In the last few years, I have lost several of my pioneering female writers in my publishing career, first at Heinemann and later East African Educational Publishers. First it was Barbara Kimenye, then Asenath Odaga, followed by Grace Ogot, with Marjorie-Oludhe Macgoye being the latest casualty.
One of my very early international assignments as an editor for Heinemann was a visit to the University of Dar-es-Salaam, then teeming with new talent and fresh ideas. I had been asked also to collect a long-standing debt from the University bookshop, and this is how I first encountered Marjorie, who was then bookshop manager.
Although the bookshop had no money to give me, I ended up with one more friend. She treated me to tea in her office and even offered lunch in her home. In our discussions, she displayed a thorough understanding of the local literary scene and the direction that the African Writers Series should be taking. I congratulated her for the poem, A Freedom Song, which had been recently re-issued in the anthology, Poems from East Africa, edited by David Cook and David Rubadiri, and published in the African Writers Series. She told me she wished to write more substantive works once work got out of the way.
Marjorie persevered in her job at the University of Dar-es-Salaam until most of the bookshelves in that bookshop were empty, thanks to the scarcity of foreign exchange in that country. What were left were glossy, donated volumes, some in hardback, from USSR and China, which did not seem popular with her users. It was with a heavy heart that Marjorie resigned from her job and returned to Kenya to take up a new posting with Text Book Centre, as manager of a trade bookshop on Moi Avenue, Nairobi. But her mind was now beginning to focus on writing, church and charity.
Then the books started flowing, with the publication of Coming to Birth in 1986. She had wanted this novel to be published in the African Writers Series, but this did not happen because the Series had started its decline, and also because of the ambiguity that sometimes dogged Heinemann decision making when it came to defining ‘African’. As fate would have it, another British publisher bought rights from us, largely through Marjorie’s initiative, and a women’s press, also in the UK, bought paperback rights. The book was successful both internationally and locally, and went on to win the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, later becoming a successful set book for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams.
Emboldened by this success, Marjorie took personal charge of her next book, The Present Moment (1987) and managed to sign up a UK women’s press for rights outside Africa while East African Educational Publishers remained with Africa rights. This was a new development for us, but we soon adopted it as the model in our publishing arrangements with Heinemann, as it enabled maximisation of both local and international markets at the same time. Between 1987 and 2005, besides the titles discussed above, I was able to publish the following books by Marjorie: Street Life (1987), Homing In (1994), Chira (1997), Make it Sing (1998) and A Farm Called Kishinev (2005). All these books were successful in their own ways, and Homing In did receive a Jomo Kenyatta Prize, but Coming to Birth remained her best known novel.
Marjorie was also an accomplished children’s book writer. My engagement with her in this respect started in 1988 when she allowed me to re-issue Growing up at Lina School in readiness for Chinua Achebe’s visit to Kenya which I was planning that year. She was able to build on this success by following up with other children’s books, namely The Black Hand Gang, Further Adventures of the Black Hand Gang (2005) and The Black Hand Gang Grow Up (2005).
The dominant theme in all of Marjorie’s writings is the struggle by women to grow out of their oppressive condition, and be appreciated as equal members of society, as clearly depicted in Coming to Birth and The Present Moment. In the former, the coming-of-age of the main character, Paulina, is juxtaposed against Kenya’s independence struggles. The Present Moment, more existentialist, brings together women characters from all walks of life, and from different parts of the country, to talk and find solutions to their problems.
Another of her themes, which involves mostly women, can be found in Homing In and A Farm Called Kishinev.It is about translocation, adapting to a new environment, and settling in a home away from home. Marjorie herself settled perfectly in Luoland, and was totally colour blind, something she may have wished to share with her readers. So, as can be seen from above, Marjorie was a prolific novelist, a poet, and a writer of children’s stories. As a human being, she was old-fashioned, totally unassuming, humble and highly disciplined. She never missed any of our official functions, and would always arrive punctually in the company of her husband in the earlier days.
I had the occasion to visit her home in the heart of Ngara Estate, Nairobi. As we drove slowly and cautiously along the narrow road looking for the house, we were accosted by a bunch of menacing youths. When we told them that we were Marjorie’s guests, they murmured ‘cucu’ and proceeded to open the gate, and led us to a house which was open with no one in the sitting room! When we narrated this experience to her, Marjorie was not at all surprised and casually invited us to a cup of tea with scones. Marjorie was a fine writer, underrated in some quarters, who made an indelible mark on Kenya’s literally scene.
Anyone looking for a body of literature on the history, scope, and depth of women’s struggles will find her writings a valuable resource. I have lost a dear friend and trusted author.
Dr Henry Chakava is Chairman East African Educational Publishers.