Ogot, Grace (1930—)
Ogot, Grace (1930—)
Kenyan author and politician who is considered an outstanding member of Kenya's (and East Africa's) first generation of writers. Born Grace Emily Akinyi on May 15, 1930, at Butere, near Kisumu, Central Nyanza, Kenya; married Bethwell Allan Ogot (a noted Kenyan historian), in 1959; children: daughter, Wasonga Grace; sons, Odera-Akongo, Otieno Mudhune, Onyuna.
The Graduate (Nairobi: Uzima, 1980); The Island of Tears (Nairobi: Uzima, 1980); Land Without Thunder (Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1968); The Other Woman: Selected Short Stories (Nairobi: Transafrica, 1976); The Promised Land: A True Fantasy (Nairobi: East African Publishing, 1966); The Strange Bride (Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya, 1989).
One of Kenya's most distinguished artists, Grace Ogot creates worlds that blend magic and reality. In her life as well, she achieved success in contexts that are both African and Western. She was born Grace Akinyi in 1930 into a Luo-speaking family. While being lulled to sleep as a child, she would listen to traditional folktales told by her paternal grandmother, who was a renowned storyteller in the area. An influence at least as powerful as these ancient African stories were the Bible stories read to her by her father, a teacher of religion. At school, she said, she "extremely enjoyed" the compulsory storytelling lessons, and after reading whatever "little booklets I could lay a hand on," she discovered that some of the stories she had written herself compared favorably to what she had just read. In 1949, she began instruction as a nurse at the training hospital at Mengo, near Kampala, in Uganda, where she received her degree in 1953. In 1955, she went to London where she completed a three years' course of additional training at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies.
Grace had definite opinions as to what constituted good writing, but never considered writing anything for publication until after her 1959 marriage to noted Kenyan historian Bethwell Allan Ogot. Although both she and Bethwell were highly educated, Grace's bride price was traditionally East African: 25 head of cattle. Ogot would give birth to four children over the next years, but from the start of her marriage she nonetheless was determined to have a career, initially working as a broadcaster, scriptwriter, and editor for the BBC Africa Service in London. Even before she mustered the courage to submit her writing to a publisher, Ogot was encouraged by her husband, who was convinced of her literary talent. But the decisive moment for Ogot's future writing career came in 1962, when she was about to start as a nursing sister in charge of student health services at Makerere University College in Uganda. Attending a campus conference on African writers, she was both disappointed and challenged when it became clear that book exhibits from East Africa were lacking. Obviously, something needed to be done to create a viable literary tradition in East Africa, particularly in her home nation of Kenya, which had just received its independence. Along with other East Africans present, including Ngugi wa Thiong'o , Ogot was determined to change the situation. Having read her short story "A Year of Sacrifice" at the Makerere conference, Ogot did another draft and submitted it to the journal Black Orpheus, which published it in 1963. (The story would be included in the 1968 book Land Without Thunder under the title "The Rain Came.")
Ogot initially wrote short stories in her first language, Luo; she would also write in Kiswahili and English, the two official national languages of Kenya. In 1966, her book The Promised Land, the first novel by a Kenyan woman writer and a work of lasting substance, was issued by Nairobi's East African Publishing House. In the novel, Nyapol, a young Luo woman, reveals an independent streak after her marriage to Ochola, her sympathetic but impractical husband. They attempt to escape poverty by migrating to Tanzania where farming will bring them prosperity. For a while, Tanzania's "promised land" lives up to its name, but jealous neighbors, led by a witch doctor who casts a spell, appear to bring on troubles for the couple when the husband comes down with a terrible skin affliction. Only when he decides to return to Kenya is Ochola cured of his mysterious disease. Throughout The Promised Land, Ogot characterizes Nyapol's conduct as an example of traditional Kenyan cultural values; she is a dutiful wife who protects and follows her husband. Similar characters appear in The Other Woman, a collection of short stories published in 1976. Above all else, preservation of the family is more important than the achievement of personal happiness, autonomy, or self-fulfillment.
Despite the positive responses she received from critics and a small but enthusiastic Kenyan reading public, from the start of her career Grace Ogot had to budget her writing time carefully; customarily, she set weekends aside for that purpose. An assured source of income came from her column in the East African Standard. During the week, she raised her children and carried out community work, such as serving as a member of the Nairobi Rent Tribunal. For years, she also owned and managed "Lindy's," a downtown Nairobi specialty shop for babies and girls. As well, she worked for a period for the "Voice of Kenya," broadcasting a weekly radio magazine in both Luo and Kaswahili. She was a public relations officer for the Air India Corporation of East Africa, and served as founding chair of the Writer's Association of Kenya.
In 1975, Ogot served as a Kenyan delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In October 1983, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed her a member of the nation's Parliament. Ogot displayed considerable independence in July 1985, when she resigned her presumably safe seat as a nominated M.P. to successfully contest the Gem constituency in a by-election. This was the first time in Kenyan history that a nominated M.P. had resigned from Parliament in order to seek an electoral mandate. Since then, Ogot has published little, but she has remained active in the intellectual life of Nairobi. While she had emerged by the 1980s as the doyenne of progressive society in the nation's capital, Ogot's position in a nation that remains profoundly traditional is complex at best. Although her writings present strong women who at the same time remain embedded in a traditional tribal social order, she has taken pains to avoid a feminist label.
