By PETER NGANGI NGULI
For decades, she took up the pen and told the most gripping stories that hooked many a reader. She is no doubt a woman who has powerfully influenced East Africa’s literary narrative.
Grace Ogot is a pioneer. She earned a distinctive position in Kenya’s literary and political history. In 1984, she was the best-known writer in East Africa. It is then that she decided to join politics. She became one of the few women to serve as a Member of Parliament and the only female assistant minister in President Moi’s Cabinet. She also worked as a midwife, tutor, journalist and a BBC Overseas Service broadcaster.
Ogot was born Grace Emily Akinyi in Asembo, in Nyanza district on May 15, 1930.
She was the child of pioneering Christian parents in the traditional Luo stronghold of Asembo. Her father, Joseph Nyanduga, was an early convert to the Anglican Church and one of the first men in Asembo to receive Western education.
He later taught at the Church Missionary Society’s Ng’iya Girls School. She remembered her father reading her Bible stories, as well as hearing the traditional stories told by her grandmother. Later, Ogot’s writing reflected this dual background of tradition and modernity and the tensions between the two.
Emerging from the promised land in the anthills of the Savannah, Ogot attended Ng’iya Girls’ School and Butere High School. The young woman trained as a nurse in both Uganda and England. Several years of working as a nursing sister and midwifery tutor at Maseno Hospital, and later at the Student Health Service at Makerere University College, provided her experience in a number of different careers.
She worked as a script-writer and broadcaster for the BBC Overseas Service (later having her own popular weekly radio programme in Luo), as a community development officer in Kisumu, and as a public relations officer for Air India. In the late 1960s, she opened two branches of a clothing boutique known as Lindy’s in Nairobi.
Ogot was a founding member of the Writers’ Association of Kenya and served as its chairman from 1975 to 1980. She began to publish short stories both in English and in Luo in the early 1960s.
She was famous as much for what she represented as for what she wrote, giving literature a whole new meaning for African pupils.
Her first novel, The Promised Land, was published in 1966. It featured challenges faced by Luo pioneers who moved across the border into Tanzania in search of greater opportunities. Land Without Thunder, a collection of short stories about traditional life in rural Western Kenya, appeared in 1968. These stories were immensely powerful.
Two other short story collections, The Other Woman and Other Stories (1976) and The Island of Tears (1980), as well as second novel, The Graduate (1980) followed. The novel described the tribulations of a young Kenyan graduate who returns home after study in the United States.
Ogot’s short stories often weaved old and new material together by presenting traditional curses and mysteries confounding modern Kenyans in new urban settings. In a series of historical novels she went back several centuries to reconstruct Luo history.
A number of her stories have been dramatised and performed in Kenya. Many of the short stories in Land Without Thunder are set in ancient Luoland.
Ogot’s descriptions, literary tools, and storylines offer a valuable insight into Luo culture in pre-colonial East Africa.
The writer has published works in both English and Dholuo – some of her works were first published in the Dholuo language.
Ogot was the first woman to have fiction published by the East African Publishing House.
The young icon of African literature married historian Bethwell Alan Ogot, a Luo from Gem Location, in 1959 and gave birth to four children.
In recognition of her blossoming literary career, she was named a delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1975, and as a member of the Kenyan delegation to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) in 1976. President Moi appointed her to Parliament in 1985 and as assistant minister for culture.
In 1988 she returned to Parliament as a member for husband’s home in Gem and was reappointed to her ministerial position.
Ogot’s family members shared her interest in politics. Her husband, served as head of Kenya Railways and also taught history at Kenyatta University.
Her older sister, Rose Orondo, served on the Kisumu County Council for several terms, and her younger brother Robert Jalango was elected to Parliament in 1988, representing their family home in Asembo.
Grace Ogot can undoubtedly be said to be one of Africa’s finest writers.
Her writing style is splendid in its evocation of vivid imagery; she captures the formalities of traditional African interpersonal exchanges, governed by protocol and symbolism.
Many of her stories are set against the scenic background of Lake Victoria and the traditions of the Luo people. Her prose is evocative of traditional folklore – such as in The Strange Bride, a novel about a mystical and provocative female character in ancient Luoland.
Unfortunately, even though the strange bride and the other woman exist, the beautiful ones are not yet born.
Grace Ogot is a great African hero who can be credited with being the first African woman writer to be published in English with her two short stories in 1962 and 1964.
Her attitude towards language is similar to that of her fellow Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. She continues to inspire everyone. As she said, “When you are frightened, don’t sit still, keep on doing something. The act of doing will give you back your courage.”