A day with the matriarch of creative writing

Kenyan novelist and poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye speaks during an interview in her home in Ngara on the 16th of October 2012. Photo/EMMA NZIOKA

What you need to know:

  • Marjorie Oludhe-Mcgoye, 84, is one of the country’s most prolific writers of novels, poems and short stories. She is working on two novels and a dozen poems

The tap-tap sound of a typewriter in a lone house next to Ngara Market in downtown Nairobi assures us that we are at the right address.

The door is opened for us and we are ushered into a book-stacked living room, where we find veteran author Marjorie Oludhe-MacGoye typing away on her antique machine. Her deft fingers tap away on the noisy typewriter, belying her age.

At 84, Marjorie, simply known to her admirers by the homely acronym Mom, still types at an amazing speed.

Her poetry and other literary works have firmly established her as the grand matriarch of Kenyan literature.

Friends and family have told her to slow down due to her advanced age, but she does not seem keen to do so. We are surprised by her agility as she stands to receive us in the house that has been her home for the last 37 years.

Marjorie walks with a spring in her heel. She has a strong, high-pitched voice that contrasts with her small frame.

She, however, informs us that her eyesight is failing and that she has to use a typewriter, and not a computer, because she cannot read well on a computer screen.

“It is really inconveniencing because I cannot go out more often to collect stories,” says the writer of 17 acclaimed books.

Despite acquiring a Master’s degree in Literature from the University of London, she found more fulfilment and satisfaction in spreading Christianity than in “getting an inside job in England”.

And so in 1954, aged 26, the only child of working class Christian parents left the English port city of Southampton for Kenya, where she found work at the Church Missionary Society bookshop in Nairobi. The bookshop occupied the basement and ground floor of Church House along Government Road, now Moi Avenue.

Little did she know she would fall in love with the country, whose citizenship she took up in 1960 when she married clinical officer Daniel Oludhe Mcgoye.

She has never looked back.

She became so integrated into her husband’s extended Luo family that she learnt the language and customs, which earned her the nickname ‘Nyarloka’ (daughter from yonder).

Best known for the refrain, “Atieno yo” in the poem A Freedom Song, she, however, says the poem was a “complete failure because many people praise the poem, yet they still keep domestic labour!”

The self-effacing author is uncomfortable with the name ‘matriarch’, insisting that other Kenyan writers like Grace Ogot, author of The Promised Land, were already writing by the time she started.

Unlike some writers of her generation, who often gloat over their glorious days, Marjorie says many young people are now writing poetry, “some of it excellent.”

The author was born in October, but does not celebrate her birthday because “it seems so often dreadful things have happened on my birthday that I try not to remember it.”

While Marjorie has been described as a historical novelist par excellence, she insists that her novel, Coming to Birth, which was a set book in Kenyan schools five years ago, was not intended to tell the history of Kenya, but how important political events impinged on an ordinary family.

She agrees with Chinua Achebe that accessibility to the language of one’s piece of writing is more important than the pride of using one’s indigenous language.

Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o has argued in Decolonising the Mind that to be truly free of Africa’s old European masters one must write in an African language.

She has kind words for the colonial chronicler Elspeth Huxley, best known for penning The Flame Trees of Thika, which, though demonised as an apologia for colonial rule, was praised for its affectionate personal portraits.

“She may not have been technically superior to Karen Blixen (of Out of Africa fame), but she makes interesting points, showing you a vision of Kenya that we sometimes pretend was not there.”

While none of her children has taken after her in the world of letters, several of her grandchildren are writing poetry.

Her first-born, George, a former District Commissioner, now works with the Ministry of Public Works, while her other son, Francis, is a music teacher.

Her other children, Lawrence and Phyllis, live in England.

“On the whole, music is more in the family, I think because it was both on our side and my husband’s,” says the admirer of Okot p’Bitek, best known for Song of Lawino.

Marjorie also admires Tanzania’s founding President, Julius Nyerere, whom she eulogised on his death in 1999 as “accessible, spry and smiling”.

“You edged away, /understated as always, softening the blow for people who pored over maps looking for Tanzania, Tanganyika, elusive homeland for so great a master,” she wrote in the poem Edges in In Memory Of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

While the euphoria of the post-independence period in Kenya was a boon to writers looking to get published, it took her about 10 years “to adjust myself to finding what I really wanted to say.”

Momentous milestones like the murder of JM Kariuki in 1975, and the 1982 abortive coup are subjects of her literary works like Coming to Birth.

In Make It Sing and Other Poems, she immortalises Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s detention without trial in 1978 and the assassination of Tom Mboya.

Another highlight of the book is a poem entitled Bitter Waters, an adaptation of the Biblical verse “A voice was heard in Rama…’ which evokes the ethnic clashes in parts of the country. In Chira (1997), she blends Luo traditional lore and modrn writing techniques to powerfully convey the message of Aids and its tragic effects.

But she is disappointed that Aids organisations failed to use the book to stir up debate on the scourge.

“I had hoped that Chira would be noticed by Aids organisations and marketed both within and outside Kenya so that people think about the scourge,” she said in an earlier interview.

Despite, or because of her feminist leaning, one of her long standing principles is that people should earn their positions in society.

“Recently, I watched a programme that suggested that Kenyan girls had to learn boxing to get confidence. Yet in this (Ngara) market and the rural areas, women are in control.”

Song of Nyarloka is a 1,700-line epic that paints vivid metaphors of the turbulence of Kisumu in the 1950s and the tragedies the local people suffered. The epic mentions real names of school children killed in October 1969 in a riot sparked when President Jomo Mzee Kenyatta’s bodyguards shot at rioters who had stoned the President when he went to open Russia Hospital in the town. Kenyatta blamed his Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga for the riots.

“But I consider The Present Moment my most important work because it is more subtle. It may be more difficult to read, but it captures the struggles of ordinary women,” she says.

University of Nairobi literature professor Chris Wanjala says Marjorie integrated her intellectual and creative self with that of the indigenous Kenyan and “bore with gallantry, the pain and aspirations of the average Kenyan.”

“When she was approached by Egerton University to be awarded a doctorate in literature, in the manner of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka, the writer turned down the offer and turned quietly to her humble abode in Ngara, where she mentors young writers,” says Prof Wanjala, who has known Marjorie since the 1970s.

A Farm Called Kishinev, which won the 2007 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, confirms Marjorie’s relentless faith in the need to give voice to the silenced.

While she has been lucky to have one of her books used as a set book, she says few people can earn a living off writing.

“The children’s genre is, however, better because the stories take a shorter time to build,” says the author whose Coming to Birth won the Sinclair Prize, one of the most important awards in British publishing, earning her Sh122,000, a tidy sum in the 1980s.

Mr Stephen Dewent Partington, a poet and teacher, says Marjorie’s life and writings make her a model of how an expatriate can become as Kenyan as the next person.

East African Educational Publishers general manager Kiarie Kamau says Marjorie’s novels are rich in form and substance.

“Her young adult and children’s category books are also didactic in nature, consciously aiming at building good morals.”

Marjorie says she has kept strong because of her faith.

“If you are really trusting in the Lord you will keep going. Although I made many mistakes and wrong judgments in the course this journey, I trusted in the Lord,” she says with a smile.

Besides fiction and poetry, Marjorie has been writing for academic journals, editing and representing publishers.

She has two novels and more poems lined up for publication.