The dilemma of Kenyan feminists surfaced in 1987 in a court struggle waged by a Kenyan widow, Wambui Otieno . Wambui, wife of prominent criminal lawyer S.M. Otieno, caused a national storm over customary law, women's rights, and intertribal marriages. After the death of her husband, a Luo, in December 1986, she planned to bury him in Nairobi, where the couple had lived and raised 15 children, and where he had had a successful career. Even though S.M. Otieno had requested that he be buried in Nairobi, his clan took the matter to court to challenge his widow and heirs. After a series of court cases involving 12 separate actions, including appeals, the authorities awarded custody of S.M. Otieno's remains to his clan to be taken to his birthplace in Western Kenya for burial according to Luo custom.
Soon after the court decision, Ogot publicly complained about the exclusion of widows from
Luo decision-making regarding funerals, arguing that Kenyan women desired changes in the traditions and that widows should be respected. At this time, the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organization of women's groups, was mounting a campaign to reform the flaws in the nation's statutes pertaining to the rights of women. Ogot's public statement was just what the NCWK needed in order to legitimate its campaign. As Kenya's most eminent Luo woman in public life, and one of only two women members of Parliament at the time, as well as an internationally respected author, Ogot, it seemed clear, would be a key ally in the struggle. This hope was illusory. When posters with her picture were displayed in the booths set up across Nairobi for the NCWK campaign, which aimed to collect a million signatures on a petition to be presented to both the attorney general and the Law Reform Commission on the matter of new legislation for spousal and next-of-kin rights on funerals, Ogot was outraged. She noted with displeasure that she had not been asked for permission to use her picture in the campaign, and in her capacity as an assistant minister in the government she ordered police to remove the posters. Apparently acting on their own initiative, police took matters further and arrested (and briefly jailed) two young volunteers who had been engaged in the solicitation of signatures. Wangari Maathi , NCWK chair, apologized to Ogot while at the same time denying that her organization had meant to be disrespectful. With the signature booths gone, and police displeasure at the entire effort at reform evident to one and all, the campaign fizzled out by late February 1987, after having been able to gather only 4,000 signatures.
Ogot took pains to distance herself from the position of the NCWK in the burial controversy. In a letter published in the Weekly Review, she qualified the statements she had made earlier, asserting: "I reminded all married women always to remember that the husbands they loved had a mother, father, sisters and brothers and the extended family who also loved him, and all were entitled to share the joys and sorrows of the family." In many ways, Ogot's comments in the Otieno burial controversy revealed the contradictions facing the handful of Kenyan women who, like herself, had chosen a career in public life. She was expected to be a voice for the nation's women, and indeed this had been the basis of her first, appointed, term of parliamentary service. At the same time, however, she was also expected to serve her political constituencies, which in Kenya meant vigorously upholding the interests of the ethnic and tribal voters who made her career possible. Forced to choose between her commitment to women's progress and her loyalty to her Luo constituency, she chose the latter. In political terms, this was doubtless the only rational choice. Notes scholar Patricia Stamp : "As [Kenyan] ethnic politics increasingly rely on more stringently controlled and patriarchal gender relations, it appears impossible for a democratically elected woman to espouse feminist causes."
In her writings, however, Ogot has made a strong case for viewing Kenya's women in a new light. Self-assertive women triumph on the pages of her books over the forces of patriarchy and male cruelty, violence, and ineptitude. In "The Middle Door," the heroine Mrs. Muga whips out a toy pistol and by sheer bluff disarms a couple of policemen intent on raping her. In the story "The Empty Basket," men are confused and indeed panic-stricken when a huge snake is discovered in Aloo's room. Aloo, however, is able to retain her presence of mind and thus rescue her baby from danger. Sometimes the heroic protagonists created by Ogot represent an emerging myth of new Kenyan womanhood that is part of a spirit of national self-assertion. Along with other women Kenyan writers, such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Wa Mugo , Ogot has written about female heroism during the Kenyan War of Independence (customarily called the Mau Mau Insurrection by the British). These women depicted not only in "The Middle Door" but also in The Graduate are based on real-life personalities, but they also fill the need for a unifying national mythology. Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta also worked to create the tradition of a nationwide struggle for freedom based on his slogan, " Tulipigania kama simba" ("We fought like lions"). Although only a minority of Kenyans had taken up arms against the British, Kenyatta's sense of national pride was shared by Ogot and other Kenyan intellectuals who were determined in the years after the achievement of independence in 1963 to create unifying national traditions.
In this effort to mold a strong national spirit, Ogot has played a significant and lasting role. In her novels and short stories, she has attempted to relate the rich traditions of Luo history and folklore to the younger generation of Kenyans. Strongly influenced by the oral traditions, she has blended experiences and events into freshly conceived stories. Although Ogot is aware of how powerful—and sometimes destructive—the forces of change are in today's Africa, she remains convinced of the enduring values embodied in her own Luo beliefs and traditions. Whatever judgments history will one day render on Grace Ogot's political career, there can be little doubt that as a writer, and as her nation's first woman novelist, she has left a mark on her nation's spiritual evolution and will very likely be seen by posterity as a major figure in the intellectual life of contemporary Kenya.
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Condé, Maryse. "Three Female Writers in Modern Africa: Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aidoo and Grace Ogot," in Présence Africaine. No. 82, 1972, pp. 132–143.
Flanagan, Kathleen. "African Folk Tales as Disruptions of Narrative in the Works of Grace Ogot and Elspeth Huxley ," in Women's Studies. Vol. 25, no. 4, 1996, pp. 371–384.
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Reid, Margaret A. "Conflict or Compromise: The Changing Roles of Women in the Writings of Rebekah Njau and Grace Ogot," in MAWA Review. Vol. 5, no. 2, 1990, pp. 51–55.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
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