Asenath Bole Odaga

Asenath Bole Odaga is recognised for her contributions to the Africanisation of education in Kenya during the early years after independence. She is credited with highlighting the importance of African oral literature and introducing it to the education system. She also made a name for herself as an author, publishing over 30 titles in several different genres such as children’s stories, short stories, novels, literary criticism as well as oral literature. Odaga’s dedication to Kenya’s oral literature began when she was a student at the University of Nairobi pursuing a degree in History, Education and Literature. After completing her high school education at Ng’iya Girls’ High School and later at Alliance Girls’ High School, Odaga had trained as a teacher and taught in several schools as she raised her family.

She went to further her studies at the university as a mature student, having already written several children’s books, some in English and some in her native Dholuo. She attributed her gift of storytelling to her grandmother. She acquired a Master of Arts in Literature in 1981 from the same institution. Her thesis, titled ‘Education Values of the Kenyan Luo Oral Narratives’, located oral literature within the corpus of academic knowledge and demonstrated its richness as a subject of study.

In the late 1960s Odaga contributed to the debate on the Africanisation of literature in the country. She was then working as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Nairobi. Years later, when the campaign culminated in the introduction of oral literature in Kenyan high schools, it was discovered that the teaching of the subject was challenging due to a lack of written texts. Odaga and her colleagues were tasked with providing the textual resources. She researched and published widely on oral literature, augment- ing numerous short stories and drawing themes, characters and setting from local situations. Her publications, Oral Literature for Schools and Yesterday’s Today: The Study of Oral Literature published in 1982 and 1984 respectively, provided vital reading material for oral literature students. Her first work of fiction, a novel titled Jande’s Ambition, was published in 1967. This was followed by Secrets of Monkey Rock; both books went on to become children’s classics in Kenya and Uganda. She was driven to write children’s books when, as a young teacher in Butere Girls’ High School, she realised that all the books that her students had access to were written for European children. She set out to write books with characters and settings that African students could identify with. Her most popular children’s books are stories about a character named Kip. They include Kip on the Farm and Kip at the Coast. She also published books for adults, such as A Bridge in Time, Between the Years and Endless Road. In 2005, Odaga published an English Dholuo dictionary. As one of the earliest members and one- time Chairperson of the Writers’ Association of Kenya, she was also an active member of the Kenya Oral Literature Association.

Odaga enrolled for a PhD programme at the University of Nairobi but dropped out before completing her studies to set up a publishing business, Lake Publishers, in Kisumu in 1983; it was the first indigenous publishing firm in Kenya. She then went on to establish the Thu Tinda bookshop in the same area, which became known for promoting African literature and vernacular books that hardly attracted the established and mainstream booksellers. A champion for women’s empowerment, in the 1980s Odaga set up Gender and Development Centre, a Non Governmental Organisation founded with the aim of encouraging young women to publish their own stories and to find financial independence. The organisation also offered guidance and counselling services to school girls.

Odaga passed on in 2014 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. She made an indelible imprint in the literary world through her volumes of writings which highlighted the dignity of African traditions and values.

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