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How grandma’s writing career influenced me

By Mark Macgoye | December 5th 2015

It’s difficult to write about someone who had such a profound impact on your life. You feel as though every word and letter you have used hasn’t adequately captured the weight of the emotions you intend to convey. It is however humbling to have been given this opportunity to share my experiences with Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, cucu (grandmother) as we fondly called her.

As I was growing up, Sunday afternoons were eagerly anticipated. Family discussions at her place were often intellectually stimulating, intense and insightful. For all the distraction of the piano at the corner, there was something strangely appealing about the adult talks that went on and on the other end of the room. Over the years, they gave me the inquisitiveness to read on what was discussed and the longing to one day participate in those discussions. The topics were diverse and ranged from music to aviation, politics to history.

She often took her grandchildren, to watch plays or movies at various places including the French and Japanese cultural centres. She encouraged us to paint and often displayed our horrible paintings (I see that now in hindsight. Didn’t seem so at the time). The space around the back of her front door was our art gallery of stick figures, collage and mosaic works that we displayed to guests, each one of us proudly pointing to their masterpiece when prompted.

As far as I knew her passion and ability to inspire an interest in literature was unmatched until years later when I encountered one of my favourite lecturers Prof Maurice Amutabi who, just like her, challenged me to shed my Euro-centric perspectives on literature and read more African authors. She provoked intellectual debate, encouraging us to think for ourselves.

She often gave me ideas; when I was writing one of my dissertations on Gender Mainstreaming and later when I was writing a report during my internship at East African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI). Even as she grew older and couldn’t do as much as she wanted to she still spoke with clarity and rigour, keeping up with current affairs. Our last discussion was on Syria.

I had the privilege of studying ‘Coming to Birth’ as one of our English literature set books for my O levels. Even though I was reading the book again it was still just as exciting. It gave me a broader glimpse into her works after reading ‘The Black Hand Gang’ when I was younger. Along with a Farm called Kishinev, Coming to Birth began to give me a political consciousness.

When I was studying in the UK she bought me a subscription to Granta magazine where I came across a diverse group of novelists. I especially liked the young novelists editions featuring Adam Thirlwell, Binyavanga Wainaina and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among others. My interest developed in the amusing and humorous works of Simon Gray, especially ‘The Smoking Diaries’. His playful prose, its intimacy and modern subjectivity is addictive. The Comedian, Frankie Boyle’s ‘My Shit Life So Far’ is an equally bold and humorous undertaking.

Although it may be considered unorthodox and cruel in the way he mocks modern celebrity culture, he more than makes up for with his command of contemporary phraseology and delicate use of idiomatic expression. Introspective works that I read in my late teenage years such as Xin Ran’s ‘The Good Women of China’ also helped in giving me a political consciousness and shaping my worldview.

One dull and boring winter, distressed since I couldn’t come back to Kenya for Christmas, we exchanged letters and she sent me a few copies of ‘Awaz’, the literary magazine, which entertained and kept me busy.

One of the magazines, had a translation of what became my favourite Swahili poem, ‘Al-Inkishafi’ translated by Prof Ali Mazrui. I read it over and over again. It was a poignant reminder of how fragile humanity is. The rise and fall of the prosperous Swahili city states a reflection of the human condition. It exposes the commonality of history, the arrogance of civilisations, the disdain for the past and a misplaced sense of infallibility of the conventional wisdom of the present.

For me, it was a glimpse into our rich literary heritage as the people of East Africa. It provided me with a lens with which to look at other works, the sense of timelessness of literature. A single captured moment of despair by a Swahili poet from the remote Pate Island echoes through the ages. Years later when I first visited Pate Island, it was a humbling feeling to have walked on the same sandy path as Sayyid Abdallah. Its almost hard to believe that it had the grandeur and opulence that Sayyid describes. Its dusty and haggard with scattered huts.

According to locals, it got its first matatu by chance since the Chinese were there drilling for gas. I am grateful that through her, generations will equally walk through the streets of majengo, the path near the Majengo Chief’s camp that Coming to Birth’s Paulina may have walked and feel a connection.

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