By John Kariuki
NAIROBI, KENYA: At 87, Muthoni Likimani has published novels, children stories and narrative poems, including the most famous one What Does a Woman Want. In her later writings, she has concentrated more on the role of women in the society.
And today, author Prof Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui, literary scholars and writers are honouring Likimani at the Paa ya Paa Gallery.
“This is to send a message that we as Kenyans can use our little resources to honour our writers for immense work they have done. We should not entirely depend on donors,” she says.
The celebration, which has been organised by Professor Orchardson-Mazrui herself will be presided over by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga from 2pm. Prof Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi’s department of Literature and Dr Waveney Olembo of Kenyatta University will give remarks.
Likimani will take the opportunity to launch her autobiography, Fighting Without Ceasing before readings from her books: They Shall be Chastised, What does a Man Want, Passbook Number: F47927 and Crying For My Brother.
Writers Njeri Wangari, Khainga Okwembah, Moraa Gitaa, Tony Mochama, Muthoni Garland and Jacob Otieno are attending and will read Likimani’s books. In her efforts to promote writing, Prof Mazrui says she decided to use her little resources to honour Likimani for her literary works.
“I will use the little resources I have to make this sail through. We should not entirely depend on donors and we appeal to other people to copy us,” she adds.
But who is this Prof Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui? A lecturer at Kenyatta University, she has published several books on Art and Design and Children’s novels, apart from articles on socio-cultural and gender issues.Although she is married to writer Al-Amin Mazrui of Kilio Cha Haki, Prof Orchardson—Mazrui says her works have not been influenced by her husband’s love for writing.
Some of the books she has penned include: Adventures of Mekatilili, Sheila, Let’s write to God ( which was nominated as English Children’s book at the Kenyatta Prize for Literature, 2011), Bittersweet, The Pain and Joy of Being ( anthology of poems) and a university text, The Art and Material Culture of Kenya: a Socio-historical study of the Mijikenda of Kenya, and quite a number of academic articles mainly focusing on the Mijikenda. She is also an artist and has held several art exhibitions. She holds a Ph.D in Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is also a practising visual artist.
Her name ‘Orchardson’ is from the paternal side—from grandfather Sir William Quiller Orchardson(1832-1910) who was a renowned Scottish portraitist and painter.
In fact, as a portraitist-painter, he received the Royal group of Queen Victoria.
Prof Orchadson—Mazrui has also written a play: Nzinga, The Warrior Queen (KJF 2006) which is a must read work of fiction. The book gives light against belief that in the ancient African society, a woman was not allowed to lead.
The play is about a legendary 17th Century Angolan Queen of Ndongo Kingdom. It is actually in the genre of fictionalised history. Oxford University Press has been developing a New Africa Readers Series of historical books for young readers for some time now in the same genre.
This genre of telling history through fictional characters depicting ordinary people who lived through it is not new. For example, writer Ken Follet has rendered some account of the Second World War vividly in his best selling title, The Eagle Has Landed and James A. Michener has done the same with the apartheid South African and Israeli history in his books, The Covenant and Oh, Jerusalem, respectively.
Such accounts, while keeping to the facts and dates enliven history, which often doesn’t give the human feelings behind the events. Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui has done just that with the story of Nzinga the warrior queen in keeping with Shakespearean tradition where most of his plays are really historical! The author has carefully researched all she could about the real people and things that happened in Angola between 1624 and 1663, when the legendary warrior queen lived. It is an engrossing story on how she fought many wars, including one against the Portuguese slave trade in the vast Congo area that she ruled. They play also gives a glimpse of the life in Africa in the 17th Century when she lived.
The warrior queen, Anna Nzinga was born the same year the Ndongo people, led by her brother, Mbande, began fighting against Portuguese raiding their territory for slaves and attempting to conquer place they believed to be rich in silver.
When Anna Nzinga’s brother, Mbandi, deposed his father, he had Nzinga’s child murdered. She fled with her husband to Matamba. Mbandi’s rule was cruel, unpopular, and chaotic. In 1633 he asked Nzinga to return and negotiate a treaty with the Portuguese.
And like a true leader, Nzinga negotiated with the Portuguese governor, Fernao da Sousa, expertly. In 1623, Nzinga’s brother was killed, and she became ruler of Angola. The Portuguese named her governor of Luanda, and she opened her land to Christian missionaries and to the introduction of whatever modern technologies she could attract.
By 1626, she had resumed the conflict with the Portuguese, pointing to their many treaty violations.
The Portuguese established one of Nzinga’s nephews, Aidi Kiluanje, as a puppet king (Phillip) while Nzinga’s forces continued to harass the Portuguese. She found allies in some neighboring peoples, and in Dutch merchants, and conquered and became ruler of the Matamba (1630), continuing a resistance campaign against the Portuguese. In 1639, Nzinga’s campaign was successful enough that the Portuguese opened peace negotiations, but these failed.
The Portuguese found increasing resistance, including the Kongo and the Dutch as well as Nzinga, and by 1641 had pulled back considerably. In 1648 new troops arrived and the Portuguese began to succeed, so Nzinga opened peace talks which lasted for six years.
She was forced to accept Philip as ruler and the Portuguese actual power in Ndongo, but was able to maintain her power in Matamba and to maintain Matamba’s independence from the Portuguese. Nzinga died in 1663, at the age of 82, and was succeeded by her sister in Matamba.
The portrayal of Nzinga the person (her military prowess, negotiation skills, weaknesses) is so complete that one can actually visualise her and realise that the stereotyping of women as inferior must be a recent import to Africa!
This, more than anything else, makes the play relevant as we tackle Africa’s internecine wars and the central role of women in all mediation. In deed, near home, the peace initiative in Somalia and Rwanda took a turning point when more numbers of women got their rightful place in the talks.
Nzinga, The Warrior Queen, is also a kaleidoscope of the African material culture and customs of the south western part of the continent and can be an invaluable guide to the history of the time.
It is rich in oral literature and its diction fits the period it set in. Professor Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui dissuades the notion that quality plays cannot come out of Africa and that we must source them from abroad. In Sheila; Let’s write to God (EAEP 2009), the 13-year-old orphan at Mimosa Place, a home for HIV positive orphans.
She and other bigger children are acutely aware of their terminal condition and are saddened by the constant deaths at the home.
She hatches an idea of writing letters to God in search of answers to myriad issues as they see them. The book is a great piece!