Grace Akinyi Ogot is woman who has powerfully influenced East Africa’s literary narrative and played a public role not only in medicine and community development but also in parliamentary politics.
She and her husband, Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot, have not only brought up a brilliant family, but also stood by each other to foster creative and scholarly writing in the region.
All the people who remember the sterling role of the East Africa Journal and its literary supplement which ran for decades as a publication of East African Publishing remember the debates that characterised that publication.
They will remember the well-documented polemics raised by the likes of Okot p’Bitek, Taban lo Liyong and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Grace Ogot’s own short story,Island of Tears, which followed the tragic demise of Thomas Joseph Mboya, was published in one of the issues of the journal.
Grace Ogot has now published the story of her life, Days of My Life: An Autobiography.
Anyange Press Limited, based in Kisumu published the 325-page book which traces Ogot’s family tree to Joseph Nyanduga, the mission boy who grew up in Nyanza, and after being orphaned sought his fortune in Mombasa where he was a locomotive driver, and Rahel Ogori, a mission girl.
Nyanduga and Ogori were Christian converts and evangelists who defied traditional mores and traditions to chart out their lives and the lives of their children.
There is a way in which the couple sacrificed a lot to deny themselves a working life in Mombasa to promote Christianity in Nyanza. It is apparent in this story that when African cultures went against the practical existence of the couple, they defied them and went on with their lives as they thought best.
There are, however, instances where Christianity threatened their existence. In a manner of speaking , they modified conservative aspects of Christianity and went on with their lives.
Perhaps the best examples of their existential choices are in the manner in which Joseph Nyanduga built his own home as a newly-married man, away from his parents. The procedure of establishing one’s “dala” or home away from one’s parents according to the Luo culture is explained in Grace Ogot’s novel, The Promised Land (1966).
Nyanduga, however, goes against the grain, acquires an education, travels to Mombasa where he is employed and when he feels the urge to evangelize among his people, he cut short his career and returned to his Nyanza home.
Days of My Life is a well-told story by one of Africa’s internationally acclaimed prose writers; it places the author in a unique position as far as the recent spate of autobiographies by erstwhile and practicing politicians in this country is concerned.
It is the story of a woman who rises from the humble background of missionary life to soar high in the ranks of hospital nurses in Kenya, Uganda and the United Kingdom.
She goes against all the odds of racial prejudice among the colonial minority who did not expect Africans to excel in medicine, and treats fellow Africans who are patients in her hands as respectable creatures, against all the brutal practices where white health workers discriminated against their African patients.
After acquiring the best training in England she returned to Kenya to work at the Maseno Mission Hospital and also the Mulago Hospital in Kampala. She was appointed Principal of a Homecraft Training Centre, became a councillor, a church leader, a business woman and leading politician in the Moi era.
The book delves into the author’s education in colonial Kenya, revealing her leadership qualities, her moral values and her ability to learn new languages. But perhaps the most instructive thing about the book is the strength of the love between Grace and the man she married.
Throughout the account is the sobriety of their relationship and the way it informed her career development and her writing. Their marriage was preceded by a protracted courtship period and an exchange of lengthy love letters.
She had come from a background of a strong story-telling tradition which merged with her husband’s interest in oral history. He was then researching the history of the southern Luo, drawing heavily from oral traditions.
He readily appreciated her skill as a writer and pointed out the poetry in her letters to him. As the editor of Ghala, the literary supplement of the East Africa Journal, he became one of the early East African intellectuals to encourage her output as a writer.
Mrs Ogot comments generously on her parents, relatives , members of the protestant church to which she belongs, her siblings and her fellow writers and literary intellectuals. There are stylistic flaws and errors of fact, dates and even information on people, events and places in the book.
Per Wastberg, the current chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature is a man. He has done a lot of work for African literature in Europe and Africa. But Grace Ogot writes: “In March 1961, I received a letter from a Swedish lady – a Miss Per Wastberg – author and journalist.
She was on a tour of East Africa. In her letter, she told me that she was editing an anthology of African writing for publication in Sweden later that year. She had failed to discover any authors in East Africa.
“Eighteen countries in Africa would be represented in her book. She had heard from several people at Makerere University College, including Gerald Moore (a literary critic).”
The book is courageous and strong on politics and public administration of Nyanza Province and the entire country during the Nyayo era. It gives background information on assassinations of politicians from Nyanza and some of the people she replaced in her constituency.
She gives accounts of how she and her husband went through a lot of pain to have access to President Moi to organize fund-raisers to develop her constituency.
The book, however, shows how she let down writers and thespians as assistant minister for Culture and Social Services. She never worked to improve the working climate of the Kenya Cultural Centre in general and the Kenya National Theatre in particular.
* The author of this piece, Prof Wanjala, is a literary scholar and critic and author of A Season of Harvest among other works. First published in Business Daily Africa)