Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye

The late award-winning author Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye is one of Africa’s most celebrated female writers, having penned numerous compelling novels, short stories, poems and children’s stories depicting the social and ethical evolution of post-colonial Kenya. Forget all the hype about the digital age. At age 87, British-born Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, who lived in Kenya for six decades, remained hooked on her old manual typewriter, which helped her churn out several award-winning literary works.

That the world moved from typewriters to giant computers that filled rooms, then to desktops, laptops, palmtops and tablets, did not seem to bother the octogenarian, who spent her sun- set years in her tidy apartment in Ngara Estate, Nairobi, the place she had called home since 1970. “Computers simply passed me by. I never took interest in them,” she quipped, eyes fixed on an old manual typewriter atop a table in her living room. She used this typewriter for decades, although not so much towards her last days due to advanced age and failing eyesight. On the day of this interview with a woman widely acknowledged as the matriarch of Kenyan literature, the calmness and tranquillity of the compound where her house stands captured one’s attention – a big contrast from the hustle and bustle of the commercial environment that is the Ngara neighbourhood. Being ushered into the humble but neatly adorned house was more than a welcome relief, as it was the abode of one of Kenya’s most celebrated writers of the previous generation.

A prolific writer of novels, short stories, children’s books and poems, Oludhe’s work has enjoyed both local and international acclaim. Her novel Coming to Birth won the Sinclair Prize for fiction in 1986. Coming to Birth highlights the challenges that Kenya faced as a new nation soon after independence, and more so the political and social upheavals as well as the apparent advent of neo- colonialism. The characters depict issues that affected individuals, families, communities and society as a whole, and the lessons that can be learned therein. Due to its rich artistry, the book has been used as a set book in Kenyan secondary schools and is taught in other countries within and outside the African continent.

Another novel, A Farm Called Kishinev, won the 2007 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in the Adult Fiction category. The prize that commemorates Kenya’s first President is the most prestigious literary award in Kenya. Yet another book, Homing In, was placed second in the 1995 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Oludhe’s widely acclaimed poem, Song of Nyarloka and Other Poems, is yet another of her celebrated literary works and is a reference point in Kenya’s literature. Her writings have been studied by graduate students undertaking their Master of Literature courses.
Born Marjorie King in 1928 in Southampton, England, Oludhe arrived in Nairobi in 1954 as a missionary bookseller with the Church Missionary Society. Six years later, she tied the knot with Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a medical doctor. After their wedding in 1960, she quit her book- store job to take up life as a wife and mother in her new home in Kisumu, Western Kenya. Fully immersed in her marriage and with a deep-seated love for her newly acquired life among the Luo community, Oludhe resolved to learn the ways of her husband’s people, including Dholuo, the dominant language of the lake- side region. Having acquired Kenyan citizenship, Oludhe lived for many years with her in-laws and other members of her extended family in Kisumu. She had particularly fond memories of her widowed mother-in-law, whom she de- scribed as “a very wonderful person.”

“She showered me with love, was always there to lend a helping hand and was keen on teaching me the Luo ways,” recalled Oludhe. It is no wonder, then, that most of her writings bear the Kenyan imprint, largely influenced by the Luo culture. The author and her husband had four children who she brought up, deftly striving to balance her role as a mother with her writing career. Her first book, Victoria and Murder in Majengo, was published in 1972. Her other titles include Street Life, The Present Moment and Chira.

“It was never easy writing these books,” she said. When the children were younger, Oludhe would wait until the entire household retired to sleep because it was in the silence of the night that she penned her thoughts best. During the day she would be on teaching assignments, which allowed her to supplement the family income as well as bond with her children. “I preferred teaching because it gave me the flexibility I needed to spend time with my children. Being a present mother for them was my foremost priority.” She also took up freelance editing jobs, writing scripts and marking exam papers. “These were flexible jobs that allowed me to work with my children’s schedules,” she said. Oludhe was always inspired by the events around her. “I make observations of things that happen to me, my family, friends and neighbours, and I convert them into poems and novels.” She explained that this helped her develop the different characters in her books. “This is an important process of writing because it allows authors to explore the thoughts of all the people they interact with. It also helps writers play around with different scenarios and experiences, therefore exploiting the full potential of their creativity,” she said.

