I am currently reading British writer Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, first published in 1722. Defoe (1660-1731), in perhaps one of his most popular literary works, deftly tells the story of one woman’s feat of embodying her society’s pining to improve its own circumstantial lot.
The death, not long ago, of Kenyan Freedom Fighter Dedan Kimathi’s widow Mukami Kimathi summoned up in me pangs of disgust at how local writers - professional biographers, especially - have let our heroes and heroines down by simply ignoring their stories, plight, exploits, feats, sacrifices and memory into oblivion.
Aside from being the wife of a world-famous Freedom Fighter, the late Mukami was herself a venerable player - alongside other women - in this country’s struggle for Independence from British colonial rule more than seventy years ago. Women played spies, among other roles, and generally took care of their families when their husbands and sons were arrested, detained and even murdered as part of the Independence struggle.
But how many of the events and characters from the era have since formed the subject(s) of major literary (biographical) works by local writers? Apart from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’, a synoptic critique of Kimathi’s punition at the hands of the colonisers following his capture, there’s almost no known effort on the part of local writers towards the literary portrait(s) of the life and times of the man - and his comrades.
Such effort needs not be exclusive to the Kimathi’s, though. Or even to characters associated with the above-mentioned struggle.
Our history as a country and people teems with myriads of heroes and heroines whose stories and memory are lost in the murk of oblivion just as fast as the fad of life itself - Independence heroes and heroines, rights activists, academics and educationists, environmental conservationists, sportspersons, innovators, peacemakers, entertainers, artists and scientists.
Because we don’t make good enough effort towards keeping the memories of our heroes and heroines through books (biographies), they are mostly under remembered and under celebrated, and their heroics - which would, otherwise, easily and naturally inspire future emulation - are under extolled and under promoted.
In the West, the heroics of such men and women as Alexander the Great, Oliver Cromwell, Martin Luther, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Samuel Johnson, Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine the Great are immortalised by writers, and biographies form important repositories of society’s history.
Let local biographers start and embrace the practice of writing the stories of our heroes and heroines if we are to keep the memories of their lives, times and sacrifices. It as well helps to look to history for future inspiration.
Mr Baraza is a writer and historian based in Nairobi. [email protected]