unofficially engaged for two years. She soon became a citizen of Kenya. Except for a four-year stint in Tanzania, Marjorie has lived and worked in Kenya.

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Shortly after they were married, the couple immediately moved to western Kenya where they lived for seven years close to the hospital where Daniel was posted. It was during this time that she was integrated into her husband’s family and into Luo customs and attitudes. She credits her mother in-law, Miriam, for a spirit of generosity and welcome that made this move successful. This was another big repertoire for her literary career and it gave her works an African taste.

Renowned British author Thomas MacGonigle, who has extensively studied her publications, says, “Macgoye is a witness to the Kenyan struggle for independence and the fear of the recurrence of the hideous violence that preceded it.

Macgoye does not shrink from the awfulness of life, and in particular the casual murders, eventually even of Paulina’s longed-for child. But there are occasional hints of weirdness — as when the author intrudes into the narrative to inform the reader that the first moon landing has taken place — that suggests Macgoye is doing something different with the narrative, perhaps attempting to capture the randomness of actual life with its untimely intrusions.” MacGonigle concludes.

Coming to Birth and The Present Moment lack literary gloss, but through their honest peculiarities, their attention to felt detail, and a refusal to make it all universal by resorting to parable, the novels demand that the reader yields to the complex spell of the characters’ lives.

Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye saw herself as a missionary and a writer. In an interview she said: “I took my Higher School Certificate in 1945 when the Second World War was in its final stages. At the time, there were many regulations and shortages and University seemed like a new world. I graduated in 1948 and went to work in a London bookshop. I had various jobs in London while I was doing a Master’s degree part-time at Birkbeck College. At all times, I was conscious of a call to missionary work and eventually in 1954, I was sent to Kenya. One highlight in my life is being a mother.”

Marjorie would later stress the importance she attached to her children over academic work. “The birth of a baby is infinitely more important than any academic achievement or winning a prize. Although I wrote all the time, my first years in Africa were dominated by service to the Lord.”

She also learnt new languages, learnt to be a wife and a mother and “to fit into society.”

“My fiction and poetry stem from my liking and respect for humanity. If I were the leader of this country, I would attempt to promote equality, particularly through a greater control of education. Education is slipping away from the public sector control and is being commoditized, yet it is the strongest tool any government has to promote ideas among its citizens,” she said.

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