She aged gracefully, acknowledging the toll the years had taken on her. “My eyesight seems to be failing me due to old age,” she said. “Maybe I should have taken a course on dictation in my early years; then I would be dictating my thoughts to someone right now to type my manuscript,” she added with wry laughter. Despite her failing sight, she
surrounded herself with manuscripts until her final days.

Comparing the publishing arena at the time she began writing vis-à-vis the scene today, Oludhe observed that opportunities were numerous for present-day authors. “With the availability of new technologies, it is easy to self-publish and one need not be held hostage by the big publishing firms as has been the case for many writers.” However, she acknowledged that the challenges authors encountered in the traditional mode of publishing still exist. “There are publishers who sit on your manuscript for years on end. What they do not realise is that while they hold on to your unpublished work, someone else might publish a similar story, rendering yours almost redundant. It happened in my day, and it still happens today,” she shared.

An avid reader, especially before she began to experience problems with her eyesight, Oludhe always took the time to read other authors’ books. She noted that there are plenty of good novels and other literary works that are being produced. She particularly commended the work of women in the field. “There is a good number of women authors today,” she said. “Walk into any bookstore and you will see their work. Yet these are only the ones who give their names. Hundreds of them use pen names, while others use initials only. The literary scene is well represented by female authors.” The Oludhe home in Ngara habitually received a constant flow of visitors with hundreds of young and upcoming authors calling in, perhaps to pick her brain on matters literary. “They bring me their work, which I read and give feedback on – critiquing and appraising them in equal measure. I advise them on what works and what does not
work in the literary scene,” she said.

The visits led to the writer mentoring many of Kenya’s contemporary authors. When she was strong, she frequently held workshops and reading sessions where she spoke on the dos and don’ts of writing. A Christian of Anglican persuasion, Oludhe was always guided by her Christian principles, recalling how she first came to Kenya: spreading the gospel as a missionary. “I have always lived a life of being consciously aware of what I say, do, or think, and how this affects the people around me,” she explained. “I also try to understand other people’s dialogue, and this is what inspires my writing.”

Unable to move around much like she used to, Oludhe shared that one of the things she missed most was travelling by matatu. “I’ve never learned how to drive a car and never owned one either. I always enjoyed travelling in matatus as that is where I would listen to interesting conversations, which would form the basis of most of my writing.” She added, “Travelling in taxis and engaging taxi drivers would always be interesting too, as these people know almost all the happenings in the city. They would always keep me updated.”

Words of wisdom

 “Being a mother and raising my four children well is my greatest achievement.”
 “Think about what you are writing. It must have an underlying message.”

Oludhe had one word of advice for upcoming authors: Patience, because publishing does not happen in a day. “At the same time, you have to be firm because at the end of the day, you are the one who knows what your story is all about. If a publisher tries to unjustifiably cut your story, you have the option of declining that action because you are the owner of the story. You should never be desperate.” She also advised authors to revise their copy all the time. “Think about what you are writing. It must have an underlying message. Revise your copy so that you don’t sound repetitive or redundant.” Oludhe spent a lot of time listening to stories through her radio. She never owned a television set. She cited “being a mother and raising my four children well” as her proudest accomplishment in life, “My other greatest achievement is that of coming to Kenya as a missionary, and succeeding as a writer. I am proud that I will leave work that will be helpful to someone,” she said.

The veteran author took her last breath on 1 December 2015, leaving behind a great legacy of literary works. Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board is honoured to have spent some time with Oludhe, capturing the celebrated author’s prolific journey.

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