|Asenath Bole Odaga, writer and researcher in Oral Literature. [PHOTO: TITUS MUNALA/STANDARD]|
By ABENEA NDAGO
Even though she has grown quieter than she used to be, Asenath Bole Odaga’s place in Kenya’s Oral Literature is not easy to erase. Indeed, most Kenyans may have been led into the false belief that the writer of Oral Literature: A School Certificate Course (1982) – together with S. Kichamu Akivaga – had long given up on writing.
However, that is not the case. The writer of Kenyan Folk Tales, Yesterday’s Today: The Study of Oral Literature, Endless Road, The Shade Changes, Between the Years, Riana, A Bridge in Time, The Secret of the Monkey Rock, and Jande’s Ambition only shifted her attention to a more active mode than she used to operate in.
Few people know that Asenath Bole Odaga’s other foot is in the Non-Governmental Organisations world. Her starting an NGO marked the realisation of a remote dream, which began when she was still a student at Ng’iya Girls’ in today’s Siaya County. She and another girl were walking back home in Nyabondo Plateau one holiday when a group of men pounced on her friend and simply dragged her into a homestead in spite of the girl’s loud protests.
But Odaga slipped and took to her heels. That was how her friend and agemate got married. “I got very disappointed. I later saw her somewhere in Kano,” Odaga, 82, recalls, “but she was already pregnant. She could not even recognise me. That was the way men married women those days.”
Although the author later married the Trade Unionist, James Odaga, with whom she still lives to date, that incident drove her to start the NGO, which she did after a stint at the University of Nairobi where she was studying and collecting oral narratives.
Odaga could not complete her PhD she had started at the University of Nairobi because of the interest she eventaully developed in the world of NGOs.
“When I quit the University of Nairobi’s Institute of African Studies in 1980,” she says, “I thought I would return and finish my PhD studies after some time. But that was not to be. I found the NGO world more interesting –in every sense of the word – than I thought.”
That was the year she founded Gender and Development Centre (GDC), an East African NGO, which focuses on women and empowerment. The organisation also offers guidance and counseling as a means of mentoring girls of school-going age.
“We work to touch base with women so as to empower them economically, and therefore, better their lives. We do not want young women to see themselves as ‘dependents on husbands’. That cultural syndrome may be the root cause of women’s problems in our society today. We focus on changing that perception without belittling any husband.”
Odaga says that the NGO is her way of reconnecting with the writer in her. She did not suspend her literary ambitions.
It is an alternative path for meeting all the people who are otherwise unreachable through the writing of books, such as those who – like her Ng’iya Girls’ friend – were not lucky enough to have gone to school. “You can write very many books with the aim of empowering your people,” she observes, “but not everybody can read your books. There will always be very many people who are unable to read, but due to no fault of their own.”
At the NGO, she encourages women to form groups of between 20-30 members. The groups are then registered at the District Commissioner’s Office, after which the members are asked to identify projects, which can empower them economically such as basket weaving, and pottery. She then sources for funds through her NGO, which enable such members to buy locally available materials to start their businesses.
Bole Odaga singles out NORAD, a Norwegian agency known for funding such projects by working with women groups. American and British agencies have also helped her empower rural women by availing funds, which are then channeled into start ing business activities.
She says that her biggest happiness today is seeing young women who are ready to engage their young husbands through dialogue.
She recalls, “That was almost unthinkable in our time. We mostly had people who were only more than ready to sit on their wives. It was nearly a very clean miracle if your husband did not one day slap you, or altogether beat you very hard.”
Odaga is happy that, through tireless efforts aimed at women’s economic empowerment, that generation is slowly fading away, and is being replaced by one that is ready for change. That is her main source of happiness, and the reason she likes the Kenyan youth.
“These days, we sit in my house and I see my daughter-in-law, Ruth, engaging my son Peter. Nothing warms my heart better than that, and I wish young men do not interpret it as their authority being challenged. That is what we mean when we talk about ‘change’ in Literature.” Odaga says that part of the problem with Kenyan Literature is that the gap between the young and the old generation has not been effectively bridged. She cites the example of what used to happen at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for African Studies as an example of how things can go wrong if they are left to go on without enough guidance.
“I think somebody gave out some money –possibly UNESCO – and researchers like Okot p’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Owuor-Anyumba, and I, did a lot of work at the Institute for African Studies. But peole were free to do anything – anything – with it. Had the research been much more systematic than it was, we would all be smiling today because our children would have had a solid background from which to further their work. As it is, we have let down our youth.”
She admits the research was disorganised, with each individual doing what he/she felt was good. Eventually, Okot benefited Ugandans more than Kenyans, though the fund was given to Kenya.
But she is not pessimistic about the future of Oral Literature Research in Kenyan universities. Odaga urges literature students to go out and collect as many materials as possible, so as not to repeat the mistake. She is specifically happy that the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) has made tremendous effort in that direction, and she hopes it goes on.
Referring to the late Paul Mboya of Karachuonyo, one of the pioneer folklorists who wrote Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi, she advises:
“I had time to interview Paul Mboya when he was alive. So you know what he said, and you also know what I have said about oral narratives. The task for the youth today is to fill the gap that exists between Mboya’s generation, and mine. There is always a gap which needs filling, but only if you look carefully.” Odaga urges the youth to continue expressing themselves in the ways that they feel most comfortable, for this will enhance the growth of oral literature.
“Sheng should be allowed to grow, and those who want to write in mother tongue should not fear. They should follow Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s example. Such work will always be translated for dissemination to wider audiences,” she says.
The author says that there are challenges in the NGO world as well, and the task for her Gender and Development Centre in future is how to become more self-reliant than it has been in the past.
Since she has written over 20 books, her advice is that writers need to diversify if they have to keep afloat. “Kenyan authors who want money had better try trade,” she warns.